Women in Church

Women in Church
24 Sep 2017

Women in the church

In Romans 16:1 Paul writes, “Now I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a [διάκονον (diakonon)] “deacon” of the church at Cenchreae.” Paul’s goal in Rom 16 is to commend these women for their service. He does not spell out the specifics of what that service entails. Phoebe should be understood as a leader.

First, the word diakonos is used by Paul to refer to himself, Tychicus, Timothy, and Epaphras. In these instances, diakonos is often translated “minister.” Second, and also significant, Phoebe is the only one mentioned from the church at Cenchreae. Thus, while it is difficult to comment on the specifics of Phoebe’s office or functions, it is at least clear that “she was an outstanding woman in Paul’s estimation and that she was of great value to the church”

In Romans 16:7, Paul greets two people, a man named Andronicus and a woman named Junia, and describes them as ἐπίσημοι (episēmoi) ἐν τοῖς ἀποστόλοις (en tois apostolois) [usually translated as either “among the apostles” or “to the apostles.” Translators present Andronicus and Junia as apostles themselves. They translate both episēmoi (“outstanding, prominent”) and ἐν (en, “among” when it precedes a plural noun) according to their most natural sense.

Paul also mentions a woman named Prisca (or Priscilla) in Rom 16:3. (Priscilla is a diminutive form of the name Prisca.) Paul refers to both her and her husband, Aquila, as συνεργός (synergos, “coworker, fellow worker”). Prisca, and her work on behalf of the gospel, is mentioned by both Paul (compare 1 Cor 16:19) and by the author of Luke-Acts (compare Acts 18). The story involving Prisca in Acts 18 is particularly interesting. Acts 18:24–28 recounts the story in which Apollos, a native of Alexandria, arrives in Corinth and begins preaching in the synagogue. After Apollos addresses the synagogue, Prisca and Aquila approach him and they both “explained the way of God to him more accurately” (Acts 18:26 NRSV). The Greek word ἐκτίθημι (ektithēmi), translated as “explained,” is in its plural form. Thus in Acts 18:24–28, one of Paul’s female “coworkers” is instructing a man (Apollos) in the “way of God.” Moreover, Prisca does not appear to be a complete anomaly. In Philippians 4:2–3, Paul writes that two women, Euodia and Syntyche, “labored side by side with me in the gospel” (RSV). In Romans 16, Paul also names Mary (16:6), Tryphaena, and Persis (16:12), “all of whom he called ‘hard workers’ in the Lord”

Based on 1 Corinthians 11:2–11, Paul apparently did not explicitly disapprove of women praying and prophesying in public in the context of the church gathering (as long as they wore a head covering). This passage in 1 Corinthians also regulates how women should dress when they prophesy in church, but it does not prohibit them from prophesying. Moreover, we should not distinguish too sharply between prophesying and teaching/preaching. Women who possessed prophetic gifts played an active role in inspired teaching and preaching, both in assemblies and in public evangelism.

The primary New Testament texts that seem to severely restrict the participation of women in public Christian worship or ministry are 1 Corinthians 14:34–35 and 1 Tim 2:11–12. Due to the tension between these stark statements and the positive attitude toward women in other passages such as Rom 16, these texts have become a focal point for detailed exegesis. The exegetical issues are evident from an initial, surface-level reading of these two passages:
“As in all the churches of the saints, the women must be silent in the churches, for it is not permitted for them to speak, but they must be in submission, just as the law also says. But if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home, for it is shameful for a woman to speak in church” (1 Corinthians 14:33b–35 LEB). “A woman must learn in quietness with all submission. But I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet” (1 Tim 2:11–12 LEB). A straightforward reading of these passages suggests that women should remain silent in church, that their disposition should be characterized by submission, and that they should not occupy a place of authority over a man.

The women mentioned in Rom 16 (and elsewhere) implies they served in a capacity that could be construed as a formal leadership role. Words like “deacon” (diakonos), “coworker” (synergos), or “apostle” (apostolos) should even be viewed as technical terms referring to official leadership positions at the time that Romans was written. Nevertheless, in Rom 16, Paul attributes leading roles to more women than men in the churches addressed” It is reasonable to conclude, that women “were significant workers in the churches and in the gospel” However, it is harder to determine the extent of their specific roles and the tasks they performed in the early church. At least one example of a woman engaging in evangelism is found in Acts 18:24–28, when Prisca (and her husband Aquila) “explained” to Apollos the ways of God.

The letter to the Roman church ends commending several women who are apparently serving in some sort of leadership position in the church. This list could be supplemented with texts such as Phil 4:2–3; 1 Corinthians 11:5; and the examples that Luke-Acts provides of female prophets (Anna at the temple in Luke and the daughters of Philip in Acts). The main exegetical question concerning the role of women in the churches of the New Testament period is how passages like 1 Corinthians 14:34–35 and 1 Tim 2:11–12 should be reconciled with passages such as Acts 18; Rom 16:1–7; Phil 4:2–3; and 1 Corinthians 11:2–11.

