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Role of Women in the Church
Part Three: 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. This third part will begin a study of the Epistles.

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."

Romans 16

Egal's will point out that out of the 29 "co-workers" mentioned by Paul in Romans 16, ten are women. So Paul had many women working closely in ministry with him. And what is said about three of them is rather striking.

1Now I commend to you* Phoebe our sister, being a servant [or, deaconess] of the assembly [or, church], the [one] in Cenchrea, 2so that you* shall receive [or, welcome] her in [the] Lord in a manner worthy of holy ones and assist her in whatever matter she shall be having need of you*, for indeed she became a helper of many, and of me myself.

The main question here is whether Phoebe is being called a "servant" or a "deaconess." I discuss the translation of the Greek word diakonos in my book Differences Between Bible Versions in a chapter discussing the Revised Standard Version (RSV) and the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). Quoting myself:

This word occurs 30 times in the NT. In 26 of these 30 uses of the word, the RSV and NRSV render it as "servant" or a similar term. Most importantly, the other three times Paul uses it in Romans it is translated as "servant" in both versions (13:4, twice; 15:8).

On the other hand, excluding Romans 16:1, both of these versions render diakonos as "deacon" only three times. And in each of these places, the term is clearly referring to an official church office (Phil 1:1; 1Tim 3:8,12).

So the question is, does Paul CLEARLY refer to Phoebe as the holder of an official office in the church at Cenchrea? (pp. 267-8).

That is the question. Now my conclusion and the practice I used for my Analytical-Literal Translation was to use "servant" for the main text since it seemed the most likely, but then to bracket "deaconess" as a very possible alternative translation. But it really could go either way.

3Greet Prisca [i.e., Priscilla] and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus, 4who for the sake of my life risked their own neck[s], to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the assemblies of the Gentiles, 5and [greet] the assembly [or, church] at their house.

Note the order of names, Priscilla first, then her husband Aquila. This is the opposite of the normal order for how husbands and wives' names are usually listed. Egal's will say this shows Priscilla was the more prominent of the two. And note also, they hosted a "church" in their house. And with Priscilla being the more prominent, egal's will say she most likely had a leadership role in her house church.

7Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives [or, close companions] and my fellow-prisoners, who are well-known by [or, among] the apostles, who also have been in Christ before me.

This is one of the more controversial passages due to translation questions. First is the name Junia. There is controversy whether the Greek form is masculine (Junias) or feminine (Junia). I used the feminine for my translation since it seemed most likely. Second is the phrase "well-known by the apostles." The word "by" can also be rendered "among" as I have indicated.

The point is, if it is rendered "among" it could mean that Andronicus and Junia are being called apostles, and thus a woman would be named an apostle. The meaning of "apostle" here would of course be wider than that of the original twelve. But still, it puts a woman in a high position in the early Church. However, if the word is rendered "by" then the meaning is simply the apostle knew about Andronicus and Junia.

Egal's will of course prefer the renderings of "Junia" and "among" while trad's prefer "Junias" and "by." But which is correct is hard to decide on linguistic grounds alone.

1Corinthians 11:3

We now come to First Corinthians and the more controversial passages on this subject.

3Now I want you* to know that the head of every man is Christ, but [the] head of a woman [is] the husband, but [the] head of Christ [is] God.

This is where trad's get their "hierarchical" notions from. To them, a clear order is established here: God is the head of Christ; Christ is the head of man; man is the head of woman. So just as the Father and Son are essentially equal, but the Father has a superior position to the Son, the man and the woman are essentially equal, but the man has a superior position to the woman.

However, egal's will first point to that this is not the order in which Paul lists the terms. Paul mentions man first, then Christ, then woman, then God. To get their "hierarchical order" the trad's have to switch the terms around.

Moreover, the text says the same thing about the relationship of man to Christ as of Christ to God. So if the text means Christ and God are essentially equal but with positional differences then it would follow that man and Christ are essentially equal yet with positional differences, but this clearly is not the case.

