The Role of Women in the Church

              Today, in our culture, it is largely accepted that men have certain positions of leadership, particularly in the Church. Although women might be permitted to have a position in some denominations, often this is relegated to an assistant in teaching other women, or in teaching children, hardly a position requiring a degree. Rarely, if ever, do we see a woman giving the Sunday sermon, though her male counterpart is welcomed to do so. In many denominations, it seems to be viewed as sacrilegious, or anti-biblical for a woman to preach in the Church. Why are women still being barred from teaching? Is this cultural or is it Biblical?  Has the Church had the proper viewpoint on women’s position regarding leadership in the Church? That is what this paper will examine.  

Women in the Old Testament

            Ancient Israel was a patriarchal society. Women who appeared in the Old Testament did so in connection with the stories of men who were the main characters, however, there are several examples of women in roles of leadership that are often overlooked. One example is Miriam, who is mentioned in five books of the Old Testament, in Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, I Chronicles and, in Micah. The fact she is mentioned this often, and in this many books indicates how significant Miriam was in the historical narrative of Israel. Miriam’s name is mentioned fourteen times in the Old Testament whereas the name of Sarah appears only once outside the book of Genesis.[1]

Miriam’s first appearance is in Exodus where we see her as the sister of Moses, who watched over him in the Nile river. It was Miriam who spoke to Pharoah’s daughter and offered to find someone to nurse the child. Because of Miriam, Moses spent his early years being nursed by his own mother. Because of Miriam, Moses lived. Miriam was instrumental in saving her brother, who then went on to be used by God to save all of Israel.[2] Miriam, the sister of Moses is referred to as one of the three leaders of Israel, along with Moses and Aaron in the book of Micah:

“In fact, I brought you up from the land of Egypt, I delivered you from that place of slavery. I sent Moses, Aaron, and Miriam to lead you.” Micah 6:4 NET Bible

Miriam was called forth by God to lead the people, along with Moses and Aaron. Miriam led the people in a song of celebration called “The Song of Miriam” and it is one of the most ancient poems in the Hebrew Bible. In it, Miriam is called a prophetess. Miriam had the role of prophetess because she led the nation of Israel in celebrating God’s victory over Egypt:[3]

“Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a hand-drum in her hand, and all the women went out after her with hand-drums and with dances.

Miriam sang in response to them, “Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and its rider he has thrown into the sea.” Ex. 15:20,21 NET Bible

The prophet Micah affirms that Miriam had a very significant role in leadership in early Israelite history. Even though the Bible refers to Moses and Aaron as the leaders in the community, Micah reveals that Miriam was their equal. Why has Miriam’s role been downgraded? [4]

“Anderson and Freeman acknowledge the importance of Micah’s statement. They wrote: “What makes Micah’s simple statement so remarkable, and so puzzling, is the fact that nowhere in the tradition are the three siblings presented in a shared leadership role” (p. 519).”[5]

The NIV separates Aaron and Miriam and thus elevates Moses’ position and Miriam is almost an afterthought:

“I brought you up out of Egypt
    and redeemed you from the land of slavery.
I sent Moses to lead you,
    also Aaron and Miriam.” Micah 6:4 NIV

And in Psalms the name of Miriam is left out of the list of leaders of the nation of Israel:

“You led your people like a flock of sheep, by the hand of Moses and Aaron.” Psalms 77:20 NET

What happened to Miriam? Already her position as one of the three leaders of Israel was being marginalized. How quickly the memory of what Miriam did for the nation of Israel was being forgotten and minimized![6]

            Deborah is another leader who played a significant role in the Biblical narrative. Deborah was a prophetess and a judge who was used by God to save Israel (Judges 2:16).

“Whenever the LORD raised up judges for them, the LORD was with the judge, and he saved them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge. For the LORD was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who afflicted and oppressed them.” Judges 2:18 ESV

All of Israel used to go up to Deborah to have her judge matters of dispute. Deborah was not only a prophetess and a judge, but she was also the highest leader in all of Israel.  She had the authority to command Barak, the military commander of Israel.

