This question is directed at two sorts of people. First, there are those who are not Christians, and are put off because they believe that Christianity in some way devalues women. Second, there are those who ARE Christians, and who believe that some sort of exclusion of women (usually in the area of ministry or leadership) is Biblical.
To both of these groups I say: it is my firm belief that New Testament Christianity fully values women, and does not exclude women from any role or ministry in the church.
This is not what I have always believed. For many years, I believed that women should be excluded from ministries of teaching and leadership. This was based on my understanding of 1 Tim 2:11-15, 1 Cor 14:34-35, and the concept of male headship in marriage.
But then what about the judge Deborah (Judges 4-5)? What about the prophetess Huldah who gave instructions to the entire nation of Israel (2 Kings 22)? (It is sometimes claimed that Deborah was judge because no suitable men were available - but that claim cannot be made in Huldah's case - Jeremiah and Zephaniah were her contemporaries).
In the New Testament, what do we make of the prophesying daughters of Philip (Acts 21:8-9), the deaconess Phoebe (Romans 16:1) , the apostle Junia (Romans 16:7), or the teaching ministry of Priscilla (Acts 18:26)? (For more on these New Testament examples, see Women In Ministry - A Sermon by Rowland Croucher). If women may not teach men, why were women entrusted with the task of telling the apostles of Christ's resurrection (Matthew 28:7-10)?
Sure there were restrictions on women's ministry in the Old Testament (only men could be priests), but doesn't the New Testament speak of something new? Isn't our time (post-Pentecost) the prophesied time when 'your sons and daughters shall prophesy' (Acts 2:17, quoting Joel 2:28)?
Therefore, I have come to believe that there may be alternative interpretations for the two New Testament passages which place restrictions on women's ministry. But first, we should first establish an important principle of Biblical interpretation:
There are many biblical commands where what is important is not the command itself, but the principle behind the command. For instance, in five of Paul's letters he tells people to greet each other with a holy kiss. Few if any Western churches practice this. It was simply the common way of greeting in Paul's day (and was between members of the same sex only, by the way). Most Christians seem to instinctively recognise that God does not require us to obey this command to the letter.
A more significant example is the biblical attitude towards slaves and slavery. Christian slave owners are commanded to be kind and just to their slaves, but there is never any suggestion that a Christian must not own slaves. Do we then conclude that slavery is not wrong? Well it depends. In an ideal society, there would be no slaves. However, in ancient Rome, slaves often had a better lifestyle than poor free people. So the answer is not a clear black and white. Slavery is not an ideal thing, but there are circumstances when it is acceptable. And it just so happens that one of those circumstances was the time the bible was written.
A second type of command which is not universal is a specific command. That is a command which speaks to a specific situation, and not (directly) to any other. These commands are fairly frequent in Paul's letters, because they are just that: letters. An obvious example is 2 Timothy 4:13. The command to bring Paul's parchments and coat to Rome is to Timothy only, not every Christian. Another example is the command to "appoint elders" in 1 Timothy 1:3. For a specific example to a church (rather than an individual), see Paul's instructions on the collection of money in 2 Corinthians 8-9. Here, the instructions are specifically for money which will be delivered to the Jerusalem church, via Paul. Not every church is commanded to send money to the Jerusalem church. However there is still a guiding principle: churches must be willing to help, financially, churches in other places in the world.
So as we examine commands in scripture, we must ask ourselves: are they universal commands (applicable for every Christian at every time in history), or temporal commands (only directly applicable to a certain time or place).
(1 Corinthians 14:33-35 (NIV), courtesy of Bible Gateway)
1 Cor 14:34-35 sounds like an absolute ban on women even speaking in a church assembly. But how does this square with 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, where Paul assumes women will pray and prophesy in church?
Let us bear in mind that Paul has spent most of chapter 14 correcting disorderly conduct in the church service, especially with regard to tongues. Could there have been a another cause of disorder in the church service? Kari Torejsen furnishes an excellent example:
My mother used to compare the situation in Corinth to the one she and my father faced in northern China. Back in the 1920s when they were the first to bring God's message to that forgotten area, they found women with bound feet who seldom left their homes and who, unlike men, had never in their whole lives attended a public meeting or a class. They had never been told as little girls, 'Now you must sit still and listen to the teacher.' Their only concept of an assembly was a family feast where everyone talked at once.