In addition, the doctrine of the Trinity comes in here. The hierarchical order the trad's set up could easily lead to a subordinationist viewpoint, that the Son is essentially inferior to the Father. And this then would lead to a belief that the woman is essentially inferior to the man. And in fact among religious groups that believe the Son is essentially inferior to the Father there is a tendency towards the degrading of the dignity of women.

But the most important point is the meaning of "head" (Greek, kephale). In English, when used in a metaphorical sense, head can mean, "4. the position or place of leadership, greatest authority, or honor. 5. a person to whom others are subordinate, as the director of an institution; leader or chief" (Websters).

The Hebrew word for "head" is rosh. And when used metaphorically, it too can mean someone with the chief place or position, as in the head of a family (BDB). But is this what kephale meant in Greek at the time Paul was writing?

Looking at the lexicons on my BibleWorks program, along with the literal meaning of the physical head of the body, the following metaphoric definitions are given for kephale:

lord, head (of superior rank, etc.) (UBS Dictionary).

fig. (a) metaph. of Christ as the head of which the church is the body (EP 1.22); (b) of pers., designating first or superior rank head (1C 11.3); (c) of things uppermost part, extremity, end point; of buildings keystone, capstone (MT 21.42); (d) leading city, capital (AC 16.12). (Friberg).

(b) superior 87.51

(1) kefalh. gwni,aj cornerstone 7.44 (Louw and Nida).

III. metaph., the crown, completion of a thing, Plat. (Liddell and Scott).

So the first three of these gives the idea of one with a superior rank. So it is understandable that when researching this word, one could come to the conclusion that it means "superior." However, the last lexicon does not give this as a possible meaning. The reason could possibly be that Liddell and Scott's lexicon is more based on how words are used in extra-Biblical Greek literature than on their usage in the New Testament as the other three are. And this is the most important question-how would Paul's readers in Corinth have taken the word?

A possible way of determining this would be to look at the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Old Testament that was produced about 200-300 years before the time Paul was writing. The LXX usage would likely reflect how the word was generally used at the time.

As already stated, the Hebrew word for "head" is rosh. It is used hundreds of times on the Old Testament, most often referring to the physical head. And in these cases, the LXX uses kephale to translate it (e.g. Gen 3:15). However, when rosh is used in the metaphorical sense as referring to "chief" the LXX almost never uses kephale.

An example would be Hosea 1:11:
Then the children of Judah and the children of Israel Shall be gathered together, And appoint for themselves one head; And they shall come up out of the land, For great will be the day of Jezreel!

In this verse, the LXX uses arche; the Greek word that clearly refers to "ruler" (Friberg). So it would seem that the LXX translators knew that kaphale would not be a good translation when "ruler" was meant. But then, what does kephale mean?

Egal's will claim that metaphorically, at that time of Paul, kephale meant source of life, completer, or one who receives honor from another, as in our colloquialism that one person is the "pride and joy" of another. So in this verse, Paul would be saying that the woman "completes" the man, or that the man is the "pride and joy" of the woman. The former would fit well with verse 11, where Paul writes, "Nevertheless, neither [is] man apart from [fig., independent of] woman, nor woman apart from man, in [the] Lord."

But whether this interpretation is correct would require a full study of all of the uses of kephale in the New Testament, the LXX, and extra-Biblical literature. Such a study is outside the scope of this article, but would be worthwhile.

1Corinthians 11:4

Every man praying or prophesying, having [something] on [his] head dishonors his head. 5But every woman praying or prophesying with the head uncovered [or, unveiled] dishonors her own head, for it is one and the same with having had herself shaved.

The discussion of "head coverings" goes through verse 16 and is the focus of this passage, but this discussion is outside the scope of this article. See the article Why I Like the NKJV for a discussion on this subject. But here, the important point is, egal's will quote this verse to show that Paul assumes that women will be praying and prophesying within the church setting.

