Throughout history, many women have been denied teaching and leadership positions based primarily on the teachings of the Apostle Paul. Some have rejected Christianity because they thought Paul viewed women as second-class citizens. That idea is based primarily on two passages — I Timothy 2:11,12 and I Corinthians 14:34.
Most people who believe in restricted roles for women do not realize that Paul named several women among his “co-workers in the gospel” along with such people as Timothy, Titus, Philemon, and Apollos. Paul praised women like Priscilla and Lydia who were leaders in the early church. Paul’s evangelistic ministry was one of partnership with women.
Yet Paul said in I Cor. 14 that women were to keep silent in the church, and in I Timothy 2:12, “I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man.” Was Paul a hypocrite — not practicing what he preached, was he confused, or are there other explanations?
We know that Paul was a highly-trained scholar of the Old Testament. In his writings, he reconciles the law with grace, the Torah with the Living Word. Jewish priests had to be males of a specific lineage, but Paul said believers in Christ are all priests — Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, males and females.
Acts 16:13-16 recounts the story of the first church in Europe. At Philippi, Paul encountered a group of women praying. One was Lydia, who opened her home to Paul and the new converts. In Phil. 4:3, we learn of two other women in the Philippian church, Euodia and Syntyche, who Paul said, “labored with me in the gospel.”
When Paul arrived in Corinth, Priscilla and Aquila invited him to stay with them until they all relocated to Ephesus some months later. When Paul left Ephesus for his missionary tour, he left Priscilla and Aquila in charge of the church that met in their home.
When Apollos arrived in Ephesus, he was an eloquent believer and teacher, but was uninstructed in some doctrines. Priscilla and Aquila taught him more about the gospel. This remarkable couple are mentioned six times in the New Testament, and most of the time Priscilla is mentioned first (contrary to the culture) suggesting that Paul considered her the leader of the two.
Let’s not forget Phoebe, who Paul mentioned in Romans 16:1 as a “deacon of the church of Cenchrea.” (The Greek word is Diaconos) She carried Paul’s letter to the Romans from Greece — a perilous journey by sea and land. Paul commended her work in the church at Cenchrea.
In I Corinthians 12, Romans 12:6-8 and Eph.4:11 Paul discusses at length the “spiritual gifts” given to the church. Nowhere does Paul say that certain gifts or callings are for men and others for women. All are given by the Spirit to build up the church.
How do we reconcile all of this with Paul’s oft-quoted words about women being silent and not teaching men? The same way we deal with other passages that obviously were meant for specific times and cultures. Five times the New Testament says, “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” Do we follow that? Paul tells Timothy to “drink a little wine for the sake of your stomach.” Does that mean wine is the “biblical cure” for all stomach ailments?
Most of Paul’s letters are written to address specific problems. That may account for that one verse about “women being silent.” The main thing to remember is that in I Cor. 11 (same letter!) Paul told women HOW they were to pray and prophesy in public meetings: with heads covered. He did not say they should NOT pray and prophesy!
The letter to Timothy was a personal letter dealing with problems that Timothy knew well, and so did Paul, but we do not! We know that Ephesus, where Timothy lived, was a den of iniquity. Paul mentions in the first chapter the endless myths and genealogies that consumed the people. False teaching abounded. Perhaps some of it was by women. Timothy knew that Priscilla and Aquila, who had now come to help him, had taught in Ephesus earlier and Timothy surely would not think of keeping her from teaching now!
Sound Bible interpretation requires us to interpret the “unclear” passages in the light of the clear ones. Paul showed by his life practices and his teaching that women were to use their God-given gifts for the benefit of the church of Christ. Paul was a devout follower of Jesus, whose dealings with women indicated that they could teach and lead in whatever way God led them.
The church has suffered through the centuries by discouraging and disqualifying half its members, many of whom have been called by the Spirit to serve. A healthy church needs every member and the gifts they bring.
Let us build the church–not in our own image, but in the image of him who died to save us.