Is it biblical for women to be in leadership in the church? My answer, the FMC answer, is a resounding “Yes!”
In this session I want to note the biblical warrants for this “Yes!” First let me offer several orienting comments for understanding/applying the Bible, then note the flow of the Bible’s story; and then mostly tell you how I understand the two difficult passages that seem to prohibit women leaders.
ORIENTING COMMENTS (HERMENEUTICS)
“Hermeneutics” is the art and science of proper interpretation. What is the appropriate way to understand a text of the Bible (or any document)?
Here is a foundation principle. You must understand the Bible on its own terms. A cookbook is different than a novel. You read and benefit from each according to the kind of book each one is. So, what kind of book is the Bible? A Huge Question.
A big book. In two parts: OT and NT; First covenant and Final covenant. Each part should be read in light of the other.
The Bible is a huge story. Gen—Rev. So, one should interpret one part of story in light of the other. If it is a story, the way the story unfolds is important to observe. If it moves from promise to fulfillment; from problem to solution; and if it unfolds to a climax in the person of Jesus, interpreting a passage in one part must keep all of these things in mind.
E.g., passage that describes the problem—say, what is wrong with world? must be read differently than a passage that describes the solution—how has God responded?
You cannot understand a passage on the problem without reference to the solution, and cannot understand passage on solution without reference to what the problem is.
If the story unfolds, progressively or purposefully in some way, you must take that into account when reading any part of the story.
Which brings us to note how the story unfolds in general terms.
THE FLOW OF THE BIBLE’S STORY
If one reads Genesis 1—2, and didn’t know anything went wrong, you would never wonder whether women could lead.
If you read Gen. 1—2 and then Rev. 21-22, you would know something dreadful went wrong in between. But, again, you wouldn’t question that women could lead.
The limitation and frustration of both men and women come from the fall, from what went so dreadfully wrong.
Then, if Jesus—his ministry, cross and resurrection, and the kingdom he proclaimed and introduced into the world—provides remedy for all that is wrong, then we should expect a relational reality that reflects and fulfills Gen. 1—2 again.
The flow of the biblical story in its entirety does not disappoint this expectation! There is no time to elaborate this here except to say: Given hints we find all throughout the middle parts (in Old and New Testaments), the way Jesus valued women, and what women did in the early church, I conclude: Whatever Paul meant in I Cor. 14 and 1 Tim. 2, should not nullify the clear indications from elsewhere in Scripture and the entire flow of the story.
But some are troubled when I draw this conclusion. They ask: “If Paul clearly says women shouldn’t teach or exercise authority over a man, shouldn’t the church follow that rule?” That is precisely the question that we must do our best to answer.
TWO DIFFICULT PASSAGES
There are these two passages that seem to suggest such things, but I maintain that there are reasons to question this. Let me begin by stressing that the question, “what does scripture clearly teach?” is the all-important question but it is not as simple a question as it appears.
Paul tells the Galatians:
28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
(Gal 3:28 TNIV)
In the larger context, Paul is drawing out the implications of the gospel of salvation by grace through faith. He clearly states that all who are in Christ become children of God, clothed with Christ, and as a consequence there is neither Jew nor …, neither slave nor … neither male nor female, for (this is the reason) you are all one in Christ.
Note, Paul speaks of all three sets of social pairs (ethnic, class, gender) in the same way. He is not suggesting that we lose ethnic identity or that slaves are automatically free, or that there are no differences between male and female. Yet, he is contending: being in Christ means that such social categories no longer determine who we are and how we live, as they did in Paul’s world.
In the first century there were definite limitations placed on people according to ethnicity, class, and sex. But if there is neither male nor female, then being male or female does not limit whether a male or female may belong to the family of God; nor does it limit how male or female may participate in the church of Jesus. Therefore, on the basis of this text, this scripture passage, we must conclude that being male or female does not determine either membership or ministry.
Our friends who disagree, commonly say that male and female are equal in value, but different in role. But Paul does not say that here, and implies just the opposite. We wouldn’t say that Jews and gentiles are both equally valuable but only Jews really are qualified to lead in the church. We wouldn’t say that about persons ethnically different, and we shouldn’t say that about men and women on the basis of this text.
