My burden and concern is the distortion of the image of God in these days and the way that the knowledge of God is being undermined and eroded. This issue is just one of a number that are leading people away from a true understanding of God’s nature and truth, but it is a significant one. It is significant because some of the arguments that are used to validate women pastors and teachers in the church are the same that would open the door to the introduction of other changes which have been unknown in the church over the past 2000 years.
This is article will look at the subject of leadership or oversight within the church, and what part women play in this. In other words, what does the Bible say with regard to women leaders, pastors or teachers in the church – in terms of biblical example, and in terms of its teaching. It is very important to bear in mind that we are focusing on leadership/oversight of a local church or leadership/oversight over a group of churches or a community of God’s people, or being appointed as someone who teaches in the church. This article limits itself exclusively to these two areas – that of pastoring a church or being a recognised teacher within a church congregation.
I will endeavour not to go beyond scripture. I will avoid making hair-splitting distinctions that would only be legalistic and constitute ‘pharisaical’ additions to scripture. What I mean is this – In the Old Testament God said that his people were not to work on the Sabbath. The Pharisees went beyond God’s command in their hair-splitting legalism and made false deductions from God’s word that were contrary both to the Spirit and letter of what He had spoken – someone healed by Jesus was forbidden to carry the bed on which they had been carried in; in fact, healing on the Sabbath itself was deemed contrary to God’s word by the Pharisees! By a process of their own logical deduction, the Pharisees tried to apply God’s command to every minute area of life in a way which God had never envisaged or commanded. So, to avoid the same kind of pitfalls, the conclusions I draw in this article in no way leads me to suggest that a woman cannot serve in other ways or bear testimony to what the Lord has done in her life! The scriptures constitute a balanced whole. It should not be our business to take one verse and make logical deductions from it that just end up being legalistic or misrepresenting God’s nature and design!
The main area of conflict specifically revolves around the two areas of ministry mentioned above, and I shall limit myself to them. We can all be involved in serving one another and the church without having the leadership of that church or being a teacher in a church congregation. So the aim of this article is not to look into the extent and nature of women’s ministry in a comprehensive way, though this will be addressed insofar as it relates to our topic of leadership.
In considering this matter it’s essential to bear in mind – at all times – the truth that we are all of equal value before God. Christ died and gave His life for each one of us. In Him we are all partakers of that same glorious, eternal salvation. Whatever our role or function in the church, His love and His regard for each one of us is the same. If we follow and believe Him, His love and grace are able to make us feel that we are the most favoured and blessed people on earth – and so we are!
Also, before we begin, we need to agree on some ground rules. Firstly, that the Bible is the sole authority for what we believe and how we are to behave. The traditions and opinions of men (including ‘church’ tradition) can play no part in determining God’s truth. Nor can changing times or different cultures alter the fundamental truths of the Bible.
Concerning the Bible itself, we need to be clear that what is written is not the result of men’s opinions or prejudices. The writers were not struggling to create their own image of God, out of their own imagination. They were not so much creative writers as wholly inspired writers.
“…prophecy came not in old time by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.” 2 Peter 1:21
The Bible is essentially God revealing His truth and His nature to mankind. Its origins are from God Himself. He initiated its writing and inspired men with those thoughts that accurately describe His nature and truth. Since its inspiration comes from God’s Spirit and is not just the product of men’s ideas or imagination, we are also told the Bible cannot properly be interpreted according to our own thoughts (1 Cor.2:9-14; John 14:26; 1 John 2:27). We need the Spirit of God to teach us the true, living meaning of the scriptures. This does not mean we become mindless. But it does mean we need the Holy Spirit to bring the scriptures to life for us. We cannot pick and choose what bits we find acceptable. We cannot sit in judgement over the scriptures. Hungry and thirsty after God and His Life and Truth, we are to ‘receive the engrafted word with meekness’ and allow the Holy Spirit of God to communicate an understanding of His word, which is able to save our souls, to our hearts.
“Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation.”
2 Peter 1:20.
Part and parcel of this approach is not setting one scripture against another, or giving greater validity to some parts while ignoring or not accepting others. The teaching of the Bible constitutes a unity and various scriptures help to make up a whole, complete picture of God and His truth; they do not represent conflicting or contradictory aspects concerning His truth.
Why is it necessary to emphasize these things when they should already be clear to us as God’s people and when they have been accepted by many down the centuries? The reason is that the way we interpret the Bible today is being influenced by certain contemporary worldly philosophies and outlooks. Aspects of humanistic teaching and modern ideas of what is called ‘equality’ have so infiltrated the thinking of Christians so as to reproduce the mindset of the world in the hearts of God’s people. This has made a consideration or discussion of this topic almost impossible among some Christians, if not many.
The real issue or problem is not so much to do with what the Bible does or does not teach. It is to do with mindsets; an outlook by which we instinctively try to interpret the Bible so that it conforms to our outlook – whatever the Bible actually says! In today’s generation, this is the real battleground.
The battleground is not really the difficulties we might have in interpreting the Bible. Though there are difficult passages, in the end it is our mindset – the outlook we hold to when approaching the Bible – that is decisive and determines our conclusions, and not any supposed contradictions in the Bible or unclarity regarding what the Bible teaches. Indeed, some people will simply dismiss or put impossible constructions on verses that they find objectionable. Allusions to the ‘original Greek’, Greek grammar or the ‘real’ meaning of a Greek word are strategies often employed by those who find no biblical basis for what they believe and so need some way of justifying their position. Reference to the Greek may of course be helpful – but not as a smokescreen to run away from the clear meaning of a text!
Now although this is so, it doesn’t mean we can’t look at what the Bible has to say about this subject – and we will. But after considering what the Bible says, we shall also look at the real battleground; that area where the real problem lies today – which is not the Bible or its interpretation, but how humanistic teaching and modern ideas of equality have influenced Christians today and how this has affected the way they interpret the holy scriptures of God.
Now of course this has always been somewhat of a sensitive and prickly topic. And the consideration of this subject has certainly not been helped by men abusing their authority and position and trying to justify such unwarranted abuse – past or present – from the scriptures. Nor has it been helped by an authoritarian or legalistic application of what was regarded as scriptural. So, in what is written here, I am in no way seeking to justify past abuses, nor to promote a legalistic application of scriptural principles or even to provide a platform from which to criticize others. I do not have any wish at all to super-impose on others standards or values which they are unwilling to receive. Although we all have to distinguish things that are different and know right from wrong, this article is not written with the purpose of encouraging people to be dismissive, cold and critical or judgmental of others. Rather it is to give understanding to the readers themselves of what the scriptures teach on this subject so that they might be able to find a way through the winds and doctrines of today. I particularly have in mind young Christians who may not yet have been completely ‘bewitched’ by modern values and may still be open to what the scriptures say. Those who hold the opposite view to myself will most likely feel I am simply trying to resurrect past abuses or errors, or that I am just trying suppress women’s gifting and role in the church. This indeed may be the inevitable result of the beliefs they already hold, but it has nothing to do with my outlook or intentions of heart.
The Examples in the Bible
Let us now look at what the Bible teaches us by way of example.
The first thing we can see is that all the books of the Bible were written by men. (Some may regard the authors of minimal number of books as having been women, though this is in no way conclusive or verifiable). This is true of the NT as well as the OT. This is not without significance. And it is not due to chance; nor is it due to some kind of cultural male dominance that suppressed women’s gifting. God Himself teaches us through the scriptures that He chose and inspired holy men to communicate His truth (2 Peter 1:21). It was God’s design. The authoritative teaching, instruction and correction of scripture was communicated to God’s people – and to the world at large – through men that God had chosen.
The Old Testament
In the OT, when God made a covenant with an individual, He always made them with men – whether it was Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David or others. In this context, God associated Himself with men – He calls Himself the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Under the Mosaic Law, the high priest was a man and those who functioned under him as priests were also to be men. This was inviolable and there was never an exception to this in any case or at any time. It was men who were entrusted with the service of the tabernacle and temple. Right from the beginning, in this as well as in other contexts, God was setting a pattern of divine order where men would be the ones who have charge and oversight in ministry. (Wonderfully though, in the NT, because God puts His Life and Spirit in all that believe and obey Him, all of us now constitute a spiritual priesthood before Him, to offer spiritual sacrifices. But of course in the NT, being a priest in this sense has nothing to do with officially recognised oversight of the church, but refers to the spiritual worship and service that God has made possible for every believer in their individual lives. He has accomplished this by putting His Spirit within us.)
Those who were directly called of God in the OT explicitly to lead, teach, judge or rule Israel were always men (though, we will look at what may be considered exceptions shortly) – whether Moses, Joshua, Gideon, Samuel, Saul, David, Solomon, Hezekiah, Ezra, or Nehemiah. The ministry of leadership, rule or oversight over God’s community was always put in the hands of men. As far as the example of scripture is concerned, this is true of both the Old and New Testaments.
God made provision for Kings to rule over Israel, not queens. (Dt.17:15). Athaliah, the mother of King Ahaziah, was the only one to rule over Judah at the time of the Kings. She only managed to do this by slaying all the royal seed – or so she thought – after the death of her own son and then usurping the power for herself (2 Chron.22:10-12). But when the surviving heir, Joash, was seven, he was established as king and Athaliah was punished and killed. However, in scripture she is not referred to as a queen.
In the OT, when God raised up prophets with a ministry to instruct, encourage, correct and rebuke Israel or its kings, He always chose men to do this – from Isaiah to Malachi; these were all men. Elijah and Elisha were also men whose ministry involved instruction, correction and rebuke. We do not find one instance of God calling a woman and sending her with a ministry to rebuke Israel or its King, or to exhort them to repent, or to give corrective instruction or teaching, in the way that the prophets just mentioned did. God choose men for such ministry. We can find no example of a woman exercising the kind of authority and ministry such as Elijah, Isaiah or Jeremiah had. Here is a vital fact for our understanding of the subject we are considering: No woman was ever commissioned or delegated by God to exercise authority in this way over the nation of Israel or over another man. And we shall see that this principle is consistent throughout the Bible. The rare exception to this that we will look at later will only confirm this truth, not contradict it.
God’s own choice in these matters must be of the utmost importance to us. His choices reflect His Divine will and character. Let us just bear these things in mind as we look at the whole counsel of scripture and work towards an interpretation and understanding that is not just based on the example of scripture, but on its explicit teaching as well. By doing this, we shall find that the Bible in no way contradicts itself, nor shall we have to dismiss certain texts in favour of others!
When Moses found the burden of settling disputes between the Israelites too much, God told him to choose seventy men of the elders of Israel to share this burden with him (Num.11:16). These elders had authority to settle disputes and to judge matters of controversy between Israelites. We shall see that where important decisions had to be made that affected God’s people, and where authoritative oversight had to be exercised over the community of believers, it was men who were entrusted with such responsibility – for better or for worse! From the record of the Acts of the Apostles we see that this was also true of New Testament times. (This could also be the reason why seven men were chosen to serve in Acts 6. The matter of distributing to the needs of the church involved the settling of disputes and disagreements. It is wholly consistent with scripture that men should fulfil such a role where there is the exercise of authority among God’s people.)
Those who taught the Law of God to the community of God’s people were always men. Ezra read and expounded the word of God to the people. Those who assisted him in this task were likewise men (Nehemiah 8:5-8). In the third year of his reign, King Jehosaphat sent men – princes, levites and priests – to teach the cities of Judah the Law of God (2 Chron.17:7-9). There is no example of a woman being called or being sent by God, or appointed by men to expound God’s word to the community of His people in this way anywhere in the Bible.
In the cases above, why were men chosen? Because they are infallible? Because they could do things better than women? Or as a result of being culture-bound? It is essential that we know the answer to these questions. Men being in positions of authority and leadership within God’s community is not only a consistent feature in both the Old and New Testaments, it is virtually without exception. We need to understand why this is so, and we shall be looking at the reasons shortly, but first let us look at a most amazing and instructive exception.
Deborah the prophetess
If ever there was an exception that proved the rule, then this is it – the prophetess Deborah in the book of Judges. The first thing we read about her is that she was a prophetess (Judges 4:4). As such, she had spiritual gifting to communicate to the Israelites God’s wisdom and counsel in spiritual and civil matters. That she was a prophetess was not extraordinary in itself. For a woman to be a prophetess was not unusual in the OT. What was unusual was that she also ‘judged’ Israel at this time. This was something totally new and out of character with the rest of the OT. However, let us see in what manner she judged Israel. We read that she dwelt under a palm tree (or grove) in Mount Ephraim and that the Israelites came up to her there for judgement, that is, to receive counsel from her.
Immediately – and importantly – we notice that Deborah wasn’t someone who went around the country prophesying against the sins of Israel, rebuking the people and exhorting Israel to repent or declaring the promises and blessings of God if they obeyed Him. She did not exercise this kind of authority – nor does any woman in the Bible. She was not a ‘Samuel’, ‘Elijah’, ‘Isaiah’ or ‘Ezra’ type figure nor can her ministry be equated to theirs. Essentially, she was not ‘pro-active’. People came to her. She acted far more as an ‘oracle’ of God, declaring His wisdom and guidance to the people by the spirit of prophecy that was in her and by the wisdom and understanding that was a reflection of her piety and her walk with God.
Here we have a woman who didn’t exalt herself or her gifting. She didn’t push herself forward to be recognised by others. At a time when Israel was at a moral and spiritual low-point, the Israelites recognised Deborah’s divine gifting and wisdom and they naturally turned to her – they went to her for counsel. There was no one else to whom they could go to for such godly counsel. In other words, the fact there was no man who could give spiritual, moral or civil leadership and direction to Israel seems to have been a definite symptom of the waywardness of Israel at that time – a reflection of the fact that they were spiritually at a low ebb. However, this is not said in order to disparage Deborah in particular or women in general, as though she were an inferior choice. The problem is not that the Lord had to choose an ‘inferior’ vessel, but that He had to invert the order that He Himself had established from the beginning and that we see consistently throughout the rest of the Bible. We can only thank God for Deborah, even as those who were hungry to know God’s will for their lives at that time must have done.
