A Study on the Role of Christian Women

 

by

 

Shanna D. Ray, M.S.

shanna.ray@vanderbilt.edu

http://people.vanderbilt.edu/~shanna.ray/

 


Old Testament Scriptures about Women

 

Genesis 3:16-19

"To the woman he said, 'I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you."

Questions to consider:

1. Does this text refer to a husband-wife relationships or all male-female relationships?

2. Is it addressed only to Eve, as her punishment for disobedience, or does this prove all women are to be ruled over?

3.  Is this God's plan for male-female relationships, or merely a negative consequence of the fall that should not be seen as the ideal any more than death or pain?

 

Women as Prophets:

 

What does it mean to prophesy?  In the Old Testament we have many examples of prophets telling others the words and will of God. In the early church, there were female prophets--what did Paul say they did?  One clue is in the following passage.  It involved taking a public speaking role in front of the whole church for the purpose of strengthening and edifying others:

 

1 Cor 14:3-5, 22-25 (emphasis mine) "But everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort. He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church. I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. He who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may be edified. . . . Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is for believers, not for unbelievers. So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? But if an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everybody is prophesying, he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all, and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare."

 

To summarize:

1. The prophet speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort

2. The prophet edifies the church

3.  Prophesy is for believers

4. Prophesy convinces unbelievers that they are sinners and will be judged by all

 

Is this consistent with the traditional interpretation of what Paul says in the section following this one--that women are to not speak in the church?

 

There are several passages in the Old Testament that show there were female prophets and leaders.

 

Exodus 15: 20-21

"Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron's sister, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women followed her, with tambourines and dancing. Miriam sang to them 'Sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. The horse and its rider he has hurled into the sea. . . .'"

 

Miriam was a prophetess who helped lead Israel out of Egypt.  Micah said of her:

 

Micah 6:4

"I brought you up out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery. I sent Moses to lead you, also Aaron and Miriam."

 

 

Exodus 38:8

"They made the bronze basin and its bronze stand from the mirrors of the women who served at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting."

1 Samuel 2:22

"Now Eli, who was very old, heard about everything his sons were doing to all Israel and how they slept with the women who served at the entrance to the Tent of meeting."

 

Women served in some capacity in the tabernacle.

 

Judges 4:4-5

"Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time.  She held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites came to her to have their disputes decided."

 

            Deborah held three offices over Israel. She was a judge, a prophetess and a military leader who accompanied Barak in battle (Judges 4-5). As a result of her rule "the land had rest for forty years" (Judges 5:31).

 

Other prophetesses:

2 Kings 22:14-15 (see also 2 Chronicles 34:22-33)

"Hilkiah the priest, Ahikam, Acbor, Shaphan and Asaiah went to speak to the prophetess Huldah, who was the wife of Shallum son of Tikvah, the son of Harhas, keeper of the wardrobe. She lived in Jerusalem, in the Second District.  She said to them, 'This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says. . . '"

 

Nehemiah 6:14

"Remember Tobiah and Sanballat, O my God, because of what they have done; remember also the prophetess Noadiah and the rest of the prophets who have been trying to intimidate me.

 

Isaiah 8:3-4

"Then I went to the prophetess, and she conceived and gave birth to a son. And the Lord said to me, "Name him Maher-Shalal-Hash-baz."

 

This prophetess is thought to be Isaiah's wife.




The Ministry of Jesus

 

Luke 2:36-38

"There was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. . . ."

 

This verse is an example of a New Testament prophetess.

 

Luke 8:1-3

"After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, 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) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Cuza, the manager of Herod's household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means."

Mark 15:40-41 (and also Mt 27:55-56, Lk 23: 55-56)

"Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome.  In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs.  Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there."

 

Apparently Jesusí followers were not all men.  He had female disciples who traveled with him and the apostles, and who supported them financially. They went from town to town with Jesus as he preached.  According to Mark, these followers came to Jerusalem with him and were near the cross as he was dying. 

 

Luke 10:38

"As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, 'Lord don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!' 'Martha, Martha,' the Lord answered, 'you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.'"

