Women in Leadership & Speaking in Church
It seems there are two extreme views about women in leadership and/or teaching in church: either that they shouldn’t or that they should. I propose – like many other secondary doctrinal points – neither side is absolutely right and that the right answer is somewhere in between.
At C3, we align our stance on this issue with good biblical scholars who point to several biblical examples of women either in leadership or speaking in a church setting. Therefore, we do allow women to speak in church and teach. What we do not observe in the New Testament church are any examples of women in the role of Overseer or Elder – this could be cultural – but, we do observe women in the role of Deacon (a role just “below” the role of Elder in the 3 leadership offices. See Titus 1 & 1 Timothy 3). Because we do not see women in the role of Overseer or Elder, this creates a reservation about appointing women as Overseer and Elder in our church (In America, this role is also associated with “Pastor”). Admittedly, the reason we don’t see women in these roles could be a historical/cultural one, but still, because there is no evidence for it in the New Testament, nor early church history – while not an impossibility, there is a reservation about appointing women to those particular roles. We see that “pastoring” is a gift someone has, not a leadership office (See Ephesians 4 vs 1 Timothy 3 & Titus 1) – which also opens up the possibility for there to be female pastors - there were certainly female prophets, therefore women did speak in the biblical church.
Dr. Craig Keener on cultural background:“I believe that all that scripture says is for all times but not all scripture is for all circumstances. And so, often we need to find out what the circumstances are so that we can apply the text to analogous circumstances … Some people don’t like to get into the cultural background very much, but if you don’t take into account cultural background in a situation, you are left with a lot of absurdities. For example, in most churches they don’t require women to wear head-coverings, even though it’s specifically stated. Five times more often than that it is stated that we are to greet one another with a holy kiss. Well, we can greet one another lovingly without necessarily greeting one another with a kiss. A kiss was what was used in that culture for intimate friends and family members to express affectionate greetings. In the same way, in regards to specific situations being addressed in scripture, a lot of people don’t want to take that into account. But, how many of us take up offerings for the church in Jerusalem each week? I Corinthians 16 demands that. 2 Timothy 4 says go to Troas and get Paul’s cloak. Most of us recognize that that is a command specifically to Timothy, but to read scripture consistently we must recognize that I Corinthians was written to the Corinthian Christians and Romans was written to the Roman Christians, and so forth. We need to take that into account in our interpretations, and then seek to extrapolate principles from what we learn there, and determine how they apply in our setting.” (Dr. Craig Keener, TheOtherJournal.com, Gender, Equality And Hermeneutics: An Interview With Craig Keener)
What Dr. Keener references regarding head coverings is worth considering. Many women still wear hats in church today and most men will take their hats off when entering a church or praying. But do any of them know why? Most men will say it is out of respect for the Lord – reverence – but why then do women wear a hat – shouldn’t it be applied equally? Men have to be reverent, but not women? Some will point to the verses in 1 Corinthians 11:4-5 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered shames his head. 5 Every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered disgraces her head. It is the same thing as having her head shaved. The problem here is that women were generally expected to keep their hair covered in Jewish culture – most viewed women showing off their uncovered hair as we would a woman coming to church in a bikini. The Roman women (especially of wealthier status) enjoyed showing off their elaborate hairstyles. The Roman influence is permeating the Corinthian church and causing a distraction. Paul uses the word “head” both figuratively as “authority” and literally as a wordplay. The tradition of men removing their hats in church and while praying probably stem from verses 4 and 7. This is another example of why understanding cultural context is very important. Literal interpretations without background knowledge lead to unhealthy doctrine and tradition. During pagan worship, Romans would cover their heads with their togas to avoid distractions. Imitating this pagan custom would cause the men to “dishonor” their heads. These verses are not about hats. Women on the other hand, were to cover their heads because their sexuality is being put on display while worshipping God. Because people did not understand the cultural context while this letter was being written, the tradition of men taking their hats off in church and women wearing elaborate hats in church developed.
In the same chapter, we see examples of women speaking prophesy in Church:1 Corinthians 11:5 Every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered disgraces her head. It is the same thing as having her head shaved.
