Woman’s Role in the Church

By Wayne Jackson

And Jehovah God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul (Genesis 2:7).

And Jehovah God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a help meet for him (Genesis 2:18).

And Jehovah God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof: and the rib, which Jehovah God had taken from the man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. And the man said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man (Genesis 2:21-23).

The ancient Jewish Rabbis were fond of saying:

God had not formed woman out of the head, lest she should become proud; nor out of the eye, lest she should lust; nor out of the ear, lest she should be curious; nor out of the heart, lest she should be jealous; nor out of the hand, lest she should be covetous; nor out of the foot, lest she be a busybody; but out of the rib, which was always covered (Edersheim 1957, 146).

This indicated the modesty that was to characterize her.

The divine portrait of woman, as painted on the Biblical canvas, is remarkable indeed. The Genesis narrative distinctly lends itself to the impression that Eve, as the culmination of the creative week, was a climactic jewel in Jehovah’s handiwork.

As one wanders down the corridors of Old Testament history he is ever refreshed by encounters with such as Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, Rachel, Miriam, Deborah, Abigail, Ruth, Esther, and other noble women. Thus could the apostle Peter direct attention to those “holy women” who aforetime “hoped in God” (1 Peter 3:5).

Nor are the feminine names that adorn the New Testament record less illustrious. The names of those women who ministered to the Master, and later those who served with distinction in the church, have become proverbial.

The Plight of Ancient Woman

In order to appreciate the role of New Testament womanhood, one must, by way of contrast, consider the plight of ancient woman as she stood in the world in general.

In the antique Greek world, women were considered inferior to men. Aristotle viewed women as somewhere between slaves and freemen. Wives led lives of seclusion and practical slavery.

In Rome women enjoyed greater practical freedom, though not legal, than in Greece, but licentiousness was rampant. Chastity and modesty among women were virtually unknown (note Paul’s reference to female homosexuality in Romans 1:26). Wives were truly second-class persons; more honor was shown to a man’s mistress than to his wife.

Though the Jewish opinion of womanhood during the time of Christ needed considerable improvement—a male’s morning prayer expressed thanks to God that the petitioner was neither a Gentile, a slave, or a woman—such attitudes were the result of heathen influences.

While women were somewhat legally inferior under the law of Moses, practically speaking, wives and mothers in Israel enjoyed the greatest of dignity. Mothers were to be honored (Exodus 20:12) and to rebel against, or show disrespect for, one’s mother was a most serious offense which could be punished by death (Deuteronomy 21:18ff; 27:16).

Though the Hebrew woman was under the authority of her father and later of her husband, she enjoyed considerable freedom and was not shut up in the harem . . . . Though women did not ordinarily inherit property, in a case of a sonless home the daughters might inherit (Num. 27). It was a man’s world, but Hebrew law protected woman’s person. Rape was punishable. Harlotry was forbidden (Lewis 1966, 425).

Edersheim pointed out that the Hebrew husband

was bound to love and cherish his wife, to support her in comfort, to redeem her if she had been sold into slavery, and to bury her, on which occasion even the poorest was to provide at least two mourning fifes and one mourning woman. He was to treat his wife with courtesy, for her tears called down Divine vengeance (n.d., 270)

If it be objected that the Old Testament practice of polygamy, along with its ease of divorce for men, placed women in an unfavorable status, it may be replied that such matters were tolerated in that “moonlight” dispensation due to the “hardness” of Israel’s hearts (Matthew 19:8), and were to be abolished with the introduction of the “better” system.

Womanhood in the New Testament

The very first chapter of the New Testament portends the status to be accorded women under the law of Christ; there, four women are alluded to in the legal ancestral catalog of the Lord. Though the practice of mentioning women in such lists was not wholly unknown, it is, in the words of A. B. Bruce, “unusual from a genealogical point of view” (1956, 62).

Paul affirmed that “God sent forth his Son, born of a woman” (Galatians 4:4). The birth of Jesus to the virgin Mary was the turning point in human history for women.

The Savior openly defied the attitudes of his day in his frequent dealings with women. He conversed with the woman at Jacob’s well (a Samaritan at that!)—a thing that shocked even the disciples (John 4:27). He refused to bend to Pharisaical pressures that he shun the sinful woman who anointed and kissed his holy feet (Luke 7:36ff). Godly women were numbered among those who ministered to the Christ (Luke 8:3), some of them accompanying him even to the foot of the cross (John 19:25).

