Women in the contemporary church
The conservative church has maintained that women should be restricted to support roles in the church and are not permitted to teach or preach to groups with baptized adult males present. The dominant voice in North American culture calls for equality between the sexes, despite residual inequity in pay and limitations in some career fields. The Christian church should be a driver in culture instead of merely yielding to the whims of the society in which worshipers live and should use the Bible as the primary source for that leadership. Despite this, there are churches that insist on subjugating women and relegating them to support roles. Some of those churches even send women out as missionaries with permission to preach and teach, but then silence them when they return to their home churches in the United States. Four interpretations of passages from the Bible have led to different models in church leadership with only one that rightly places women in equal roles with men.
There is a story of a mother who once sent her adult son two sweaters as a holiday gift. The son opened the gift box and took out the sweaters one at a time, as they were stacked in the box on top of the other. He liked both sweaters and since he was joining his mother for the holiday meal he chose to wear the first sweater he took out of the box. When he arrived at his mother’s home she said, “What’s this? You didn’t like the other one?”
In this anecdote the son saw both sweaters as nice, but he could actually only wear one at a time. One interpretation of the Bible suggests that men should be the leaders of the church because Adam was created before Eve and Eve was created to be man’s helper. Some would even suggest that Eve was more culpable for eating of the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden because she ate first and that the snake identified her as the more-easily manipulated (weaker) sex. I’d suggest that interpreting women to be more easily manipulated is Satan still working through the words of the Scriptures. These ideas have been disproven by various studies and life experiences; one’s sex has almost nothing to do with how easily one might be manipulated and becomes a factor only when considering how a person interacts with the sex of the person attempting to do the manipulation. Though we profess that God can do anything, God chose to create first man then woman, but this does not suggest a man is superior or a woman is inferior. If we were to use similar logic then everyone would be scrambling to buy the first mixer because obviously it must be better than the second or the thousandth mixer manufactured. The argument that man is superior because he was created first is without merit. The Bible, however, has more to say about the role of women and various authors have offered interpretations of those passages.
Culver’s essay on the role of women in the traditional church, and similarly Foh’s essay on male leadership, relegates the voice of women to singing songs and participating in community prayer in worship at best. Both of these essays draw upon three scriptural citations: 1 Corinthians 11:2-16[i]; 1 Corinthians 14:34-37[ii]; and, 1 Timothy 2:8-15[iii]. Despite these passages, both Foh and Culver appear to place more authority in the practices of the church over the centuries than on the words of the Bible. Their essays correctly state that the traditional, conservative church has restricted women in various degrees to positions outside of the pastorate. Proper interpretation of these passages that makes consistent use of possible translations and includes contextual considerations shows that women have an important role of leadership in the church and are not excluded from pastoral ministry. Foh cites scriptural passages, acknowledging that Paul saw women spreading the gospel message, naming Phoebe, Priscilla and Aquila, Mary, Euodia and Syntyche , mentioning Philip’s daughters (Foh 79). However, Foh then draws the conclusion that because none of these women are identified explicitly as apostles, evangelists, or elders, these roles are not the domain of women. It is important to note that many of the conservative evangelical and charismatic churches of the so-called post-Christian era also limit the role of women in ministry, so as to not make it appear that this is only a problem in the older churches.
1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is interpreted by some churches to require women to wear a head-covering whenever she is to speak in church. It further appears to indicate that all women are to be married and have no role in church or society if they are not married. Two issues arise from these views that need be examined. Verse 11:6 allows that to pray or prophesy properly in church a woman should have her head shaved, but if that is shameful then her head should be veiled. The first clause regarding shaving the woman’s head is rarely addressed and might suggest that all men who pray or prophesy before the congregation are already bald. There is no Scriptural foundation in the New Testament to substantiate this practice. Culver and others don’t suggest that all men who pray or prophesy are bald because they may be young or old yet the nature of their masculinity reflects God. Culver et al then posit that women reflect their husbands instead of God, which is why they are to be veiled. If we understand that prophecy is the word of God given through another person and God chooses to give prophetic words to a woman, then is she reflecting God or her husband? If she is reflecting her husband, then we can hardly say that the words are the prophetic words of God. One might also further assert that if all people are created in the image of God and we recollect Genesis 1:27[iv], then it is hardly fitting that only men represent God without shaving one’s head or covering it with a veil.