When these women came to my parents' church and gathered on the women's side of the sanctuary, they thought this was a chance to catch up on the news with their neighbors and to ask questions about the story of Jesus they were hearing. Needless to say, along with babies crying and toddlers running about, the women's section got rather noisy! Add to that the temptation for the women to shout their questions to their husbands across the aisle, and you can imagine the chaos. As my mother patiently tried to tell the women that they should listen first and chitchat or ask questions later, she would mutter under her breath, 'Just like Corinth; it just couldn't be more like Corinth.' [Kari Torejsen Malcolm, Women at the Crossroads (USA:IVP, 1982), 73-74]
If the situation in Corinth really was like this, then this gives the rationale for Paul's command. Paul is not forbidding women from preaching or prophesying, but from disrupting the church meeting.
Why then does Paul include the Law in his argument? ("They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says") [Attempts to suggest that Paul means civil law are unconvincing, in my opinion]. The answer is simply this: to not disrupt the church assembly was the appopriate way (in that setting) for women to demonstrate their submission to their husbands.
In other words, submission is a universal principle, but silence is not.
So while 1 Corinthians 14 teaches the importance of an orderly church meeting, and reaffirms the Biblical principle that the husband is the head of his wife, it does not prohibit women from any ministry.
I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing. I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God. A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women  will be saved  through childbearing--if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.
(1 Timothy 2:8-15 (NIV), courtesy of Bible Gateway)
At first glance, 1 Tim 2:12 is an absolute ban on women being involved in teaching or leadership, with the reason grounded in the created order. But there are a number of unusual features of the passage which must cause us to question this.
First, it is curious that Paul prefaces his command (in verse 12) with 'I do not permit...'. He does not say 'A woman must not teach...', but, 'I do not permit a woman to teach...'. Could it be that Paul was simply giving a personal command to a specific situation?
It is sometimes argued that, since Paul was writing under God's inspiration, that his command is identical to God's command. But it's not that simple. Paul is careful with his words. He only says 'I' if there is a reason. Consider these other examples from 1 Timothy.
Second, the command is restricted to public worship. There are two reasons supporting this. First, the context is public worship, as is suggested by verses 8-10. Second, the grammar indicates that women are prohibited from ANY TEACHING AT ALL (not only the teaching of men)
[[The point here is that the Greek work for "man" ('andros'), is only an object of the Greek word for "have authority over" ('authentein'), not of the Greek word for "teach" ('didaskein'). In other words women are forbidden from (1) "teaching" and (2) "having authority over a man".
Not all Greek scholars agree with me on this. But I reach the conclusion for two reasons: (1) if 'andros' was the person being taught, we would expect it to be in the accusative rather than genitive case [Richard and Catherine Kroeger, 'I Suffer Not a Woman', (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992), 191]. Douglas Moo [in 'What Does It Mean Not to Teach or Have Authority Over Men?', in 'Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood' (Ed. J.Piper and W.Grudem; Illinois: Crossway, 1991), 179-193] has disputed this, citing Acts 8:21. But Acts 8:21 has two nouns attached to one verb, while Moo contends that 1 Tim 2:12 has two verbs attached to one noun. (2) 'andros' is immediately after 'authentein' but far removed from 'diskaskein'. (Not a strong argument by itself, but coupled with point (1) I believe it carries some weight)]].
With this in mind, the command must refer to some restricted context since women certainly may teach other women (Titus 2:3-4) or children (2 Tim 1:5, 3:15; Proverbs 1:8). It would also mean that women may teach men privately, as apparently Priscilla did to Apollos [Acts 18:24-28 - note Priscilla is mentioned first, and Luke is always careful with his order - this is especially obvious in that he sometimes says 'Paul and Barnabas' and sometimes 'Barnabas and Paul'].
The question then is: WHY are women forbidden from teaching in public when they are allowed to in private? What is so different?
This is even more curious in light of the traditional interpretation of verses 13-14. According to the traditional interpretation, the fact that Eve was deceived indicates that women are in some way more gullible, and so shouldn't be entrusted with the important job of teaching. But then, why may women teach in private? Why may they (at the very least) teach women and children? Why does Eve's gullibility only preclude them from PUBLIC teaching?
So then, could there be another interpretation of verses 13-14?
In particular, could there have been something going on at the time that was so well known to both Paul and Timothy that Paul did not even have to mention it? Could there be a piece of background information that holds the key to the puzzle?
