Category Archives: Gender differences

Women in the assembly of the church

Nick had a good suggestion in the comments yesterday. (Why does he get all of the good ideas?) He thought I should point out some of the ways in which my views differ from the traditional viewpoint held by many in churches of Christ.

Traditionally, we have mainly built off of what Paul says to the Corinthians about women being silent and his instructions to Timothy in chapter 2. (Though it’s a gross oversimplification to say that’s the whole of the argument) Key verses are:

“Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.” (1 Corinthians 14:34-35)
“Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing.” (1 Timothy 2:8) — the argument being that men and only men are mentioned as praying in this verse.
“A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” (1 Timothy 2:11-12)

As Nick pointed out, I think that 1 Corinthians 14 is addressing a specific problem that existed in the church in Corinth. This last part of chapter 14 is dealing with disruptive behavior in assemblies. Paul has set limits for those speaking in tongues and prophesying; he also limits how the women should behave. The wording makes it sound like some women were asking questions inappropriately, possibly challenging their own husbands in the assembly. It probably has to do with the testing of prophecy that is mentioned earlier in that chapter. Whatever was going on, I see no reason to see these instructions as trumping those in chapter 11, where Paul told how women were to pray and prophesy in public. (I recognize that some feel this was public prayer/prophesy that didn’t take place in the assembly; I find this unconvincing.)

If Paul’s comments in 1 Timothy 2:8 were meant to keep women from praying (overriding 1 Corinthians 11), he was remarkably obtuse with his instructions. What I see is men being told to stop arguing and concentrate on praying. I see nothing about what women can or can’t do. And I definitely can’t agree with those that insist this verse refers to the assembly while 1 Corinthians 11 doesn’t.

As for the last part of 1 Timothy 2, I find Paul’s whole argument difficult to understand. But I also feel that he was dealing with something specific that was going on in Ephesus. Ephesus was a center of goddess worship, and women were active in pagan religions in that area. Plus there were false teachers in Ephesus who were taking advantage of some of these women. Some of what Paul says to Timothy elsewhere points to this:

“Besides, they (young widows) get into the habit of being idle and going about from house to house. And not only do they become idlers, but also busybodies who talk nonsense, saying things they ought not to.” (1 Timothy 5:13)
“They (false teachers) are the kind who worm their way into homes and gain control over gullible women, who are loaded down with sins and are swayed by all kinds of evil desires, always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth.” (2 Timothy 3:6-7)

It’s also worth noting that Paul says that women are to be in quietness, not in silence. It’s the same word he uses in 1 Timothy 2:2 to describe our lives.

I think one reason that Paul said the things he did (including passages like 1 Corinthians 11 and Ephesians 5) was to defend the principle of male leadership. He could make these arguments because the church was aware of this principle.

Now, how do I differ in application?

  • I see absolutely nothing wrong with women serving communion. The only objection I could see is the idea of authority/leadership (sort of like Paul’s arguments about the veil), but I have yet to find anyone who sees this act of service as authoritative.
  • Since I don’t see Paul’s command about silence to refer to every situation, I have no problem with women giving a greeting or making announcements when the church is gathered.
  • I believe that 1 Corinthians 11 describes women praying in public; I don’t believe that 1 Timothy is saying that only men can pray. Therefore, I don’t have a problem with women leading prayers in the assembly.
  • I believe that reading Scripture is analogous to prophesying; both speak a message from the Lord, not “private interpretation.” I have no problem with women reading Scripture in the assembly.
  • I believe in women deaconesses. I see that role as a role of service, not authority.

I’m sure we can lay out other scenarios and debate if God has authorized women to do this or that. But this is a start. I hold firmly to the principle of male leadership, yet feel that we have wrongly limited women in several areas.

(There should be enough in this post to make just about everyone angry! I’m always open to constructive criticism and instruction.)

Focus on differences and seek common ground

Following up on Monday’s post, I want to encourage us to sharpen our discussions by focusing on the areas of difference and seeking common ground.

Whether or not women are created in the image of God should not be an area of disagreement. Whether or not women have value for God should not be an area of disagreement. Whether or not Jesus treated women with honor and respect should not be an area of disagreement.

Those are basic things, but surprisingly, I still hear them being discussed.

In the same way, showing that Jesus empowered women to take a more active role in the faith community shouldn’t be an area of discussion. First century Judaism could be very restrictive toward women; it would have been surprising had Jesus NOT challenged some of those norms.

There may be room for another article noting that Mary sat at Jesus’ feet, that women formed part of the company of disciples, that women play a major role in the genealogy in Matthew 1, that women were tasked with sharing the good news of Jesus’ resurrection. These are important lessons. They don’t change the discussion about whether or not women can be elders. They don’t provide a basis for women to preach. Mention these facts in a discussion, but don’t pretend to play them as a trump card.

Some have claimed that Jesus was more inclusive than Paul, that it is only Paul’s writings that limit women in their participation in church leadership. I disagree. I think that both valued women, both enabled women to have active ministries, both rejected misogynistic attitudes in society. Neither drastically changed the biblical principle of male leadership.

If you want to convince me that they did, please don’t try to do so by repeating examples that emphasize things I already agree with:

  • Women preached. They did, though the examples show them preaching in the typical New Testament sense of the word, which is telling others the good news. Unless you have something that shows a woman doing what is done in our Sunday assemblies, examples of women teaching others in private settings aren’t helpful to the discussion.
  • Women prophesied. They did. Before Jesus. After Jesus. The Jews didn’t see the existence of prophetesses as changing anything regarding male leadership. If you do, you need to do more than provide the examples.
  • Women had important ministries in the church. Yes. Yes they did. Yes they do, even when they aren’t on the eldership.

