The role of women leaders in the local church

This article was written in April 1996, when I was a theological student. It was a review of the arguments in relation to women leadership in the church. The Baptist Union that I was a part of at that time had a very ambiguous view on the issue, and as a student I was trying to show that an alternative to the traditional “no women leaders” view was possible while still remaining Biblical. Looking at it now, I was obviously constrained by a hefty word count limit, but still think I touched on all the right issues. Maybe one day I’ll get the time to flesh this out…

A theological and Biblical exposition of the role of women and their relationship to men within the church, with special reference to authority and teaching.

1. Introduction

The role of women is an issue of vital importance to us today, not only as this issue is tearing churches apart, but also because of the large number of women actively pursuing ministry opportunities in churches. The doctrine of humanity as espoused in Scripture is the basis of any solution to whether women are allowed to teach and have authority (i.e. lead) in local churches. This issue is intricately bound up with the general issue of women’s submission to men and male authority, especially within marriage.

This assignment will deal only with general human relationships and marriage where it has a direct bearing on the issue of women teaching and leading in the church.

2. Approach of This Assignment

Realising that the traditional conservative position of not allowing women to teach or have authority in the local church has been defended from Scripture for many decades, I will not concentrate on defending this view. Neither will I attempt to totally discredit it. What I wish to do is to show the possibility of alternative interpretations, while remaining true to Scripture, that would allow women to teach and lead in a church. In doing so, I shall highlight arguments on both sides, indicating their strengths and weaknesses, and hopefully in the process, demonstrate the consistent witness of Scripture. This assignment is based loosely on a response to Piper and Grudem’s book (see bibliography below).

3. Foundations: Four Phases of Human Spiritual History

3.1. The Creation Accounts

Genesis tells us that when God had created humanity (male and female) it was “very good” (Gen. 1:31). An understanding of humanity in its pre-fallen state is essential to an understanding of what God intended us to be, and to an understanding of the NT passages that refer to the principles established in Gen. 1- 3. Jewett, in a discussion on Barth’s approach to this issue, makes an important point: the true essence of humanity is not found in the creation of man or woman, but humanity as man and woman (Gen. 1:27). The true essence of humanity cannot be found in just one of the genders, but in being as “being-in-fellowship” (1975:49). This means that humanity, although represented in two specific and separate genders, is nevertheless defined by both genders. A society where only one gender existed would be an incomplete society. Thus, both man and woman were created in the image of God, and both had a full relationship with God, as they had a relationship with each other.

3.2. The Fall

The sin of Adam and Eve changed the world forever. The nature of humanity and the relationships therein were radically changed. “The unity and equality expressed so clearly in [Genesis] chapter 1 is replaced by the authority of one over the other. Sin has spoiled not only the spiritual relationship between creator and creature but has also affected the social relationships between men and women” (Carey, in Furlong 1984:45; cf. Schaeffer 1972:94).

3.3. Redemption Through Christ

The total curse of sin and the law has been fully removed (cf. Rom. 5:12 -21, Gal. 3:10 – 14; Rev. 22:3). That curse is the curse that separated man from God in the Garden of Eden. Christ’s death secured the permanent removal of all that separates us from God and from each other. This is a glorious, victorious truth that is at the heart of our Christianity. Yet, the effects of sin and the work of Satan have been allowed by God to continue in the world, until the victory is enforced when Christ returns. Thus, we live today in a constant tension between the “now” (of a world still affected by the Fall) and the “not yet” (of the full effects of Christ’s redeeming grace).

3.4. Eschatological Anticipation

It may be helpful, too, to attempt to understand what heaven will be like, for we know that in heaven we will be perfect. Since the state of being in perfection is the highest state a being can attain, it must also be the ideal role model, remembering, however that we live and function in a different sphere at present.

