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Misogyny, Feminism, and the role of women in the church. Does the Bible treat women as inferior? What is the role, or place of women in the church? A MUCH disagreed-about topic.

Women in church leadership

Postby Newbie » Wed Apr 10, 2013 10:26 pm

I'm hoping you can shed some light on what the Bible says about women being in leadership in church. My current church doesn't allow women elders and I question whether this is biblical, if nothing else short-sighted. I happened on to a Presbyterian church today and I thought it was interesting to note that the lead pastor was a women. I'm not sure that lines up with the Bible either. Thanks in advance for your insight.
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Re: Women in church leadership

Postby jimwalton » Wed Apr 10, 2013 10:32 pm

Oh, thanks. You might as well draw a big target on my back and give everyone firearms. No matter WHAT I say, boatloads of people will disagree with me. There is SO MUCH disagreement about this topic. I can give you my best analysis of the Biblical material, knowing full well that many will agree with me, and many will not. Oh well.

It's also a HUMONSTROUS question with a GINORMOUS answer. I'm going to post in segments so it's more digestible.

Are women and men equal? Is the man ultimately in charge (head of the household, head of the woman kind of stuff)? Are women called to submit in a different way than men are (Eph. 5.21)? Are women excluded from certain positions of leadership? These are difficult questions that bring not only strong emotions out of people, but also bucket loads of bias depending on the way people have been raised and what they have been taught.

On the one hand we know our God is radically and “irresponsibly” inclusive, letting his grace and gifts engulf the land like a lake-effect snowstorm in Buffalo, New York. At the same time he draws rigorous lines of exclusion and defines tight, impenetrable boundaries. Which position ennobles women since, after all, we know it is God’s intent to ennoble us all (Ps. 8.5-6)? We also know that each one of us—male and female—is gifted for the common good (1 Cor. 12.7), each one of us is called according to His purpose (Rom. 8.28), and each one is commissioned to make disciples with the same catch-as-many-as-you-can fervor as the Son of Man (Mt. 28.19). So are we all radically included—equally gifted and invited to leadership and responsibility, or are women rigorously excluded from some places and positions? These are tough questions, and harshly debated.

STUDY #1: Gn. 1-2

The first line of reasoning takes us back to the obvious beginning where there were no lines, let alone a box to color in or outside of. When God created in His image (Gn. 1.27), the manifestation was male and female with not even a smidge of disparity or inequality between them. They irrefutably, unarguably, mutually, and equitably share his image, dominion, and blessing. There are no fenced-off spheres, no separating functions (men's work and women's work). They are side-by-side co-sovereigns in every sense, despite their sexual differentiation.

That beautiful river of reasoning flows smoothly into Genesis 2.18-23 where we learn what the heavens and earth have brought forth by the Word of YHWH Elohim: the people of God and the plan of history. The woman is drawn from the man that they may save each other from death by mutual empowerment. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil (2.17) is an eternity-destroying threat, and humankind needs every tool and advantage to withstand its seductive drawing power. Nothing in the term “helper” used for the woman suggests inferiority or subservience, for God himself is the “helper” (same term) of Israel. The two humans complement each other with a suitability mirroring the Godhead itself: mutual exaltation and mutual service. Without each other there is an incompleteness that even God himself could not fill.* Perhaps in the same sense that Christ took on human flesh to bring salvation to human flesh, she is drawn from his life so that together they might live. The emphasis here is clearly on the gloriously divine unity of humanity. They will be a sanctuary for each other, for both are in need of protection and sanctity. It’s a priceless (foreshadowing) portrait of the body of Christ (Eph. 5.21-33).

It is God, not the rib, who has granted her breath. She knew Him before she knew man. The man did not make her. He was not an active participant, spectator, or consultant at her creation. She owes her life solely to God. “Thus we see that even derivation is not a strong argument for subordination. It is wrong to say that a woman owes all her existence to man, just as it would be wrong to say that man owes all his existence to dust.” Even though she was born from him, every man will now be born from a woman, and the wonder of their equality will play itself out for all of history.

Adam’s exclamation of “bones” and “flesh” is a telling recognition of their mutual strength and individual weakness. They—Ish and Ishshah, the man and the woman—are bound to each other by flesh and divine commission, equal in being and worth. His authority in naming her is a reflection of the Father’s authority over the Son: one of equality, based in love with a goal to exalt. They will be a single organism, as a lock and its key or a violin and its bow.


