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Published Date: April 30, 1988

Published Date: April 30, 1988

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The Role of Women in the Church, in Society and in the Home

In his book, Evangelicals at an Impasse: Biblical Authority in Practice (John Knox Press, 1979), Robert K. Johnston, dean of North Park Theological Seminary, Chicago, puts his finger on an embarrassing situation.  While Evangelicals are all committed to a high view of Scripture, to the absolute authority of Scripture, they disagree on almost everything else.

This is an overstatement, of course. You can take the affirmations of the Apostles’ Creed, and there may be one or two statements at most which any orthodox Christians would quarrel with. There is at the heart of the gospel a core of Christian commitment that all Christians who are committed to Scripture affirm. On the other hand, we as Evangelicals come to a tremendous variety of conclusions on almost every sort of thing when we approach Scripture. The subject at hand is but one illustration of this disunity.

To begin with, it is important to affirm that people on both sides of the debate are committed to the authority of Scripture. It is unfair to say that one side or the other accepts Scripture and the other does not. This accusation has been made many times in this debate as in others, but it really doesn’t help to do so. If you take this position, you end up not have any discussion at all.

Today we seldom debate questions concerning forms of church government. People used to take these matters very, very seriously indeed – whether you should have bishops, or whether you should have elders, or whether you should have deacons, or whether you should be more organized according to congregational pattern. Which is the scriptural form of church organization? It probably does not make a lot of difference to most Evangelical Christians today. And yet, blood has been spilt, literally and figuratively, over an issue like that, on the basis of how people have approached Scripture.

The two divergent approaches to the question of the role of women which are common among contemporary Evangelical Christians we might call the Traditional View (the majority opinion) and the Egalitarian View (the minority opinion).

The Traditional View stresses submission and dependence. A woman’s role in relation to home, church and society is to be in submission to her husband (or to male leadership) and dependent upon him/them. She has her own sphere and freedom to exercise her spiritual gifts; but it is ultimately under the leadership of the male, who takes the lead in the home and in the church, that her gifts are expressed. This view is based on hierarchical understanding of the relationship of God to Christ to man to woman, stemming from Paul’s argument in I Corinthians 11, where he presents what we might call a chain of hierarchy: Christ is subject to the Father, man to Christ, and woman to man. This is the accent of the Traditional View.

The Egalitarian View argues that there is no scriptural reason for women not to share in leadership in the church, or to participate in a marriage relationship that is based on a principle of mutual submission and interdependent love. The accent in the egalitarian View is on mutual submission – not the submission of one party to the other, but each party to one another – both in the church and in the home.

Each side has its texts from the New Testament. The Traditional View usually focuses on five or six texts, starting with I Corinthians 11:2-6, which teaches that the head of the woman is the man; and I Corinthians 14:33-35, which says that women are to keep silence in the church; and moving on to I Timothy 2:11-15, where keeping silence in the church is defined as not teaching or holding a teaching office; and to Ephesians 5:22-33, where Paul argues for a hierarchical relationship in the family (the responsibility of wives is to submit to their husbands; husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church). There are perhaps one or two other texts, like 1 Peter 3:1-7, where again wives are exhorted to be submissive to their husbands, and husbands to be considerate to their wives as they honor them as the weaker sex.

The Egalitarian View also takes these texts seriously, but it does not begin with these. It points out that if you leave these texts to the side until the end of the discussion, you will come out with a different conclusion. If you look at these texts first, you have basically programmed yourself to come to the Traditional View; but if you put these texts aside for the time being and first study all else that the Bible has to teach theologically about the role of men and women – in society and in the created order, in the Old Testament people of God and the New Testament people of God, in the church and the home – then you come to a different position.

The Egalitarian View would likely start with a study of Genesis 1, 2, and 3. If you look at Genesis 1:26-28, you will see that God made man as male and female (not simply male) in his image. It isn’t simply man who is in the image of God – man as male – but man as male and female. Both man and woman have a direct relationship with God, and each shares jointly the responsibility of bearing children and having dominion over the created order.

There has been much debate about what the phrase, “in the image of God,” means. I think it means to be the representative of God in creation, as the image of, say, a king, or even a deity, is the representation of the presence and authority of the king or deity (see David J. A. Clines, Tyndale Bulletin, 19, 1968, pp. 53-103.) In creation, we are to represent God, be his image in the world, and therefore have certain responsibility over the created order. In any event, whatever the image of God means theologically, it is jointly shared by male and female.

