The Role of Women in the Church: Are We Missing the Mark?
- Eric Costanzo
- 2019 23 May
In the last couple of weeks, there has been much debate regarding the “created order” and “the Fall” in Genesis 1-3, and how they relate to women preaching, teaching, and leading in the church according to the apostle Paul. What has really taken center stage are not Paul’s words themselves, but rather a position being articulated by some that comes from a singular interpretation of one particular passage.
The truth is, there are literally hundreds of other Scriptures that speak into the discussion on the roles of women in the church and its leadership. As a result, I would argue it is impossible to form a comprehensive view based solely on one text, or even a handful of texts. Hopefully even those who might differ from my position on this issue would agree that we are not practicing solid exegesis if we form rigid views without addressing each of the texts that inform the issue. So let’s do this right by applying a more comprehensive hermeneutic.
What is Paul saying about women?
The primary passage in question is 1 Timothy 2:11-14: A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.
If we are to approach this text fairly, we must wrestle with some of the difficult contextual questions that accompany it. For example:
- When Paul mentioned “full submission,” did he mean to say that all women are to submit to the male leadership in a church, or was he referring to wives submitting to their own husbands as they do to the Lord (Ephesians/Colossians)? How does his admonition to both men and women to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21) affect this?
- When Paul said, “I do not permit,” should we read it as a command from God and also as prescriptive for all churches always and everywhere?
- If we take Paul literally in 1 Timothy 2:11-14, should we not back up to the previous verses and exhort women not to adorn themselves with “elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes” (1 Timothy 2:9-10)?
- Should we not also take literally Paul’s commands elsewhere that women be required to cover their heads in worship (1 Corinthians 11:5-13), and be forbidden from cutting their long hair (1 Corinthians 11:14-15)?
- Did Paul really mean to say that Eve sinned while Adam did not, or that Eve’s sin was worse than Adam’s? Did Eve being deceived result in the female gender becoming more toxic than the male gender among humanity? If so, wouldn’t that contradict God’s own specific curses of both genders (Genesis 3:16-19), and Paul’s much more common attribution of sin and death to Adam rather than Eve (Romans 5:15-21, 1 Corinthians 15:22)?
- Is it correct or even fair for us to equate the more Protestant, evangelical “Sunday sermon” time to that of the apostolic or elder-authoritative teaching setting of the first century church?
- How much did the temple and worship of the goddess Artemis in Ephesus, and the accompanying elevation of feminine over masculine, play into Paul’s lone reference to the order of creation of human beings without mentioning that man also came from woman (1 Corinthians 11:7-12)?
- Also, as is often the case when the 1 Timothy 2 passage is addressed in the manner it was, no attention was given to the very problematic statement in 2:15: “But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.”What do we do with that? Surely Paul did not mean to imply that childbearing is salvific, right? Was Paul saying that women who are unable to conceive cannot be saved? Was he limiting the role of a woman to that of domesticity and child-rearing? Or was he referring to the birth of Christ?
With all of this in mind, perhaps we might be able to approach this topic more humbly and generously. Perhaps we can dig into the Scriptures joyfully, and with thankfulness for the ways the Holy Spirit equips and uses both women and men in the work of the gospel ministry. In what follows, we will take a much wider look at the both the Old and New Testament canons, which will hopefully lead us to be more thoughtful about our attitudes, words, and actions, and have a more balanced discourse.
Men’s and women’s roles in the Bible
First, there are some significant concepts we cannot miss in the overall theology of the New Testament. The most applicable comes from an Old Testament reference on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2, when the disciple/apostle Peter interpreted current events according to the prophecy of the Hebrew prophet Joel: “Your sons and daughters will prophesy . . . on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy” (Acts 2:17-18, Joel 2:28).
The word for prophesy (prophēteuō) 1 is a word that has a much more specific meaning of "divine inspiration" than do the more broadly defined words translated as preaching (kērussō) 2, proclaiming (euangelizō) 3, or teaching (didaskō) 4. Prophesying is the “reception and declaration of a word from the Lord through a direct prompting of the Holy Spirit and the human instrument thereof” 5. Prophecy is listed as an even higher and authoritative gift than teaching or interpretation on two occasions by Paul (Romans 12:6-7, 1 Corinthians 12:7-10). Throughout Paul’s letters, women prayed and prophesied publicly and in worship (Acts 21:8-9, 1 Corinthians 11:5) and demonstrated other gifts of the Holy Spirit (Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, 14).
