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The New Testament Church—The Role of Women

1 Corinthians 11:3-10 But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ. 4 Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying, disgraces his head. 5 But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying, disgraces her head; for she is one and the same with her whose head is shaved. 6 For if a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head. 7 For a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. 8 For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man; 9 for indeed man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake. 10 Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.

1 Corinthians 14:33-35 for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints. 34 Let the women keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but let them subject themselves, just as the Law also says. 35 And if they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church.

1 Timothy 5:10 having a reputation for good works; and if she has brought up children, if she has shown hospitality to strangers, if she has washed the saints’ feet, if she has assisted those in distress, and if she has devoted herself to every good work.

Titus 2:3-5 Older women likewise are to be reverent in their behavior, not malicious gossips, nor enslaved to much wine, teaching what is good, 4 that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, 5 to be sensible, pure, workers at home, kind, being subject to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be dishonored.

See also 1 Timothy 2:9-15, Romans 16:1-6 and Luke 8:1-3.

Introduction

On the 455th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting his 95 theses on the church door in Wittenburg, a group of women posted on the doors of 12 Los Angeles churches theses intended to bring the contemporary women’s liberation movement into the life of the Church. Their statement repudiated what they called the primitive thinking of the Apostle Paul.18

If the women’s liberation movement has done anything for the church of Jesus Christ, it has placed the spotlight on the question of the role of women in the church. It has demanded that we speak to an issue which many have attempted to sweep under the proverbial carpet. I have to say that as I approach this subject I feel something like a professor that I heard about some time ago. It was during the Second World War and the prisoners of war of the Allied Forces in a particular prison camp decided to organize some activities which would keep the men mentally alert and active. One course that was offered was “American History.” That in itself is nothing particularly novel or interesting, but what was unique was that this course was taught by a Britisher. They called the course “American History from a British Point of View.” That is somewhat the way I feel this morning as I approach the subject of the role of women in the church, from a man’s point of view.

For the sake of the women, particularly any who may be inclined in the direction of the liberation movement, I want to say that it is not my intention to harass the liberation movement—neither is it my intention to defend it. There are some causes which this movement has taken up which, in my opinion, are just and noble. I personally believe that women should be paid the same amount for their labor as men. I believe that single, widowed, or divorced women should have equal credit privileges.

But these matters are not the major concern of the Scriptures nor are they the subject of my message, so I will not address myself to them. The question I shall attempt to deal with this morning pertains to the role of women in the church, our church in particular. What does the Word of God say to us in this matter of women and their function in the church?

Whenever the subject of women in the church arises, it is always the Apostle Paul whose name is mentioned first. Surely we know that Paul spoke more frequently and more pointedly to this question than any other New Testament figure. One could almost be amused at the ingenious methods which men and women have employed to do away with Paul’s teaching on the role of women in the church.

Some throw out every passage which they disagree with as unauthentic. Such is the case with William O. Walker, Jr.,19 He says that 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is actually a compilation of three separate pericopae, all of which are not Pauline. He then goes on to throw out the epistles to Timothy and Titus, 1 Corinthians 14:33-35, and the related portions in Ephesians and Colossians, which leaves us only with Galatians 3:28:20 “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Others admit the passages are genuinely Pauline, but that Paul was either unclear,21 completely biased,22 or mistaken.23 We are not shocked when we are told about Ernest Kaseman, “ … who, after a lecture on St. Paul, was confronted by a woman who said, ‘Are you saying that Paul was wrong?’ Kasemann replied: ‘Even being an apostle is no excuse for bad theology!’”24

But it is most disappointing when men such as Dr. Paul Jewett, in attempting to explain 1 Tim. 2:12-15 say that Paul was mistaken, “that he hadn’t gotten his rabbinical training squared up with the idea of freedom and equality he talked about in Galatians.”25

By far, the most popular approach to Paul’s teaching on the role of women by evangelicals is to write it all off as culturally oriented, for a particular people and occasion: “Thus, the focus of Paul’s concern with the covering of the prophetic women’s head would appear as an issue of concern in his day, rather than a general principle of worship.”26

Lest we should become puffed up because we take the Scriptures seriously and literally, let me also say that there has been a great deal of injustice done by Christian men whose egos are slightly over-enlarged and who have used the teachings of Paul to domineer and dictate their wives. Such was never the intent of the Scriptures. We, as Christian men, must recognize that the Scriptures speak clearly not only in the matter of the submission of women, but in the sacrificial and loving leadership of the men—a subject which has been too little dealt with by us, I fear.

