"But the Preacher Is a Lady"
"It's a great church, but the preacher is a lady..."
There are many third rails in Church traditions. Among the most hotly contested over the last 2,000+ years pertains to what women should (or most often, should not) do within the Church. The feelings run so strong that the functions of women within churches often becomes the single most defining issue in many congregations. Many believers will overlook many other differences in doctrine and lifestyle, but they'll jump ship the second a woman gets a microphone. The duplicity of the tone is generally something along these lines:
"Oh, you don't believe in the Trinity like I do? That's interesting. What're you bringing to the potluck?"
"Oh, you believe women should be on the Board of Deacons? Bye, heretic."
Sadly, there are very few issues more divisive than the role of women in the Church. People take it very personally, and often feel that any position on this issue is equal to the importance of theology. This sentiment has been deeply embedded in the Church since the second century, and it was codified by the Roman Catholic Church and many of their subsequent Protestant denominations over the last two millennia. And this isn't exclusively a "Christian" issue — nearly all societies since the dawn of history have debated how women ought to be involved in their respective cultures.
I'd like to further the conversation by raising a few questions and posing a few Biblical facts. Now, I fully understand that my position in this regard is widely unpopular. I know that my congregation would increase in size — immediately — if I held the traditional "Christian" view on this issue. Almost everyone, from the Pope to many in the conservative circles where I'm involved, tends to lean on the "Christian" tradition regarding this subject. Nevertheless, I'm not interested in holding onto a tradition if it runs counter to Biblical truth. As such, I feel obligated to stand up and speak out.
First, it's important to outline the questions we're seeking to answer. This topic brings up a lot of heightened emotions, and it's easy for folks to quickly become illogical. So, for the sake of this discussion, I'd like to boil this topic down to a few key questions:
- Is it right for women to speak during a church service?
- Is it right for women to teach men?
- Is it right for women to be in authority over men?
- Is it right for women to hold "offices" in the Church?
I believe each of these questions deserves a clear answer. They're absolutely "yes/no" questions. As people who profess to conform our beliefs and practices to the prescription of Scripture, we are obligated to examine the evidence provided by the Bible and then be consistent in our application of Scripture. So let's take it one question at a time...
1. Is it right for women to speak during a church service?
"The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the law also says" (1 Corinthians 14:34).
In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul seems to plainly state that women must be absolutely silent in church services (assemblies of believers). From Judaism through various Christian sects, many religions throughout the ages have held this exact view. I've even experienced people becoming distraught when a woman was asked to sing a song during a church service. Taken hyper-literally and without context, this verse seems to say that women should be absolutely silent, which means the they cannot talk, teach, sing, pray, etc.
But accurate understanding of Scripture requires context.
First, there's cultural factor to consider. Synagogues (which the early churches were modeled after) actually separated men and women. The women were often placed in the back of the synagogues. And, in the absence of modern sound systems, controlling the noise level was actually a constant concern. For order alone, it would have been difficult to manage the confusion of multiple groups (men and women) having simultaneous discussions during an assembly. (It's also worth noting that Paul also tells other men to be silent in this same passage.)
Second, Paul's instruction is sandwiched between many other pieces of guidance regarding how the Corinthians might restore order to their ridiculously unruly and dysfunctional church. Paul talks about a wide range of issues: Everything from when they should eat to how they should practice "speaking in tongues" to how they should address an incestuous relationship. As such, Paul's advice, given to a very specific group of people facing some highly unusual circumstances, may not have universal applicability. To determine if it should be universal, we should see if it is universally applied throughout Scripture.
Here are a few Biblical examples to consider:
- Aquilla and Priscilla led a congregation in their home (1 Corinthians 16:19). There, they taught Apollos, a man (Acts 18:26).
- The entire congregation of the Israelites sang together after crossing the sea (Exodus 15:1), and Miriam sang back at them (Exodus 15:21).
- Women were in the "Upper Room" (Acts 1), and "all" spoke in tongues (Acts 2:4).
- Anna prophesied in mixed company in the Temple (Luke 2:36-38), and the Temple was the epitome of the "assembly."
