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Role of Women in the Church
Part Four: The Epistles
By Gary F. Zeolla
Part One of this four-part article introduced the debate on the role of women in the Church. It looked at passages from the Old Testament. Part Two looked at the ministry of Jesus and the Book of Acts. Part Three began a study of the Epistles. This fourth and final part will conclude the study of the Epistles and offer some final thoughts.
For convenience sake, those who believe that there are limitations on women teaching and preaching in the church will be refereed to as "traditionalists" abbreviated "trad." Those who believe women should be able to function fully equal to men in aspects of ministry will be referred to as "egalitarians" and abbreviated "egal."
There is no Jew nor Greek, there is no slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you* are all one in Christ Jesus.
This verse is the Magna Carta of the egal movement. It is said that in this verse Paul completely obliterates any distinction between Jews and Greeks, between slaves and free persons, and between men and women. All such cultural distinctions are absolutely and completely abolished in the redeemed Christian community. We are all on equal standing before God with full equal rights and responsibilities.
And it is true that this verse is powerful. The struggle of removing the barrier between Jews and Gentiles occupied much of Paul's time and caused much contention within the early Church. In fact, it was primarily to address this issue that Galatians was written. Paul even confronted Peter when he was acting hypocritically in this regard (2:11-16). Paul was forceful on this issue as he considered it a direct attack on the Gospel.
The egal's claim that by listing "male and female" in this verse along with "Jew and Greek" that Paul felt just as strongly about the full equality of men and women as he did about Jews and Gentiles. They further claim that all seemingly contrary verses need to be interpreted in light of the "emancipation" of women declared in this verse.
Moreover, if at times Paul restricted women's ministry, it was only as a temporary concession to the culture of the time. Paul knew that given the widespread subjugation of women that to speak out too forcefully on their emancipation would bring a backlash and hinder the Gospel. But Paul fully expected that the full equality of women would be realized in time.
This would be similar to the issue of slavery. It is said that with this verse Paul declares his belief in the wrongness of slavery. He demonstrates his attitude in this regard in his Epistle to Philemon when he strongly hints to Philemon that he should set Omesimus free (verses 15-17). However, Paul did not speak out forcefully against slavery as he knew that given how ingrained slavery was in the culture, to do so could hinder the progress of the Gospel. But again, he fully expected that in time, the Gospel would overthrow this hideous institution.
So the full equality of all persons is being asserted in this verse. And as such, there should be no limitations on the ministry of women, especially in a culture like ours where women have full equal rights in all other aspects of society. Paul only limited women's involvement at times as it might impend the Gospel, but today, to limit women's involvement would be the impediment.
However, trad's will say that is reading a lot into one verse. They will further claim that the issue of salvation is the main point of Galatians. And yes, women are fully equal to men in regards to salvation; they are saved by faith just as men are. But Galatians is not about the position of women in the Church. To answer that question we need to turn to an epistle that was specifically written to address Church positions. And to that we now turn.
11Let a woman be learning in quietness with all submission. 12But I do not permit a woman to be teaching, nor to be exerting dominance over a man, but to be in quietness. 13For Adam was formed first, then Eve. [see Gen 2:7,18-23] 14And Adam was not deceived, but the woman, having been deceived, has come to be in transgression. [see Gen 3:1-7] 15But she will be saved through the bearing of children, if they remain in faith and love and sanctification, with decency [or, self-control].
This is the second primary passage that is quoted to support the trad position. As with 1Corinthians 11:34-35, trad's believe this verse unambiguously teaches that women are not to teach or have authority over men within the Church.
But there are several points that need to be raised about this verse. First is the translation of authentein. This word is hard to translate since it is a hapaxlegomena, meaning "spoken once." In other words, this is the only place in the New Testament the word appears. Moreover, it is found only rarely in extra-Biblical literature
It is usually rendered "to have authority" (e.g. NKJV). But in researching this word for my translation, it seemed to have a stronger sense than this. Moreover, if Paul had meant simply "authority" he could have used the more common exousiazo (e.g. 1Cor 7:4). So for my *Analytical-Literal Translation, I went with the stronger rendering of "to be exerting dominance" (the infinitive is present tense, hence the ongoing sense). And with this rendering, there really is nothing being said here that doesn't apply to all Christians.
24Then a dispute also occurred among them, [as to] which of them seems to be greater. 25But He said to them, "The kings of the nations [or, the Gentiles] exercise lordship over them, and the ones exercising authority over them are called benefactors. 26But you* [shall] not [be acting] in this way, but the greatest among you* must become like the youngest, and the one leading like the one serving (Luke 22:24-26).
So as Christians, we are not to be "lording over" anyone, neither men over women or women over men. But this still leaves the question of teaching. Paul seems to be clearly teaching women are not to be teaching men.
