The Role of Women in the Church

By David Webb


While the Bible exalts women more than any other book ever been written, the Scriptures distinguish between the roles of men and women.  For example, the New Testament shows that the man is to assume the leadership role in the family.  He is the head of his wife, and is to love her as Christ also loved the church, and she is to be submissive to his loving and godly leadership (Ephesians 5:22-33).  But in the home, the woman has a vitally important role to play as well.  Christian women were admonished to “love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, chaste, homemakers, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be blasphemed” (Titus 2:4-5).

But what about the role of women in the worship services of the church.  Did women pray, prophecy and preach (or teach) during New Testament times?  The most simple answer to that question is “yes.”  However, the manner in which women prayed, prophesied, and taught should be carefully studied.  The apostle Paul gave one simple guideline for women everywhere to follow.  He said, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence” (1 Timothy 2:12).  Some have interpreted this passage to mean a woman can never teach, or is to never teach a man.  But we have New Testament examples of both.  Women would almost certainly be included in the disciples who “went everywhere preaching the word” (Acts 8:4).  Older women are to teach younger women (Titus 2:3-5).   Priscilla helped her husband Aquilla teach Apollos (Acts 18:26).  Philip had four virgin daughters who prophesied (Acts 21:9).  And it seems that women prayed and prophesied in the church at Corinth (1 Corinthians 11:3-16).  Apparently some women at Corinth were given spiritual gifts that were to be exercised in the same setting as the men – public worship.

However, in all examples in the New Testament where women were involved in praying, prophesying, and teaching, it was done in such a manner so as to insure that the woman did not “teach or have authority over a man.”  The words “teach” and “have authority” are both modified by the phrase “over a man.”  Therefore, the passage is understood to say a woman cannot “teach over a man,” or “have authority over a man.”  In other words, she can teach, she can have authority, and she can even teach a man, but she cannot teach over a man, or have authority over a man in the context of the New Testament church and its worship.  Men can teach over a man, and have authority over a man, but when it comes to doing these things, women are to be “in silence.”  The word “silence” here is from “hesuchia” (hay-soo-khee'-ah) which means “stillness, i.e. desistance from bustle or language: – quietness.”  When the women at Corinth prayed and prophesied, they were veiled whereas men were not.  Women were commanded to be veiled to show their subjection to the man, and not to bring shame to the man by teaching over him, or having authority over him.  Obviously, Priscilla was careful to exercise this same spirit of humility and subjection in her role of teaching Apollos.

Women are forbidden to preach publicly, serve as elders or take the lead in the work of the church.  No woman can preach or teach publicly where men are present without teaching over a man or having authority over a man. Since this shows disrespect for man and for God, the practice was forbidden.  What does the Bible say about women pastors, preachers, evangelists, teachers?  The word “pastor” (Ephesians 4:11) is from “poimen” (poy-mane'), and is literally translated “a shepherd.”  A form of the same word is used in the Scriptures in connection with the work elders (or bishops) are to perform in overseeing, or shepherding the local congregation.  In his meeting with the elders from Ephesus, the apostle Paul said, “Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:7).  The apostle Peter also used the word “shepherd” (or pastor) in connection with elders.  He wrote, “The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock; and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away.” (1 Peter 5:1-4).  Therefore, in New Testament times, the term “pastor” (shepherd) was used synonymously with the term “elder.”

When we consider the qualifications of elders (pastors) or bishops, it’s easy to see why a woman cannot qualify to hold the position.  Elders (pastors) or bishops must be married men with children who are faithful Christians (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9).  Regarding women preachers or evangelists, the term “preacher” comes from “kerusso” (kay-roos'-so), as in Romans 10:14, and means “to herald, as a public crier, especially of divine truth (the gospel), to proclaim, or publish.”  Another form of the word is “kerux” (kay'-roox), as in 1 Timothy 2:7; 2 Timothy 1:11; and 2 Peter 2:5, meaning “a herald, i.e. of divine truth, especially of the gospel.”  Likewise, the term “evangelist” is a verb form of the Greek word “euaggelizo” (yoo-ang-ghel-id'-zo), as found in Acts 8:12 (also see Acts 21:8; 2 Timothy 4:5; and Ephesians 4:11), and means “to announce good news, to evangelize, especially the gospel, to declare, bring, or show glad (good) tidings, to preach.”  Another word used to suggest the same concept is “preaching” from the Greek “kerugma” (kay'-roog-mah), as in 1 Corinthians 2:4, and means “a proclamation, especially of the gospel.”  The Scriptures indicate that those who preached and evangelized – those who made a public proclamation of the Word of God (the gospel) were men.  While a woman can certainly “proclaim divine truths,” or “announce good news, and declare glad tidings,” she is to do so within certain guidelines.  Those guidelines are established by divine inspiration in 1 Timothy 2:1 where Paul told Timothy, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence.”  Women can teach or preach to other women, but women cannot “teach over” or “have authority over” a man without God’s divine commandment being ignored.  As we have already seen, women in New Testament times who prophesied were governed by very strict rules (1 Corinthians 11:3-16).

