What is the role of women in the church? We take a look at this controversial subject.
By Doug Reed
Some say that there should be no argument on the subject of women in the church. After all, did not Paul clearly say that women should remain silent in assemblies, and they should not teach men? If we look at all the things Paul said about women, this principle may not be as clear as we think. In fact, as we shall see, Paul is quite contradictory on this subject.
Consequently, some people take Paul's statements that seem to be pro women and use them to back their viewpoint. Others use Paul's statements that appear to leave women in silence to back their position. Who is right? Sometimes when we are faced with a situation where the scriptures leave us confused, it is good to step back and try to get a look at the big picture. In what setting was Paul writing? What was the social and eschatological context of his statements? When we begin to discern these things, the probable interpretation of Paul's writings presents itself. We will try to get a look at this bigger picture in this post and the ones to follow. However, first let us begin by looking at some of Paul’s statements concerning women.
Let's begin with the granddaddy of them all.
"Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church." (I Cor. 14:34-35)
Although this appears to be a clear cut command from Paul, it actually is a troubling passage. Paul seems to contradict what he says about women in chapter eleven of first Corinthians.
"But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, for that is one and the same as if her head were shaved." (I Cor. 11:5)
In chapter eleven Paul speaks of women prophesying, yet he commands them to be silent in chapter fourteen. Here we see an apparent contradiction. If women were prophesying, how could they keep the command to be silent? Moreover, few today demand that women wear coverings on their heads. Yet, many of those same folks stand against a women teaching a man.
Let's take a look at another statement Paul made about women.
"Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression. Nevertheless she will be saved in childbearing if they continue in faith, love, and holiness, with self-control." (I Timothy 2:11-15)
Again, in I Timothy we see what appears to be a clear cut command for women to remain silent in the assembly. However, scholars debate whether Paul is talking about women teaching in the assembly or the husband/ wife relationship in this passage. Notice how Young's Literal Translation presents these scriptures.
"Let a woman in quietness learn in all subjection, and a woman I do not suffer to teach, nor to rule a husband, but to be in quietness, for Adam was first formed, then Eve, and Adam was not deceived, but the woman, having been deceived, into transgression came, and she shall be saved through the child-bearing, if they remain in faith, and love, and sanctification, with sobriety."
We might be tempted to say speculating about these passages is merely trying to make them say what they clearly do not say. If these were all the dealings the Apostle Paul had with women, any argument for women teaching and participating in theological discussion would be a weak one at best. However, Paul did have interaction with women in his ministry, and when we see how he related to women, he appears to disobey his own commands!
In our previous post we saw some of the things Paul said about women in the church. Now, let’s look at Paul in practice.
"And a certain Jew, Apollos by name, an Alexandrian by birth, a man of eloquence, being mighty in the Writings, came to Ephesus, this one was instructed in the way of the Lord, and being fervent in the Spirit, was speaking and teaching exactly the things about the Lord, knowing only the baptism of John; this one also began to speak boldly in the synagogue, and Aquilas and Priscilla having heard of him, took him to them, and did more exactly expound to him the way of God." (Acts 18:24-26)
Here we see an example of a woman, Priscilla, obviously teaching ad exhorting a man. Moreover, in II Timothy 4:19 Paul mentions Priscilla first when greeting her and her husband. This would be a bit unusual if Priscilla had no place in ministry.
"and on the morrow Paul and his company having gone forth, we came to Caesarea, and having entered into the house of Philip the evangelist who is of the seven, we remained with him, and this one had four daughters, virgins, prophesying." (Acts 21:8-9)
Here we see the daughters of Philip prophesying. Plainly, they were not keeping silent in the presence of men.
"And I commend you to Phebe our sister being a ministrant of the assembly that is in Cenchrea that ye may receive her in the Lord, as doth become saints, and may assist her in whatever matter she may have need of you for she also became a leader of many, and of myself."
Salute Priscilla and Aquilas, my fellow-workmen in Christ Jesus. (Rom 16:1-3 YLT)
In this passage Paul speaks of Phebe,a woman, as a leader in the assembly at Cenchrea. Again he speaks of Priscilla as a fellow workman in Christ Jesus.
"salute Andronicus and Junias, my kindred, and my fellow-captives, who are of note among the apostles, who also have been in Christ before me." (Romans 16:7 YLT)
There is some debate over this passage. Most literal translations such as Young's and Rotherham's put a woman's name, Junias, in this verse. This would mean that Paul recognized a woman apostle. However, some translations put the name Junia, a man’s name, in place of Junias.
I Corinthians 1:11 and Acts 12:12 mention house churches residing at the houses of Chloe and Mark's mother. Whether this means they were in authority is uncertain.
"salute ye those in Laodicea brethren, and Nymphas, and the assembly in his house." (Col 4:15)
Some texts translate this "... and Nymphas, and the assembly in her house."
"Euodia I exhort, and Syntyche I exhort, to be of the same mind in the Lord; and I ask also thee, genuine yoke-fellow, be assisting those women who in the good news did strive along with me, with Clement also, and the others, my fellow-workers, whose names are in the book of life." (Phil 4:2-3)
Here we see two women evangelists Euodia and Syntyche.
Obviously, Paul recognized women who taught, prophesied to, and evangelized men. Was Paul saying one thing and then doing another? Would it surprise you that there are other places in the New Testament where Paul seemingly said one thing and then did another? For example, to the Galatians he spoke of the worthlessness of circumcision, yet in Acts 16 Paul has Timothy circumcised because of the Jews. Paul says in Philippians that he cast aside those things which he once counted as righteousness. Yet, in Acts 21 we see him going through purification rituals in the temple.
Was Paul two faced, saying one thing and then doing another? Was he hypocritical in his relationships with women? In part two of this series we will see that Paul was not at all contradictory in what he said and did. In fact, there was a very important reason for his behavior. When we understand that reason, it will help us understand Paul's difficult statements concerning women.