This article considers whether it is Biblical for women to actively serve in the worship assembly—in what some call “leadership roles”—while looking at the question through the eyes of a young woman considering colleges. It is the second in a series and focuses on scriptural considerations.
Mary, 17, a high-school senior, loves to dance, play sports, and read. She enjoys spending time with her friends from the Main Street Church of Christ, the church she has attended her entire life. She has gone to church summer-camps and youth retreats and attended lots of Vacation Bible Schools. She takes the Bible seriously and always hopes the youth minister will challenge them with a Bible game. She makes good grades—not perfect—and often has to work more than she likes on her school-work, which becomes irritating when she has to miss church activities because of it.
Mary likes going to church on Sunday but it has not been enjoyable lately.
She watches boys her age and younger, including her brother, read scripture, serve at the communion table, and actively serve during the worship service. Neither she nor her sisters ever have, though, even though they want to, because her church bars women from any role in the worship service.
A growing number of Churches of Christ would not exclude her, but hers and the vast majority do.
Mary has not given this much thought until recently. But now it is really bothering her.
College Applications: Surprise and Scripture
In the fall, Mary applied to several colleges, including three Church of Christ schools.
After applying, she learned something that surprised her: Seven of the 12 national and regional colleges affiliated with the Churches of Christ no longer exclude women from actively serving in chapel worship-services when the assembly includes men and women.
At three to which she applied, women preach, read scripture, and lead prayer and singing.
This excites Mary but also causes anxiety. “I’ve been told all my life that it is a sin for me to do those things and even to attend such services,” she thinks. “Is that right?”
“What does the Bible say?”
At Her Church: “Plainly”
Mary hears some in her church say the “plain meaning” of scripture clearly says women cannot serve in the worship service: “It is unbiblical.”
They point to three verses:
- “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.” (1 Cor 14:34-35) (NIV)
- “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” (1 Tim 2:12)
“Wait!” Mary thinks, “not one woman in my congregation ‘remains silent’ in the church! They speak. They sing. They greet people. They say “good morning” and “Amen.” They make comments in Sunday School. They talk. They give confession to the church before baptism.”
“They inquire about things, too. Women go forward at the invitation to ask about being baptized. They ask questions in Sunday School.”
Lots of the women at her church teach men. Two teach at local high-schools. They teach men every Sunday through singing during services. They teach men with their comments in Sunday School. Men are taught in the assembly by women most Sundays when the congregation sings hymns written by women. Women teach men through their words and actions at church and in daily life, too. Two women at her church write online self-help books for men.
And women have authority over men all the time. Women are in charge of Vacation Bible School, the church’s annual food-drive for needy families, and most of the kids’ programs. Men work on those. Several are supervisors over men at their workplace and teach them things regularly.
Mary hears what people say but sees that her church does not follow the “plain meaning” of these verses.
That Girl Can (Can’t?) Sing
Mary loves to sing. She once spent all day looking up Bible verses about singing.
The Apostle Paul tells women to speak to men and to teach men (as well as women) “with psalms, hymns, and songs”:
- “… [B]e filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord ….” (Eph 5:18-20 (NIV))
- “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God ….” (Col 3:16)
These are commands from God to women and men that apply to the worship assembly, conservative Church of Christ scholars say.
Thus, Ephesians and Colossians tell—command!—women to speak to men in the assembly and to teach men in the assembly.
But the “plain meaning” of 1 Cor 14:34-35 and 1 Tim 2:12 tells women not to speak to men or women in the assembly and not to teach men.
Mary sees that the “plain meaning” of 1 Cor 14:34-35 and 1 Tim 2:12 contradicts Ephesians and Colossians.
Wait a Minute …
“Wait,” Mary thinks, “don’t Ephesians and Colossians (quoted above) instruct women to teach men with and through ‘psalms,” as in scripture from the Old Testament in the Book of Psalms? Doesn’t this tell women—command women—to read scripture to men in the assembly?”
God Gives You Gifts—Sit There and Don’t Use Them!
The senior minister at Mary’s church recently preached on spiritual gifts, noting the Apostle Paul and Peter—the disciple upon which Jesus said his church will be built—wrote this:
- “We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; …; if it is to lead, do it diligently; ….” (Romans 12:6-8 (NIV))
- “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. ….” (1 Peter 4:10-11)
The minister made clear that Romans and 1 Peter instruct women and men to use their gifts of teaching, leading, and speaking “to serve others.”
