The Role of Women in the Church
This short study has been written in the hope that its readers will be able to acknowledge that some Christadelphian sisters owe their existence more to Victorian traditiontraditions regarding our than to clear Bible teaching.
I find it difficult to grasp how a Bible-based community can oppose godly sisters in Christ participating in public prayer and praise to our Heavenly Father and our Saviour Jesus Christ, when we assemble together for worship.
Bible truth is dynamic not static. May we be guided by the Holy Spirit into the paths of truth and righteousness, in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.
(All Bible quotations are from the NIV.)
do we interpret Scripture?
that is written reflects the background of the writer. It is not possible
for a writer to be detached from his or her surroundings and past life.
Hence, we cannot avoid interpreting even Scripture, the word of God. in
the light of context, time, situation and environment. As Jesus shows
in the Sermon on the Mount, the whole essence of the edicts of God is
the meaning which lies beneath the surface. Thus the whole of the Law
of Moses was given to teach people the right approach to God: Love
the Lord your God and love your neighbour as yourself. The real meaning
was the principle that lay beneath the surface of the Law - care, compassion,
mercy and humility, as the prophet Hosea proclaimed. But the Jews of Jesus'
day had turned the Law into a system of legal restrictions - sabbath keeping,
food prohibitions and rejection of the Gentiles.
belief in treating the letter of the Law as absolute is the characteristic
of fundamentalism, which accepts as unquestionable any edict of Scripture
without regard to context, situation or contemporary conditions.
Old Testament believers, the keeping of the Law was meant to be joyful,
but the system of rites and ordinances was interpreted in such a rigid
way that it became irksome. Jesus when he came, freed up the legalism
and proclaimed release from the Law (since it was impossible to keep)
and proclaimed a reign of freedom and grace. Following his ascension and
the establishment of the 1st century church, only two practices
were universally accepted: baptism into Christ, and the remembrance of
his death in the breaking of bread.
the Old Testament there was a hierarchical system of priesthood: a High
Priest and individual priests who ruled over the people of Israel, and
who interpreted the tenets of the Law. The order of the day was that
all women and most men were excluded from priestly service. Women, however,
could play a prominent part, not only in the home (Proverbs 31:10-31)
but were able to serve God in other ways. Deborah was a judge and Huldah
a prophetess, both with the approval of God. That these women were few
compared to men is not surprising in a male-dominated world where physical
strength was important for outside tasks (ploughing, going to war) and
where women were repeatedly pregnant and, inevitably, carers of children.
the New Testament, apostles were initially appointed by Jesus to go forth
and preach the gospel of the kingdom of God. The apostles were men, since
it would have been totally inappropriate for unescorted women to have
gone from town to town preaching. But during his ministry women were recruited
to his cause: Jesus travelled about ... proclaiming the good news of
the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who
had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) ...
Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod's household; Susanna; and
many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own
means (Luke 8:1-3). Though Jesus did not get them to preach, his attitude
to women is significant. Other rabbis of his time put women down but
Jesus never does. He always speaks to women with respect. He also uses
them to spread his message e.g. the woman at the well, the women at the
tomb - Go tell my brothers.
organisation of the early church.
twelve apostles were the leaders, and after Jesus' ascension into heaven,
as converts grew in number and individual churches were formed, there
had to be order and structure in worship, so a framework was laid down.
In Paul's first letter to the Corinthians (written about AD 53) we read:
Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is part of it.
And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets,
third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing,
those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those
speaking in different kinds of tongues (1 Corinthians 12:27). As the
church advanced, spectacular gifts of the Spirit, such as miracles, healing
and speaking in tongues seemed to diminish.
the letter to the Ephesians (written around AD 60/62) we are told: It
was he [Jesus] who gave some to be apostles, some to be pastors
and teachers, to prepare God's people for works Of service, so that the
body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and
in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the
whole measure of the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4:11). The word
translated 'pastor' is poimen which means 'a shepherd', one who
tends his flock, in this case the flock of God. Jesus too was called a
Shepherd. The word 'teacher', Greek didaskalos is 'one who instructs'.
in prominent positions were to expound and explain the principles of Christianity,
to make clear the meaning of Scripture, and to instruct in the moral duties
of the spiritual life. Above all, they were to bring men and women to
Jesus, the one who can change lives and bring joy and peace in daily living.
his letter to the Philippians, the apostle Paul (writing about AD 60/62)
addresses the congregation in this way: To all the saints in Christ
Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers (KJV bishops) and
deacons: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus
Christ (Philippians 1:1).
us pick up on the name 'overseer', Greek episkopos. It means something
like 'supervisor', 'one who watches over' in a caring sense, not in the
sense of the KJV translation 'bishop', with its overtones of lordship.