4. The Role of Tradition and Church History

Weinrich claims that women in the history of the church have been “learned and holy, but not pastors” (in Piper and Grudem 1991:263ff.). Tucker and Liefeld, however, endeavour throughout their book to show that “historically, women have had far more involvement in the church’s mission and other ministries than has generally been realised” (1987:435). In any case, this should not be a decisive factor in our discussion. Where tradition is contrary to Scripture, it is tradition that must change. As society develops, the church must always be open to adjustment and development, within the parameters of Scripture.

5. Headship, Submission and Subordination Within and Without Marriage

As a precursor to this discussion, it should be noted that Scripture clearly starts its teaching on marriage with a call to mutual submission (Eph. 5:21). Elsewhere, mutual authority is taught (1 Cor. 7:1 – 5; cf. Col. 3:16) (cf. Haubert 1993:57). Nevertheless, there are other principles which arise from various texts.

5.1. The Husband’s Role: Godly Headship

Eph. 5:23 tells us that the husband is the head (Gr. kefalh) of the wife. There is much debate as to what headship means (cf. Grudem, Piper and Grudem 1991:127f.; 425ff.), especially as it is equated with Christ’s headship over the church. The two main viewpoints are that headship means either “authority over” or it means “source”. Grudem seems to have answered most of the objections, and convincingly argues that the meaning is “authority”. His argument, however, seems to ignore the point that a word can mean different things in different contexts. Various passages will be discussed below, some where “source” is obviously unacceptable, but others where it seems to be an exegetical option.

In Eph. 5, however, it seems that “authority” would be the correct translation, as the wife is told to submit, and it would be difficult to see how Christ could be the “source” of the church, or the husband, the “source” of the wife. So, “the debate continues, but both sides agree that the NT’s teaching on headship must never be used as a prop to support chauvinist sexism” (Olthuis 1995:430). The emphasis is always on self-sacrificing, loving, servant-leadership, based on the example of Christ (Phil. 2:5 – 11; cf. Field, in Lees 1984:55).

5.2. The Wife’s Role: Godly Submission

Many of the supporters of woman ordination have claimed that Scripture teaches the subordination of women (e.g. Jewett 1975:58f.; 73f., etc.). This may have arisen through an incorrect understanding of the King James Version word “subjection” in describing the wife (translating Gr. FWBEW). However, they need to be more careful to distinguish between subordination and submission. Subordination, being the subservience of the women, is never taught in Scripture, and should not influence the debate.

It is interesting that, in Scripture, the wife is always addressed first when the nature of the husband-wife relationship is discussed (cf. Eph. 5:22; Col. 3:18; 1 Peter 3:1; Titus 2:4f.), indicating possibly that she is to take the “lead” (the first step, initiation) in the relationship of headship-submission. The wife is instructed to submit to her husband. The Greek word for “submit” (Gr. hupotassw – in the middle voice) is used in all the passages, and implies a voluntary putting of oneself under another (Knight, in Piper and Grudem 1991:166). This makes sense, as there is no intrinsic superiority of either the male or female, but the women must voluntarily place herself, not where she is by right (equal), but under, her husband. This is re-enforced in 1 Peter 3:1 – 7 (cf. Grudem, in Piper and Grudem 1991:194ff.), although the specific context of a non-believing husband should be noted.

5.3. Relationships Outside of Marriage and Single People

The passages discussed above exhort wives to be subject to “your own” (Gr. idio”) husbands, and similarly, the husbands must love their wives. This term, “your own”, clearly shows that the relationship of headship and submission between a wife and her husband is different from the relationship of headship and submission which they may have with other people in general. “Paul is not insisting that every relationship between a woman and a man is one of submission and headship” (Knight, in Piper and Grudem 1991:169; cf. pg. 44).

6. Marriage as an Analogy of the Church

Having established a pattern for relationships within marriage, how are the husband and wife to relate to each other in other settings, outside the home? In addition, how do this pattern of headship and submission relate to the church, which has unmarried people and “other-married” people? Marriage is used as an analogy of the church throughout Scripture (in fact, that was what it was designed to be, cf. Eph. 5:31 – 32; Knight, in Piper and Grudem 1991:175f.), but this does not necessarily mean that what applies to marriage, also applies to the church.