So, the Israelites came to where she lived for counsel since there was no man. She didn’t seek position or power but God endued this godly woman with wisdom and gave her a prophetic ministry to direct His people in His righteous ways; she distinguished between the right and the wrong for them in the ways of the Lord. In this sense she ‘judged’ Israel. But again we note that there was no ministry of instruction, correction or teaching such as we find under Samuel, Jeremiah or Ezra. Her ministry does not equate to these nor does any woman function as they did. Deborah was not ‘sent’ to rebuke the nation of Israel for its sins or to exhort them to repentance. This is a vital distinction. Deborah herself regarded her ministry as maternal, not matriarchal. In the song of Deborah and Barak, she declares that she arose as a mother in Israel. She was glad about the rulers in Israel that had at last offered themselves willingly at the time of crisis, and she encourages Barak to fulfil the victory that had been won. (Judges 5:7,9,12). Where possible, she encouraged men to take up their responsibility!
When the Lord wanted to give authoritative teaching or correction to Israel as a community of God’s people, He always raised up or sent a man. Consider a passage from Judges itself that immediately follows the passage concerning Deborah, where God instructs and rebukes His people:
Judges 6:7-10 ‘… the LORD sent a prophet unto the children of Israel, which said unto them, Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, I brought you up from Egypt, and brought you forth out of the house of bondage; ….And I said unto you, I am the LORD your God; fear not the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but ye have not obeyed my voice.’
This is a case that involved reprimand and rebuke, which implies having authority over men. So God sent a prophet. The Hebrew text makes it quite clear that the prophet that the Lord sent was a man (Heb. ‘man prophet’). There is no record of Deborah having spoken in this way to Israel, or of any other woman in the Bible.
Now of course the time of the Judges was a time of repeated idolatry in Israel when men largely did what was right in their own eyes (Judges 17:5). In other words, there was a lot of ‘individualism’; people did their own thing; chose their own form of worship which resulted in them sinking to new depths of immorality. When we get to the book of Samuel, we read that the word of God was ‘precious’, or ‘rare’, and that there was no open (clear) vision (revelation). There was no one who was ‘walking with God’ in such a way that they could with clarity and authority declare God’s word to His people. There didn’t seem to be anyone with the moral and spiritual backbone to forsake both the fear and favour of men as well as being prepared for the personal self-denial that is part and parcel of being a man of God. God’s people had become individualistic, independent, going their own way, self-pleasing and self-indulgent. Who would be brave enough to swim against this tide? Who would rise up and say, ‘This is the way, walk ye in it!’ This is very much what is happening in our own day!
And this was very much the nature of things in Deborah’s day. And why did they all go to her? Well, perhaps these few verses help to explain: Judges 4:6-9. Deborah has to send a message to Barak to call him and remind him of what God had spoken. She has to exhort Barak to go up and fight against the army of Jabin, King of Canaan, and against his captain Sisera, and she encourages him with the word that the Lord has already given him the victory. There is hardly any other instance in the Bible like this, where a woman has to encourage a man to obey God’s command to him! In other words, Barak was inactive and afraid. And the next verse reveals all. Barak replies that he will only go into battle if she goes with him (verse 8). If she doesn’t go with him, he will simply not go and fight. Remarkable! Despite being told the Lord would give him victory, he refuses to trust the word of God and will only go if Deborah goes with him. There is nothing like this in all the Bible. The word of God had already come to Barak to go and fight the enemy, but he stayed at home and ignored it! If ever there was an abdication of responsibility this is it. Worse still, he refuses to fight without Deborah. Is it any wonder that a woman judged Israel at this time? These verses epitomises not only the spiritual condition of Barak at that time, but of the people of Israel also. We read in Judges that Israel’s spiritual condition was such, that they simply went their own way and did their own thing until they were in distress. Then they would call on the Lord and He would help them and give them judges. They would call on God for His outward acts of deliverance, but this never led to an inward relationship with God that would sustain them spiritually beyond the immediate crisis (Judges 2:11-19). They would depend on the judges for help but would never develop their own personal relationship with God.
And Barak was just like the rest of the people. He had no vital relationship with God. Barak wasn’t willing to put his trust in God. He depended on outward things for assurance. He could believe that God was with Deborah, but could not trust God himself. His lack of physical courage resulted from his lack of personal trust in the Lord, from utter spiritual poverty. He hadn’t responded to God’s call on him to lead Israel against its enemies and he insisted that Deborah fill this vacuum that he himself had created! He needed Deborah to go with him. Notice what Deborah then prophesies. She tells him that she will indeed go with him, but as a consequence of his unwillingness to believe God, a woman shall get the praise and honour by destroying Sisera, the head of the army of the King of Canaan, and not Barak! He had abdicated his responsibility! He was not fit for purpose! He would be deprived of the honour of executing justice on Sisera and this ‘honour’ would be given to a woman.
So here in Judges chapter 4 we have two things running side by side – and it is not a coincidence! On the one hand, you have the man Barak, who is supposed to lead Israel but who lacks spiritual backbone and physical courage. He needs to hold on to the apron strings of Deborah. Owing to his own lack of relationship with the Lord, he is unable to lead the people against the enemy or to direct them in any way whatsoever. Nor is there any other man who can show them the way to go. At this very time, Deborah arises as ‘a mother in Israel’. The shame of the spiritual weakness and lack of moral courage of the men is highlighted by the need for them to be directed by a woman. Again, this is not said to disparage women. The indictment here is not against women. The indictment is against men who refuse to take up their God-given responsibility in leading and feeding God’s flock; who refuse to believe God, to take up the cross and follow Him. Thank God for Deborah! This is not a matter of superiority or inferiority, but of the inversion of God’s chosen order. Everywhere else in the OT God’s people are led and taught by men at the head of things. It is certainly only men who ever defend Israel against military attack. Here we have an inversion of God’s order, not so much by design as by default. Men had defaulted on their position. They had abdicated their responsibility. They had chosen an easier way.
God allowed Deborah to give wise and godly counsel to His people but He did not send her – and nor did she seek – to rule over them. She acted in subservience to the man/men who were supposed to lead Israel at this time. The distinction becomes clear when we compare Deborah’s role to that of the prophet Samuel. In no way was she a ‘Samuel’ figure in that sense. Although God inverted things on one level by allowing a woman to judge Israel, He did not invert His order by granting to a woman the kind of authoritative corrective ministry among His people which we find is only given to men in the rest of the Bible. Yes, she was a woman, but the nature of her ministry stands in contradistinction to the kinds of ministry exercised by men who led or taught Israel. And that distinction is one of having and exercising authority over men or God’s people, and this distinction is according to God’s design from the beginning
Now, though the reader might not agree completely – or at all! – with my interpretation of Deborah’s ministry, these two co-incidental facts remain. Nowhere else in the Bible do we witness a woman directing Israel in this way. Nowhere in the Bible is the spiritual weakness of a leading man highlighted and portrayed in this way. The former results from the latter. The two aspects are inseparable. Man’s spiritual weakness and failure to believe and obey God is highlighted and made more poignant by the contrast with woman’s spiritual stature and physical courage. A woman emerges to give godly guidance and counsel to Israel at the very time when men have abdicated their responsibility. To give guidance and comfort to Israel, God allows what is the normal order of things (in the rest of the OT) to be inverted and promotes Deborah to help Israel in its time of need. Significantly though, her ministry does not contradict the nature of a woman’s position among God’s people – she was as a mother in Israel with a prophetic ministry to give guidance and counsel to God’s people. But she did so in terms of encouragement and exhortation, recognising that men were to have the leadership.
An Argument without force.
At this point let us consider for a moment what seems to be common argument these days, which goes something like this: if God hadn’t meant women to be pastors and teachers in the church, why has He given some women the gifts and talents that they obviously possess? The first problem with this kind of reasoning, is that it is not found in the Bible. Nowhere in the scriptures does it teach, ‘Let those women who are gifted become leaders and teachers of churches.’ The second major problem is that this logic simply ignores the way God has created us and the choices He expects us to make. He seeks our voluntary, loving obedience. That is how we are meant to grow as Christians. What would the proponents of this logic expect God to have done – to have created women ‘giftless’, ‘witless’ and ‘mindless’ in order to prevent them from ministering in this way? For this indeed is the flip side of their logic! The logic clearly implies that if God had not wanted women to be leaders and teachers, He would have created woman with such shortcomings that would have made sure she would never be able exceed the boundaries of His will in ministry – even if she wanted to! In other words, God would have made them incapable of disobeying Him in matters of ministry! But the Bible shows us that God has not created us as robots. We were not created with an inability to disobey Him. We were not created in such a way that would never involve self-denial; that would never at times involve us denying that which is self-pleasing and self-fulfilling. It is through loving, obedient choice that we are to avoid what is wrong and do what is good.
Even Christ humbled Himself and limited His power while He lived with Joseph and Mary. He was obedient and submitted Himself to them till the age of about 30. Even during the years of His ministry, He didn’t use the full extent of His power as He could have. He certainly didn’t use His powers to please Himself or the devil. He could have called 10,000 angels to rescue Him in Gethsemane. He could have allowed the Jews to make Him their King in John chapter 6. He could have avoided the cross. He could have given us the secrets of science long before people actually worked them out. He knew all things and could do all things, but He limited Himself and narrowed Himself down for the purpose of the cross! Glory be to His Name!
We are to choose God’s way by loving, believing obedience, not because He has made us incapable of doing otherwise! Christ did not choose the way of ‘self-realisation’, but of self-denial. From this He reaped great joy and a name that is above every name.
And if God had created woman ‘giftless’ and ‘witless’, how then could women like Miriam, Deborah, Hulda have ministered? How could they have communicated God’s wisdom and His word to His people? How could they prophesy in the church? How could the older women teach the younger (Titus 2:3, 4)? They would have been totally without gifting, and rendered utterly passive, according to the logic of the above argument!
And if this is God’s way – namely, to impose limitations on people who He doesn’t want to lead or to teach in His church – then why does He allow some men who have no real gifting to become leaders or teachers in the church? Why does He allow them to go beyond the bounds of their own individual gifting? Why does He allow some men to snatch power and position when it is not given to them by God Himself? Why does He allow men to misuse and abuse their power and position? The logic of the above argument simply falls apart from every point of view!
However, I think the argument will continue to enjoy circulation, not because of its validity, but because it has a certain immediate appeal and apparent strength – given society’s views on this matter – and therefore provides a simple and convenient way to support an outlook that takes no account of what the Bible actually teaches.
Hulda is another prophetess who appears briefly in 2 Chronicles at the time of King Josiah. Josiah is devastated when he reads the newly-discovered book of the Law. He humbles himself before God realising how deeply Israel had sinned against Him, and sends men to enquire of Huldah what shall befall Israel because of all their great sins. Huldah prophetically confirms God’s previously declared judgements against Israel but God’s mercy towards Josiah himself because of his brokenness and humility of heart. (2 Chron.34:18-28). Here again the prophetess acts as the oracle of God, communicating and revealing His will to His people.
Miriam is also called a prophetess but apart from leading the women in a triumphal song after the crossing of the Red Sea (Ex.15:20, 21), nothing is mentioned about her ministry. As a prophetess she no doubt communicated God’s word through her spiritual gifting to Israel (Num.12:1, 2). However, when she and Aaron tried to undermine Moses by criticism and seek equal status with him, they were both severely rebuked by God.
These three women represent the ministries mentioned in the OT that are exercised by women among the people of Israel. Of course there are other, wise, wonderful and courageous women – such as Esther and Abigail – mentioned in the OT. However, the above three represent specific God-given ministries carried out by women, and it is this that is the focus of this article. Of course, we can also mention the prophetess Anna from the Gospel of Luke, who served the Lord with fastings and prayers night and day and prophetically declared the coming ministry of Jesus to people in Jerusalem.
From all this it is not difficult to see that in the OT authoritative oversight and rule, and the prophetic ministry that included instruction, teaching, comment, exhortation, pleading and rebuke was carried out exclusively by men (We have already noted the singular, partial exception the Deborah represents). None of this is due to male domination or prejudice. It is revealed as God’s choice and as His order.
Some maintain that since Miriam and Huldah prophesied in Israel, that this was equivalent to teaching God’s people and therefore women can be teachers in the church. The Bible itself makes no such ‘leap in logic’. It is a desperate attempt to find some biblical ground for validating women’s ministry in teaching. The Bible is clear. Both in the Old and New Testaments women exercised the gift of prophecy, which by definition tends to be inspirational and spontaneous. However, these examples only illustrate that women can have prophetical gifting, not that they were appointed to teach or expound God’s truth to His people. The Bible presents us with a rounded picture, not contradictions.
The New Testament
So we can see that in the OT, leadership, headship and authoritative rule was carried out virtually exclusively by men – and men that God had chosen. Now if this state of affairs was just the result of men’s own ambition to impose and exert their rule over others; or if it was just the perpetuation of a tradition of male dominance in society; or if it was just meant to be a concession by God to the culture, not to say the prejudice of those times; or if it was just a temporary arrangement by God, then we now approach a time in history when God could change all that! We are of course talking of the time when God the Father sent His Son to the earth to reveal God’s own nature, will and being to men and women. Now comes the true and full revelation of God. Jesus said that whoever has seen Him, has seen the Father, and the book of Hebrews declares that Jesus represents to us the exact image of the God. There would be no compromise to culture or prejudice. Jesus came manifesting the will and nature of God. This would be the time to change things if they needed changing! And we know that Jesus delivered to men and women an understanding of God’s Kingdom that challenged them to the core and at times blew there minds.
How did the Lord Jesus Christ handle this issue of calling others to the ministry? Well, to begin with, He chose twelve apostles to join Him in the ministry – and they were all men! He commissioned them to preach, to cast out demons and to heal the sick. If women were to be called to, and involved in public, authoritative ministry among God’s community, then what could better demonstrate this than Jesus choosing women to be among those twelve? This would have been an ideal opportunity to put right any misconceptions that issued from past traditions. Jesus gave no explicit teaching concerning the role of men and women in ministry, but surely this is an occasion where actions speak just as loudly as words. His choices themselves ‘speak’. The choices He makes communicate an understanding of His will. By choosing twelve men, Jesus was again associating public, authoritative ministry with men, just as was the case in the OT.
