Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Place of Women in the Church


There are few topics, which draw more heated arguments than the relationship of men and women especially in regard to the church. This is very revealing when one takes into account the ever-changing post-Christian times we live in today. At the onset I’ll say that the Holy Scripture is our absolute standard. Of course evangelicals in general make the same claim whether they call themselves “liberal,” “conservative,” “progressive,” or “traditional.” However, there are two distinct groups within evangelicalism that view this topic very differently. One group, let’s call them traditional, holds the Bible to be the inspired, inerrant Word of God and, “is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.” (2 Tim. 3:16). This camp believes it does not have the right to alter scripture, stand in judgment of scripture, or interpret it in light of modern sensibilities or customs. The human writers were not “bound to their chauvinistic and Jewish traditions.”1 Rather the eternal God has spoken by the human writers and is not subject to change. Holy Scripture is theopneustos (God-breathed). The other camp, let’s call them egalitarian, believes the scripture was and is limited to the culture that it was written. So, today, the Bible takes on a completely different meaning (and application) than that of the original authors intended meaning. Some go as far as to say the Apostle Paul’s teachings (1 Timothy 2:11-15, 1 Corinthians 14:34-38, 1 Corinthians 11:1-16) are wrong in his evaluation of the relationship of man and woman and in his appeal to and understanding of God’s creation order in Genesis 1 and 2.[2] By this reasoning the Word of God ceases to be inerrant, infallible, and eternal thus becoming a mere human book of good advice that needs to be reinterpreted and revised in light of today’s social, economic, and scientific trends.

If this seems divisive – it is. The two views cannot both be right. One is wrong, indeed sinning. One is teaching contrary to God’s Word, and we can be sure he is not pleased. Scripture is remarkably clear and consistent throughout its pages about the proper roles for women in society and in the church.

This paper will consider what the inspired, inerrant word of God says about women’s place in the church. To understand correctly we need to consult the whole counsel of God not its separated parts.[3] This will naturally begin at the creation of man and woman, leading to their respective roles in marriage, and ending with the proper place of women in the church.

Creation: Male and female equal in nature not in role

We come to understand God’s intention and purpose for the man and woman in the creation account found in Genesis. The way God has created the world and mankind made in his image is of utmost importance. Before the fall, God called his creation “very good.” All was well and all creation was in harmony with its Creator. God chose to create the world in a specific way, in a specific order, for specific reasons.

In Genesis 1:26-27 we read,

“And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them
have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over
the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth
upon the earth.”

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. Man and woman are equally made in the image of God. This means by their very nature they are equals. They are equal in value and esteem. This fact, however, speaks nothing of the roles, responsibilities, and authority of the man or the woman. In chapter 2 we learn details that are not in chapter 1. In chapter 2 vv.19-20 before the woman was made from man we read:

And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof. And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him.

Let us note God named man Adam – the first man. God brought the animals to Adam for Adam to name. Thus showing his authority and dominion over the animals. It is generally held that when one has the power to name and grant title that one is superior (in rank, or position) over the one named. We see God doing this with Adam and in vv. 22-23 we see man (Adam) doing this with woman:

And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.

Notice God “brought her [woman] unto the man” just as God “brought them [animals] unto Adam” prior. Likewise, just as Adam exercised his authority over the animals before (evidenced by his naming them and God bringing them to Adam) he did so with the woman. We also see here that it is by God’s divine decree that Adam, the man, is in a place of authority over creation including the woman. In 2:18 we read, “And the LORD God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.” There was an indeterminate time period where there was no woman. God, by his creation, is showing the privileged position the man has according to God’s providence. God, then, intends to make Adam, the [human] ruler and authority over creation, a “help meet” or helper for him. The woman he will name is for him. She was given to him in order to help him. Many try to remodel God’s creation and claim that the woman has been subject to the man because of the fall. As we’ve seen in the preceding texts, this position is completely ignorant of the creation account in Genesis. The first two chapters take place before man’s fall into sin. In chapter 3, we learn of the Fall after God has established Adam has head and authority over all creation and the woman. After Eve was deceived by the serpent, Adam sinned knowing exactly what he was doing. Chapter 3:7-24:

And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons. And they heard the voice of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God amongst the trees of the garden. And the LORD God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou?

Notice God speaking directly to Adam and not Eve? Why? Adam is the ruler and authority. God knew Eve was deceived and sinned first yet God approaches Adam – the representative head of all mankind. In Romans chapter 5, “For as by one man's [Adam] disobedience many were made sinners. . .” “In Adam’s fall we did sin all.”[4] Eve was the one who sinned first so why was Adam held responsible for it? Adam was held liable because he was the federal head of mankind and thus all sinned “by one man’s transgression.” In vv.16-17a:

Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee. And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife. . .