Some would argue that “male leadership in the family requires male leadership in the church” (cf. Poythress, in Piper and Grudem 1991:233ff.). The crux of this belief is that 1 Tim. 3:15 refers to the church as “God’s household”. In addition, it is argued that elders or overseers are to be men who are the “husbands of but one wife” (1 Tim. 3:2). This argument is weak and circular (using an implication of the argument to prove the argument). Applying it properly would mean that all church leaders must be married. In fact, they must all be married with children. If we cannot draw these inferences, then neither can we draw a male-only inference.

It would seem that the only transferral of marital roles to the church is the relationship of husband and wife within church life. Scripture is clear that family life extends to the church as well. It should be noted in this regard, that children who were Christians were totally equal with their parents, yet nevertheless had to maintain a relationship of honour and respect (e.g. 1 Tim. 5:1 – 2), and similarly with slaves and masters. So, too, a wife who must submit to her husband at home, must do the same at church. Beyond this principle, there does not seem to be adequate grounds for transferring male headship at home to influence the structure of the church, where Christ assumes the headship function.

7. Texts Specifically Prohibiting Women from Teaching or Leading

A very important initial observation must be made. In Greek, the term “man” can be used generically for “mankind”, thus including both male and female. In addition, the Greek word for “woman” and for “wife” (gunh) are exactly the same, and similarly, Greek has one word for “man” and “husband” (anhr). The correct translated term is discovered only on investigation of the context. Every single passage that restricts women from teaching men can be placed in the context of marriage, and thus could legitimately read, “I do not permit a wife to teach her husband”. These passages are: 1 Cor. 11:3 (is every woman subject to every man, or are wives subject to their husbands, just as Christ is the bridegroom of the church, His bride?); 1 Cor. 14:34 – 35 (obviously a marriage relationship); and 1 Tim. 2:11 – 15 (Adam and Eve are the marital role models, and how could any woman, except a wife, be given promises regarding child birth?).

It is conceivable then that all of these passages are referring to spiritual authority and leadership within the home, and how this should be expressed between a husband and wife in the public life of the church. It may have nothing to do with instructions regarding women in general. The fact that the gifts have no specific gender requirements placed on them, thus allowing women to receive the gifts of prophecy, preaching, teaching, pastoring, leadership, etc., would seem to add weight to this point of view (see below). Let us examine each of these passages in more detail:

7.1. 1 Corinthians 11:2 – 16

The issue of headship has been discussed above. Assuming the word kefalh means “authority” in 1 Cor. 11:3, Paul is arguing that man is the head of “the woman” (notice the definite article and the singular form) as Christ is the head of man and God the head of Christ (this seems to mitigate against the use of “source” for kefalh in this context). “Since Paul appeals to the relation between members of the Trinity, it is clear that he does not view the relations described here as merely cultural, or the result of the fall” (Schreiner, in Piper and Grudem 1991:128). Notice, however, that by referring to the Trinity, Paul consciously draws our attention to beings-in-fellowship, reminding us of Genesis 2, and the first couple who “for this reason” were the first marital pair. This principle is the key to the whole passage.

It should be noticed that nowhere in this passage does Paul forbid a woman to teach or lead in the church. In fact, he is saying the very opposite by giving instructions for the involvement of women in the church service, saying that she should do whatever she does in the church in a respectful and humble spirit – a ruling that applies equally to all Christians. There is no Biblical basis for assuming that whenever Scripture refers to a women prophesying or teaching, that she does so outside of the church congregation (cf. MacArthur 1994:39f.). “Distinctions between ‘official’ and ‘non-official’ teaching are difficult to substantiate in the New Testament” (Haubert 1993:65, and footnote).