* = Gen. 2.18, where God, who is with man, says it’s not good for man to be alone. It is interesting that even though Adam had an open and unhindered relationship with God, God still declares that Adam is alone, and it’s not good. Some teach that if we have God we have all we need, but here we find not only the necessity but also the benefit of human relationships, especially the marriage relationship.
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Re: Women in church leadership

Postby jimwalton » Thu Apr 11, 2013 9:23 am

STUDY #2: Genesis 3

Genesis 3 brings the music of Gn. 2 to a dissonant reckless cadenza as the man and woman fail to protect and consecrate each other. Adam was present (Gn. 3.6) but failed to stop her from being deceived, and she who still has the juice running down her chin hands the fruit to her partner to lead him into willful disobedience. The crafty serpent is cursed, and the function (purpose and meaning in life) and relationships (with God and each other) of the man and woman are dramatically changed. God will redeem the couple and their offspring, but for now their behavior has given birth to separation and suffering. Co-regency has been warped into patriarchy. Generous fruitfulness will be shackled with hardship, and their sense of purpose will be imprisoned by anguish.

“Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” She was born from him, and every man will be born from a woman, but now both will bring severe suffering. Man will abuse his freedom, take advantage of his position, and exploit the desire that drives the woman towards him, turning it into the chains of slavery. Repeatedly she will eat the fruit of her disobedience, and in pain she will bear more oppressors.

He, because he “listened to [his] wife” (3.17) and disobeyed God, will no longer find sanctuary and protection from her. Their delight was trampled by desire, and their shared souls sank into a quagmire of selfish control. Scripture is clear that any inequalities in their relationship were the result of their iniquity.

Thousands of years of domination, manipulation, and desecration ensued. The Scriptures are both reverently followed and recklessly distorted. But with the resurrection of Jesus, as we all know, finally came the means and the ability to restore relationships to their intended design.
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Re: Women in church leadership

Postby jimwalton » Fri Apr 12, 2013 12:36 pm

STUDY #3: 1 Cor. 11.3-16

First, I know this is a lengthy post. Hey, you asked for the truth! But this is only a fraction of my study in 1 Cor. 11.3-16. If you have questions, just ask.

Second, I know people disagree about these things with great passion. This is the result of my study. I would be glad to discuss any of it in further detail.

So here's what I have to say:

1 Corinthians 11.3-16 is the first teaching of the church, after Jesus, of the exciting possibilities of the redeemed community. In this chapter Paul rebukes impropriety in worship from several angles, both from appearance (vv. 3-16) and behavior (17-34). The women and men of verses 3-16 are not husband and wife, but members of the congregation—an important distinction. Women, oppressed and subjugated for millennia, are reveling in their newfound freedom in Christ. And although all things are lawful for them, all things are not expedient. Mid-eastern ideas of propriety forbade women from many locations, activities, and appearances. Greek women rarely appeared in public, but lived in strict seclusion. Unmarried women never left their homes except on occasion of festal processions, either as spectators or participants. Even after marriage they were largely confined to the women’s rooms. In the Christian churches the women stopped following these customs, perhaps as an assertion of the abolition of sexual distinctions, and perhaps recognizing the spiritual equality of the woman with the man in the presence of Christ.

It’s easy to understand their confusion. Jesus showed a countercultural respect for women, always treating them as valuable as men. Paul had taught that there was no longer slave or free, or male and female.

Yet, a careful reading of the first half of chapter 11 shows that the discussion is about more than debating head coverings. The women are acting is if there are no gender and role distinctions, and they “strut their stuff,” so to speak, by casting off their head-coverings in worship (possibly like the women of the 60s taking off their bras as a symbol of their emancipation)—something the public found disgraceful. Therefore, Paul’s main concern is not head coverings, since that was merely a cultural outworking of an unchanging truth—God created men and women differently (and this distinction is not eliminated when we become Christians).

Paul clearly uses such strong language in this text because the Christian women in Corinth had the reputation of being lewd. Social custom varied in the world then as now, but there was no alternative in Corinth. The behavior of the women of the church was compromising their effective outreach in the city—and that’s the point that matters in the text.

God is the head of Christ, which John 5.18-23 reveals is not a relationship of inferiority but of intimacy and equality. Their thinking and work are of complete and total accord. They never act independently of one another, but instead are totally mutual and interdependent. It’s a relationship of love and collaboration. They are equals; they share a balanced authority; they share honor. (See also Phil. 2.5-11 for equality and mutuality.) They are both working to bring glory to the other with their whole being. They give freely to each other, and each lives to exalt the other. This is how the Bible defines the headship of the Father toward the Son.

