WOMEN IN THE PULPIT? What does the Bible really say?

My husband, Steve, wrote the following letter to the elders of the church we were attending in the 1990’s. (We both signed, but the letter is primarily his scholarship.) It is a thorough examination of the recent trend to permit women to preach to the general congregation as announced in a letter to our church body.
While a bit longer than my usual posts, I promise it is well worth the read -

RE:  Women's Role in the Church

Dear Elders:

Grace and peace to you.
           
In the 2000 years since Christ’s appearance among us, the past 20 years have seen the most profound changes in the role of women, both inside and outside the church.  The world's attitude is clearly reflected by the bumper sticker that states, "The best man for the job is a woman." In Scripture, we find that men and women have perfect equality in Christ as heirs to the promise of salvation (Galatians 3:26-29). However, we also learn that men and women are different and have distinct, God-given functions in the church and home.

The pressures of the current worldview on gender roles have forced us all to examine our beliefs to assure that we are not clinging to an inaccurate theology.  The content of the September 1993 letter from the elders, the roles assigned to women at church, as well as our general observations, have caused us to re-examine Scripture to discern God's will in this difficult area.

First, we will present our understanding of Scripture on this matter, and then suggest how this might apply to our particular church body. Within this context, we will first address the elder's letter. We generally concur with the portion addressing women in marriage, but feel we must comment on the final paragraph which addresses women in church.

We offer these comments as ones who love Christ's church, as you do, and want to see its members strengthened and blessed.

Gifts
From our personal experience and through the revelation of the Word, we know that women and men may have pastoral and teaching gifts. Gifts are bestowed by the Holy Spirit without regard for gender (I Corinthians 12:4-6), and we are all compelled to use our gifts to build up the body (I Corinthians 12:7).

Pray and Prophesy
I Corinthians 11:4-5 tells us that both men and women pray and prophesy.  This observation is part of a larger discourse (I Corinthians 11:2-16) on headship. We are told that the head of Christ is God (v.3), the head of man is Christ (v.2), and further, the head of a woman is her husband (v.2). The text further advises that there are proper ways for a woman to pray and prophesy to recognize the headship of her husband (v. 5-15).

The prophesying referred to in I Corinthians 11:5 is for edifying, up-building, encouragement, and consolation (I Corinthians 14:3,4). Our church’s founding pastor, Ray Stedman, stated that prophesying is "basically preaching," ("Should a Woman Teach in Church", Nov. 21, 1976).  If I Corinthians 11:5 is interpreted to include prophesying in church pursuant to I Corinthians 14:4, it would follow that women can teach and preach in church.

"A Word from the Elders . . ." states, "Women should not be restricted from teaching men if they submit to evaluation by the elders.  We do well to note the practice of the New Testament church being led in worship (prayer and prophesy) by women (I Corinthians 11:5)."

From this excerpt, it appears your position is that women may lead the church worship and teach and edify men in spiritual matters.  It follows that it would be acceptable to do so from the pulpit in a preaching capacity, or in any other setting, if it is done under the authority of the elders.  Our understanding of your stance seems verified by the fact that our church now has a female pastor and several female ministers, and that they have previously taught from the pulpit during our Sunday night service.

To adopt this position, we must accept that (1) the Corinthian prophetess is an example of a later day female pastor or teacher, (2) prophesying is teaching, and (3) Scripture declaring that women should not teach men should for some reason be disregarded.

Is prophesying equivalent to teaching or preaching?  Prophesying is defined in I Corinthians 14:3, "But everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort."  This is true because the hearers are receiving a message from God. A. A. MacRae, in his discussion of prophesy (Zonderan Encyclopedia of the Bible), states the following:

            "No human individual or organization could enable a man to become a true
            prophet.  The NT speaks of prophets as one of God's gifts to His Church,
            along with evangelists and pastors (Ephesians 4:11). A church can ordain and
            install an evangelist or a pastor, but no one becomes a prophet in the full
            meaning of the word unless God chooses to give him a message with orders
            to pass it on."

