Women in leadership or ministry positions in the church is a highly controversial subject. Looking at this subject is not a "put down" on women or their abilities as both sincere Christian men AND women stand on both sides of the question. What any real Christian wants to know is: what does the Bible really teach? Once we have established the Biblical teaching, then it is only a matter of obedience or rebellion.
In looking at this subject, we have to be careful not to allow the norms of our society to influence how we look at the Scripture, specially at women in leadership. It is easy to accept what society says and then go to the Bible to try and justify what we have already decided to believe. This is the trap that many Christians fall into trying to compromise the Bible with the Satanic hypothesis of evolution. What we need to do, as much as possible, is allow the Bible to speak for itself. We need to find out what it is really teaching.
Surprisingly, as far as I have been able to discover, there are only two passages of Scripture [1 Cor. 14:33-38 and 1 Tim. 2:11-14] that appear to deal directly with the women in leadership or ministry issue. We will deal with them specifically below.
First, though, we need to look at the general Biblical attitude to women in leadership. As Feed Yourself students know, context is vital in correctly understanding any Biblical topic. Any specific Scriptures have to fit in the overall Biblical teaching on the subject to which they relate.
So let's begin by looking at some leadership positions that women have held as recorded in Scripture.
Women in leadership as Prophetesses:
Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister…. Ex. 15:20, NIV
Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time. Jud. 4:4, NIV
Hilkiah the priest, Ahikam, Acbor, Shaphan and Asaiah went to speak to the prophetess Huldah, who was the wife of Shallum son of Tikvah, the son of Harhas, keeper of the wardrobe. She lived in Jerusalem, in the Second District.She said to them, “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: Tell the man who sent you to me, ‘This is what the LORD says: I am going to bring disaster on this place and its people, according to everything written in the book the king of Judah has read. Because they have forsaken me and burned incense to other gods and provoked me to anger by all the idols their hands have made, my anger will burn against this place and will not be quenched. Tell the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the LORD, ‘This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says concerning the words you heard… 2 Kings 22:14-18, NIV
There was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher… Luke 2:36, NIV
He had four unmarried daughters who prophesied. Acts 21:9, NIV
This is the most often mentioned of any women in leadership positions. A prophet was one who spoke on behalf of God. We often think of prophecies as predicting the future, but that is a very small part of the prophetic. Basically, it is bringing a specific word from God. We can see that men, including military commanders, representatives of the king, and, at least, one priest had no problem consulting a female prophet and accepting her word as coming from God. Apparently, God had no problem speaking through a woman prophet to men either. We can also see that this applied in both the Old and New Testaments and with married and unmarried women.
Women in leadership as Judges:
Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time. She held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites came to her to have their disputes decided. Jud. 4:4-5, NIV
Deborah was also a Judge and "held court." People came to her for judgment and accepted it. It appears they had no difficulty with the fact that she was a woman.
Women in leadership as Military Advisors:
She sent for Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali and said to him, “The LORD, the God of Israel, commands you: ‘Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun and lead the way to Mount Tabor. I will lure Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his troops to the Kishon River and give him into your hands.’”
Barak said to her, “If you go with me, I will go; but if you don’t go with me, I won’t go.”“Very well,” Deborah said, “I will go with you. But because of the way you are going about this, the honor will not be yours, for the LORD will hand Sisera over to a woman.” So Deborah went with Barak… Jud. 4:6-9, NIV
Deborah was obvious very involved in leadership on various levels. The military commander, Barak, did not even want to go into battle unless she was there.
Women in leadership as Deaconesses:
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchrea. Rom. 16:1, NIV
The Greek word which the NIV [and KJV] translates as "servant" is used 31 times in Scripture. Of those times, it is translated "minister" 20 times, "servant" 8 times, and "deacon" 3 times. This was a position of some authority and leadership in the church.
Women in leadership as Home Group Leaders:
…Aquila and Priscilla greet you warmly in the Lord, and so does the church that meets at their house. 1 Cor. 16:19, NIV
Priscilla, along with her husband, apparently were involved in a level of leadership in the church, if not the leaders of the church which met in their home.
The elder, To the chosen lady and her children, whom I love in the truth—and not I only, but also all who know the truth… 2 John 1, NIV
The word "children" can mean a person's physical descendants, but it can also mean a disciple who follows the teaching of another. It is difficult to know which meaning is meant in 2 John. If it is the disciple meaning, then we have a female home group leader being instructed by John.
Women in leadership as Teachers [in private]:
Meanwhile a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervour and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately. Acts 18:24-26, NIV
Priscilla, along with her husband, explained to the talented Bible teacher, Apollos, things that he did not quite understand correctly.
All these were women in leadership to various degrees. Some object to the use of women like Deborah and Huldah on the grounds that obviously it was very rare for a woman to be in such a position. Usually the position was held by men, they correctly state. That objection is irrelevant. The question is not whether women in leadership positions was common, but whether they were allowed in such positions at all. It is apparent that they were allowed in, at least, in the positions mentioned.