Our Approach to the
Role of Women in the Church

Paul has become the scapegoat for the biblical teaching on the role of women, but what Paul taught and practiced was consistent with the practice of our Lord and was based upon the teaching of the Old Testament as well as that which was revealed to him by our Lord concerning the church (cf. Eph. 3:1-13). We will begin our study by observing the cultural backdrop of the view of women in New Testament times; then, we will take note of the practice of both our Lord and Paul in the matter of women, and then we will expound the principle upon which these practices were based, and finally to some practical outworkings of this principle for us today.

The View of Women in New Testament Times

Although this has been said previously, it is important to remember that the New Testament teachings were liberating to the women of New Testament days.

A. W. Verrall, the great classical scholar, once said that one of the chief diseases of which ancient civilization died was a low view of women.27 … The Jews had a low view of women. In his morning prayer there was a sentence in which a Jewish man gave thanks that God had not made him ‘a Gentile, a slave or a woman.’ In Jewish law a woman was not a person, but a thing. She had no legal rights whatsoever; she was absolutely her husband’s possession to do with as he willed.28

Aristotle once said, “Woman may be said to be an inferior to man.”

In New Testament times, “(Women) received no education, not even teaching in their religious writings, the Torah. One rabbi who lived at that time said, ‘Rather should the words of the Torah be burned than entrusted to a woman. Whoever teaches his daughter the Torah is like one who teaches her lasciviousness.”29

The Practice of Jesus and Paul Regarding Women

Much could be said in the way of the elevated status which Jesus and the apostles (Paul) gave to women, but the subject of our discussion must be limited to the role of women in the church.

Women played a large part in the ministry of our Lord. Some of His closest friends and faithful followers were women (cf. Matt. 27:55-56; Luke 23:49, 55). They were the last to leave our Lord’s cross and the first to see Him resurrected (Luke 23:55; 24:1ff.). There were women who followed Jesus as He traveled about, and who supported Him and His disciples (Luke 8:1-3). If perchance we are inclined to think that the role of women was primarily in the kitchen, or preferably in the kitchen, we need to be reminded that Jesus commended Mary for sitting at His feet, while Martha was obsessed with fixing the meal (Luke 10:38-42).

We must also recall what women did not do to minister when they accompanied our Lord. Our Lord did not choose women to be among the 12 apostles. He did not send women to teach, preach or heal. So far as we know He did not invite women to the Lord’s Supper in Matthew 26:20. When the great commission was given in Matthew 28:16-20, it was given to men. In brief, women did minister to our Lord and with our Lord, but never in a capacity of leadership or of authority such as teaching or preaching.

Likewise the Apostle Paul had high regard for women. Many of those greeted in the last chapter of Romans were women. Phoebe was especially mentioned as one who had greatly helped the church at Cenchrea (verses 1-2). Paul’s teaching on the marriage relationship greatly enhanced the position of the married woman (cf. Eph. 5:22-33). But once again we see that women were not allowed to assume positions of leadership or authority within the church. In 1 Timothy Paul wrote:

Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments but rather by means of good works, as befits women making a claim to godliness. Let a woman quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet (1 Tim. 2:9-12).

In 1 Corinthians we read:

As in all the churches of the saints, let the women keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but let them subject themselves, just as the law also says. And if they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church (1 Cor. 14:33b-35).

The uniform practice of the churches; then, was that women should not take leadership in the church meeting. They were not to teach or to exercise authority, nor were they to engage in questions. They are to subject themselves, as the law teaches, Paul said.

The Principle Behind the Practice

No one, save the rankest liberal, would disagree with the fact that it was the practice of the Apostle Paul that women could not take a leadership role in the church meeting. Most, however, would be inclined to say that the reasons for this practice were purely cultural, and therefore inapplicable to the church today. With this we must disagree, for Paul does not base his instructions on culture, but upon principles which are related to the purpose of the church and to the teachings of the Old Testament. In 1 Corinthians Paul’s teaching is consistent with the ‘law’ (14:34). In 1 Timothy the silence of women is established upon the teachings of the early chapters of Genesis (1 Tim. 2:13-14). We will only understand the necessity of women not leading or being in authority in the church when we understand the principle which underlies this practice. That principle is that God has assigned man the responsibility of reflecting or demonstrating the headship of Jesus Christ in marriage and in the church.