In Genesis 2:18-24 the same point is underlined. Both male and female are from God, and both as one flesh are heirs of the grace of God. It is only the result of the Fall (Genesis 3:16ff) that the woman becomes subordinate to man. There is not even a hint in the narrative of Genesis that woman is in any way subordinate to man prior to the Fall.

Note, however, that in Genesis 3:16 the subordination of woman is not prescribed, but predicted. It, along with other situations, like having to clear your garden of thorns and weeds, and having to work harder because of the effect that sin has had upon the created order, is a result of the Fall, rather than prescribed as a part of the created order. Furthermore, subordination in Gensis 3:17ff is primarily related to the husband/wife relationship. There is no hint here that all women should be, or would be, under the authority of men.

The egalitarian apologist argues further that in Christ there is a new creation; the results of the Fall are reversed. Paul makes this very clear in Galatians 3:28, where he says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Whatever inferior positions people might have in society, these have been abolished in Christ. Under Roman law, there was a radical distinction between slave and free; in the synagogue there was a radical distinction between Jew and Gentile; and in general society, synagogue, Roman law and everywhere else there was a radical distinction between male and female. Greeks in the synagogue were subordinate to Jews; slaves, to free men; and males had the domination over females here as almost everywhere in the first century.

But in Christ, Paul says, these things have been done away with! So whatever the norms for general society, in the new creation, the church, there is the beginning of the new created order: man and woman are one. They are equal.

This new creation, the defender of the Egalitarian View would go on to point out, was demonstrated in Jesus’ life. Whatever difficulty some egalitarians have with Paul, they certainly don’t have any with Jesus! There is not one hint anywhere in the teaching of Jesus that he ever suggested the idea that women are to be dependent on men, or to be in submission to men, or in any way were to be regarded as inferior in terms of their relationship within the discipleship community or in the world outside. Quite to the contrary, there are a host of illustrations that set Jesus over against his Jewish context, as well as the pagan world outside of Palestine.

He had women disciples; rabbis did not have women disciples. He talked with women in public; rabbis did not approve of speaking to women in public. He touched women; rabbis would condemn that. He had friendships with many women like Mary and Martha; women travelled with him; some wealthy women supported him and his disciples in their ministry and were identified with him. Women were standing by the cross, and women were also the first witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus.

Women were regarded by Jesus as equal to men even in the question of divorce. Among the striking features of Jesus’ teaching on divorce is that he takes the woman and the man as being on the same footing (Mark 10:11-12). This is quite contrary to Jewish law. And again, there is not a negative thing said about women, nor is there any hint of a hierarchical relationship between men and women in marriage.

But this is true not merely of Jesus. As you look at the early church, there are many examples where women were, in fact, engaged in significant ministries in the church, even in the roles of leadership. For example, it is very clear from 1 Corinthians 11 and from Acts 21:9 that women prayed and prophesied in the early church. Without entering into a long discussion on the meaning of “prophecy,” we may assume that it at least includes what we know as “preaching” today. It may be more than that; but it is at least that. It is very clear, then, that women in the early church did lead in public prayer and did prophesy; otherwise Paul would not be concerned about their wearing veils, which was a symbol of their authority to do this (1 Cor 11:10).

Again you find women sharing in the deaconate in the early church. Paul in Romans 16:1-2 mentions his good friend Phoebe, who is called “a deacon.” Translations tend to call her a “deaconess” or simply a “servant” of the church: the word used is the same word that is translated elsewhere “deacon”; and it is the same word that is normally translated in the New Testament as “minster.” It is linked with the foundation idea of what it means to be a minister of Jesus Christ (cf., Mark 10:45). Paul also speaks of Phoebe’s being a “helper” in the church (Greek prostatis, better translated “guardian” or “protector”), and that again is a word implying a position of leadership in the early church. (Other texts that speak of women sharing the deaconate are 1 Timothy 3:11, 1 Timothy 5:3-16 and Titus 2:3.)

Third, a study of the New Testament data concerning life in the early church finds women engaging in evangelism and teaching. Look at all the women mentioned among Paul’s companions. For example, in Philippian 4:2,3 you have a pair mentioned, Euodias and Syntyche, who “have laboured side by side with me in the gospel.” Now what does that mean? Certainly it must mean that they were engaged, along with Paul, in pioneer evangelism. That’s the normal understanding of that particular Greek idiom. The context makes it very clear what these women were. One of the problems of the Philippian church was that they had tremendous influence; and because they were not presently in agreement on some important issue, the friction between them was causing some very negative things to happen in the life of the church.