Others try to dismiss Deborah, Huldah and others because they operated in the Old Testament civil administration, and the two passages apparently restricting women in leadership, deal with the church administration. This is a better objection than the previous one; however, it fails to recognize that in Old Testament Israel, the civil and religious spheres were intertwined as God intended. In fact, the examples of Deborah and Huldah are excellent examples of how God designed the civil and religious administrations to function. The civil authorities received Godly counsel from the religious authorities as to how to direct the affairs of state in a God-pleasing way, while the religious authorities did not rule over the civil authorities. [Whether the Old Testament women are considered legitimate examples of women in leadership for today will depend on a person's view of the relationship between Israel and the Church.]
Having established the fact that there were some women in leadership in the Bible, at least showing that those positions were legitimate, let us look at our two passages which appear to deny women in leadership or ministry. Let us also keep in mind that anytime we only have one or two sections of Scripture on a subject, we have to tread very carefully to be sure we are not misunderstanding it and that our understanding of them fits in with the general picture of Scripture. As Feed Yourself students know, we interpret unclear Scriptures from clear Scriptures not the other way around.
 …As in all the congregations of the saints,  women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says.  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. Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached?  If anybody thinks he is a prophet or spiritually gifted, let him acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command. 1 Cor. 14:32-37, NIV
Surely that is plain? Women have to be silent in church, which means that women in leadership positions is impossible. Simple logic - no women in leadership.
Actually there are two ways of dealing with this Scripture which show that Paul was not dealing with women in leadership here. I will give you the one I think is most likely first and then the more popular one second. [I must confess that I owe the insight into the first explanation from respected Bible teacher, Malcom Smith.]
Paul often had to defend himself against false accusations or challenges to his teaching…and he responses with a variety of styles. What he would sometimes do is quote his opponent[s] - or anticipate their reaction - and then respond. The most natural reading of this selection of Scripture, I think, is that in verses 32 - 35 Paul is quoting some male leaders in the Corinthian church and responding to them [sarcastically] in verse 36 and asserting his authority in verse 37.
Why do I think this? If Paul was himself teaching that women should be silent, etc. in church what does verse 36 mean? It doesn't make sense. But if Paul, in verse 36, is actually rebuking the previous statements as quoted from someone else, then verse 36 makes sense. If this is indeed the case, then in this Scripture Paul is actually coming against those who keep women from participating in Church services. Read 1 Cor. 14 again and see what you think.
The second, and more popular view, is that Paul was dealing with women who were disrupting the service by calling across the aisle to their husbands to explain what was being said/taught. This view has in its favour the fact that Paul is, in this section of Scripture, dealing with disorders in church services which need to be corrected, but it fails to explain, in my opinion, the meaning of verse 36.
The fact is that women were allowed to pray and otherwise participate in church services; therefore, Paul cannot be requiring all women to be completely silent in church. In the second view, it is specific instructions to specific women who were being disruptive.
There is nothing in this section to Scripture which refers to women in leadership. It is either saying that women should be allowed to participate fully in the church service [view one] or that disruptive women should be silent and find out what they want to know after church [view two]. It has nothing to do with women pastors, preachers, clergy or women in leadership in general.
This leaves us with only one passage in Scripture which seems to limit women in leadership. We will now take a detailed look at it along with some objections to the view I am presenting. The ultimate question you must answer is: "What is this Scripture really saying in context of the general teaching of Scripture?" Although we are interested mainly in verse 11-14, we will read the entire chapter for context. Fasten your seatbelts…here we go….
 I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone—  for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.  This is good, and pleases God our Savior,  who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.  For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,  who gave himself as a ransom for all men—the testimony given in its proper time.  And for this purpose I was appointed a herald and an apostle—I am telling the truth, I am not lying—and a teacher of the true faith to the Gentiles. I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing. I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes,  but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.A woman should learn in quietness and full submission.  I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.  For Adam was formed first, then Eve.  And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.  But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.1 Tim. 2, NIV
We need to look at the words very carefully in controversial passages. We have to realize that our English versions are a translation from the Greek and sometimes different Greek words are translated by the same English word. For example, the word "men" in verse 4 is the same word that is translated "everyone" in verse 1 [KJV uses men both times] and includes both men and women. However, the word "men" in verses 8 and 11 is a different word which means male or husband.
Looking at the context, Paul is not addressing church service order specifically. He is talking about lifestyles that are pleasing to God. He instructed prayers and respect for everyone, especially those in authority. For the men he singled out anger and arguing as weaknesses to watch out for. And for the women he singled out modesty in dress and submission as danger areas.
Starting with verse 11… If we take the second view of 1 Cor. 14, this is saying basically the same thing. A woman should not be disruptive or rebellious. [This is also true of men, but Paul addresses it to women because evidently that is where the problem was in this specific case.] The words "quietness" in verse 11 and "silent" in verse 12 are the same word and mean both to be quiet and not to be a busy-body in other peoples business.
What about the word "submission" [subjection, KJV]? In submission to what or who? Let's look back to the previous verse for clarification. Paul is talking about dressing modestly as "women who profess to worship God." Therefore, we can say that this submission is the submission of the woman to God. She is not to be rebellious, seeking independence, or being a busy-body, but learning with a respectful attitude, and a quiet spirit. Again, this applies to everyone really [just as women shouldn't believe they can pray in anger - verse 8 - just because that instruction was directed to men].
