1998 Inman Forum: "Some Contemporary Issues Concerning Worship and the Christian Assembly"

Chapter 5: Women in the Assembly

by Dr. Everett Ferguson

Women's Activities in the Church

Once more, I prefer to make a positive statement instead of concentrating on the negative. Hence, I begin by reminding us of the many statements about the active involvement of women in the early church.1 Women were prominent in many activities in the early church. These include (1) prophesying. Acts 2:17-18, claiming the fulfillment of Joel 2:28-29, "Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy . . . . Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy." 1 Corinthians 11:5, "Any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head."

Along with prophesying, there was also (2) teaching. Acts 18:26, "When Priscilla and Aquila heard him [Apollos], they took him aside and explained the Way of God to him more accurately." Titus 2:3-5, "Tell the older women to be reverent in behavior, not to be slanderers or slaves to drink; they are to teach what is good, so that they may encourage the young women."

Women were (3) working in advancing the gospel. The details of this work are left unspecified, but the terminology is the same as used for men who were co-workers of the apostles. Philippians 4:3, "I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women [Euodia and Syntyche], for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers." In Romans 16:7, the Andronicus and Junia, who were "prominent among the apostles," were likely a husband and wife missionary team. The phrase does not mean "well known by the apostles" but "notable among the apostles," and Junia is almost certainly a feminine name.2 "Apostles" is used in the sense of "missionaries."

Women were also (4) working on behalf of the church, again in unspecified ways. Romans 16:6, "Greet Mary, who has worked very hard among you." Romans 16:12, "Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa."

We find women mentioned (5) in various serving capacities that are specified. During Jesus' ministry women provided financial support for him and the disciples. Luke 8:1-3, refers to women "who provided for them out of their resources." After the church began, Acts 9:36 refers to Dorcas, who "was devoted to good works and acts of charity," including making clothing for widows (vs. 39). Romans 16:1-2, "I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon [or servant] of the church at Cenchreae, . . . for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well." Phoebe's benefactions may have included the providing of her home as a place of hospitality for missionaries and place of meeting for the church. Such is explicitly said about the wealthy Lydia in Acts 16:15 and 40, "When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, `If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.' . . . After leaving the prison, [Paul and Silas] went to Lydia's home; and when they had seen and encouraged the brothers and sisters there, they departed."

These more explicitly church related activities are in addition to the passages about Christian women's activities in the home and family.

We must confess that churches have not always utilized women as fully as these passages indicate they were involved in apostolic days. In reflecting cultural norms of the past the church through history has sometimes not only failed to put women to work fully but has even allowed their repression. Under the pressure of different cultural norms in the present, the church should not abandon scriptural standards concerning male and female roles. Both reactions are wrong. Cultural practices and societal preferences should not lead the church into either error, either placing undue restrictions on women's work or not respecting Biblical limitations. The cultural setting will certainly influence the extent to which women are involved and the ways in which that involvement is expressed, but in every cultural setting the church will respect both the dignity of women as made in the image of God and the divinely appointed leadership of men in the home and in the church. One must not defend the suppression of women in order to maintain Biblical teaching about male leadership in home and church.

Congregational Activities

Our subject for this lesson, however, is not these larger concerns of male-female relationships nor even women's general involvement in the life of the church. Rather our subject is the assembly. What specifically are women's roles in the assembly?

Women do the things commanded of each Christian. These would include singing. Ephesians 5:18-20, "Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to one another, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." These instructions apply to everyone (men are not the only ones to avoid drunkenness) and "at all times," so including the times of assembly as well as other times. Women would join in the congregational "Amen" accompanying prayer (1 Cor. 14:16). Giving too is commanded of each Christian. 1 Corinthians 16:2, "On the first day of every week, each of you is to put aside and place in the treasury whatever is in keeping with your prosperity, so that collections need not be taken when I come."

The women, therefore, participate in the group activities of the congregation. What the whole congregation does together includes women. Individual activities must be evaluated separately. What about leadership roles in the assembly? To these we now turn, as we examine two passages that place limitations on women's activities in the assembly.