It’s difficult to come up with words to adequately define what’s going on in 1 Corinthians 11.3. If we could make up words, maybe something like “counterpartner” would work: an equal who loves and exalts the other. What the verse is saying is that Christ, as an equal (Heb. 2.5-18, esp. 11) has voluntarily taken the role to support man and glorify him (Romans 8.30: those whom he called he justified, and then glorified). Man, in like manner, has the role of an equal who loves and exalts the woman, just as Christ does for him (Eph. 5.25-27). In the same way, God loves and exalts the Son (as I have already shown). This understanding harmonizes with the equality and reciprocity of the relationship between Adam & Eve, and it is also concordant with the Biblical guidelines of: (1) all human beings have worth, (2) God grants authority and power to individuals so they can serve, not rule, and (3) all of us are called to a life of self-sacrifice and self-denial.

The idea here is not that head coverings are right or wrong, or that women need to wear them when they pray or prophesy. Paul’s strong point, going all the way back to creation, is that from the beginning God created gender differences, and those must be maintained by the church. We are wrong to attempt to eliminate those differences, regardless of our freedom in Christ. What’s important is the message we are conveying with our appearance, not what one wears or does not wear. In this case, the head covering is a social convention pointing to a greater reality: God made them male and female. Those distinctions don’t disappear when one becomes a child of God. In their culture in Corinth, if a man prayed with his head covered, it was an embarrassment to Christ who loved him and was trying to exalt him. Covering his head, in their culture, meant that he was feminizing himself, and Christ was not honored in that. It was the man’s duty to honor Christ as Christ was honoring him.

It was the same with the women. In their culture, if a woman prayed with her head uncovered it meant she was trying to be “one of the guys”, ignoring her womanliness and flaunting her equality with man. She was equal with man, but showing it in this way was causing the church to be disrespected in the community. The issue is never the subordination of woman to man, but rather the intent of the creative events.

The women are certainly allowed to pray and prophesy in public, as are the men. After all, Paul says in verse 11, even though she was born from the man, every man is born from a woman, and the wonder of their equality should continue to play itself out for all of history.

Paul appears to be saying that there is a new view of women in Christianity. They are not to be regarded as an inferior species, as was generally the case in the ancient world. Christ’s new creation makes everything new (2 Cor. 5.17), and distinctions that matter so highly to men, including that between male and female, no longer count (Gal. 3.27-28); Paul will insist on equality in verse 11. He has said that women may pray and prophesy in worship (5). For that they need authority, and he is saying that their head-covering is there as a sign of authority. Far from being a symbol of the woman’s subjection to man, therefore, her head-covering is what Paul calls it—authority: in prayer and prophecy she, like the man, is under the authority of God.

In Judaism women had a very minor place; they were not even counted in the number required for the synagogue (10 males). Christianity gave them a new and significant place, and their head-covering is a mark of their new authority. The differences arising from creation remain; Paul is not trying to obliterate them. But he is clear that Christian women have authority. The idea that the covering of the woman’s head is a sign of subjection to her husband runs into another difficulty. In praying or prophesying she is acting in obedience to God; why should she demonstrate subordination to a man in such an activity? Her head covering, her authority for praying or prophesying, is the veiling of “the glory of man” (7).

The head-covering was not a way to keep women in submission. It was the cultural device of the head-covering that allowed them to fully participate—an important point as we later discuss Paul’s teaching for all women to stay silent in the churches.

Paul makes it clear in verse 11 that what he has been saying is not meant as an undue subordination of women. There is a partnership between the sexes and in the Lord neither exists without the other. The man must not exaggerate the significance of his having been created first, and he is not to use it as an opportunity to dominate. There is a fundamental equality.
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Re: Women in church leadership

Postby jimwalton » Sat Apr 13, 2013 12:57 pm

STUDY #4: 1 Cor. 14.34-35

At first the command seems to be absolute and straight-forward—no tricks, no turns. But it’s not so clear. The chapter is unquestionably about disruption, not about position or submission. The summary sentence ends it at verse 40: “But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.” First, we know that the whole issue of tongues was about disruption. It wasn’t that you can or cannot speak in tongues, but that it had to be done in an orderly way. In v. 28, if there was no interpretation, the tongues-speaker was supposed to sit down and keep quiet, for the sake of order. In v. 30, prophets are asked to be silent rather than create disorder. Many people feel, and perhaps rightly so, that the issue here was not women opening their mouths and speaking, but creating disorder by their speaking.