Fourth, the Holy Spirit is given, in the teaching of the New Testament, to both men and women without distinction. And fifth, the gifts that the Holy Spirit brings to the church, sent from the risen Lord, are given to men and women without distinction. You can find an example for every gift listed in any of the lists of gifts fulfilled in the life of a women mentioned in the New Testament, with one possible exception – and that’s only a possible exception – the gift of an apostle. (But Romans 16:7 mentions a couple who are “well known among the apostles” – and in the Pauline understanding of what an apostle is, this probably ought to be interpreted as meaning that they were well known as apostles – one of them is named. Andronicus, the other Junia. The second name could be male or female. If femal—and this is the only form of the name attested outside of the New Testament – it would be an example of a woman apostle in the early church. That is debated, so I will leave it open that there is one possible exception; but there are no others than I am aware of.) There is not a hint that any of the gifts of the Spirit are given to men and not at the same time given to women.

Sixth, men and women have a common call to grow in spiritual maturity and to develop their spiritual gifts. There is no distinction between male and female in this regard either. If a woman has been given a gift to prophesy, or to teach, or to administer, or to do something else, then she has a responsibility from God to use that gift for the glory of God and the service of his people. It is not optional, not something that can be put on a back burner. She has a responsibility under God to do this. If she does not, she is not playing her part as a member of the body of Christ, and the church suffers as a result.

It is frequently suggested nowadays that the husband has the primary spiritual responsibility for his wife. I cannot find any place in the New Testament where this is suggested. As a priest before God, the wife has full access to the presence of God for herself. (The New Testament does not teach “the priesthood of all male believers”!) And as a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ she has the responsibility for her own spiritual growth.

Even the passages used by those who hold the Traditional View contain certain elements that seem to contradict the idea that women in the church and in the home are always to be in submission to men and under the leadership of men. For example, in I Corinthians 11:11-12, Paul stresses the principle of interdependence of men and women. Verse 5 makes it clear that women were permitted to pray and prophesy in public worship. Therefore, whatever I Corinthians 14 means, where Paul says women are not to speak, and I Timothy 2, where Paul says that he doesn’t permit a women to teach or to exercise authority over men, you cannot understand these as absolute prohibitions. You must understand these texts in terms of what women actually did in the early church and in terms of other fundamental theological principles.

Again, in Ephesians 5, Paul does not begin his thought with verse 22 (as in most traditional paragraph arrangements and in the traditional interpretation), but rather with verse 21. If you begin the thought there, you come to a different conclusion. Paul says, “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” That’s the motto or keynote of all that Paul says about men and women in their relationships in the following verses. There is to be a mutual submission as one in Christ, as members of the body of Christ, as under the lordship of Jesus Christ, each in mutual submission to one another. Verses 22 through 24 develop this in relation to the wife. She is to manifest this mutual submission in Christ by being submissive to her husband, in spite of the temptation she might have, because of her new-found freedom in Christ, to lord it over him or to assert her independence.

Verse 25 through 33 work out the same mutual submission in relationship with her husband, who follows the example of Christ, who was not “head” in the sense of “ruler,” but in the sense of “servant.” The Son of Man came to serve rather than to be served, and so it is with the husband who is the “head” of his wife.

Someone might object, “How do you explain Paul’s apparent restrictions on the ministry of women?” Women are not to speak (I Corinthians 14) or to teach (I Timothy 2). My answer is that you understand these in light of the clearer passages of Scripture, which speak about what women actually did. In some people’s minds, of course, the I Timothy 2 and I Corinthians 14 passages are the clearer passages; and if you begin there, it is hard to get out of your mind that these are not the clearer passages. But if you can psychologically put them aside for awhile and go through all the other New Testament material, it becomes clear that I Corinthians 14:33-34 and I Timothy 2:8-14 are the difficult passages, since they seem to contradict what Paul teaches elsewhere.

How does this solve the problem? Some Bible scholars simply snip these verses out of Paul’s letters. Paul must have been consistent, they argue; therefore, he didn’t write I Timothy. There is actually a slight textual evidence in favor of the view that Paul didn’t write I Corinthians 14:33ff (cf. F.F. Bruce I and 2 Corinthians). Personally, I accept both passages as being Pauline, but I would also argue that Paul did not contradict himself; therefore, one must subordinate what these passages say to the clearer teaching of what Paul teaches theologically.