Questions are often raised about whether a woman has the right to ask a question or make a comment in a Bible class.  Some quote 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 to show that women must “keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak.”  Does this passage mean that women are never permitted to participate in a Bible class.  The answer to that question lies in understanding who Paul was addressing in this passage.  The fourteenth chapter of 1st Corinthians is dealing with the proper handling of spiritual gifts.  The Corinthians had apparently not been worshipping “decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40).  Those who had the ability to speak in tongues or prophesy would speak when no one was there to interpret, and they were constantly interrupting each other so that confusion seemed to be the order of the day.  The church certainly could not be edified under those circumstances.  Therefore, Paul addressed each group – the tongue speakers and those who prophesied – and gave specific instructions how to conduct themselves in the assembly, “for God is not the author of confusion but of peace.” (1 Corinthians 14:33).  Immediately on the heels of that comment, Paul adds, “Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says.  And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church.” (1 Corinthians 14:34-35).

Notice several important facts about these verses.  First, Paul was not addressing all women at Corinth when he said, “Let your women keep silent in the churches.”  How do we know?  The women Paul addressed were women who had “husbands” (v. 35), and husbands from whom these women could “learn something” (v. 35).  This means Paul was addressing a specific group of married women within the church at Corinth who had believing husbands.  That would eliminate all women who were single, or whose husbands were not believers.  Second, notice that Paul calls these women “your women” (v. 34).  Although there has been much debate over whether the phrase meant “the church at Corinth’s women,” that appears not have been the case.  If Paul was addressing the women of the church at Corinth (all of them), then why would he have added, “And if they (the women at Corinth) want to learn something, let them (the women at Corinth) ask their own husbands at home?”  To hold to this position, we would have to concede that all the women at Corinth were married with believing husbands.  That would be too great an assumption, especially since Paul already addressed the problem of virgin women, and those married to unbelievers in 1 Corinthians 7.  Therefore, Paul’s remarks concerning letting “your women keep silent in the churches” must have been addressed to a specific group of women.  Which group would Paul have been referring to?  Most believe he was speaking to the wives of the prophets.  They were apparently the ones who were causing problems within the church at Corinth by speaking out of turn in some manner.  However, Paul does add this final comment:  “for it is shameful for women to speak in church.”  This is clearly a statement made to all women, not just those at Corinth, or to the wives of the prophets.  But what did Paul mean when he said, “it is shameful for women to speak in church?”  Obviously, this does not mean women are not permitted to say anything, otherwise how could they fulfill these commands: “Speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:19), and “teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Colossians 3:16)?  When Paul said “it is shameful for women to speak in church,” he used the Greek word “laleo” (lal-eh'-o) for “speak,” which is a verb meaning, “to talk, to utter words, to preach, or to tell.”  Paul also used this same word throughout the fourteenth chapter of 1st Corinthians when referring to the “speaking” done by tongue speakers and prophets – the public proclamation of the Word of God in the assembly of the church.  Paul says, “it is shameful for women to speak (in the same public manner as the tongue speakers and prophets) in the church.”  Apparently, the wives of the prophets (perhaps the wives of the tongue speakers and prophets) were abusing this practice, and were speaking out publicly in the same manner as their husbands were speaking – publicly proclaiming the Word of God.  Paul condemned the practice.  Why?  They were teaching over men, and exercising authority over men.  Does this apply to women who wish to publicly ask a question, or make a comment?  Not if she does so in such a way as to avoid speaking in the same manner as men are permitted to speak in the church, that is, as long as she avoids making a public proclamation of the gospel, and doing so in an authoritative, assertive manner.  Women are not permitted to speak in that manner in the church.

