Why do many Christian churches not allow women to preach or teach? Why do some prohibit women from visibly serving during the main worship service? They can’t lead singing or prayer, read scripture for the group, or serve at the communion table. Some prohibit women from teaching Sunday School classes for those over 10 years old.
There are a very small handful of Bible verses to which most who advocate prohibiting women from such roles point. This post introduces two of the main ones and some scripture that contradicts them. It also introduces how some churches are responding to a closer study of scripture regarding this issue.
One–– Someone representing themselves as the Apostle Paul wrote a letter in the 1st or 2nd century stating,
“I desire, then, that in every place … the women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God. Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.”
This letter became part of the New Testament and is called First Timothy. The above is 1 Timothy 2:8-15 (NRSV)).
Most Biblical scholars today explain that it is highly unlikely that the Apostle Paul wrote First Timothy because the style and substance of First Timothy is significantly different from Paul’s other letters.
Plus, the last part is just plain odd—Eve was a transgressor, but Adam wasn’t? This contradicts Paul’s words in Romans 5:12-14 (the “transgression of Adam”). A woman will be saved “through childbearing”?! A woman’s salvation is dependent on her modesty?! These contradict John 3:16 and lots of other scripture.
Nor does 1 Timothy 2:8-15 sound like what Christ taught, through his words or example.
And at most, some scholars explain, 1 Timothy 2:8-15 is direction in a specific situation and time to a particular person in a letter probably using language that the recipient could understand. Do you ever say things to your friends with whom you have an extensive history that would be grossly misunderstood if heard or read by someone who did not have that history?
To take it otherwise means that “in every place,” women should not wear gold or pearls or have their hair braided, and it means that a woman should not ask questions (“woman learn in silence”) and should teach no one (“I permit no woman to teach”).
Two—The Apostle Paul and Christians in the city of Corinth exchanged several letters. At least one of these letters is found in the New Testament book of First Corinthians. It says:
“(As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached?)”
The above quote is 1 Corinthians 14:33b-36 (NRSV)).
Scripture like the above two passages leads many women and girls to doubt their value relative to men in God’s eyes, their ability to speak up in church, and even their ability to ask questions during Sunday School.
Interpreting this passage to mean that God does not want women today to take active and public roles in the church today has been roundly criticized.
Criticisms include that the passage is:
(1) part of an exchange of multiple letters between people who spent time together, and it is wrong to use these few sentences, one side of a lengthy conversation between friends, to exclude women from certain church roles for all time;
(2) written to a small group of specific women in a specific city (Corinth) at a specific time (about 2000 years ago) in a specific situation (which Paul knew because he had spent a lot of time there), not to all women in all churches for all time;
(3) likely a message to married women not to embarrass their husbands by contradicting their husbands during the assembly, not a message to all women who speak in the assembly;
(4) Paul repeating the assertion of one of the Corinthian letters (probably from men) back to them in the first two verses (1 Cor 14:34-35) before answering them with the two rhetorical questions at the end of the passage (verses 36-37), essentially saying to the men, in response to their assertion that woman should stay silent, “are you the only ones who have the word of God?”—and implying no, women should not be silent in the church! (Paul did similar things elsewhere in Corinthians, see 1 Corinthians 1:12, 6:12-13, 7:1, and 10:23);
(5) inserted into the text of First Corinthians by someone besides Paul because it interrupts the flow of the letter and conflicts with Paul’s positive statements about women elsewhere (you can see this: read 1 Cor 14:26-33; stop; skip 1 Cor 14:34-38; read 1 Cor 14:39-40; then ask yourself if 14:24-33, 39-40 seem to fit together and 34-38 seems like it was dropped into the text);
(6) instruction to avoid disruption in worship by anyone; and
(7) followed by virtually no church, as it says “women should be silent in the churches” and “are not permitted to speak”—notice there is no exception for the hallways, saying hello, talking while keeping nursery, teaching elementary-school children, singing, etc.
Yet, the passage still serves as a primary basis to exclude women in many churches.
Other Scripture Shows Women Were Leaders in the First Century Church
Other scripture indicates that women were leaders in the Christian churches of the first century. For example, Paul wrote a letter to the Christians in Rome in which he mentioned two women, Phoebe and Prisca (aka Priscilla), specifically, saying:
“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well. Greet Prisca and Aquila, who work with me in Christ Jesus, and who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles.”
(Romans 16:1-4 (NRSV)).
There are other examples referring to women as prophets, disciples, deacons, apostles, and teachers of men and indicating that women prayed and prophesied in the church. See, for example:
- Mark 3:35 (“[w]hoever”–male or female, anyone–“does the will of God” is Christ’s “brother and sister and mother”)
- Mark 15:40-41 (women disciples besides “the 12”)
- Luke 1:46-56 (Mary prophesies)
- Luke 2:36-38 (Anna praising and prophesying about Jesus in the Temple)
- Luke 8:1-3 (“the 12” and women disciples)
- Acts 2:17-18 (“your daughters shall prophesy”)
- Acts 9:36 (“disciple” named Tabitha / Dorcas)
- Acts 18:24-26 (Prisca, aka Priscilla, teaching Apollos, a male preacher)
- Acts 21:8-9 (Philip’s daughters “had the gift of prophecy”)
- Romans 16:1-2 (Phoebe is a “deacon” and the Roman church is directed to do “whatever she may require from you”)
- Romans 16:3-4 (Prisca is a partner of Paul)
- Romans 16:7 (Junia is “prominent among the apostles”)
- 1 Corinthians 11:4-5 (women praying and prophesying in the church)
- 1 Corinthians 14:26 and Romans 15:14 (the Greek adelphoi could refer to brothers or brothers and sisters; see, e.g., NIV, NLT, NRSV)
- Galatians 3:27-28 (“As many of you were baptized into Christ …. There is no longer … male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”)
- see also Exodus 15:20 (prophet Miriam); Judges 4-5 (prophet and chieftain of Israel Deborah); 2 Kings 22:8-20 (prophet Huldah).
