The Place of Women in the Church

Church leadership, and those who are qualified for it, are subjects much debated in our time. One reader of this website asked, What does the Bible say about women teachers, deacons, and pastors?"

There are obviously various legitimate ministry roles for women in the local church. However, we need to set some biblical boundaries for their participation. And we men cannot claim superiority or innocence for ourselves. It is unquestionable that in time past the role of men in the church sometimes has been unscriptural. That they have tried to be “lords over those entrusted to [them]” (I Pet. 5:2-3), not serving in humility, following Jesus’ example. But it seems to me the present trend is to swing the pendulum too far in the other direction. Christian women are certainly fully equal to men as to their spiritual standing before God (Gal. 3:26-28). But in the church and in the home, the Lord gives the primary leadership role to men.

And in the New Testament, local church leadership is given to a group of men (never a single individual). These men are given three interchangeable titles (cf. Acts 20:17, 28; Tit. 1:5, 7; I Pet. 5:1-3). They are “elders” referring to their maturity. (Not necessarily that they are elderly, but certainly that they are mature in spiritual character.) They are also called “pastors” (meaning shepherds), indicating their responsibility to nourish and protect the flock. And called “bishops” (meaning overseers or superintendents), describing their governance of the affairs and the program of the church. Again, this office is always given to men, and always in plurality. Though a church may have one person called “the pastor,” who is financially supported so he can give his full time to the work, as to his office he has no more authority than the other men who serve with him on what is sometimes called a “board of elders,” or a “pastoral committee.”

The office of deacon (and deaconess, Rom. 16:1) is different. The word itself means servant, and these are in a subordinate and supportive position under the elders. Though the actual term “deacon” is not used until later (cf. I Tim. 3:8-13), Acts 6:1-6 refers to those who were appointed to “serve [literally deacon] tables” (vs. 2), distinguishing this work from the ministry of the apostles who concentrated on “prayer and the ministry of the Word” (vs. 4).

The Bible declares, “In like manner also [I desire that] the women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with propriety and moderation, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly clothing, but which is proper for women professing godliness, with good works. Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression” (I Timothy 2:9-14). Consider some comments made by others concerning this passage.

The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Volume 2 [commenting on the NIV]: “[Women] in the congregation should receive instruction from the male leadership with quietness and full submission. They should not attempt to turn the tables by clamouring for the office of congregational teacher, or by grasping for authority over men....Silent in vs. 12 does not mean complete silence or no talking. It is clearly used elsewhere (Acts 22:2; II Thess. 3:12) to mean “settled down, undisturbed, not unruly....Paul here based his view of male/female relationships in the church on the account of creation recorded in Genesis 2....Thus the roles Paul spelled out here are a product of God’s fundamental design.”

Lawrence Richards (The Bible Reader’s Companion, p. 834; and The Teacher’s Commentary, p. 980-981): “Teach or have authority (2:12). The two should be linked: to teach with authority. Many believe authoritative teaching is a role reserved for church elders, an office which no N.T. reference indicates was held by women....In the whole context of is clear that Paul is not suggesting a woman may not open her mouth when men are present. Church leadership is the topic of the pastorals, and since leaders oversee the purity of the Christian community’s doctrine and lifestyle, it is clear that the particular “teaching” Paul refers to is the “teaching with authority” that Paul urges on Timothy and Titus as their ministry. It was Timothy’s role to “command and teach” (I Tim. 4:11) the things of God as an apostolic representative. Apparently Paul did not permit a woman to be ordained to such an office of responsibility.”

Henry Morris and Martin Clark (The Bible Has the Answer, p. 241-242): “Unfortunately, some local churches do not have enough men who are serious students of the Word, or who are exemplary in Christian conduct and maturity. Yet, the twentieth century church cannot use this as an excuse to set aside biblical standards of church form, any more than it can set aside biblical doctrine....The Bible does not prohibit women from enjoying equal opportunities legally, socially, or economically. Nor does the Bible require Christian women to be submissive to all men. This would mean that godly women should feel perfect liberty to take positions of authority over men in professional, business, or social contexts. But the Bible does prescribe the form which should accompany freedom for the Christian woman in her home and in her church.”

Elisabeth Elliot (quoted by Gleason Archer, in The Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, p. 414-415): “Supreme authority in both church and home has been divinely vested in the male as the representative of Christ, who is the Head of the church. It is in willing and glad submission rather than grudging capitulation that the woman in the church (whether married or single) and the wife in the home find their fulfilment....The modern cult of personality makes submission a degrading thing. We are told we cannot be ‘whole persons’ if we submit. Obedience is thought of as restrictive and therefore bad. ‘Freedom’ is defined as the absence of restraint, quite the opposite from the scriptural principle....To attempt to apply democratic ideals to the kingdom of God, which is clearly hierarchical, can result only in a loss of power and ultimately in destruction. Christ Himself, the Servant and Son, accepted limitations and restrictions. He learned obedience.”