To be sure, the passage in 1 Corinthians 14 seems to say something different, as does 1 Timothy 2. But on what basis do we conclude that in light of 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2, Galatians 3:28 in its context (“no male or female in Christ”) must somehow mean something different than it clearly says? Why wouldn’t it be the other way around, especially when we see there are some things in the 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 texts that are strange or mystifying?
What makes people almost automatically assume that 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 “trump” the teaching of Galatians 3:28? Some might say, it doesn’t seem right, feel right, and therefore simply is not right for women to lead. But that is not the Bible speaking; that is something else.
So what about those two texts. Shouldn’t we follow what Paul clearly teaches? I would say absolutely, but I do not believe these texts offer clear teaching, certainly not as clear as Galatians 3:28 (in the context of the whole of Galatian letter) does. Why do I say this? Well, let’s look at those texts.
1 Corinthians 14
31 For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged.
32 The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets.
33 For God is not a God of disorder but of peace–as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people.
34 Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says.
35 If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.
36 Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached?
37 If any think they are prophets or otherwise gifted by the Spirit, let them acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command.
38 Those who ignore this will themselves be ignored.
39 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues.
40 But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way. (1Co 14:31-40 TNIV)
In 1 Corinthians Paul is responding to several issues and questions that he has heard about or has been asked regarding the Corinthian House Churches (see 7:1, concerning the things you wrote about, 7:25; 8:1; 12:1).
Chapter 14 is part of Paul’s response to questions about worship, specifically the use of gifts of tongues and prophesy during worship gatherings. Clearly, there is disorder and strife in the church and in its worship.
Note in this passage: in v. 31 we find mention prophesying, as also in v. 32. In v. 37 and v. 39, again, Paul refers to prophets and prophecy. And, in v. 33 and v. 40 Paul stresses God’s desire for there to be order and peace in the worship and among those who participate. In other words, the context reveals chaotic worship practices relating to the use of tongues, whether unknown or in the form of prophetic utterance.
In this context, Paul says (v. 34), “Women should remain silent in the churches.” That is the Today’s NIV version. Literally, the Greek reads, “The Women are to be silent …”
Now, when the definite article “the” is used in Greek grammar it normally means that the noun “women” is either definite, referring to specific women in question, or generic, referring to women in general. Many translators, including the TNIV which I quote above, translate it as though it is “generic,” that is, women in general or women as a class. But a number of others include the article, “the women” (ASV, NAS, RSV—though not the NRSV, NET, ESV, CEV, among others).
How do you decide which is the best understanding? The context is the primary determiner. This verse either says women in general should remain silent; they are not to speak. Or it says, the women, that is, certain ones whom you know very well, should remain silent and are not to speak. I would argue that it is the latter. Here is why.
Paul has already stressed that, in fact, women in general do not and should not remain silent. He has instructed that when women pray or prophesy they must have a covering on their heads (See 11:5, 13). The same language used in chapter 14 for prophesying is used in chapter 11. Paul does not say they should not prophesy, he says it would be shameful for them to do so without a covering. The same for when women pray, they must have a covering on their heads.
Read chapter 11 and you will see that it has its own share of mystifying and befuddling elements, but not at this point. Paul clearly refers to women in worship praying (and it would be out loud, which was the custom in the ancient world) and prophesying. That is, in chapter 11 Paul says women do speak, and it is fine when done appropriately, and in chapter 14 he seems to say just the opposite.
But he doesn’t say just the opposite if he is referring to a certain group of women, “the women” who in Corinth were misbehaving. Since Paul is responding to questions which the church has asked, it would not be necessary for him to give more details.
This way of understanding makes good sense of what Paul then says. They should be quiet, and if they have questions, let them ask their husbands when they are home. In other words, they are disruptive and unruly and out of order, perhaps especially when others are giving prophetic words to the Body.
Paul goes on to say they should stop, and be silent. It is shameful, in fact, for such a woman to “speak” in the church gathering. The word “speak” is the common word for talking, not for teaching or other forms of utterance. Which makes good sense if Paul is referring to some women who disrupt by talking and asking questions or otherwise commenting during the worship times.
This does not answer every question, but it does suggest a way for what Paul says here to be understood in its context without contradicting what he clearly says earlier in the same letter where he is assuming that women do not remain silent in the church.
