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Essay/Term paper: The role of women in the church

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Gender

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The Role of Women in the Church

With the advent of the feminist movement, the role of women in all parts of
society has come under increasing scrutiny. One area of recent controversy is
the role of women in the Christian Church. Some churches whose traditions and
practices are less rigidly tied to Biblical doctrines have begun placing women
in leadership positions such as pastor or teacher. Other churches which
interpret the Bible more literally have been slow to adopt such changes. Much of
the confusion is based on attempts to interpret scriptures pertaining to women.
In this essay, we will use the Bible to understand the role of women in the
church of the first century and apply that understanding to the church of the
twentieth century.

Many people would dispute the Bible's relevance to contemporary thought in
general, and in particular to the role of women in worship. If the Bible were
not written under divine inspiration, a person or practice is not bound by its
teachings. He or she can therefor pick and choose whatever corresponds to
his/her point of view. However, if the Bible is of divine inspiration, then a
cautious consideration of passages relevant to a particular issue must be
undertaken. Traditions and customs that have arisen after the Bible was written
may thus be carefully scrutinized. Such practices may or may not prove sound
after comparison with scripture.

Before we discuss specific issues concerning women in worship, we should
consider principles derived from the relationship of Adam and Eve as described
in Genesis chapter one. The Apostle Paul frequently uses this passage as a
guideline when discussing women and women's issues. Genesis 1 verse 27 states:
"So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male
and female he created them." Most Commentators agree that man and woman are both
equally a reflection of God's image; the word "man" here is used as a synonym
for humanity. Adam and Eve were also given joint dominion over creation. But the
fact that Adam was created before Eve has significance to Paul and other Old
Testament scholars; it signifies role distinction between the two sexes. The
role of the man is leadership, while the role of woman is as a source of
strength and support. In the letter to the Ephesians, Paul states: "For the
husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church. . ." (Eph.
5:23) This is an important analogy. If a person wants to understand the
Christian authority of a man over his wife, he must consider how Christ
demonstrated his leadership as head over the Church. Primarily, he gave his life
for his church, not using force or coercion for her submission. When considering
mens and woman's ministry in the church, it is important to keep in mind this
role distinction.

Lets examine the public ministry of women in the Church. Two major passages give
specific instructions regarding women during worship in the letters of the
Apostle Paul. These two passages are used frequently when denying women a public
role in church life. The first is in I Corinthians chapter 14 verses 33 - 35,
this passage commands women to be silent during worship service. Similarly but
with more details, I Timothy 2 verses 8 - 15 not only contains a command to be
silent but also instruction on authority along with a reference to the fall of
Adam and Eve for further explanation. Here is the passage in its entirety using
the NIV (New International Version) Bible translation:

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 women 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 kept safe through childbirth, if they continue in
faith, love and holiness with propriety.

A woman raised in the U.S. in this day and age, reading the letter for the first
time, may be quite taken aback by its apparent chauvinism. However, there are
some specific historical and cultural references that must be taken into account
when considering the meaning and intent of this passage. First of all, this was
a letter written by Paul to a young preacher named Timothy. Timothy was
presumably preaching at the church in the city of Ephesus. Paul starts out the
letter by telling him to stay in Ephesus and correct false teachers who were
creating a disruption in the church. Various commentators have tried to re-
create some of the heresies of these false teachers. This can be a difficult
task since there is not a record of exactly what was being said, so only remarks
made in the text itself can give a clue. One probable heresy was the idea of
asceticism as a way to achieve spirituality. The ascetic practices being
recommended consisted of; abstinence from certain foods, from marriage, and sex.
Add to all of this physical training as an additional means of spirituality. It
was thought that through these practices, one could achieve something akin to
heaven on earth. In other words, there was possibly a denial of a future
physical resurrection being taught in favor of a spiritual one that could be
achieved in their present lifetimes. It seems also from Paul's remarks that many
women in the church had been converted to this message and they were being
persuaded to renounce their traditional roles in favor of a more egalitarian way
of life in line with their new-found spirituality. This would explain the strong
words Paul makes in reference to Eve, reminding the women that she was indeed
led into sin, and that bearing children and raising them was a good thing, not
unspiritual as they were being taught.

