My view on a woman’s role in the church and how I understand the “limiting passages” that seem to restrict their functioning?
I’m really not interested in adding more noise to the ill-fated gender brawl that still rages in some Christian circles. And it’s for this reason that I’ve been slack in writing on the subject. Yet I keep hearing about women who have been spiritually straight-jacketed by what I find to be a twisted interpretation of certain Biblical texts. Their stories have provoked me to tread on this dangerous minefield. And for their sake, as well as for the sake of all my beloved sisters in Christ, I regret not having done so sooner. My desire is that this opens some eyes to the truth!
With that said, I am ready to have my ears burned with the hand-wringing, nitpicking, nailbiting, stone throwing and tooth-gnashing that will be generated by my response.
Here, dear sisters, is the answer to the above question. Here is my ‘take’ on the subject:
According to Paul, under no condition and under no circumstance may a woman speak in a church meeting. She must never, ever, under any situation, say a word in the church. She must without exception keep absolutely, totally, and completely silent.
Unless . . .
she has her head covered!
Are you clear now?
I sincerely hope you’re laughing, for I was being facetious. Yet I was also trying to make a point. The fact is that Paul seems to contradict himself on this subject. The so-called “limiting passages” are incredibly difficult to interpret. Given these scriptures are so hard to understand, no one can be certain as to what Paul really meant when he wrote them. This being so, every interpretation that has been given to these texts has shortcomings.
It is an undeniable fact that God has called and anointed thousands of women to preach the Gospel. The Full Gospel organizations have hundreds of licensed and ordained women who are preaching, teaching, evangelizing, pastoring, and doing mission work with the signs following their ministry. God is using them for the salvation of the lost, deliverance from sin, gifts of the Spirit, and infilling of the Holy Spirit.
The Bible says, “Touch not mine anointed and do my prophets no harm.” And may we be reminded of the Scripture in Acts 5:39, “If it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God.”
When someone says, “God does not call women to preach,” it is like saying that God does not baptize with the Holy Spirit today. We know better, because we have witnessed and experienced it with our own ears and eyes.
I would be afraid to condemn women preachers, lest I would be found to be fighting against God, and to be committing the vile sin of attributing the works of the Holy Spirit to the devil.
For the sake of those reading this, the “limiting passages” are those texts that seem to put some restriction on a woman’s ministry in the church. Strikingly, there are only two such passages that exist in the entire New Testament…. They are:
1 Corinthians 14:34-35: “Let the women keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but let them subject themselves, just as the Law also says. And if they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in the church.
1 Timothy 2:11-14: “Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and become a transgressor.”
Before I share my understanding of these two passages, let me explain how I arrived at it.
I’ve learned an invaluable lesson: The New Testament should never be handled as a manual of floatable doctrines and isolated teachings. The New Testament is a whole. It is essentially a story. What is written in the letters of Paul and others is part of that story.
The story contains a consistent message. It is the message of the New Covenant. This covenant is not an updating of the Old Covenant. Contrary to common misunderstanding, it does not include a new set of rules to replace the old set of rules.
The Old Covenant contained a set of rules by which men and women were to live. It also drew sharp distinctions between people, granting special privileges to certain ones. Some were worthy to be God’s people (Jews). Others were not (Gentiles). Among those worthy, some were given the honor of being nearest to God (the priests). Others were not (the people). Some were given special ministerial functions (the high priest and priests). Others were given smaller functions (the Levites). Still others were given virtually no function at all. ( the congregation).
When Jesus Christ entered the scene, things radically changed. Our Lord introduced a New Covenant which made the old one obsolete. The New Covenant did away with rules. It did away with earthly distinctions. It abolished special classes of people who possessed special privileges.
Under the New Covenant, the Law of God has been written on the human heart in the person of Holy Spirit. The Spirit has come to indwell all who call upon the Savior. Including men and women! Including Jew and Gentile! Including slaves and non-slaves!
All earthly distinctions are abolished by the New Covenant! All ministerial classes are wiped out! Because to possess the Spirit means to have access to God…..no one excluded!