Some scholars have argued that the phrase “authority on her head” (literal translation of 11:10) means that women must be under the authority of the men in the church. If this is what Paul intended, it seems unlikely that he would have used such an idiomatic phrase, or that he would refer to the angels. Whatever the correct interpretation of these phrases is, it is not unambiguously endorsing female submission in terms of not being able to lead or teach within the church. Paul, himself, anticipates some misunderstanding and so 1 Cor. 11:11 – 12 is an expression of what he has just been saying regarding the equality of the status and giftedness of men and women.

Thus, although Paul does advocate gender distinctions in the manner in which certain gifts are exercised, he nevertheless encourages men and women alike to exercise the gifts God has given them. Like (the very conservative) Mack (1972:60), I cannot find in these verses a prohibition on women teaching or leading in the church.

7.2. 1 Corinthians 14:34 – 36

On the face of it, this passage contradicts Paul’s statements elsewhere (most problematically, in the same letter, 1 Cor. 11) regarding the fact that women could speak, pray and prophesy in the congregation. Leaving the text critical arguments aside, the most compelling interpretation is that these verses refer to the process by which prophecies were weighed (cf. Carson, in Piper and Grudem 1991:151ff.). This interpretation best fits the exegetical context, both in terms of flow and structure (especially 1 Cor. 14:29 – 33). It would seem then that Paul is only prohibiting women being involved in the oral weighing of prophecies. Additional proof of this is that the silence (Gr. sigatw) required in verse 34 also applies to prophets and tongue speakers in verses 28 and 30 – it is not only related to women. This was not, as some have suggested, because only church leaders could weigh prophecies and women were not allowed to be leaders. If Paul had intended that, he would have also included all males who were not church leaders in this prohibition.

Nearly all of the commentators agree that Paul was writing to a church which was fighting an heretical onslaught, and was giving instructions that would result in sound teaching by restraining all unqualified teachers (cf. 1 Tim. 1:3; 6:3 – 5). Some commentators have argued that because women were untaught in those times, Paul forbade them to teach (e.g. Haubert 1993:64; Carey, in Furlong 1984:53f.). The obvious implication is that in cultures where women are educated, they can teach. This seems unlikely, however, as it is not a proven fact that women were uneducated in the prevailing Roman culture of Ephesus, and further, if this was Paul’s intention, it would seem that when writing to a busy sea port, he would have included in this prohibition those men who were uneducated and not able to teach.

Verse 35, therefore, seems to be the key to understanding this passage. It unambiguously states that the women referred to are wives. Thus, it would seem that Paul is prohibiting wives from weighing their husband’s prophecies, and if they have a problem with “their own” husband’s prophecies, this should be discussed at home. There are three very logical reasons for this: the church service is not to be disrupted by domestic squabbling; the wife is to submit to her own husband’s authority in all aspects of their marriage relationship, including church; and, a prophecy’s validity could be established two witnesses. If the husband and wife were to conspire to give a false testimony, it would be easy for them to do so, if the wife were allowed to weigh her husband’s prophecy. Once again, therefore, there is room to doubt the traditional interpretation of this passage.

7.3. 1 Timothy 2:11 – 15

The first aspect of this passage that bears attention is the usage of the word “man”. There are a number of translation options, depending on the underlying Greek word. We would surely not think that only males are going to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4, 6), or that only men should pray (2:8)? Contrary to MacArthur’s claim (1994:112), the terms anqropo” and andro”, used in these verses, can refer either to males or to human beings generically (Louw and Nida 1989:104).

The injunction in verse 11, that women are to “learn” (Gr. manthanetw) implies that they are to be discipled (cf. Gr. mathmth”). This was a new concept to those with a Jewish background, where women were not taught at all. However, they are to learn in “submission” (Gr. upotagh – the noun form of the word that describes a wife’s relationship to her husband). In addition, they are not to have “authority” (Gr. authentein) over men. This particular Greek word occurs only here in the NT. Some believe that it is simply a synonym for the normal Greek words for authority (cf. Knight 1992:141f.; Tucker and Liefeld 1987:460). However, most of the lexicons indicate that it is more forceful, implying “to control in a domineering manner” (Louw and Nida 1989:474). Paul is therefore not forbidding women to have authority, but rather counselling them not to dominate.