Yet, the other parts of this passage that admonish women not to teach and not to
have authority over a man have been agreed upon by many, if not most,
commentators to have timeless application; the words and grammar in Greek do not
lend themselves to any cultural reference. The teaching that Paul is concerned
about here is specifically the truths of the faith while the authority in
question refers to women in governing or leadership positions of the church.

But, before making conclusions on a Biblical truth it is important to see if the
truth holds fast throughout the whole of scripture. Let's consider some other
passages. In Galations 3 verse 28, Paul states: "There is neither Jew nor Greek,
slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." Some
commentators have suggested that this teaching could have had some influence in
the false teachings that were encountered in Ephesus and Corinth in regard to
women. Christ himself taught that in the afterlife, men and women would not be
given in marriage and they would be like the angels. Thus, the women were being
encouraged, by some misguided teachers, to renounce their traditional roles.
Without taking this radical extreme, the modern reader is at least inclined to
ask what it means that men and women are one in Christ Jesus? It must certainly
mean that there is not one sex inferior to the other.

Beyond this, their are clear examples in the book of Acts that may shed some
light by way of documented practice, on the command not to have authority over
men. First of all, there were prophetesses. In Acts 21: 8 - 9, Philip, one of
the seven deacons, is said to have four daughters who prophesied. Prophesying
was not primarily divination of the future but also the conveying of Gods Word
to his people, i. e. teaching. Furthermore, in 1 Corinthians 11: 4 - 5 Paul
states, "Every woman who prays or prophesies. . ." Clearly women in Corinth were
praying and prophesying during the worship service. There is also the case of
Precilla and Aquila described in Acts Chapter 18. Many Commentators feel it is
significant that whenever this couple are mentioned in the Bible, Precilla, the
women, is mentioned first because of her great knowledge. It appears that they
worked together as a teaching team and their effectiveness is demonstrated when
they taught Apollos "the ways of the Lord more adequately" (Acts 18: 26).
Apollos is described as a learned man who came to Ephesus and began teaching
from the scriptures in a knowledgeable way although lacking in one of the
fundamental teachings. Another Case in point is a business woman named Lydia who
lived in Philippi. She accepted the Gospel message from Paul and Silas while at
a place of prayer. After this incident is recorded, a strong church is mentioned
in Philippi later in the Bible. We can only surmise that she played a
significant part in the growth of this church, since no men were initially

These passages all call into question the real nature of the moratorium on
teaching and the meaning of no authority mentioned in 1st Timothy. That women
were teaching men is obvious, although at times they may have been co-teaching
with male teachers. The case of the prophetesses is also compelling because
although most churches do not recognize prophecy as being a modern gift,
teaching certainly is and this was one of the important functions of a prophet.

Some Commentators in discussing women's ministry in the New Testament have
brought to light the customs of the day regarding women. Paul's main concern was
the spread of the Gospel and that the message could be made attractive in every
way. For this reason Paul encourages women in other passages to continue
observing social customs such as the wearing of a veil; otherwise people might
criticize them as loose or immoral and belittle the Gospel message. This is, I
believe, a valid thought not only in 1st century times but in our culture today.
Consider, for example, what non believing women in the US think upon entering a
Christian assembly for the first time and seeing a service that appears to be
run completely by men? They may conclude that women are being suppressed and
that the gospel message makes women inferior to men.

In conclusion, we can say that although there is no sanction in scripture for
women to take roles of leadership, public ministry and teaching are not as
clearly forbidden and a degree of latitude in interpretation is warranted. More
importantly, if women are not allowed to have a voice or some kind of input, the
church could be loosing a valuable resource. If a husband does not consider his
wives thoughts and ideas as being important or valid, his family is surely
incomplete, dysfunctional and doomed to failure. Therefore, as the church
strives to realize Gods purpose for women, we must remember the truths of the
scripture and apply them to our present day culture. This will allow men and
women to present the Christian message to our world in the most powerful way.
That is exactly what the Apostle Paul desired along with all of the New
Testament leaders and it is what we should desire as we consider the path of the
modern church.


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