Ray Stedman (from the World Wide Study Bible): “The key to this passage is the word translated, "to have authority over." It governs both the teaching and the attitude of the woman. This Greek word, authentein, means "to domineer, to usurp authority, to take what is not rightfully yours," and to do so (is the implication) by the process of teaching. In other words, women are not to take over in a church and become the final, authoritative teachers....This interpretation of women as being excluded from eldership is confirmed by one incontrovertible fact: There were, in the New Testament, no women apostles and no women elders! Jesus could have settled this controversy at the very beginning by appointing Mary Magdalene as an apostle, but He did not do so. Neither Paul, nor any of the apostles, ever chose a woman to be an elder of the churches they founded, though they could easily have done so if it were right. There were many godly and capable women available, but none was ever put in the office of elder...Women are not given the role of final decision on doctrinal issues. They are not to be the authoritative teachers of the church.”

Robert Saucy (The Church in God’s Program, p. 160-161): “There is a difference of opinion as to whether the New Testament church had an office of deaconess. The Scriptures in question are Romans 16:1, where Paul refers to Phoebe as ‘a servant [diakonos] of the church which is at Cenchrea,” and I Timothy 3:11, where in the context of the qualifications for deacons, women are mentioned....There is much evidence to support the interpretation that these women are deaconesses, rather than deacons’ wives....The deaconess of the early church was concerned with those areas of service that could best be served by a woman. Indicative of their functions is the summary given in the Syrian Didascalia from the late third century. They were to assist at the baptism of women, especially in the art of anointing, and ‘to go into the houses of the heathen where there are believing women, to visit those who are sick, and to minister to them in that of which they have need, and to bathe those who have begun to recover from sickness.’ Deaconesses undoubtedly also served the poor and the orphans, and provided hospitality for strangers. Thus while the New Testament prohibits women from assuming the role of leadership in the church...they do appear as having a significant ministry in the church along with men in the subordinate auxiliary role of the diaconate.”

[Saucy continues] “First Timothy 2:9-15 refers twice to the needed ‘silence’ of women in the church. There, in the context (vs. 13-14), the designed headship of the man, and the vulnerability of women to temptation when the God-given order is reversed--demonstrated back in Eden-- is cited as the reason. First Corinthians 14:34-35 speaks in a similar vein. “Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church.”

The reference in Corinthians is particularly to married women (with Christian husbands). The husband is to be the head of the home. And in public, wives should defer to their husbands, as a public testimony to their submission. Nothing is said of single women here. It may simply be that Paul has not attempted to cover every possibility. Single women could defer to the authority of fathers or brothers--or the elders of the church.

The Scripture is saying that women should not speak authoritatively or challenge (question) the authority of church leaders. Elsewhere (11:5) Paul seems to permit a woman to pray and prophesy, provided her head is covered. That covering was a sign of submission to authority. So her participation, though permitted, was always to be done in recognition of the overruling authority of the (male) leadership. The point here is that issues of doing and saying the things that are right in the church (vs. 33, 40) should not be publically questioned and argued by the women in the church. Responsibility for that rests with the men called to leadership (Tit. 1:9).

My own conclusion is that the uppermost governing body of the local church should be composed only of men. Or, if women need to be present to report to them “ex officio” (by virtue of their office as Children’s Church director, etc), they should not have a vote on this body. However, virtually any role in the church is open to women under the authority of this ruling pastoral council or board of elders. Though there is disagreement, some would even say that teaching a mixed adult Bible class would not be off limits, as long as it is understood that the woman teacher serves in submission to the elders. Further, there are many opportunities for service as “deaconesses” which could be explored.

Once the overall authority of the elders in the local church is established, almost any ministry is available to women under them. However, let me add one more thought. In a larger multi-staff church, where there are several "pastors," let us say, for purposes of illustration, that a woman named Joan Smith is appointed to engage in a ministry to women. It might be tempting to call her Pastor Smith, since she does have pastoral (nurturing, shepherding) work to do. But my own conviction is that this title should be avoided, simply because it will imply to some an equality of standing with the men who are in leadership. As to her ministry, Joan may be doing pastoral-type work, but that title is more than a definition of ministry. It is also seen by the congregation as a recognition of position--a position which she cannot biblically hold. She should more accurately be thought of as a deaconess.