I’ll add one more thing. I think there has been a lot of bad teaching that limits what women can do. There are lots of bad attitudes; for example, I reject the way John MacArthur spoke about Beth Moore. Examples of complementarians acting badly won’t change my views, any more than my providing examples of misbehaving egalitarians should change yours.

To conclude, I’ll restate my position just to help you see my biases: I believe in male leadership in the church. I believe that leadership can be expressed in different ways in different cultures. I also believe that members of the Church of Christ have often restricted women in ways that don’t line up with what I see in the Bible. (I mention some examples in this post)

I look forward to your comments.

Focusing our discussions of women in the church*

Within churches of Christ, the discussion about women in the church generally comes down to these areas:
Can women take a leadership role in a congregation?

  • Can women be elders?
  • Can a woman be “the preacher” for a congregation?
  • Can women take a leading role in worship?

    • Can a woman take a teaching role in worship?
    • Can a woman lead a prayer in worship?
    • Can a woman take a speaking role in worship?
    • This would include announcements and scripture reading, among other things.

    • Can women have a participative role in worship? This includes things like passing communion trays.

    As we look at examples from the Bible, I think it helps to keep these areas of focus in mind. There is a temptation to either emphasize the lack of women’s names or emphasize the ones that are there, while never considering how those examples speak to the above activities.

    Does that list seem fairly complete? I know that some would say that behind this are questions about the relative value of women, the giftedness of the Spirit, etc. But in my experience, where the rubber meets the road is praxis: what is actually going on.

    * I recognize that almost every description of this discussion is awkward. Do we call it women in the church? Gender roles? Inclusiveness? I’m not fully satisfied with any of the descriptors, which is one reason I try to vary what I use.

    Women in the Ancient Near East: Multiple roles in varied contexts

    Many descriptions of the Ancient Near East appear to see all cultures as functioning in the exact same way and all peoples within those cultures experiencing the same circumstances. That’s not an accurate picture of how things were.

    First off, while the peoples of the Ancient Near East shared many traits, there were cultural differences between nations and even between clans. Remember that God’s people were frequently told that they were not to be like the peoples around them, that the practices of others was an abomination to the Lord, that false beliefs and false religion had distorted God’s intent for mankind. That should be a powerful clue to the fact that we will see diversity as we examine the different nations.

    Plus, the Bible points out unique practices of different peoples, including people within the nation of Israel (like the Rechabites in the book of Jeremiah).

    In addition, ancient societies had multiple strata. Royalty lived in a sphere apart, with almost unlimited power. Rich and powerful families carried out their lives in a way that the poor could never dream of. Religious practitioners were often afforded privileges that others didn’t receive.

    What does all this have to do with a discussion of gender in the Bible? Just this: I think we make far too many blanket statements about the situation of women in the ancient world.

    For example, I hear some affirm that no one would accept a female leader, which flies in the face of numerous biblical examples, not to mention the writings of history. Power was often associated with certain bloodlines; the daughter or granddaughter of a king could easily sit on the throne. In some cases (like Athaliah), the queen mother could even take over upon the death of her son. While certainly less common, female rulers existed in Old Testament times.

    Note too that no apology is given for the description of Deborah’s leadership. The only one who seems to make an issue of gender is Deborah herself, when she warns Barak that the credit for the victory will be given to a woman. (Interestingly enough, the biblical record doesn’t bear that out; it’s Barak who is credited in later writings — 1 Samuel 12:11; Hebrews 11:32)

    Priestesses and prophetesses were also common occurrences in the ancient world. This was more common in religions that worshiped goddesses, but existed in multiple places in various cultures. Again, even the Bible mentions prophetesses without fanfare; their existence was neither unexpected nor unwelcome.

    Please note that the New Testament context shows much of the same, from the prominent women of Greece to the priestesses of Asia Minor (and numerous examples in between). While women as a whole were in a severely disadvantaged position in society, there were numerous women who rose above that.

    All of this to say that the idea that the idea that male leadership was imposed on the Bible (specifically the Law of Moses) by the culture of the time doesn’t fit the evidence. Were the Israelites especially hard-headed as regards women in leadership positions? Possibly. Is that why the Law and general practice favored men taking the lead? Maybe. Though I would say that at some point, we either have to completely disregard the writings of Scripture because they are a mere human invention, or we have to allow for the possibility that God shaped His people through the laws that He gave them.

    I see male leadership being established before the fall and being confirmed by later practice and legislation. Despite what some would argue, this didn’t happen because of a lack of cultural alternatives. It’s my belief that it was God’s design from the beginning.

    Emphasizing minor characters: a flaw in many studies of gender

    One principle that I learned about Bible study and theology is the idea of letting the Bible itself define which themes are most important. Tom Olbricht was one who especially tuned me into this idea. When I am choosing which topics to emphasize in my teaching ministry, I look to see which things are repeated in the Bible.

    That’s one of the flaws I see in much teaching about gender roles, especially when it comes to the Old Testament. Much is made of Deborah and Huldah. Miriam gets some mention, and Esther is referenced at times. These minor characters in the Old Testament story are elevated to principal roles.

    These women deserve to be studied alongside characters like Ehud and Nathan, Aaron and Mordecai. Their stories should be known, just as we know Barak and Obadiah. But let’s not exaggerate their importance. Only Miriam is referenced outside of her own story! These women play a definite role in the story of God’s people, but it’s not a leading role.

    Reading the Old Testament does not lead us to say, “Wow! God wanted women leading His people right alongside men.” We may bring in ideas from the New Testament that lead us to that idea, but I don’t think the Old Testament itself takes us there.

    Edited: 8:50 a.m. to take out some pejorative language. HT to Nick Gill