Second one should seek to understand these passages in the context of Paul’s dealing with specific problems in the life of the church. In I Corinthians 14:33-40, Paul is concerned with orderly worship. The principle is that all things are to be done “decently and in order.” People were speaking in tongues without interpretation, they were prophesying without waiting for one another, and the church was in disarray administratively. One problem was related – and it is not exactly certain what the problem was – to certain married women interrupting the service by asking questions. It might be that the church was divided like orthodox Jewish synagogues are today (as well as some churches in the Orient) with the men and women sitting on different sides of the room. You can imagine women calling across to their husbands or somehow interrupting the service by asking questions! We cannot be certain that this was the background; the historical evidence is unclear. But whatever the background, Paul was dealing with the question of order; he was not laying down a canon law for the church until the end of time.

In regard to the I Timothy 2 passage, there would be no point in saying women should not teach unless they were doing it. In the context, certain women were clearly teaching heretical things. There was no secular or religious education for women in the ancient world. The synagogue did not permit women to study the Torah. This put women in a very vulnerable situation. In response to this concrete situation Paul suggests that women should not teach in the church.

Does this mean that this passage is a law for all times, that it is intended to separate between men and women in the exercise of their spiritual gifts in the church? Not at all. Paul is addressing a specific problem. Today, women have, in the general society, in the church, and in theological institutions, the same opportunities to study and to develop their teaching gifts as men. Does Paul’s limitation of the role of women in the church at Ephesus apply to this changed situation? I think not.

Let me conclude by listing a few hermeneutical principles, which I think lead to an egalitarian point of view regarding the role of women today and which help to sort out some of the attendant problems.

First, there is the well-known contextual principle, namely that a text must be treated within its immediate context, within its full unit of meaning. We must be aware of the danger of “proof-texting,” of taking portions of Scripture outside their literary and theological context and using them to support ideas that are quite far from their original meaning. I have already illustrated this in the interpretation of Ephesians 5:22ff. One must begin with verse 21; and if you understand verse 21 as laying down the fundamental theological principle, you come to see the passage as teaching mutual submission of husband and wife, rather than the subordination of women to men.

The same principle is helpful in understanding the reference to women “keeping silent” in I Corinthians 14. You must begin with the beginning, verse 40, which says that all things must be done decently and in order. Again, you realize that Paul is concerned about church order, not about church law.

Second, there is the linguistic principle. One must look at the original Greek or Hebrew lying behind a particular text. Here one must recognize that there is a sexist bias in modern and ancient translations of the Bible. The fact is, nearly all translations of the Bible thus far – all the ones most of us are familiar with – have been done exclusively by males, who, unfortunately, are often insensitive to women. Why should Phoebe be called a “servant” and “succourer,” rather than a “deacon” and a “guardian” (Romans 16)? There is no grammatical reason, only theological prejudice. Why in I Timothy 3:1 should one translate the passage “If any man desires the office of a bishop,” rather than “any one”? I will admit that most elders and bishops in the early church were males, and that Paul seems in this passage to assume that the people being talked about were males. But the fact of the matter is, you do not have to translate it that way. A simple pronoun is used, and “any one” is a good English translation.

The third principle is the well-known historical principle. One must take the historical, as well as the literary, context into consideration. This means that you must understand what the New Testament teaches in the light of the position of women in first century Judaism. Ecclesiasticus 42:13-14 says, “Better is the wickedness of a man than the woman who does good, and it is a woman who brings shame and disgrace.” That represented a fairly typical male Gentile view as well. Jewish males don’t have a monopoly of prejudice against women!

When our daughter was about six months old, an elderly Christian man looked at her on one occasion and asked, “Boy or girl?” Answer: “Girl.” “More sin and evil in the world,” he replied. My wife smiled and replied, “No, more sweetness and joy!” It became very obvious as we spent some time with this man and his wife that they both really believed this. And I’m afraid there are many people who, psychologically if not actually, would affirm this, who actually live this way.

