December 18, 2008

Q and A 2.0 Revisited: #23--Women's Role in Church


What is the role of women in the church?


This is the question that could get all of us killed. Let it never be said that Jay McGuirk is a coward.

The toughest part about this question is settling what in the Bible is a cultural statement about womens' roles (or their role in 1st century Palestine), and what is a timeless truth that transcends culture.

Without a doubt, Jesus advanced the status of women far beyond the times that they were living in. His conversation with the woman at the well, his treatment of the woman caught in adultery, the status of Mary Magdelene and the fact that his first appearance was to her…Jesus moved the ball down the field for women.

But did he move it far enough, and should it be moved farther? Since we’ve been in 1 Corinthians 14, let’s look there to see what it says.

1 Corinthians 14:34 “Women should remain silent in 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.”

Is this a cultural statement or is it a timeless statement? Based on the text, Paul is referring to married women whose husbands are present with them in the service. The word “submission” and the fact that he refers to “their own husbands” clue us in on that. The same thing is the case in 1 Timothy 2:

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 decieved and became a sinner. But women will be saved through their childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.”

It appears that the point Paul is making is that women whose husbands are in the church should submit to their husbands role as spiritual head of their home and not to clamor for positions of spiritual authority over men. The same Greek word is used for “quietness” and “silent” (hesychia) and it does not mean complete silence without talking. Elsewhere it means “settled down, undisturbed, and not unruly” There is another Greek word, (sigao) for “complete silence saying nothing” and that word is not used here.

Elsewhere, Paul permits the participation of women in services:

1 Corinthains 11:5 “Every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head.”

Now, this verse has to be taken in understanding with the culture, and it’s referring to women dressing modestly as opposed to the other Corinthian pagans. But, it’s clear that women did pray in church, and that they taught in church.

Titus 2:3-5 “Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they can train the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God.”

The point is that married women shouldn’t try to play an authoritative role that should be played by their husband, the spiritual leader of their family. Women are, however encouraged to teach other women. In Acts, we see a husband and wife team, Priscilla and Aquilla both discipling as a couple Apollos. Unusually, Priscilla is mentioned first. The only thing we can grasp from this is that she was the more prominent member of the pair, and that certain contexts there is an appropriateness to women teaching men.

But, what about as deacons, elders or pastors?

In Romans 16:7 a woman named Junias is mentioned as being among the apostles, and Phoebe is mentioned in verse 1 as a servant or deaconess. So should women play these roles in the church?

In the early church, in the late 1st century and early 2nd century, it was common practice, according to a record of church history called The Didache, for women to baptize other women. They also baptized in the nude there too, so this probably explains why!

As far as the office of deacon goes, there is absolutely no mandate in Scripture that you must have women deacons, though there is evidence that this may have been the case based with Phobe. The thing that has to be understood is that the office of deacon in the Biblical sense was the role of a servant. They took care of the orphans, widows, and the needs of the people in the church. They were not a decision making body or a body of authority. The Greek word deaconai literally means "servant" It’s a word that was created when then Bible was being translated into English.

So, is it wrong? You cannot say that it is wrong for women to be deacons based on Scripture. But, before you go pushing for women deacons, you also have to realize that it is not a mandate. And, if it is a divisive issue in a church, then it should be avoided. Anything that is not a clear mandate in Scripture should not serve as a divisive force for a church.

1 Timothy 3 lists the qualifications of deacons and the word that the NIV translates “wives” can also mean deaconess, or female deacon, and may make more sense to translate it that way. When it says a “deacon should be the husband of one wife”, it literally means “a one woman man”. It’s speaking of male deacons, clearly. This cannot be taken to mean without a doubt that all deacons should be men, or that all deacons should be married.

What about the office of elder/overseer/pastor?

1 Timothy 3:2 “Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife
(same wording)...”

In this passage there is no mention of wives, or females as there are in the qualifications of deacons. Combine this with Paul’s teaching about married women not exercising teaching authority over their husband and it appears that it was not intended for women to play the role of what we would call “senior pastor” or “elder”. That’s the one thing that we can say pretty definitively.

Remember, Jesus elevated the role of women, and Paul praised women for their gifts. The only thing that we can say pretty definitively from Scripture is that women should not play the role as lead pastor of a congregation, and that wives should submit to their husbands role as spiritual head of the home when both are believers.

Everything beyond that must be dealt with in love, wisdom, and a following of the Holy Spirit.

Next, we’ll answer a much lighter question about Cain's wife. Check out all of the Q and A series here.

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