Mary realizes God blessed her, her friends, and the women at church with gifts—like speaking, teaching, and leading—that God wants them to use and that need developing with the help of the congregation.
But a “plain reading” of 1 Cor 14:34-35 and 1 Tim 2:12 tells women not to use their gifts of teaching, leading, and speaking to serve half the people in the world, men.
Mary sees that the “plain meaning” of 1 Cor 14:34-35 and 1 Tim 2:12 contradicts Romans and 1 Peter, too.
Questions for the Parents
Mary thinks, “1 Cor 14:34-35 and 1 Tim 2:12 either do not mean what they say or they contradict lots of the Bible and what my church actually does.”
Mary asks her mom and dad about this.
Dad: “I’ve never really thought about the contradiction. That’s easy to answer, though. Brother Davis preached on this 15 years ago. Those restrictions on women are just for the worship service—what’s called ‘the assembly.’ The word “church” is used for ‘assembly’ in the Bible.”
Mary: “But women are prohibited from teaching Sunday School class at our church. So, it must not be limited to the worship service.”
Dad: “Brother Davis said teaching is ‘having authority’ over men, and 1 Tim 2:12 says women cannot do that.”
Mary: “But I thought he said 1 Tim 2:12’s requirements are limited to the worship service?”
Dad: “Sunday School is probably considered part of ‘the church.’ That’s why.”
Mary: “But if Sunday School is considered part of ‘the church,’ why are women allowed to ask questions and speak up? 1 Cor 14:34-35 says women ‘are not allowed to speak’ and cannot ask questions in the churches.”
Dad: “Well, hmmm.”
Mom: “That is the way we’ve always done it. Maybe you should ask the youth minister about this.”
Youth Minister: It’s Clear. Well, Never Mind.
Michael, Mary’s youth minister who just graduated from a conservative Church of Christ college, is visibly nervous on Wednesday night when she asks him about this.
Mary: ” … and that’s why 1 Cor 14:34-35 and 1 Tim 2:12 obviously don’t have their ‘plain meaning’ and don’t mean what they say in English.”
Michael: “Those three verses are clear enough. Unlike the denominations, the Lord’s church takes the Bible seriously and doesn’t cave to worldly pressure. The Bible plainly says men are supposed to lead in the worship service.”
Mary: “Wouldn’t taking the Bible seriously involve paying attention to all the verses, like the ones telling women to speak, teach, and lead, and not just the three?”
Michael: “We take them all seriously. It is just that 1 Cor 14:34-35 and 1 Tim 2:12 are really clear that women are not to lead during the worship service.”
Mary: “How can you say those verses are ‘really clear’ when they don’t mean what they say?”
Michael: “Well, you are right about that, I suppose. It is true that even conservative Church of Christ scholars do not interpret those verses as meaning what a straightforward read says, I learned last year. Wayne Jackson and Everett Ferguson—they don’t interpret them as having their plain meaning. Conservative scholars from the denominations, like Grudem, Piper, and Carson, don’t ..… No one with credibility interprets them as having their plain meaning. OK, maybe ‘really clear’ isn’t right. Still, the Churches of Christ have always interpreted them to exclude women in the worship assembly.”
Mary: “Why? Seems like the fact that all these other verses encourage women to participate fully tells us that how we’ve always interpreted them is wrong.”
Michael: “Well, it is just in the worship assembly. The Churches of Christ have always interpreted those verses not to exclude women from teaching and having authority over men outside the church. We interpret it today the way it has always been interpreted. We should interpret it the same way it has been interpreted for 2000 years!”
Mary: “No! We learned in our church-history class that the Churches of Christ as recently as the late 1800s and early 1900s interpreted scripture to exclude women from teaching and having authority virtually everywhere—in public, in the workplace, in government, anywhere except in some home settings, in private.”
Michael: “Oh, I think I remember something like that from my church history class.”
Mary: “So the “same as the last 2000 years” interpretation was that women were generally excluded from teaching men and from having authority anywhere at all, not just in the church. That interpretation was based on the idea that women were inferior. It was a patriarchical society for centuries.”
Michael: “Well, women aren’t inferior.”
Mary: “At some point religious leaders started saying that women aren’t inferior, but Churches of Christ kept excluding women at church while eventually stopping excluding them based on scripture in the workplace and government. But that is definitely not how scripture had been interpreted for centuries. So, the current Church of Christ interpretation is not the same as the way scripture has been interpreted for 2000 years.”
Michael: “Hmmm. You should talk with Lee (the senior minister) and ask him. He can explain it better than I can.”