It would be impossible for a woman to prophesy without speaking – so clearly, we see that women were speaking in church.
We see an example of a woman teaching a man in Acts:Acts 18: 24-26 A Jew named Apollos, a native Alexandrian, an eloquent man who was powerful in the use of the Scriptures, arrived in Ephesus. 25 This man had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught the things about Jesus accurately, although he knew only John’s baptism. 26 He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. After Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him home and explained the way of God to him more accurately.
There are also women who actually “wrote” Scriptures. Many Christians will say that David wrote a lot of the Psalms, but we know they mean that he did so under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. In the same way, there are women who – under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, wrote parts of the Bible. If you asked a conservative Christian if the biblical book, Judges 5 was Scripture, they would say, “Yes!”. Judges 5 is called “The Song of Deborah”. Here we have – like David – a woman transmitting the very Word of God. Now, some might say, “Well, that’s Deborah and Barak – there was a man involved.” There are more examples where it is only a woman who is speaking or singing: Miriam in Exodus 15:21; Hannah in 1 Samuel 2:1–8; and the mother of Jesus, Mary in Luke 1:46–56.
Read Proverbs 31 carefully and you’ll notice that King Lemuel simply penned that Proverb. It comes from his mother. In the same way Paul dictated some of the letters of the New Testament and scribes penned them, in Proverbs 31, we see a woman authoring a portion of our Bible – this is a teaching that came from a woman. Clearly, this is an example of a woman teaching a man and an example of a woman transmitting Scripture.
In 2 Kings 22 - prior to Josiah's reforms, the Israelites abandon the law, then they find the book of the law and go to Huldah, a female prophetess who is the mouthpiece of God regarding the book of the law itself.
Another point to consider is that there are many women who work as translators and commentators of our Bibles. By reading the Bible alone, we are being taught by women and not even realizing it.
The website BiteSizedExegesis.com puts it this way: “The idea is that traditional renderings of biblical texts can, over time, serve to obscure the meaning of the text rather than clarify it. We get so attached to a particular word or phrase that we stop understanding what the term means, taking its meaning to be self-evident. Or sometimes a traditional theologically loaded term takes on a life of its own and becomes more specialized in the history of Christian discourse than it may have been in the biblical text itself.”
Many bibles often keep older words just for esthetic value, which isn’t really necessary or helpful when trying to create the correct context. They will use outdated words like “blaspheme” in some places and translate the same word somewhere else as “slander”. “Truly, truly”, which we would never say in modern English is actually “Amen, Amen” in the Greek – which would be a better translation, since we use the word “Amen”. I believe the root of the issue of women speaking in church comes from the cultural lens in which it was translated. There is one Biblical Greek word for “woman” and “wife” – they are the same. Sometimes it is better to translate it one way or another – and if you change it, the whole context can change with it. The two verses that people cite to say that women shouldn’t speak in church (1 Corinthians 14:33–36 and 1 Timothy 2:9–15) are both in the context of husbands dealing with wives, so the word woman is best translated as wife – and this resolves the problem. Note how the CEB – a good translation of the Greek, in my opinion renders 1 Timothy 2:11-15:
1 Timothy 2:11-15 A wife should learn quietly with complete submission. 12 I don’t allow a wife to teach or to control her husband. Instead, she should be a quiet listener. 13 Adam was formed first, and then Eve. 14 Adam wasn’t deceived, but rather his wife became the one who stepped over the line because she was completely deceived. 15 But a wife will be brought safely through childbirth, if they both continue in faith, love, and holiness, together with self-control.
The context of the passage isn’t whether women are leaders or teaching in church – it is about husbands and wives. For more in-depth information, keep reading below.
