In which roles may women function in the church? My answer is ‘all and any’. Which offices may women fill within the church? My answer is ‘Deacons but not Elders’.
In 2010 I wrote a short article on this subject where I based my contention for male Eldership mainly on the biblical pattern of ‘headship’. However, I did not even touch on the so-called ‘limiting texts’ that Paul penned in First Timothy and 1 Corinthians. I have just re-read Frank Viola’s article on the supposed limitations placed on women within the church. He contends that a responsible reading of scriptures within their original contexts cannot result in female suppression. I agree with him but thought that I too should comment on some of the key issues.
But first I must restate the three ‘golden keys’ to responsible Bible interpretation, which are:
An informed evaluation of biblical, textual, historical, and socio-economic context which yields the ‘first intended meaning’ of any particular passage. This usually yields the essential meaning of the passage. We then apply the truth of the passage into our current historical and cultural contexts.
This is what Jesus taught, modelled, and revealed of the Godhead, and, is for me the final determinant of the meaning of a biblical passage.
This requires a consideration and appreciation of what all of scripture has to say about the matter in question.
All too often church leaders come to their understanding of a passage by reading back into it the current conditions of their society. The role of women in the church is a prime example of this. Women play major leadership roles in post-modern politics and business so surely they should play a like role within the church. But, if we truly believe that the Bible is our trustworthy guide to faith and life then we must start with what we responsibly understand it is teaching, and then apply this in our current situations.
However, a responsible, interpretation of scripture must take full account of original Context, Christocentricity, and Exhaustive Reference. I am critical of the arguments based on current conditions, but I am equally critical of arguments based on a superficial and de-contextualized reading of scripture.
The two ‘limiting’ texts most often cited by those who restrict the role of women in the church are:
1 Timothy 2:11-15 ‘A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing — if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety’.
1 Corinthians 14:34-35 ‘Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church’.
Read the Frank Viola article for details of alternative, yet valid, ways of understanding these passages within the context of the churches of that day in Ephesus and Corinth. I really don’t need to add anything to his analysis in a short article such as this.
‘The Message’ translation of the Bible is very interpretive, but this is helpful in understanding how Eugene Petersen understands key texts. His rendering of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 supports Frank Viola’s understanding – ‘ I don’t let women take over and tell the men what to do. They should study to be quiet and obedient along with everyone else. Adam was made first, then Eve; woman was deceived first — our pioneer in sin! — with Adam right on her heels. On the other hand, her childbearing brought about salvation, reversing Eve. But this salvation only comes to those who continue in faith, love, and holiness, gathering it all into maturity. You can depend on this’.
Now, if we apply the Exhaustive Reference principle the matter becomes even clearer because the Old Testament, the Book of Acts, and Paul’s teaching on the gathered church point strongly to the kind of interpretation presented by Viola and others (myself included). For instance, just consider Acts 2:1-18, 16:11-15, 18:26, 21:9 and then add to this Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 11:4-5 on praying and prophesying .
As to the Christocentric principle, Jesus did not teach directly on the subject in question, but He did model an acceptance of women in ministry. For instance Luke 10:38-42 where Jesus accepts Mary positioning herself as a disciple by sitting at His feet to learn from Him. Also, read Luke 8:1-3 and 23:49 for insights into how Jesus interacted with women.
I think that a biblical context-based understanding of both prophecy and teaching also opens the door to the acceptance of women preachers and teachers within the church.
Just to be clear, I believe that women can and should minister in all capacities within and through the church, including that of Deacons, but should not serve as Elders, which is a headship function… but church government is another matter requiring another article.
Roughly one-half of mature and gifted Christians are women, yet in many churches they are relegated to teaching children, counselling other women, and doing admin-type tasks in the church… and this because a few texts are taken out of context – what a shame!