The name 'deacon', Greek diakonos, means 'one who serves'.
epistle to Titus (written about AD 65) speaks of 'eldership' as being
a church office: The reason I left you [Titus] in Crete was
that you might straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders
in every town as I directed you. An elder must be blameless, the husband
of but one wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the
charge of being wild and disobedient ... (Titus 1:5,6). An elder
must be a man of impeccable conduct. The Greek word for 'elder' is presbuteros
meaning 'an older man', a man of maturity, with sufficient experience
to watch over the assembly of believers for which he was responsible.
Verse 7 continues: Since an overseer (episkopos) is entrusted with
God's work he must be blameless - not overbearing, not quick-tempered,
not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain.
will have noticed, from verses 5 and 7, that the terms 'elder' (presbuteros)
and 'overseer' (episkopos) are interchangeable. An elder or
overseer in the church of God had to be fit to watch over and care for
the assembly of believers.
sum up, though leadership continued to be predominantly male, there are
no indications of the exclusion of women. In the modern world, where women
participate in all walks of life, it is a hindrance to the gospel to use
out-of-context passages to restrict women's service to God.
fact, some ecclesial duties were (and still are) more fitting for women
than for men to carry out, such as the instruction of young females: Older
women (presbutides, the female equivalent of presbuteros) to train the
younger women to love their husbands and their children (Titus 2:3,4);
and to contribute to the special needs of others, exemplified in Dorcas,
who was always doing good and helping the poor (Acts 9:36),
place of women
passages of Scripture to look at specifically are:
man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonours his head.
And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonours
her head - it is just as though her head was shorn (1 Corinthians 11:4,5).
in all the congregations of the saints, 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 enquire about something, they should
ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak
in the church (1 Corinthians 14:34,35). 'Remain silent' in Greek is sigao
meaning 'keep quiet', 'refrain from speaking'.
is often forgotten that certain men, as well as the women referred to
above, were also told by the apostle Paul to 'stop speaking' in the ecclesia
- since they were noisily babbling in tongues and upsetting the worship:
If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church
and speak to himself and God (1 Corinthians 14:28). 'Keep quiet' is again
sigao, translated 'remain silent' in verse 34.]
is also the 'be silent' passage in the 1st letter to Timothy: I want men
everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing.
I also want women (likewise when they pray) to dress modestly appropriate
for women who profess to worship God. A woman should learn in quietness
and fall 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 (1
Timothy 2:8-15). The new-found freedom that women (wives) were given was
creating stress in fellowship. From the context, this would appear to
be a man and wife situation; the wife should not domineer her husband
in his public service in the church. Note 'quietness' and 'silent' are
the same Greek word hesuchia. This does not mean 'keep your mouth shut'
but something like 'do not chatter' or 'do not gossip'. In 2 Thessalonians
3:12 it is translated 'settle down'. This instruction by Paul does not
forbid a woman to pray or preach (prophesy) in church, but is a reminder
of good behaviour and manners.
Wright points out that the background to Paul's words is that he was writing
to Timothy at Ephesus. Now, Ephesus was a city of pagan religion, dominated
by the temple of Artemis (KJV Diana), the female deity whose priests were
all women. They had total authority over the worship and ruled over the
men. To counteract any similar baleful influence from infiltrating the
church, Paul tells the sisters in Christ that they must not attempt to
seize control over the Christian worship or to dominate the brothers.
Within that context and situation, they were not to teach, rather they
must exercise self-control and show humility in their service to God.
to, and taking 1 Corinthians 11:4, 5 at face value, it is obvious that
women participated in public worship in the Christian church at Corinth.
They prayed and prophesied in the same way as the men did. William Barclay
translates 'prays or prophesies' as 'prays or preaches'. He thinks it
means 'publicly expound' rather than 'foretelling the future'. As the
Anglican scholar Bishop Lightfoot put it: 'women as well as men spoke
to edification and exhortation and comfort'. The verb 'to prophesy', Greek
propheteuo (pro - 'forth', phemi - 'to speak'), can also
refer to a 'divine revelation' as in Matthew 7:22, but it must be stressed
that whatever the meaning of praying and prophesying may be in respect
to the man, they have precisely the same meaning in respect to the woman.
first sight the second statement in chapter 14 seems to contradict the
instructions of the first statement about women praying and prophesying.