It is fundamental that we understand that the church is God’s showplace. God is using the church to demonstrate truth, both to the angelic hosts as well as to the world. In Ephesians we read: “in order that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph. 3:10).

In the fifth chapter of Ephesians we are told that the relationship of Jesus Christ to His church is reflected in the husband-wife relationship in marriage. Marriage, the church, and the family are God’s object lessons. This being the case, husband, wives, and children all have a role to carry out in order to properly demonstrate what God wishes to communicate.

In marriage and in the church God has assigned man with the responsibility of reflecting the headship of Jesus Christ over the church. To the woman God has assigned the role of demonstrating the submission of the church to her Head, Jesus Christ. The foundation truth behind the role of women in the church, then, is that Jesus Christ is the head of the church. Man has the responsibility to play the role of the head of the woman, and the woman is to submit to her head. This is precisely what Paul said in Ephesians: “For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church” (Eph. 5:23a).

Again we see this taught in 1 Corinthians 11:3: “But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.”

Before we engage in the more controversial aspect of headship, let us think for a moment about the headship of God the Father over the Son. Our Lord constantly sought the will of the Father rather than acting independently—something which Satan attempted to get Him to do at His temptation. In the Garden of Gethsemane our Lord submitted to God’s will for Him to die, in spite of His human desire to avoid it. Submission to the headship of the Father resulted in the Son being obedient to the will of the Father for Him to become incarnate, so in the process, our Lord ‘veiled’ His heavenly glory by taking upon Himself a physical body (cf. Phil. 2:6-8). He sought not to bring glory to Himself, but to the Father.

In the case of our Lord we should see that His submission and humiliation was God’s way of blessing and bringing glory to Himself (Phil. 2:8-11). We should also understand that the submission of the Son to the Father did not in any way imply inferiority on the part of the Son to the Father. Both the Son and the Father are equally God. The Son is no less God because He submitted Himself to the will of the Father and sought to glorify Him. The submission of the Son to the Father was a functional submission, necessary for the unified activity of the Godhead.

Such is the case with the woman’s submission to the husband. It does not imply in any way inferiority on the part of the woman to the man. The wife’s submission to her husband is her indication of her submission to God (Eph. 5:22). As the Son veiled His glory in the incarnation, so the wife is to veil her glory (1 Cor. 11:2-16) in order to bring glory to her husband. The woman is not to take positions of leadership in the church because God has chosen men to reflect leadership over the church, and since the church is the bride of Christ of which Christ is the Head, so the man is to exercise headship over his bride, his wife.

Now let me make a few general comments about this matter of headship and submission on the basis of what I have already said:

(1) Headship and submission are necessary whenever there is plurality in order to have unity. Such is the case within the Trinity; how could we expect otherwise in marriage and in the church?

(2) Headship and submission are assigned roles, not on the basis of worth, but for the purpose of acting out the truth of God.

(3) Headship necessitates leadership and pre-eminence; submission necessitates obedience and submission.

(4) Headship and submission are universal. They are found in the Godhead. Man is to submit to the headship of Christ; woman is to submit to the headship of man. No man or woman is exempt from the necessity of submission to headship. The principle remains constant, only the application varies.

(5) The way to personal fulfillment and glory is not by exalting oneself and seeking our own glory, but by submitting ourselves to others (cf. Phil. 2:6-11; Matt. 23:11-12; Eph. 5:21).

(6) The basic issue is whether or not you are willing to assume the role which God has assigned to you as a man, woman, or child. Elisabeth Elliot Leitch, in an excellent article entitled, “A Christian View of Women’s Liberation” had some excellent comments on this matter of accepting our assigned roles:

The only road to fulfillment, that is, to freedom, for human beings, male or female, is an apprehension of what we are made for.30

Accepting our places means making it our business first to understand the cosmic assignment and then, here and now, to find out what we’re good at, and if it is not inimical to God’s order, to do it.