There are two pieces of background information to be aware of.
First, the so-called Pastoral Epistles (1 + 2 Timothy, Titus) show a particular concern with protecting the gospel from disrepute. This is the reason for the submission of wives [Titus 2:5] and slaves [Titus 2:10, 1 Timothy 6:1 and perhaps 5:14], and a consideration for choosing overseers [1 Timothy 3:7].
Second is the context of the letter. It has a number of references to heretical or destructive teaching [1 Tim 1:3-7, 1:19-20, 4:7, 6:20-21]. These references are at such key points in the letter (including the introduction and conclusion) that Gordon Fee has argued (very persuasively, in my opinion), that the threat of destructive teaching was the main reason why Paul wrote the Pastoral Epistles, and is behind much of what Paul writes. [G.D.Fee, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus (NIBC; Rev Ed.; USA:Hendrickson, 1988)].
But do we know what this destructive teaching was?
Well we can make some educated guesses. In their book 'I Suffer not a Woman' [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992], Richard and Catherine Kroeger point out that Ephesus was unusual in that its gods were female, rather than male, and this gave religion a rather different flavour to pagan areas further west (such as Greece or Rome). Remember the riot in Ephesus over the goddess Artemis (Acts 19:23-40)? Artemis was a fertility goddess, the greatest god of Ephesus.
So what has this got to do with women teachers? The answer is that, being female-deity-centred religion, female religious teachers were prominent in Ephesus. Therefore,
The very existence of female teachers might have led outsiders to conclude that Christianity was an offshoot of Ephesian pagan religion.
But the Kroegers go further. Not only was female-deity religion prominent in Ephesus, but they present evidence that some of this was pervading Jewish and Christian teaching in the region. There appear to have been distortions of the Genesis creation story (the "myths and endless genealogies" of 1 Tim 1:4?), in which Eve was the hero.
So if we try to imagine this background (not contained in the text because it was known and assumed by both writer (Paul) and reader (Timothy)), then it is possible to expand the translation thus:
"(In this culture, women teachers are a hallmark of Ephesian pagan religion, therefore) I am not permitting a woman to teach or usurp man's authority. For (in contrast to what the false teachers are saying) Adam was created first... and the woman was deceived..."
My personal suspicion is that an explanation along these lines probably fits the data better than the traditional interpretation of 1 Tim 2:11-15. In any case, the background to the situation (false teachers and a concern for public order) should cause us to seriously consider whether this single verse can be applied restrict the ministry of all women in all places for all time.
The Bible speaks of a principle of male headship in marriage. This is made clear in Colossians 3 and Ephesians 5. It might be argued that this is simply conforming to a cultural norm, except for 1 Cor 14:34 ('They [that is, the women] must be in submission, as the Law says'). I have already argued that 'The Law' here refers to the Old Testament Law. Since no 'cultural' argument is offered for this submission, we must assume that the principle of wives submitting to husbands is intended to be a universal one - for all Christian couples, in all ages.
It is worth pausing and noting that this submission is between husband and wife only. A wife is only called to submit to one man: her husband. A husband is the head of only one woman: his wife. [It is outside the scope of this essay to discuss the way that 'submission' and 'headship' are often misunderstood, as if 'head' means 'boss' and 'submit' means 'be a doormat'. Can anyone suggest a good link?]
The argument is then offered: 'If a married woman is to submit to her husband, how can she be a leader in the church?' Well this is a leap in logic that is never made in Scripture. But more significantly, the argument misunderstands the nature of biblical leadership:
Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. "Teacher," they said, "we want you to do for us whatever we ask." "What do you want me to do for you?" he asked. They replied, "Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory." "You don't know what you are asking," Jesus said. "Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?" "We can," they answered. Jesus said to them, "You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared." When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. Jesus called them together and said, "You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."
(Mark 10:35-45 (NIV), courtesy of Bible Gateway)
A true leader is a servant - not one who lords over people. Although Christians are called to submit to their church leaders (Hebrews 13:7), a true leader will always be one who serves the people, so that submitting to him - or her - is not onerous. I believe that if more men modelled servant leadership, there would be less resistance to women in ministry.
2. The two passages which place restrictions on women's ministry - 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15 - can be understood as specific commands to specific situations.
3. True Biblical leadership is servant-like, so a woman leader is not compromised by having her husband as the head of her marriage.
4. There is no Biblical reason for excluding women from any ministry.
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