But the egal's will respond in several possible ways. The first and most radical would be to deny that Paul wrote 1Timothy. As such, it is not inspired and can simply be dismissed. The claim that Paul did not write the "Pastoral Epistles" (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus) is standard fare for liberal churches. However, conservatives strongly believe Paul wrote these epistles and that they are inspired. So this passage cannot be so easily dismissed.
So egal's will claim this prohibition was culturally conditioned. In other words, it was only being made as an accommodation to the wider culture that did not accept women teachers. However, verses 13 and 14 seem to prevent this possibility. Paul seems to be grounding his prohibition in the creation story. And trad's will say this shows this prohibition is timeless. It applies to all peoples at all times.
However, egal's will retort that such language is used elsewhere yet a cultural basis is accepted. See for instance the discussion on head coverings in 1Corinthians 11. There Paul writes: "8For man is not from woman, but woman from man. [see Gen 2:21-23] 9For also man was not created for the sake of the woman, but woman for the sake of the man. [see Gen 2:18]."
So Paul seems to ground his teaching of the need for women to wear head coverings on the creation story. Now at one time it was common for women to wear some kind of head covering or hats to church. But this is simply no longer the case. The practice has passed away without any fanfare. Most seem to accept that Paul's teaching here was culturally conditioned.
As such, those who want to claim the prohibition against women teaching is timeless because of the appeal to creation would also have to assert that the wearing of head coverings is also a timeless requirement. Yet this is generally not done.
Next, egal's will say this prohibition was only because the women had not yet been taught enough to be teachers. And this could make sense. At the time, women did not receive any formal education, and it would take some time for women to "catch up" and be prepared to teach. However, Paul does not mention this. It is simply an assertion.
Egal's will also claim the prohibition is only against false women teachers or women teaching heresy. This is supported by the emphasis in the epistle against false teaching (e.g. chapter 4). However, both men and women can be guilty of false teaching, so this does not explain why women are being singled out, and no mention of false teaching is made in this passage, just teaching.
Along these lines is the possible heresy that was being advanced. Gnostics taught the Eve predated Adam and was his creator. Along these lines, egal's claim that authentein should be rendered "to make herself out to be the originator of" man. So Paul's reference to the creation story and use of authentein is simply to counter this heresy. However, there is little evidence that Gnosticism of this sort was already active during the time of Paul and that authentein has this meaning.
And finally, there is the very difficult final verse: "But she will be saved through the bearing of children, if they remain in faith and love and sanctification, with decency [or, self-control]." Trad's generally will just ignore this verse in regards to this discussion, putting it into a new paragraph and thought. But egal's will claim it is essential to understanding this passage.
In the previous paragraph Paul discussed women's clothing, jewelry, hairstyles, and behavior and what was appropriate in this regard (2:8-11). Then in 4:1-3 Paul warns about heretics "forbidding marriage." Then in 5:14 Paul writes, "Therefore, I want younger [women] to be marrying, to bearing children, to be managing their homes, [and] to be giving no occasion to the one being in opposition [or, to the enemy] for reproach. 15For already some were turned aside after Satan."
The point being, what seemed to be happening is there was a heresy going around discouraging women from engaging in appropriate domestic behaviors and from getting married. They were being encouraged instead to be teaching and lording it over men, rather than getting married. This was counter to cultural norms of the time and thus would hinder the Gospel. So Paul was teaching that women should abide by the cultural norms in regards to personal attire and the like and to look upon marriage as a worthwhile goal.
So what is a recurring theme among the egal position is the main emphasis of Paul is that the Gospel not be hindered (see 1Cor 9:19-22). In some settings this would require women not be speaking in public or teaching men. But today, the exact opposite would be true. To forbid women to teach or speak in a church setting would hinder the Gospel.
1Trustworthy [is] the word: If anyone aspires to [the] position of overseer [Gr. episkope], he desires a good work. 2Therefore, it is necessary [for] the overseer to be blameless [or, above reproach], a husband of one wife [fig., a one-wife kind of man], temperate, self-controlled, sensible, a friend of strangers [or, hospitable], skillful at teaching, 3not addicted to wine, not violent [or, quarrelsome], not greedy for dishonest gain, but gentle [or, considerate], peaceable, not a lover of money; 4leading his own house well, having children in submission with all dignity 5(but if someone does not know [how] to lead his own house, how can he take care of an assembly [or, church] of God?), 6not a new convert, lest having been swollen up with pride he should fall into [the] judgment of the Devil. 7And it is necessary [for] him also to have a good testimony from the [ones] outside [fig., unbelievers], lest he fall into disgrace and a snare of the Devil.
In giving the requirements for an overseer, Paul seems to be assuming the overseer will be a man. A woman simply cannot fulfill many of the listed requirements. There is no way a woman can be the "husband of one wife." So trad's will say these requirements exclude women from being an overseer.