And here is a vital point – when it comes to the revelation of God’s will and nature, Jesus was uncompromising and went right to the heart of the matter. He didn’t concede on vital points just because some would become upset, or because they held legalistically to past traditions, or because it was too difficult for them to understand or receive! He allowed many of His own disciples to turn back from following Him when they found His teaching about drinking His blood and eating His flesh too difficult. He so shocked His disciples with His teaching concerning divorce, remarriage and adultery that His disciples reacted by saying it’s better not to marry! He offended and infuriated the Pharisees with His teachings and actions but was not deterred in the slightest from revealing the true nature and will of God to men and women (Mt. 15:12-14). Jesus taught that not only was murder wrong but that to be angry with your brother without cause puts you in danger of judgement; He not only taught that should you not commit adultery with your body, but you are not to commit it with your mind either.
Jesus’ teaching was radical and uncompromising. He had indeed come to change things – and chiefly in our hearts and minds, as well as in our actions. He came to reveal what God’s Kingdom is like and to bring this Kingdom of God into the hearts of men and women! He came to reveal God to us! In this context, the notion that Jesus choose twelve men as a ‘concession’ to tradition or prejudice seems ludicrous. If women are to share in public ministry as well as men and in the same way as men, if this is part of God’s will, then it is such a vital point that in no way could we imagine that the Lord would have held back as a concession to prejudice, tradition or for fear of upsetting people! To propose such and explanation of Christ’s actions would be disingenuous indeed and totally ignores how He taught on other matters and the fact that he did upset many. To the surprise of his disciples, He didn’t think twice about talking to a Samaritan woman to fulfil God’s will. He saved the woman caught in adultery from certain death at the hands of the condemning religious Jews in a move that superseded the Mosaic Law and revealed all men to be sinners. And had there been prevailing attitudes concerning women in the ministry that distorted, misrepresented or contradicted God’s will and nature, then surely the Lord Jesus Christ would not have shied away from correcting this? If women were to be involved in public ministry in the same way as men, then could Jesus Christ knowingly have reinforced the traditions or prejudices of previous generations, not only in His own time but for generations to come? With one simple act He could have overturned the prejudice of generations – if prejudice it was! He could have chosen women as well to follow Him in His ministry of teaching, healing and deliverance to the Jews – but He didn’t.
Jesus also chose another seventy to go and preach, heal and deliver. It is not stated whether there were any women among them. The implication would be that He chose men. (See also the reference to Acts 1:21-22 below, which would very much seem to confirm this). Whatever one’s view on this last point, this is very reminiscent of Moses’ action of choosing seventy elders to help him with the oversight of the Lord’s people. Numbers 11:16,17. But no case can be made from the seventy concerning women’s ministry since it is not stated whether women were chosen or not.
Now, of course women responded to the message of Jesus and followed Him and served Him. This is abundantly clear in the Gospels. However, there is no account of Jesus calling a woman into ministry with Him to the Jews. It was only to men that Jesus said, ‘Follow me’ – in the sense that He called them to learn from Him and share in the ministry to the Jews. What the Lord Jesus Christ did in only choosing men for this ministry is totally consistent and in harmony with what we find in the rest of the Bible. The ‘pattern’ was not changed by Him.
The Acts of the Apostles
This pattern of things continues in the Acts of the Apostles. The apostles chose a replacement apostle for Judas specifically from among men.
Acts 1:21-22. Therefore, of these men who have accompanied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John, unto that same day that he was taken up from us, must one be ordained to be a witness with us of his resurrection.
From among all those that had accompanied Jesus during His ministry, it was only a man that could be appointed as an apostle. In doing so the apostles were only following in Jesus’ footsteps!
When they had problems with regard to the administration of help for the poor in Acts 6, the church was asked to choose seven men to help in this administration. They are not called ‘deacons’ in this passage but they were certainly appointed to serve the church in this matter. Why specifically men? The answer could lie in the fact that this work involved settling disputes between believers – the native Jews and the Grecian Jews. So these men were entrusted with oversight and authority to deal with such disputes. So even in a matter such as this, if it involves the exercise of an authoritative settling of disputes, then it it seems it was deemed most appropriate to appoint men.
In the Acts of the Apostles the apostles and evangelists were all men. In fact, all those who were involved in public preaching and teaching were men, whether Stephen (Ch.7), Philip (Ch.8), or the apostles Peter and Paul. The prophets and teachers in the church at Antioch mentioned in Acts 13:1 were all men. Those sent out by the churches to evangelise and establish churches or who were involved in such ministry were always men, whether Paul and Barnabas (Ch.13) or Silas. There is simply no instance of a woman being appointed or sent out by a church to preach or evangelise, nor is there any instance of a woman doing so. The same is true for a woman teaching in a church. Of course, giving personal witness to what the Lord Jesus Christ has done in our lives is the privilege of all who know Him – whether it is to relations, friends, work colleagues, or people we generally may come across. The Samaritan woman returned to her town and told the people about what Jesus had said. (John 4). What could be more wonderful or natural! He had spoken the most amazing things to her! But how can people possibly teach that this incident proves that women can teach and be pastors in the Lord’s church? This too, is an amazing phenomenon of logic! Let us all witness to what the Lord has done in our lives, but this does not qualify us to teach and to pastor a church! There is easily more than one incidence where a woman was the first one to turn to the Lord in her village (whether in Africa or elsewhere), and through her testimony others turned to the Lord. But again we note in the Acts of the Apostles, that where possible, men carry out this more public sharing of the Good News in a community:
Acts 11:19-21. Now they who were scattered abroad upon the persecution that arose about Stephen travelled as far as Phoenicia, and Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to none but unto the Jews only. And some of them were men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who, when they were come to Antioch, spoke unto the Greeks, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them: and a great number believed, and turned unto the Lord.
So by way of example, there is no historical account of a woman preaching/teaching or having oversight over a church or churches in the New Testament. This is a simple fact. Some deduce or make assumptions from a small number of verses that women were involved in such ministry. However, none of those verses actually states that a woman is teaching in a church or is leading a church. An explicit historical account is absent. Later we will look at those verses to exactly what they say.
This now brings us on to the NT teaching concerning elders, pastors and overseers ( KJAV ‘bishops’).
Elders (pastors, overseers)
Those who were charged with oversight over a church were also always men. Paul and Barnabas appointed ‘elders’ in all the churches that had been established through their ministry (Acts 14:23). In Titus 1:5-9 the apostle Paul instructs Titus, who was in Crete, to make sure that he appoints elders in every city, and he gives instructions as to the qualifications for eldership. (Similar instructions and guidelines are also found in 1 Tim. 3:1-7). These are men who are entrusted with the oversight and care of a local church. That it is ‘men’ who are appointed as elders is clearly indicated by the expression, ‘the husband of one wife’. Here we also notice that the designation of ‘elder’ is synonymous or interchangeable with ‘overseer’ or what the AV translates as ‘bishop’. The Greek for the latter designation is ‘episkopos’, which literally means ‘the one having oversight’ or ‘overview’. The term ‘elder’ (presbuteros) no doubt indicates that the person chosen is to have a certain maturity, both in terms of personal holiness, conduct and experience, as well as in age. The term ‘overseer’ would refer to his function of overseeing and caring for the church. When referring to church leadership, both of these terms are always used in their masculine forms and refer to men. The NT has no example of a woman pastor/elder and it explicitly designates that those appointed as elders/overseers/pastors should be men.
In Acts 20:17 the apostle Paul calls for the elders of the church at Ephesus to come and meet him at Miletus. He is on a journey to Jerusalem and wants to give them final exhortations and warnings, as he knows he will not see them again. In verse 28 he exhorts them to take care of themselves and of the ‘flock’ (Gr. poimnion) over which the Holy Spirit had made them overseers (episkopos). He further instructs them to ‘feed’ the church of God. The word ‘feed’ is translated from the Greek verb ‘poimaino’, which indeed means to feed (especially of sheep or cattle) but also can have the meaning of ruling or governing (particularly in reference to the Lord Jesus Christ. Mtt. 2:6; Rev. 2:27). Jesus exhorts Peter in John 21:16 to feed His sheep and Peter also instructs the elders of churches to ‘feed’ God’s ‘flock’ (1 Peter 5:1-4). He further warns them that they are not to dominate God’s flock but to live exemplary lives before them, so that when the Chief Shepherd appears, they shall then receive of glory. In other words, elders are to be as shepherds; they are to lead and feed God’s flock but without being heavy-handed or domineering. Their work is ‘pastoral’.
We read in Ephesians 4:11 that God gave specific ministries within the church. Five are mentioned and the fourth is ‘pastors’. This is translated from the Greek word poimen, which simply means ‘shepherd’. We can see how this word ‘pastor’ (poimen) has the same root as the words ‘to feed’ or ‘to shepherd’ (poimaino) and ‘flock’ (poimnion). When we tie this in with the above scriptures, we can see that whatever else this word applies to, it must surely apply to the pastors that God has provided the local church with; in other words, ‘pastors’ is synonymous with ‘elders’ and ‘overseers’ and simply emphasises their role of feeding and caring for God’s people, as Peter does when addressing elders in his first Epistle (chapter 5). And if those appointed as elders or overseers are to be men, it is clear that pastors will also be men, as all these terms refer to the same position but each term emphasises are different aspect of their function or status.
The New Testament church under the leadership of the apostles and through the inspiration of God’s Spirit continues what was true in the Old Testament, namely, the appointment as men as overseers over the people of God.
With few exceptions, nearly 2000 years of church history has followed this teaching concerning men being appointed as apostles, elders/pastors and evangelists. It has done so because of the clarity of the scriptures on this matter both in terms of example and in terms of precept.
This generation is the first where this is being called into question in such a fundamental way and on such a wide scale. Is this because for about 2000 years we have failed to see what the scriptures ‘really’ teach and only now is the ‘truth’ dawning upon us, or is it because churches are following the spirit of this age and the mind-set of this generation with its views on ‘equal rights’? The culture of this generation overrules the culture and teaching of the Bible.
We will now look at what the New Testament teaches concerning women and teaching. Then we will consider the verses that some consider validate women’s roles as pastors and teachers.
The teaching of the NT concerning women and ministry
Let me just reiterate at this juncture that what I am doing in this article is to gather and compare all the relevant passages from the entire Bible that relate to the subject we are considering. We are not just looking at the meaning of a verse without reference to its immediate context or to its significance in the framework of the Bible as a whole. The Bible comments on itself. One verse or passage will qualify, clarify or expand on another. This does not result in contradictions (since the Bible is divinely inspired) but builds up a balanced and complete picture to give us a proper understanding of a truth. We will come to no proper understanding or conclusion if we simply employ the tactic of going for those verses which appear to support our made-up minds, then bend them into a shape that will fit our mindset and quietly ignore the rest of scripture.
At the end of this study, we will look at some of the arguments that present the opposite view. I am leaving these till the end to save there being too many interruptions in the course of this exposition and so lose the thread.
So we now need to look at what the NT specifically and explicitly teaches on this subject. (Remember, the NT has no example that demonstrates that a woman taught to a (mixed) company of the Lord’s people, nor an instruction explicitly indicating that women could teach or pastor a church). Paul writes the following in 1 Cor.14:34,35,
‘Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be submissive, as also says the law. And if they will learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is shameful for women to speak in the church.’
It seems the occasion for writing this, in part at least, seems to be a habit of some women at Corinth to interrupt the public meeting with questions or to dispute a matter. He tells them that such conduct is improper. This is not a ban on women praying or prophesying in church meetings as these are specifically allowed in 1 Cor.11:5. This is why we should never look at a verse in isolation to establish a teaching if there are other verses that have a direct bearing on the subject. Of course women can pray in gatherings; of course they can prophesy. This is clearly allowed in scripture and also confirmed by God through the prophets, Joel 2:28 and Acts 2:17. Prophecy as a gift is open to all (1Cor.14:31) and is spontaneous and inspirational in nature. What is decisive here is that in itself the gift of prophecy alluded to in these verses does not confer on the believer a special status or recognised position in the church in terms of leadership, oversight or authority. Anyone can prophesy and the others are to judge its validity. However, in these verses Paul is making a deeper point. If the main issue is that meetings should not be interrupted, then he could have just given the instruction for women not to do so and to ask their husbands at home and left it at that. However, he states that women are to keep silence in the churches; that they are not allowed to speak – the context seems to be teaching / debating; that they are to be in submission. He is here providing fundamental principles with regard to women’s conduct in church gatherings and it is because of these principles that such interruptions are particularly inappropriate. He is saying much more than, ‘People shouldn’t interrupt the meetings with questions or debates.’ The principles he is here laying down indicate that teaching others in the church does not fall in the domain of women. Women are to portray submission and not to assume the role of teacher. In this passage Paul is not saying that women shouldn’t open their mouths with regard to prayer and prophecy; the context is of one of learning and teaching. In today’s culture all this is explosive stuff!
That this is the import of what he is saying is confirmed in 1 Tim. 2:11-13. (Some modern ‘scholarship’ proposes that the Pastoral Epistles were not written by Paul, but perhaps by a follower of his. The reasons for doing so are in no way conclusive and are all open to debate, so this article accepts Pauline authorship as valid and all given scripture to be inspired.)
‘Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection.’
Paul is making exactly the same points here as in I Corinthians – learning, in quietness, with all submission. In this passage he actually highlights the contrast – ‘learn’ rather than ‘teach’. ‘Let the woman learn…’ contrasted with, ‘…I permit not a woman to teach…’ (Paul isn’t here saying that we – whether we are male or female – learn something from every speaker. It is not a comment on the ability of the speaker. He is making the point that the woman’s role is not one of teaching in the church. Most of us are not teachers in the church. We all listen and learn from what is preached, depending on the ability and gifting of the speaker.)