Here is a final observation about this. Most who disagree with my interpretation do not really obey what they understand to be Paul’s “clear teaching” here. Not at all. Paul says “(the) women should remain silent; it is not right for them to speak in church, wait until they are in their own homes.” It doesn’t say—here—anything about women preachers or leaders, it says women should be silent period. No one I know really accepts it as such and no church I know really practices it. But that, in fact, is what Paul seems to say, the view I am arguing against. The women should not talk—period. Let them be silent. This would not allow women to teach other women in church, or children in church, or even simply to talk about the weather or anything.
The way our friends who disagree handle this is to insist from 1 Corinthians 14 that women should be silent, and then soften or qualify it by referring to 1 Timothy 2, which I will comment on below. But before I do, let me ask again: if you are not going to let 1 Corinthians14 stand absolutely and conclude that women should just be silent, period, but qualify it by something else Paul wrote, why not qualify it by what he wrote in Galatians 3:28? Thus, you say, on the basis of Galatians 3:28, in general we expect some women in Christ to be called to do whatever some men are called to do (no male or female), but apparently there are some women who should keep their mouths shut … ? Why should the only legitimate way of qualifying Paul’s absolute statement of 1 Corinthians 14 be that women must be silent as found in 1 Timothy 2?
1 Timothy 2
8 Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing.
9 I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes,
10 but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.
11 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission.
12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.
13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve.
14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.
15 But women will be saved through childbearing–if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety. (1Ti 2:8-1 TNIV)
Again I have quoted the TNIV along with verses that come before and also after the verses in question, for better context.
Once again it is important to note the context that Timothy is facing as he pastors in Ephesus. There are controversies, arguments, and wrong teaching going on and especially in relation to the law. Paul tells him to have nothing to do with endless speculations and arguments over difficult passages which just cause division and distract from sound teaching. Then, he reminds Timothy that the law was given in view of behavior and lifestyle that is contrary to God’s will, not to establish credibility or standing in relation to God or other people. The goal of it all, he says, is love flowing from pure hearts, a good conscience, and genuine faith, which some in the church have forgotten by using the law in ways it was never meant to be used. They have been and are in grave danger (see 1: 3-11). One final note. Chapter 2 begins with a call to pray for all in authority so that the church might live a tranquil and quiet life in godliness and dignity, for the sake of the mission to bring salvation to all people (see 2:1-6).
In this context, when Paul repeats the call for silence for “a woman” who should learn in silence (same word) and complete submission, we should view this as a particular application of the calling Paul has just given to the whole church. It is not that Paul all of a sudden calls women to be quiet but that he calls women to this quietness in terms appropriate for some particular situation. Read on.
Paul says that a women should learn, but in quietness and submission (2:11). In Paul’s world that was not common and would be unexpected, reflecting a different way of viewing women in general than the surrounding culture did.
In this context Paul says, “I do not permit a woman to teach” (v. 12). But is that really true absolutely and is that the best way to understand this assertion? When women prophesy, as in 1 Corinthians 11, are they not giving words that are instructive to all who hear them? In Acts when Priscilla and Aquila take Apollos aside and explained the way of God to him more accurately (see 18:26) there is no indication that Priscilla wasn’t at least part of the teaching team with her husband. Many scholars suggest that Luke’s habit of listing Priscilla first when he mentions them reflects that she was more the leader than he, because normally the man would always be listed first.
In Acts 16 when Lydia is the first convert in Philippi and the new church is hosted in her home, certainly she would have some legitimate occasion for teaching. And when Paul lists women who are his fellow servants, ministers and even apostles, as he does in his other epistles, surely it is reasonable to think that they would be among the teachers in the church. We have good reason to question whether he is really asserting that he does not allow women to teach, as it is often understood.
Then Paul adds something that suggests another way to understand him. He says he does not allow women to “assume authority over a man; she must be quiet,” (v. 12). The world translated “assume authority” is very rare and it means to dominate or lord it over. There are other ways of designating and describing the exercise of authority and those words are very common. Here however you have this word chosen by Paul. I conclude that these are likely gentile women, converted and set free in Jesus, presuming to tell the men and other believing women what to do, thus dominating and disrupting. And they needed correction. Such women were not qualified to teach or to exercise any authority, not over men (which would be especially shocking and off-putting to the pagan culture) or women.