In the Gospel of Luke there is fairly significant amount of space given to the telling of the annunciation of John and of Jesus. In both of these stories God sends messengers to the mothers, Elizabeth and Mary respectively, not first to their husbands[v] or other male. It might be weakly argued by some that neither Elizabeth or Mary were prophets, though most people would consider the messages they carried were prophetic, so it is appropriate to mention at least three more women who prophesied and were either unmarried or their marital status is unrecorded in Scripture. Miriam is referred to as a prophetess as an adult. Her marital status is unstated. In Malachi 6:4, though, her name is listed along side Moses and Aaron and credited as having led the people to freedom from Egypt. Miriam is noted in Exodus 15:20-21 for leading worship after crossing the Red Sea. Nehemiah remarks about Noadiah (Nehemiah 6:14), and though he appears not to regard her well he refers to her as a prophet. Nehemiah 6:14 provides an interesting insight through the grammar, as well. Nehemiah refers to Noadiah along with other prophets who have tried to scare him. The male form of the noun, prophet, is used as is common when a group consists of both male and female persons. This use also implies equal standing among the male and female prophets, not placing the female prophets in a lesser role. The daughters of Phillip mentioned in Acts 21:8-9 are explicitly described as virgins yet are seen to prophesy. Each of these women prophesy without the intervention of a man and do not have husbands whom they should reflect. This should be sufficient to indicate that God may use whomever is chosen to speak the words of prophecy, yet some will persist that women must take authority from a male leader before speaking as indicated by a head-covering.
While some might argue that the daughters of Philip were still under the authority of their father, Anna was of great age, as described in Luke 2:36-38 as being a widow. Based on these observations, it is apparent there is no biblical support for the idea that women must have their heads shaved or covered or that God cannot use a woman for prophecy.
1 Corinthians 14:34-37 is often cited as instruction for women to be silent in church. Reading the Scripture it is certainly clear that women were praying and prophesying in the churches already and Paul, apparently aware this is occurring, raises no issues with these practices. These verses appear disjointed from Paul’s other writings and the surrounding text. Sampley writes, “Verses 34-36, with their injunction of women’s silence and assertion of their subordination to men, vary from what we have seen in the rest of 1 Corinthians. First, it is clear that women are praying and prophesying in the church at Corinth (11:5) and Paul not only makes no effort to stop it, but he appears to assume it is quite proper;” (Sampley 969). Sampley goes on to describe that, though we cannot discern today what specifically was added by later editors to Paul’s letters, it is clear that some texts were inserted after Paul’s letter was originally written and this text appears to be one such addition. He makes this proposition on the disparity between the assertions of this text compared to the corpus of Paul’s writings, which elsewhere greet female leaders with respect. Paul praises Phoebe, who is identified as a deacon at Cenchreae, and refers to her as his patron. This would be implausible of Paul were making a general direction to women in the church instead of addressing a particular situation, if we insist that Paul wrote these verses at all. Mikelsen writes, “Even those who use “selective literalism” with these verses to rule out women teaching or preaching never choose to follow them exactly. If they did, women could not sing in choirs, or even in the congregation, or teach Sunday school or operate the church kitchens” (Mikelsen 199). Clearly that is not Paul’s intent.
1 Timothy 2:8-15 is also used as means to apparently describe how women should dress and comport themselves in church. The Greek could be translated equally well as husband and wife instead of man and women, as is seen in 1 Pete 3:1-6, which nuances this passage to address the status and sanctity of marriage rather than church behavior. While churches met in private homes, this guidance would affect the hosts and possibly the guests, not to over-adorn themselves. It is only in the most recent century that women have gained some semblance of equality in marriage, and not universally at that; so, the views of relationship to the husband reflected in this passage suggest a cultural perspective instead of a Biblical mandate for subordination of the woman to the man. We must also note that the author (presumably Paul) wants women to learn, which would be pointless if they were not to also then teach their children and others as well. Keener brings us quickly to a solid understanding of this passage, writing; “There is a universal principle in this text, but it is broader than that unlearned women should not teach. If Paul does not want the women to teach in some sense, it is not because they are women, but because they are unlearned” (Keener 120). Though there are other elements of this passage that have been used, and will probably continue to be used, to subordinate women in relationships with men, the thrust of this brings stability to marriage and limits teaching to those who are learned.