Then there is the synagogue prayer, which remains today in the Jewish prayer book, and which existed at least as early as the second century A.D. “I thank thee, Lord, that thou hast not made me a Gentile…thou hast not made me a slave…thou hast not made me a woman.” You have to understand Galatians 3:28 as Paul’s, or, shall we say, the early church’s, response to this fundamental idea. Galatians 3:28 may actually be an early baptismal formula that Paul is simply quoting. But it is a response to this particular idea: the church is setting itself over against the synagogue and affirming the unity of humankind in Jesus Christ.

Another example is the word kephale, which is translated “head” in I Corinthians 11:3 and Ephesians 5:23. There is no historical evidence that kephale was ever used anywhere in Greek literature in the modern sense of “decision-making.” Thus, the idea that the husband as “head” should be the decision-making person in the marriage relationship is quite anachronistic. The ancients did not think in terms of making decisions in the “head”; decisions are made “in the heart,” both in the Hebrew Old Testament and the New Testament, as well as in secular Greek.

Again, the prohibition regarding women’s teaching in I Timothy 2:8-15 must be interpreted within the context of Judaism, where there was no possibility for a woman to give or receive formal religious instruction; and in the context of the early church, where the women were teaching, though these women at Ephesus were teaching false doctrine. The scandal of the early church was that it was much freer than the general society in regard to the relationships between the sexes. Because of this, it was constantly being accused of being too loose in its morality. Therefore, Paul says, on certain occasions, “Let the law of love take precedence over the law of liberty.” This is a principle Paul applies to other circumstances (e.g., to the question of foods to be eaten), and here he applies it to the role of women.

Fourth, one should seek to interpret a particular text within the context of an author’s writing as a whole. You read the difficult in the light of the clear, rather than vice versa. As F.F. Bruce points out in his new commentary on Galatians, Galatians 3:28 must be the theological starting place. Here you have an unequivocal statement, a theological statement if there ever was one, of absolute equality in Christ in the church. And, by definition, this means a denial of discrimination either for Gentiles, slaves or women. Everything else that Paul writes must be understood in the light of this clear statement of a fundamental Christian principle.

Fifth, there is a principle of the analogy of faith. One assumes the consistency of Scripture as a whole. You must not interpret a particular text in a manner that contradicts a major tenet of God’s word. Certainly at the heart of Jesus’ teaching and example is the principle that those who are leaders ought to be servants (Mark 10:35-45, etc.). This is the model Jesus taught. Whatever conception you might have of a husband being the head of his wife, as such he must be a servant-leader.

Again, consider what the Bible teaches about creation and redemption. You must understand its teaching about the role of women as fitting into that. To undercut the clear teaching of Scripture concerning the sharing of the divine image and the rule over creation by man as male and female by the use of a few ambiguous texts is certainly a travesty of God’s word! Or the doctrine of God: God in orthodox Christian theology is not male or female. We find ourselves tin the awkward situation of having to choose between male and female pronouns, but there is no hint in the Bible anywhere that God is regarded as either a male or a female. There are feminine as well as masculine images used of God in the Bible, and others that are not tied to the idea of sex at all.

Sixth, one is informed by the history of biblical interpretation, which maybe shed light on a passage at hand. People who take the traditional view need to be aware of the fact that up until the middle of the nineteenth century most Christians believed that slavery was a divine institution because Paul says very emphatically that slaves are to obey their masters! A few verses from Paul and Peter (Eph 6:5-8; Col 3:22-24; I Pet 1:18-25) were used as proof-texts to oppose a small band of forward looking Christians and others of their day who felt that the whole idea of slavery as an institution was an affront to the dignity and worth of man as made in the image of God. Furthermore, the very texts we have been looking at have been used in the past to argue that women should not be formally educated. That battle has been won, and it is good to know that it was an evangelical college in North America, Oberlin College, a century and a quarter ago, that was the first academic institution ever to accept women to study at the university level. Nearly all Christians today rejoice in the fact that women now are affirmed in professions, in secular leadership, in government, even as heads of government; that women have the vote; that women are welcomed into the work force. Few, if any, traditionalists argue that we should stop educating women, encouraging them to be lawyers and doctors and teachers, or being allowed to vote. I think we should learn from this.

The most difficult thing about the Egalitarian View is that it is the minority view historically, and perhaps even today. We must remember, however, that some 150 years ago, believing that slavery was an evil, and that black Africans were “men made in the image of God” just like white Europeans, was the minority view in the church. But that view was the correct view. This we all recognize today.

It is possible that 150 years from now it will be equally obvious that the denial of full equality of women in the body of Christ was just as wrong? I hope so, with all my heart.