Add to this another fact. These women were likely deceived and unreliable without knowing it. Paul described them at the beginning of this letter:
6 Some have wandered away from those teachings. They would rather talk about things that have no meaning.
7 They want to be teachers of the law. And they are very sure about that law. But they don’t know what they are talking about. (1 Tim. 1:6-7 NIRV)
This helps explain why Paul then refers to the Genesis account of the creation, the temptation, and the trespass of Eve, and then Adam which Paul strangely omits (vv. 13-16). He notes it was Eve who was beguiled and deceived and in turn offered the fruit to Adam. (We might observe however that if the woman was deceived, the man was simply defiant or careless. The Genesis text says, 3:6, she ate it and then gave some to her husband who was with her!). And when Paul says this about Eve, he is not blaming the women and suggesting she was more prone to deception than the man. Rather, Paul is citing the text of Genesis 3:13, where Eve explains what happened by saying the serpent deceived her.
Paul refers to what Eve says in this text about being deceived because somehow the women Paul refers to are prone to error or are likewise being deceived. This is not the way Paul usually talks about this sad episode. Normally, when talking about the fall of humans into sin, Paul cites Adam. See Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15. This is the only place where Paul makes Eve the central character, assigning blame. Why does he do this? The best answer is: he saw such a reference as helpful in dealing with a particular situation Timothy was facing in the church.
Then, he adds that though the woman was deceived she can be saved through childbearing, if she continues in faith etc. This too follows the Genesis story which spells out the consequences of sin for Eve in terms of pain in childbirth. Paul is speaking on several levels here. Women (and men too) will be saved through childbearing in at least two ways. In the Genesis story Eve’s and Adam’s posterity and future are saved through bearing children, the human race continues; then, in the ultimate story, everyone is saved through a woman bearing the Child who is Messiah and Savior. In both cases, women and men are necessary if there will be salvation, and in both cases they/we are saved by faith.
Let me note two other things arguing against understanding that Paul is giving an absolute command against women teaching, ministering, leading in the church. In this same passage Paul instructs, or commands, that when men pray they should lift up holy hands (v. 8). But no one I know seriously regards this as mandatory.
Likewise, and maybe more to the point, Paul commands certain styles of dress, jewelry, and hair for godly women. Hardly anyone takes this seriously anymore. Few would call it a sin to wear socially appropriate clothing and jewelry, within reason.
FM people once did insist on such an understanding, but we now see otherwise and lament the legalism of the past that often threatened the spiritual vitality of the church. Yet, these commands about dress and hair are in the very same passage as those concerning women’s roles and activities. Few object to understanding one set of commands as context specific. But, in the case of women’s roles, it is a different story.
On one hand, hardly no one insists women dress to Paul’s commands, but on the other many insist on taking the limitations on women’s roles in church as universal and binding even though clearly Paul himself and the early church, not to mention Jesus, did not. On what legitimate basis can you pick and choose in this manner?
The 1 Timothy passage, more than that of 1 Corinthians 14, is difficult, and arriving at a confident or assured answer to all the questions may not be possible. But remember what Peter said about some things Paul wrote. They are hard to understand (see 2 Peter 3:16)! Even in the first century some things were not clear to sincere followers of Jesus and there were those who were confused.
Thus, we are not alone in finding some of what Paul wrote hard to understand. I would argue that these two passages are “difficult,” especially in light of other things Paul says that seem quite clear.
I have had people tell me they just cannot “get past” what Paul says in these two passages. For my part, and the understanding of the FMC, we cannot get past what the whole story seems to suggest, namely, that the limitations on women in human history are mostly the result of sin and its brokenness, that in the beginning God created the man and women as co-stewards and co-trustees of the world he created,
that sin messed up these and all other relationships resulting in horrendous woe and evil—not least on women at the hands of men who lord it over and abuse them, and that redemption in Christ Jesus undoes this sin and its damage.
We are a new kind of humanity in Christ that approaches by grace the restoration of what God intended in the beginning. We see signs of this undoing in the several notable women who appear in Israel’s story, in the ministry of Jesus, in the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy that the Spirit would fall upon and fill both men and women and both would prophesy, and so they both did in the life of the early church.
If we understand the big picture of this great salvation that God is working out, we cannot rewrite the story or dismiss it on the basis of two “difficult” passages from Paul, that are “difficult” even and especially compared with other things that Paul himself says.
David W. Kendall