In all of these cases, women were clearly speaking or singing in assemblies of fellow believers. If Paul's instruction is a blanket ruling for all women, how can one justify the actions of the women in these examples?
So whether Paul's instruction for silence pertained merely to acoustics or if it was to address a specific congregation's dysfunction, there are reasons to believe that his instruction may have been intended as guidance to the Corinthians — and not as a universal edict against all women for all time.
2. Is it right for women to teach men?
"But I do not allow a woman to teach or usurp authority over a man, but to remain quiet" (1 Timothy 2:12).
Many people add all sorts of clauses and nuances to this verse, but I prefer a plain reading (the "Occam's razor" approach). People will often add things to this verse, such as: "teach [in a church setting]" or "teach [men who are not in their families]" or "teach [doctrines of the faith]" or "teach [from a pulpit]." Those ideas are interesting, but that's not what Paul wrote. If we're going to understand Paul, we should take his words as he wrote them, instead of adding to or redefining Paul's letter.
Whether in the original Greek or in English translations, Paul's letter explicitly states that he (Paul) would not allow a woman (singular) to teach ... a man (again, singular). Paul does not say: "I would not allow women to teach men." Paul uses very specific Greek words, including in his use of a definite article which can mean a, the, or that. An equally accurate translation of the Greek reads: "I would not allow that woman to teach..." making it a reference to very specific woman — and, again, not an edict for all women. But does that jive with the context of Paul's letter and with the rest of Scripture?
At the start of his letter, Paul clearly states that he is concerned about certain people teaching "strange doctrines" and engaging in "meaningless discussions." Thus, the very tone of Paul's entire letter is to ensure that people aren't learning from these very specific false teachers and people who were misusing the church's structure.
But maybe Paul's instruction is far-reaching. Maybe women shouldn't teach men. In forming our conclusion, we need to reconcile many Scriptures, including the following:
- As stated previously, Aquilla and Priscilla led a congregation in their home (1 Corinthians 16:19). There, they taught Apollos, a man (Acts 18:26).
- Paul himself described Junia as an excellent "apostle" (Romans 16:7). An "apostle" is, by definition, a messenger and a teacher.
- Paul credits Timothy's mother, Lois, and grandmother, Eunice, for having trained Timothy in the faith (2 Timothy 1:5).
- King Josiah (and his subordinate men) turned to the prophetess Huldah — at the exclusion of the contemporary prophets Jeremiah, Zephaniah, Nahum, and Habakkuk — to learn what God's will was concerning their kingdom and the Torah they had discovered (2 Chronicles). Huldah's prophecy was actually the first time that the authority of the written Torah was validated, which was a monumental moment in the doctrines and theology of both the Jewish and Christian religions. Doctrine simply doesn't get any more foundational than that, and it came through a woman.
- Mary Magdalene was the first person to teach the Gospel, and she first taught it to men (Mark 16:10).
So, if Paul's instruction was universal, that women should not teach men, we have to then decide that Priscilla, Junia, Lois, Eunice, Huldah, and Mary (among others) were in error. We also must hold Paul to his own standard and fault Paul for crediting Junia's work as an apostle and Priscilla's work as a teacher. Or, we could simply reconcile all of this through the understanding that Paul was, as the text literally states, referring to a specific woman who should not have been teaching in the Corinthian church.
3. Is it right for women to be in authority over men?
Again: "But I do not allow a woman to teach or usurp authority over a man, but to remain quiet" (1 Timothy 2:12).
This one is fairly simple. Paul explicitly states that a specific woman should not "usurp authority." Paul does not say that women cannot be in authority. He plainly says that a woman should not be in rebellion against the authority of a man.
This isn't new, and it doesn't pertain just to women. Scripture clearly teaches against rebellion (usurpations of authority). The Bible describes rebellion as being like witchcraft (1 Samuel 15:23). Both men and women are told repeatedly to be in submission to their authorities (see Hebrews 13:17 and 1 Peter 2:13, for example). The fact that Paul is calling out a woman for being rebellious isn't a new idea nor is it particularly profound. Scripture clearly states that no one — male or female — should usurp authority. Paul is simply reminding Timothy of that as it pertains to a particular situation.