Whichever interpretation is preferred, there is one final difficulty that is often ignored. It would seem that, since Paul refers to the woman being “kept safe through childbirth” (1 Tim. 2:15), he is, once again, referring to a husband and wife relationship in the church (it would seem impossible to assume that Paul was referring to unmarried women in this verse), and not to male-female relationships in general. Thus, Paul is forbidding a wife to teach or have authority over (dominate?) her husband in the church setting. This is entirely consistent with Paul’s teaching on a wife’s submission to her husband.

It should be noticed that 1 Tim. 2:13 – 14 bases Paul’s argument in creation order. If Paul intended us to understand that all women are easily deceived and that is why they should not teach, why then does he allow them to teach children and other women (1 Tim. 1:5; 3:14 – 15; Titus 2:3 – 4)? They should not be allowed to teach anyone in the church (cf. Haubert 1993:66).

Some scholars, who would take these verses to prohibit women teaching, weaken their own argument by defining such teaching as “preaching” or the “teaching of Bible and doctrine”, but leaving out of their definition “evangelistic witnessing, counseling, [and] teaching subjects other than Bible or doctrine” (Moo, in Piper and Grudem 1991:186). They further weaken their position when they try to define what a “man” is, often saying that women can teach male children in Sunday School, not realising that in Jewish culture, boys became men at the age of 13.

Although these verses present us with some translation difficulties, it would seem that once again the wording is ambiguous. Most scholars attempt to understand what is meant in these verses by an appeal to the passages in 1 Cor., discussed above. This often results in a particularly dangerous form of circular reasoning, as they use this passage to prove their interpretations of 1 Cor. (MacArthur, Mack, and Piper and Grudem are all guilty of this).

8. Other Biblical Arguments Against Women Teaching and Leading

8.1. The Order of Creation

Briefly stated, this argument posits that because God created Adam, and then later created Eve, the very order of creation is that the man is head (cf. Ortlund, in Piper and Grudem 1991:102). This argument is invalid on a number of levels: (i) We have no hint in Scripture that male and female are on different levels spiritually (or “before God”), in fact, we are told the very opposite (e.g. Gal. 3:28).; (ii) Some may then argue that the order of creation had to do with function, not status. However, there is no mention in Scripture that Adam and Eve had different functions in the Garden. We find them both communing with God, and both being charged with stewardship of the garden (cf. “them” in Gen. 1:26, 28); (iii) The argument is logically flawed: if a consistent hierarchy based on creation is to be maintained, then whichever way the Genesis accounts are interpreted, we reach invalid conclusions. From Gen. 1 we find that man and woman are lower than the other created beings. If from Gen. 2, man was created before the animals, then woman is lower than the animals, and man higher. If from both accounts, the order is reversed, so that man is higher than the animals, because he is created after them, then Eve is higher than Adam (see also 8.2. below).

8.2. “Man” as God’s Name for Humanity

This argument seems puerile in the extreme. It states that when God was searching for a term to describe both male (Heb. rkz) and female (Heb. hbqnW) humanity in Gen. 1:26 – 28, He chose “man” (Heb. !da), which “whispers male headship” (Ortlund, in Piper and Grudem 1991:98). Four simple answers are sufficient: (i) The word used for “man” when referring to humanity is different from the word “man” referring to a male being; (ii) Scripture is God’s truth revealed through the mechanism of human language and idiom. In Genesis, we are linguistically further removed from the actual event of creation by Babel. Therefore, when God revealed this truth to the author of Genesis, he did so in Jewish language and idiom, which used the same word for “humanity” and “man” (as do many modern languages); (iii) does the fact, then, that God reveals Himself as a rock (e.g. Gen. 49:24; Deut. 32:4; 2 Sam. 22:32; Matt. 16:18, etc.) or a hen (Matt. 23:37), or many other morphic analogies, tell us anything about God’s intrinsic nature? Obviously not; and, (iv) If the fact that humanity is called “man” in the OT is an indication of male headship, then is the fact that the church is the ekklesia (feminine noun) and the “bride” of Christ an indication of female headship in the NT?