Furthermore, ‘with all submission’ in verse 11 clearly refers to woman’s submission in the church gathering, where both men and women are present, as is manifestly clear from the Corinthian passage. The submission is to the church order – an order ordained by God where men are entrusted with the teaching ministry within the church. The submission here is not fundamentally to the elders / pastors, but to a divinely appointed order that is to reflect an aspect of divine truth when the church is gathered together. I shall elaborate on this essential point in a moment. However, women of maturity can certainly teach or give instruction to other women with regard to family life – Titus 2:4. It has been said that the best commentary on the Bible is the Bible itself, and this is very true. Through comparing relevant verses we see now that it is not that women have no ability to teach, but that the context in which they teach is decisive. We also see in the letter to the Corinthians that prayer to God or the giving of inspired, spontaneous messages in church gatherings is open to all. Essentially, the question is not one of ability in teaching; it is one of a divinely appointed order and of context.
So, as far as teaching is concerned, women are to listen with all submission. This language is quite emphatic; not just with submission but with all submission. He is obviously keen that woman is to reflect complete and real submission in the gatherings to the church order. The Greek word hupotage means ‘submission’ or ‘subjection’ and is used in three other places in the NT, namely, 2 Cor.9:13; 1Tim.3:4 and Gal.2:5. In the first passage it refers to the believers’ submission to the Gospel; in the second to children being in submission to their father; and in the third negatively it speaks of not submitting to the assumed authority of others. In all these instances it is used to designate the deference and submission of one party to another who has recognised authority. The verb of the same noun is hupotasso, and in each case in the NT this verb carries the same meaning of submission, subjection or deference to another or to recognised authority.
As we shall see, this has nothing to do with culture, sociological or ‘religious factors’, personal prejudice, legalism or male subjugation or domination of woman. It has everything to do with an aspect of divine revelation – and this is why he is labouring the point. He is passionate that God’s pattern should be followed and his reasons are purely ‘theological’, as we shall see from this passage. Paul is not out for the suppression of women. He is zealous that Christ should be manifest in our gatherings not just in our conduct and worship, but in the order of things as well.
In verse 12 Paul continues,
‘But I permit not a woman to teach, nor to have authority over the man, but to be in silence.’
This verse has been the subject of such incredible scrutiny and almost microscopic analysis! Why? Because it is difficult to understand? Because the Greek is unclear? Why have so many battled with it over recent decades and tried to bend or stretch or contort the meaning of this verse? Is it shrouded in obscurity or does it present almost insurmountable problems of interpretation or exegesis? None of these represent the fundamental and real reason why this verse has been the subject of such controversy. The reason is this: it is a ‘stumblingblock’ and ‘offence’ to many today, even among believers. It offends the sensibilities of the equal rights lobby and those believers who have bought into, or brought up in this pervasive spirit. Some will just dismiss it out of hand. It upsets, angers, infuriates or is just an annoyance to others who find it too difficult to believe and accept. It runs counter to modern-day focus and idolisation of ‘self-esteem’, ‘self-realisation’ and ‘self-fulfilment’. Deference and submission have become counter-culture and almost laughable. ‘Don’t you tell me what to do! I’m just as good as you! Who are you to limit my abilities and potential!’ This is the spirit that now works in society – and it is infiltrating churches, in attitude if not in word. However, it is not the Spirit of the Lamb.
The fundamental problem is not the Greek or the grammar, but the message itself. The message of this verse is so counter-culture, it stands in such opposition to the modern mindset that there is bound to be a gigantic clash. In the nature of things it must be so. It is not politically correct. It stands in the way of women having leadership and teaching ministry in the church. So now the great work of scrutiny, bending and distorting begins until we end up with an interpretation that nullifies the very meaning of the verse and allows that which the verse explicitly forbids! Of course this opposition will also bear the mantle of ‘scholarly work’, or make a claim to ‘what the Greek really means’, but scholarly, alas, does not always mean infallible! If prejudice is at work, ‘learning’ only becomes a tool that one uses to achieve what one wants. But lest I fall into the same fault of interpreting this verse according to my own pre-set views, we now need to look at the language of verse 12.
There is nothing strange about Paul’s comments here in 1Timothy 2. They do not represent some sudden radical departure from what is in the rest of the Bible! There is simply no example of a woman teaching to the church in the NT, that is, to a mixed company of both men and women. All explicit references show that it is men who teach in the church, as in Acts 13:1. Here five believers are mentioned who are active in the church at Antioch in the prophetic and teaching ministry, and all of them are men. There is no example of a woman getting up to teach and instruct a gathering of the Lord’s people in all of the Bible, nor is there any example of a woman having a teaching ministry in this sense. (Even Deborah only provides a partial exception at most to this. Israelites came to her for counsel. She did not instruct Israel as men like Samuel or Ezra did. Moreover, her disposition was one of deference, as we saw in her dealings with Barak.) So Paul’s admonition in verse 12 accords completely with what was practiced in both Old and New Testaments. Surely, this stands in strong support of Paul’s plain words here! What explicit scriptural example do those who oppose Paul’s words or the clear meaning of them bring forward to show that there is some kind of contradiction here, or that Paul’s words need to be understood differently? The only thing they can do, is first ‘neutralise’ the clear meaning of many passages by putting on them a construction that they don’t support, and then proceed to claim that women acting as teachers and pastors is implied by certain verses. We shall be considering these later.
Paul’s comments here constitute a whole. One truth proceeds from another. He is not contradicting himself nor does he qualify his statements or point out exceptions to them! He is intelligent enough and passionate enough for God’s truth to be able to qualify his statements where necessary. In other words, he could have said, ‘Let the women learn silence with all submission. But a woman may teach when the church is agreed and she is not dominating men but teaches with their sanction.’ Any such form of words would be natural and clear. We cannot impute to Paul such incredible irresponsibility on such an important matter or such an abandonment of normal reasoning by suggesting he meant something like this! You might as well deny the inspiration of scripture. Are people seriously suggesting that Paul is not able to put things in context and use the language of qualification and exception? Would he exclude all women from teaching in the church gathering when in his mind he knows there are circumstances where women could teach to a congregation?
If lack of education were a barrier – as some suggest him to imply – would he deny such women their opportunity? No, he wouldn’t. He would have said something like, ‘I permit not a woman to speak unless she has education and has an aptitude for teaching.’ He does this very thing in the next chapter. He gives conditions; he makes exceptions and he gives the reason why! He says that one of the qualities of an elder is that he must be ‘apt to teach’. He stipulates that a deacon must not be a new convert, and he gives the reason why, namely, to deprive a new convert of an occasion of getting puffed up with pride, which would be to his own detriment. Paul is well able to make generalisations and provide exceptions and give reasons for them. And he does give a reason for stating that women should not teach, as we shall see in a moment.
Do we actually take note of what our Bibles say? Is it not clear from scripture that education (beyond being able to read) is never a requirement for preaching or teaching in the Bible? When the religious leaders hauled Peter and John before them for questioning, the marvelled because they realised they were ‘unlearned and ignorant men’! Acts 4:13. Education is never mentioned as a condition of service or teaching. Paul says that Elders must be apt to teach, which refers to the ability to communicate clearly what we know, not to our education. If education were the issue, Paul would have mentioned it!
To return to 1 Tim.2:12. The backdrop is this – women are to learn in silence with all submission. It follows from this that women should not teach. We have seen that in the scriptures that being appointed to teach or being recognised as a teacher in the church is regarded as having or exercising authority. Therefore, it is consistent with submission that women do not teach in the church. In fact, the woman’s role as designed by God is such that Paul proceeds to state that she is not to have or exercise authority over man. Paul gives no exceptions. Indeed, rather than qualifying his comment or granting exceptions, he follows this statement by returning to the prescription that women are to be in silence when it comes to the matter of teaching in the church.
The AV translation states, ‘nor to usurp authority over the man’. The AV is here trying to give meaning to the Greek verb ‘authenteo’ by rendering it as ‘usurp authority’. This Greek verb only occurs here in the NT. Outside of the NT, it has variously been used with the meaning of ‘to be responsible for’, ‘acting autocratically or on one’s own authority’ or ‘exercising authority or dominion over others’. The prefix to the verb is ‘au’, having the meaning in Greek of ‘self’. So the word can imply the meaning of ‘taking responsibility oneself’’ or ‘promoting oneself to position of authority’. This is maybe why the AV translators came up with ‘usurp’. However, one must be careful not to make too much of the components of compound a word with regard to pinpointing the actual meaning of the whole word. What is clear is that no amount of hair-splitting analysis of this word can detract from its overall meaning of ‘exercising authority (over another)’. We also note that Paul does not say, ‘But I permit not a woman to teach except she be granted authority over the man, but to be in silence.’ He is consistent. Women are not to teach nor have any kind of authority over men (teaching being one kind of authority), but to be in silence.
God’s own design
This, as said, constitutes a complete, consistent picture. And he gives a clear reason for all this, and the reason is theological – not social, educational or sexist! ‘For Adam was first formed, then Eve.’ (1 Tim.2:13). The whole thing ties together – it is consistent and revelatory, not arbitrary or biased – and the foundation of the teaching relates to God’s own design and purpose in the priorities established by Him when He created man and woman. However one interprets his comments, whatever one thinks of them, one cannot dispute that the reason he gives for this teaching is theological. It is clear; it is succinct. It is based on God’s own design and order – a design and order that is fundamental and significant in that it has implications for the role of man and woman in creation, in the community, in marriage and the family and in the church. The Bible has something to say about the role of man and woman in each one of these contexts, clearly putting man at the head. And it is a role established by God. God ascribes roles, but He does not impart infallibility to anyone!
God created man first. God created man directly from the soil. There was no other creation like him. Adam was not only the first man, he was the first human-kind. God certainly didn’t take an ape and improve upon him! Man was not made a little higher than the apes, he was made a little lower than the angels! He was the first man and he was made directly from the dust of the earth by God, not a copy or improvement of another creature. This is why Paul says in 1 Cor.11:7 that the man is the image and glory of God, but the woman (though made in the image of God) is the glory of the man. Because he was made first, something was ascribed to Adam in terms of God’s glory that is not ascribed to Eve who was made out of Adam. Both Adam and Eve were made in the image of God. This foundation and truth is unshakable! But to him whom God first created, namely Adam, God chose to impart a role or status that would reflect and represent an attribute of God Himself; and it is a role that is not given to Eve. From the context of 1 Tim.2 and 1 Cor.11 (as well as other passages), this attribute conferred on Adam is expressed in terms of headship, leadership or authority. (We will look at this again when we consider the passage in 1 Cor.11.) Man was to fulfil the role of headship and authority and thus reflect the divine authority on earth. Woman, who was later created out of Adam’s side, could not have such a role conferred on her. There cannot be two heads! Paul’s statement that woman should not have authority over man goes back to God’s intention and design in originally creating them. Man was to carry the role of oversight and direction and woman to exercise submission to such oversight and authority.
The portrayal of ‘submission’ is vital as it is a portrayal of an attribute that is within the Godhead and it is a portrayal of the submission of the church to the Lord Jesus Christ. Woman’s submission to man is not an expression of ‘inferiority’, but a representation of a divine attribute, as well as a reflection of divine order!
(Society’s understanding has been thoroughly polluted and corrupted by ideas of equality, whereby they cannot conceive of an equality without having the right to the same role as the other person. We can only be equal if we can all share the same role! Ideas of humanism forbid anyone to inflict such a hurtful injury on our ‘self-esteem’ by suggesting we cannot have the same role as them! To do so would be to say that we are inferior to them – and how hurtful is that? So goes the world’s thinking, and many Christians today are going with this thinking!
Before there was a world, or man and woman, or language, there was God. Man did not create God or give Him His attributes. It is God who made men and women in His own image and in such a way as to reflect something of His own nature. It is He who revealed Himself to us in terms that He Himself chose. He created man and woman; and God has revealed Himself to us in terms of Father. Jesus Christ is His Son. God did not ‘borrow’ these terms from somewhere else. It is God who created us in such a way that would reflect something of His own person, and He has identified Himself with the father figure and therefore expects us to understand and know Him in terms of ‘father’. It is by the Spirit that we cry, ‘Abba, Father’. We are to be baptised in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. God has chosen to identify Himself in these terms. It is disingenuous, to say the least, to suggest that because Jesus expresses His compassion and sorrow for Jerusalem in terms of a hen wanting to gather her chicks, that this should annul God’s revelation of Himself as ‘father’, and that we can equally describe Him as ‘mother’ or as ‘woman’ or as ‘parent’.
This is not biblical interpretation; it is iniquity; it is blasphemy.
Both man and woman are made in God’s image and are called to the same eternal glory with God. But it is iniquitous to invert the image of God and the design for which He created man and woman. Jesus never addressed God as ‘mother’ nor does anyone in the Bible! This fact is ignored by those who wish to ‘import’ the world’s thinking into the church.
It is no accident that a number of things are happening at the same time today. There is an inversion of God’s order across the board. There is the blasphemy of calling God ‘mother’; there is the inversion of the roles of men and women in society; there is the growing effeminacy among men and masculinity among women; there is the rise and acceptance of all forms sexuality; there is growing trend to accept women pastors and teachers. These things are not a coincidence. They are all related and are the result of a spirit that is abroad in the world today to invert God’s order. It is the same spirit that works all these things in the world and without doubt it has entered many churches. Surely it is plain to see that what is happening in many churches today is both a reflection and a direct result of what is happening in the world. The ideas of feminism and equal rights has been embraced by some Christians and led them to invert God’s order, to invert the image of how God revealed Himself and how He wanted to be known. And these things shall not only increase in this generation, but they shall also spread globally till they virtually encompass every nation and baptise them in a mindset and attitude that is globally anti-Christ.