1 Corinthians 14:33-40

The instructions to women are part of a series of regulations concerning speaking in the assembly. Paul regulates the speech in turn of those who spoke in tongues (1 Cor. 14:27-28), the prophets (vss. 29-33), and women (vss. 33-36). Paul's regulations follow the same form in all three cases: name the group, state the rule about speech, give an example in conditional form, and justify what has been said.3 I may set out the passage in chart form:

If anyone speaks in a tongue,
let there be only two or at most three,
and each in turn;
and let one interpret.
But if there is no one to interpret,
let them be silent in church
and speak to themselves and to God.
Let prophets speak
two or three,
and let the others [prophets ?] weigh what is said.
If a revelation is made to someone else sitting nearby,
let the first person be silent.
You can all prophesy
one by one
so that all may learn and all be encouraged [exhorted].
And the spirits of prophets are subject to the prophets,
for God is a God not of disorder but of peace.
Let the women be silent in the churches
For they are not permitted to speak,
but should be subordinate, as the law also says.
If there is anything they desire to know,
let them ask their husbands at home.
For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.
Or did the word of God originate with you?
Or are you the only ones it has reached?
Anyone who claims to be a prophet, or to be a spiritual person,
must acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord
. . . .
So, be eager to prophesy,
and do not forbid speaking in tongues;
but all things should be done decently and in order.

The "speaking" and the being "silent" in the instructions to women are defined by their usage in the preceding verses. Some have tried to find a special meaning in the word for "speak" in verse 34, for instance its association with tongue speaking in this chapter,4 but the word is an ordinary word in Greek for any kind of speaking or other vocal sounds. It is used in this chapter also for the speaking by prophets (vss. 3 and 29) and by Paul for his intelligible speech (vs. 19). Similarly, the "silence" enjoined on women is the same silence enjoined on tongue speakers and prophets under the circumstances mentioned in this context. Being silent is the cessation or absence of speech. Without an indication otherwise, the words for speaking and being silent should have the same meaning as elsewhere in the context. At the minimum, the speaking would be such as is done by prophets in bringing the word of the Lord to the assembly and by tongue speakers in speaking to God (vss. 2, 28). Being silent is ceasing from those kinds of speech. In contemporary terms, that would exclude women from preaching (bringing the word of God) and leading in prayer (speaking to God) in the assembly.

One might object that these instructions in 1 Corinthians 14 concern spiritual gifts and so are not applicable today. The women addressed included those with the gifts of prophecy and speaking in tongues, for the gifts of the Spirit were not gender specific, but Paul's principles are not limited to women with such gifts. If Paul forbade inspired speech by women, how much more would he forbid uninspired speech. Moreover, Paul gives directions according to principles that are not dependent on the special circumstances, as we will see presently.

Some have argued that the problem at Corinth was not women prophesying but women prophets embarrassing their husbands by publicly questioning or examining (weighing, discerning--vs. 29) their prophetic speech in the assembly (hence, the stress on "their own husbands" in vs. 35).5 There may be some validity to this as regards one of the specific circumstances that called forth Paul's regulations, but it is difficult to understand how questioning the prophetic utterance of her husband would assert more authority over him than delivering her own prophetic message. To restrict Paul's prohibition of women's speaking to this circumstance ignores the structure of the passage. In the case of the tongue speakers and the prophets, Paul regulates their speech and does not prohibit it altogether. He seeks to control abuses by limiting the number of tongue speakers, making them take turns, and requiring the presence of an interpreter. Prophets too are limited in number and are to speak in turns, yielding to someone else who has a revelation. Paul instructs tongue speakers when they may speak (one at a time) and when they should keep silent (absence of an interpreter); he instructs prophets when they may speak (one at a time) and when they should be silent (revelation made to another prophet). However, the prohibition on women speaking is stated absolutely; provision is made only for their silence, not their speaking. If Paul only wanted to regulate abuses, he could have done so and stated the circumstances under which women were to speak and the circumstances under which they were not. That is what he did in regard to tongue speakers and prophets.

The example stated in the conditional clause, "If they wish to learn" (vs. 35), instead of being the type of speech that was creating a problem and so being forbidden, would be, on the pattern of the other conditional clauses in regard to tongue speakers and prophets, a special circumstance, in this case extending the prohibition to the seemingly most innocent and justifiable kind of speaking, especially in view of Paul's own emphasis in the chapter on edification. The women might have argued that if you want us to be instructed, we ought to be able to ask questions so that we can learn what is meant. Paul's response is, if they do indeed want to learn, they have another avenue of doing so.

