Women In Church: Can They Teach And Lead?
Updated: Oct 18
Should women be allowed to teach and lead in the church? Those with a complementarian view argue that men and women were designed for complementary purposes in God. They argue that women should remain silent in the church and must not lead over man. They build the case on passages such as 1 Timothy 2:11–14 (NIV) 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.
This passage is controversial due to its interpretive issues and some churches and denominations have split over it. Those who argue against such views are known as egalitarian, meaning they hold that men and women have gender equality, particularly in church leadership and teaching scope.
Addressing whether women can lead and teach
Some have taken I Tim 2:11-14 to mean that women should not be involved in public teaching and leadership roles over men. They take the instructions in these passages as universal in application. On the other hand, others argue that the prohibitions are limited in its application to the context of the Ephesian and similar churches. Hence, they do not apply these instructions to women today.
Thus, the issue is whether the instructions in the passage is universal or limited in application. I believe the limited application view is correct. The arguments for and against are complex and can be quite involved. I will attempt to simplify to the key elements.
How can we reconcile these apparent differences in Scripture? The key lies in our interpretation methodology. Firstly, we must accept that all Scripture are important to understanding biblical principles. Not just the didactic passages over the narrative. It is in contradiction to Scripture itself as Apostle Paul himself declared in 2 Timothy 3:16–17 (NIV) 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
All Scripture genre, inclusive of narratives are to be used for deriving teaching or doctrines. Further, Scripture has never distinguished within itself nor hinted in any way whether any particular genre in Scripture is more useful than others.
In other words, all Scripture genre, inclusive of narratives are to be used for deriving teaching or doctrines. Further, Scripture has never distinguished within itself nor hinted in any way whether any particular genre in Scripture is more useful than others.
Obviously, all Scripture must be interpreted with consideration of its genre. Didactic passages are normally clearer in statements compared to narrative passages which require greater interpretive effort to tease out the biblical principles. However, it is not reasonable to cast aside narrative passages as inadequate to provide the basis for deriving biblical principles. That is an overly restrictive approach. An approach that undermines our ability to adequately exegete the Scriptures and essentially dishonours parts of Scripture as to its usefulness.
Hence, consideration must be given to Old Testament narrative passages as well. Are there examples that provide us an understanding of God’s view towards women? Are there evidences within Scripture itself to the idea that women are intended by God to universally be in quietness in the church public meetings or otherwise? Any interpretation based on the Bible must be consistent not only within the context of the epistles but also to the Testament and the entirety of the Scriptures. For God is the ultimate author.
A biblical principle is only universal if it is truly universal in every possible biblical case. If exceptions are found, then it cannot be upheld as universal in its application.
Secondly, a biblical principle is only universal if it is truly universal in every possible biblical case. If exceptions are found, then it cannot be upheld as universal in its application. It simply means the proposed biblical principle does not fully represent the truth.
In addition to 1 Timothy 2:11-14, the universal application view appears to be supported by another Pauline passage in 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 (NIV) 33For God is not a God of disorder but of peace. As in all the congregations of the saints, 34women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. 35If 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.
However, contrast this with Galatians 3:28 (NIV) There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
It seems that equality between genders is obtained in Christ. If so, why the huge difference allowed for men’s function in contrast to women?
Scriptures records the role of key women who appeared to have leading roles, even over men.
Further, Scriptures records the role of key women who appeared to have leading roles, even over men. Judges 4:4 (NIV) 4Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time. Deborah the prophetess effectively led as ruler over the nation of Israel and there are no hints that she was operating outside of divine order. As judge, she presided over many issues, including national issues. She instructed Barak to go into battle.
If God’s principle is that women should remain silent in the public worship or public arena, then why on earth would God appoint Deborah as prophetess and judge over the entire nation of Israel? It must be understood that prophets and prophetess had significant roles in the spiritual life of the Jewish nation. They often spoke and taught on behalf of God, as His spokesperson. It would not make sense to argue that these women prophesied only to other women. Indeed, there were many prophetesses recorded in the Scriptures such as Miriam, Moses’ sister (Ex 15:20), Huldah (2 Kings 22:14), Anna (Luke 2:36) and even Noadiah (Neh 6:14) who did wrong before God.