 

Jesus affirmed here that it was more important to sit and learn from him than to do the job of making dinner preparations. Mary had chosen the more important thing, to learn from Jesus.

 

John 4:39

The woman at the well in Samaria: "Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman's testimony, "He told me everything I ever did."

 

Note that this woman was not rebuked for going out and telling everyone about Jesus, both men and women.  This is an example of a woman testifying publicly.

 

Matthew 28:8-10

"So the woman hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciple. 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 they will see me.'"

 

Jesus appeared to women first; they were the first people in history to tell of his resurrection.  He instructed them to go tell of his resurrection and give instructions to the male apostles.

 

The Early Church

 

Acts 1:14

"They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brother."

 

Women were praying with the disciples in the upper room

 

Acts 2:17-18 (quote of Joel 2:28-29)

"'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 they will prophesy."

 

At Pentecost (and thereafter) the Holy Spirit was given to both men and women, and both would prophesy.

 

Acts 12:12

"When this had dawned on him, he want to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying."

 

The church met in a woman's house.

 

Acts 12:14

"When she recognized Peter's voice, she was so overjoyed she ran back without opening it and exclaimed, 'Peter is at the door!"

 

First approved example of a woman making an announcement to the assembled church!

 

Acts 15:22

"Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas."

 

The whole church was in this "business meeting," not just the men.

 

Acts 16:13-15, 40--

"On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer.  We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there. One of those listening was a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul's message. When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. "If you consider me a believer in the Lord," she said, "come and stay at my house." And she persuaded us. . . . After Paul and Silas came out of the prison, they went to Lydia's house, where they met with the brothers and encouraged them. Then they left."

 

Here we see a woman was self-employed and obviously somewhat wealthy (she had room to host Paul, Silas, and Luke).  She was able to help support the missionaries by providing them a place to stay.  Before leaving, Paul and Silas "met with the brothers" at her house, which suggests that the newly-formed church was meeting in Lydia's home.

 

Acts 18:26

"When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately."

Romans 16:3-5

"Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus. They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them. Greet also the church that meets at their house."

I Corinthians 16:19

"Aquila and Priscilla greet you warmly in the Lord, and so does the church that meets in their house."

 

These passages are significant because Priscilla, a woman, is shown to be teaching a man.  The fact that she is mentioned first in the Acts and Romans passage might indicate she was more prominent or well-known than her husband.  Some might argue that this passage only suggests that it is acceptable for a woman to teach an unbeliever and not a Christian, but the fact that a church meets in their home might suggest that she also was actively working with Christians.  The couple is always mentioned together, so probably they were a missionary/teaching team.  Paul indicated to the Romans that they are "fellow workers."

 

Acts 21:8-9

"Leaving the next day, we reached Caesarea and stayed at the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the Seven. He had four unmarried daughters who prophesied."

 

1 Corinthians 11:5, 13

"And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head--it is just as though her head were shaved. . . . Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?"

 

More examples of women praying and prophesying (in front of men?).

 

Galatians 3:28

"There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

 

Paul clearly states here that there is neither male nor female.  What does he mean by this? What are the implications for womenís roles in the church?

 

Romans 16:1-2

"I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchrea. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a great help to many people, including me."

 

The word translated "servant" here is diakonos, which can also be  translated "deacon."  It is not known what Phoebe's role is as a servant (or deacon) of the Cenchrean church.  Some have suggested that she may have delivered Paul's letter to the Romans while on her way to do some work there.

 

Romans 16:6

"Greet Mary, who worked very hard for you."

Romans 16:12

"Greet Tryphena and Typhosa, those women who work hard in the Lord."

 

These are also women who worked with Paul.

 

Romans 16:7

"Greet Andronicus and Junias, my relatives who have been in prison with me. The are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was."

 

Junias (or Junia, as some manuscripts say) is thought to be a female name, so some have suggested that this is a husband-wife team like Priscilla and Aquila. Note that they are both called apostles. The NIV correctly calls them "my relatives"--although the Greek does not say they are men, some translations give that impression by calling them Paul's "kinsmen."

