The Role of Women in the Church

I am not a feminist, and I never really questioned the role of women in the church until we attended a very tiny church (at most 20 people attended) with a pastor who believed women were under the submission of men to a degree I had never encountered before. Most churches I have attended believed that women were under the authority of men and, therefore, could not be in positions of leadership over them, but they believed it to varying degrees. Also the churches were large enough that there were plenty of ministry opportunities for women. It just wasn’t a problem.

But in the small church, there weren’t enough people to fill ministry positions. Most of the men were new believers who were still struggling with addictions of various sorts. Some of the most mature believers were women. Yet, women were not allowed to speak or lead singing from the pulpit. They could only teach other women, and then the teacher had to submit her lesson to the pastor for his approval before teaching it. When I considered leading a women’s group, the pastor told me that he’d read a book (written by a woman), write the lesson, and then I could teach from his lesson. I wasn’t allowed to read the book for myself or study the Bible on my own. I began to struggle with this issue, asking questions like:

Why can’t the best singer in the church–a woman–lead singing from the pulpit, but she can lead it from the pew? Leading is leading, and what does a few feet matter?

Why can’t I teach a class of men, but I can speak up in a Sunday School class that has men in it. In effect, I was teaching men from the pew. If it’s wrong to speak in church or teach men, then isn’t wrong no matter where I am?

If a women shouldn’t teach a man, then should a man read a book written by a woman? If it’s ok for a man to learn from a woman author, why can’t he learn from a woman teacher?

If a woman is under the authority of all men, can a man give another man’s wife orders? What if a man tells a woman to do something wrong? At what point can a woman say “No!” If a woman is not under the authority of all men, then why can’t she teach them? And if a woman has no authority over a man, why was it ok for the pastor’s wife to order a man to do things in the church?

The Bible says that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, male or female, but all are one in Christ” (Galatians 3:28). Why, when preaching about the first two parts of this verse, people state it plainly and simply, but when talking about the third part of the verse–about male and female–suddenly it gets complicated and there are all these clauses and subclauses and rules about what it means.

Does God REALLY care more about gender than godliness?

Does God consider me inferior to men?

It seemed to me that a lot of the rules about women in the church were random and hypocritical. If it was true that women weren’t supposed to speak in church or teach/lead men, then we ought not to do it at all–it ought not be be wrong sometimes and ok other times at the whim of the pastor. And if you followed the teachings fully, then it opens the way to a lot of abuse of women.

Because of my questions, I studied this topic. I studied it as honestly as I could rather than make Scripture conform to what I wanted to believe. I found a lot of information about women, and I cannot share it all. I will share a few things, but encourage you to read more. A book that was very helpful to me was called Why Not Women? by Loren Cunningham. The notes in my NASB (New American Standard Bible) also had a lot of information regarding the verses about women. There’s also good teaching from the book, Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, by Lois Tverberg.

I learned, of course, that the first believers were all Jewish, except for a few exceptions. The Book of Acts in the Bible says that the doors of Christianity were opened to Gentile believers. Eventually, Gentile believers flooded the early church. The Greeks had conquered the known world, and their culture had pervaded the world, so most Gentiles were strongly influenced by Greek beliefs and culture. Gentile believers brought these teachings into the church. Greek ideals influence our churches to this day in many ways. One of the influences was the Greek belief about women.

In Greek society, a woman’s father controlled her before she was married. Once a woman was married her husband controlled all property. Any property that she might have inherited would go directly to her husband. She had no rights to wander about the town, without a just cause. Any respectable woman would not be seen in public. Greek women had virtually no political or legal rights of any kind and were controlled by men at all stages of their lives. Since men spent most of their time away from their houses, women dominated Greek home life. The wife was in charge of raising the children and making the families clothes. She supervised the daily running of the household. In a totally slave based economy plentiful numbers of female slaves were available to cook, clean and carry water from the fountain. Only in the poorest homes was the wife expected to do these duties by herself. Custom dictated that women should limit her time outside the home. Visiting with a female neighbor was really the only appropriate time for the woman to leave her indoor duties. It appears that people had altered views of women. Some saw them as important mothers of citizens and for the passing on of legitimacy, women were protected and sheltered, even in their own houses, from the peeping eyes of other men. They had limited access to society and the activities that took place there. Despite this, the writer Simonides depicted women as different types of animals–women represented the forces of chaos. Women were viewed as highly sexual beings who could not control their sexual urges and therefore had to be restricted for their own benefit. Compare this, however, to his paradox in which he explains to the ancient Greeks, ‘woman is the consumer of men, their sex, their strength, their food, and their wealth, and the instigator of all evils in the world; yet without her, society cannot continue’. Euripides from his book ‘ Meda’ writes; ‘If only children could be got some other way without the female sex! If women didn’t exist, human life would be rid of all its miseries’. These two authors depict the most constant view of women in ancient times. Most men felt that women were only necessary to produce children.

