The Role of Women in the Church

With this background, it is time to look at 1 Corinthians 11. We will begin with verse 3: “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.” Here again we see order. God is the head of Christ. Christ is the head of man. Man is the head of woman. Like it or not, this is what the Holy Spirit says through Paul.

In verse 4, we read, “Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoureth his head.” Seemingly clear enough. It is wrong for a man to pray or prophesy with his head covered.

The problems begin with verse 5: “But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven.” Is Paul saying that it is permissible for a woman to say a prayer or speak a prophecy in the church meeting as long as her head is covered? No! How do we know this? Because it is contrary to the clear Scriptures we have just examined. Paul, let alone the Holy Spirit, is not schizophrenic. What, then, can he mean?

Several possibilities have been offered by people examining this passage. Of course, there is only one right answer. All of this is thoroughly discussed in another article on this site. I don’t want to repeat myself, so I suggest that you read “The Head Covering.” In short, the article shows from the Bible that praying and prophesying are simply two activities of public worship that Paul intended to stand for all. When a man leads in any of these activities, the entire assembly participates, even if silently. Therefore, women “pray and prophesy” just by attending public worship, even if they remain silent (which they should).

This is what eighteenth-century Baptist commentator John Gill says of 1 Corinthians 11:5: “Not that a woman was allowed to pray publicly in the congregation, and much less to preach or explain the word, for these things were not permitted them: see 1 Corinthians 14:34, but it designs any woman that joins in public worship with the minister in prayer, and attends on the hearing of the word preached, or sings the praises of God with the congregation, as we have seen, the word prophesying signifies, with her head uncovered.” Therefore, according to Gill, Paul is saying that women should not speak in church and should also have their heads covered because they participate silently in congregational prayer, by listening to the preaching, and by participating in congregational singing.

So, women are to be silent in church except for congregational singing. All of the relevant Scriptures, then, agree. Should women teach in church? No. Should women preach in church? No. Should women pray aloud in church? No. Should women sing without the rest of the congregation in church? No. Should women be ordained to an office in church? No.

But isn’t this outdated, something only for the times and society in which Paul wrote? Absolutely not! There is nothing that distinguishes these Scriptures we have just examined that would make us believe that they are limited to the time and society in which Paul wrote. Say that these passages of God’s Word do not apply to us today, and you have torn open a hole in your armor that will allow Satan to destroy the entire Word of God, and you!

Some other questions may come to mind. 1) Should women teach children in Sunday school? 2) What about women teaching or preaching to other women? 3) What about women deaconesses? 4) If women are to be silent in church (which seems rather passive), what active role are they to have?

1) Should women teach children in Sunday school? The question is premised on the assumption that there should be such a thing as a Sunday school. The Bible gives no sanction to Sunday schools. It says that children are to be taught by their parents (see our article “Should You Be Homeschooling?” for the relevant Scriptures). Fathers and mothers (when they are both Christians) should work together in determining what this teaching should be. A role for the church, in this regard, is in imparting to parents a good understanding of Scripture, teaching them to be good parents, and helping them know how to teach. Families should attend church meetings together.

2) What about women teaching or preaching to other women? Paul instructs Titus to “speak thou the things which become sound doctrine…. The aged women likewise, that they be in behaviour as becometh holiness, not false accusers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things; that they may teach the young women to be sober [sober minded], 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” (Titus 2:1, 3-5). Here is a direct command that the older women “teach” younger women. The emphasis, however, is on their doing this by example. Notice that Paul starts his command to the aged women by saying “they are to be in behaviour as becometh holiness….” The Greek word translated “behaviour” is katastēmati. It means “demeanor” or “deportment.” Then, at the end of verse 3 and going into verse 4, Paul says that these older women are to be “teachers of good things [kalodidaskalous—”a teacher of good, beautiful, or virtuous things”]; that they may teach [sōphronizōsin] the young women to be sober….”  Sōphronizōsin means to restore them to their senses or to self-control. Paul does not have in view here preaching by women to women, formal classroom instruction, women’s Bible studies, women’s fellowship societies, or seminars. He is primarily talking about older women setting a good example for younger women. By this, and, perhaps, by normal and natural informal conversation, they are to teach younger women to behave according to the list in verses 4-5; that is, to be good wives and mothers.

3) What about women deaconesses? The Greek word diakonos merely means “servant.” Both men and women are recorded as serving in the church and being called servants. This word is used, for example, in Romans 16:1, where Paul writes, “I commend unto you Phebe our sister, which is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea.” But there is also a use of diakonos that only applies to men. In Acts 6, we read of Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas being set apart to serve the church by the laying on of hands (Acts 6:1-6). These were all men. There is never a mention of women being set apart like this. To settle the matter, in 1 Timothy 3:12, Paul says, “Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife.” Women cannot be the husbands of one wife. While there are many biblical examples of women serving in the church, they cannot be set apart to the responsibility that we today call “deacon.”

4) If women are to be silent in church (which seems rather passive), what active role are they to have? We have already seen in this article one active role that older women are to have: they are to be examples to the younger women to love their husbands and children, obey their husbands, be chaste, be keepers at home, etc. We see another active role in the example of the women who followed Jesus (see, for example, Luke 8:1-3), and in the examples of Phebe (see Romans 16:1-2), Dorcas (see Acts 9:36), and other women in the New Testament. They served the physical needs of the church.

At this point, we should re-examine 1 Timothy 2. Earlier, we looked at verses 11-15 as they concerned women being silent and not teaching. But we should look at the verses that come before these. Paul begins the chapter by saying that the church should pray for all kinds of people, even for kings and others in authority. Then, in verse 8, he writes, “I will therefore that men pray every where, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting.” “Men” here comes from a Greek word that specifically means males. The verses that follow then give instructions concerning the women.

“In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array; but (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works” (verses 9-10). The “in like manner also” is important. Paul’s previous instruction that the men pray publicly is an instruction in public worship. When he says, “in like manner also,” he means that he is going to give further instruction in public worship. Therefore, a way that women are to worship God is to dress modestly. They are also to be modest (the Greek word translated “shamefacedness” refers to modesty as expressed by downcast eyes). They are to act with “sobriety” (Greek sōphrosunēs, which refers to soundness of mind and self-control; it is what the older women are to teach by example to the younger women in Titus 2:4). Instead of adorning themselves with elaborate hairstyles and jewelry and clothing, they are to adorn themselves with good works. And, Paul continues with the thought, they are to learn in silence and not teach.

These are important instructions. Women in the meetings of the church are to dress and behave modestly and learn in silence. Of course, this is at opposite ends of the universe from the feminist-originated assumptions that now influence practice in so many churches. But the Bible, and not contemporary society, is to be our authority for belief and practice. Therefore, we must stand for what the Bible says is right, worship God according to the instructions He gives us in the Bible, and act to realign our churches to biblical standards (or, failing that, find or start churches that are faithful to the Bible).

To return to the original question, Are women to teach or speak in church meetings? No, because that is not the role God has called them to.
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