The order and purpose in God creating man and woman provides the foundation of Paul’s teaching. Everything hangs on this! God gave Adam the instructions concerning not eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil before forming Eve. Woman was later formed from out of man’s side. God put Adam to sleep while He formed Eve from one of his ribs. She became bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. ‘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 2:23). This is more than fact. This is the revelation of God’s truth. Adam prefigures Christ. Christ came under a darkness for three hours on the cross as God put the sin of the world on Him. After those three hours Christ called out, ‘It is finished!’ Then a spear was thrust into the side of Jesus on the cross and out of His side flowed blood and water, John 19:34. These are the elements by which Christ would cleanse and sanctify a Bride fit for Himself – the Church! (Hebrews 9:19; 1 John 5:6; 1:7). And so the Bible declares that we, Christ’s Church, are ‘members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones.’ Note the parallels between Adam and Christ. Paul is taking the truths of creation and applying them to Christ and His church. God fore-knowing what He would do through Christ, reflected these truths concerning Christ and His Bride when He formed Eve out of Adam’s side, Eph. 5:25-32. These truths constitute a unity and divine revelation. Headship and leadership is conferred to man. This is why Paul says that the wife should be subject to her husband even as the church is subject to Christ, since her creation out of the side of Adam while asleep prefigures the formation of the Church out of Christ’s death. Therefore this submission is to be displayed in her role in marriage, as is woman’s submission to man’s headship in the church.
Ephesians 5:22-25, “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and He is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it.”
Paul is clearly linking ‘man’ to ‘Christ’ and ‘woman’ to the church. Man is to represent Christ’s headship and woman is to represent the church’s submission to that headship. This analogy is not arbitrary. As already stated, in God’s order of creation Adam prefigures Christ, not just as a metaphor, but in terms of having authority and headship in human relationships. Paul says in verse 33 of this passage that the wife should reverence her husband. How fundamental this truth is and how deep it goes, is shown by the apostle Peter,
“Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands; that, if any obey not the word, they also may without the word be won by the conduct of the wives; While they behold your chaste conversation coupled with fear. Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel; But let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price. For after this manner in the old time the holy women also, who trusted in God, adorned themselves, being in subjection unto their own husbands: Even as Sara obeyed Abraham, calling him lord: whose daughters ye are, as long as ye do well, and are not afraid with any amazement.” (1 Peter 3:1-6).
The teaching of Peter is in complete harmony with that of Paul. The same kind of truths declared by Paul are here repeated by Peter. Here again we have the teaching of the woman’s submission to the man. Let the unbelieving husband be influenced by the wife ‘without the word’; let her be adorned with a meek and quiet spirit. As in Paul’s comments regarding women teaching in church, so here we have the same elements of quietness, not preaching to men, and submission. Note that the significance of this truth goes deeper than just the relationship between believers. Peter is saying that this truth of the role of man and woman as established by God in the order of creation is so fundamental that the believing wife is not to transgress it by preaching at her unbelieving husband. To do so is to assume authority over him. Peter says the wife is to follow in Sarah’s footsteps, who called her husband ‘lord’. In this passage we see that the wife’s submission to her husband is not based on the idea that he is a believer – because he is not – but on the fact that he is her husband. And here we hit upon a fundamental feature of biblical truth – submission to delegated authority. The wife’s submission to her husband here is not based on his superior spirituality – he’s an unbeliever! It is not based on his greater wisdom. It is not based on the idea that he is a ‘better’ anything! It is based on the fact that he is her husband. And authority and leadership in the family and in the church have been placed on man’s shoulders by God – this is the basis of submission. It is submission to divine order. Man’s headship is divinely appointed. Woman’s submission to that headship is equally divinely appointed! Both appointments are divinely given and equally reflect the divine! For one or the other to abdicate or to depart from this God-given position, is to corrupt the image of the divine. Man’s headship was conferred on him at creation. The proviso of course is that the man does not require the woman to sin in any matter. Then she must obey God rather than man. Things have changed so much over the last 60 years that even many Christians will be incensed at what has just been written.
Man is to represent God’s authority and Woman is to display submission to that authority. We have already seen that the teaching ministry to God’s people in the OT was exercised exclusively by men and is connected with having recognised authority. The same is true of the NT. This is why Paul’s statement that women are not to exercise authority over men fits in with the rest of scripture.
Other interpretations on husbands and wives:
We pause to consider other ‘interpretations’ to these passages in Ephesians, 1 Peter and 1 Timothy. However, I am not sure that they classify as interpretations since they do not interpret the apostles’ actual words, but read into them a context that the apostles through negligence, irresponsibility or sheer bad communication left unsaid! Concerning the wife’s submission to her husband, some suggest that Paul is here making an accommodation to prevailing (Roman) cultural attitudes of the time, where the husband ruled the home. It is suggested that full emancipation for the wife from these cultural restrictions would have been too much for people to stomach. So they believe that Paul was simply making a ‘temporary concession’ to the culture of the day, but that in essence he was starting a process of mutual consideration between husband and wife that would ultimately lead to the wife’s liberation from being under such a cultural yoke! They suggest that, according to the apostles, the wife’s submission was only meant to be a temporary accommodation that would gradually die away! It is incredible what lengths of abandoning logic and reason people will go to salvage what they want to believe.
The first obvious thing wrong with this postulation is that the apostles say no such thing! If that is what Paul meant in Ephesians 5 he would have said so! The apostles were perfectly capable of making such a point and to put things in an appropriate context. Paul makes no allusion to culture. Paul does not hint at a temporary state of affairs. Paul’s exhorts the wives to submit to their husbands as unto the Lord, not because of any cultural values or to avoid offending Roman sensibilities – he could and would have said so – but because the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is Head of the church. His reason is clearly given, and it is theological, godly and unchanging here on earth. Paul was quite capable of saying, ‘At the present time let the wives be subject to their husbands so as not to offend the unbeliever…’ He did not. The above argument does not represent any kind of valid biblical interpretation; it indulges in an abandonment of common reasoning in a desperate attempt to ward off a truth that is found unpalatable or intolerable. Could Paul have expressed himself so badly, that the meaning of the text lies in words that are not used nor even hinted at?
And this is the second objection to this idea. Paul is able to express himself clearly and define contexts. He says, for example in 1 Cor.10, that if an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you are disposed to go, eat what is put before you without asking any questions. But if the unbeliever says that it is meat that had been offered to idols, then the Christian is to refuse it – for the sake of the conscience of the unbeliever. The unbeliever may think that Christianity is just like any other idolatrous religion, and you are not to give this impression. Paul here takes into account the reaction of an unbeliever in determining our behaviour. Yes, you can eat meat but don’t purchase from or eat it with unbelievers if they tell you it is meat that has been offered to idols. His arguments are clear and contextualised.
In 1 Corinthians 10:25-29 Paul states we have liberty, but we must consider the conscience of others in things that are important. But no such context is given in Ephesians 5. He doesn’t say, ‘For the sake of the unbelievers let the wife show submission to her husband.’ Those who hold this interpretation do not make it clear whether the wife was to show this ‘cultural’ submission only when they had visitors or at all times. And here we come against the third important objection to this kind of interpretation. If Christ has brought a liberation that puts husband and wife on the same footing with regard to showing submission and deference, can we imagine that this would be immediately forfeited to cultural prejudice? If Paul was simply making a concession to social custom in obliging the wife to submit to her husband, why does he totally omit to mention in the same passage and context the counter truth of ‘full liberation’ and ‘equality of position’ that belong to believers? (We shall look at Gal.3:28 and its context later.) If Christ had died to change the status of things, it is inconceivable that Paul or Peter would remain totally silent on the matter in the passages we are considering.
But as we have seen, Paul is not silent about the context. He states very clearly that the basis of the wife’s submission to the husband is that he is the head of the wife. That is the foundation of his exhortation. There is also no ambiguity about the meaning of the word ‘submit’. Its use in the NT signifies submission or deference to recognised authority. Its use in the context of Christ and the church also underlines this. There is also no confusion about how Paul is using the word ‘head’; he is referring to leadership and authority – even as Christ is Head of the church.
In the passage in 1 Peter 3, the apostle does not refer to secular social customs either when exhorting wives to be in submission to their husbands. He refers to ‘holy women’ who in times of old ‘trusted in God’ and were ‘in submission to their husbands’. Then he refers them to Sarah, who ‘obeyed’ her husband, calling him ‘lord’. The wife’s submission to her husband is not based on anything in secular society or on changing customs. Peter refers to an ancient, godly custom that has not lost its relevance!
It is a real pity that one has to employ so many words and seem to be hammering a point. The clarity of the apostles’ arguments should have rendered the above interpretations immediately untenable and the rebuttals here redundant. But in view of currency these baseless arguments have gained, I could not leave them unchallenged. However, let me repeat that nothing written here is meant to give ground for any legalistic application of these spiritual truths, or to justify any past of present abuses. I shall not attempt in this article to go into the details of how this is all to work out in marriage. But let me make a few comments. The wife’s submission is obviously not meant to be a matter teeth-gritting, grudging, perfunctory obedience. Like everything else in the Christian life, it is certainly not meant to be done just out of mechanical adherence to tradition. First, there would have to be an understanding that this is the way that God has ordained things. Her submission as such to her husband would actually be an act or disposition of obedience to God. It is out of love and honour for God that she will respect her husband as her head. It is not a recognition that he is right or perfect or more wise! It is a recognition of a divinely appointed order that will secure the greatest blessing for both her and her husband. Submission to appointed or delegated authority is a feature of God’s commands.
1 Timothy 6:1, ‘Let as many servants as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honour, that the name of God and his doctrine be not blasphemed.’
Here we see that Paul is exhorting believers not to be dismissive or contemptuous of their masters. (Paul isn’t condoning slavery. Elsewhere he encourages servants to take freedom if it is offered to them.). Perhaps he is warning them against despising their masters in the light of the fact that they now belong to and know God, and their masters are unbelievers. Paul exhorts them to wholeheartedly respect their masters. They are in a legally binding position and would make themselves criminally culpable by rebelling in any way. To show such disobedience, rebellion or contempt for their authority would actually dishonour God. They would bring both the truth of God and His Character into disrepute in the consciences of unbelievers.
Titus 2:9-11, “Exhort servants to be obedient unto their own masters, and to please them well in all things; not talking back; Not pilfering, but showing all good fidelity; that they may adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour in all things.”
Paul confirms these things in the above verses, saying that their service of submission, done from the heart, actually carries or reflects moral beauty – it typifies and essential quality of truth and of God Himself. That such submission has nothing to do with the perfection or goodness of the master is made clear in these verses,
1 Peter 2:18-19, “Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the harsh. For this is commendable, if a man for conscience toward God endures grief, suffering wrongfully”.
Submission and respect – as long as it does not involve sinning or disobeying God – is to be rendered to recognised or delegated authority because it is the authority in that context, not because of the infallibility of the one ruling or governing – even if the one exercising authority is extremely unpleasant! For this reason David did not strike or seek to remove King Saul from his position of power. Although God had anointed David to be King of Israel years earlier through the hands of Samuel, David remained in submission to a cruel, vindictive and brutal king! He would not move against Saul himself.
None of the above is written to encourage a husband to treat his wife as a slave or servant! Or that a wife should think of herself as such! It is simply to show that such submission to the order of things is not only something that pleases God, but it is also a manifestation of an aspect of His own disposition, displayed pre-eminently by His Son – but more of that later. I am here simply trying to clarify the basis of things. Please do not draw conclusions that I haven’t stated! I am not encouraging some kind of servile silence in wives. Husbands and wives are heirs together of this Life, and of course there is room for sharing and airing things, but the bottom line is that there needs to be a recognition of the husband as the head.
Let us also note that Paul nowhere says that the husband should rule or subdue his wife. The scripture nowhere states that Christ dominates His church. It gives him no leave be legalistic in his application of these truths. These scriptures are not a carte blanche for him to order his wife into obedience. He cannot just ‘sit back’ and expect servile submission because he thinks scripture is on his side! His role is one of active, loving obedience to the injunction to love his wife as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for it. There is nothing passive about this. There is nothing mediocre, casual or self-indulgent about this! The husband should not try to ‘pull rank’ in a fit of pique or seek to rule autocratically. The husband must love his wife and give himself in such a way that gives her the greatest opportunity to grow and flourish in the Lord. If he doesn’t always find the response he expects, let him know that Christ does not always get the response and respect that He expects and deserves from His people! Yet He continues to love and exercise patience (and to continue loving), and pray (and to continue loving), and care for His bride (and to continue loving), and speak the truth in love (and to continue loving), and continue loving to the end! That is Paul’s exhortation to men! The love of Christ, and love for Christ must be in the husband and the wife for these things to work!
Other Teachings and interpretations
We continue to look at other objections to what I am here outlining. Others have stated that in 1 Tim.2:12 Paul’s prohibition on women teaching was to prevent the possibility of false teaching being brought into the church. They maintain that many had been affected by Gnostic teachings at Ephesus, particularly women, and it would therefore have been dangerous to allow women to be teachers at that time. They say that this verse really means something like, “Until women have learned what they need in order to get a full grasp of the true teaching, they are not to teach or have authority over men.” (Gloria Redekop’s interpretation, “Let the women learn: 1 Timothy 2:8-15 reconsidered.” Studies in Religion 19; 1990).
This idea suffers from all the defects that the argument about lack of education does! Paul simply says no such thing. It is an invention as far as Paul’s own reasoning is concerned. As we have seen, Paul would have been careful to make such things plain. He also gives his reasons as having a theological basis, not a temporal or social one.
