The Role of Women in the Church (Part One)

Introduction:

The Bible is, and will always be, the rule of faith and practice for God’s people.  We know from its pages, from the words of Jesus Christ, from the examples of the Christians in Act, from the letters God inspired to be written to Christians, how we are to live our lives, and what God desires from us in our worship.

His Divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him that has called us to glory and virtue (2 Peter 1:3).

All Scripture is inspired by God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness, so that the person of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

The question that we must ask ourselves is: “Do we believe that?”  Some people don’t.  Some people in the church don’t believe it!  Oh, don’t get me wrong, they’ll say they believe it, but then they will do things, promote things, preach about things in such a way that they’re only paying lip-service to God’s word.

Let’s consider those two passages again.  Peter says that the Divine power has given (past tense) us all things that pertain to life (spiritual life) and godliness (literally, the word is “good-worship”).  If we have been given everything that has to do with spiritual life and true reverence and worship to God, then that means if we can’t find it in the Bible, it doesn’t pertain to spiritual life or to godliness/good-worship.  In other words, if it’s not found in the Word of God, then it is a commandment of men, an unauthorized addition which results in worthless worship (“In vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrine the commandments of men” – Matthew 15:9)

Paul told Timothy that the Scriptures were sufficient to make someone perfect or complete, and to equip that person for every good work.  If it isn’t from the Bible (whether by precept or principle), then it isn’t a good work.

Lately, I’ve heard of several Christians who are trying to push the idea that there are no gender roles in the church: that whatever a man is authorized to do in worship, the woman is as well.  Since God has given us everything necessary for godliness (and remember that word in Greek literally means “worship”), we ought to be able to find either (1) examples, (2) commands, or (3) principles that permit such a thing—if such a thing is truly permitted.

I was requested to do a series of lessons on this topic, and my prayer is that they will be clear, understandable, and in keeping with God’s word.  Please, turn in your Bibles to 1 Timothy 2.

“Let the woman learn in silence”

First Timothy, chapter 2, describes worship in the church.  There are some of our brethren who disagree with that, and so let’s just prove it real quick.  In the next chapter, Paul tells Timothy what the whole purpose of this letter is:

I am writing these things to you, hoping to come to you shortly, but if I delay long, that you might know how you ought to behave yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Timothy 3:14).

The instructions given in First Timothy are about matters in the church.  But let’s go a little further in proving the point.  Look, now, at chapter 2.  Verse eight helps prove the point:

I desire that men [males] pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting (1 Timothy 2:8).

The command of God from Paul is that males are to pray everywhere.  If, as some brethren contend, this chapter isn’t about the church, then that means women are forbidden to pray anywhere—ever—because only men are allowed to pray.  This is speaking about when the church is gathered together.  Paul used the phrase “everywhere” in 1 Corinthians 4:17, and clarified that by “everywhere,” he meant “in every church.”  Coupling this with what we read from elsewhere in the same letter to Timothy, we have conclusive proof that Paul is giving instructions relating to things “in the church,” or to say it another way, “when the church is gathered together.”

We might also add to this list of evidence the fact that Paul say women aren’t allowed to teach a man, yet we have an approved example of a woman assisting her husband in teaching a man—outside of the assembly (Acts 18, Aquila, Priscilla, and Apollos).  Thus, this command obviously doesn’t apply to teaching outside the assembly—only inside the assembly.

So, in 1 Timothy 2:8, we have divine instruction that only males are to lead in prayer when the church is gathered together.  Obviously, God is not authorizing just any male to lead prayer, but only a Christian male—since this is speaking about things “in the church.”  This is important to remember as we get further in the chapter.

Having thus shown that the context is about the assembly of the church, let’s look at verses 11-12:

Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection.  But I do not permit a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.

First, consider that in verses 9-10, Paul instructs women to dress and behave in such a way as to not draw attention to themselves (modest apparel, not expensive flashy jewelry, but instead clothing themselves with good works).  Likewise, then, women are not to draw attention to themselves in the assembly by seeking to be in a position of authority.