1Corinthians 11:34-35

34Let your* women be keeping silent in the assemblies, for it has not been permitted to them to be speaking, but to be subjecting themselves, just as also the Law says. 35But if they desire to learn anything, let them be questioning their own husbands at home, for it is disgraceful [or, shameful] [for] women to be speaking in an assembly.

This is now one of the two most important verses quoted by trad's. To them, this verse clearly and unambiguously teaches that women are not to be speaking within the assembly or church setting. They are to "be keeping quiet." It is even "disgraceful" for them to be speaking.

However, egal's will point out that just three chapters before, Paul assumed that women would be praying and prophesying within the church. So whatever this verse teaches, it cannot be a complete prohibition of women speaking in the church.

Various ideas are proposed by egal's to explain this passage. Some will go as far as to say the verses are not genuine, that Paul did not write them, that they are a later addition to the text. And it is true there is a minor textual variant here in that a few manuscripts include these vereses after verse 40 rather than in this location. But this is not sufficient to question the authenticity of the text. As such, all published Greek texts include this passage.

Other egal's will say there were two parts to the early Christian worship. In the first part non-Christians were allowed to attend and would hear evangelistic teaching and preaching, then in the second part when communion was served, non-Christians were not allowed.

So the claim is that woman were forbidden to speak in the first part as it would have been offensive to those in the general culture who did not accept women speaking in public. But once the non-Christians were gone, then the women freely participated in the service. This is a nice way of reconciling the two passages. However, there is no historical evidence of such a two-stage church service in the early Church.

Other egal's will say the prohibition on women speaking was only due to the women speaking out in an unruly manner. And in fact, the focus of the wider context is of the Corinthians engaging in such inappropriate behavior. Paul even ends the discussion by saying, "Be letting all [things] be done properly and according to order" (14:40). However, both the men and women were engaging in this unruly behavior. So this doesn't explain why Paul singles out the women in verses 34-35.

Another possible egal explanation is that women in pagan rituals often acted in outlandish manners, so Paul was trying to prevent any semblance of that in Christian circles. But a complete prohibition seems to be going a little too far. So there are possible ways for egals to get around this verse, but none of them are totally satisfactory.

Part Four of this four-part series will conclude this discussion on the Epistles and offer some final thoughts

BibleWorksfor Windows™ Copyright 1992-1999 BibleWorks, L.C.C. Big Fork, MT: Hermeneutika. Programmed by Michael S. Bushell and Michael D. Tan.

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.

Friberg, Timothy and Barbara. Analytical Greek New Testament. Copyright 1994 and Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament. Copyright 1994. Both as found on BibleWorksfor Windows™.

Kuhns, Dennis, R. Women in the Church. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1978.

Liddell-Scott Greek English Lexicon (Abridged). Public Domain. As found on BibleWorksfor Windows™.

Louw, Johannes and Eugene Nida, eds. Greek-English Lexicon. Second edition, Copyright 1998 as found on BibleWorksfor Windows™.

Mickelsen, Alvera, editor. Women, Authority, & the Bible. Madison WI: InterVarsity Press, 1986.

New Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius Hebrew and English Lexicon. as found on BibleWorksfor Windows.

Newman, Barclay M. Jr. A Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Copyright 1971 by United Bible Societies and 1993 by Deutsche Biblelgesellschaft (German Bible Society), Sttugart. As found on BibleWorksfor Windows™.

Webster's Talking Dictionary/ Thesaurus. Licensed property of Parson's Technology, Inc. v. 1.0b. Software Copyright 1996 by Exceller Software Corp. Based on Random House Webster's College Dictionary. Copyright 1995 by Random House, Inc.

Old Testament verse quoted from the New King James Version (NKJV). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publisher, 1982. Copied from BibleWorksfor Windows™ .

New Testament 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).

Scripture Workbook
For Personal Bible Study and Teaching the Bible
By Gary F. Zeolla

The above article first appeared in the Free Darkness to Light Newsletter.
It was posted on this site May 1, 2006.

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