“At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. She held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites went up to her to have their disputes decided.” (Judges 4:4-5). NIV

“She sent and summoned Barak the son of Abinoam from Kedesh-naphtali and said to him, “Has not the LORD, the God of Israel, commanded you, ‘Go, gather your men at Mount Tabor, taking 10,000 from the people of Naphtali and the people of Zebulun” (Judges 4:14) ESV

            Israel was being oppressed by the Canaanites, specifically by Sisera, the commander of the army. Deborah summoned Barak, who was the commander of Israel’s army. A woman, summoning a commander of the army! Barak hesitated to fight against the Canaanites and would only do so if Deborah went with him. Deborah promised to go with the army and her leadership inspired ten-thousand Israelites to confront the Canaanite army. Israel’s victory against Sisera is celebrated in the “Song of Deborah” Judges 5:1-31. These women may have been exceptional in the patriarchal culture of the Old Testament, but the fact that they are there at all shows that there is no theological barrier to women exercising leadership or authority.[7] What about women’s leadership in the New Testament?  

Women in the New Testament

At Pentecost the Holy Spirit was poured forth, as prophesied by Joel (Joel 2:28-32; Acts 2:17-21), on all believers, irrespective of age or gender. It is of interest to note that Paul lists various spiritual gifts and ministries without ever even hinting that some are for men only.[8] Surely the gifting of the Holy Spirit should take priority over gender, right? If God sees fit to gift someone, who are we to object? But that is not what we see. God is no respecter of persons; males are not more favored than women. Too often, as we study the Bible, and in particular the women of the Bible who were in leadership roles such as Phoebe, we see they have been obscured or minimized. Many Christians today are totally unfamiliar with these women. In Romans chapter sixteen, the final chapter in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, we see him sending his greetings to ten people and seven of the ten are women.[9] Phoebe is listed as a deacon of the church in Cenchrea. The Greek word for deacon is diakonos. In this description of Phoebe, it includes the phrase ‘of the congregation in Cenchreae.’ This phrase gives the implication of leadership.[10] Paul goes on to say “and ‘leader of many, including myself’” (Romans 16:1,2). Paul thus introduces Phoebe as a deacon to the Romans and wants them to know he commends her and goes on to say she is the leader of many myself included. Is a woman really being called a leader of many including Paul? This raises the question: Why then does the church today understand Pauls’ words to mean that women cannot take the lead over men?

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me. Romans 16:1,2            

Phoebe was not merely mentioned but commended by Paul to the congregation that was in Rome. Why the need to commend Phoebe? Some theologians believe that Phoebe not only carried the letter to Rome but also that she likely explained the letter to the congregation.[11]

Paul refers to Phoebe as a “benefactor”. In the first century, a benefactor or patron would have the means to support others, and Phoebe was generous with her support, and of Paul in particular. Phoebe was only one of many women named by Paul, such as Chloe (1 Cor. 1:11), and Nympha and Apphia who are both mentioned as having a church in their homes (Col. 4:15, Philemon 2).[12]

Priscilla, also known as Prisca, is probably more well-known to most of us. Paul mentions Priscilla and Aquila often and it’s noteworthy that Priscilla is mentioned first, because in a male dominated society this is not the norm. (Acts 18:1-3, 18-19, 26; Romans 16:3-5; 1 Cor 16:19; 2 Tim. 4:19). It was contrary to Greek and Hebrew practice, to mention a woman’s name before her husbands, indicating that she played the dominant role in ministry.[13] Paul mentions her name first, even when correcting Apollos (Acts 18:24-26).[14] Priscilla instructed Apollos in a church established in her home in Ephesus. She also corrected him, a prominent male leader in the church where Paul tells women not to hold authority over men (1 Tim. 2:12). Was Priscilla being disobedient to Paul’s instruction regarding women leaders in the church? No, the word used for authority in 1 Tim. 2:12 meant to usurp, domineer, or abuse which are not characteristics that can be applied to Priscilla’s leadership in this church.[15] Women labored alongside Paul as teachers, apostles, deacons, prophets, and evangelists. There were women prophets in those days (1 Cor. 11:2-16) and Paul valued this prophetic gift above all other gifts (1 Cor. 14:1). Women Paul mentioned by name such as Priscilla, Phoebe the Deacon, and Junia, the female apostle.

It’s easy to overlook the women’s names, as they come at the end of the book of Roman’s and are simply a list of names and greetings, however, notice Priscilla risked her neck for Paul and Junia was his relative who was in prison with Paul! Look at Paul’s astonishing words regarding these women co-laborers:     

Greet Prisca and Aquila, who work with me in Christ Jesus, and who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles. Greet also the church in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert in Asia for Christ. Greet Mary, who has worked very hard among you. Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.