 

1 Corinthians 14:26

". . .What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.  All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church."

 

Does "everyone" include the women?

 

Philippians 4:2-4

"I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, loyal yokefellow, help these women who have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life."

 

Here are two more women who worked alongside Paul "in the cause of the gospel."

 

Colossians 3:16

"Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God."

 

Is this command to teach and admonish directed to the women of the congregation also?

 

Colossians 4:15

"Give my greetings to the brothers at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house."

 

Another example of a church meeting at a woman's house.

 

1 Timothy 3:11

"In the same way, their wives are to be women worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything."

 

Many have thought that this sentence refers to women deacons.  The Greek word found here can be translated either "women" or "wives".  The proper translation is determined by context. Since the list of elder's qualifications does not give qualifications for their wives, why special ones for deacons?  Another possible translation: "In the same way, the women [or deaconesses] must be grave, not slanderers, temperate, faithful in all things."

 

Titus 2:3-5

"Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good.  Then they can train the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God."

 

The older women were told to teach the younger women.

 

 


The Key texts

           

1 Corinthians 14: 33-38 [see your own Bible]

Questions: What does it mean to "speak"?

-- Does this mean that women are not to utter a word, even to participate in congregational singing?

-- Does only refer to talking in front of an assembled group of Christians?

-- If it is the latter, is song leading an appropriate role for women?

-- What if the woman is part of a chorus or praise team?

-- Does this rule out scripture reading, making announcements, preaching, praying and/or testifying?

 

There are several different views on this text, summarized below:

1. Paul is setting forth a rule for all churches for all times that women cannot speak or ask questions in a gathering of Christians.

2. Paul is setting forth a rule for all churches for all times that women cannot speak or ask questions in a gathering of Christians UNLESS the woman has a miraculous spiritual gift.

3. Paul is addressing a specific group of Corinthian women who were being disruptive by chattering and blurting out questions in the assembly, or interrogating the prophets.

4. This text is addressed to keeping silence when judgments are being made about prophesy. Because women are not to be in charge of authoritative decisions they are to keep silent.

5. Paul was being inconsistent with his statement in Gal. 3:28--Paul was violating his own principles because he was blind to the sexist culture that was influencing him (just like Peter in Gal 2:11-14)--of course this assumes that the Bible can be inconsistent and have errors.

6. This is a male-biased translation: The Greek word translated "women"--gune--can also mean "wives" (and is translated that way in other texts like Eph 5:22f, Col 3:18f, I Tim 3:11, 1 Peter 3:1).  The intended meaning (i.e., wives or women) must be discerned from the context.  This context ("ask their husband at home", the "law" reference, probably to Adam/Eve) suggests that Paul is directing these comments to a group of wives who were publicly questioning their husbands who were prophets or teachers. An alternate translation (taken from an article by Frank Daniels):

    "The wives should be silent in the meetings. For it is not permitted that they speak, but to be submissive, just as the law says also. And if they want to learn something, they should ask their own husbands at home: for the wives' speaking in the meeting is a social disgrace."

7. In the culture in which Paul lived, submission, quietness, and not taking authority over men were appropriate behaviors for women. In this culture, this behavior was accepted as correct for a godly and pious woman--any other type of behavior would seem out-of-place, rude and improper.  The same can be said for going unveiled (1 Cor 11), wearing braided hear, wearing pearls or gold (1 Tim 2:9).  To Paul's contemporaries, these things counted as scandalous impropriety. In a culture such as ours, going hatless, french-braiding of hair, wearing a pearl necklace or wearing a gold ring does not have an improper connotation, nor does a woman teaching a mixed-gender class. In this culture, what counts as impropriety is different (and in fact opposite) to what counted as that in Paul's culture. For example, for a church to engage in sexual discrimination would be improper in our culture, and in fact our male-female role proscriptions may bring the church into disrepute (and hinder the spread of the gospel among professional women). When interpreting texts about male-female roles, we should understand that they are appropriate commands in a patriarchial culture and should be followed in a similar culture today (e.g., in Saudi Arabia, Iran, etc.).  But in a egalitarian culture, one must behave in a way deemed appropriate for a woman.  This would include giving women equal opportunities to use their talents and skills, rather than engaging in what is regarded by our culture as violating the civil rights of females (by sex discrimination). Likewise, in Ephesians 6:9, Paul also gave instructions to Christians who were slave owners. In this passage, Paul is not instituting or encouraging slavery, but merely giving instructions to someone in a living in a culture where slavery was legal. In todayís culture, the standards for a Christian would be much different, and therefore Paulís advice to todayís Christians would no doubt be different.