8.3. A “Help-Meet” from Adam’s Rib

Eve was made as a “helper” for Adam. Scripture literally calls her “suitable” (KJV – “meet”) for Adam. Many scholars argue that this implies Adam’s authority over her, but battle to explain away the fact that the word for “helper” (Heb. rz[) is most often used of God helping humanity (cf. Holladay 1988:270; Haubert 1993:14 and footnote). In fact, of the 21 OT uses of this word, the 19 that do not appear in relation to women in Gen. 2, all unambiguously refer to a superior helping an inferior. We should not, however, go so far as to conclude that women are superior (although this could be a logical deduction), because the phrase “corresponding to him” is added (Heb. wdgnk), indicating a correspondence or equality. “Significantly, too, there is no suggestion that she is a helper in a particular way, as the bearer of children (Augustine) or the keeper of the home, to speak of the two most common feminine stereotypes” (Jewett 1975:124).

8.4. The Naming of Eve by Adam

There are two instances when Adam is said to have named the woman/Eve (Gen. 2:23; 3:20). Most commentators agree that the power to name something implied authority over it in Jewish culture (e.g. Field, in Lees 1984:48). The difficulty with this, is that Adam appears to name his wife twice. The solution is simple: in Gen. 2:23, Adam does not actually name Eve, he simply identifies her type – she is “woman” for she comes from “man” (the type, or genus). It is only after the Fall and the pronouncement of the punishment that he actually gives her a name (Gen. 3:20), claiming the authority (and domination) just pronounced. This seems to indicate that an enforced authority is part of the fallen state of humanity.

8.5. Eve Was The Sinner, Not Adam

It has been argued by many scholars that Eve’s sin was the usurping of Adam’s headship role, and that Adam’s sin was “listening to his wife” (Gen. 3:17) (e.g. Ortlund, in Piper and Grudem 1991:107; MacArthur 1994:21). This would seem to be going beyond what Scripture says, as neither the OT or NT mention this as the problem. The sin was disobeying God’s command. Gen. 3:6 makes it clear that Adam was with Eve during the temptation, and presumably was enticed by the deceiver as well. However, in 1 Tim. 2:14, Paul seemingly uses Eve’s sin as a reason for women remaining silent in the church. This verse was discussed above. Suffice it to say, that Scripture is absolutely clear elsewhere when it ascribes the sin to Adam. In fact, this is the crux of Paul’s argument in Rom. 5:14 – 15; 15:45. It would thus seem difficult to support this argument about the first sin being the “sin” of sexual role reversal.

8.6. The “Curse” On Man and Woman

An argument in favour of the fact that Christ’s redemption has not removed the headship of husbands and the submission of women pronounced in Gen. 3, is that Christ’s redemption removed the “curse” (Gal. 3:13), but neither Adam nor Eve were actually cursed. The wording of Gen. 3:14 – 19 indicates that the serpent and the ground were cursed, but the man and woman were simply told how sin had affected their situations. Thus, headship and submission are not curses, but pronouncements of structures God has put in place to preserve the institution of marriage in a sinful world. The fact that there will be no marriages in heaven (Matt. 22:30), and no clearly distinguishable masculine and feminine beings, also seems to indicate that these structures are temporary.

8.7. The Nature of the Godhead and the Incarnation

God is a fellowship of persons (Father, Son and Holy Spirit). The distinction between the persons of the Trinity is personal, not sexual. Therefore, humanity is like God in the fellowship of persons, as man and woman. It has, nevertheless, been argued that the specifically masculine references to God throughout Scripture are an indication of male hierarchy in humanity. However, the masculine image of God is analogous in nature. In fact, there are also many references to feminine characteristics of God (e.g. Isa. 49:15; Luke 15:8 – 10, etc.). The important concept is that God is a personal being, but he is not male or female, and “therefore the Incarnation in the form of male humanity, though historically and culturally necessary, was not theologically necessary” (Jewett 1975:168 emphasis in original).

