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Role of Women in the Church
Part One: The Old Testament
By Gary F. Zeolla
I watched much of the 2006 Winter Olympics. There were over 1000 female athletes participating, the largest number ever at a Winter Olympics. These women participated in all the same sports that the men did, including formerly "male only" sports like bobsledding and hockey. And in the last Summer Olympics, there were women participating in such "manly" sports as wrestling, boxing, and Olympic weightlifting.
Then there's my sport, powerlifting. Unfortunately, powerlifting is not in the Olympics (though it should be!), but I can say that female powerlifting is alive and well. I've even competed with female powerlifters who could put most guys to shame with how much they can lift.
Then there's the working world. There are women in virtually all formerly "male-only" careers, like fire-fighters, police officers, doctors, lawyers, and the like. There are women in all aspects and types of business, and at all levels: bosses, managers, and even CEOs of major corporations.
And in politics, there are women mayors, governors, representatives, senators, and cabinet secretaries. There is even the very distinct possibility that in 2008 we will have one or more viable female candidates for President of the United States.
But if any of these highly successful women were to come into many churches in the USA, they would basically be told to "Sit down and shut up" -that women are not allowed to speak or to teach in a church setting, at least if men are present.
So let's think about this for a moment. Let's say that a woman in fact wins the 2008 presidential election. This would mean that Madam President would be the Leader of the Free World, the Commander in Chief of the most powerful military the world has ever known, but in many churches she wouldn't even be allowed to lead a small home Bible study if a man were present. All of enlisted men and officers in the entire military are subject to her, but she cannot lead a Bible study!
The situation sounds rather absurd. But it is the case for many churches. But the reason for this is many churches believe the Scriptures teach women are to be silent in the churches and that women are not allowed to teach or have authority over men. And for the Christian, what matters is not what is happening in the general culture, but what the Bible teaches.
And if the Bible were unambiguous about women not being allowed to have a teaching or leadership position within a church, then I would have no qualms about proclaiming that it would be wrong for women to take such roles.
However, the Biblical evidence is rather confusing, with good arguments on both sides. So rather than taking a particular position, this four-part article will overview some of the most important verses and how they are interpreted on both sides of this debate. This will be one of the longest articles I have ever posted on this Web site. But it will take four parts to thoroughly cover this complex subject.
This first part will look at verses from the Old Testament. Part Two will study the ministry of Jesus and the Book of Acts. Parts Three and Four will then cover the Epistles.
For convenience sake, those who believe there are limitations on women teaching and preaching in the Church will be refereed to as "traditionalist" 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" abbreviated "egal."
The Accounts of Creation and of the Fall
26Then God said, "Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth." 27So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. 28Then God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth." (Genesis 1:26-28).
In this account of creation, it sounds like God creates the man and the women together. They are both told to "Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion." There is no indication of a distinction of roles for them. Moreover, they are both said to have been created in the image of God.
But egal's take this a step further and say it is only when men and women are working together, side-by side as full partners, that the image of God is fully reflected in humankind. This is most seen in marriage when "the two become one flesh" (Gen 2:24). So in marriage you have two distinct persons, but they are "one" and fully equal in all respects, just as in the one Godhead there are three distinct yet fully equal Persons. This idea is supported in that in this passage we have the first hint of the plurality within the Godhead ("Let US .. OUR image ... OUR likeness").
18And the LORD God said, "It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him." 19Out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to Adam to see what he would call them. And whatever Adam called each living creature, that was its name. 20So Adam gave names to all cattle, to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper comparable to him.
21 And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall on Adam, and he slept; and He took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh in its place. 22Then the rib which the LORD God had taken from man He made into a woman, and He brought her to the man. 23And Adam said: "This is now bone of my bones And flesh of my flesh; She shall be called Woman, Because she was taken out of Man."
24Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. 25And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed. (Genesis 2:21-25).
The second creation account provides some details not found in the first. We now see that the man and woman were actually created separately, the man first, then the woman, and that the woman was created for the man, as a "helper" to him.