These verses [1 Tim 2:11–15] have been overused in the modern church by some who have sought to demonstrate a return by one of Paul’s students to a patriarchal system inimical to the Pauline gospel, and by others to prove the unsuitability of women for the role of teaching in the church. Sensitive readings of 1 Corinthians 14:34–35 and 1 Tim 2:11–12 must attend to the literary, historical, and social contexts of these passages. How can women like Euodia and Syntyche (Phil. 4:2–3), Prisca (Rom. 16:3; 1 Cor. 16:19), Mary (Rom. 16:6), Junia (Rom. 16:7) and Tryphaena and Tryphosa (Rom. 16:12) function as co-workers in the churches if they cannot speak in those churches? How can Phoebe fulfill her role of deacon (Rom. 16:1–2) if she cannot speak out in the assembly?

It seems problematic that Paul would ban women from speaking publicly after he mentioned (without censure) the public prayer and prophesying of women only a few chapters earlier in 1 Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul assumes that it is “quite proper” for women to prophesy as long as it is properly regulated. First Corinthians 14:34–35, however, requires them to remain silent in church. Some who embrace this perspective note that 1 Corinthians 14:34–35 is the only passage in Paul’s undisputed letters (i.e., Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon) that “suggests any limitation on the roles or functions of women in the Pauline churches.” If 1 Corinthians 14:34–35 were to be removed from 1 Corinthians, nothing in the undisputed Pauline corpus would suggest that Paul prohibited women from engaging in public ministry and occupying leadership positions. In fact, as Rom 16:1–7 demonstrates, Paul seems to otherwise embrace female leadership in the church. Thus, according to this position, women were free to hold leadership positions and speak publicly in the earliest Pauline churches.

in Jewish life there were exceptions where women were inspired to leadership, so in Christian communities there were inspired women exercising ministry, including that of prophecy.… Paul did not conclude that all women were so inspired, but apparently had no difficulties in the fact that some were, provided that they dressed appropriately.

While an initial, surface reading of the texts may suggest a contradiction, an analysis of the literary and sociohistorical context of each passage demonstrates that we are dealing with apparent contradictions, not genuine contradictions. In order to do justice to this perspective, it is necessary to highlight a few of the exegetical and contextual strategies used to resolve and account for the apparent contradictions. Modern exegetes, only have access to Paul’s words in his letters. Paul uses words and phrases in the context of specific situations. The situation that Paul is addressing (at any given time) was not necessarily elaborated upon or described at length because the original recipients of the letters would not have needed extensive elaboration or description of the situation.

Paul writes, [Women] are not allowed to speak [λαλεῖν (lalein)]” (1 Corinthians 14:34), he assumes that his reader understands the point that he is making based on the “context of the situation. 1 Corinthians 11:2–11 deals with the issue of a “woman’s praying (προσευχομένη, proseuchomenē) or using prophetic speech (ἤ προφητευουσα, ē prophēteuousa)” In the context of this specific issue, Paul declares that is “quite permissible” for a woman “to speak” (λαλεῖν, lalein), namely, to pray or prophesy in public (so long as her head is covered). However, when Paul says that it is not permissible for a woman “to speak” (λαλεῖν, lalein) in 1 Corinthians 14:34, he has a different type of speech in mind altogether.

In 1 Corinthians 14:34–35, Paul is not banning the public speech of woman as such (the public, prophetic utterances of women); rather, he is dealing with the very specific issue of “questioning” prophetic utterances. Therefore Paul is not giving an unqualified, general prohibition against the public speech of women (compare 1 Corinthians 11:5) but is attempting to prevent speech that is potentially disruptive. According to this perspective, Paul is trying to prevent wives from “cross-examining” their husband’s prophetic speech in public. Such cross-examination, if it is to be done, should be done at home (1 Corinthians 14:35).The author of 1 Timothy was responding to a situation of “women being involved in false teaching and being led astray into apostasy.

Regardless of one’s position, it is important not to read texts such as 1 Corinthians 14:34–35 and 1 Tim 2:11–12 in isolation and without careful attention to vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and literary, social, and historical context. The list of women in Roman 16 alone should be enough to caution readers of the New Testament against overly simplistic interpretations of 1 Corinthians 14:34–35 and 1 Tim 2:11–12. Paul mentions women’s praying and prophesying as allowable activities(1 Corinthians 11:5), and we know that older women are to teach younger women (Titus 2:4). Therefore, 1 Corinthians 14:33–35 must not be an absolute command for women to always be silent in church.

The concern of 1 Corinthians 14, and much of the epistle, is order and structure in the church. The Corinthian church was noted for the chaos and lack of order rampant in that assembly (verse 33). It is interesting that no elders or pastors are mentioned in the book, and the prophets who were there were not exercising control (see verses 29, 32, 37). Everyone in the church service was participating with whatever expression they desired, whenever they desired. As a result, those with the gift of tongues were speaking simultaneously, those with a revelation from God were shouting out randomly, and no one was concerned with interpreting what was being said, even if what was said could be heard above the din. The meetings quickly descended into chaos. Apparently, certain women in the Corinthian church were also out of order in disruptively asking questions during the already chaotic services. God’s instruction through Paul is that the women should “keep silent in the churches” (1 Corinthians 14:34); the immediate context is prophesying (verses 29–33), and the broader context would include tongues-speaking (verses 27–28). Women can take many roles in the church and are “co-workers” in the ministry (Philippians 4:3).


JD Wilhite

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