Second, look at the word “silence.”  The word here is not a prohibition of all sound, but a quiet, humble attitude that recognizes that she is not in authority in the worship of God.  The word only appears four times in the New Testament: twice here (1 Timothy 2:11-12), once in Acts 22:2 and in 2 Thessalonians 3:12.  In Acts 22:2, Paul began speaking to the crowd of Jews in Hebrew, which surprised them, and they became quiet so they could hear him.  But in 1 Thessalonians 3:11-12, Paul chastises the busybodies, telling them to work with “quietness.”  It’s not that they aren’t allowed to ever utter a word, but they are to cease from gossiping, being meddlers in other men’s matters.  They are to be quiet in regards to those things.  In the same way, the women are commanded to be silent in regards to (1) praying, (2) teaching over a man, and (3) taking authority over a man in the assembly.  In other words, they are not to take any kind of leadership role in the worship of the church.

Women don’t have to be completely without sound in the assembly—all saints are commanded to sing, “speaking to yourselves in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:19).  “Teaching and admonishing one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Colossians 3:16).

The phrase “with all subjection” teaches us that in the worship assembly, the woman is to be in submission, or under the authority, of the men who are leading in the worship.  The woman doesn’t preach the lesson, lead the singing, lead the prayers.  She sits and accepts that these are roles which have been given to male Christians by God.

“I do not permit a woman to teach…”

Some people have taken this phrase and ignored the context, trying to make it say something that it was never meant to say.  I’ve had discussions with men who believe that having a Bible class is sinful, and as evidence, they say “women aren’t permitted to teach.”  But look at the verse.  Paul says that a woman is not to teach…a man.  This doesn’t say she’s not allowed to teach at all (Titus 2:3-5 actually commands the older women to teach the younger women), it says she’s not allowed to teach a man.  And it’s not just any man.  Go back to verse 8.  Who is that “man,” that “male,” that is under consideration?  It’s a Christian male.  That is the only male in the context.

What God, through Paul, is forbidding here is not a woman teaching children, nor is it a woman teaching male children, nor is it a woman teaching adult males outside of the assembly.  What God has strictly forbidden is Christian women teaching Christian men in the assembly.

But we also need to couple this with the next phrase Paul uses:

“I do not permit a woman…to usurp authority over the man.”

I’ve heard the argument more times than I care to remember: “She’s not usurping the authority if the elders give it to her to teach/pray/preach/etc…”  The word translated “usurp authority” means “exercise authority” or “have authority” over someone.  Some translations render it “have dominion” over a man.  Basically, then, what this means is that the Christian woman is not permitted to have, to use, or to exert any authority over Christian males in the assembly.

Oh, it is said, but if she doesn’t usurp the authority, it’s okay.  The elders don’t have the right to give a woman authority in the assembly.  It’s not up to them!  This is something that GOD HIMSELF has set in place—He is the one who determined who has authority, who leads in the worship assembly when the church gathers together.  Even if a group of elders decides they’ll let a woman preach, teach, lead prayer, lead singing, or anything else that is a position of leadership in the assembly, GOD has said that women are to “learn in silence, with all subjection.”  Note that clearly!  God says “ALL subjection.”  He doesn’t say, “with SOME subjection,” but “with ALL subjection”!  That means that Christian women, in the assembly, are not permitted by God to have any authoritative role that would make a Christian male to have to show some kind of submission to her.

Teaching (which would include preaching) is explicitly forbidden (1 Timothy 2:12).  Leading in prayer is explicitly forbidden (1 Timothy 2:8).  Anything that would make the woman the leader is explicitly forbidden (1 Timothy 2:12)—that includes serving at the Lord’s Table, even if she isn’t saying the prayer, because the woman would be in front of everyone, and would be exercising authority in passing around the Lord’s Supper and collecting the funds contributed.  Leading in singing is also forbidden explicitly in 1 Corinthians 14 (but we’ll look at that later).

Paul concludes that thought by repeating that the Christian woman, during the assembly, is “to be in silence.”  Again, the “silence” is limited by the context to (1) praying, (2) teaching, and (3) anything that would put her in a position of authority over a Christian man.

What About Speaking in a Bible Class?

It has been argued that women are not permitted to speak up in a Bible class, because when they speak in class, they are teaching, and that they are commanded to be in silence.