It truly amazes me how people are not embarrassed to put forward such bizarre suggestions! It seems people are so intent on proving their point that they can make the Bible mean anything they want. Such zeal blinds one to the obvious and to the normal use of reason and language. In such a vein they continue by postulating that when Paul uses the word ‘permit’, it has a limited meaning. They state that this word, epitrepo, is used to apply to specific permission in a specific context. I agree. This is how the word is used in many languages – since any permission given relates to a specific context! The context here is whether women are permitted to teach or have authority over men, and Paul says they are not permitted. What’s the problem, then? Well, it is further suggested that the use of the indicative tense in the Greek indicates an immediate context. I agree. The immediate context is one of whether women should teach in the public gathering or not. What’s the problem? Well, by immediate context they mean is was a temporary measure. It is suggested that the indicative tense indicates a temporary prohibition. However, now they have gone again into the realm of inventions. They maintain the meaning is something like, ‘I am not allowing at this time…’
Such words as, ‘presently’, ‘for the moment’ or ‘at this time’ are not in the Greek. Secondly, the present indicative in Greek, as in English, is also commonly used to denote a general state of a habitual action (e.g.1 John 3:8,9). You cannot arbitrarily or at a whim choose to translate it as a present continuous (‘I am not allowing’ – and where does the ‘presently’ come from?). Moreover, ‘permit’ or ‘allow’ in any language will by its very meaning refer to a specific situation. In the nature of things, many situations may be limited to a specific circumstance and therefore of limited duration – ‘I am not allowed to go out tonight.’ Such a limitation in time is due to the circumstance, not to the meaning of the word ‘permit’ or ‘allow’. That such prohibition is of necessity ‘temporary’, is not intrinsic to its meaning.
Some suggest that 1 Tim.2:12 refers to ‘wives’ and not ‘women’ since the word for ‘woman’ and ‘wife’ is the same in the Greek. This lacks any real force. The exhortations in this chapter have general application and don’t specifically address the relationship between husband and wife in the way that we find in Eph.5, Col.3 or 1 Peter 3. Moreover, one could then equally argue that it is ‘husbands’ who are to pray (not all men) without wrath and doubting; that it is only wives (and not all women) who are to dress modestly and do good works! Likewise, that fact that ‘man’ in verse 12 is in the genitive case is due to the fact that the verb authenteo (have authority over) is followed by a noun in the genitive case, not because it denotes possession with respect to the word ‘woman’ earlier in the verse. Finally, even in all the three passages just referred to above, where the apostles are obviously speaking about the relationship between husbands and wives, the language of the apostles leaves no room for doubt when talking about the wives submission by using the expression ‘…to their own (idios Gk.) husbands’. One would have at least expected this term to have been used in verse 12 of 1 Tim.
Other scriptural references
In the New Testament, as I have said, we have no explicit reference to, or example of a woman preaching or teaching a church congregation, or being sent to preach or evangelise. This, of course, is completely consistent with the traditional interpretation of 1 Ti. 2:12, which supports the idea that Paul there actually means what he says! Those who believe otherwise are thus faced with a problem. To resolve this problem they firstly have to interpret Paul’s teaching on this matter in a way that contradicts the plain meaning of Paul’s words. (Undoubtedly they do this to their own satisfaction!). Secondly they need to find some biblical texts that actually support the idea of women teaching, preaching or pastoring a church. However, in the absence of any explicit scriptural reference, the only recourse for those who believe in the validity of women teaching to the church is to refer to verses where they believe that such activity is implied by the verses. To build a doctrine for such an important topic on the basis of what one supposes is implied by certain verses, is, to put it simply, to build on sand!
So let us now look at the verses that are supposed to provide a foundation for the idea of having women teachers or preachers in the church.
Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18:26)
They heard Apollos preaching at Ephesus, but Apollos only knew about John’s baptism, so Aquila and Priscilla arranged to meet privately with him and they then expounded the way of God more perfectly to him. Perhaps like the disciples in Acts 19, Apollos had not yet heard about the baptism in the Holy Spirit. So here we have a situation where a husband and wife meet privately with another believer to make him aware of the fullness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We have already seen in scripture that the older women are exhorted to teach the younger women and that women can prophesy in the church gathering – as well as pray, of course. A woman’s ability to teach is not the issue in scripture, it is the context in which such teaching takes place. It resolves nothing to say that it seems that Priscilla was involved in some sort of teaching here and therefore women can teach and therefore women can teach in any context! This is simply an abuse of logic! It is certainly not the logic of scripture.
Now, we simply do not know the extent of Priscilla’s involvement here. One cannot maintain that she took the lead in the discussion. If one puts any store by the order in which names are mentioned in scripture, then we notice in this verse that Aquila’s name is mentioned first, as it is at the beginning of this chapter. (In verse 18 Priscilla is mentioned first, as she is in Rom. 16:3. However, Aquila is mentioned first in 1Cor.16:19, when Paul refers to the church that meets in their house. ) Those who put store in the order in which names appear will need to concede that it is Aquila who took the lead in these discussions with Apollo. The vast majority of Greek manuscripts show this order. There are a very small number of Greek manuscripts that reverse this order in this verse, and some of them are the documents that have had such influence on modern translations of the scriptures. However, not all are convinced that those versions are altogether reliable in their alternative readings. This could lead us into an argument about Greek manuscripts! But we shall not go there. All we need to point out is that solid evidence that Priscilla led the speaking does not exist.
We also note that this was an informal, private meeting between three people. In such a setting – a spontaneous and very human situation – where people are sharing the truths of the Gospel, and from the context given here, I personally don’t think it would be a surprise if Priscilla joined in this exchange nor does it necessarily represent some great infringement of Paul’s injunctions. The context has nothing to do with a woman being appointed as a teacher or recognised as such in a church. Priscilla is not using this as a springboard to prove or launch some teaching ministry! But we must say again that we don’t know the extent of Priscilla’s involvement here. Personally, I wouldn’t ‘strain at gnat’ in this kind of scenario by demanding Priscilla’s total silence; nor should those who hold the opposite view to that expressed in this article make this scenario the occasion to ‘swalllow a camel’. That is, they shouldn’t use such a concession to open the floodgates to their desired interpretation, by saying, ‘Ah ha! It seems Priscilla was involved in some kind of teaching and therefore this proves the point that women can teach and lead churches!’ But, as I mentioned above, this is exactly what they have to do given the lack of explicit teaching in the Bible to support their viewpoint. Their whole reasoning is based on ‘jumps’ in logic that the verses they refer to in no way permit or support.
The book of Acts is a narrative, and in that sense is less prescriptive than descriptive. But again we must underline that this scenario with Aquila and Priscilla has nothing to do with a woman being given responsibilty to teach to a congregation of the Lord’s people.
‘Salute Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen, and my fellowprisoners, who are of note among the apostles, who also were in Christ before me.’
Others refer to this verse and claim that Junia is a female name and therefore here we have an example of a woman apostle. However, there has been considerable dispute as to whether the name Junia refers to a man or woman here.
“…This particular individual known to Paul is also mentioned only here in all of the New Testament writings. ‘The sum of our knowledge consists in what is here said’ (Moses E. Lard, A Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Romans, p. 455). The major debate with regard to this second person mentioned in Romams 16:7 is over whether this individual is a man or a woman. Scholarship is very much divided on this issue, and the debate has often been extremely heated, primarily because of the implications if this is indeed a female. ‘As the name occurs in the accusative case, it may be either Junias, a masculine name contracted from Junianus, or Junia, a common feminine name’ (Dr. James Hastings, Dictionary of the Apostolic Church, vol. 1, p. 665). ‘It is impossible, as this name occurs in the accusative case, to determine whether it is masculine or feminine’ (ibid, p. 57). ‘The name may be masculine, ‘Junias,’ a contraction of Junianus, or feminine, ‘Junia.’ It is the accusative form that is given.” (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 2, p. 1165).
(Al Maxey. http://www.inplainsite.org/html/andronicus_and_junias.html)
The above quote from a site that supports women’s ministry shows the lack of both clarity and certainty with regard to the gender of the person named ‘Junia’. Furthermore, the expression ‘of note among the apostles’ has also been subject to differing interpretations. It is regarded, on the one hand, as meaning that Andronicus and Junia were themselves notable apostles, but on the other, that they were well-known to apostles. Arguments continue on both sides.
This is no foundation or proof text on which to establish any biblical authority for having women pastors or teachers in the church nor does this verse provide clear or certain proof of female apostleship. But this is no way to establish biblical teaching anyway – in effect to scour the scripture looking for some crumb of implied evidence. Do we not realise the scriptures are a harmony? Are we to ignore the rest of the Bible and establish such an important teaching on the possible meaning (for some!) of one text? The Bible doesn’t contradict itself. There are ample scriptures that directly address this matter and give clear teaching. Such ‘scouring’ is indicative of an unwillingness to receive what is clearly stated. Had the Lord Jesus Christ appointed a woman apostle, all would have been clear and the issue validated – but He didn’t.
“For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 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. And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”
Some refer to this passage and suggest that since there is neither male nor female in Christ, a restriction on women teaching becomes meaningless – there is now no such restriction because of what Paul states here! Leaving aside the aspect that this would make Paul contradict himself on this matter, we can see that these verses do not address this issue at all. Paul is here underlying the wonderful truth of the benefit that the Gospel bestows on every person who believes, whatever their background, race or gender, uniting them in Christ. All who are baptised in Christ have put on Christ! There is no difference! The passage declares the blessing that comes to every believer in Christ, it is not a statement that abolishes natural distinctions on earth! Paul is saying that whatever our outward distinctions, we are united through the Gospel in Christ. Otherwise, why would Paul exhort servants to obey their masters in all things or Christian masters to treat their servants fairly if there is ‘neither bond nor free’ in Christ? According to the above interpretation, Paul is telling servants that they are now free to leave their masters because these distinctions are all null and void! If there is neither male nor female in Christ, why exhort wives to submit to their husbands? This kind of reasoning displays a lack of seriousness in dealing with the scriptures in general and with this subject in particular.
Paul tells us that Phebe was a ‘servant’ of the church at Cenchrea (Rom.16:1). The Greek word for ‘servant’ in the Greek is diakonos. The word diakonos is used in the NT in many different contexts to describe someone who is serving or fulfilling a duty. It is used of household servants, of magistrates, of the apostles and of Jesus Christ. In all such cases the word ‘diakonos’ is never translated as ‘deacon’. Anyone who ‘serves’ in some way can be called a diakonos in the NT. It is this same word that is also used for those who are called ‘deacons’ in 1Tim.3. Was Phebe in this official sense a ‘deacon’? (The feminine form of deacon – deaconess – does not occur in the Greek.) One cannot conclude this from the verse itself. What we do know is that she served the church at Cenchrea in some way. As we have just noted above, the term ‘diakonos’ does not automatically mean that someone is a ‘deacon’ in the sense described in 1 Tim.3:8. So, to suggest that Phebe was a deaconess and therefore she must have been involved in teaching and therefore this proves that women can teach is a flight of fantasy, not biblical exposition or clear reasoning. Concerning the possible service that Phebe rendered, please see note 2 at the end of the article.
Perhaps we could take time here to consider the matter of deacons in the church. Were women appointed as deacons in the early church? The passage relating to this topic is found in 1 Tim. 3. It is clear in this passage that elders were to be men, since Paul states they are to be, ‘the husband of one wife’. Moreover, the word ‘elder’ in the Greek denotes a male person, not a female. What does Paul say of the deacons? He makes the same prescription as for elders, ‘Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife.’ (v.12). The difficulty of a woman being a husband might explain the fact that down the centuries there is a near absence of women ‘deacons’ in this official sense. Paul also says that an elder must be one who, ‘…rules well his own house, having his children in subjection with all respect.’ Of the deacons Paul stipulates that they are to ‘rule their children and their own houses well.’ Again, we find that the idea of having charge of and guiding family life in godly discipline is applied to both elders and deacons. As we have seen, this idea of ‘headship’ in both the family and church is universally recognised as ascribed to men. If words have any meaning at all, the above prescriptions would be sufficient to make it plain that what Paul had in mind was that deacons were to be men.
However, some find ground to deduce that Paul also envisaged women to be deacons, despite the fact that this would make Paul contradict himself when he says that deacons should be the husband of one wife. Nevertheless, those whose purpose it is to prove that women can be deacons point out that in the Greek language the word for ‘wife’ (gune) is exactly the same word that is used for the word ‘woman’. This is, of course, true. Added to this is the fact that Paul does not use the possessive pronoun ‘their’ in verse 11, so they render the verse as saying, ‘Let the women likewise be serious, not slanderers…’ So they maintain that Paul is not here talking about deacon’s wives, but about women (deacons).
The first obvious point to make here is that although the possessive ‘their’ is not used in reference to wife/woman, this does not necessarily mean that it doesn’t refer to wives! If it did, then we would have to translate Colossians 3:19 as, ‘Husbands love women…’, since the possessive pronoun is not used in this verse either! (Or even as, ‘Men love women…’, since the Greek word for ‘man’ is the same as for ‘husband’). Also, in 1 Cor.7:10 Paul says, ‘…Let not the wife depart from her husband…’. However, the word ‘her’ is not in the Greek, so are we to translate this as, ‘let not the wife depart from a man’ or even, ‘Let not a woman depart from a man’? Such translations are obviously bizarre and miss the point. It is clear that the context determines the meaning in such cases.
From the above we can see that as far as the Greek is concerned, ‘their wives’ is a perfectly possible translation in v.11. If we also consider that originally the NT had no chapters and verses – in other words, there is no deliberate separation between the sentence in v.10 and v.11 – then this would make Paul’s instructions concerning ‘women’ (deacons) come in the middle of the passage (v.8 – 13) on ‘men’ deacons, rather than beginning a separate passage for women (deacons). The fact that this statement comes in the middle of talking about men deacons renders the translation ‘their wives’ as the most natural and obvious – particularly given that he states in v.12 that deacons should be the husband of one wife. A section on ‘women’ deacons would more naturally have come after talking about men deacons.
Philippians 4:2, 3
That women can serve in the church and in that sense serve the church is clear in scripture. That women were involved in the work of the Gospel seems evident from Philippians 4:2,3. Exactly in what sense they helped or served is not specified, which makes the discussion of this topic the more difficult since this lack of clear detail gives room for people to conjecture a variety of different things. But one cannot establish a teaching on conjecture. If one considers the teaching of the Bible as a whole, we have seen that women are not appointed as pastors or teachers nor are they appointed as those who lead the church or the work of God. We see from Titus 2:4 that the more mature women are to teach the younger women how to conduct themselves. Here are quotes from two commentaries on these verses in Philippians. They underline how the lack of specific information in these verses makes detailed accurate commentary difficult.