College Visit: What is This?!
Mary tried several times to ask Lee about this, but she hasn’t yet been able. He talked for a long time with some visitors and her family needed to go to lunch before the Baptist church let out. Then there was a pot-luck next time; then a youth trip to the mountains….
Mary becomes very distracted, as she received letters from all seven colleges to which she applied. Six admitted her, and she is quite excited.
Three are Church of Christ colleges. Mary goes with one of her friends’ families to visit.
She attends the first school’s chapel, and women led a couple of songs, read scripture, and preached!
“Wow,” Mary says to her friend’s mom, “I’ve never seen women do that in church before. I liked it!”
Mary: “Do you think it is OK for women to do these things? A book we read at church when I was in middle school said my soul is at risk if I make the wrong decision on this.”
Friend’s mom, Kim: “That’s ridiculous. I think it is OK, but you have to decide for yourself. The Churches of Christ is just one of a tiny number of denominations that restricts women to such an extreme. Most everyone else, like 90% of U.S. Christianity, isn’t so restrictive.”
Mary: “If the colleges have figured out that the Bible doesn’t restrict women that way, why does our church restrict me?”
Kim: “I think it is the way our church has always done it. I think it will change one day. I don’t think our church has looked at it in a long time.”
Who Has a New Interpretation? Everybody.
Mary: “I’ve heard people say that people who interpret scripture to allow women to actively serve and speak in the worship assembly are offering a “new, result-oriented” interpretation, while people that interpret scripture to exclude women from speaking in the worship assembly are just following the same interpretation that has been followed for 2000 years.”
Kim: “That’s completely wrong. First, like you mentioned you discussed with your youth minister, those who exclude women today are interpreting scripture differently from the way it was interpreted centuries and centuries.
Mary: “Yes, both those who want to exclude women today and those who do not want to exclude women today are not offering the same interpretation that was generally adhered to for centuries.”
It was Actually Really Fast After “the People” …
Kim: “Right. And, second, referring to a long practice does not mean very much when you consider it was virtually all the Catholic Church until after Luther kicked off the Reformation about 500 years ago, in 1517. It took time for the reformation to spread.”
“The interpretation of scripture was what the leaders or the Catholic Church said it would be until then, and the Catholic Church still dominated for a long time. Keep in mind that the literacy rate and access to scripture by the non-leaders were comparatively very low over those centuries.”
“The printing press was invented not that long before the Reformation began. Scripture became accessible to the masses, the non-already-leaders eventually, combined with the Reformation kicking off, and then ….”
“There were female preachers ordained beginning at least in the 1600s. In the U.S. (est. 1776), Quakers, the Restoration Movement from which the Church of Christ springs (look up Clara Celestia Hale Babcock, for example), and others ordained women at least by the 1800s.”
Mary: “Wow! All things considered, this was super-fast after Reformation kick-off.”
Kim: “Yes, definitely. I am oversimplifying—2000 years!—but I think you can see that claiming that there was a particular interpretation for centuries does merit any weight here.”
For Centuries: The Sun Revolves Around the Earth
Kim: “And third, today we have much better insight into Biblical languages, lots more and better manuscripts, and a way better understanding of history and context now than they did over those centuries. If we interpreted the same way as for those centuries now, folks would insist that slavery is Biblical! The world is flat! The sun revolves around the Earth! But our ability to understand the Bible now is much, much better than it was through those centuries.”
Mary: “Yes, I definitely see it. And I get it regarding slavery and the sun revolving around the Earth. God reveals things to us via the Bible on God’s time.”
Kim: “The Biblical understanding for women to serve fully was there in the 1st century—in the Bible!—returned in notable ways relatively not long after the Reformation began, and has returned in most every other U.S. denomination (in many in an incomplete way yet, though) except for the CoC and comparatively small number of other denominations.”
“This was super fast, in historical terms, after the Reformation made, well, reform possible.”
Mary: “What are we doing this afternoon?”
Kim: “Sitting in on a real college class. They are talking about scripture relevant to this issue, so it will be interesting to you.”
Mary sees that the plain meaning of 1 Cor 14:34-35 and 1 Tim 2:12 contradicts Ephesians, Colossians, Romans, and 1 Peter and what the women in her church actually do.