John Calvin says of this passage[5]:

The second punishment which he exacts is subjection. For this form of speech, "Thy desire shall be unto thy husband," is of the same force as if he had said that she should not be free and at her own command, but subject to the authority of her husband and dependent upon his will; or as if he had said, 'Thou shalt desire nothing but what thy husband wishes.' As it is declared afterwards, Unto thee shall be his desire, (Gen. 4:7) Thus the woman, who had perversely exceeded her proper bounds, is forced back to her own position. She had, indeed, previously been subject to her husband, but that was a liberal and gentle subjection; now, however, she is cast into servitude.Again, we find Adam in v. 20 exercising authority over the woman, his wife, and giving her a proper name, “And Adam called his wife's name Eve; because she was the mother of all living.”
It is plain to see that this was God’s plan from the beginning as he demonstrated it in the way he created them male and female. Before the fall this authority structure was good as God called it. After the fall this structure and relationship has been greatly strained. Yet the woman remains even more subject to man.

Marriage roles: Husband is head of the wife

The New Testament (NT) epistles are full of exhortations and instructions for husbands and wives. The Apostle Paul, in 1 Corinthians 11:3 declares:

But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.

Similarly in the letter to the Ephesians 5:22-24 we read,

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing.

These are a few citations of many more (i.e., 1 Cor. 14:35, 1 Pet. 3:1-5, Col. 3:18). The word “head,” read in context, means “authority over” or denotes a higher rank. This meaning is obvious for any Trinitarian reading 1 Cor. 11:3. Here God is said to be the “head of Christ”. Is Christ not equal in essence or nature to the Father? Yes, he is equally God and man. We read then that Christ has a servant role to the Father but he is not lesser in nature. His sonship as the God-man is subject to the Father’s will.

In the egalitarian camp the claim is made that in the scripture cited the word “head” (kephale) is better understood to mean “source” or “origin”. A cursory review of contemporary Greek literature of the Bible reveals this to be completely false.[6] Furthermore, what are we supposed to think of wives being “subject” to their husbands “in all things”? One who is subject to another is certainly not an equal (positional) rather this one is subservient to one’s authority. Just as the church [bride] is subject to her spouse Christ the wife is subject to the husband.

If we allow the scripture to define its own terms, by it’s context, then we will clearly perceive it’s intended meaning. The Apostle Peter in 1 Peter 2, instructs Christians about submission to authorities. In v. 18 he writes, “Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect. . .” Peter begins the very next chapter, “Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands. . .” In probably, the most anti-egalitarian way possible, Peter equates the relationship of masters and slaves to husbands and wives! Peter writes “likewise” to communicate to wives that just as slaves obey their masters in all things so, too, should they obey their husbands in all things (cf. Eph. 5:24). Peter continues teaching in chapter 3:5-8:

For after this manner in the old time the holy women also, who trusted in God, adorned themselves, being in subjection unto their own husbands: Even as Sara obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. . .”

Sara is lifted up as a great example of what it means to be a godly, submissive wife that God finds “very precious” in his sight (3:4). Women like this are said to have “trusted in God” demonstrated by their “subjection unto their own husbands.”

There is a constant, consistent thread that runs throughout the epistles wherein all of God’s word is in complete accordance one with the other. In Proverbs chapter 12 a woman is described, “A virtuous woman is a crown to her husband. . .” Who wears crowns? Kings and rulers wear crowns. Is there an office or rank higher than a King? A virtuous woman crowns her husband [King] by her conduct and reputation.

In marriage, as it was intended by God in creation, even before the fall, the man is in position of authority over the woman. Naturally, and by direct didactic revelation the husband has authority over the wife. The NT upholds, promotes, and commands obedience to it’s teaching on the proper roles of men and women ordained by God.

Church: Women are to learn in subjection

The woman’s place in the church is not unlike her place in marriage. In fact the two are identical. Thankfully, we are not left to assume this, although we could safely do so based on the creation account and the Scriptures teaching on marriage. God has left the bride of Christ clear instructions on how to conduct herself in this world.

In light of the abovementioned, it should be evident what women are permitted to do in the church and what they are barred from doing. Can women be elders, and deacons? Can they teach or have positions of authority in the church? In must be stated that the place of women in the church (and in general society) is not indicative of the woman’s skills, capabilities, or intrinsic value. However, God’s Word is explicit in its qualifications for elders (overseers, bishops) and deacons.