We too, are allowed to glorify God and we glorify Him by being women. The more womanly we are the more perfectly God is praised.31

The fall of Satan was the result of his refusal to submit to the Headship of God. Satan was not content with being the most beautiful of God’s creatures; he wanted to be like God (Isa. 14:12-15; Ezek. 28:12-17). When Satan tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden he enticed her to rebel against her assigned role and to be ‘like God’ (Gen. 3:5). That is Satan’s way, attempting men and women to rebel against the role to which God has assigned them, to act independently, to be fulfilled, but in some way other than the way God has prescribed. In every case where man chooses Satan’s path rather than God’s, he finds frustration and bondage, but the one who submits to God finds freedom and fulfillment (cf. John 8:31-32).

The Practical Implications
of Submission to Headship in the Church

What are the practical ramifications of the woman carrying out her role under the headship and leadership of men in the church? Clearly, a woman is not to take any position of leadership and authority in the church meeting. Again, it seems obvious that a woman should never allow herself to be in a position of leadership or authority over men. The Headship of Jesus Christ, His leadership over the church, is to be carried out by men.

I must say that this might very well mean that leadership and teaching might not be as good under the leadership of men. In some churches I am certain that there are godly women who could do a better job of preaching than the pastor. But the church of Jesus Christ is to operate on the basis of principle, not pragmatism.

I would understand that women are not to speak in the church meeting whenever in so doing they ‘have the floor.’ Surely we would not forbid women from participating in congregational singing. Personally I would not hesitate to allow a woman to sing in a duet or ensemble in which a man is participating, but I would be reluctant to ask a woman to sing a solo in the church meeting, since to sing is to teach (Col. 3:16).

What Ministry Can a
Woman Have in the Church?

So much has been said in the past about what a woman cannot do that I have not spent a great deal of time reiterating those things. What really matters is what a woman can do in order to minister in the church. Let me make several suggestions.

First, a married woman can find fulfillment in the church by doing what she was designed to do. We have already said that it is not permitted for a woman to rule or have authority in the church, since this role has been assigned by God to men. I want you to notice a rather significant passage in the book of Genesis: “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth’” (Gen. 1:26).

Did you notice that God said ‘Let them rule’? Man and woman were to rule over God’s creation, and thus both were created in God’s image. Woman’s subordinate role no more keeps her from participating in ruling the creation than our Lord’s subordination to the Father restricts Him from rule. But how is the woman to participate in ruling over creation? That is given in the second chapter of Genesis: “Then the LORD God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him’” (Gen. 2:18). Man was not complete without woman. God created woman for man, Eve for Adam, in order that she might complete him, and more importantly here, that she might help him to carry out his intended task. Woman does rule, but as the helper of her husband. No wonder it is assumed in the New Testament that elders are married. No wonder that in 1 Timothy 3:11 a part of the qualification of a deacon, and I think elders, too, is that their wives be godly women.

Here we come upon one of the great problems of the liberation movement, for it seems to me that both men and women are facing an identity crisis in which they want to know who they are. The difficulty is that men and women today refuse to marry and thereby to become one flesh. Men and women want to marry without losing their identity, but as I view the two becoming one flesh both the husband and the wife find their identity now as one flesh. Too many couples want the advantages of married life without any sacrifice so far as their individual rights are concerned.

(1) Woman is not to find her fulfillment in doing her own thing, going her own way, even in having her own ministry; she is to find fulfillment by helping her husband to rule and to lead. She should view herself as her husband’s helper in ruling the home, as well as in ruling and ministering in the church. All too often husbands and wives are going their own individual ways, even in church ministry, when they should be serving and ministering together. Now I think that it is good and proper for men to minister to men, and women to women, but we need a great deal more ministry on a couple to couple and family to family basis. Women should find their ministry in conjunction with their husband’s gifts and abilities and desires. The motivation for the godly wife should be to advance her husband and his ministry. One aspect of this is staying out of his way—allowing him to assume leadership in the home and in the church. The other part is encouraging your husband to discover his spiritual gifts, and then seeking to discover how your gifts compliment and reinforce his. Far too many of us have been obsessed with ‘our ministry’ when we should be seeking to help others discover their ministry. The amazing thing for the wife is that as she does this she will have a ministry for herself as well.