In understanding Paul's letter to Timothy, we should also see if our opinions concur with the totality of Scripture, because surely Paul wouldn't contradict himself or the Scriptures. Things to consider:
- Deborah was a prophetess and a judge/ruler over all of Israel (Judges 4).
- Priscilla and her husband led a congregation in their home (1 Corinthians 16:19).
- Miriam was one of the three leaders of Israel at the time of Moses (Micah 6:4).
- Throughout the Old and New Testaments, there are many women who speak prophetically through the authority of God, including Noadiah, Anna, Phillip's daughters, Rachel, Hannah, Abigail, Elizabeth, and Mary. Since a prophet speaks on God's behalf, their authority is supreme.
4. Is it right for women to hold "offices" in the Church?
"An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach..." (1 Timothy 3:2).
Again, Paul's letter to Timothy is the source of many strong feelings. In his letter, Paul provides lists of qualifications for overseers and deacons. In his description, Paul uses the masculine "he" to reference these nameless, theoretical candidates. Traditionally, since the advent of the Roman Catholic Church, this has been used as the premise to restrict the offices of the Church to men.
In reading this passage, we have a two options for our understanding:
- Paul wants only men in these roles (the Pope's traditional opinion); or
- Paul is using the "he" as a gender-neutral pronoun for any non-identified person (as is common in both English and gendered languages, such as Hebrew, Greek, including in throughout the Bible).
As with all doctrines, we should let Paul be defined by all Scripture — instead of letting all Scripture be defined by Paul. So let's look at a few of the Scriptural examples that differ from the traditional opinion (option 1). Specifically, let's look at what Paul himself said in Romans 16:
- In verse 1, Paul describes Phoebe as a "deacon."
- In verses 3-5, Paul credits Priscilla for her work through the church that she and her husband hosted in their home.
- In verse 7, Paul describes Junia as an "Apostle."
Surely Paul wasn't talking out of both sides of his mouth. Therefore, we have to assume that Paul's use of the masculine "he" was actually intended as a gender-neutral descriptor. Which is exactly what Paul states in 1 Timothy 3:11 when he, after giving the lists of qualifications for the candidates, explicitly says, "and the women likewise..."
While church politics is only covered briefly in the New Testament, we can also find evidence of female church officers in other historic documents. Most notably, Pliny the Younger wrote to Trajan in 112 AD, stating that the Christians had female deacons who wouldn't renounce their faith, even under torture. This letter is one of the most significant non-Christian sources for confirming the historicity of the resurrection and the validity of the New Testament, and it confirms the practice of female inclusion in ministry in the early Church.
Looking at the totality of Paul's writings, countless examples in Scripture and history, it seems that the answer to each of the aforementioned questions is simple: Yes.
- Is it right for women to speak during a church service? Yes.
- Is it right for women to teach men? Yes.
- Is it right for women to be in authority over men? Yes.
- Is it right for women to hold "offices" in the Church? Yes.
All of this simply means that women share the same call to ministry and faith as their male counterparts. As such, women should be held to the same standards of integrity, faith, intelligence, and accuracy. Women shouldn't get a pass simply because they're women. But there also doesn't seem to be a Scriptural reason to preclude women from ministry simply because they are women.
Granted, I'm confident that these ideas and this evidence won't change many opinions. People are stubborn creatures, and nowhere is that more evident than within our baseless prejudices. My hope in writing this is simply that believers might better understand an unpopular (though Scripture-based) opinion and grant one another the respect to exercise their faith without accusation.
It is perfectly Biblical and rational for people to believe that women should have an active role in the ministry of our churches. It's not heresy, feminism, rebellion, nor even the ever-popular (though not mentioned in Scripture) "Jezebel Spirit." Within the Body, we need one another, both men and women. Our differing perspectives give us strength, as long as we don't use that strength to destroy one another.
P.S. To learn more about the roles of men and women and the submission they're called to as individuals and in marriage, please read my book, The Marriage Commandments. These topics are obviously quite vast, and simply more than any single article is going to be able to cover.