If a woman ought not to speak in church, how could she possibly pray and
preach? Is the apostle hedging this role with qualifications and restrictions?
The reference to 'the law' here can hardly mean the Law of Moses, but
more likely means local custom.
summarise, women are allowed to pray and speak forth in the church. But
instructions are given to both women (wives) and men not to noisily chatter
in the assembly, particularly if such outbursts were to occur at the breaking
of bread memorial service.
was just the one restriction in regard to the woman praying and prophesying
in public; she had to have her head 'covered', otherwise she was acting
dishonourably. To assess what this head covering means, we must look at
the social life and conventions of the time in the cities where Paul established
his churches - since this will give us important clues for the interpretation
of the two passages. Only with this background can we grasp what Paul
is talking about.
Dunn makes the point that the household was the basic unit of the state.
Within the household, the primary fact was the absolute power of the 'paterfamilias',
that is, the male head of the family or household. Single women and widows
could have a considerable degree of independence in practice but even
so were legally under the guardianship of the family's senior male member.
Wives, however, had no choice but to be subordinate and submissive. Women
probably wore head shawls, had long hair and wore a shift dress down to
subordination of women was similar in this country in Victorian times,
when the Christadelphian faith was established. Father's word was law.
A wife did what she was told. The view that women were inferior in status
to men had long infiltrated into Christian sects and denominations, and
was adopted by Christadelphia. Hats, long hair and long skirts were the
fashion of the day. Today, in the 21st century social mores are different
from Paul's day, and Victorian times. Women are equal in status. No hats,
short hair and jeans are in fashion, which, of course, does not mean that
women are less godly than their sisters of former times. Compelling sisters
to wear Westernised hats in the ecclesia seems to be following Victorian
tradition, not Bible teaching about freedom in Christ.
A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory
of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman,
but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.
For this reason, and because [on account of] the angels, the woman ought
to have a sign of authority on her head (I Corinthians 11:7-10).
(In regard to the reference to angels, F. F. Bruce considers that it probably
means that angels are invisibly present at church services and can learn
from the orderly behaviour of the children of God.)
first sight the above verses seem to be an unbending statement of male
hierarchy: God is the head of Christ, Christ is the head of man, man
is the head of woman. This seems to refer to the creation account
in Genesis chapter 2. Thus man is the glory of God, while woman reflects
the glory of man, although this hierarchical relationship is, in fact,
qualified by recognition that woman gives birth to man (verse 12).
this context, too little recognition has been given to the fact that the
woman has her own authority to minister in the church. Her head
covering gives her this authority. If a woman is the glory of man (Greek
andros, i.e. the 'male' or 'husband') then her head covering is
there to hide man's glory in the presence of God and the angels.
Therefore man's glory, which is the woman, must be covered, so that in
her prayer and prophecy she glorifies only God. The head covering
is what gives her the 'authority' to do so.
contrast to what many have assumed, the head covering was not intended
as a symbol of woman's subjection to man. On the contrary, Paul explicitly
defends a woman's right to engage in public worship because she has
her own authority. Having accepted this need to give God the glory
(and not as a symbol of inferior status), the woman is able to fulfil
her duties of praying and holding forth the counsel of God in the ecclesia.
what was the actual head covering? In verse 15 we read: that if a woman
has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering.
The Greek word here is peribolaion, from pen 'around' and hallo
'to throw', which refers to the hair being wrapped and bound up. In
verses 6 and 7 there is a different Greek word for covered. It is katakalupto
'to cover up', 'cover oneself. The KJV margin for verse 15 reads 'veil',
but if the apostle Paul had meant the covering to be a veil, he would
have used the Greek for veil, that is kalumma. In fact, it is kalumma
in 2 Corinthians 4:13-16, where he refers to Moses completely covering
or veiling his face to prevent the Israelites seeing the glory of God.
the 'covering' has nothing to do with a veil or head shawl, then it is
an injunction to bind up the hair to comply with decency and decorum.