It is important to observe not just what is written, but what was done. There are women mentioned in the New Testament who held important leadership roles. The most obvious of them is Phoebe who appears in Romans 16:1, which says, I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. Phoebe is an example of a woman holding the position of deacon in the church. Paul continues by saying, I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me. (Romans 16:2). Here Paul is giving the church in Rome instruction to assist her in the work she is doing – clearly, this would give her some type of authority over men in the church. Romans 16:3 mentions Priscilla, who in Acts took Apollos aside and taught him the way of God more accurately. Romans 16:7 mentions Junias who is “outstanding among the apostles”. Sometime between 111 – 113 AD, The Roman senator Pliny the Younger writes to the Emperor Trajan about two female deacons that he had tortured (some may dismiss this example as extra-biblical). We also see women as Prophetesses in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 2:36) and in Acts (Acts 21:9).
Most Christians who hold the position that women shouldn’t speak in church would agree that we – as Christians – should judge others, especially in a Church context. We see this in 1 Corinthians 5 – a clear example of Paul making a judgement about someone; it is just one of many examples in the bible. Those on the other side of the argument are always quick to point to Matthew 7:1, where it says, Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged. (HCSB, some say “or you will be judged’). So here is what seems to be a clear example of Scripture telling us (Jesus speaking in this case) not to judge, period. It seems like a rather good argument along the same lines as not letting a woman speak in church: it says it, so that’s what we do. But an educated Christian would point out that there are clear examples in the bible of people judging others by God’s command, so we must look at both what is said and also look at what is done, while considering other possibilities behind the statement, such as context and rhetorical devices (like hyperbole – used often by Jesus and Paul).
When all things are considered, if we interpret literally in this case, we create contradictions. We clearly see women in leadership and women speaking at the worship gatherings. The most plausible interpretation is that Paul’s statements are made with some level of hyperbole. Additionally, the words women and men can be translated as husbands or wives interchangeably - in 1 Corinthians 14:35, these “women” are told to ask their “husbands” (or men) at home. This creates a context that the women who are being told not to speak are the wives of the men gathered – this would be in line with the interpretation of 1 Timothy 3:11 as the women being “wives”. The general culturally accepted view of the time was that women should not speak in mixed gender company. Women were not as educated as men, which would cause them to ask questions more frequently (and not worthy of being heard in the minds of men at this time and in this culture) – also, the wives were often much younger. These wives would often be in their teen age years, so one shouldn’t read the text in this chapter with an image of the modern wife of today, who might be college educated and fully mature. Instead, one way to imagine the situation would be a scenario where a bunch of uneducated teen age girls are speaking out of turn. This might spark a comment even from a Pastor in a modern church to say, “Tell the girls to shut up!” The statement about not allowing them to speak could be similar to saying, “children should be seen and not heard.” Do we literally mean this? No, but children know less than adults do and should spend more time in silence learning. We want them to speak in the appropriate setting, just not out of turn or disruptively. Because Paul doesn’t change the subject here to the universal topic of women speaking in church or asking questions, this section is most likely a brief digression from the real topic at hand in 1 Corinthians 14 (that of prophecy and tongues) to address a specific problem that he would apply to “all the churches of the saints”.
What we do not see is women as Overseers or Elders – this, combined with Paul’s natural argument leads us to believe that we do not have a biblical (or early church historical) example of women in a position over an entire church or multiple churches. When giving the qualifications for Elders/Overseers in Titus and 1 Timothy, the office holder is always referred to as a “man”, and then the word “woman” is used later to describe that person’s wife and possibly deacons in 1 Timothy – it is not inclusive to both genders. For those reasons, we would have reservations about appointing a woman to the role of Overseer or Elder (Lead Pastor is used to describe this role in American churches). Again, as stated above, the reason we do not see women in this role could be cultural – but a reservation exists due to a lack of biblical example, unlike women speaking in church and teaching, for which we do have biblical examples.
In conclusion, we find only two explicit statements about limited roles for women and teaching, yet we find several biblical examples of women in roles of leadership and speaking in church or teaching. With this view in mind, it wouldn’t be the only example of something written in Scriptures that we should not take literally – Jesus says that if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off (Matthew 5:30) – are we really supposed to do that? We have to observe the actions of Jesus and the early church leaders in order to determine whether something is literal or not – in both cases, the actions of the church differ from what is written (or ‘commanded’). It is up for individual church interpretation, but not a hill anyone should wish to die on – it is not the Gospel, nor should it be our primary concern.