The impersonal statement, "It is not permitted for them to speak" (vs. 34) indicates a general principle or law and not the statement of Paul's personal opinion or preference. The contrast ("But") stated in the imperative, "let them be subordinate" or "submissive," or "let them subject themselves," shows that the speaking would indicate a lack of submission and so suggests that the speaking has to do with an authoritative or representative public speaking role. To whom the women are to be subject is not stated; where husbands are intended this is said (as Eph. 5:22; Col. 3:18). This absence of an object generalizes the statement and argues against a limitation to husbands in this context. So too does the absence of the article with "woman" in the last part of verse 35; by omitting the article before "woman" Paul seems to be generalizing the prohibition. Paul does not say that it is shameful to speak in a disorderly or disrespectful manner, as if that were the problem, but that "it is shameful for a woman to speak in church."

Paul offers at least four arguments on behalf of his rule against women taking an individual leadership role in the assembly. (1) The practice of the churches--1 Corinthians 14:33, "as in all the churches of the saints." One of the major problems with the Corinthian Christians, an expression of the pride and individualism of some, was their inclination to go their own way. Hence, the strength of Paul's rebuke, verse 36, "Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached?" The church at Corinth needed to follow the practices Paul had instituted in the other churches. This is a lesson that churches in our own time who want "to do their own thing" may need to heed.

(2) God's law at creation--verse 34, Women should "be subordinate, as the law also says." There has been considerable question about what Paul means here, since there is no exact law corresponding to this in the Law of Moses. Nevertheless, "law" without some other indication in the context means for Paul the "Law of Moses," or more generally the Hebrew scriptures. Genesis 3:16 is the verse most often referred to and is likely what Paul has in mind, "Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you." This lends some support to seeing the references to "men" and "women" in 1 Corinthians 14 as referring to "husbands" and "wives," but Adam and Eve stood for men and women and not only "husbands" and "wives. Reinforcing the idea that by the reference to the "law" Paul may have been thinking of a passage from the Pentateuch was the practice of Jewish synagogue meetings, in which women did not take an individual leadership role.

(3) Shame--verse 35, "For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church." This would be a cultural consideration.

(4) The command of the Lord--verse 37, "Anyone . . . must acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord." This statement is part of Paul's conclusion to the whole passage on tongue speaking, prophecy, and disorders in the meetings at Corinth, but it applies to all that he has written in chapter 14, including his words about women.

The third argument, from shame, might be relative. It is not shameful in our current American culture for a woman to speak in public. The appeal in argument one to the practice of the churches might not always be applicable. These considerations, however, do not limit the force of Paul's arguments two and four. If the appeal in argument two to the "law" is indeed to Genesis 3:16 and so to the law governing male-female relations since the fall, then this argument has to do with the natural order and is not subject to cultural changes. It is true that in Christ many things are renewed and therefore are different, but the distinctions of male and female are not canceled so far as life in this world is concerned (more about this when we consider 1 Cor. 11). Again, part of Paul's problem with the Corinthians is their over-realized eschatology in which they thought of themselves as already living in the circumstances of the world to come (see 1 Cor. 4:8). No diminution can be made in the force of Paul's argument four. There is no cultural conditioning or relativity about a "command of the Lord."

These theological arguments may be compared and contrasted to the arguments about the head covering for women in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16.6 Most Christian women no longer observe the head covering, and one might legitimately ask, "If we ignore the instructions about women in 1 Corinthians 11, why not do so in regard to 1 Corinthians 14?" The answer is that there is a difference in the premises of the reasoning. Both passages are based on a ranking of male and female that goes back to the creation and fall of human beings. Male and female distinctions are affirmed in both passages as having been instituted by God (11:3, 8-9, 11-12; 14:34). Some of the ways in which those distinctions are observed are not conditioned by societal norms, but some are.

The hierarchical order of male and female rests on a divine ranking--1 Corinthians 11:3, God, Christ, man, woman. This was established at creation and is intended to promote mutuality (vss. 8-9, 11-12). How this order and male-female distinctions are expressed in a given situation, however, are determined by cultural norms. And so Paul's arguments for the head covering by the women as a way of reflecting the glory of her husband and their absence on men as a way of reflecting the glory of the Lord are all cultural: (1) Honor or shame for the man--verses 4-5, "any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered disgraces her head"; (2) disgrace to the woman--verses 5-6, "It is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. . . . If it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil"; (3) what is accepted as representing authority--verse 10, "For this reason a woman ought to have authority on her head" (most translations supply the meaning "a symbol" or "a sign" of authority); (4) what is regarded by human beings as natural (that is, according to one meaning of the word, what is the constitution, outward form, or appearance of something, or even, as John Chrysostom interpreted the word here, a generally recognized or firmly established custom)--verses 13-15, "Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory?"; (5) the practice of the churches--verse 16, "We have no such custom, nor do the churches of God." Observe that all of these considerations are culturally relative conditions, having to do with honor, shame or disgrace, what indicates authority, the natural or customary, and the practices of others. Where something is not considered a matter of honor or shame, has no symbolic significance, is not regarded as natural, then the specific expression has no force. These arguments are unlike the doctrinal affirmations in 14:34 and 37 about the law and the command of the Lord. The distinction of male and female and observing that distinction are absolute and rest on creation; how that distinction is expressed is culturally conditioned.