It is also interesting that Apostle Paul seemingly recognised a female apostle, in Romans 16:7 (ESV) Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me.
There is some debate on whether it should be Junia (female) or Junias (male). And whether they were prominent apostles or prominent with the apostles. The majority of scholars today hold that it was female. That both Andronicus and Junia were prominent apostles is the most probable translation. Indeed, of the Early Church Fathers in 4th century, such as Chrysostom spoke highly of Junia as a woman apostle. It was only from the 9th century, that some began to consider it as Junias (male). Clearly, a female apostle would have been involved in teaching and leading others.
In Rom 16:1, Paul referred to Phoebe, most likely a deaconess in the church. In Rom 16:3, Paul gave prominence to Priscilla, the wife of Aquila by referring to her first over her husband. And Priscilla was involved in teaching Apollos about Christ. Thus, we see the women had prominent roles, even leadership in the Old Testament and in the New Testament church.
It may be concluded that a number of Scriptural evidence of women in prominent leadership roles contradicts the idea of universal application.
It may be concluded that a number of Scriptural evidence of women in prominent leadership roles contradicts the idea of universal application. The only way to reconcile these evidences of prominent female roles and these passages is to interpret them as having a limited application due to its context. So what is the context?
The historical context of “liberated” women
Firstly, it must be remembered that the epistles in the Bible were in effect letters written to various churches. They were occasional letters or epistles written to deal with issues.
Historical data reveal the emergence of movement for a “new Roman woman” in that era. These women exercised freedoms and participated in public life in a way far greater than previously.
Secondly, historical data reveal the emergence of movement for a “new Roman woman” in that era. These women exercised freedoms and participated in public life in a way far greater than previously. These were not all seen positively and led to considerable resistance. In fact, Augustus Caesar tried to issue legislation against it. In some ways, it could be likened to the feminist movement in the 20th century. These women behaved and dressed outside the social norm. And this was particularly significant amongst the wealthy women who had the means to do so extravagantly. It gave the impression of moral looseness.
Thirdly, there were heresies occurring within the Ephesian church that compounded the problem of such enlightened women. It is likely that the heresies included that women are now fully liberated, twisting Paul’s teaching in Gal 3:28. The heresy included advocating that women did not need to get married, nor have children and can hold they own against men, not being in submission to their husbands. This probably led to some women exerting their rights in ways which was perceived by Paul to be destabilising to the church community and its witness.
Fourthly, the leaders of these heresies were taking advantage of the situation and the amenability of certain women, particularly the wealthy. Thus, Paul was seeking to restrain their influence amongst these. Part of Paul’s response was to attempt to restrain these “liberated women” for he saw the behaviours and dressing of these women as counter-productive to the mission and witness of the church. The controversies it generated would be damaging.
Hence, Paul’s strong instructions to the church at that time. If so, then this explains some of the prohibitions that Paul placed upon the women in the church.
Fifthly, in 1 Tim 2:11-14, the Greek word translated women can actually mean either wife or woman, while the term “men” could mean either husband or men. The only way to discern its meanings is through context. Many scholars believe the contexts lean towards the husband/wife interpretation. The arguments are too complex for this particular blog to unpack except to observe that the husband/wife interpretation points to specific issues prevalent in some of the Greek churches. Historical evidence points to churches where women and men are usually segregated. Some wives are likely speaking out during worship services to their husbands and hence disrupting the service. Paul is instructing them to be in quietness and be in submission to their husbands in both 1 Corinthian 14:33-35 as well as in 1 Timothy 2:11-14.
Scriptures do not prescribe a universal application where women are to be quiet in the church service. Nor does it prohibit women from teaching in the church, particularly to men.
It is argued here that the Scriptures do not prescribe a universal application where women are to be quiet in the church service. Nor does it prohibit women from teaching in the church, particularly to men. Some churches do allow women to teach other women and children while denying them this opportunity when men are involved. In other words, we believe that women can teach and lead in the church, even over men as seen in the example of the judge and prophetess Deborah.
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