But more so, possessing the Spirit means being granted the privilege to minister in God’s house. As Joel prophesied, “I will pour out my Spirit on ALL flesh . . . and your sons (men) and your daughters (women) shall prophesy . . . and upon the servants (male slaves) and upon the handmaidens (female slaves) in those days will I pour out my Spirit.” (Joel 2:28-29; Acts 2:17-18)
Galatians 3:28 is an unchangeable reality of the New Covenant: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This passage summarizes Paul’s understanding of the effect of the gospel on religious givens like racism, slavery, and gender oppression. This passage is not limited to “salvation.” It holds social implications for everyone. The New Covenant erases all social and class distinctions. And it has afforded all to receive the Spirit and serve as priests in God’s house. That includes women!
With that said, whatever the “limiting passages” mean, they cannot in any way overturn the New Covenant. Neither can they contradict the entire thrust of the NT. Hence, the idea that women are excluded from speaking in God’s house is a major breach of the New Covenant. A covenant that has done away with earthly distinctions and treats both men and women as effective co-priests in God’s kingdom.
Another lesson I learned in my spiritual journey has to do with the reality of the Holy Spirit. I am a firm believer in the intuitive nature of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. I also hold firmly to the realistic nature of the Body of Christ. The indwelling Spirit gives every believer divine instincts and impulses that are just as real as our physical senses. Because the Spirit and the Scripture are born out of divine inspiration, the leading of the Spirit will never contradict the Word of God. Nor will the Word of God contradict the instincts of the Spirit.
With that said, my humble opinion is, all of my spiritual instincts tell me that God wants women to function in the meetings of the church.
Half the priesthood of God is being smothered and squelched. The sisters are banned from speaking simply because the brothers have intellectually interpreted the Bible to mean they should. It seems they are blatantly ignoring what their spiritual instincts are telling them about the practical fruit of this interpretation. These kinds of meetings are grossly lacking in spiritual richness. It reminds me of the so-called “real world” in the movie “The Matrix”, cold, colorless, and tasteless.
Consequently, muting the sisters is a good recipe for producing dead meetings. Again, this is my own opinion. Someone else’s opinion may differ and I respect that.
When I think about all these wonderful, anointed sisters sitting in their seats dumbly, I have to ask myself this question: “What clear message is being sent by silencing the sisters in the church meetings? Supposing that God originated this idea, what message is He conveying through such a mandate?” The answer is as arresting as it is alarming. The undeniable message is that men cannot learn anything from women! Nor can they be ministered to spiritually by a woman!
Ponder that for a moment.
If every brother were honest with himself, he would be forced to admit that such a thought is absurd. It is also a poor fit with real life. My own observation is that those who hold to the idea that women must be silent in the church “because the Bible says so” are doing something that is unreal. I mean, what man in his right mind (provided he has a normal IQ) really believes he cannot learn spiritual things from a woman? Such a belief strains the bounds of credulity until they break!
In my own experience, some of the most wonderful messages shared in church meetings have come from the lips of women. Their contributions have been deeply rich and meaningful. The women also bring an element in their sharing that the men do not. It is the fragrance of Jesus Christ. Interestingly, throughout Scripture, when the aroma of the Lord is mentioned, women are always involved (Ps. 45:6-9; Luke 23:55-24:1; John 12:3). Women have a unique way of emitting the fragrance of Christ’s life in a room.
Therefore, I must point out that the practice of silencing women in a meeting is something outwardly imposed rather than the natural expression of true body life.
Interestingly, some of the men who hold to the “women-must-be-silent” doctrine have admitted that they are personally puzzled as to why God asks for such a thing. Some of them have highly praised the contributions of their wives in spiritual matters . . . only to express confusion as to why they cannot share such contributions in public gatherings.
I applaud these men’s desire to be faithful to their understanding of Scripture. But I challenge the accuracy of that understanding on both spiritual and biblical grounds. And I would urge them to re-examine their interpretation based on these deeper observations.
I am keenly aware that there exist men who are chauvinistic, gender-hierarchical, sexist (pick-your-adjective) legalists who have been oppressing females all their lives. These confused souls are eager to latch onto any bible verse that can be twisted to use as billy-club on women. They are quite clever at masking their own personal biases against women with scripture verses. And they will judge anyone who defends women speaking in the church as pursuing a modernist heresy. But I am not appealing to such mule headed people in this note!