As I read 1 Corinthians 11:2, I would reconstruct the literary situation somewhat like this. Through their letter or through personal communication the Corinthians have said that they observe the traditions Paul delivered to them. These include the custom of women wearing a head covering in public and men not. But in this matter, the Corinthians are wondering, "Why?" In Roman religion, both men and women in the act of offering sacrifice veiled their heads. Moreover, the women in the church may have been pressing for full eschatological equality with men, so there is more attention to the question of women here. Even if women were accustomed to covering their head outside the home, they would not in the home, so if the church were meeting in one's home, the women of the house would have seen no reason to change their attire when other Christians were present.

In response to the Corinthians' comments or questions, Paul in 1 Corinthians 11 commends them for their observing his traditions but then goes on to offer reasons why in that cultural setting he made the distinction he did between male and female appearance in regard to a head covering. His subject here is the head covering and justification for it, not other matters.

This explanation may help to account for the apparent contradiction that many have observed between 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 and 1 Corinthians 14:33-35. 1 Corinthians 11:5 refers to a "woman who prays or prophesies" and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 forbids a woman to speak in the assembly. And it may be that the Corinthian women were speaking publicly in these ways in the assembly; that would be why Paul has to write so explicitly on the matter in 1 Corinthians 14. Yet, readers often wonder why Paul does not say anything negative about the practice at its first mention in 1 Corinthians 11.

There is a current tendency to take 1 Corinthians 11:5 as normative and find some narrower interpretation of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. That seems to be a strange exegetical approach. Whereas, the subject in the early part of 1 Corinthians 11 is the head covering, and the speaking roles of praying and prophesying are incidental to the main subject; on the other hand, the subject in 1 Corinthians 14 is precisely speaking roles in the assembly and under what circumstances they are to be exercised. The instructions expressed in the primary discussion should be regulative.

Paul's approach to the problems in the church at Corinth is to affirm their claims in theory and then to qualify them in practice.7 This is often done immediately: 1 Corinthians 6:12, "`All things are lawful for me,' but not all things are beneficial. `All things are lawful for me,' but I will not be dominated by anything." 1 Corinthians 7:1-2, "`It is well for a man not to touch a woman.' But because of cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband." 1 Corinthians 8:1, "Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that `all of us possess knowledge.' Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up." Indeed, one could cite many of these corrective statements. The last example that I have cited introduces an instance when Paul's strategy of agreement with a principle (perhaps learned from him or misinterpreting something he taught) but limitation of its application or correction of it in practice is expressed with enough intervening material that the result appears to be a contradiction rather than a qualification. In 1 Corinthians 8:4-6 Paul agrees that "no idol in the world really exists" and "there is no God but one," and argues against "eating in the temple of an idol" (8:10) only on the basis of the effect on a weaker brother who does not have this knowledge. But then in 1 Corinthians 10, when he comes to lay down regulations in regard to various situations, he says in verses 20-21 that "Pagans sacrifice to demons and not to God" and "You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons." There was no contradiction in Paul's mind, for idols had no real existence, but the demons that stood behind idolatry were real and were to be avoided. Even on the partial truth of the premises of the Corinthians' argument there was reason to stay away from pagan temples. But Paul does not stop when he mentions the claim that idols do not exist to explain that there is more to the reality than this simple denial. He waits until he gets around to prescribing under what conditions meat sacrificed to an idol may or may not be eaten to declare the reality of demons that stand behind idolatry. It may be that Paul is doing something similar in 1 Corinthians 11 and 14. The discussion of reasons for a woman having a head covering and a man not having one is prompted by a request from the Corinthians for an explanation. The further ramifications involved in a woman's speaking in the assembly are reserved for the detailed regulations given later.