In addition, whenever Jesus is referred to in the NT, the Greek word, anqrwpo”, which is a generic term that can mean “man” (male) or “human being” (male or female) is used, instead of specifically masculine terms.

8.8. Jesus Called Only Men as Disciples

If Jesus called only men, it is also true that he only called Jews who were free men. Therefore, this argument is completely nullified by the rest of the NT witness, in particular Gal. 3:28. Jesus had to work within the cultural constraints at the time he lived. In addition, if this fact was a guideline for male leadership, then why does no NT writer ever appeal to it?

8.9 Women are Genetically/Biological Inferior to Men

This argument, based on physical differences between men and women, applies these indisputable differences to the area of authority. Unfortunately for supporters of this theory, they have no Biblical basis for doing so (except perhaps 1 Peter 3:7, which talks of the “weaker” women, who are nevertheless “heirs with [men]”) (cf. Williams, in Furlong 1984:19f.). In addition, the logical extension of this argument would be that mentally impaired or physically disabled people would also be disqualified from ministry.

9. Other Arguments in Favour of Women Teaching and Leading

9.1. Equality Based on Galatians 3:28

These verses clearly show that we are all equal before God in terms of status, but they do not talk about function or role (cf. Johnson, Piper and Grudem 1991:154ff.). We need to be careful that we do not take the doctrine of equality too far. “There are many areas of life in which God has no intention of levelling out the distinctions between us” (Ortlund, in Piper and Grudem 1991:100). The fact that people are not equal is made abundantly clear by Jesus (e.g. Matt. 20:1 – 16; Luke 12:48) and Paul (e.g. 1 Cor. 12:31; 14:5; Eph. 4:7). Scripture is clear that although all people are equal in intrinsic worth before God, some have been given greater tasks to perform than others. In the context of the church, God has also ordained that some will lead and others will follow. Thus, this verse cannot be used to support women teaching or leading in the church, although it does establish an important principle.

9.2. Jesus’ Attitude To Women

Jesus’ attitude towards women was nothing short of revolutionary. He had no difficulty in breaking every social taboo, including teaching women, conversing with them in public, having them as disciples and accepting their support. We must never lose sight of how exceptional this was in the light the culture of the day. “By thus honouring them he put woman on an equality with man, demanding the same standard from both sexes and offering the same way of salvation” (Beeching 1982:1259).

9.3. The Role of Women in Paul’s Ministry and Paul’s Attitude To Women

Paul clearly saw women as “fellow labourers” with him (Rom. 16). Phoebe (Rom. 16:1) was a deacon (masculine word, indicating an official office), and Junia (Rom. 16:7) was either an apostle herself, or highly revered by the apostles (the interpretation is unclear, although the former is probably to be preferred). If the above arguments are accepted, it would seem that Paul’s message was consistent: the marriage relationship is characterised by love and mutual submission, with male headship; and the church is characterised by every member ministry under the headship of Christ.

9.4. Spiritual Gifts are Not Gender-Specific

When Paul lists the spiritual gifts, he places no gender requirements on the receipt of any of the gifts (cf. especially 1 Cor. 12:28; MacArthur 1994:145). These gifts were clearly meant for all Christians, irrespective of age, race, culture or gender (cf. 1 Cor. 12:13; 14:26). Within the NT there are many examples of women exercising these different gifts. Women were in leadership positions (e.g. Acts 16:15; 18:26; Rom. 16:1, 7), they prophesied (e.g. Luke 2:36; Acts 2:17; 21:9), pastored (cared for) the congregation (e.g. Rom. 16:1, 6, 13; 1 Tim. 5:16), preached and taught (Priscilla in Acts 18:2, Rom. 16:3), were actively involved in worship in the church (e.g. 1 Cor. 11:5, 13), and in many other ways served the church, exercising their gifts.