Let's look at the "authority over a man"
phrase next. The word that is translated "authority" is only used one
time in Scripture and this is it! [The word "authority" in verse 2 is
an entirely different word.] This word is actually a little
1. one who with his own hands kills another or himself
2. one who acts on his own authority, autocratic
3. an absolute master
4. to govern, exercise dominion over one
[Bible Study Tools]
No woman should have that kind of authority over a man. In fact, no person [man or woman] should have that kind of authority over another person [man or woman]! In another place [Eph. 5:21], Paul states we should all be submitted to one another. No one is allowed to operate independently. We all need people over us who can direct us and speak into our lives.
Since Paul uses the illustration of Adam and Eve in verse 14, he may have been thinking of the punishment of the woman [Gen. 3:16] which gives the idea of a disappointed desire or struggle to rule over her husband.
I should point out that the words "woman" and "man" in verses 11 and 12 can be translated as "wife" and "husband." The word "woman" is used 221 times in Scripture and is translated "wife" 92 of those times. The word "man" is used 215 times in Scripture and is translated "husband" 50 of those times. If Paul meant the husband/wife relationship, then we are dealing specifically with a wife's relationship with her husband and not with men in general. Young's Literal Translation actually puts it that way: "and a woman I do not suffer to teach, nor to rule a husband, but to be in quietness," although it is the only version I am aware of which does.
Those who object to this, point out that the same words are used in verses 8 and 9 where they apply to men and women in general, not just husbands and wives and that there is no reason in the context to suppose Paul suddenly changed from men and women in general to husbands and wives specifically. They do have a strong argument. Words do not change meaning without some indication of the change in the context. I am not sure I would defend the husband/wife view; however, if I were to, I would point out that Paul uses Adam and Eve as his example and their primary relationship was husband and wife. Adam did not choose to reject God and lead humanity into sin because of a "general" woman. It was his love for his wife whom he knew he would loose if he chose God.
Now let's look at the hardest phrase to explain in respect to women in leadership: "I do not permit a woman to teach."
Let's start by pointing out that Paul specifically is talking about teaching - instruction in doctrine and Christian living. No matter how you look at it, it does not forbid women to be in leadership except where that leadership involves teaching men. [And if Paul meant "husbands," that further increases a woman's potential teaching role.] Of course, the objection would be raised that most leadership roles involve some degree of teaching.
Those who do not believe women should teach generally apply it to the public teaching of men in church. They usually admit that women can teach their children, other women, Sunday School classes, etc. Sometimes they will allow women to go as missionaries and teach men in other nations. [This is condescending because it implies that men in other nations are inferior to those in the home nation. You might say they make an exception because a woman is willing to do something that they are unwilling to do. They are avoiding responsibility.]
If we are to take this statement by itself, it has wide-reaching implications. It would mean that a woman could not be involved in any media where men are a possible audience. No book writing, no TV talk shows, no evangelizing unless it is specifically directed to other women or children. Is this really what Paul meant?
It would be strange considering his instructions to Timothy in his next letter:
And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others. 2 Tim. 2:2
Here, Paul uses the word for "men" which includes both men and women, not the word which is exclusive for males.
The answer, I think, must lie in the illustration of Adam and Eve which Paul gives as his reason for his statement. [I suggest taking the time to read Gen. 2:18-3:24.] The woman was created to be a helper for her husband. They were a team, working within a structure, to achieve the purpose of God in their lives and in the world around them. Each had talents and abilities that the other needed to be successful. Eve's mistake was that she operated independently. God had designed Adam to be the head of the home, to have the final decision. Eve thought she could make decisions on her own. She either did not know God's command [highly unlikely] or, she thought that God was unfair keeping them from their fullest potential. As a helper she wanted Adam and herself to reach their greatest potential. She was deceived. In her deception, and with the best of intentions, she became a tempter not a helper to Adam.
If we look at what Paul is saying in these verses about a woman, we see he is pointing out areas where women, like Eve, are tempted to operate independently and become tempters instead of helpers. We see Paul instructing modest dress so as not to be a sexual tempter, not to be a busy-body meddling in things of no concern to her, not to try to control and dominate a man [perhaps her husband specifically]. In line with this, and considering the general testimony of Scripture, Paul is saying that a woman should not teach or direct a man [husband?], as Eve did, from what he, the husband, knows is God's calling in his life. In all things she should be submitted to true authority and not acting independently. This is, of course, true of all of us, but can be a special temptation to women in their God-given calling as a helper.
Although this is a difficult Scripture, I do not see here any reason that women in leadership should not be allowed. If married, or living in their father's house, they should have the full support of their husband or father before venturing into leadership roles and should resist any temptation to think that their leadership role places them in authority above their husband.
In conclusion, even if you disagree with my interpretation of 1 Tim., a doctrine built on only one Scripture cannot be too dogmatically held.
This will be my third visit to you. “Every matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” 2 Cor. 13:1
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