Those who use Scripture to subjugate or dominate women fail to contextual the texts, avoiding passages that speak to the roles of men, especially in relationships with women. Some have used alternative or inconsistent translations of words from the original languages to promote their ideas. However, throughout Scripture we read of women who prayed, prophesied, taught, and generally worshiped God in the church, in their communities, and in their homes. God created man and woman, both in God’s image, and gives both the responsibility to speak prophetic words and teach God’s commandments. Neither male nor female should be silent, but both must know of what they speak before either presumes to represent God’s words to others.
Our United Methodist tradition has recognized the important role of women in ministry and the pastorate, though admittedly this came about only in the last century. John Wesley held a view that would limit the role of women in ministry, but his mother and his wife demonstrated such power in their teaching that he could hardly speak a critical word as they drew people to closer relationship with God. A complete timeline of the role of women in the United Methodist (and predecessor) denomination can be found at http://www.umc.org/who-we-are/timeline-of-women-in-methodism. I am posting this today because of the disturbing articles I see widespread across the internet that again attempt to cast women into support roles alone and deny their ability to lead. The mission of the church depends on all voices being heard, so let's permit God to take authority and not scrutinize the messenger simply for their gender.
Works CitedFoh, Susan. "A Male Leadership View: The Head of a Woman is the Man." Women In Ministry: Four Views. Ed. Bonnidell Clouse and Robert G. Clouse. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1989. 69-102. Paperback.
Keener, Craig S. Paul, Women & Wives:Marriage and Women's Ministry in the Letters of Paul. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1992. Paperback.
Mikelsen, Alvera. "An Egalitarian View: There Is Neither Male nor Female in Christ." Women in Mininstry: Four Views. Ed. Bonnidell Clouse and Robert G. Clouse. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1989. 173-206. Paperback.
Sampley, J. Paul. "The First Letter to the Corinthians: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections." The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary:. Ed. Leander E. Keck. Vol. X. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002. XII vols. 773-1003. Hardcover.
[i] 1 Corinthians 11:2 I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you. 3 But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ. 4 Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, 5 but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head-- it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. 6 For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil. 7 For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man. 8 Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man. 9 Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man. 10 For this reason a woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman. 12 For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God. 13 Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled? 14 Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. 16 But if anyone is disposed to be contentious-- we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God.
[ii] 1 Corinthians 14:34 women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. 35 If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. 36 Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached?) 37 Anyone who claims to be a prophet, or to have spiritual powers, must acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord.
[iii] 1 Timothy 2:8 Therefore, I want men to pray everywhere by lifting up hands that are holy, without anger or argument. 9 In the same way, I want women to enhance their appearance with clothing that is modest and sensible, not with elaborate hairstyles, gold, pearls, or expensive clothes. 10 They should make themselves attractive by doing good, which is appropriate for women who claim to honor God. 11 A wife should learn quietly with complete submission. 12 I don’t allow a wife to teach or to control her husband. Instead, she should be a quiet listener. 13 Adam was formed first, and then Eve. 14 Adam wasn’t deceived, but rather his wife became the one who stepped over the line because she was completely deceived. 15 But a wife will be brought safely through childbirth, if they both continue in faith, love, and holiness, together with self-control.
[iv] God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.
[v] Jewish custom would hold that even though Mary and Joseph were not yet married, their state of betrothal is similar enough that the word husband is not inappropriate. I understand that our modern language use would prefer fiancé or similar term, but in the interest of brevity and to underscore the point I am attempting to make I have chosen to use only the term husband.