Though the roles of specific New Testament women will be discussed later in this presentation, it is important at this point that some general considerations be noted:

Men and Women Are Both Subject to Christ’s Marriage Law

Under the law of Christ, both male and female are equally obligated to the marriage ordinance; neither husband nor wife should depart from the other (1 Corinthians 7:11). But should a husband (as in the case of an unbeliever) leave his wife, she is not bound (as a slave) (Arndt and Gingrich 1957, 205) to follow the deserter (1 Corinthians 7:15). And in the case of marital infidelity, the woman is granted the equal privilege of divorce and remarriage (cf. Matthew 19:9; Mark 10:11, 12).

Men and Women Are Dependent upon Each Other

Inspiration clearly stresses the mutual dependence of men and women in Christ. Paul says, “Nevertheless, neither is the woman without the man, nor the man without the woman in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:11). Neither is complete without the other.

Men and Women Equal in Salvation

In the matter of salvation, both stand on equal footing before God. Paul says concerning those who have obeyed the gospel: “[T]here can be no male and female; for ye all are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Though, as Professor Colin Brown observes:

This, however, is not a call to abolish all earthly relationships. Rather, it puts these relationships in the perspective of salvation history. As Paul goes on to say, “And if you are Christ’s then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:29; cf. also Rom. 10:2). All who are in Christ have the same status before God; but they do not necessarily have the same function (1976, 570).

Galatians 3:28 is certainly in harmony with 1 Peter 3:7 which makes it clear that women are “joint-heirs of the grace of life.”

Women Rule the Household

The New Testament authorizes woman a domain of authority within the home. Younger widows are advised to marry, bear children, and “rule the household” (1 Timothy 5:14).

Lenski says:

“To rule the house” means as the wife and mother in the home, to manage the household affairs. This is the domain and province of woman, in which no man can compete with her. Its greatness and its importance should ever be held up as woman’s divinely intended sphere, in which all her womanly qualities and gifts find full play and happiest gratification (1961, 676).

This does not indicate, of course, that woman’s authority in the home equals the man’s. He is the head of the wife and she is to be willingly in subjection to him (Ephesians 5:22, 23). Yet, he should lovingly allow her the freedom to exercise authority in the management of domestic matters, for God has ordained it.

A historian has noted:

The way in which the Church began to lift woman up into privilege and hope was one of its most prompt and beautiful transformations from the blight of paganism. Too long in the darkness, she was now helped into the sunlight (Hurst 1897, 146).

Such a transformation impressed even the heathen world; Libanius, a pagan writer, exclaimed: “What women these Christians have!”

The Divine Subordination of Woman

By divine design, man is to be the “head” of woman—in society, in the church, and in the home (1 Corinthians 11:3; Ephesians 5:22-24). This graduation of authority rests on two bases: first, the original constitution of the sexes as created, and, second, woman’s role in the fall.

Concerning the former, the Bible teaches:

  1. Woman was made as a help for man—not the reverse (Genesis 2:18, 20).
  2. Paul wrote: “For the man is not of the woman, but the woman of the man: for neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man” (1 Corinthians 11:8, 9).
  3. And again, “For Adam was first formed, then Eve” (1 Timothy 2:13).

As to the woman’s role in the fall, she believed Satan’s lie that she might become as God, and hence, was “beguiled” (Genesis 3:13; 2 Corinthians 11:3) or “deceived” (1 Timothy 2:14); whereas Adam, laboring under no such deception (1 Timothy 2:14), merely sinned due to his weakness for the woman (Genesis 3:12). Accordingly, woman’s subjection was increased after her fall (Genesis 3:16).

These facts do not suggest that woman is inferior to man, but they do mean (to those who respect the testimony of Scripture) that she is subordinate in rank to man. It ought to be emphasized that as Christ’s subjection to the Father involved no deprivation of dignity (Philippians 2:5-11), so there is none in woman’s subjection to man. So, as we shall presently observe, because of these historical facts, the sphere of woman’s activity has been divinely circumscribed.

Women’s “Lib” or the Word of God?