According to Shmuel Safrai in his article, The Place of Women in First-Century Synagogues, in Jesus’ time, Jewish women participated fully in the religious life of the community. This included participation in synagogue services and in the regular study sessions that were conducted in the synagogue’s bet midrash (house of study). There was no separation of the sexes in synagogues and women could be counted as part of the required congregational quorum of ten adults. There was, however, one inequality. For social reasons, women were not allowed to read the Scriptures publicly. [The modern custom of separating men and women in the synagogue is perhaps due to the influence of Islam, from approximately the seventh century C.E. onward.]

Dr. Roy Blizzard wrote in his article, The Role of Women in First-Century Judaism and the Church:

Those who are familiar with Judaism and Jewish Law are aware that women have always been held in the highest regard. In no way were women considered to be inferior to men. Because of woman’s roles as wife, mother, and homemaker, her sphere of activity is different from man’s but no less important to the community of God. Because of a basic misunderstanding of the Hebrew foundation of the Christian faith, all too many Christian leaders have read the New Testament, found seemingly damaging passages relative to the function of women in the home and church, and then taken these passages out of context–bringing them into our 20th century Western world. In order to correctly understand the role of women in the Church of the first century, it is imperative that we project ourselves back into that historical and cultural context, asking, “To whom was the author writing, why was he writing, and do his words have any practical application for the Church today?”

To whom was Paul writing when he wrote, “I allow no woman to teach or to have authority over men” (I Timothy 2:12)? And again, “The women should keep quiet in the churches” (I Corinthians 14:34)? It is principally these two passages that have been used in Christendom to support the position that a woman has no authority to teach in the Church. In most of the more conservative main-line Christian denominations, this has been the basic position, in varying degrees, for several centuries. The woman is inferior to the man and although she can perhaps teach children, and of course, other women, she cannot teach men and certainly she may not serve as a pastor or priest.

This conclusion is the unfortunate result of taking a passage out of its proper historical and cultural context. To whom was Paul writing? To those who had embraced Jesus as Messiah out of a gentile (pagan) background. Their religious system was one that centered around the worship of gods and goddesses that were served in their temples by cult prostitutes. At Corinth, in Paul’s day, there was a temple to the many-breasted fertility goddess, Artemis (also called Diana in some English translations of the New Testament), who was served by one thousand cult prostitutes. In this religious system, women had the dominant role. The women in the Church at Corinth, as through all the cities in Asia, had largely come out of this religious system. In Judaism, the woman, although always considered an equal to man, was exempt from all the positive commandments that would require her to be in a certain place at a certain time (Kiddushin 1:7). Given her role as a wife and mother, the reasons for this should be obvious.

The woman’s principal responsibilities were domestic; the man’s religious. Therefore, the woman was not required to go to synagogue, to put on talit (the prayer shawl) or tefillin (phylacteries), but she had the liberty to do so if she so desired. Apart from these religious observances, Jewish law recognized no distinction between the sexes insofar as religious responsibility is concerned. “Scripture places men and women on an equality with regard to all the laws of the Torah” (Baba Kama 15a). In the gentile churches, the women were attempting to assume a dominant role, just as they had done in the pagan temples.

The NASB notes say:

…Furthermore, the word gunaikes [in 1 Corinthians 14:34] should not be translated as “women” in its generic sense, but as “wives.” It is wives who should submit to their own husbands. The whole argument is not the subjection of women to men in general, but of wives to their own husbands in the family unit as ordained by God. Paul states the principle that it was the duty of the husbands to restrain their own wives from such displays. It does not state that a man should restrain the wife of another. It is a shame for any woman to bring confusion into the local church (v. 35), even as it is for any man to do so. Whenever Paul speaks of submissiveness on the part of the woman, it is always on the part of a wife to her own husband. It does not imply that a woman, simply because she is a woman, must be submissive to any man simply because he is a man.

The NASB notes to I Timothy 2:9-15 says:

This passage indicates that women were full and active members in the early church (1 Cor. 11:4-5; 14:33-35; Eph. 5:21, 22; Col. 3:18, 19; Tit. 2:1-10). Peter also had something to say concerning the witness of women and their conduct at home (I Pet. 3:1-7). In the marital relationships, a woman is not presented as having any fewer rights upon her husband than he has upon his wife.

According to Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, a disciple was said to be one who “sat at the feet of his rabbi,” learning from him. Luke 10:38-39 says

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said.

Mary hadn’t just snuck in to listen on the fringes while the men learned from Jesus. She was an actual disciple of Jesus.

My beliefs about the role of women in the church has changed because of my study into this subject. So much truth gets perverted because we do not understand the background or context of the Bible. Women are not inferior to men. When Galatians 3:28 says, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” it means exactly, simply, and plainly what it says.

One thought on “The Role of Women in the Church

  1. TJ says:

    I just discovered a video that addresses the role of women in the church. It's very good. The link to it is:

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