It contradicts so many other scriptures that it is dizzying. (e.g., 1 Cor 14:5, 26, 39 (all NIV); 1 Cor 12:6-8; 1 Cor 11:4-5, 13-16; Acts 2:15-21; Acts 18:24-26; Acts 21:8-9; 2 Kings 22:11-20; Luke 2:36-38; 1 Tim 3:11; Romans 16:7; Matt 28:8-10; Judges 4:4-5:31; Micah 6:4; Titus 2:3; Gal. 3:28; Matt 22:36-40).
It contradicts the Jesus she knows.
She concludes that 1 Cor 14:34-35 and 1 Tim 2:12 must mean something besides what they say in English, something besides their plain meaning. But what?
She is looking forward to sitting in on the college class this afternoon.
“Do people in my congregation think it would be “disgraceful” for me or my mom to speak to them in church,” Mary wonders, “like 1 Cor 14:35 says?”
“Does God think it is disgraceful for me or my mom to speak in a worship service?”
“Something is deeply wrong about this and I’ve known it, at some level, for a long time.”
(to be continued …)
The next part in this series, Part 3, is here.
Sources & Notes
See generally Two Views on Women in Ministry (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology) (Zondervan). Also see generally sources cited in this recent blog post (in main text and in sources/notes section) and in the first article in this series.
I use “leading” and “serving” (by itself) occasionally to try to be succinct. “Serving” is a better description than leading. By “active role” or “actively serving” or the like, I am referring to what many refer to as a “leadership” role—preaching, leading singing, leading prayer, serving at the communion table, making announcements, etc. I am not referring to singing with the congregation, participating in communion when passed to her, giving money when the plate is passed, or similar things. The term “active role” or the like is used to differentiate between those two categories. I occasionally just say “serving” to mean “actively serving.” These are all imperfect and unsatisfactory descriptors.
A better descriptor of what most mean by “plain meaning” might be “ordinary meaning” or “plain and ordinary meaning.” “Plain meaning” is more commonly used and I use it here.
“Conservative Church of Christ scholars tell us these verses are commands from God to women and men that apply to the worship assembly”:
Everett Ferguson, Women in the Church, 2nd ed., Abilene, Texas: Desert Willow Publishing (2015), pages 20-21 (2011) (“In the assembly women do things commanded of each Christian. These activities would include singing. … These instructions apply to everyone (men are not the only ones to avoid drunkenness) and ‘at all times,’ so including the times of assembly.”) (citing Eph 5:18-20)
https://www.christiancourier.com/articles/1142-ephesians-5-19-making-melody (“command”; “church worship”)
https://www.christiancourier.com/articles/1518-authorized-elements-of-church-music-the (Col 3:16 address “church music”; “Psalms” may refer to those compositions in the Hebrew Bible)
http://www.oldpaths.com/Archive/Jackson/Boyd/Wayne/1937/acceptableworship.html (“the church sang songs”)
“… Jesus said his church will be built …”: Matthew 16:18.
“… even conservative Church of Christ scholars do not interpret those verses as meaning what a straightforward reading says.”: See, e.g., Ferguson, supra, pages 21, 28-29, 118 (not all “speaking” is prohibited for women by 1 Cor 14:34-35, only certain “kinds of speaking” are prohibited; women can speak “Amen” along with the rest of the congregation, they can translate, they can speak by interpreting or translating for another, and they can speak their confession of faith at baptism); Ferguson, supra, page 46 (that the setting of 1 Timothy 2 is the assembly “is not so obvious”); Wayne Jackson, “1 Corinthians 14:34–‘Silence’ in the Church,” Christian Courier, Accessed May 15, 2018, https://www.christiancourier.com/articles/471-1-corinthians-14-34-silence-in-the-church (“The first two prohibitions demand silence only in the matters being discussed. They do not forbid these men to otherwise speak consistent with their divine obligations. … This does not demand that a woman be absolutely silent at church. Rather, in harmony with what the apostle taught elsewhere (1 Tim. 2:12), the woman is not to speak or teach in any way that violates her gender role. She is not to occupy the position of a public teacher, in such a capacity as to stand before the church and function as the teacher (or co-teacher) of a group containing adult men. In assuming this official capacity, she has stepped beyond her authorized sphere, and she violates scripture. … Thus, mark “silence” in verse 34. Draw arrows back to verses 28, 30, and note: Silence not absolute, but qualified by context.); Wayne Jackson, “May a Woman Ever Teach a Man?,” Christian Courier, Accessed May 15, 2018, https://www.christiancourier.com/articles/1569-may-a-woman-ever-teach-a-man (“In 1 Timothy 2:12, the grammatical construction of Paul’s prohibition clearly indicates that the term “teach” (didasko) in this setting is the type associated with exercising “authority.” The woman is not to teach in a situation wherein she exerts “authority” as “the teacher.””).