As the saying goes, “From Adam’s rib to Women’s Lib, you’ve come a long way, baby.” Indeed! Some have gone a considerable distance from the word of God!

Every significant movement within society will eventually, to some degree, make itself felt in the church. The phenomenon of “women’s liberation” is no exception. There are those in the church who are clamoring that women must throw off the yoke of male domination and claim their rightful place in the body of Christ. Some are suggesting that women can be elders, preachers, and leaders in public worship.

There have been two basic approaches to this problem: Some have adopted a completely infidelic stance by asserting that certain “troubling passages” in the New Testament are merely the result of Pharisaic and Rabbinic prejudices reflecting the backward ignorances of the first century, and so, such are not authoritative for today’s church. Others, attempting to assume a more conservative position, claim there is Biblical support for feminine equality in leadership roles.

It is, however, the burden of this presentation to show there is no scriptural authority for women elders, women preachers, or women worship leaders.

First, it should hardly be necessary to labor over the point that no woman is authorized to serve as an elder, the Bible being so obvious on the matter. The elder is to be the “husband [Greek, aner—a male as opposed to a woman; Arndt and Gingrich, 65) of one wife” (Titus 1:6; 1 Timothy 3:2). The “elder women” (presbuteras) of 1 Timothy 5:2 (cf. Titus 2:3) are simply older women in contrast to the younger (neoterous), and not church leaders.

Secondly, the New Testament does not authorize a female (public preaching) ministry; but rather positively prohibits such. Perhaps the most effective way to approach this matter is to examine some of the currently circulated arguments in support of women preachers:

New Testament women prophesied (Acts 2:18; 21:9; 1 Corinthians 11:5).

It is assumed that prophesying was preaching, hence, women of the first century preached. The word “prophesy” is from two Greek roots, pro (forth) and phemi (to speak). It is a very general term and may mean “to teach, refute, reprove, admonish, comfort” (Thayer 1958, 553; cf. 1 Corinthians 14:3). It can simply suggest the idea of “giving thanks and praising God” (1 Chronicles 25:3). The meaning of the word in a given situation must be determined by the context as well as other information in the Scriptures.

Paul limits the extent of a woman’s forth-speaking (teaching, etc.) when he writes: “I permit not a woman to teach, nor to have dominion over a man, but to be in quietness” (1 Timothy 2:12). The negative conjunction ,oude (nor), here is explanatory in force, revealing that the kind of teaching prohibited by the apostle is that which assumes dominion over the man (Lenski, 563).

Certainly women may teach (cf. Titus 2:3); they may, in certain ways, even teach men. There is a reciprocal teaching in singing (Colossians 3:16), and privately, in conjunction with her husband, Priscilla was involved in teaching Apollos (Acts 18:26). But a woman may not assume the position of teacher, with the man subordinated to the role of student, without violating a New Testament command.

Was Phoebe a “Deaconess”?

On the basis of Romans 16:1-2, some have contended that:

  1. Phoebe was a church official (deacon);
  2. the church was to “assist her,” implying her authority over the church;
  3. she had been a “helper” (prostatis) of many, implying “authority, discipline, over-seeing.”

All of this is alleged to show that Phoebe was a preacher-leader in the early church.

However:

  1. The word diakonos simply means a “servant” (Matthew 23:11; John 2:5, etc.), and any official attachment to the term must be demanded by the context, as in Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3:8.
  2. The fact that the saints were encouraged to “assist” Phoebe did not imply her authority over them. The Greek word paristerni meant to “come to the aid of, help, stand by” (Arndt and Gingrich, 633). When Paul said, “[T]he Lord stood by pareste me” (2 Timothy 4:17), he certainly was not asserting that he exercised authority over Christ!
  3. The word prostatis (helper) does not necessitate oversight. If so, then Phoebe exercised authority over Paul, for she had been his helper as well as others! Though it is found only here in the New Testament, the term, which can connote simply rendering assistance, is used in a third-century B.C. letter from a son to his father (the verbal form): “[T]here will be nothing of more importance for me than to look after you for the remainder of life, in a manner worthy of you, and worthy of me” (Moulton and Milligan 1963, 551).

