9. "Neither male nor female" – Women in the church

Woman addressing a congregationChristian women sometimes shrink back from areas such as teaching and leadership in the church because they have been taught that there are things they can’t do in the Kingdom of God because they are women. They are saying to themselves either:

•    I am unable to do that because I am a woman; or
•    I am not allowed to do that because I am a woman; or
•    I would not be a proper woman if I did that – I would stop being feminine.

There are two roots to those judgements:

  1. The Catholic tradition that says that priests and bishops represent Jesus and because Jesus is a man, only men can represent him
  2. A view commonly held by Evangelicals that God created men to lead and women to follow. This is often expressed in the statement “Men and women are not unequal they just have a different purpose.”

The people who advance those views (mainly men) believe they are supported by the Bible. I think they are wrong. However, I do believe the Bible is important. It is the authority for our faith and conduct but we need to make sure we interpret it correctly. This article examines the relevant passages in the Bible to try to come to a genuinely Biblical view.

Created equal

Genesis 1 v 26 describes how God created human beings and made them male and female. There is no inequality here. Both are created in God’s image and both are given dominion over creation.

Genesis 2 v 22 – 24 gives an account of the creation of Eve and Adam’s relationship with her. Here again there is no inequality between them. The animals were not equal to Adam but Eve was. She is a “suitable companion” – not a servant or a slave. She is “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” She is in fact part of Adam, one with Adam, not inferior to him.

In the New Testament, whenever either Jesus or the apostles talk about marriage they always refer back to this passage. That leads me to conclude that this passage is about marriage, rather than about the relationships between men and women in general.

That’s an important point. I’ll return to it in a moment.

Genesis 3 v 16 is the first time that inequality between men and women appears. It came about as a by-product of the fall.

Adam and Eve disobeyed God and were ejected from the garden. In punishment for mankind’s disobedience, God issues three curses:

1.    A curse on the serpent
2.    A curse on the woman
3.    A curse on the earth which has a negative impact for mankind in general.

The curse on women says in v 16
“I will greatly increase your pains in childbirth
With pain you will give birth to children
Your desire will be for your husband
And he will rule over you.”

The first thing to notice about this is that it is an accurate reflection of the general experience of women throughout the world to this day. It’s not justifying what happens, just reflecting it.

The second thing to notice is that it is a curse, not a law.

The difference between curse and law

It is important to understand the difference between a curse and a law. You are allowed to break free from a curse or to work against it. You don’t incur any guilt if you escape or minimise the effects of a curse.

You might temporarily be able to break a law but in doing so you incur guilt and in the end you have to obey it or take the consequences.

The curse doesn’t mean that it is right for a man to dominate his wife. It just means that the woman who has a husband or partner who doesn’t dominate her is very lucky.

The New Testament teaches men to love their wives as Christ loves the church. If a Christian man does that, to the degree that he does, it removes the curse from his wife.

He’s my man – she’s my woman

Before examining what the New Testament says, I need to explain something about the language the New Testament was written in. There are some languages that don’t have a word for “husband” or a word for “wife”. German is one modern example. In German a man doesn’t talk about his wife, he talks about his woman. The word is Frau, which means a woman of marriageable age. If I’m in Germany and I introduce my wife to someone, I’ll say “sie ist meine Frau” – “she’s my woman”.
My wife doesn’t speak German but, if she did she’d say of me “er ist meiner Mann
(He is my man).

The ancient Greek of the New Testament is similar

They had two words for man:

•    anthropos from which we get the word anthropology. That means a human being as distinct from an animal.

•    aner which means a man of marriageable age, as opposed to a young man (neanios).

They had two words for woman:
•    parthenos which meant an unmarried woman and
•    gune for a woman who had been married. Gune gives us the word gynaecology.

So in Greek I would introduce my wife by saying “gune mou ei” “She’s my woman.”

She would introduce me as “aner mou ei” “He’s my man.”

This means that there are occasions in Greek when you can’t be sure whether someone is talking about men and women in general or the relationship between a husband and his wife.

Female sons

Galatians 3 v 26 – 29

This passage is important because it is the one place where there is no doubt about the meaning.  It is clearly about men and women in general rather than husbands and wives. Paul says that when we become Christians the old distinctions of class and gender are set aside. It doesn’t matter whether you are slave or free, Jew or gentile, if you are a Christian, you are a son of God (in Hebrews we are described as God’s firstborn sons).