Jesus Himself led His disciples around, and was their teacher.  They spoke to Him quite frequently during these teaching sessions, asking questions, making observations, showing their agreement or disagreement.  But did they ever become the teacher?  Was there ever a time during these teachings that Jesus ceased to be the teacher, and ceased to have authority?  Of course not.  To ask questions during a Bible class is not the same thing as teaching or having authority.  To make observations during Bible class is not the same thing as teaching or having authority.  If a non-Christian male came into the Bible class and asked questions or made an observation, we wouldn’t for a moment accuse him of “teaching” and “usurping authority” over the teacher of the class.  Why, then, would we make that same accusation when a woman does it?

Can there come a time when a Christian woman might talk so much, in effect filibustering the class, that she’s taking it over?  Yes, of course, and such is wrong and condemned by 1 Timothy 2:12.  But simply speaking up in class is not “teaching” or otherwise “exercising authority” over Christian males.

Some will appeal to 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, saying “Let your women keep silence in the churches…if they will learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home, for it is a shame for a woman to speak in the church.”  We will deal with that passage more in-depth in another lesson, but the answer to their objection is the context!  The context of the entire chapter is public leadership roles when the church is gathered together.  Prophesying, speaking in tongues, interpreting, leading singing, praying—these are the items under consideration.  And it is in this context that women are told to be silent.

What About Teaching a Bible Class?

God gave some women in the first century miraculous abilities (and we’ll deal with that in a later lesson), which included being able to prophesy (Philip had four daughters who did just that).  Yet they were not permitted to use that ability when the church gathered together to worship (1 Corinthians 14:34-35).  God wouldn’t give them that ability and then not permit them to ever use it.  Thus, they would have been able to use it in teaching non-Christians (primarily women, but in private they could also teach non-Christian men), or other Christian women, or even children.

The ones who are so opposed to Bible classes say “You let women teach Bible classes, so you’re in sin!”  But remember what we said earlier: the prohibition on women teaching was “over a man”—that is, over a Christian man.  When God gives a specific command, we have no right to expand that command to include things that God didn’t.  So it is wrong to say this verse prohibits women from teaching a Bible class with babies, or children, or Christian young women.  The only prohibition was against a Christian women teaching Christian men.

One Final Example: Jezebel

Lord willing, we will be able to continue this study and deal with several passages that help us understand the role of women in the church.  But for tonight, we will just look at one last passage briefly: Revelation 2:18-23.

To the messenger of the church in Thyatira, write: “These things says the Son of God, who has His eyes like to a flame of fire, and His feet are like fine brass: I know your works, and charity, and service, and faith, and your patience, and your works; and the last more than the first.  Notwithstanding, I have a few things against you because you permit that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed to idols.  And I gave her space to repent of her fornication, and she did not repent.  Behold, I will cast her into a bed, and them that commit adultery with her into great tribulation, except they repent of their deeds.  And I will kill her children with death; and all the churches shall know that I am He who searches the reins and hearts: and I will give to every one of you according to your works.

Jesus condemns this loving church, this working church, this serving church because of two things: (1) they permit that woman to teach, and (2) they permit that woman to seduce servants of God to sin.  The second one is bad, but so is the first one.  They were condemned because they were allowing a woman to teach in the church.  The fact that she was seducing Christians to sin makes it even worse, but in the Greek, they are two separate things: (1) teaching and (2) seducing Christians to do evil.

My brethren, if Jesus Christ would condemn a loving, working, serving church because they allowed a woman to teach in the church, that means He would do the same to us as well if we permit such things to happen here!

Invitation

Here’s the deal: we have been given everything we need for spiritual life and for proper worship.  We don’t go by feelings or by I think; we go by God said.  This principle, when followed, guarantees us a home eternal with the Lord Jesus Christ.  This principle applies not just to the role of women in the church, but also to salvation.

We were listening to “Adventures in Odyssey” yesterday (which is produced by Baptists, if I’m not mistaken), and one of the characters was questioning her salvation, saying “Did I not say the prayer right?”  She’d been taught that salvation comes from uttering a “Lord, come into my heart” prayer that isn’t found in the Bible—nowhere is a non-Christian told to pray in order to be saved.  There are those who use what they call the “mourner’s bench,” where you go up front to this bench, agonize over your sins, while everyone else tries to pray until you are “prayed through,” and have this feeling of relief, which they take as a sign that you’ve been saved.  This is trying to rely on feelings instead of God’s word!

God only gave one gospel, and it is spelled out for us in the Bible.  There is no salvation apart from obedience to His commands regarding how to get into Christ.

-Bradley S. Cobb

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