Euodia and Syntyche

In Philippians 4:2-3, Paul comments that Euodia and Syntyche “labored” with him in the gospel; he calls them, along with others, his “fellow-workers.” Again, the assumption is made that this necessitates an authoritarian position comparable to the apostle’s. However, Christians are said to be “God’s fellow-workers” (1 Corinthians 3:9); obviously, this does not suggest that we are authorized to act as deity! Countless Christian ladies have assisted gospel preachers in numerous ways without ever having become public preachers themselves.

Junia an Apostle?

It is said that Junia (KJV), a woman, was an apostle and thus certainly occupied a place of authority in the primitive church (Romans 16:7).

In the first place, in the Greek text the name is Junian (in the accusative case—the gender of the name not being evident); it could either be Junia (feminine), or more likely, Junias (masculine). Origen, a writer of the third century A.D., considered it a reference to a man (Lightfoot 1957, 96).

But secondly, it is not even certain that Junias is here identified as an “apostle.” The phrase, “of note among the apostles” (ASV), is rendered by Zahn as “famed, mentioned with honor in the circle of the apostles,” (418) giving the sense of being well—known by the apostles, rather than actually being an apostle.

In the third place, the word “apostle” is used occasionally in the Bible in a nontechnical sense to denote a messenger. Jesus says that “one sent” (apostolos) is not greater than the sender (John 13:16). The word need not imply one who has dominion over another, nor even a preacher.

What About Women Prophets in the Old Testament?

Some argue that Paul’s admonition that women be in subjection is limited by the expression, “as also saith the law” (1 Corinthians 14:34), and since the law allowed women prophets (as in the case of Miriam, Huldah, and Anna), and even a woman judge (Deborah), so preaching executives are permissible in the church today.

However:

  1. When Miriam prophesied it was “all the women” that went out after (Exodus 15:20), and there is no evidence that she preached to men.
  2. Though Huldah was a prophetess, the solitary record of her prophesying involved some men going to her where they communed privately (2 Kings 22:14ff; 2 Chronicles 34:22ff). It is impossible to find public preaching here.
  3. Anna was a prophetess “who departed not from the temple” (Luke 2:36-38). In describing the temple, Josephus (Wars of the Jews 5.5.2) says “there was a partition built for the women” that separated them from the men; this was “the proper place wherein they were to worship.” It cannot be proved that she publicly preached to mixed audiences.
  4. Deborah was a prophetess of the hill country of Ephraim, but there is no indication that she publicly proclaimed God’s message to the multitudes; rather, “the children of Israel came unto her for judgment” (Judges 4:5). She gave prophetic judgment as a “mother in Israel” (5:7). The fact that she judged at all is a dramatic commentary on the sickening weakness of the Israelites during this period, and Deborah’s song (chapter five) laments this woeful condition. This was but one of those occasions where Jehovah accommodated his working to Israel’s weaknesses (cf. 1 Samuel 8:9; Matthew 19:8).

Is 1 Corinthians 14:33 Applicable Today?

Perhaps a further comment regarding 1 Corinthians 14:33 is in order. May this context be used to oppose women preachers?

One view contends that it may not. It is alleged that contextual considerations indicate that the meeting contemplated in 1 Corinthians 14 is not comparable to any convened in the church today, and so, these verses are not applicable to church assemblies of today (Woods 1976, 106-112).

A more reasonable view that also recognizes that 1 Corinthians 14 has to do primarily with a unique first-century situation, i.e., the reception of spiritual gifts, sees Paul here enunciating essentially the same principle as set forth in 1 Timothy 2:12ff.

H. P. Hamann writes:

If we have the same writer in both letters writing on the same matter, we have the right to allow one text to explain the other, and especially to let the clearer or more definite throw light on the less precise. So 1 Tim. 2 is the key for the understanding of 1 Cor. 14 (1976, 8).

Professor Hamann then parallels the two as in the chart below (click on the chart to enlarge).

It is certain that 1 Corinthians 14:33ff lends no support to the notion of women preachers. Such are not sanctioned anywhere in the Scriptures.

Men Are Designated Leaders for Worship Assemblies

Finally, the New Testament makes it clear that the men are to lead the acts of worship in assemblies of mixed sexes.

In 1 Timothy 2:8, Paul instructs that “the men [andras—accusative plural of aner, males only] pray in every place.” Now, woman may certainly pray (1 Corinthians 11:5)—and it would hardly be denied that she could pray in every place; however, there is a sense in which only males may pray in every place. Obviously, it is the leading of prayers in mixed groups that is confined to the man.