“Help those women which labored with me – Both in the Grecian and Asiatic countries women were kept much secluded, and is was not likely that even the apostles had much opportunity of conversing with them; it was therefore necessary that they should have some experienced Christian women with them, who could have access to families, and preach Jesus to the female part of them. The apostle tells us that certain women laboured with him in the Gospel, and were assistants to others also who had assisted him. Some think the women here were Euodias and Syntyche; but I rather incline to the opinion that Syntyche was a male, and Euodias his wife. Euodias signifies a pleasant scent; Syntyche, fortunate. There have been a number of conjectures who these persons were, and who is meant by the true yokefellow; but as there is nothing certain known on the subject, it is useless to propagate conjecture.” (A. Clark, Commentary on the Whole Bible, 1832).
“Help those women” – The common opinion is, that the women here referred to were Euodias and Syntyche, and that the office which the friend of Paul was asked to perform was, to secure a reconciliation between them. There is, however, no certain evidence of this. The reference seems rather to be to influential females who had rendered important assistance to Paul when he was there. The kind of “help” which was to be imparted was probably by counsel, and friendly cooperation in the duties which they were called to perform.
In the custom which prevailed in the oriental world, of excluding females from the public gaze, and of confining them to their houses, it would not be practicable for the apostles to have access to them. The duties of instructing and exhorting them were then probably entrusted chiefly to pious females; and in this way important aid would be rendered in the gospel. Paul could regard such as “laboring with him,” though they were not engaged in preaching.” (A. Barnes, “Notes on the Whole Bible).
I concede that I have quoted commentaries from the 1800s, but if you care to look at any commentary, none can confidently go beyond what is written in the verses themselves. Some speculate that they might have been ‘deaconesses’. My point here is the same; that is, we cannot build something that is not clearly taught (women leading churches or having a teaching ministry in them) by referring to what may be implied, when there are verses that do explicitly teach on this matter.
It was at Philippi that women met to pray by the river. When Paul journeyed to Philippi in response to a vision he had had from the Lord, he made his way to the river where the women were praying. There was a certain businesswoman by the name of Lydia there, and the Lord opened her heart and she and her whole household were baptised. She then constrained Paul and those with him to stay in her house. Later, when Paul came out of prison and was about to leave Philippi, he returned to Lydia’s house and comforted the believers before departing.
Lydia seemed to be a woman of some wealth. She had a house large enough not only to accommodate Paul’s co-workers, but that could also serve as a meeting or focal place for the believers. Not only did she have contact with other devout women in the city, but she no doubt would have had other contacts and good local knowledge as a businesswoman. In other words, Lydia was not only well placed to offer Paul and others hospitality, but perhaps also financial support as well as being someone who could have introduced Paul to others and been of assistance in ministry to other women. Again, we cannot be certain of some of these details, but what is depicted in Acts16 perhaps provides us with a context to help us understand in some measure what Paul might have meant when he talks about ‘women who laboured with him in the Gospel’.
In all these cases above that we have just mentioned, there is no clear indication in exactly what way these women assisted Paul or others. We can conjecture and surmise but can only interpret those verses by what the rest to the Bible teaches, not build a teaching on what these verses don’t say!
With regard to how some would use the issue concerning slavery as a means of justifying woman leadership in the church, please see Note 1 at the end.
The heart of the matter.
The topic we are considering touches on the revelation of God’s own nature. It is as fundamental as that. Women coming into leadership is not happening in isolation to other changes in society. It is part and parcel of a number of changes which are not only dominant in secular society but that have been making their way into churches; whether it is ideas about equality with regard to the role of women and the acceptance of homosexuality, or humanistic teaching with its doctrines of self-esteem, self-realisation, or the gospel of inclusiveness with its so-called ‘non-judgemental’ and ‘user-friendly’ approach. . All these issue out of one source, which has nothing to do with the Spirit of God. They all oppose the image of God and work to the one end of hardening the hearts and ‘searing’ the consciences of men and women against the truth of God, which convicts men and women of sin, leads them to repentance and to an utterly changed life because of God’s salvation brought through Christ.
It is seems that never before in the church’s history, on the scale that we are now witnessing, have there been such fundamental changes among those who would call themselves ‘Bible-believing’ or ‘evangelical’. We are reaching a stage where the word ‘evangelical’ itself is losing its meaning. It is more than a coincidence that these changes in churches have followed in the wake of what has been happening in secular society. The spirit and mind-set of the world has affected and infiltrated the hearts and minds of many that are called by the Lord’s name. The idea that such changes have come about by the discovery of new biblical truths never recognised by previous generations of Christians is disingenuous to say the least! The notion that it has taken virtually 2000 years for Christians finally to realise what the scriptures teach on such fundamental matters simply beggars belief. Whatever changes have been made down the centuries as a concession to changing times and culture, we certainly have never witnessed the fundamental concessions that are now being made by ‘evangelical’ believers to secular society, nor the amount of comprise of Gospel truth in order be ‘user friendly’. Nor has the evangelical church approximated so closely to the music, lifestyle and dress of the world in order to coax people to church. Hand in hand with these trends is, of course, the dilution of the Gospel and the introduction of any number of false teachings.
There has been endless investigation and analysis in order to give some new nuance of meaning to some Greek expression, or to give the ‘real’ meaning of a certain verse or passage. However, these new ‘interpretations’ were not ‘stumbled’ across as the result of detached, open-minded biblical study; that was not the starting point. The starting point was a mind set; and that mind set was filled with a determination to find something – anything! – that would substantiate its own belief system.
The heart of this debate and conflict actually centres on the nature of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. It centres on the revelation of the union and communion of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Jesus is the Word that was in the beginning, and the Bible clearly declares that ‘the Word was God’ (John 1:1). But how does Jesus Himself describe His relationship with the Father? In John 5:18-19 it says, “Therefore the Jews sought the more to kill him, because he not only had broken the sabbath, but said also that God was his Father, making himself equal with God.”
The Jews accused Jesus of making Himself equal with God. Jesus’ response is significant. Of course Jesus is divine even as the Father is, but Jesus immediately sets out to correct their notions of equality. Jesus reveals the more fundamental truth elsewhere when He says, “I and my Father are one.” (John 10:30). Again in this incident, the Jews want to stone Jesus as they had understood the true implication of His words, namely, that He is divine. But this statement of Jesus hits upon the profound truth of union and communion, and that this union and communion is expressed in relationship. Jesus Himself chose to say, “I and my Father are one”; He did not choose to say, “I and my Father are equal.” His concern is not on ‘claiming’ equal status with God. He didn’t need to. His statement refers us to His utter union and shared nature with the Father. The statement underlines the complete harmony between the Father and the Son. There is no competition; no jockeying for position; no claiming of rights; no human ‘I am just as good as you so why can’t I …’ attitude. This is completely foreign to the Godhead. And perhaps to avoid these human notions of ‘equality’ being imputed to the Godhead, Jesus decides quite deliberately and emphatically to bring out a different truth in answer to the Jews’ accusation in the passage above. He answers their accusation about making Himself equal with God with the following emphatic words, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he sees the Father do: for whatsoever things he does, these also does the Son likewise.”
Jesus reveals here that He does nothing independently of the Father. Though God, though one with the Father, He only does what He sees His Father do. In fact, He does nothing of Himself. These are remarkable words. Jesus continues in the same vein a few verses later in John 5:30, “I can of my own self do nothing: as I hear, I judge: and my judgment is just; because I seek not my own will, but the will of the Father who has sent me.” Jesus says that He actually has no concern for His own will but that His words and actions are a reflection of the Father’s will – which He actively seeks in all things! He further extends this thought in John 8:42, where He says, “…I proceeded forth and came from God; neither came I of myself, but he sent me.” Jesus clearly says that He was fulfilling the Father’s will, that He was submitting to His Father’s will in coming and that He didn’t come ‘of Himself’. These statements have nothing to do with undermining the divinity of Christ! They are wonderful revelations of the divine nature, of the Godhead. They show the voluntary submission of the Son to the will of the Father. Jesus states that He always did those things that pleased the Father.
Jesus said unto them, “My food is to do the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work.” John 4:34.
“For I came down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him that sent me.” John 6:38.
“When you have lifted up the Son of man, then shall you know that I am he, and that I do nothing of myself; but as my Father has taught me, I speak these things. And he that sent me is with me: the Father has not left me alone; for I do always those things that please him.” John 8:28-29.
Of course, in today’s modern culture, such voluntary submission to someone with whom you have ‘equa’l status is considered anathema; it would be considered as discrimination and repression of someone’s genuine gifts; it would be considered as marginalising and undervaluing a person, as unjustified domination by the other party! Secular society will not stand for this kind of thing today. Where else does trying to make the God of the Bible female or gender-neutral come from? Where else does the ordination of homosexual priests come from? Where else does the ordination of women priests come from? It comes from the mind-set that is operating in the world. It comes from the spirit that says, “I am just as good as you! Don’t you tell me what to do! In the name of equality I can do anything you can do! Why should I submit to you! If I can’t do what you can do, if I can’t have an equal say in this, then you are saying I am inferior to you! And don’t you know that’s the greatest of all sins! I am not inferior! I am equal! I am just as good as you! I will not submit to you!”
This is the spirit that is at work today in Western culture. Not only so, but it is at work in all the world, shaping and forming the minds of countless millions and preparing them for a day to come.
It is not the Spirit of the Lamb of God.
His submission to the Father’s will incurred for Him no loss of divinity! Nor was Jesus aggrieved or sour that He had been ‘side-lined’ (as people might think) in these matters. Nor was He frustrated that His potential and talents had not been fully recognised or exercised! His submission didn’t leave Him feeling undervalued or inferior! How could He feel undervalued when He shared with the Father that glory that had been from the beginning?
Equality with God the Father is something that He didn’t have to fight for or grasp at! We have this wonderful and significant verse in Phil. 2:6 :
“Who, being in the form of God, thought it not a thing to be grasped to be equal with God.” (KJ2000).
Another translation puts it like this, “…did not consider equality with God something to be grasped.” (NIV)
The AKJ puts it like this: “Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:”
This last translation is perhaps the most accurate, but these versions together most likely represent the full meaning of this verse, namely, Jesus was in no way wrong to consider Himself equal with God, but it was also (therefore) something He didn’t have to claim or strive for! On the contrary, to fulfil the will of the Father Jesus limited Himself. We read in the next verse, “Who, being in the form of God…made himself of no reputation…”. Other translations quite legitimately translate v.7 with the following words, “made himself nothing”, “emptied himself”. What amazing self-humbling on the part of the Son of God! He ‘left’ heaven and laid aside for a time that which He had known with the Father. Though God, He was content to ‘empty Himself’, make Himself ‘of no reputation’ in order to fulfil the Father’s will. Jesus Christ ‘humbled’ himself and took on the form of a servant! This is the Spirit of the Lamb of God. It is contrary to the spirit that is now operating in the world. Jesus Christ said he hadn’t come to be served but to serve! Here is God, humbling himself, becoming as a servant, not seeking his own will. He could have called ten thousand angels to save him; he could have used his knowledge and power to do many things that he didn’t do! He chose to limit himself and to do the will of his father! This is our Saviour! This is our God!
It is this image of God, it is this Spirit (of the Lamb) that is under attack and being ridiculed in the world today (as well as in churches). What is happening is a total inversion of God’s order and a corruption of the image and nature of God. This is what it is all about. This is what this whole issue about women and authority is about. It is to do with the revelation of God Himself. Submission is out, self-esteem, self-expression and equality of role and responsibility is in!
I have said that the reasons that Paul gives for his teaching on this matter is solely ‘theological’, and so it is. What he stated in 1 Timothy chapter 2, he also states in 1 Corinthians 11. We will look at this chapter and only touch on those verses that relate to our topic, I will not enter into a discussion/debate about headcoverings! Paul states,
“But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.” (1 Corinthians 11:3).
This is what he wants us to know! Do we know this? As we have seen, Christ submitted himself to the will of his father, to please Him in all things (the head of Christ is God). No fighting for position, no battle for ‘equal rights’ but a voluntary submission. This is the revelation. This is the image of the Godhead given to us. Let us be clear, this is what is being contested today. He says, “the head of every man is Christ.” How so? Again in this chapter, Paul refers to the order in creation. He says, “the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man.” (verses 8, 9). Man was created first directly by God from the earth, for this reason Paul says that man is the image and glory of God. Both man and woman are created in the image of God, but man, having not proceeded out of the flesh of another but created directly by God, carries or reflects an attribute of God that pertains to him and not to woman. This is the attribute of headship and authority. Man’s ‘head’ is therefore Christ. The woman was created out of the side of man (and ‘for’ man), from his bone and from his flesh, and therefore she carries or reflects the ‘glory’ of man. So as Paul says, “…he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man.” Man represents or reflects that which is and attribute (glory) of God, and woman represents or reflects the humanity (glory) of man. This being so, the head of the woman is man. This is why he says that wives should submit to their husbands as to the Lord, for the husband is head of the wife even as Christ is head of the church. To whatever extent one might want to disagree with Paul, there is no denying the consistency of his teaching on this matter throughout his epistles.
Now, I understand that I will not carry everyone with me in how I am explaining this! However, it is consistent with what Paul says elsewhere and it is the ‘theological’ foundation upon which he his teaching on women and ministry is based. Again, the issue is not one of ‘equality’ and ‘inferiority’, but of roles which are meant to display not just divine order, but divine characteristics. So to ‘balance things out, Paul goes on to say, “Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord. For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman; but all things are of God.” (1 Co 11:11,12).
If any of what I am saying here is true, then if fits in with what is happening today. The increasing role of women in ministry and authority in churches (which simply replicates what is happening in the world), coincides with humanity’s increasing rejection of and opposition to the Gospel, as the ‘doctrine’ of humanism and equal rights goes worldwide. As we proceed to the last days and to a ‘falling away’ before the Lord’s return, women’s ministry and authority in churches will definitely increase and those believers who don’t go along with this will be ridiculed, so increasingly secular society will become anti-christian and anti-christ in nature.