It is normally assumed that 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 has to do with the assembly, because it is clearly some public situation in which both men and women are present. Yet it is not absolutely certain that 1 Corinthians 11:5 is the assembly of 1 Corinthians 14. That the settings are the same is an assumption, still to be demonstrated. Most take it as self-evident. Thus Gordon Fee says, "The two verbs `pray and prophesy' make it certain that the problem has to do with the assembly at worship. One may pray privately; but not so with prophecy."8 He assumes that there are only two choices, something private and something in the assembly, but this is not so. Something may be "public" but not be a meeting of the church. The matter of eating meals is an obvious illustration provided from the context, both before and after 1 Corinthians 11. The Lord's supper was "in church" (11:18-20), but there were banquets and dinners "at home," whether another's home (10:27-28) or one's own (11:34), where many guests might be present and were in a sense "public" and not "private" in the sense of individual (see Chap. 3). Moreover, something may be a group activity of Christians, or a group of Christians may be together on some occasion, and an assembly for worship not be involved. The assembly was not the only place where prophecy was delivered. In Acts 21:8-12 the prophet Agabus delivered a prophecy to quite a large group. It included Paul, his traveling companions (seven are named in 20:4, to whom Luke is to be added on the basis of the "we"), and perhaps also Philip and his four virgin daughters (who also had the gift of prophecy), since their home was where Paul's company was staying. Yet this was not a "church," not an assembly of the church even though all present were Christians.9 There could be public occasions of prayer and prophecy where women were the spokespersons but not be the times when "the whole church comes together" envisioned in 1 Corinthians 14 (note vs. 23). That distinction removes any contradiction between 1 Corinthians 11 and 14. On this explanation there were occasions that were not an assembly of the whole church when women prayed and prophesied in public.

1 Timothy 2:1-15

The setting of 1 Corinthians 14 is clearly the assembly, for this is stated explicitly (vss. 19, 23, 34, 35). This setting is not so obvious in 1 Timothy 2; nevertheless, I find the evidence for this interpretation persuasive. The "instructions" (1 Tim. 1:18) given to Timothy have the character of a "church order," in which regulations are given about assembly, ministers and their appointment, discipline, and other matters affecting church life.10 On this pattern, the treatment of the assembly comes in 1 Timothy 2 and the qualifications of bishops and deacons in chapter 3. The formal description of types of prayers in 1 Timothy 2:1 and the specification that these prayers are for "every one" and especially for rulers (vs. 2) so that "we" (Christians, the church) might be at peace suggests a public, more formal gathering. In this context "men" (plural) pray, "lifting up holy hands" (a posture for public, although not exclusively so, prayer). The women are not to dress ostentatiously, that is for show in public (this would again not be excusively applicable to the assembly, but fits that situation), but are to learn in quietness with full submission and not to teach (vss. 8-12). These words about women learning but not teaching are hardly applicable to home and private settings. The conclusive point to my mind is the phrase "in every place" (1 Tim. 2:8). Although it is often taken to mean "everywhere," there is another Greek word that means "everywhere,"11 and this phrase "in every place" often appears in Jewish and Christian usage with an almost technical meaning of "in every place of meeting."12 This phrase would be equivalent to the phrase "in church," or "in assembly" in 1 Corinthians 14.

Two activities are specified in 1 Timothy 2 as exercised by men--praying (that is, leading in prayer) and teaching. These activities are denied to women, the one tacitly and the other expressly. Verse 8, "I desire the men to pray," does not employ the generic "men," meaning "human beings," but the specific word for "males." This usage excludes women from this leadership in prayer. The instructions for women have to do with their dress. Some have tried to construe their appearance as parallel to men's lifting holy hands, so that Paul is interpreted as saying, "I wish the men to pray lifting holy hands and in the same manner the women to pray clothed with good works." But the statement about women's attire does not refer to the manner in which they lead in prayer; it is actually set off in contrast to the function of the men. Paul's "I wish" is completed by two infinitives, one referring to the men, "to pray" in a certain manner, and the other referring "likewise" to the women, "to adorn" or "to dress" themselves in a certain manner.

In contrast to the men's role of leading in prayer, the women are forbidden "to teach or to have authority over a man." This prohibition applies to the assembly, as in 1 Corinthians 14. Women may teach elsewhere. As noted in the beginning of this lesson, older women are commanded to teach younger women (Titus 2:3-5). And women taught men, privately and at home, as Priscilla did Apollos (Acts 18:26). The prohibition of exercising authority over men, therefore, is not a general principle applicable to any situation, but has a specific reference to the assembled church. This then prepares the way for 1 Timothy 3, which gives the place of a bishop to a married man with a family.