It would seem strange that, if the NT authors wanted to restrict the use of any gifts to males only, they did not specify this when they were formally listing the gifts, and did not make negative references to those women who were already performing works of service using these gifts. In fact, Paul does place some restrictions on the use of spiritual gifts, especially in 1 Corinthians 12 -14. His main restrictions are: that the gifts are for mutual edification (12:7), that everyone is to treat everyone else with honour because all gifts come from God (12:22 – 25), that they should be exercised only in love (1 Cor. 13:1 – 3; 14:1), and that they should be exercised in an orderly fashion in the public life of the church (14:33). None of these restrictions can in any way be twisted to provide for a “males only” approach. Women are therefore equally capable of receiving any spiritual gifts, and should not be restricted from using them in the local church context.

9.5. The Sting In The Tail of “Cultural Relativity”

Those who would have us believe that the underlying principles of male headship and female submission within the church are clearly taught by Paul, although Paul applies it to culturally specific situations which are no longer valid, have opened themselves up for a decisive blow. If their theory is true, then they have proved too much, and must accept women leaders and teachers in our churches today. Underlying their thought is the assumption that women (especially in Corinth) were exercising their new Christian freedom in culturally unacceptable ways, which even equated them with the cults of the city and with temple prostitutes. Thus Paul says they should respect the culture of the day, and not offend anyone. Actually, this is a principle Paul uses often (e.g. 1 Cor. 3:18; 8:9ff.; 10:23ff.; 11:14, etc.).

Paul is saying that Christians should be sensitive to the cultural surrounds in which they live. Therefore, whereas women in leadership was culturally unacceptable in Paul’s day, it is acceptable (even desirable) in our culture today. Would Paul therefore not instruct us to consider women for teaching and leadership positions if he wrote to us, in our culture, today?

9.6. The “Double Standard” of Women Missionaries

A final point is the fact that most of the commentators who would restrict a women teaching or leading in a local church, recognise the tremendous missionary endeavours performed by women throughout the world. In order to accommodate this, they formulate policies which allow women to start organisations where no men are present, and counsel them to hand over to men as soon as possible. Even in the declaration of this issue made by the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (cf. Piper and Grudem 1991:469ff.), there is a proviso (affirmation 9) which allows women to be involved in teaching and leading. This seems to compromise what these people feel is a deep rooted Biblical and creation principle. In the light of what they have previously said, this compromise would seem unacceptable. We need to be honest enough to accept the full implications of what we believe.

10. The Ordination of Women

By “ordination”, we mean the formal recognition to the office of ministry. Fortunately, within Baptist churches, this issue is not separate and additional to the issues of teaching and leading, for, unlike the more liturgical churches, where the priest somehow functions as a mediator between God and men, Baptists believe in the priesthood of all believers. Thus, if we agree that Scripture permits a woman to teach and lead, then we must agree that she can be ordained.

11. Conclusion

In this brief overview of some of the issues that need to be resolved, it has become obvious that Scripture clearly teaches that there is authority and submission involved in some relationships. Although all people are equal in the eyes of God, both in their sinful state and in the state of grace, there are differences in function. However, all Christians are called to serve one another, and be in submission to one another, by willingly considering others better than oneself. The church should be characterised by mutual love and submission, thus engendering an environment where each one is able to fully develop and utilise his or her God-given spiritual gifts for the benefit of the body of Christ.


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3 thoughts on “The role of women leaders in the local church”

  1. I warmly thank for your sharing this passages. And then I would like to command that when I read your passage I am very encouragement and please write to me your passagein my mail.

  2. Thanks for letting us know about the women leaders. Am also a women leader in my church. But I would like you to please ,briefly describe for me a women leader and what she is supposed to do for the people in church.

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