What does that mean?

A son can represent his father, he inherits his father’s name and property. He can act on his father’s behalf.

Paul says that the barrier between male and female is broken down in Christ in the same way as those between Jew and Gentile or slave and free. If you are a Christian woman, you are a son of God. Not a daughter, because women didn’t inherit authority and property in the same way in the ancient world. Paul says that, in Christ, that’s changed. Girls can not only become God’s daughters, they can become his sons. Being a son of God means you can do all that Jesus did – acting in his name.
You can still remain female. You can still be feminine. But you can act as a representative of Jesus.

I believe it is important that we start with this passage and then interpret other passages in the New Testament about men and women in a way that harmonises with this one.

There are three tricky passages in the New Testament that are at the root of the hassle and disagreement over the place of women in the church. These are:

1 Timothy 2 v 11
1 Corinthians 14 v 33–35
1 Corinthians 11 v 3–16

 I’m going to take these three controversial passages in reverse order, ending with the one that is the hardest to make sense of.

In the past, people have tended to ignore Galatians 3 v 26–29 in interpreting these other passages. But the Holy Spirit does not contradict himself. If Galatians 3 v 26–29 means that a woman can preach, heal, prophesy, lead, teach and do everything Jesus did, then we have to interpret all the other passages in a way that harmonises with this.

I believe that each of these passages refers to the relationship of married couples, not men and women in general. That immediately excludes single ladies, widowed ladies and divorced ladies. None of these three passages applies to them.

There are two issues at stake that are motivating Paul in what he says in these passages:

  • His own teaching that the relationship between a Christian man and woman should reflect and portray the relationship between Jesus and the church.
  • The danger that the task of evangelism would be hindered by the church getting a reputation for setting wives against husbands and disturbing the stability of society and breaking up families. What could make people get that impression? Answer: the teaching that Paul himself had been putting across, expressed in Galatians 3 v 26– 29.

Allowed to learn – 1 Timothy 2 v 11

In 1 Timothy 2 v 11, the words “a woman should learn” in the NIV lose some of the sense of the original which is best translated “allow a married woman to be trained”. This is a positive statement, a permission, not a restriction. There were people around who would have said, “Married women shouldn’t be educated”. Paul is positively contradicting that by saying that they should be allowed to learn.

“… in quietness and in full submission” might refer to the spirit and attitude in which married women should approach learning but it could equally be the subject matter of the training. Every letter in the NT has instructions for Christians to submit to one another.

“I do not allow a woman to teach or to have authority over a man” should be “I do not allow a wife to teach or to have authority over a husband.”

The last bit of the passage is referring back to the Garden of Eden. I don’t think Paul is saying “You can’t trust women, look what Eve did.” He’s referring back to the curse and exhorting wives to have a humble and co-operative relationship with their husbands in the hope that by doing so they may be spared the worst effects of the curse where childbearing is concerned.

Silence in church – 1 Corinthians 14 v 33–35

Is this passage about women in general or about married women? The clue is in verse v 35 “… let them ask their husbands…” unmarried women would not have a husband to ask.

“Keeping silent” evidently does not include praying or prophesying, since the next passage we are going to look at specifically allows women to pray and prophesy in church. I also don’t believe it refers to preaching or teaching, because those are allowed under Galatians 3 v 26 –29.

The word “church” implies a forum for discussion and debate. (see separate articles about the church on this website). Paul is not referring to prophecy and prayer. Nor is he referring to the possibility of women chattering among themselves during the meetings. He is talking about married women participating in debate and decision making. In the culture of the day it was expected that, in public, the husband would be the spokesman for the family. Paul can visualise a situation cropping up where a woman might contradict her husband in public – or a man contradict his wife and put her down in front of the rest of the congregation. This would have brought Christianity into disrepute.

It’s in the context of Christians all submitting to one another. Our cultural context is different so the way we apply the same principles is different. The underlying principle is that husbands and wives should model the relationship between Jesus and the church.

Heads and Tails – 1 Corinthians 11 v 3-16

This is the most difficult passage to understand and apply. Before we look at it I need to explain another linguistic factor with regard to headship and head covering.

When Paul wrote to the Corinthians he was writing in a language which was not his mother tongue. He is fluent in Greek but his mother tongue was Aramaic and he was also immersed in the Hebrew scriptures. So although he is writing in Greek, he is thinking in Hebrew.