Outside in the heat of the day a woman might have worn a shawl to protect
her from the sun; but in the house she very likely wore a head band of
some sort. If then she wore a shawl or head band in the ecclesia, there
would be no point in Paul saying 'Cover your head' since it would already
be covered up! Long hair neatly bound up fits in with the prevalent conventions
regarding an honourable woman's hairstyle.
hair would have evoked a picture of ritual ecstasy in mystery Greek cults,
when prophetesses were speaking in gibberish. The fear would be that outsiders
might think the Christian church was simply another pagan cult. The argument
of 11:2-16 then, is not so much about 'creational' differences between
men and women, but primarily in support of bound-up hair. And this not
in order to restrict women praying and speaking forth, but that their
ministry might, with a respectable hairstyle, not be distracting, when
the congregation was praising the Lord.
weighty social convention would have been the importance of household
management, to which I have already referred. It was basically a patriarchal
institution, in which society wives had no choice but to be submissive.
1 Corinthians 14:35 says women should ask their own husbands at home.
A potentially confusing element is the fact that the Greek gune
can mean 'wife' as well as 'woman'. It is likely that Paul is here
speaking of wives, rather than women in general, wives should ask their
husbands at home.
may have had in mind wives flaunting their new-found freedom in Christ,
by acting in a disorderly way in public meetings in the church. The probability
is that wives were passing judgement on the preaching activities of their
husbands. In light of the social conventions of the time, such conduct
would be 'disgraceful'. So by discussing it with their husbands at home,
the honour of both home and church would be safeguarded.
church at Corinth
ecclesia was in a shambles. Paul had received reports of unruly behaviour,
and that strong personalities were leading divisions. Some members had
resorted to pagan courts to settle civil disputes. Gross immorality was
being condoned. Some people were getting drunk at the breaking of bread
service. Some could eat meat offered to idols now being sold in the market
place but others were offended by this practice. There was rowdiness in
the church on the part of both men and women. As already stated, Paul
rebukes the men speaking in tongues, who were babbling away when there
was no interpreter present, and he tells them to 'keep quiet', as he later
tells the noisy chattering women (wives) to 'keep quiet'.
both parties Paul is saying 'be still', settle down and proceed with your
worship as befits Christians, not pagans. His edict did not mean that
brothers and sisters should not speak in the meeting from then on.
whole question of women having a head covering is mentioned only here
in the epistle to the Corinthians, nowhere else in Paul's letters. It
appears to be a local instruction describing the way a woman's long hair
was neatly bound up above the head. This was the mark of honour, whereas
cut hair or a shaved head was the badge of the prostitute! (1 Corinthians
sum up, Paul's edict was addressed to the Corinthian church only. It therefore
follows that sisters today should not go back to a bound-up hairstyle,
any more than male and female believers should revert to foot washing,
anointing with oil, or laying on of hands. It is the spirit of these things
which is important - women in the modern era to have neat hair and be
modestly dressed, when worshipping in the presence of Jesus.
a sister who has worn a hat in the ecclesia for, say, 50 years, even if
mistakenly so, should not be pressurised to give up so doing; equally
pressure should not be applied on those sisters who, in all conscience,
can worship without wearing a hat: Each should be fully convinced
in his (her) own mind (Romans 14:5).
have been stressing the dates when Paul wrote his various epistles, the
letters to the Corinthians about AD 53/56. A later epistle was that written
to the Roman church, around AD 56/59. If Paul had meant that sisters
were not to minister at church services, then doubtless he would have
told them to be quiet at Rome. The converse is the case.
commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant (Greek: diakonos,
that is 'a deacon') of the church in Cenchrea (Romans 16:1).
A deacon held an official position in the 1st century church, as in Philippians
at which we have already looked. She is said to be 'a great help' (Greek
prostatis, 'a patron'), so she was probably a single lady or a
widow of substantial means who, by virtue of her high social status, took
a leading role in ecclesial affairs. Prostatis is the feminine
of prostates which means 'leader'.
Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow-workers in Christ Jesus. (Romans 16:3).
The fact that Paul names Priscilla before her husband Aquila suggests
she was the more dominant of the two. She apparently played a leading
role in the church which met at their house.
Mary, -who worked very hard for you (Romans 16:6).
Andronicus and Junta. They are outstanding among the apostles (Romans
16:7). Here we have Junia, a female apostle! Some versions read 'Junias'.
In the Greek text it is lounian which can be masculine or feminine,
but the weight of scholarship tends towards the feminine, Junia. The translation
'Junias' reflects the male bias of some translators - the assumption that
only a man could be described as an apostle. Apostle (Greek apostolos)
means 'one sent forth', the mission being to preach the gospel just
as that Christian sister had been doing.