There is also Paul’s racial, social, and gender unifying statement to the Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
The nine “Fruit of the Spirit,” which are produced by the Holy Spirit, are each feminine nouns in Greek (Galatians 5:22-23). This certainly argues against the thought that the feminine is of lesser spiritual value than the masculine, both linguistically and effectively.
The idea of mutual submission between husband and wife (Ephesians 5:21) is not only that of wife to husband, but of husband to wife in sacrificial love, as Christ loves the Church (Ephesians 5:25-27). The husband is commanded to love his wife as he loves himself—as an equal (Ephesians 5:28-33). Husbands are also commanded to not treat their wives harshly as had been the custom of so many (Colossians 3:19).
Wives are given an equal amount of authority over their husband’s body, and thereby their own bodies, as that of the husband’s authority over his wife’s body (1 Corinthians 7:3-5). Women can live such godly lives in the view of their husbands that many will be drawn to faith in Christ by seeing such faithfulness (1 Peter 3:1-6).
Women, though often seen as weaker socially in many parts of the first century world, are equally co-heirs to Christ’s promises with men (John 1:12-13, Romans 8:17, 1 Peter 3:7, Revelation 21:7). Paul reminded early Christians that it was God’s plan from the beginning to bring Christ into the world through a woman of his choosing (Galatians 4:4).
When asked about divorce proceedings, which in his day were heavily slanted in favor of men, Jesus referred the Pharisees back to the first book of the Hebrew Scriptures: “The Creator made them male and female” (Matthew 19:3-6). This verse in its fuller context actually reads: “So God created mankind in his own image,in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
The creation account does not read, “in the image of God he created him.” Instead it is, “in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).
Women and ministry in the Old Testament
Turning to the Hebrew Scriptures for a moment, not a small number of women are praised throughout the Tanakh. During a time when the world belonged to men as much as it ever has, the Book of Genesis mentions five different women who are given burials of honor: Sarah (Genesis 23), Deborah (Genesis 35:8), Rachel (Genesis 35:19), Rebekah (Genesis 49:31), and Leah (Genesis 49:31). Most of these women are also mentioned on multiple occasions throughout both the Old and New Testaments. There are of course many other Hebrew women who are given significant attention like Sarah, Rahab, Ruth, and Esther.
Deborah was herself a judge of Israel (Judges 4-5). God spoke prophetically to David through Abigail (1 Samuel 25:24-31), and Huldah was a prophetess in Jerusalem who spoke the words of God (2 Kings 22:14, 2 Chronicles 34:22), as was the wife of Isaiah (Isaiah 8:3).
Women and ministry in the New Testament
Moving specifically to the Gospels of the New Testament, women are seen in the most prominent roles. Four women—Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary—are singled out in the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:1-16).
Elizabeth (Luke 1:25, 41-45) and Mary (Luke 1:38) confirmed with their mouths the promise of the Messiah and the word of the Lord from an angel. Mary herself also sang words that became Scripture (Luke 1:46-55, the Magnificat). After Jesus was born and presented in the temple, he was blessed and spoken about publicly by the prophetess Anna (Luke 2:36-38). Women were also at the center of Jesus’ teaching, such as the parable of the woman and the yeast (Matthew 13:33, Luke 13:21), the parable of the woman and her lost coin (Luke 15:8-10), the parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-18), and the parable of the ten virgins (Matthew 25:1-13). There is also the woman who Jesus refused to condemn in a near-execution because of adultery, leading to one of the most teachable moments anywhere in Scripture (Luke 7:36-50). And Jesus praised the impoverished widow for giving two mites — all she had — with a pure heart as opposed to several rich people who gave selfishly and pridefully out of their wealth (Mark 12:41-44, Luke 21:1-4).
There were also the women who followed and cared for Jesus in Galilee and Jerusalem (Mark 15:40-41, John 11:5), along with the women who followed Jesus and supported him and the other disciples out of their own means — Susanna, Joanna, and Mary Magdalene (Luke 8:1-3). There is Mary of Bethany who sat as Jesus’ feet in the posture of a disciple and was taught by him (Luke 10:39), and the Samaritan woman who Jesus not only engaged in a theological discussion regarding worship, but who also went back to her town and proclaimed that Jesus was in fact the Messiah, leading to a spiritual awakening among many people (John 4:28-42).
Then there were the women who were Jesus’ followers from Galilee (Luke 23:49), and Mary Magdalene who was not only the first person to see the resurrected Christ but also the first person, man or woman, to be commissioned directly by the resurrected Christ to declare his resurrection to the other disciples (John 20:14-18). In all four Gospels, the women (not just Mary Magdalene) are sent directly by the resurrected Christ to proclaim his resurrection to others (Matthew 28:7,10, Mark 16:7, Luke 24:9, 23, John 20:17).