The trad's claim this creation order shows there is an ordained "hierarchy" between men and women. The men are created as the leaders, while the women are to be helpers to the men. This is why the traditionalist position is sometimes called "hierarchialism."
But the egal's will respond that the word "helper" cannot indicate subservience since it is used of God. See, for instance, Psalm 30:10: "Hear, O LORD, and have mercy on me; LORD, be my helper!" In no way does the Psalmist think that the LORD is subservient to him! So a person can be a "helper" to another yet be their equal even their superior.
Moreover, it is said that the helper is to be "comparable" to the man. Other translations have "suitable for him" (NASB), "as his counterpart" (YLT), and "as his partner" (NRSV). There is no indication of any kind of inferiority in these terms, and no distinction of roles. The man and woman are to be "partners" in all respects.
In Genesis 3 is then record the Fall of humankind. Eve eats the forbidden fruit first, then gives it to Adam to eat. As a result:
7Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves coverings. 8And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden." (vv.7,8).
So we now have the first rift between the man and the woman. Previously, they were naked before each other without shame. They are now also for the first time ashamed before God.
8And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. 9Then the LORD God called to Adam and said to him, "Where are you?" 10So he said, "I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; and I hid myself." 11And He said, "Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you that you should not eat?" 12Then the man said, "The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I ate."
13And the LORD God said to the woman, "What is this you have done?" The woman said, "The serpent deceived me, and I ate." 14So the LORD God said to the serpent: "Because you have done this, You are cursed more than all cattle, And more than every beast of the field; On your belly you shall go, And you shall eat dust All the days of your life. 15And I will put enmity Between you and the woman, And between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, And you shall bruise His heel."
16To the woman He said: "I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception; In pain you shall bring forth children; Your desire shall be for your husband, And he shall rule over you."
17Then to Adam He said, "Because you have heeded the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree of which I commanded you, saying, 'You shall not eat of it': "Cursed is the ground for your sake; In toil you shall eat of it All the days of your life. 18Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, And you shall eat the herb of the field. 19In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread Till you return to the ground, For out of it you were taken; For dust you are, And to dust you shall return."
20And Adam called his wife's name Eve, because she was the mother of all living. 21Also for Adam and his wife the LORD God made tunics of skin, and clothed them.
I've quoted this passage in full as it is very important. Trad's will say God's approaching of Adam first shows he was to be the "spiritual head" of Eve. They will further say it was because he shirked this responsibility and was not watching out for Eve that she sinned. They will further claim that Eve's eating of the fruit first shows her "moral inferiority" and thus unfitness for spiritual leadership.
But egal's will respond that God is simply addressing each of the party's one at time. Moreover, He does not acquiesce to each party's attempts to blame someone else, but He holds each party fully responsible for their own actions.
The most important part of this passage is the second half of verse sixteen when God declares to Eve, "Your desire shall be for your husband, And he shall rule over you." Trad.'s say this shows God's "hierarchal" design between the sexes. Men shall rule over women, not vise-a-verse. As a result, women should not be having leadership positions within the Church. Some will even extend this to other aspects of society.
But egal's will respond that this statement is descriptive, not prescriptive. In other words, it's a description of how things will be in the fallen world and the now fractured relationships between the sexes, but it is not a decree of how things should be.
Moreover, egal's will say that one of the purposes of Christ's death on the cross and our subsequent redemption is to have fractured relationships healed, both between human beings and God and between human beings. And part of this healing includes the healing of relationship between the sexes. As a result, among those who are redeemed, men no longer "lord it over " women, but men and women once again should serve God, side-by-side, fully equal in all respects, as it was at creation.
The Rest of Genesis
Continuing on in Genesis, there is no doubt we see the development of a male-dominated society. Most of the focus of the text is on men, such as in the stories of Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. But women do figure prominently at points. But still, there is a sense of an increasing male-dominance.
Again, trad's will say this is a working out of God's decree. But egal's will respond it is not surprising in the now fallen world that one sex would dominate another. Again, this is what God described would happen, but not what He decreed should happen.