Secondly, as just stated, in v. 28 tongues-speakers were told to be silent, and in v. 30 prophets were told to be silent, but except for those certain conditions, those groups were allowed to speak. It’s likely the same for women, given the context. We know from 1 Cor. 11.5 that women were allowed to speak. So we seem to be back to the issue of propriety again, based on the word “disgraceful” in 35. What we are dealing with here is most likely a cultural issue and not a universal command.
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Re: Women in church leadership

Postby jimwalton » Mon Apr 15, 2013 9:58 am

STUDY #5: Eph. 5.21-33

Paul’s teaching continues consistently in Ephesians 5.21-33, which is in perfect tune with Genesis 2: Submission is mutual, and headship is about sacrifice, not authority. There is no place for self-seeking or superiority. All are to renounce their own wills for the sake of others, considering another’s interests as more important than their own.

Notice that the text does not correlate “submit” with “head”, but instead with “sacrifice”. She submits to him in self-denial, and he sacrifices for her in self-denial. In the text, “body” is what relates to head: She is the body and he is the head, and together they form one flesh. These verses don’t teach that a woman, in general, is expected to be subordinate to all men, but instead to their own husbands. It is not to put woman in her place, but to keep Christ in his. Women are to submit to men to effectively reverse the curse of Genesis 3.16—where a woman was cursed with a desire for control—and replace it with a sense of equality and mutuality.

Husbands are not instructed to lead their wives, but to sacrifice whatever is necessary for their holiness and welfare. This is important to spiritual health because of the man’s propensity to live for himself. A husband is to give himself completely away for her, since he is the head. Paul is writing to put relationships back the way God created them to be: a single organism, side-by-side co-sovereigns, mutually and equitably sharing God’s image, dominion, and blessing.
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Re: Women in church leadership

Postby jimwalton » Tue Apr 16, 2013 8:34 am

STUDY #6: 1 Tim. 2.11-15

In 1 Timothy 2.11-15 we get to the granddaddy of all texts about the role of women. The more I study it, and following the teachings of 1 Corinthians and Ephesians 5, the more I’m absolutely convinced there was a problem in that specific church with the women, and that the teaching about silence is because of their behavior, not because they were women.

In his writings, Paul often taught against the various Gnostic heresies circulating in that part of the world during that era. The Gnostic teachings downplayed ethical requirements, since salvation came through knowledge. They taught that Eve was superior to Adam, and actually gave Adam his life. And they teach that when Adam was deceived, Eve enlightened him. Thirdly, they taught that it was a woman’s curse to suffer and possibly die during childbirth. They needed to be protected, again, through knowledge.

Against these heresies Paul taught the necessity of ethical behavior, the nature of true spirituality, encouraging visible deeds of faith and godliness, teaching only true doctrine, and that pain in childbirth has been in the picture since Eve and is not a theological problem.

The entire book of 1 Timothy is about the church’s mission mandate and the kind of Christian lifestyle that will make the most of their witness, both outside and inside the church. All of his directives in the book are aimed at those whose lifestyles are out of order, in the hope that they will choose to become faithful in their mission responsibilities.

1.3-4 – Stop the false teaching
2.2 – Godliness is what counts
2.4 – Why? So all will come to a knowledge of the truth.

And it is in THIS context that our text appears.

3.7 – Don’t fall into the devil’s trap of impropriety that gives a bad reputation
3.15 – Conduct yourself in a way that will make the most of your witness
4.1ff – Stop the false teachers
4.16 – It’s all about your witness in the community!

Back to 2.9: Paul’s concern is that men and women are to exhibit a godly quality so that their witness is maximized (2.1-7).

He addresses the women in the church who will not listen quietly with full submission to true apostolic teaching when they lack maturity and godliness and spiritual discernment. These women are like Eve. They listened to false teaching and in so doing assert authority over those who represent wiser apostolic Council. They display a lifestyle with little sensitivity to the wider mission of winning souls to Christ and nurturing them by godly example. How will such behavior affect their own spiritual growth, their brothers and sisters within the Fellowship? And how will such haughtiness appear to the unconverted? These are Paul’s immediate concerns. Cf. 1 Pet. 3.1-6.

Highlighting the woman's role in the original fall through the great reversal, Paul here implies that Eve arrogated to herself the right to determine autonomously what was good. Ironically, she became an evangelist for the serpent rather than serving as an evangelist to the serpent. The autonomous women at Ephesus are acting in a similar manner because they have listened to the serpent who is speaking through false teachers that they are not to marry, thus becoming false evangelists with an improper message and lifestyle.

Verse 8 alludes to something disruptive going on in this church, just as in the other texts I have discussed. We treat this form of disruption as cultural, just as we do lifting our hands to pray. Paul’s point seems to be to pray with the right attitude, not that we are commanded to pray with a specific posture.