The argument in 1 Timothy 2 has been limited by some interpreters to wives on the basis of similarities to the language employed for husband-wife relations in the household codes of the New Testament (1 Pet. 3:1-7; Eph. 5:21-33).13 I would find the similarities in content greater to church order type of material. Material from the household codes occurs later in 1 Timothy, as on different age groups and slaves in 1 Timothy 5:1-2; 6:1-2 (cf. Titus 2:1-10; 3:1-2). Similarities in language are due to the parallel drawn in Timothy between the household and the church, which will be the subject of the next section of this study. There would seem to be no reason why wives would be forbidden roles of praying and teaching that were permitted to single women. How would praying and teaching be an exercise of authority over her husband in a way that the same activities by a single woman were not?

The limitations on women's public role in the church is based on the created order. Adam was created first, and Eve was deceived first (1 Timothy 2:13-14). Women have a function that men do not have, the bearing of children (vs. 15). This refers to a capacity, not a requirement; not every woman in fact has children. Neither does every man lead in prayer or teach in the church. But as there is a function peculiar to women, so it seems there is a function reserved for men alone. The unique female function of childbearing is obvious and is a matter of nature. Men's leadership in church is not something determined biologically, but 1 Timothy does seem to indicate that the instructions, which may appear to us to be arbitrary, are somehow founded on a distinction that goes back to creation and the natural order instituted by God. Moreover, as a consequence of the fall into sin, certain relationships between men and women have been imposed. This of course does not mean that women do not have the capacity to fill the public leadership role in the church; they may do it as well or better than men. That is not the question. As there is a function reserved for women, so there is a function that God for some reason has chosen to reserve for men. Salvation comes from respecting these distinct female and male roles.

The Church and the Family

Teachings in regard to women in the assembly are in accord with what is said in describing the nature of the church. The same book in which women are not permitted to teach or exercise authority over men in the assembly, 1 Timothy, makes the comparison of the church to a family or household. 1 Timothy 3:14-15 says, "I am writing these instructions to you so that . . . you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth." This imagery occurs elsewhere, of course. The author of Hebrews may be playing on use of the word "house" for a temple as well as for a family, but he certainly includes the idea of a family in Hebrews 3:5-6, "Now Moses was faithful in all God's house as a servant . . . . Christ, however, was faithful over God's house as a son, and we are his house if we hold firm the confidence and the pride that belong to hope." The church is a family. The church in its organization reflects God's plan for the family. 1 Timothy 3:4-5 presents the experiences in the home as the training ground for a bishop (or elder) in the church: "[The bishop] must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way--for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how can he take care of God's church?" The qualifications of bishops in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 apply only to men, for each is to be the "husband of one wife" (1 Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:6). The qualifications exclude women from this position. Leadership in the church is given to male family heads.

In the family the husband exercises a headship based on love. Any social group has to have some form of leadership. In the family this leadership is assigned to the man. This arrangment goes back to the creation narratives in Genesis. After the fall of Adam and Eve, God says to the woman, "Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you" (Gen. 3:16). The principle is repeated in the New Testament. 1 Corinthians 11:3, "But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ."

This rule by the husband is not an arbitrary headship. He does not exercise a dictatorship or possess an authoritarian leadership. For the Christian the leadership is based on love and is exercised in love. Ephesians 5:21-33 includes the following teaching: "Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her." The passage continues with this balanced emphasis and concludes, "Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband." Men often call attention to the instructions for wives to submit to their husbands as the church does to Christ, but if anything the passage lays a heavier responsibility on the husbands, to love as Christ loved, to die on behalf of the wife. Love like Christ's love will often submit to the desires and needs of the wife even as it calls forth a loving response from the wife who voluntarily submits to the leadership of the husband. In the same way, 1 Peter 3:1-7 instructs wives "to be submissive to their own husbands," and husbands "to live with their wives according to knowledge and to honor them."

These instructions about husbands and wives are comparable to the relationships of the overseers and the members in the congregation. The elders in the church are stewards of God's household. They gain experience for this position from their own family life and the leadership exercised in the home. The nature of the church as a family is reflected in the assembly, for there the church shows forth its essential nature. As leadership in the home is placed in the man, so leadership in the church is placed in men. It is not an arbitrary leadership, but a leadership based on love and on spiritual knowledge and maturity. The teachings in regard to the assembly are in accord with what is said about leadership in the church. In that context we can understand limitations placed on women's role in the assembly.