On the flip side, I have been in scores of meetings where the women shared with the men present. All of the churches I’ve attended do. In fact this writer has been a part of that. I’ve taught and peached with men in the congregation and they were blessed as well as the women. The immense spiritual benefit to both the sisters and the brothers during such meetings is undeniable. Further, the spirit of every believer in the room knows it is both proper and necessary for women to function and share Christ. The marks of the Holy Spirit’s presence “life and peace” are undoubtedly present (Romans 8:6).
In this connection, in every real expression of the church that I am aware of, the sisters function in the meetings as do the brothers. By my lights, it is only when we get exposed to the “limiting passages” and adopt a certain interpretation of them that things begin to change. They demote from liberty to suppression. This is never a sign of God’s fingerprints; for “where the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty” (2 Corinthians 3:17).
Now before someone reading this clips the previous paragraphs out of context and labels me a “spiritual know it all” . . . and before I am accused of exalting my personal leadings above the scriptures (which I predict someone will eventually do) .
Let me repeat what I said at the front. The scripture and the internal witness of the Spirit always go hand-in-hand. Consequently, if our interpretation of the Bible smacks square in the face of what our inwards are telling us (I am speaking of the human spirit indwelt by God’s Spirit, not the emotions) . . . and if it flat-footedly denies what is practically real in our own lives (that men can learn spiritual things from women), this should force us to seriously re-examine our interpretation of certain biblical passages.
I said all that to make a simple point: My interpretation of the “limiting passages” perfectly mirrors what my spirit tells me what is right, proper, natural, and spiritually viable in a church meeting. It also maps perfectly to those real expressions of the church with which I am familiar. Thus on a spiritual, practical, and intellectual plane, I am at peace with it.
I would suggest that anyone who wishes to upgrade their thinking on this subject take all three elements (spiritual, practical, and intellectual) into consideration. Disregarding one of them can easily lead to a twisted perspective.
To put it another way, the culture of first-century styled church life precludes any interpretation of the “limiting passages” that bans women from speaking in public meetings.
A basic question must be answered: “What is the overall teaching of the New Testament on a woman’s role in the church?” . . . “What is the big picture about women in ministry?”
You will find that it is perfectly consistent with the broad principles of the New Covenant.
Here is a chronological survey of women in ministry as they appear in the Bible….
First and foremost, let us remember that God entrusted a woman, a young peasant girl with the Word, to be carried, nourished and protected, and delivered by her to the world. (John 1:1.14) Hallelujah to the Lamb of God who was and is and is to come. I would dare to say Mary was the first woman evangelist , wouldn’t you?
Elizabeth and Mary (not Zachariah and Joseph) are the first to receive the message of Christ’s coming. They are honored and blessed by angels. And they are the first to sing and prophesy about the Christ child.
The prophetess Anna receives honorable mention as one who spoke of the Messiah to those who waited for Him. (Luke 2:36-38)
During the Lord’s earthly ministry, a group that the Gospel writers call the Women was just as well known as the Twelve (Luke 8:1-3; 23:49, 55; 24:24). In fact, the twelve male disciples were a rather pitiful bunch when compared to the Lord’s female disciples. It was the Women who stayed with the Lord in His last hours. It was the Women who watched Him be crucified. It was the Women who were the first to meet Him at His resurrection. And it was to the Women that He first entrusted the privilege of carrying the news of His resurrection.
Both the Twelve and the Women were among the 120 who waited for the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost (Acts 1:14). The women, along with the men, spoke in tongues, declaring the “great things of God” (Acts 2:1-11).
Holy Spirit has been poured out upon women and men alike . . . the result being that “your daughters shall prophesy”. (Acts 2:17-18)
Both the Hebrew (Nebrah), and Greek (Proph) used for prophetess means (female preacher). (See Young’s Concordance, Pg. 780.)
The word “Prophet” means a public expounder (preacher).
The word “Prophesy” means to speak forth, or flow forth. The Bible says in 1 Corinthians 14:3, “But he that prophesieth speaketh unto MEN to edification, and exhortation and comfort.”
In Christ, all earthly barriers are destroyed. Galatians 3:28 boldly declares, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” Women, therefore, are not second-class citizens in the church of God.
Priscilla and her husband, Aquila, taught Apollos the way of the Lord more fully (Acts 18:26). It is noteworthy that four out of the six times that Priscilla and Aquila are mentioned in the NT, Priscilla’s name appears first (Acts 18:18, 26; Romans 16:3; 2 Timothy 4:19). This is ancient shorthand signifying that Priscilla was more spiritually prominent. Also, the fact that her name appears first when she and her husband instructed Apollos indicates that she led in that exchange (Acts 18:26, NASB and NIV).