Commenting upon this verse, a noted Greek scholar has well said, “The ministers of public prayer must be the men of the congregation, not the women” (White 1956, 106). The same principle, of course, would also apply to other acts of public worship.

It has become fashionable to assert that Paul’s teaching regarding feminine subordination was aimed at conformity to the culture of his day—somewhat as instructions concerning slavery; and, it is claimed, as the New Testament contained seeds for the abolition of slavery, so, it also contained the seed for woman’s eventual full equality with man in church life.

The alleged parallel is simply not valid. In the four major contexts where Paul discusses male-female relationships (1 Corinthians 11:2-16; 14:33b-35; Ephesians 5:22-23; 1 Timothy 2:8-15), the principle of subjection, as well as its application to specific situations, are grounded upon historical facts of Old Testament history, and not upon culture.

(Note: Some contend that the principle in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is binding today, but not Paul’s specific application [Roberts 1959, 183ff], while others believe that both the subjection principle and its specific application are required today [Jackson 1971].]

While it is important to study ancient culture so as to better understand the Bible, it must not be an overriding factor in interpretation. To substitute culture for a stated apostolic reason is to turn exegesis into eisegesis (Sproul 1976, 13ff).

Concluding Remarks

It is regrettable that such major attention must be given to the negative side of this issue, but such appears to be necessary in view of prevalent error currently being propagated. The New Testament abounds with examples of godly women who, consistent with their assigned roles, served their Master with dignity and honor. Yes, women whose names will still be mentioned with admiration long after the modern-day feminists are gone and forgotten!

God’s women make a vital contribution to the kingdom of Christ on earth. Whether they are continuing steadfastly in prayer (Acts 1:14), doing good works and almsdeeds (Acts 9:36), showing hospitality (Acts 12:12; 16:14; 1 Timothy 5:10), teaching the word in harmony with divine authority (Acts 18:26; Titus 2:3, 4), being good wives (Proverbs 31:10ff), rearing godly children (2 Timothy 1:5; 3:14, 15), or accomplishing various other commendable tasks, let us “rise up and call them blessed.” And may their name be Legion!

Sources/Footnotes
  • Arndt, William and F. W. Gingrich. 1967. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
  • Brown, Colin, ed. 1976. The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology. Vol. 11. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
  • Bruce, A. B. The Expositor’s Greek Testament. Vol. 1. W. Robertson Nicholl, ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eardmans.
  • Edersheim, Alfred. Marriage Among The Ancient Hebrews. The Bible Educator. Vol. 4. E. H. Plumptre, ed. London, England: Cassell Petter & Galpin.
  • Edersheim, Alfred. 1957. Sketches of Jewish Social Life in the Days of Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
  • Hamann, H. P. 1976. The New Testament and the Ordination of Women. The Christian News, March 1.
  • Hurst, John F. History of the Christian Church. Vol. 1. New York, NY: Eaton & Mains.
  • Jackson, Wayne. 1971. A Sign of Authority. Stockton, CA.
  • Lenski, R. C. H. 1961. The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians, to the Thessalonians, to Timothy, to Titus, and to Philemon. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House.
  • Lewis, Jack P. The New Smith’s Bible Dictionary. Reuel Lemmons, reviser. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co.
  • Lightfoot, J. B. The Epistle of St. Paul to the Galatians. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
  • Moulton, James and George Milligan. 1963. The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament. London, England: Hodder and Stoughton.
  • Pratt, D.M., The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, James Orr, ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939), Vol. V.
  • Roberts, J. W. 1959. Restoration Quarterly, Vol. 3, No. 4, 4th Quarter.
  • Sproul, Robert C. 1976. Controversy at Culture Gap. Eternity, May.
  • Thayer, J. H.. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Edinburgh, Scotland: T. & T. Clark.
  • White, Newport J. D. 1956. The Expositor’s Greek Testament. Vol. 4. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
  • Woods, Guy N. 1976. Questions and Answers – Open Forum. Henderson TN: Freed-Hardeman College.
  • Zahn, Theodor, Introduction to the New Testament I (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1909), Vol. 1.
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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.