I Timothy 3 begins with, “This is a true saying, if a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work”. Right at the beginning of this portion of scripture before we even start to read of qualifications for elders; we get our first indication of it being exclusively reserved for men / males. If a “man (male) desires. . . he desires a good work.” Where do we find the qualifications for a woman who desires the office of bishop? Further, in verse 2, we read, “The husband of one wife”. No mention of the opposite, (i.e., a woman being the wife of one husband). In verse 4: “One that rules his own house, having his children in subjection.” Just as the wife is subject to the husband, the children are to be in subjection to their father. Continuing onto the next verse, 5: “For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?” The qualifications for deacon are similar to elder. In verse 11-12, “Even so must their wives be grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things. Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well.” Deacons must have only one wife, not one husband. Deacons, like the elders, must rule their children and houses well. The wife or woman is nowhere in scripture exhorted to rule over her husband or household. Rather, anywhere authority, households, and marriages are mentioned we find consistent teaching of the man’s headship over his family and household. This is perfectly consistent with the all male apostles and disciples Christ called in his earthly ministry. The qualifications for elders and deacons exclude women. They exclude many men too.

If this is not enough for the reader let them hear and receive explicit didactic teaching from God, by the Apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 2:12-13:

“But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.” For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.

In this passage we see Paul arguing from creation (cf. 1 Cor. 11) again in order to set straight who should be in authority and who should be in submission. It should be obvious that one who is to remain silent in a public setting demonstrates their submissive function or subservient role.

Often times the right question is not asked. Such as, “What does the scripture exhort woman to do in their station in life?” Does the Bible have anything to say about women in the church other than excluding them from positions of authority and official office? Yes. Like Sara, the woman ought to be pursuing those things that become godly feminine Christian character, i.e., a meek, and quite spirit adorned with good works (1 Peter 5). In Titus 2 we receive further instruction of what is normative for the godly woman and wife. Verse 3: “The aged women likewise, that they be in behavior as becometh holiness, not false accusers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things”. Women throughout scripture are exhorted to pursue things that support, help, and nurture their children in the home according to the husband’s will (Proverbs 31).

Can women teach? Yes, they older women can teach the younger women. What can they teach them? They can teach them all things that pertain to a woman’s role in the house and her relationship to her husband – her head. In verses 4-4:

That they may teach the young women to be sober, to love their husbands, to love their children, To be discreet, chaste, keepers at home, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God be not blasphemed.

The older women, who should be excellent teachers at this stage in life, teach the younger women to be godly wives. They are not commanded to teach younger women to be, pastors, elders, deacons, soldiers, governors, or Kings. Not at all. Why are the elder women exhorted to teach the younger to follow this pattern? So the “word of God be not blasphemed.”

The egalitarian has many objections – found outside of scripture and often times appealing to the culture. One of the most common objections they cite is found in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” To claim this one verse, taken from an epistle that has nothing to do with teachings on husbands and wives, then to apply it in such a way that it overthrows the very creation of God and the explicit didactic teachings of scripture, reveals an extreme bias. Galatians 3:28, in its immediate context, teaches no one (Greek, Jew, male, female, etc.) can be found righteous in God’s sight by keeping the Law (Gal. 3:11). The entire chapter is about faith and the Law. Paul illustrates that salvation by grace was God’s promise to Abraham realized in Jesus Christ, the one Seed.


Studying scripture we find that not only in creation was the man created as the authority, but also in the marriage relationship, and certainly in the church. We see this authority structure before the Fall when everything was good and then upheld by God and compounded by sin after the fall. In regards to marriage, we see copious citations of the wife to be subject to her husband, to maintain silence in the church assembly, and exhorted to pursue activities around the home and family. In the church, we see clear, and consistent didactic teachings complete with lists of qualifications for the ones in authority excluding women.

How could a wife under her husband’s authority, commanded by God to remain silent in the church, and be in subjection to her head, be a minister or teacher of the Word? This would undermine the order for the family that God established. This is rebellion against God’s Word! Is this anything less than open, flagrant, stiff-necked sin?

Women and men are of equal value made in the image of God. One is not greater than the other. Yet, there is a natural authority structure decreed by God in accordance with His will which is good and perfect and pleasing to the redeemed.

[1] Jewett, Paul K. Man as Male and Female: A Study in Sexual Relationships from a Theological Point of View
[2] Ibid, pp. 134ff., 139, 145.
[3] Westminster Confession of Faith, Ch. I.VI
[4] The New England Primer, ‘A’ for Adam
[5] Calvin, John. Commentary on Genesis, Vol. 1 of 2
[6] Grudem, Wayne. Does kephale (“head”) Mean “Source: or “Authority Over” in Greek Literature? A Survey of 2,336 Examples

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