Women in Leadership and Ministry with Men Present
In Exodus, Moses and Aaron are definitely the most notable figures, but Miriam figures prominently as well. The prophet Micah even groups all three together when he speaks for God as saying, "For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, I redeemed you from the house of bondage; And I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam" (Micah 6:4).
Miriam is even referred to as a "prophetess" (Exod 15:20). So even when there are male leaders, a woman can have a prominent role, in this case, that of being a prophet. This is important as trad's will sometimes claim it is only when there are not men available that God will call a woman to a significant spiritual role.
During the time of the Judges, "Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth, was judging Israel at that time." (Judges 4:4). Surely, out of the whole nation of Israel, there was one qualified man to lead Israel. But it was a woman who took the leadership role as both judge and prophetess.
Another example would be Huldah. King Josiah sent to "Huldah the prophetess" to find out what the Word of the LORD was for the nation. And her advice for reform was heeded (2Kings 22). And an important point is that at this time Jeremiah was engaging in his prophetic ministry (see Jeremiah 1:1). So Josiah could have easily sent to him for the Word of the LORD. But he instead sent to a woman. So again, it is not true that women only serve when men are not available.
Then during the time of the monarchy, there was one queen in charge, Athaliah. But she attained her office by murdering all of the rightful male heirs, except one. And when that male heir became old enough, the people rallied around him and made him king, and Athaliah was killed (2Kings 11). So she is not a very good example of female leadership.
Moreover, the trad's will remark that the above are exceptional cases. The fact remains that the vast majority of prophets, judges, and heads of monarchy in the Old Testament were men. And this is true.
A very important point on the trad's side is that the priesthood in the Old Testament was entirely male, and this was due to the direct command of God. Aaron and his sons were the first priests (Exodus 28:1). God specifically decreed that it was the "sons of Aaron the priest" who shall minister before Him (Leviticus 1:7). Then when God decrees that priests will be taken from the tribe of Levi, He specifically commands that only the males will be numbered for this purpose (Lev 3:9-15).
This is very important as the priest were the "go-betweens" between the people and God. The people brought their sacrifices to the priest. So all the men and women of Israel had to go to a man for their forgiveness and relationship to God in Old Testament times.
However, egal's will respond that due to Christ's sacrifice, we no longer need to go through a priest to God. We an all enter into the presence of God directly through Christ (Heb 14:14-16). It is for this reason that Peter refers to all believers as "a royal priesthood" (1Peter 2:9). And there is no indication in Peter's epistle that this refers to just men. So in the New Testament, the dividing line between priests and the rest of believers is torn down, and it is irrelevant that in the Old Testament only men were priests.
The mark of the covenant was circumcision (Genesis 17:10). And, of course, only men can be circumcised. So only men in Old Testament times could receive the sign of the covenant. Trad's claim this shows that women could only included in the covenant through their being attached to men, either their fathers or husbands. This is one reason why they are not fit to be spiritual leaders. However, egal's will respond, in the New Testament, circumcision is done away with as a sign of the covenant.
As Paul writes:
28For he is not a Jew, the one in the open [fig., who is so outwardly], neither [is] circumcision in the open [fig., outwardly] in flesh; 29but a Jew [is] the one in the secret [fig., who is so inwardly], and circumcision [is] of [the] heart, in spirit, not in letter, whose praise is not from people, but from God. (Romans 2:28,29). 6For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision has any power [or, avails anything] nor uncircumcision, but faith working through love. (Gal 5:6).
So in the New Testament, such outward signs as circumcision are irrelevant. It is an inner change of heart and faith and love that matter.
Conclusion to Part One
Both trad's and egal's will appeal to passage in the Old Testament for support of their positions. I have simply described the positions of each, without taking a particular side. This will be the pattern in the next two parts of this article. Part Two will look at the ministry of Jesus and the Book of Acts.
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.
All Old Testament verses are quoted from the New King James Version (NKJV). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publisher, 1982, copied from BibleWorks™ for Windows™ Copyright © 1992-1999 BibleWorks, L.C.C. Big Fork, MT: Hermeneutika. Programmed by Michael S. Bushell and Michael D. Tan.
New Testament verses are 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 March 2, 2006.
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