Passages Used to Support Women Preaching

Various passages are cited by those who respect the authority of the Bible, yet advocate the right of women to speak in the assembly. Joel 2:28-29 says, "Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit." Peter expressly quotes these words as fulfilled in Acts 2:17. There were women prophetesses in Old Testament times (as Huldah, 2 Kings 22:14), but no women priestesses. Similarly, there are women specified as having the gift of prophecy in the New Testament (as the four daughters of Philip, Acts 21:9), but no women elders. We are not given information about the setting in which these New Testament prophetesses delivered their message, but no certain indication that it was in the assemblies of the church.

A possible indication of women publicly leading in prayer and prophesying is 1 Corinthians 11:5. We have examined this passage already and suggested it likely refers to some public occasion other than the assembly. If Corinthian Christian women were prophesying in the assembly, Paul forbids the practice in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35.

I have read Luke 11:27 appealed to. Here a woman calls out in the crowd to Jesus, "Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!" This public testimony to Jesus occurred before the church came into existence and so is irrelevant to activities in the assembly. Women may still give public testimony to Jesus in other settings. And, note Jesus' response to her words, "Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!" (Luke 11:28).

Similarly, the example of the Samaritan woman occurred during the personal ministry of Jesus before there was a church. She went back to her city and said to the people, "Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?" (John 4:29). "Many Samaritans from that city believed in Jesus because of the woman's testimony" (John 4:39). She was doing part of the work of an evangelist, and nothing precludes a woman doing today what she did; indeed we could wish we had more women, and men, telling their neighbors and friends about Jesus; but this has nothing to do with preaching in church.

I remember seeing a documentary film on a Pentecostal church in which much of the footage showed a woman preaching in a meeting while ecstatic exercises were going on. When the woman was interviewed afterward, she was asked about her preaching in church. She replied, "This isn't church; this is the gospel." At the time I thought, "If this wasn't a church service, what was it?" Everybody who witnessed it thought it was church. And what did she mean by the "gospel" in distinction from the church? Well, I still don't know what she meant by the statement and doubt whether her distinction properly applied to what she was doing; but it is possible that she had a glimpse into a theological insight. Although I doubt that she could equate the evangelistic task with her public preaching, yet there is an evangelism to be done outside the assembly in which women should be fully involved, as was Priscilla in Acts 18:26.

Probably the basic text from the theological perspective for many is Galatians 3:28, "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." This passage is the slogan of those who seek Biblical warrant for giving women equality with men in the leadership of the church. Such usage of the verse overlooks its context, namely the grounds or basis of admission to the family of God. It has been argued, and I at one time was inclined to think along these lines, that if on the basis of other Biblical principles we have concluded that slavery is wrong and so the commands to masters and slaves no longer apply, then if male and female are one in Christ, then different instructions to men and women should no longer apply. Later I came to realize the flaw in this reasoning. If slavery does not exist, then of course separate instructions to masters and slaves are no longer applicable; but if we are in a society where there is slavery, then the instructions do apply. When we become Christians, however, we do not cease to be male or female. In the resurrection, those sexual distinctions will no longer obtain (Luke 20:34-36), but we still live this side of the resurrection. While those distinctions still obtain, the teachings on the different activities of men and women still have force.

Further Practical and Theological Reflections

Most congregations that I know of do not have a problem with making a distinction between the home--in which women may lead in prayer, lead in song, and teach visitors and other members of the family, including the husband--and the church assembled, where the men take the leading roles. Most often questions arise with regard to what I may call intermediate situations. In a congregational setting, these include Bible classes and small group activities or in a college setting, chapel services. Difficulties in making distinctions does not mean no distinction is to be made. Any time we have to make judgments there is a danger of inconsistency or perceived inconsistency.

To help us make decisions in regard to these activities I would offer some guidelines in the form of questions to be answered. Are we presenting a meeting as representing the church? If so, we should follow the rules for the church. Some activities are an extension of the assembly. Others are not. Do we regard Bible classes and care groups as extensions of the assembly, or do we consider them smaller meetings of groups of Christians? In a college setting, the chapel represents the church side of the college's life and so should reflect church practice. The assemblies of the college community that are called "chapel," however, also serve other purposes in the college community. These are appropriate in the college's assemblies, but it is also appropriate that a clear line be drawn and a distinction made, even if it appears arbitrary, between the devotional exercises and the other activities, in which a band or orchestra may play, a pep rally be held, or speakers (of either sex) address any subject of interest to the college community. Another, related, question is, What is the intention of the meeting? Not every group activity by Christians is "church," nor is it intended to be. The reverse side of this question is, How is the activity perceived by others? Here is where activities like a wedding or a funeral become ambiguous in regards to music. In all such cases good judgment must be used and tolerance respected.

