Saturday, 10 January 2015

Questions Concerning the Role of Women in the Church

Does the statement in Galatians 3:28 mean that “in Christ” men and women are equal in every respect and hence there is no fundamental difference in their designated roles?
     “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28 NKJV). God does not care about one’s ethnic, social or gender status, and He shows no partiality with regard to whom He offers salvation (Rom. 2:11; 1 Tim. 2:3-6). A woman has just as much right to be in Christ as a man. But created gender differences do not simply disappear. In fact, the respective male and female roles were established in the Garden of Eden and continue to be relevant in the Christian Age (1 Tim. 2:11-14). In the church of our Lord both men and women share the benefits of salvation, and they are equal in these higher things, but redemption in Christ does not eliminate their divinely appointed functions, responsibilities, or positions (1 Cor. 11:3).

If women are to “keep silent” and “are not permitted to speak” in church gatherings (1 Cor. 14:34-35; 1 Tim. 2:11-12), wouldn’t this prohibit them from singing or from making comments in Bible class?
     In the context of 1 Corinthians 14, to “speak” (laleō) has reference to the exercise of spiritual gifts to lead the assembly (vv. 5, 6, 19, etc.). Instead of “speaking” as to lead the worship assembly, women are told to be submissive (hupotassō) and remain “silent” (sigaō). But to take this word in its absolute sense is to ignore the context. Paul had just said to the tongue-speakers to “keep silent” (v. 28), and to the prophets to keep silent (v. 30), i.e. to refrain from using their gifts to lead the assembly in certain circumstances. This obviously does not refer to singing (v. 15), saying “amen (v. 16), making a public confession (1 Tim. 6:12), etc. Women are merely forbidden to speak as to lead the corporate assembly. The word translated “silence” in 1 Tim. 2:11-12 is hēsuchia and has reference to a quiet, gentle disposition. A godly woman will not be authoritative, nor will she seek a leadership position in the church, but will be submissive and possess “a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious to God” (1 Pet. 3:4). Simply making comments, asking questions, or even reading in a Bible class do not violate these principles. However, a woman who stands before a mixed assembly and at least gives the impression that she is leading does not exhibit the attitude enjoined by these directives.

What is meant by “let them ask their own husbands at home” (1 Cor. 14:35)?
     To take this universally would exclude unmarried women, widows, and those married to unbelievers (7:8, 13). The word translated “husbands” is andras (literally “men”) and may refer to “their own men” (i.e. husbands, fathers, brothers, or even ‘brothers in Christ’), although it is possible that the women Paul particularly had in mind at this time were all married to believers. It is reasonable to infer that at least some of these women possessed spiritual gifts (cf. 11:5), which may have included the gifts of interpretation and discerning of spirits (12:10). What was a spiritually-gifted woman to do when she questioned the message of a male prophet or tongue-speaker in the assembly? Paul says “keep silent,” refrain from using your gift, and reserve your questions for a setting outside the assembly. There were things appropriate at home that were inappropriate at church gatherings (cf. 11:22), and Paul dissuades women from the appearance of taking a lead in the worship assembly.

Is it permissible for a Christian woman to pray aloud in the presence of and on behalf of Christian men in light of passages like Acts 1:14; 4:24; 12:12?
     When Christians assemble together and pray together, it is to be done in an orderly manner (1 Cor. 14:40). If everyone spoke their personal prayers out loud at the same time, this would be distracting and at least give the appearance of disorder and confusion. In the assemblies at Corinth it seems that one person led the prayer on behalf of the congregation (1 Cor. 14:16), and this person was to be a man (1 Cor. 14:34). While one person was actually speaking aloud, all the rest of the church would have followed his address to God with their hearts and minds, thus the church collectively prayed together. The passages that mention men and women praying together (e.g. Acts 1:14) say nothing about women actually praying on behalf of men. It is important not to read into the text something that is not there, and we must ensure that the overall context of scripture is considered. Incidentally, in Acts 12:12-17, before Peter’s arrival the only ones specifically named in this prayer group are females (cf. Acts 16:13), and they are then told to go report to James and the adelphois (“brothers”). But whether this was an all-female prayer session or not makes no difference to what the passage actually says and does not say.
     In Acts 4:24, the context indicates that this was the apostles praying rather than the whole Jerusalem church. Peter and John had just been released from custody (vv. 19-21), and they returned to their "own" (v. 23). Their own what? The New International Version unnecessarily inserts the word “people,” whereas the New King James Version uses the word “companions.” They prayed for boldness to speak God’s word (v. 29) and to work miracles (v. 30); they were filled with the Spirit and spoke God’s word with boldness (v. 31). Only the apostles are recorded as working miracles and speaking God’s word for the first five chapters of Acts. In Acts 4:32 a new subject begins, and the multitude of believers is mentioned, but it is still only the apostles working miracles (v. 33).
     There is a general biblical principle which should govern our Christian activities: God has given the role of leadership to Christian men, and women are instructed to have a spirit of quietness and submissiveness (1 Cor. 11:3; 14:34-35; 1 Tm. 2:11-12). Notice that this even applies to public prayer: 1 Tim. 2:8-13, “Therefore I desire that the men [Greek andras in contrast to women] pray … Let a woman learn in silence with all submission . . .” When one person voices a prayer and others follow along in their minds, that person is actually leading the thoughts of the group. God has not authorized women to lead men. Some may reason that if the man is in a position of authority, he may therefore delegate certain things for the woman to do. However, a Christian man is not given divine sanction to delegate to a woman things which God would not have her do (e.g. preaching). There is also the question of actual authority and leadership, and perceived authority and leadership. For example, if a woman stands before a mixed assembly to distribute communion, she might not be in a position of actual authority or leadership, but it leaves the impression (at least in the minds of some) that she is in such a position. But a Christian woman must modestly show that she respects her God-appointed role of submission and ought to do nothing that will leave the wrong impression with others.