Junia was described not just as an apostle but “outstanding among the apostles”! Most scholars understand Paul was referring to Junia as an apostle in this passage, though some claim she was merely known by the apostles. Nevertheless, why is it Junia is relatively unknown among most Christians today?

Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow countrymen and fellow prisoners. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was. Romans 16:7 Berean Study Bible

Eldon Jay Epp’s work “Junia: The First Woman Apostle” demonstrates beyond a reasonable doubt that Paul regarded Junia as an apostle.[16] The historical record points to Junia being a woman. Bible commentators prior to the thirteenth century unanimously favor the female name Junia. Furthermore, the overwhelming majority of Bible translations from the 1300s to the 1800s also translate the name as a woman’s name.  There are even a number of twentieth century translations that also render Junia as a woman’s name.[17] John Chrysostom, an Early Church Father, from the fourth century, praised Junia as an outstanding apostle:

Greet Andronicus and Junia . . . who are outstanding among the apostles: To be an apostle is something great! But to be outstanding among the apostles—just think what a wonderful song of praise that is! They were outstanding on the basis of their works and virtuous actions. Indeed, how great the wisdom of this woman must have been that she was even deemed worthy of the title of apostle.[18]

Origen of Alexandria, a theologian and biblical commentator, understood the name to be feminine (Junia or Julia).[19]

Romans 16:7 presents an interpretive issue, namely was Junia only “highly regarded by the apostles”?

“Craig Keener expresses serious doubt about any such interpretation, saying:

It is also unnatural to read the text as merely claiming that they had a high reputation with the apostles. Since they were imprisoned with him, Paul knows them well enough to recommend them without appealing to the other apostles, whose judgment he never cites on such matters. Paul nowhere limits the apostolic company to the Twelve plus himself, as some have assumed (see especially 1 Cor. 15:5–11). Those who favor the view that Junia was not a female apostle do so because of their prior assumption that women could not be apostles, not because of any evidence in the text.[20]

Some have tried to say Paul meant Junia was “outstanding in the eyes of the apostles”, instead of “outstanding among the apostles.” But this doesn’t agree with the meaning of the word ἐπίσημος which means “marked” or “notable”, hence “marked out among the apostles”.[21]

There has been much controversy about Junia, whether she was a female or a male, however, the early church accepted that she was indeed a female and there is both archeological evidence as well as the early Church historical record to support this. Bible commentaries before the thirteenth century acknowledged Junia was a female and the overwhelming majority of Bible translations do as well.

Moving forward, an overwhelming majority of Bible translations from the late 1300s through the mid-1800s translate Iounian as a woman, not as a man. These Bibles include: Wycliffe (1382, 13902), Göttingen Gutenberg Bible3 (1454), Erasmus Greek-Latin NT (1519), Tyndale (1525), Coverdale (1535), Matthew (1537), Great Bible (1539–41), Taverner (1539), Geneva NT (1557), Bishops (1568), Spanish “Bear” Bible (1569), Rheims (1582), Geneva Bible (1583–99), Hutter Polyglot (1599), Reina-Valera4 (1602, 1858, 1909), King James Version (1611), Giovanni Diodati (1649), Wycliffe NT (1731), Webster (1833), Murdock NT (1852), and Julia Smith (1876).[22]

Early twentieth-century translations that understand Junia to be a woman include: CJB, GNT, GW, HCSB, ISV, KJ21, NCV, NIRV, NIVUK, NLT, NKJV, NRSV, NRSVA, NRSVACE, NRSVCE, REB, TMB, WE. Since 2000, there have been at least thirty new translations or revisions that translate Iounian as Junia. [23]

Paul on Women Being Silent

            It’s been understood by many that Paul’s statement about women not teaching was a blanket statement for all women in all congregations throughout time.

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. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love, and holiness with propriety. 1 Tim. 2:11-15

While Paul’s teaching that women should remain silent might seem obvious, it only appears that way if we look at this isolated text, as well as the other famous quote by Paul in his letter to Corinth:

As in all the churches of the saints, 34 the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. 35 And if they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church. 1Cor. 14:34

We must ask the most obvious question. Does Paul really mean all women are to be silent in the Church for all time? This interpretation creates a contradiction because earlier Paul stated a woman when prophesying or praying should have her head covered:

But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head. 1 Cor. 11:3-6

             Paul acknowledges that in the Corinthian Church both men and women are prophesying. Paul didn’t rebuke women who prophesied or prayed, which involved speaking, instead he instructed them how to do this, that is with their heads covered. And notice he never rebuked Priscilla even when she had corrected Apollos.