In the first days of the early church, we are told that the women who had followed Jesus, along with his mother Mary, were still present with the remaining disciples from among the twelve praying and seeking God’s will together (Acts 1:12-14).
Tabitha (Dorkas) from Joppa is called a disciple and was known for “always doing good and helping the poor” (Acts 9:36). Lydia was a “person of peace” whom Paul, Silas, and Timothy met in Philippi and soon thereafter had a church meeting in her home (Acts 16:14-15, 40). There is also Damaris in Athens among those of the Areopagus, who believed and became a disciple (Acts 17:34). And there is Priscilla, Paul’s “co-laborer in Christ Jesus” (Romans 16:3), who taught and corrected Apollos and, along with her husband Aquila, also had a church meeting in her home. Priscilla was publicly, not only privately, associated with a leadership role in the Church (Acts 18:2, 18-26, 1 Corinthians 16:19, 2 Timothy 4:19.) There are the four virgin daughters of Philip the evangelist (he was one of the seven from Acts 6), who each prophesied (Acts 21:8-9), just as Joel 2 and Acts 2 had said.
At the end of Romans, several prominent women are mentioned and details about them are given in some cases. Phoebe, who delivered the letter of Romans to the church at Rome, is called a “diakonon,” or deacon (Romans 16:1). Junia is named among the apostles (Romans 16:7). Tryphena and Tryphosa are described as “women who work hard in the Lord” (Romans 16:12). Paul says Rufus’ mother was like a mother to him (Romans 16:13). Honorable mentions also go to Julia, Nereus’ sister, and Olympus (Romans 16:15).
In Corinth, there was Chloe who clearly had a role of leadership and influence in that church (1 Corinthians 1:11). Paul also praises Timothy’s grandmother and mother, Lois and Eunice (2 Timothy 1:5), for their sincere faith which was imparted to Timothy. And in Philippi, Euodia and Syntyche were not only “co-laborers” but also “contended at Paul’s side in the cause of the gospel” along with other leaders like Clement (Philippians 4:2-3).
Build up, train up, send out
Are we quite sure that all of these women Paul mentioned were completely restricted from preaching and teaching men and seen by him as disqualified as such by the created order? Are we really sure? Did Paul view these women as more corrupted by sin than their male counterparts? Is it possible that Paul was referring primarily to a few specific women from Ephesus in his letters to Timothy? Were the roles of pastor and preacher in the first century the same as we understand them today?
The topic is not “nice and neat,” and yet it need not be nearly so divisive. It is not a matter of “if we are going to err…”; we will err. We are erring. So why should we not choose to be less dogmatic about our views, and more committed to building up, training up, and sending out in the freedom that only Christ can give?
We can do this together, as brothers and sisters, leading and serving in the humility and generosity required for all who seek first his Kingdom and righteousness.
 See BDAG (Third Edition), 890, which defines prophēteuō as in Acts 2:17 and 21:8-9 as meaning, “to proclaim an inspired revelation.”
 Ibid., 543-44. Though this word is most often associated with "preaching" in a public setting, the NT does not always apply divine inspiration or even speaking by the Holy Spirit to kērussō. On a few occasions this is used for making an official announcement or making a public declaration.
 Ibid., 402. Euangelizō is often used for the kind of preaching and proclaiming which announces the gospel message of salvation, but was also a very common word for messengers who simply came announcing "good news." This is the case with the angels at Jesus' birth (Luke 1-2), and also countless classical Greek letters, treatises, and writings.
 Ibid., 241. The word didaskō carries the meaning "to teach" in both formal and informal settings. Both men and women have the opportunity to be "teachers" in the corporate worship setting (Colossians 3:16), and Paul even refers to non-corporeal entities such as "nature" (1 Corinthians 11:14) as teachers of sorts.
 Source: Holman Bible Dictionary
Eric Costanzo is lead pastor at South Tulsa Baptist Church in Tulsa, Okla. He is a graduate of Oklahoma Baptist University (B.A) and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (M.Div., Ph.D.) He also serves on the Board of Directors of Jesus’ Economy, a nonprofit creating jobs by empowering women entrepreneurs.He is married with four children and has several published articles and one book, Harbor for the Poor (Wipf and Stock). You can follow him on Twitter @eric_costanzo
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/Viktor Capp