Does 1 Corinthians 11:5 suggest that women are allowed to lead prayers and preach in a mixed worship assembly?
     In 1 Cor. 11:4-13 Paul merely identifies the activities of praying and prophesying without specifying the environment of these activities. Notice that he is not necessarily discussing a setting where there is both praying AND prophesying, but rather praying OR prophesying. Neither praying nor prophesying is restricted in the NT to the corporate worship assembly (Acts 13:1-3; 15:30-32; 21:10-11; etc.), and mentioning both in the same context does not demand such a setting (cf. Rom. 12:6-12; 1 Thess. 5:16-20). When Paul first wrote this epistle, it was not divided into chapters and verses as in our current English versions. The subject matter of what we now call chapter 11 actually begins in verse 2, and nearly everyone agrees that it was a mistake to mark the beginning of the chapter at verse 1. Moreover, Paul’s original text did not have a chapter heading like, “The Corporate Worship Assembly.” As Paul begins a new subject at verse 17 and introduces matters relevant to the Christian assembly, there is no reason to reverse the context to incorporate the previous discussion. Paul seems to be using the example of men in this discourse as a means of contrast to point out his main theme -- the conduct of women. Since women were not permitted to speak as to lead in a mixed assembly (1 Cor. 14:34-35), the only legitimate setting for them to exercise their spiritual gifts was in all-female gatherings (cf. Ex. 15:20-21; Acts 16:13; Titus 2:3-5). It is unnecessary to assume that Paul was limiting these instructions to a mixed assembly, and in light of what he goes on to write in 14:34-35, he is obviously not giving women permission to lead in a mixed assembly.

Was there a position in the early church for the “deaconess” (i.e. female deacon)?
     In Romans 16:1 Phoebe is called a diakonon of the church in Cenchrea. This word is the accusative form of diakonos, which is rendered “deacon” in Phil. 1:1 and 1 Tim. 3:8-13, and “minister” in 1 Cor. 3:5 and 2 Cor. 6:4. Is it proper, then, for a woman to serve as a “deacon” or a “minister” in the church? When we understand what the word diakonos actually signifies, there is no problem. Its basic meaning is “servant” or “helper,” and in this sense every Christian is to be a diakonos (Matt. 20:26; 23:11; Mark 9:35). Furthermore, the word diakonos is used in both a generic and an official sense in the NT. For example, the word presbuteros (“elder”) generally refers to someone who is older (cf. Luke 15:25; Acts 2:17) and even applies to older women (1 Tim. 5:2). But the same word is also used in a special sense, referring to the position of leadership in a local congregation (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5). In order for a person to serve as either a presbuteros (elder) or a diakonos (deacon) in the official sense, he must meet specific qualifications, which, incidentally, clearly exclude women (1 Tim. 3:1-13). When applied to a Christian lady, therefore, whether the word diakonos is rendered “deaconess” or “servant” or even “minister,” it does not change the function designated by the term nor does it alter what a woman is allowed or not allowed to do in the church. The terms diakonos and “leader” represent completely different concepts.

How can female leadership be unacceptable to God considering the account of Deborah in Judges 4-5?
     As the 4th chapter of Judges begins, we find the Israelites in open rebellion against God and consequently suffering oppression by Jabin, king of Canaan, and the commander of his army, Sisera (Judges 4:1-2). “Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth, was judging Israel at that time” (v. 5). It will be helpful to consider what this “judging” entailed and whether it sets a precedent for female leadership in the Lord’s church today. There is a distinction between leading, prophesying, and judging. Miriam was a prophetess (Ex. 15: 20), but she was not Israel’s leader. Abimelech was the leader of Israel but not their judge (Judg. 9:2-6, 22). Samson and Eli each served in the position of judge but apparently not as Israel’s leader (Judg. 15: 10-11, 20; 16:31; 1 Sam. 4:3, 18). Samuel judged Israel all the days of his life (1 Sam. 7:15-17), even while Saul was leading as king (1 Sam. 10:1-24). Sometimes leaders judged (1 Kgs. 7:7; Prov. 29:14) and judges led (Judg. 3:9-10; 11:11), but not always (2 Chron. 19:1, 5).
     In the book of Judges most of the male judges appear to have been leaders in Israel (cf. 3:9-10, 15, 31; 6:34; 11:11; etc.), but in Deborah’s case we find a different scenario. Deborah was like “a mother in Israel,” and “the children of Israel came up to her for judgment” (Judg. 4:5; 5:7). However, the text identifies Barak as Israel’s leader (Judg. 4:10, 14; 5:12, 15). When Deborah said that “the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman” (Judg. 4:9), reference was being made to Jael who drove a tent peg through Sisera’s head (4:17-24; 5:24-27). Deborah accompanied Barak (at his request) as he led the army (Judg. 4:8-10), though she later sang: “My heart is with the rulers of Israel” (Judg. 5:9). Regardless of the significance of Deborah’s position in ancient Israel, it does not serve as a pattern for Christian activity any more than multiple marriages, animal sacrifices, stoning the disobedient, or other accounts of action recorded in the Old Testament. It is important to consider what this particular account says and does not say and to interpret it in view of the whole context of the Bible.
Kevin L. Moore

Related PostsLet Your Women "Keep Silent", Woman Preacher?Woman's Service

Related articles: Wes McAdams' "No Male and Female", Steve Higginbotham's Gender Justice

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