“Church” is generally used in the New Testament to refer to all Christians (everywhere), Christians in a particular city, or Christians gathered together in an assembly (usually a house). It is not used to reference a particular building.
Today, some churches have studied scripture and concluded that the traditional view of scripture is incorrect and that women should take a full role.
Others studied the scripture and likewise found that the traditional view is incorrect and that women should take a full role in worship, teaching, and other functions, with the exception that they cannot serve as elders.
Others have studied scripture and, in deference to some of their members who are uncomfortable with multiple changes at once, have implemented gradual changes, like asking women to serve communion and teach men and women in adult Sunday School classes.
Still others keep to their traditional interpretation.
(more cites to various studies below)
Tracey and I attended church services in New York about 10 years ago and, before Sunday School, met a woman who displayed a love for God from the first minute of our conversation. When she learned of our background, she felt the need to warn us that women would walk around the church passing the plates of bread and wine during communion. She was concerned that when we saw women doing such things, we would walk out.
Later, during services, she was among the women and men serving at the communion table and passing the plates while the congregation did as Christ asked and took communion to remember him. She smiled the entire time. It was clear that her service to God and others in that way brought her closer to God. It was also clear that her service in the worship service inspired others.
(The picture is one I took in January 2017 of a painting in the building next to an excavation side at Magdala, Israel, the home of Mary Magdalene, a woman who was very close to Jesus. The painting is of the moment in which a woman touched Jesus’s robe and was healed in Luke 8:43-48.)
Sources & Notes
“contradicts Paul’s words in Romans 5:12-14 (the “transgression of Adam”)”: See, e.g, Carter & Levine, infra, at 251.
“Scripture like the above … leads …”: See, e.g., http://lavistachurchofchrist.org/LVanswers/2006/09-20a.htm.
“other examples referring to women as prophets, disciples, deacons, apostles, and teachers of men and indicating that women prayed and prophesied in the church”: See, e.g., Mark 1:13; Mark 3:35; Mark 15:40-41; Luke 1:46-56; Luke 8:1-3; Luke 22:43; Acts 2:17-18; Acts 9:36; Acts 18:24-26 (Prisca, aka Priscilla, teaching Apollos); Acts 21:8-9; Romans 16:1-7; 1 Corinthians 11:5; Galatians 3:27-28; see also Exodus 15; Judges 4-5; 2 Kings 22:8-20); John 4:25-30 (some say the first evangelist was a woman).
“… traditional view … incorrect …”: See, e.g.,
http://oakhillschurch.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/A-Study-of-the-Role-of-Women-in-the-Church.pdf (this link appears to be broken now; the same document can be found here: http://www.bvcchurch.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/A-Study-of-the-Role-of-Women-in-the-Church.pdf)
http://glenwoodchurch.com/resources/women-in-the-church (extensive cites, interesting survey of congregation, etc.);
see also http://sycamoreview.org/grs;
http://www.prcoc.org/resources/leadership-messages/instrumental-music–womens-roles (Providence Road Church of Christ)
“… deference …”: See, e.g.,
(I corrected the description of the Oak Hills Church’s study, added the Glenwood Church, fixed some formatting issues, added the “first evangelist” cite, and added links on 11/19.)
Ernest Best, “Church,” The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, ed. Paul J. Achtemeier (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), 183-185.
Warren Carter & Amy-Jill Levine. The New Testament: Methods and Meanings. Nashville: Abingdon Press. 2013.
Raymond F. Collins, First Corinthians, vol. 7 of the Sacra Pagina Series, General Editor Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press 1999), 511-517.
William F. Orr and James Arthur Walther, I Corinthians: A New Translation, vol. 32 of The Anchor Bible, General Editors William Foxwell Albright and David Noel Freedman (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1976), 311-315.
Also see generally
https://www.christiancourier.com/articles/169-womans-role-in-the-church (argument for scripture requiring women not to teach men, serve in the worship service, etc.)
(Updated: added Anna; the Oak Hills study link to the document on Oak Hills’ web-site went broken around the beginning of January 2018, so I replaced the link to a spot on another church’s web site that had saved it; made some minor revisions for clarity)
Additional resources (added March 2018):
Two Views on Women in Ministry (Revised Edition), ed. by Stanley N. Gundry (series editor) Grand Rapids: Zondervan (2005)
Carroll D. Osburn, Women in the Church, Abilene: ACU Press (2001) (see pages 264-267 for summary of conclusions)
How I Changed My Mind About Women in Leadership: Compelling Stories from Prominent Evangelicals, ed. by Alan F. Johnson, Grand Rapids: Zondervan (2010)
Thomas Robinson, A Community Without Barriers: Women in the New Testament and the Church Today, New York: Manhattan Church of Christ (2002), http://www.hocc.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Robinson_Community_Without_Barriers.pdf
For an analytical case against giving women a “speaking or leadership role in the assembly,” see Everett Ferguson, Women in the Church, 2nd ed., Abilene: Desert Willow Publishing (2015).