Today

Donna Howell is a licensed minister, and author of several books including one entitled: The Handmaidens Conspiracy: How Erroneous Bible Translations Hijacked the Women’s Empowerment Movement Started by Jesus Christ. She has given a voice to the many women silenced for millennia by the patriarchal attitudes and society within the Church. A large number of women today feel called; however what place is there for them in the Church? If women pursue and attain a master’s degree or a PhD., what positions are available for them in the Church aside from teaching children, or perhaps lead worship? Do those positions require a degree? There is no place of leadership for women today in many of the churches, particularly the non-denominational ones which I’ve been attending the past several years. It seems we are discouraged from going to seminary. Why go? What can we do with a degree?

Women today who become pastors, assistant pastors, or ministers of a Church and who dare to preach while men are present in the audience, come under not only scrutinization but under attack. Often this is not only from men but from other women as well!

What we need to remember is today’s culture is not the final authority. True to hermeneutics we must always look at the original intended audience. Today’s culture does not define what is correct. We don’t get to pick and choose which scriptures we accept and which ones we’ll ignore. [24] Those who love to quote Paul about women being silent in the church, often choose to ignore the command that women shouldn’t wear braids in their hair, or gold, or expensive clothing. (1 Timothy 2:9) Yet people today, and the Church have no problem ignoring that as cultural. They correctly say the command means women should be modest. Yet these same people don’t wonder about the culture when it comes to Paul’s words about women being silent in the Church.[25] Why the double standard?

Some today want to reject the interpretation of a biblical text that requires us to look closely at the situation, the context, the culture of the day. These same people are never consistent, however. They pick and choose which verses they would like to follow and carefully avoid the troublesome ones. An example would be that people no longer require head coverings or holy kisses. They recognize this meant something different to the first century Christians than they do today. We cannot take a particular passage and claim that it applies to all situations without begging the question. The first task of any of us reading the Scripture is exegesis, understanding what the text meant in its context, to the original audience.[26] To do less than that is to read into the text.

Sadly, a scripture that is largely and conveniently ignored in Galatians reads:

So, in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Gal. 3:26-28

            If there is neither male nor female in the body of Christ, why is the Church, and more specifically the men in leadership positions in the Church teaching that women cannot be in leadership positions?

Paul’s classic statement: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28) also provides a key theological perspective. Paul here articulates an ultimate equality of status with no qualification. The point is that these distinctions do not, or should not, exist in the body of Christ. Paul could not have expressed it in a stronger form.[27]

This verse provides a key theological perspective. Paul clearly expresses the idea of ultimate equality of status with no qualification. The point is that these distinctions do not, or should not, exist in the body of Christ.[28]

Conclusion

            Sadly, in our culture, the Church has been influenced by the culture of our day, in a male-dominated society. Women are kept in their place, being told to remain silent, sit in the pew, and look pretty. Perhaps she may be given the position to teach other women or children but that is the extent of options available to her in many Churches today. Perhaps she may aspire to be the secretary in the Church office. Certainly not a Pastor, nor an assistant Pastor nor any role in front of the entire Church, we must, after all, keep women in their place.

References

  1. “The Bible Teaches the Equal Standing of Man and Woman.” CBE International. Accessed May 30, 2021. https://www.cbeinternational.org/resource/article/priscilla-papers-academic-journal/bible-teaches-equal-standing-man-and-woman.
  • Epp, Eldon Jay. Junia: The First Woman Apostle. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005.
  • Howell, Donna, and Derick P. Gilbert. The Handmaidens Conspiracy: How Erroneous Bible Translations Hijacked the Women’s Empowerment Movement Started by Jesus Christ and Disavowed the Rightful Place of Female Pastors, Preachers, and Prophets. Crane, MO: Defender Publishing, 2018.
  1.  Payne, Philip B. “The Bible Teaches the Equal Standing of Man and Woman.” Priscilla Papers., 2015. https://eds.b.ebscohost.com/eds/detail/detail?vid=1&sid=d95ae094-37c4-402c-b6ef-bea2a140fc71%40sessionmgr101&bdata=JmF1dGh0eXBlPXNoaWImc2l0ZT1lZHMtbGl2ZSZzY29wZT1zaXRl#db=rlh&AN=100755456.
  1. Pierce, Ronald W. Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010. P. 164.
  1. Preato, Dennis J. “Junia, a Female Apostle: An Examination of the Historical Record.” CBE International, 2019. https://www.cbeinternational.org/resource/article/priscilla-papers-academic-journal/junia-female-apostle-examination-historical.
  1. “Priscilla Speaks.” CBE International, n.d. https://www.cbeinternational.org/resource/article/mutuality-blog-magazine/priscilla-speaks.
  1. “Tim Dieppe.” Academia.edu. Accessed May 30, 2021. https://independent.academia.edu/TimDieppe?swp=tc-au-30291935