Please remember, none of this is a reflection on a woman’s ability to do things. It is ever only a matter of God-given roles.
What is written here is not to make anyone critical of others, nor to make them legalistic in the application of God’s word, nor to make them feel ‘holier’ than others. I have tried to give an understanding of biblical truth on this matter to help steer the reader through these times of many ‘winds and doctrines’, of false teachings and confusion.
I suppose those will agree with me who already hold such views! I suppose those who go with the fashion of these times will violently disagree with the message of this article and dismiss it. I suppose the main ‘target’ reader for me are those who are not sure, find all this bewildering and are looking for some biblical basis for an understanding of this issue. It might not help all such, but it might help some – and for this I am grateful.
Note 1: Slavery
However, perhaps there is a grudging recognition of the fact that there is no verse in the New Testament that explicitly teaches that women can teach or pastor a church and that there is no verse that portrays such a scenario. Perhaps there is a realisation that all that they can do is just try to deny the obvious meaning of some verses and stretch credulity with their new interpretations.
Why do I say this? Well, because there is another recent attempt to bridge the unbridgeable. The proposition is this – the Bible, including the NT, ‘supports’ slavery. Christians no longer support slavery. Therefore, the Christian viewpoint on certain ethical matters can ‘develop’ and ‘change’ as society develops and changes. Therefore, women should be allowed to pastor and to teach in churches, since culture and our understanding of issues have developed since NT times. Here is just one quote that promotes this notion:
“The recognition that slavery is incompatible with Christian faith goes beyond the explicit teaching of Scripture while being fully scriptural: we now recognize (as the biblical writers were as yet unable to do) that slavery is inconsistent with the biblical understanding of humanity in creation and redemption . . .we must go beyond the letter of scripture when the trajectory of scriptural teaching takes us further than what scripture explicitly states and requires us to recognize that some culturally specific scriptural teachings and commands are no longer mandatory” (I. Howard Marshall, “Mutual Love and Submission in Marriage”, in Discovering Biblical Equality, editors Ronald W. Pierce and Rebecca Merrill Groothuis: IVP, 2005, pp. 201-202).
If the curious reasoning above were valid (and it most certainly isn’t), it would herald the end of ‘sola scriptura’. The Bible would cease to be the one and only standard and yardstick for determining doctrine and living. If the above proposition were true, who would decide which biblical teachings are ‘no longer mandatory’? Who decides which cultural changes in society require us to change our view on what scripture teaches? Who would the arbiter be and who decides where we need to draw the line? According to this view, homosexual relationships as well as homosexual pastors ‘in stable relationships’ would now have to be considered valid and ‘scriptural’. It is amazing the lengths people will go to in order to achieve their ends – and it seems securing the desired end justifies any means employed, even if it involves misrepresenting the Bible so that they can undermine its universal validity! They want to make scriptural teaching relative or subservient to culture so that they can bend the scriptures to their viewpoint!
This approach lacks seriousness on every level. In the above quote the author claims that we are now able to recognise what is consistent with the biblical understanding of humanity etc., whereas the biblical writers themselves were not! This is blatant misrepresentation, to say the least. In 1 Cor. 7:21 Paul states, “Are you called being a servant? Care not for it: but if you may be made free, use it rather.” Paul clearly recognises the limitations and lack of freedom – humanly speaking – that a servant/slave is subject to. However, he then adds that if an opportunity exists for the Christian to be legitimately freed from his service, then he should take it! There is no recognition in Paul’s writings or in any of the NT writers that being a servant or slave in the Roman Empire is somehow a divine ordination, or that slavery is right! He gives positive encouragement that if a slave can legitimately do so, he should secure his freedom!
At the heart of this problem was the question of Roman law and custom. Slavery was part and parcel of Roman society and culture. A multitude of households existed on the basis of having slaves. Were a slave to rebel against his master’s authority or to run away, he would either be cruelly punished or killed. It is something that Paul well understood but that some modern writers are ‘wilfully ignorant’ of when considering this matter. How could an apostle or any Christian incite a slave to rebel or run away from their master. It was regarded as illegal, contrary to Roman law and custom. For Paul to have done so would be to invite the hounding of such a person by the authorities, and that person’s certain punishment or possible execution. That some modern commentators impute to Paul support of slavery is simply untrue and slanderous.
Some masters were ‘good’ and some were ‘bad’ as these words of Peter show, “Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the harsh.” (1 Peter 2:18). The apostles understood the importance of maintaining a Christ-like witness at all times, and this involved two things in such a situation. Firstly, obedience to authority (Rom.13 in general and verse 7 in particular), and since slavery was part of the established civic structure these verses would apply here also. Secondly, it involved patiently enduring wrong (1 Peter 2:18-21). Peter says that even as Christ suffered wrongfully, so we should follow in His footsteps – and Peter applies this to slaves and masters. Paul underlines these truths in 1 Timothy 6:1: “Let as many servants as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honour, that the name of God and his doctrine be not blasphemed.” It is maintaining the testimony of Christ in difficult and unjust situations that is of paramount importance – the apostles’ admonitions have nothing to do with supporting slavery! We have already seen that Paul exhorted slaves to take freedom if there were any opportunity to do so.
Paul well understands how being a slave might impact on a new Christian. For this reason he more or less says, “Don’t let it get at you. Don’t get high-minded or arrogant towards you master” He encourages the Christian by saying that, on a more fundamental level, the Christian slave is now the Lord’s freeman. However, he continues by saying that whether we are ‘free’ or slaves, we are all the Lord’s slaves. In other words, our lives are not our own and that we must glorify and show Christ by the way we live. Essentially, the aim of the Gospel is to save men and women from the slavery of sin and give them new life. This new life is also to be demonstrated in the most difficult of predicaments and situations.
The Gospel hasn’t changed down the centuries, nor do we have a greater sense of justice and understanding than the apostles had! What has changed is the circumstances! Down the centuries circumstances have changed socially which allowed Christians to pursue and implement what we have all instinctively believed to be part of the Lord’s compassion and love – namely the abolition of the slave trade, which was pursued by Christians in America and England from the 1800s onwards. Circumstances allowed this in a way that would not have been possible in Roman times. Of course the apostles could have publicly advocated the abolition of slavery, and been sent to prison or death for it. Of course any number of Christians could have refused to be slaves any more, and have been beaten or killed for it! Given the situation at that time, the believed it was the most expedient and godly thing to do to submit to the Lord in that situation!
Concerning the Old Testament, taking someone by force and selling them into slavery was punishable by death (Ex.21:16). It would be utterly wrong to liken the slavery practiced in the OT in any way to the horrific slavery that took place in the African continent is past centuries. The kind of ‘slavery’ described in the OT was a provision for the poor rather than a matter of oppression. It was a provision to save a family from hunger and destitution, and there were strict rules concerning how ‘slaves’ were to be treated and when they were to released. These rules were given to act as safeguards against cruel treatment by their masters. God did not ‘ordain’ slavery, but gave proper guidelines for something that existed as a last resort provision for the poor.
It is quite impossible to use the Bible to support or justify any kind of slavery that took place in recent centuries. Those who may have done so, have done so wrongly and for reasons that are not to be found in the Bible!
I have dealt with this issue briefly here, wanting only to focus on the basics. Those who use the fallacious ‘slavery’ argument in order to justify women pastors and teachers are acknowledging that there is no real biblical support for their position, since they have employed totally fallacious reasoning in order to allow them to bypass the Bible. It is a reprehensible argument in that it (almost wilfully) misrepresents the Bible. It is scandalous in that seeks to establish another foundation other than has been laid!
(Here are two websites that readers may look at that deal with the topic of slavery in the Bible:
Note 2: Phebe
Phebe seems to have been a woman of some means. In verse 2 Paul says that she has been a ‘helper’ or ‘succourer’ to many including Paul himself. The Greek word here can also be used with the meaning of ‘patroness’. This would fit the context well. I contiune with a helpful quote from a sermon (by Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III.):
‘First, I want you to see his commendation of Phoebe to the Roman church and then in verse two, I want you to see what he asks the Roman church to do for Phoebe. In verse one Paul says, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea.” As we have already said, Cenchrea is a seaport town of Corinth and she is a person of some significance in the ministry of that congregation, and the apostle is commending her to the church in Rome. Now you need to ask, “What’s going on? Why is Paul commending this person to the church in Rome?” The background of verse one is the fact that in the Mediterranean world, as you travelled from place to place, and especially when you were sent on an errand of some importance, you often brought with you a letter of commendation from the people who were sending you. And that letter was addressed to the people to whom you were sent, because the people to whom you were sent didn’t know what you looked like, and they didn’t know who you were, and they didn’t know why you had been sent, and they didn’t know what your credentials were. And so letters of commendation were sent in order to attest to the standing and to the legitimacy of people who were doing significant errands. And so Paul is giving a commendation to Phoebe because she is doing something very important. We’re going to see what it was that she was doing in just a few moments, but this is the background of this commendation.
By reading between the lines, we can learn three or four things about Phoebe. First of all, it is very probable that Phoebe is the one who is carrying this letter from Paul to the Romans. Now, how do we know that? We know because of Romans 16:1. Why else would Paul have commended her to the church at Rome unless she was on an errand of great significance for Paul to the Roman church? The very fact that he is commending her suggests that she is on a very important errand. Otherwise the commendation seems unnecessary.
Secondly, it is very probable that Phoebe was a Gentile woman – maybe even a freed servant. Why? Because Phoebe’s name derives from pagan Greco-Roman mythology. It was common for masters to name their servant this name in Phoebe’s time, and it is unlikely that a Jewish family would have named their daughter after a Greco-Roman mythological figure because of fidelity to the one true God; and so, it is very likely that Phoebe was a Gentile Christian. She had been converted into the church there in Cenchrea through the ministry of the word and came from a Gentile background.
Thirdly, it is also very likely that she was a very wealthy businesswoman not unlike Lydia in Acts 16. Why do I say that? Well, because she’s on a visit to Rome and Paul doesn’t tell us who those are who are with her. If she had been accompanied by a number of other members in the church, surely Paul at this time would have said, “Receive not only Phoebe but receive these other members of the church who are with her.” This apparently indicates that Phoebe was doing well enough in business to have her own servants going along with her to Rome and those servants did not need to be introduced to the church in Rome. So she is apparently on a business trip to Rome with her own retinue. And on this occasion she brings the letter of Paul to the Romans.
And fourthly, we find out in verse two that she was the patroness, or helper, of the Cenchrean church. Paul says, if you’ll look at verse two, that she has been a “helper of many.” Now that word helper literally means patron. It indicates that she had means at her disposal and she used those means for the edification of the local church. She was a patroness supporting the local church. Paul goes on to say that she even supported his ministry. And so, not unlike the women who followed Jesus with the disciples, who gave of their own means as a stewardship to support Jesus’ ministry, apparently Phoebe did this in the church in Cenchrea and in Corinth.
Now Phoebe is called a servant here, and the term servant is literally diakanos. Deacon she is called. And so we ask ourselves, what does this mean? Does it mean minister or does it mean the person holding the office of deacon? …let me say that it is very clear, no matter how you translate verses one and two, that she is identified as a particularly valuable and outstanding member of the Corinthian, or Cenchrean church. Paul has a high esteem for Phoebe and he gives her this title, servant of the church, and that title is the standard title and role for every Christian in the New Testament. Jesus is called servant, his apostles are called servants, elders are called servants, deacons are called servants, and congregation members are called servants in the Christian church because our whole business in the Christian church is mutual edification and that means denying ourselves and ministering to one another with preference over ourselves. And so the title for every Christian is servant in the New Testament.
That’s the first thing I want you to see – Paul’s commendation of Phoebe. By the way, doesn’t that totally dispel the myth of Paul the woman hater, Paul the misogynist, Paul the man who just can’t stand women? Here he is commending this godly woman, Phoebe, to the church and you know what? It’s not going to be the last time he commends a woman in this chapter. In fact, this is not going to be the only place in the New Testament in which Paul expresses his profound appreciation for the ministry of women in the life of local congregations. Doesn’t this show that Paul is a person fully capable of fully appreciating the ministry of women in the church? This chapter not only teaches the grace of Christian courtesy and the grace of caring, but it shows us something of the heart of Paul in his appreciation of the important role of women in the local congregation.
Secondly, I’d like you to see in verse two Paul enjoins the Roman church here to show hospitality and to give help to Phoebe. He clearly acknowledges the substantive help that Phoebe has given the church back in the seaport of Corinth, and now he asks Rome to give her substantive help. If you look at verse two, Paul calls on the Roman Christians to do two things: to receive Phoebe and to help her. What does that mean? When he calls on the Romans Christians to receive her, he is asking them to show hospitality to her. He tells them that they are to do this in a Christian way and he uses two phrases to emphasize this: Receive her. How? In the Lord and in a manner worthy of the saints. So in two phrases, he presses home the fact that he wants them to treat her with special Christian hospitality. Hospitality that is born out of the fact that we are united to Christ and that all who are united to Christ are united to one another. So he wants them to show her Christian hospitality. Secondly, he asks them to help her. When he says that he means for them to give tangible aid and assistance to her. Again he presses this home with two arguments. Not only, as he said in verse one, that she’s been a faithful servant in the church at Cenchrea, but he goes on to say that she has been its patroness and helper and that she has even been his patroness and helper and that for these reasons he calls on them to give her help. As she has helped the church; he wants the church to help her. And again, there can be no doubt as to Paul’s evaluation of the importance of godly feminine contribution to the ministry of the early church. His appreciation is emphatic here and frankly, it is ubiquitous not only in the rest of this chapter but in his other books, he speaks to this appreciation.’
Of course, some of the above quote contains conjectures about Phebe and the nature of her ministry, but this simply highlights the difficulty of trying to deduce anything concrete from the little that is explicitly written in this passage about her. Certainly, we cannot use Phebe as ‘proof’ that women taught in the NT churches.
Copyright Ⓒ D. Stamen 2021