But egal's will respond it was common at the time to use masculine language when a more inclusive meaning was intended. Compare for instance the use of the terms "brothers" and "sons." In many contexts, these terms most likely refer to both brothers and sisters and sons and daughters (usually in a metaphoric sense of being brothers and sisters in Christ and sons and daughters of God). It is for this reason that in my translation, I very often used "[and sisters]" and "[and daughters]" in such passages. I used brackets as it is not always clear if both genders were meant, but in many cases, most likely this is the case (see for instance, Acts 2:24; 3:17; 5:21; 6:3; 7:23,25,37; 1Corinthians 1:10,11,26; 2:1; Galatians 3:6,26; 4:6).
I remember well how upset my grandfather and grandmother were back during the 1984 presidential elections when the democrats had a woman on the ticket for vice-president. They both felt "a woman's place is in the home." They were life-long democrats but just couldn't bring themselves to vote for a woman for such a high office. And to their delight, she lost handily.
It was mentioned in the beginning of Part One of this four-part series that there is now the distinct possibility of there being at least one viable female candidate for not vice-president but President of the Untied States in the 2008 election. I am sure my grandparents would really be having a fit if they were still alive (God bless their souls).
But this is the 21st century. People no longer feel that way, do they? Well, it is my sincere belief that there are many among those older than me (I'm 45) who still feel this way. But due to cultural pressures, they might not voice their opinions publicly. But come time to cast their ballots, well, let's just say this will be a hurdle that the female candidate will need to overcome.
But those much younger than me probably think this is all nonsense. They simply cannot conceive of why a person's gender would have any bearing whatsoever on whether they would make a good president. But that is because, as was discussed in Part One, they are being raised in a culture where women are fully represented in all manners of sports, in all aspects of business, and at all levels of politics. The idea of there being any limits on what women can do as compared to men simply is not part of their thinking.
Similarly, I suspect many of the younger generation also cannot grasp why there would be a limitation on what women can do in the Church. Those older than me might have strong opinions against women in the ministry, those of my generation might be sitting on the fence in this regard not sure which is correct, but those younger than me by and large consider it nonsense to restrict women in any way.
As such, I believe as the younger generation grows up and takes over the churches and the older generation dies off, this issue will become a non-issue just as the issue of women wearing head coverings has become. Women will just naturally take leadership and teaching positions in the Church as they are now doing in society at large.
There will be a few stragglers who will continue to scream that this practice is unbiblical and will keep reciting 1Corinthians 11:34-35 and 1Timothy 2:11-15. But these two passages will not come close to being sufficient to turn the tide. I'm not saying this is what should happen. I simply feel it is the reality of the situation.
Thus is a complex subject. And if after reading this four-part series, the reader still feels confused, join the club. I personally have never been able to come to a definitive opinion on this subject. And I feel a little uncomfortable with either position.
If I visit a church and there is a woman preaching, it makes me a little uneasy. And if I attend a Bible study and a woman is leading it, that also makes me a little uneasy. Whether this is because of 1Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1Timothy 2:11-15 or if it is just my upbringing, I cannot say.
On the other hand, I have always been uncomfortable with restricting the Church involvement of half of the human race based on just as couple of passages, especially since there is such strong contrary evidence as Galatians 3:28.
This ambivalence is why in this four-part article I have just presented the arguments on either side while trying to stay as neutral as possible. But admittedly, I am leaning a little towards the egalitarian position. But that probably is more due to cultural influences that any strong conviction of Biblical teaching. With the Biblical evidence divided and good Christians on both sides of the debate, it is hard to stand against the culture on this subject.
Clark, Gordon H. First Corinthians. Jefferson, MD: The Trinity Foundation, 1991.
Elwell, Walter. A. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. "Woman, Biblical Concept of" (pp.1175-1180), "Women, Ordination of" (pp.1180-1182), "Women in the Church" (pp. 1182-1185). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1984.
Kuhns, Dennis, R. Women in the Church. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1978.
Mickelsen, Alvera, editor. Women, Authority, & the Bible. Madison WI: InterVarsity Press, 1986.
Scripture verses quoted from the Analytical-Literal Translation of the New Testament of the Holy Bible: Second Edition (ALT2). Copyright © 2005 by Gary F. Zeolla of Darkness to Light ministry (www.dtl.org). Previously copyrighted © 1999, 2001 by Gary F. Zeolla.
Role of Women in the Church. Copyright © 2006 by Gary F. Zeolla of Darkness to Light ministry (www.dtl.org).
For Personal Bible Study and Teaching the Bible
By Gary F. Zeolla
The above article first appeared in the Free Darkness to Light
It was posted on this site May 27, 2006.
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