Dan Thompson, a teacher at Valley Church, has observed, "that almost anyone could have the gift of tongues or prophesy and exercise those gifts with (it seems) little maturity.  But teaching (guiding the flock of God) demands rigorous examination (I Timothy 3:1ff; Titus 1:6ff)." Also, prophecy and teaching are mentioned as separate gifts in the same lists (I Corinthians 12:28; Romans 12:6-7).”

It seems that the case for women leading and teaching men is being built on a single verse in a discourse about headship and veiling and NT references to prophetesses.  This appears to disregard that teaching and prophesying are different gifts bestowed for different purposes, and that there may very well be no post-NT prophesying in the sense of new revelation from God. In addition, as discussed below, to accept the premise of women teaching men, we must disregard admonitions to the contrary.  The case being put forth is weak and is not consistent with the overall fabric of Scripture concerning woman's submissive role.  The only examples of actual NT prophetic utterance from women are those of Elizabeth (Luke 1:42-45) and Mary (Luke 1:46-55), occurring between themselves in an intimate home setting, and Anna, a prophetess, responding to Simeon's specific prophesy in the outer court of the temple, thanking God and speaking to all about the child.

Silence in Church
There are two key references that command women to be silent in church.  In
I Corinthians, Paul addresses speaking out in church, and in I Timothy, he deals with teaching.
At the end of the discussion in I Corinthians 14 concerning rules for men prophesying and speaking in tongues, Paul states three times that women are not to speak in church.  "As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches.  For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says," (v. 33, 34).  He also states that "it is shameful for a woman to speak in church," (v.35).  Paul interjects that if there is anything that a woman wants to know, she should ask her husband at home (v.35).

The point of interpretation is whether Paul is solely addressing orderly behavior, particularly the asking of questions in a gathering, or whether the directive for silence has wider application.  Given the content and nature of the problems in the Corinthian church, it is probable that these passages address orderliness as well as a submissive attitude.

The clearest view of these issues is offered in I Timothy 2:9-15, which, unlike the previous references, addresses the position and behavior of women directly, and not as part of a discussion of other topics.  Paul states, "Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness.  I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent," (v. 12, 13).

Theologians have and undoubtedly will continue to argue whether this is a cultural admonition or whether it was meant for all ages.  There are two factors that persuade us that the latter view should prevail.

This admonition is not likely the result of disorderliness, as may have been the case in the church at Corinth, because the problem in the Ephesian church was unsound doctrine (I Tim. 1:3-11), not disorder.

Secondly, Paul follows this apparent restriction with an explanation of why women are not to teach or have authority over men.  "For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor," (I Timothy 2:13, 14).  The order of creation demonstrates man's priority.  Eve was created to be his helper (Genesis 2:18-25) and his glory (I Corinthians 11:7-9).  It was Eve that was deceived by Satan and who usurped the role of leadership as she chose to accept the forbidden fruit and lead her husband to join her. Adam, of course, yielded that leadership and thus, sinned knowingly.  He was not deceived; that is why it is called Adam's sin.  This shows us the weaknesses of men and women and the results of reversing the divinely established order.  These are eternal, not temporal, explanations of why women are not to teach or have authority.

The Roles of Women in the New Testament Church

If women are not to teach or have authority over men, why did God give them the gifts of teaching, discernment, and so forth?  How are these gifts to be used to the benefit of the body and the glory of God? Scripture provides us with many examples from which we can draw a practical paradigm for our church.

A prominent example is that of Priscilla, who with her husband, Aquilla, "took him [Apollos] and expounded to him the way of God more accurately," (Acts 18:26).  We know from Acts that Pricilla and Aquilla were involved in Paul's ministry, and that they must have been spiritually learned to have taught Apollos, who is described as "an eloquent man, well versed in the scriptures," (Acts 18:24).  We learn from this incident that the teaching was private, "they took him in" (presumably not before the gathering), and that the teaching was done by both Pricilla and Aquilla, with Priscilla presumably under the authority of her husband, who was present.