 

1 Timothy 2:8-10 [see your own Bible]

 

Some views on this verse:

1.  Paul was saying that only men can lead prayers

2. This is not a public assembly at all, nor is it an instruction about who was to pray. This text concerned how to pray. Apparently there was some disputing between the men.  Women are not excluded by saying this, it just didn't address their prayers because there was no problem with them.

3. This is a public assembly,  and Paul is telling both men and women to how to pray.  The men were to do so without anger and disputing, and the women were to not wear extravagant clothes to bring attention to themselves.  An alternative translation:

            "I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer without wrath or disputing. Similarly, women should do so in orderly attire, adorning themselves with modesty and sobriety, not with braided hair and gold, pearls, or expensive clothing, but with what is appropriate for women who profess to revere God, through good deeds."

 

Questions:

If only men can lead prayers, does this exclude women from leading all prayers?

Can they pray in front of a worship assembly?

Can they pray in the presence of a small group of Christian men and women?

Can they pray in front of non-Christian males?

Can they pray in front of their husband?

Can they pray in front of their baptized son?

Can they pray in front of their young son who has not been baptized?

Can they pray in front of an all-female class?

 

If women can do some but not all of the above, why? What scripture makes some of these prayers by women acceptable and not others?

 

                 

I Timothy 2:11-15

Some views on this verse:

1. Paul is setting forth a rule for all churches for all times that women cannot teach men or be in authority over men.

2. Some say that in the part that says: "I do not allow. . .", the Greek verb implies a temporary action (i.e. "I do not currently allow"). Therefore this is for a temporary time, perhaps until women are more educated. The example of Eve is another example of an untaught person being easily deceived, and illustrates that a similar problem was going on in Ephesus (see 2 Tim 3:1-9).

3. This is directed toward a particular group of women in Ephesus who are promoting false teaching.

4. Paul was being inconsistent with his statement in Gal. 3:28--Paul was violating his own principles because he was blind to the sexist culture that was influencing him (just like Peter in Gal 2:11-14)--of course this assumes that the Bible can be inconsistent and have errors.

5. This is a biased translation: The word translated "women"--gune--can also mean "wives" (and is translated that way in other texts like Eph 5:22f, Col 3:f, 1 Peter 3:1), and the word translated "man" is often translated "husband" (see Eph 5:23f and others)  The intended meaning must be discerned from the context.  This context (the reference to Adam and Eve, a husband and wife) suggests that Paul is directing these comments to a group of wives who were publicly dominating their husbands and usurping authority. An alternate translation:

"Let a woman learn in quietness in all submission, But I do not allow a wife to teach or to dominate her husband, but to be in quietness.  For Adam was formed first...then Eve. And Adam was not beguiled, but when his wife was deceived, she became in transgression. Now she will be saved through childbearing if the couple continue in faith, love, and holiness with sobriety."

6.  See #7 above (1 Cor 14 passage)

 

Question:

If option #1 is correct, then how does one define "teaching"?

Is it teaching when a woman preaches a sermon in a worship service?

When a woman teaches doctrine in a church-sponsored Bible class?

When a women leads a discussion in a Bible class?

When a women teaches about Christian parenting in a church-sponsored Bible class for new parents (male and female)?

When a female history professor who is an expert in restoration movement history teaches this topic in a church Bible class?

When a female professor teaches a college Bible class?

When a Christian female professor teaches a college psychology class filled with Christian men?

When a woman teaches an at-home Bible class for men and women (note that first century churches generally met in homes)?