In Hebrew the words for  “head”, “origin” and “number one” are all related and they don’t have the connotation of control and dominance that the word “head” has in modern English. Once you understand this, you realise that this passage is about conferring authority, rather than imposing it.

Creation originates with God. He is the head. The Hebrew understanding of  “head” doesn’t mean he dominates and controls creation but that creation comes from him and exists for him.

God gives authority to mankind. We saw that in Genesis: “have dominion over the earth”. He also gives authority to the Son.

Jesus in turn gives authority to the church (eg Luke 9 v 1). We can act on his behalf (in his name).

Once you grasp the concept of the flow of authority you realise that this passage only makes sense if it is about the relationship between husbands and wives. It’s not saying men are the head and women are the tail. It’s saying that mankind has authority from God and a wife has authority from her husband. The man being the head of his woman (wife) means that he gives her authority. She gains her significance and life from him and can represent him and speak on his behalf.

All this is tied up also with a practice of head covering which was part of the culture of the people Paul was writing to. This was a cultural practice with a symbolic meaning. It involved wearing a scarf over your head (not a hat or a veil). It was particularly confusing in Corinth because there three cultures were meeting and merging which had different practices as regards head covering.

Jewish women covered their head in public, Jewish men didn’t.

Roman men covered their head in the presence of someone they respected and honoured. At Roman funerals men would cover their heads to show respect, women would wear their hair loose and dishevelled to show their sadness.

In Greek society married women sometimes had their heads covered in public. In Plutarch's Sayings of Spartans (written during the first century AD) he writes concerning a Spartan, "When someone inquired why they took their girls into public places unveiled, but their married women veiled, he said, 'Because the girls have to find husbands, and the married women have to keep to those who have them!’”

Greeks also sometimes covered their heads (both men and women) when sacrificing or praying to gods. It was an expression of a relationship of fear. This appears to be what Paul mainly has in mind. He is not talking about modesty or married women wearing a scarf in public. He only wants married women to cover their heads when they are praying or prophesying. I think what he is saying can be summarised as:

  • It is inappropriate for men to cover their heads when they pray or prophesy because their relationship with God is not one of subservience. God is giving them authority. They are acting in his name. A head covering is not appropriate for the relationship that a Christian man has with God. The same goes for single, widowed and divorced women.
  • Married women can pray and prophesy in church but, when they are doing so, they should cover their heads out of respect for their husbands. Not to cover their heads in that cultural context would have been to dishonour their husband.
  • Married women only have to cover their heads when praying or prophesying in a Christian meeting, Paul doesn’t require it on other occasions.

Our culture is vastly different. Head covering no longer means the same thing. We need to go back to the basic attitudes and reapply them thinking “how can we display the equivalent attitudes in our culture today?”

The most puzzling part of this passage is the throw away statement in verse 10: “… and because of the angels”. My own opinion about this is that it is explained by the reference in Jude v 6 to angels that “did not keep their positions of authority”. I think Paul is alluding to the punishment of angels that rebelled and disregarded God’s authority as a warning to married women not to be rebellious in a similar way.

Women leaders in the New Testament

To summarise, Women are equal to men in Christ and, like men, can do all that Jesus commanded his disciples to do – preach, teach, prophesy and heal. However, Paul is anxious that married women should not abuse this new freedom by being rebellious and dishonouring to their husbands. He wants Christian husbands and wives to make their marriage a picture of the relationship between Jesus and the church.

There are a number of women in the New Testament who appear to have held positions of authority or influence in the church.

Apostle’s wives (1 Corinthians 9 v 5)
Paul refers to Peter (Cephas) and other apostles taking a wife around with them, presumably to help them in their work.

Priscilla Acts 18 v 1 – 4, 18 – 26, Romans 16 v 3-5
Often referred to before her husband when they are mentioned, Priscilla worked with him and was involved in teaching others (eg Apollos) and in leading a church.

Junias  (Romans 16 v 7)
Junias is a woman’s name. She is referred to as an apostle, together with Andronicus (presumably her husband).

Phoebe (16 v 1)
Phoebe is described as a deaconess of the church in Cenchrea (roughly equal to a trustee in modern terms).

Euodia and Syntyche (Philipians 4 v 2–3)
Paul refers to them as "his fellow workers" which implies they had also travelled and worked alongside him in the work of the kingdom.