In the only passage that directs women to teach, the subject matter of the teaching and the people to be taught are restricted.  We are told that the older (presumably more spiritually mature) women "are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be sensible, chaste, domestic, kind and submissive to their husbands, that the word of God my not be discredited," (Titus 2:3-5).

The Bible contains several references to women who served in Paul's ministry and the church.  Women also served in the role of deaconess (a "helps" office described in Romans16:1), and served the church in temporal matters.

Conclusion

Based upon 1) the Scriptural admonition against women teaching or having authority over men, 2) the absence of examples where women exercised such roles in the New Testament church, 3) scriptural directives that limit what women should teach and who they should teach, and 4) the godly order of command set forth in Genesis, I Corinthians 11, and so forth, we must conclude that it is not God's intent that women have authority over men and that some teaching roles are not appropriate for women.

How should this apply to our church?  We believe that women should not be given titles and positions of authority in spiritual matters over men.  We also believe that the Word does not sanction women to teach from our pulpit.

Should women teach mixed Sunday school classes, or host and lead prayer in worship services?  We feel these areas are very questionable in light of I Timothy 2:11-12 and Titus 2:3-5.  However, if you feel that women do have liberty in this area, please consider the reasons cited below why it may be prudent to limit the role of women in these activities.

We have observed that there are many women at our church who consider submission to be the ugly "S" word.  We have heard the young women assert that if a woman can be a CEO of a company, she should be able to be an elder.  We have heard the girls in the high school class boo-and-hiss when the term "leadership" was associated with males (and we did not hear the teacher correct their thinking).  We have heard a recent women's meeting opened with five anti-male "one liners".  We have heard the speaker from last year's women's retreat admit that her husband did not want her there, but she came regardless of his wishes.  There is clearly a widespread lack of understanding of the godly role for women and the true meaning of submission to the heart of God.

In this environment, it becomes even more important to teach men and women about 1) their unique and complementary roles and to provide a true understanding of being subject to one another (Ephesians 5:21); 2) submission; and 3) all the other attributes described under Christian marriage in the elder's letter (Sept. '93).  It is equally important that these principles be modeled within the church, particularly as they pertain to teaching and authority.

Even if you hold that women may teach outside the pulpit, in the atmosphere of today’s church, you should consider this a "meat before idols" issue.  For the sake of the weaker brothers and sisters, we should emphasize God's order for men and women.  If a woman is allowed, for example, to teach in a mixed-gender adult Sunday school, her mate should be co-teaching with her.

Final Thoughts
As the church is called to submit to Christ, so a woman is to submit to her husband to display the relationship between Christ and His church to the world.  In this way, women model the submissive, obedient love the church is to express to her Lord.  The headship of the male is God-ordained in both the home and the church, and in turn, it models Christ's leadership of His bride.

Restricting godly and gifted women from particular teaching and leadership roles is not suppression, it is obeying God's order.  We should encourage the use of the gifts in appropriate settings and ministries. We should also be more aggressive in raising-up godly men who will be spiritual leaders at home and in church.

The absence of male leaders and teachers is a curse to our children as well as to the babes in Christ who need to see the model of God's order.  Should our young men be taught and led by women?  When men do not lead, women will fill the vacuum.  We do not want to become the object of Isaiah's lament, "My people ...women rule over them," (Isaiah 3:12).        

Because of these truths, we respectfully request that you:

(1) Revise the last two sentences of the September 1993 elder's letter to accurately reflect Scripture.

(2) Not permit women to teach from the pulpit.

(3) Not permit women to hold positions of authority over men in church.

(4) Identify specific activities in the church as they are appropriate to men and women.

(5) Seek to teach women the true meaning of submission in their roles within marriage and church, and model those in church.

(6) Seek to equip men to fulfill their God given duty to teach and lead.

Sincerely in the shared bonds of His love,
Steven & Carolyn


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