Obviously, women can teach, but they are to teach within the specific guidelines imposed upon them by the Scriptures.  The apostle Paul admonished Titus: “the older women likewise, that they be reverent in behavior, not slanderers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things; that they admonish the young women to love their husbands, to love their children.” (Titus 2:3-4).  Was Paul saying older women can teach younger women as long as it’s not in a Bible class in the church?  Not at all.  The passage is not restrictive in nature, which means the passage does not specify when and where the teaching of younger women is to take place.  Therefore, it is understood to be inclusive in nature, which means older women are to always be looking for opportunities to teach younger women in every setting – in and out of the assembly – either indirectly by example, or directly through didactic (formal) teaching.  It has already been shown that both men and women teach and admonish in “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” in the assembly (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16).  But it’s understood that women are prohibited from “teaching over a man” or “having authority over a man” (1 Timothy 2:12).  Older women who teach younger women in a Bible class composed entirely of women are certainly not “teaching over a man” or “having authority over a man.”   There are no men present to teach over or have authority over.  The same holds true for women teaching a class composed entirely of children.  Women are certainly not violating any Biblical principle in teaching a Bible class of children, because they are not “teaching over a man” nor “having authority over a man.”   To restrict older women from teaching younger women in a Bible class would likewise demand restricting them from teaching children in the same kind of setting.  That would simply be forcing the Scriptures to teach something they were never intended to say, and would be a simple perversion of the Word.

While it is clear that men were to assume the leadership roles in the church, women fulfilled equally important roles in the New Testament church as well.  They were not silent partners who simply sat in the background and never offered anything to the work or worship of the church.  In addition to having special roles in teaching other women and in teaching and nurturing children, they also ministered (served) the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of others – sometimes in ways that only a woman can fulfill.  For example, a certain disciple named Tabitha (Dorcas) was described as being “full of good works and charitable deeds which she did” (Acts 9:36).  Although the “good works and charitable deeds” of Tabitha are not specifically mentioned, we can assume they included the making of various “tunics and garments” for others – possibly for those who could not afford them.  The apostle Paul wrote to both men and women in the churches of Galatia and said, “For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.  For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Galatians 5:13-14; also Galatians 6:9-10; Hebrews 6:10; 10:24).  Surely women were not excluded from serving or ministering to the needs of others, were they?  When Paul spoke of the equipping the saints for the work of ministry (service), did he exclude women?  Apparently not, since he urged the Ephesian church to make certain “every part” of the body did its part (Ephesians 4:12, 16).  Several Scriptures speak of ways first century Christians served one another (Acts 9:36-39; Romans 12:13; 1 Timothy 6:17-19; Titus 3:13-14; Hebrews 13:16).  And what of all the other “one another” passages in the New Testament?  Don’t they speak of the role of women as well?  Were women excluded from bearing one another’s burdens?  “Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).  Several Scriptures tell us how we can bear the burdens of others: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15; also see Romans 15:1; 1 Corinthians 12:25-26; James 1:27).  Were women excluded from this activity?  What about confessing of sins and praying for one another?  “Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much” (James 5:16; also see Acts 1:14; Acts 2:42; Ephesians 6:18).  Were women excluded from this activity?  And what about exhorting one another?  “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:24-25; also see Romans 14:19; 1 Thessalonians 5:11-14; Hebrews 3:13).  Were women excluded from this activity?  Or what about admonishing, reproving and rebuking one another?  “Now I myself am confident concerning you, my brethren, that you also are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, able also to admonish one another” (Romans 15:14).  Surely women were not excluded from that activity.

The Bible clearly shows that the role of women in the New Testament church was a vitally important one as long as it was kept in the proper perspective.  Women were never permitted to “teach over a man” nor were they permitted to “have authority over a man.”   But women served or ministered to the physical needs of others, they served or ministered to the emotional needs of others when they bore their burdens, and they served and ministered to the spiritual needs of others when they prayed, exhorted, admonished, reproved and rebuked others, and most definitely when they taught others.

A church that is not “joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share” (including both men and women) is a church that will never experience the “growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love” (Ephesians 4:16).