“… Wayne Grudem, John Piper, and D.A. Carson, don’t interpret them as having their plain meaning either.: John Piper & Wayne Grudem, 50 Crucial Questions, Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway (2016), https://document.desiringgod.org/50-crucial-questions-about-manhood-and-womanhood-en.pdf?ts=1471551126, pages 38-39, 41 (“The reason we believe Paul does not mean for women to be totally silent in the church is that in 1 Corinthians 11:5 he permits women to pray and prophesy in church: “Every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head.” But someone may ask, “Why do you choose to let 1 Corinthians 11:5 limit the meaning of 1 Corinthians 14:34 rather than the other way around?””; “This dynamic is significantly different from the public, authoritative teaching of Scripture to a congregation that Paul prohibits for women in 1 Timothy 2:12.”; “When Paul says in 1 Timothy 2:12, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet,” we do not understand him to mean an absolute prohibition of all teaching by women.”; “It is arbitrary to think that Paul had every form of teaching in mind in 1 Timothy 2:12. Teaching and learning are such broad terms that it is impossible that women not teach men and that men not learn from women in some sense. “); D.A. Carson, “Silent in the Churches: On the Role of Women in 1 Corinthians 14:33b-36,” Chapter 6 in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, ed. by Wayne Grudem, John Piper, Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books (1991), pages 133, 142 (“The interpretation of 1 Corinthians 14:33b-36 is by no means easy. The nub of the difficulty is that in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, Paul is quite prepared for women to pray and prophesy, albeit with certain restrictions; but here, a first reading of the text seems to make the silence he enjoins absolute. The solutions that have been advanced are, like devils in certain instances of demon possession, legion. I can do no more than list a few and mention one or two of my hesitations about them before turning to the interpretation I find most contextually and exegetically secure. … Paul’s point here, however, is that they may not participate in the oral weighing of such prophecies.”).
“… interpretation for about 2000 years excluded women … anywhere at all, not just in the church. That interpretation was based on the idea that women were inferior. … current general Church of Christ interpretation is not the same as the way it has been interpreted for centuries.”: Kevin Giles, “A Critique of the ‘Novel’ Contemporary Interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:9-15 Given in the Book, Women in the Church. Part I,”, Evangelical Quarterly 72:2 (2000), 151-167; Kevin Giles, “A Critique of the ‘Novel’ Contemporary Interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:9-15 Given in the Book, Women in the Church. Part II,” Evangelical Quarterly EQ 72:3 (2000), 195-215; Steve Gardner, “David Lipscomb, Church of Christ Foundational Leader: ‘All the Teaching of the Bible is Against Women Speaking in Public’ (It Gets Worse),” AuthenticTheology.com (April 12, 2018).
“… Church of Christ is just one of a small number of denominations whose churches restrict women to such an extreme. Most everyone else isn’t so restrictive.”: See, e.g., Steve Gardner, “David Lipscomb, Church of Christ Foundational Leader: ‘All the Teaching of the Bible is Against Women Speaking in Public’ (It Gets Worse),” AuthenticTheology.com (April 12, 2018) (discussing evangelical denominations in the main body and in the notes); Pew Research’s religious landscape study, http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/(includes percentages reflected by various denominations). It appears that, of the sizeable evangelical denominations, only three others (the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (1.1%), Presbyterian Church in America (0.4%), and Independent Baptist (2.5%)) are generally as restrictive as the general Church of Christ (1.5%) approach. Notes and sources regarding the larger evangelical denominations are in the David Lipscomb article cited above.
Here are some other verses and passages that most do not view as having their “plain meaning”:
- “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Matthew 7:7-8)
- “All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” (Matt 5:37)
- “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matt 6:6)
- Jesus said “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.” (Acts 14:25-26)
- Jesus said “And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” (Acts 14:27)
- “… ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ They replied, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.’” (Acts 16:29-31)
- “Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.” (1 Cor 7:20)
- “What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not ….” (1 Cor 7:29-30)
- “But women will be saved through childbearing–if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.” (1 Tim 2:15)
- “Do not love the world or anything in the world.” (1 John 2:15)
The underlying story of Mary is, of course, fictionalized. The scripture and her struggle are real.
(The top picture is a freely available one from pixabay.com.)
All scripture quoted is from the New International Version (NIV) unless otherwise indicated.