When a woman informs others about a topic that she is knowledgeable about in a small group as part of an organized presentation (again, note that first century churches generally met in homes)?

When a woman informs others about a topic she is knowledgeable about in a small group Bible study in response to a question someone asks (again, note that first century churches generally met in homes)?

When a woman teaches one Christian man?

When a woman teaches one non-Christian man?

            If yes, what if there is no other man around to teach this person the Gospel?

When a woman teaches her Christian husband something she knows and he doesn't?

When a woman teaches her non-Christian husband something she knows and he doesn't?

When a woman teaches her baptized son?

When a woman teaches her unbaptized son?

 

If some of these are acceptable and others are not, on what scriptural basis can we make this distinction (i.e., quote chapter and verse)?

 

Now, concerning "having authority": What does it mean to have authority over a man?

Being an elder?

A deacon?

A ministry leader?

Telling a man what he should believe?

Telling a man what she believes?

Leading a man in singing, reading or praying?

Singing, reading or praying in the presence of man?

Does whether she is standing up or sitting down matter?

Does whether she has permission of the men in charge matter?

 

If some of these are authority and others are not, on what scriptural basis can we make this distinction?

 

1 Timothy 3:2

"Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife. . ."

1. Paul is setting forth a restriction for all times and places that elders must be married men.

2. He is just giving qualifications for this one church, not for all times and places.

3.  In Paulís culture, it was inconceivable that a woman could be a woman. See #7 above (1 Cor 14 passage)

 

Conclusions

 

It is my opinion that during the first century, women definitely:

  1. Had equal status with men before God (Galatians 3:28).

  2. Learned and were taught by men (Mary, the Samaritan woman, women in the church Timothy supervised, many others).

  3. Were witnesses to important events of Jesusí ministry (death, burial, resurrection).

  4. Taught other women (Titus 2:3-5).

  5. Worked very hard in some capacity to spread the Gospel (Mary, Tryphena, Typhosa, Junia, Euodia, Syntyche).

  6. Hosted churches in their home (Mark's mother, Lydia, Priscilla and Aquila, Nympha).

  7. Were servants or deacons of the church (Phoebe, 1 Tim. 3:11)

  8. Were traveling missionaries and supported Jesus and others financially (Mary Magdalene,  Joanna, Susanna, Mary the mother of James, and others)

  9.  Participated in church business meetings (Acts 15:22).

10. Taught the Gospel to unbelievers (Samaritan woman, Priscilla).

11. Were prophets, meaning that they spoke God's will as he revealed it to them, and that they spoke to others for their "strengthening, encouragement and comfort". (Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, Noadiah, Isaiah's wife, Anna, "sons and daughters" in Acts 2:17-18, Philip's four daughters)

 

In the first century, it is possible that women could not:

12. Speak in the assembly (1 Cor 14)

13. Teach men (1 Tim 2)

14. Teach and have authority over men (1 Tim 2)

15. Lead public prayers (1 Tim 2)

 

In the first century, women definitely could not: 

16. Be disruptive and interrogate their husband in public (1 Cor. 14)

17. Teach and have authority over their husbands (1 Tim 2)

18. Serve as an elder (1 Tim 3)

 

Women in the church today:

Should definitely be encouraged to fill roles 1-11.  It is my opinion that women in the Churches of Christ have been restricted beyond that of the 1st century Christian woman.

 

We should also decide whether the gender-related restrictions imposed by Paul are eternal principles for all times and cultures, or if this was Paul's application of other eternal principles (social appropriateness, not making the church look bad) in his culture (and should not be literally applied as we no longer do for veils, braided hair, pearls, gold, etc.).

 

If we conclude that the women today should play the same role in the church as Christian women did in the first century, what then must we conclude about jobs/roles that are not specifically addressed? For example, nothing is specifically said in the Bible about serving communion, being on a praise team, singing in a chorus, singing a solo, publicly reading scripture, leading a ministry, praying, teaching theology to a man in a non-church setting (e.g. home, school, etc.). Based on prohibitions #12-18 above, what should we conclude about all of these things?

 

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