[1] Paul Carter, “Phoebe, Prisca and Junia: Three Women in the Eye of the Evangelical Storm – The Gospel Coalition: Canada,” The Gospel Coalition | Canada, February 12, 2018, https://ca.thegospelcoalition.org/columns/ad-fontes/phoebe-prisca-junia-three-women-eye-evangelical-storm/.

[2] Claude Mariottini, “Rereading Micah 6:4: Miriam, A Leader in Israel,” Dr. Claude Mariottini – Professor of Old Testament, September 10, 2019, https://claudemariottini.com/2007/06/11/rereading-micah-64-miriam-a-leader-in-israel-2/.

[3]  Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] “Tim Dieppe,” Academia.edu, accessed May 30, 2021, https://independent.academia.edu/TimDieppe?swp=tc-au-30291935 p. 5.

[8] Ibid. p. 5

[9] “The Bible Teaches the Equal Standing of Man and Woman,” CBE International, accessed May 30, 2021, https://www.cbeinternational.org/resource/article/priscilla-papers-academic-journal/bible-teaches-equal-standing-man-and-woman.

[10] Rob Dixon, “Phoebe: Deacon and Benefactor: Women of the Bible Study Series,” Faithward.org, April 29, 2020, https://www.faithward.org/devotional-phoebe-deacon-and-benefactor/.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13]“Tim Dieppe,” Academia.edu, accessed May 30, 2021, https://independent.academia.edu/TimDieppe?swp=tc-au-30291935 p. 6.

[14] “Priscilla Speaks,” CBE International, n.d., https://www.cbeinternational.org/resource/article/mutuality-blog-magazine/priscilla-speaks.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Eldon Jay Epp, Junia: The First Woman Apostle (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005)

[17] Dennis J. Preato , “Junia, a Female Apostle: An Examination of the Historical Record,” CBE International, 25, 2019, https://www.cbeinternational.org/resource/article/priscilla-papers-academic-journal/junia-female-apostle-examination-historical.

[18]  Brooten, “Junia . . . Outstanding among the Apostles,” 141. Source: In Epistolam ad Romanos, Homilia 31, 2 (PG 60:669f.).

[19]  Brooten, “Junia . . . Outstanding among the Apostles,” 141. Source: Commentaria in Epistolam ad Romanos 10, 26 (PG 14, 1281B); 10, 39 (PG 14, 1289A). The text printed in PG has Junia emended to Junias, but the manuscripts have Junia or Julia; Stanley Grenz, Women in the Church: A Biblical Theology of Women in Ministry (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1995), 95; Belleville, “Re-examination,” 235.

[20] Craig S. Keener, Paul, Women and Wives (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1992), 242, quoted in Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, Good News for Women: A Biblical Picture of Gender Equality (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997), 195.

[21] Eldon Jay Epp, Junia: The First Woman Apostle, 69;

[22] “Junia, a Female Apostle: An Examination of the Historical Record,” CBE International, accessed May 30, 2021, https://www.cbeinternational.org/resource/article/priscilla-papers-academic-journal/junia-female-apostle-examination-historical.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Donna Howell and Derick P. Gilbert, The Handmaidens Conspiracy: How Erroneous Bible Translations Hijacked the Women’s Empowerment Movement Started by Jesus Christ and Disavowed the Rightful Place of Female Pastors, Preachers, and Prophets (Crane, MO: Defender Publishing, 2018) Kindle edition, location 245.  

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ronald W. Pierce, Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010). P. 65.

[27]“Tim Dieppe,” Academia.edu, accessed May 30, 2021, https://independent.academia.edu/TimDieppe?swp=tc-au-30291935

[28] Ibid. p. 3

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