Philip the evangelist had four daughters who were prophetesses (Acts 21:9). This means they prophesied. (Note that first-century prophecy was always done in and among the church. Think about it: If a woman is prophesying by God’s Spirit and revealing Jesus Christ, why on earth would a man be barred from hearing it?)
In 1 Corinthians 11:4-5, Paul states that women may both pray and prophesy when the church comes together (1 Corinthians 11:1-34). The context makes clear that Paul is referring to public meetings where both men and women are present.
When Paul wrote his letter to the Roman Christians, he honored the following women for their service in the church: Phoebe, Priscilla, Mary, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Persis, Julia, and the sister of Nereus (Romans 16). In this chapter, Paul lists about twice as many men as women. But he commends more than twice as many women as men!
Paul mentions Junia as a fellow-apostle (Romans16). This is the most natural way to construe the statement “notable among the apostles.” (“Junia” is clearly a feminine name.)
In Philippians 4:2-3, Paul makes special mention of Euodias and Syntyche who helped him in the work. Significantly, the church in Philippi began with women and met in a woman’s home (Acts 16:13). Point: Women were rather prominent in the Philippian church.
Paul reminds Titus that the older women should be “teachers of good things.” They ought also to teach the younger women (Titus 2:3-5).
Paul commends Timothy’s mother and grandmother. There is good reason to infer that these two women taught Timothy the Holy Scriptures since he was a child (2 Timothy 1:5 with 3:15).
Clearly, women were active in ministry in the first-century church. Because they were recipients of the Spirit, they were just as much a part of the believing priesthood as were the men. We find them prophesying publicly. Praying publicly. Teaching publicly. We also find them “contending side by side” with Paul in the Lord’s work. What is more, Paul calls these women “co-workers,” a term he applies to his male associates!
Some have interpreted the “limiting passages” to mean that women must be excluded from sharing in a meeting when men are present. But this conclusion runs totally against the grain of the broad principles of the New Testament. For this reason, advocates of the “women-must-not-speak” position are forced into completely non-Scriptural dances distinguishing between “sharing” (when only sisters are present) and “teaching” (when men are present). But this is pure invention. And it is off key with Paul’s actual practice.
There is no evidence anywhere that Paul or his followers ever excluded anyone from ministry on the basis of gender. Paul happily worked alongside women like Priscilla, Euodias, and Syntyche without a lot of “holier than thou” nonsense about divinely ordained female inferiority. Further, there is no example of the “women-cannot-speak-with-men-present” idea in any of Paul’s other letters. In short, both Paul’s life and letters are consistent with the idea that he voiced in Galatians 3:28.
The truth of the matter is that the “limiting passages” are very dim. Anyone who asserts that they are clear and direct is living in a fog of arrogance and uneducated naivety. For one, such a belief reflects a pitiful dismissal of texts like Acts 2:17; Galatians 3:28; 1 Corinthians 11:5; and 1 Corinthians 14:26, 31.
Pick up any decent commentary. Look up the “limiting passages,” and you will discover the various ways these texts can be interpreted due to the uncertainty of the language. The fact that competent evangelical scholars disagree on the meaning of Paul’s word-usage in these verses attests to their unimportance.
Attention to context . . . historical, social, local, and spiritual . . . is crucial when it comes to rightly interpreting a passage of scripture. So let us look at the local context of the first “limiting passage” 1 Corinthians 14:29-35:
Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment. But if a revelation is made to another who is seated, let the first one keep SILENT. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted; and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets; for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches. Let the women keep SILENT in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but let them subject themselves, just as the law also says. And if they desire to LEARN anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in the church (NASV).
There are several things to consider here.
First, Paul has already encouraged the women to pray and prophesy earlier in the letter (1 Corinthians 11:5).
Second, Paul encourages the whole church to function in Chapter 14 he writes, “for you can all prophesy one by one” (v. 31) and “when you assemble, every one of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation . . .” (v. 26). (To assert that these exhortations do not include women is insane. It is to suggest that the church does not include women, and the New Testament is only written to men! For shame.)
Therefore, for Paul to suddenly say that women must never say a word in the church meeting is to completely contradict himself in the space of a few words.