(2) A woman will fulfill her ministry in the church when she operates in the sphere which God has ordained for her. The primary sphere for the woman which God has ordained is the home. Now I know that some wives are better mechanics than their husbands, and that some husbands are better cooks than their wives. But this does not do away with the fact that God has ordained the home as the primary sphere of the woman. It should not be necessary to document this, but I think perhaps I should. In his instructions to Timothy, Paul has this word concerning young widows: “Therefore, I want younger widows to get married, bear children, keep house, and give the enemy no occasion for reproach” (1 Tim. 5:14). Notice these women are told to keep house. We find a similar expression in Paul’s letter to Titus where the older women are to teach the younger women to: “… love their husbands, to love their children, to be sensible, pure, workers at home, kind, being subject to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be dishonored” (Titus 2:4b-5).

If there were ever a picture of the fully ‘liberated woman’ it is that drawn for us in Proverbs chapter 31. It is obvious that this woman is given a great deal of latitude and responsibility by her husband, but it is also clear that the central base of operations is the home. This is the sphere which God has appointed for the woman. The home and its related responsibilities are even the central thrust of the ministry of the woman who is more mature and perhaps gifted to teach. We just read the portion of Scripture from Titus 2:4-5 where the older women are to teach the younger women to be good wives and mothers, and housekeepers. It is a sad thing when young girls are raised in Christian homes which teach them to disdain the womanly arts of food preparation, sewing, and rearing children. There is a desperate need for this kind of ministry today as many young mothers did not have the opportunity to observe their mothers being housewives, because they were out working to support the family.

Now I can hear some of those single or divorced women saying, “But what about me? I’m not married. What can I do?” My answer, in short, is this, do what you see the godly women doing in the New Testament. In the New Testament we are taught and shown by example that we have an obligation to those who are orphans and widows, to those who are sick and destitute. Although Timothy is instructed to teach the older and younger men, and the older women, he is not told to teach the younger women (Titus 2:1-8). Women can surely minister more effectively to other women. Notice with me the requirements which Paul sets down for the widow who is to be put on the role of those who are regularly supported by the church: “Having a reputation for good works; and if she has brought up children, if she has shown hospitality to strangers, if she has washed the saints’ feet, if she has assisted those in distress, and if she has devoted herself to every good work” (1 Tim. 5:10).

In Acts chapter nine we are told of Dorcas, who worked with the widows making garments, I would assume for use either by the needy or by those who ministered in the church.

Conclusion

According to the New Testament women cannot be leaders in the church, but they can help their husbands lead. Women should concentrate their efforts in the sphere of the home, and they should concentrate in the areas of ministry and service to others. Fulfillment is knowing your assigned role and then doing it to the glory of God. May God raise up godly women who will minister to and through their husbands, young women who will minister to those in need, older women who will minister to younger women, teaching them to be godly women and wives and mothers.


18 Ralph H. Didier, “Paul’s Views on Women,” The Presbyterian Journal, 12-4-74, p. 7.

19 William O. Walker, “1 Cor. 11:2-16 and Paul’s View of Women,” Journal of Biblical Literature, March, 1975, pp. 94-110.

20 Ibid., p. 109.

21 Wayne A. Meeks, The Writings of St. Paul: A Critical Edition (New York: Norton, 1972), p. 38.

22 “Paul seems to have been an impetuous, gutsy, sometimes cranky guy.” Joyce Erickson, “A Biblical View of Women,” Seattle Pacific College Alumni Magazine, Autumn, 1974, p. 1.

23 Richard C. Devor, “When We’re Blindsighted by the Gospel,” Encounter, Autumn, 1974, p. 368f.

24 Ibid., p. 381.

25 Cited from a review of “Man as Male and Female,” by Patricia Gundry, Moody Month, October, 1975, p. 36.

26 Gary North, “The Covering FOR the Woman’s HEAD: Another View,” The Banner of Truth, October, 1971, p. 26.

27 The source information on the first sentence in this quote is unavailable.

28 William Barclay, The Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, [revised edition], 1976), p. 168.

29 Linda Sellevaag, “Jesus and Women,” HIS, May ’73, p. 10.

30 Elisabeth Elliot Leitch, “A Christian View of Women’s Liberation,” Interest, November, 1975, p. 5.

31 Ibid., p. 4.

Related Topics: Ecclesiology (The Church), Cultural Issues