Verse 9 continues the theme of disruption: something was interfering with their worship and witness. We treat this as cultural, since as Christians we don’t forbid braids, jewelry, and expensive clothes. 1 Corinthians 11 has already given permission to the women to pray in public services, and that was written prior to this by the same author. Also notice that they must not have been wearing veils, or no one would have noticed their hair.
Verse 10 continues the theme of propriety by helping us understand that it is good deeds that emphasize personal holiness.

By the time we get to verse 11, it is clear that his point is overriding false teachers while encouraging personal holiness and fervent witness. It is obvious from the book of 1 Timothy that there was false teaching, and the women were falling for it. Following Gnostic leadings they asserted their superiority, and they were deforming the teachings of the church inside and the witness of the church outside. Their lifestyle showed no sensitivity to the wider mission of the church in winning souls for Christ. They were not nurturing anyone with a godly example. Their attitude was wrong, and their behavior was wrong, and Paul was shutting them down.

The term “have authority over” (authentein) in verse 11 is a hapax legomenon (this is the only place it occurs in Scripture), and its translation is anything but certain. It can mean “authority,” but it can also mean “instigate trouble.” We are on thin ice to use this word to stake our case.

We can be certain, however, that with verse 12 Paul does not need to be prohibiting any and every instance of a woman teaching or exercising authority over a man. To do so would contradict what Paul and the Scriptures elsewhere seem to endorse both by example and by teaching. After all, in Acts 18.26 both Priscilla (named first!) and Aquila taught Apollos, and Paul didn’t express any disapproval. He well knew, as do we all, that the Bible describes many women who exercise social or political authority over men without ever questioning the propriety of that authority. Therefore the reference here in 1Timothy must be relating specifically to the matter of public worship.

Thus verse 13 takes us back to the same argument of 1 Corinthians 11. The women here as well as there were abandoning their God-given roles, asserting superiority under Gnosticism, and teaching false doctrines. The proper attitude for them instead was humility. In Genesis 2, a new unity of equality was created. When Eve, in Genesis 3, acts independently of her husband, sin enters humanity. 1 Corinthians 11 reminds them that they are not independent of one another.
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Re: Women in church leadership

Postby jimwalton » Wed Apr 17, 2013 8:19 am


As to the question of women in church leadership, Scripture never denies them every right to leadership that a man has. None of the texts exclude women from any spiritual gift or any position of leadership.

Having said that, it’s still obvious that in the Bible, despite what I just wrote, that all elders were men. There were deacons and deaconesses, both of whom seemed to have equal authority. The word “pastor” occurs only once with no reference to gender, and we know it was a spiritual gift, not a position anyway. Women were prophets, women were teachers of men and women, but the elders were always men.

I would add this: Theologically, it doesn’t make any sense that church leaders can only be men. That runs counter to what I read in Scripture about Christianity and the church. Theologically, women are not excluded from any position of leadership. The way they ran their churches in the New Testament was with men only as elders, but theologically, this is not required or commanded.

I was raised with the idea that women had no right to church leadership. But Scripture very possibly says differently, and if that’s the case, then I need to work on my attitude and my thinking. We need to follow Scripture only, regardless of our own comfort and background with it. May we all have the courage to follow Scripture in every way.
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Re: Women in church leadership

Postby jimwalton » Wed May 15, 2013 10:12 am

I wish to add a log of women in leadership in the Bible, despite that it was a radically patriarchal society:

In the Old Testament:

Miriam, the sister of Moses is described as a prophet (Ex. 15.20). She is portrayed in Micah 6.4 as one of Israel's judges and deliverers, and she was clearly understood as a leader.

Deborah was a prophet and a judge of all Israel (Judg. 4.4-5).

Huldah was a prophet, consulted in matters of importance to the entire nation (2 Ki. 22.12-20; 2 Chr. 34.22-28). Her role is even more prominent given that other male prophets were functioning at the time, including Zephaniah, whose works are recorded in his book.

In the New Testament:

The four daughters of Philip are introduced as prophets (Acts 21.9)

Priscilla (and her husband Aquila) were apparently widely known (Rom. 16.3-4) and hosted a local church (1 Cor. 16.19; Rom. 16.5) The two of them instruct Apollos (Acts 18.26). She is referred to as a "co-worker" in rom. 16.3-4, a technical term that Paul uses for people in leadership.Often when Priscilla and Aquila are named, she is listed first, which may hint to her status and role.

Others in Romans 16 are referred to as "workers in the Lord": Mary, Tryphaena and Tryphosa, and Persis.

In Rom. 16.7 Junia is (debatedly) referred to as an apostle, which could indicate she was a teacher and possible involved in planting churches.

Phoebe (Rom. 16.1-2) is called a deacon, which was a recognized personage of leadership in the ancient church.
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