Attention to context, however, resolves the apparent discrepancy.
If we laid these two scriptures side by side… 1 Corinthians 14, the following picture emerges: The meetings in Corinth were in utter chaos. Many of the saints were speaking in tongues at the same time, and no one was interpreting what was being spoken. Some were prophesying jointly. And what some of the prophets were saying was in dire need of evaluation. Sadly, few were doing this.
Keep in mind that some in the church doubted the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15). Others were under the impression that visiting prostitutes and committing incest were acceptable. To their minds, since these things were done with the body and not the spirit, they were innocent activities (1 Corinthians 5-6).
In the face of this, the women were interrupting those speaking with questions. Their motivation was to learn. But they were adding a further distraction to an already disruptive meeting.
It was common in the ancient world for hearers to interrupt someone who was teaching with questions. But it was considered rude if the questions reflected ignorance of the subject. It must be noted that women in the first century, whether Jew or Gentile, tended to be uneducated. Any exceptions were rare.
Women were essentially trained to be home-keepers. Thus for a woman to ask or challenge a man in public was an embarrassing thing in the Greco-Roman world. For when women interrupted the men with questions, the men were being interrogated by their social inferiors. Hence, it was considered shameful. Also the women were on one side and the men on the other so when these women wanted to ask a question of their husband they had to holler across the room thus causing more disruption.
In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul deals with this entire mess. First, he handles the abuse and misuse of tongues and prescribes guidelines for their proper use. (1 Corinthians 14:1-2 He then switches to the subject of giving and evaluating prophetic words (1 Corinthians 14:29-34).
So beginning with Chapter 14:29, Paul shifts his attention to the prophets and their role in the church. He tells the Corinthians that when the saints prophesy, they should not do so jointly. Instead, they should prophesy two or three at a time. Then they are to pause so the church may “pass judgment” on what has been prophesied.
Passing judgment (discriminating) involved asking the prophets questions. It involved quizzing and probing them so as to learn what it was they meant and whether or not it was valid. (This was the common way that both Jews and Gentiles learned in the tutorial settings of that era.)
It is within this very context that Paul shifts to the sisters and says that they are not to participate in this kind of quizzing, questioning exchange. That if they do not understand a prophetic word or have a question about what is said, they should ask their husbands at home. Their tutoring is to occur at home, not in the meeting. The meeting is not a question-answer session.
Look at the passage again with this thought in mind:
And if they desire to LEARN anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to SPEAK in the church.
Notice the undeniable connection between “learning” and “speaking.” Thus the only kind of speaking that Paul is restricting in this passage is that of asking questions. Both leading-questions and ignorance-based questions.
Therefore, Paul’s refrain for women to “keep silent” does not possess an absolute sense.
All the saints, including the sisters, are to teach and admonish one another through psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Col. 3:16).
The manifestation of the Holy Spirit, which includes prophecy, words of knowledge, and words of wisdom, is given to the whole church for the common good (1 Corinthians 12:1-12). And these gifts are to function in the church meetings (1 Corinthians 14). Experience shows us that God bestows all spiritual gifts with undistinguishing regard on men and women alike. There is no such thing as a gender-specific spiritual gift!
The author of Hebrews tells the whole church, including the sisters, that given their relative spiritual age, they all should be teachers (Hebrews 5:14).
The author of Hebrews also encourages the whole assembly, brothers and sisters, to exhort one another when the church gathers (Hebrews 10:24-25).
So 1 Timothy 2:12 should not be taken as a blanket statement that women may never minister in the church when men are present. To believe this would contradict the New Testament.
In summary, Paul of Tarsus was called by God to liberate men and women from the bondage of the Law. Ironically, he is treated by some as a new law-giver!
Paul’s message is one that promotes radical freedom rather than suppression. And that freedom liberally extends to women. Therefore, if our interpretation of Paul contradicts his message of freedom, then we are not connecting the dots.
Ponder this…….”As it is, there are many parts, but one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.” (1 Corinthians 12:20-25) To make up the body of Christ, we need each other, men and women.
In the words of J. Lee Grady, “Why am I so passionate about women in ministry? When our spiritual enemies are attacking and the hour is late, both Deborah and Barak are needed on the battlefield. This is an issue that is on the Lord’s heart. I pray we will affirm and celebrate all women who sense a call from God to lead.”
In His love,