Tryphena and Tryphosa, those women who work hard in the Lord. Greet my
dear friend Persis, another woman who has worked very hard in the Lord
(Romans 16:12). The three ladies here (and Mary, verse 6) are commended
for their 'hard working' (Greek kopiao, 'toiling') the term Paul
uses elsewhere praising those whose ministry and leadership ought to be
recognised. Here in Rome four women are so designated, but not a single
godly women followed in the footsteps of Lydia, the wealthy trader in
textiles at Thyatira. Paul had gone to the 'prayer place' (Greek proseuchd),
a technical term for the spot where Jews worshipped on the Sabbath
where there was no synagogue. Surprisingly the assembly was composed only
of women! As a Pharisee, Paul would have had only contempt for females,
as expressed in the prayer: 'O God, I thank you that I am not a Gentile,
nor slave, nor woman', but now, converted to Jesus, he gladly talks to
them. As a result, Lydia's heart was opened by Jesus, and she and her
'household' were baptised. Her home became the base from which Paul and
his companions preached the gospel to the Philippians (Acts 16:13-15).
emancipated women as the following scriptures show:
woman said, I know that Messiah' (called Christ) 'is coming. When
he comes, he will explain everything to us.' Then Jesus said,
I who speak to you am he.' Just then his disciples returned and
were surprised to find him talking with a woman . . . Many of the Samaritans
believed in him because of the woman's testimony, 'He told me everything
I ever did' (John 4:25-39). How amazing that Jesus revealed himself
as Messiah to a despised Samaritan, and that a woman!
our Saviour died on the cross, the male disciples had proved to be cowards
(apart from John) and deserted him in his hour of greatest need, but at
the foot of the cross were the brave and faithful women: Near the
cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother's sister, Mary the wife of
Clopas, and Mary Magdalene (John 19:25).
answered, 'I know he' [Lazarus] 'will rise again in the resurrection
at the last day ... 'Yes Lord', she told him, 7 believe that you
are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world' (John
11:24-27). What incredible faith, and her confession was equal to that
of Peter's, for which he was commended by Jesus (Matthew 18:16, 17).
on the first day of the week while it was yet dark, Mary Magdalene went
to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance
... Mary stood outside the tomb crying. They [the angels] asked
her, 'Woman why are you crying?' At this, she turned around and saw Jesus
standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. Thinking he
was the gardener, she said 'Sir, if you have taken him away, tell me where
you have put him.' Jesus said to her, 'Mary' (John 20:1-18). Jesus
did not reveal himself to Peter or the apostle John, but to a woman, Mary
Magdalene, out of whom he had cast seven devils.
the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and
ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. 'Greetings,' he said.
They came to him, clasped his feet and worshipped him. Then Jesus said
to them, 'Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee;
there you will see me' (Matthew 28:8-10). This is particularly significant
since under Jewish law, women were not accepted as witnesses, but here
they are told by Jesus himself to go forth and witness to his resurrection.
such testimony who dare deny a more significant role for women in Christ's
ecclesia? If Paul had been writing today, to the Christadelphian church
in Greece, he would have said 'Dress in respectable clothing with an honourable
hairstyle, and act in a godly way when at the breaking of bread service.
Pay respect to the brothers, but carry out your ecclesial duties as befits
sisters in Christ.'
destroyed the barriers of race, rank, wealth, birth and gender, as we
read in Galatians (written about AD 49): There is neither Jew nor Greek,
slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (3:28).
This offers the church unlimited potential, leading to mutual love and
respect between saints, male and female.
in our beloved Christadelphia, have a huge source of untapped talent,
namely our sisters in Christ. It is high time they played a more prominent
part in our worship and fellowship, as did women in the 1st century church.
For example, reading in public from Holy Scripture and praying in meetings;
and serving the emblems on a Sunday morning in remembrance of our dear
Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ..
truth is dynamic, not static, and the ecclesia of Christ must move from
the 19th to the 21st century, in the presentation
of the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ. It is possible that we are living
near the end-time, when the prophecy of Joel will be fulfilled a second
time: In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all
people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see
visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men
and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days… And everyone who calls
on the name of the Lord will be saved (Acts 2:17-21). May this prophecy,
by the grace of God, be fulfilled in Christadelphia.
© Bill Davison March 2005
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