The instructions given in scripture about women in the assembly imply no inferiority of women and their ability. Any given woman may be the spiritual superior of any given man. Silence in the assembly does not mean inferiority and should not be interpreted to mean this. I happily acknowledge the influence of many spiritual women in my life, and I readily defer to their spiritual insight and judgment on many matters.

Why is a distinction made in regard to the assembly that is not made elsewhere? The scriptures do not explicitly give an explanation. Nevertheless, some inferences can be drawn from what is said. In all of the passages dealing with women in a public setting (1 Cor. 11; 1 Cor. 14; 1 Tim. 2) appeal is made to the creation and fall. In other words, the distinctions between male and female rest on relationships established in the beginning of human existence. I would suggest that in the assembly human beings approach God in a special way as their Creator. The redemption effected by Christ makes possible the removal of the results of the fall of humankind, but we still live in the fallen human condition and its circumstances; we must await the world to come for these consequences to be cancelled. In some way the assembly is meant to reflect the character of God and what he instituted at the beginning of the human race and to recognize the consequences that the fall brought on human beings. Therefore, the distinctions between men and women are reflected by different roles in the assembly. In the world to come, those distinctions will be abolished (Luke 20:34-36), but we should not be too quick to anticipate the eschatological age, as the Corinthians were doing (1 Cor. 4:8), before God's own time. Whether this explanation of the relation of creation and fall on one hand and the assembly on the other is the correct one and is the theological reason for limitations on women's role in the assembly, the instructions are still plainly in the text. Man and woman each has distinctive spheres in which to show identity as male and female. Those distinctions are extended to the assembly of the church. My suggestions about a theological reason for their application to the assembly may be treated as opinion, but the distinctions themselves are a fact. And the instructions about women's role in the assembly have not been successfully explained away.


1For a brief introduction to this broader involvement, see my book The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), pp. 337-344; for 1 Corinthians 14, see my two articles, "The Assembly--1 Corinthians 14," Gospel Advocate, August, 1993, pp. 10-11; September, 1993, pp. 10-12; for women in the assembly see Nancy Ferguson and Everett Ferguson, "The New Testament Teaching on the Role of Women in the Assembly," Gospel Advocate, October, 1990, pp. 28-31, and Nancy Ferguson, "The Role of Women in the Assembly of the Church," in Jim Sheerer and Charles L. Williams, Directions for the Road Ahead: Stability in Change among Churches of Christ (Chickasha: Yeomen, 1998), pp. 41-53.(return to text)

2So the early church preacher and commentator John Chrysostom, Homilies on Romans 31 on Rom. 16:7 (trans. in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 11, p. 555).(return to text)

3Antoinette Clark Wire, "Prophecy and Women Prophets in Corinth," in James E. Goehring et al., Gospel Origins and Christian Beginnings (Sonoma: Polebridge, 1990), pp. 134-150.(return to text)

4Noted by Ralph P. Martin, The Spirit and the Congregation: Studies in 1 Corinthians 12-15 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), pp. 71 and 85.(return to text)

5E. Earle Ellis, Pauline Theology: Ministry and Society (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), pp. 67-71.(return to text)

6The usual translation "veil" may be misleading, for modern readers tend to think of Muslim women whose whole face except for the eyes is covered. The Greco-Roman "veil," as shown by sculpture and paintings, was the end of the garment pulled over the head, something like a shawl, leaving all the face visible. (return to text)

7Antoinette Wire, "Prophecy and Women Prophets in Corinth," pp. 134-150.(return to text)

8Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), p. 505.(return to text)

9Note the distinction made in Chapter 3.(return to text)

10Among such documents in the early church are the Didache, the Apostolic Tradition attributed to Hippolytus of Rome, and the Syriac Didascalia.(return to text)

11pantacou. [pantachou] (return to text)

12Everett Ferguson, topoV [topos] in 1 Timothy 2:8," Restoration Quarterly 33 (1991):65-73.(return to text)

13E. Earle Ellis, Pauline Theology: Ministry and Society (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), pp. 71-78, a similar argument to what he employed on 1 Corinthians 14:33-40.(return to text)

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