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"For we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not of ourselves."

Women in the Church

woman behind man

by Kent Philpott

Egalitarian or Complementarian—which will it be? This is often a dilemma that faces Christians today, and unhappily it is a major issue with those in the Reformed tradition as well.


Egalitarian—men and women are equal in their service for Christ in the local church. This means that women teach and preach with men in attendance and minister equally with men in exercising their gifts.

Complementarian—women are subordinate to men in ministry in the church in that they are not to have authority over men, which means they are not to teach men. Some assert that women are not to teach males of any age.

As a new Christian I had no position on women in church ministry and did not know there was any real issue. During the 1970s I found that few women in America served as pastors except in the more theologically liberal denominational churches. However, a growing number of women were pastoring pentecostal and/or charismatic churches. There was only minimal excitement about that at the time.

A Battle

After my “paradigm shift” from Arminian to Reformed theology, I ran full force into the egalitarian versus complementarian controversy. The battle, and I mean battle, became dramatically apparent to me when a strong, growing, and vibrant church in a nearby county was literally shut down due to the controversy. A woman in that fine church, in which I had preached on occasion, composed beautiful hymns that had theologically Reformed lyrics. The trouble was that she taught the hymns to the congregation. Opposition came from an elder who held that it was a case of a woman teaching men and who was thus in direct violation of the Word of God.

The ministry of that church and founding pastor ended quite quickly right in the midst of a building program to accommodate their rapidly growing membership – all over the song writer’s ministry. Dozens of us were shocked and gravely disappointed, while others exulted in the disciplining of a woman who dared teach men and who was encouraged to do so by their “beloved pastor.”  Some of us could not help wondering if we were looking at a kind of Calvinistic Taliban mentality.

Slippery Slope?

“Slippery slope” is a term used to describe the treacherous terrain a church is on when it allows women to teach and preach. The charge made is that, at the bottom of the slope lies ruin, which is the natural outcome of direct disobedience to Scripture. In my view, this is a form of intimidation, and it short circuits critical thinking.

Yes, liberal Christian denominations have led the way in ordaining women to pastoral ministry, and pentecostals have long been doing so. In missions around the world there are many women who pastor churches, sometimes out of necessity, sometimes as a general rule. But what I have encountered in both Arminian and Reformed churches is this attitude: that allowing women to minister in the church in such a manner that men would be influenced by that ministry is tantamount to riding the same toboggan with the pentecostals/charismatics and liberals as it swiftly slides to the bottom of the hill. On several occasions someone actually walked out of a worship service at Miller Avenue when a woman got up to speak.

What Does Scripture Say?

Though I have examined the relevant Bible passages more than a few times, I made another thorough study recently. There are two primary passages that speak to the issue directly. The first is 1 Corinthians 14:33-35:

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 in submission, as the Law 1 also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

Paul stated that “women should keep silent in the churches.” If this were to be taken literally, it could mean no talking at all, even friendly chit-chat with the other women. Few, if any, interpret it so; instead it is understood that to “keep silent” meant that women were not to have authority over men, which is what we will encounter in 1Timothy (see below) where Paul also addresses the issue of women in the churches. However, it is hard not to take Paul literally. Three times in a tightly written paragraph Paul makes it clear, “it is shameful for a woman to speak in church,” and this without qualification of any kind.

Commentators have long recognized that Paul was concerned about orderly worship in the Corinthian church, which was apparently quite lacking. Earlier in the letter, in 11:5 and 11:13, Paul appears to permit married women to pray and prophesy, while at the same time admonishing them not to dishonor their husbands by how they dressed themselves. The immediate context has to do with prophets, and Paul was concerned that married women not engage in questioning these prophets or otherwise contributing to any confusion. The married women were to talk to their husbands at home about what went on when the church was assembled, for reasons that were likely relevant in that day of the “new Roman woman.”

For a generation or more, the women of Rome had begun to experience new freedoms, and there was some concern that such new liberty might get out of hand. 2  Even the emperors Augustus and Tiberius shared the concern.

A Case of Unity and Peace

Paul characteristically hoped for peace in the churches he had founded and over which he had some authority. For Paul, the proclamation of the Gospel was paramount, and that required unity and peace. Now consider 1 Timothy 2:11-14:

Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.

This passage is different from that of 1 Corinthians 14 since Paul appeals to the Genesis account of the Fall where Eve was tricked by the devil. Adam was also tricked, although secondarily. Eve fell for a slick argument from a “crafty” serpent, while Adam, who had apparently failed to communicate the warning he had received from God to his wife, fell for what might be assumed was a much weaker presentation.

It reads like a rabbinical kind of argument, something out of the Gemara portion of the Talmud. Paul may have been well schooled in such curricula, and it may be that he was passing along an insider joke regarding the relationships between men and women. However, such speculation lacks certainty. 
Paul rightly instructs Timothy about issues that would threaten peace in the home and the church—and again it strongly appears that it is the married woman under consideration. If the passages in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy were all we had, then at least married women ought not to speak up in any way in the church’s assembling. Yet logic and experience may inform us that married women often have more maturity than single women.

Other Biblical Texts to Investigate

Joel the prophet looked ahead to a time, and we know it was the Pentecost of Acts chapter 2, when the Spirit of God would be poured out on all flesh, where sons and daughters would prophesy, and the Spirit would be poured out on male and female servants. How literal are we to take this?

Paul said in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Does this speak to equality, and if so, to what extent does it apply to the gathering of believers? Perhaps the web of relationships and activities in the very early church can give us some clues. One way to get some idea of what went on in those days is to examine material in the greetings and other personal references found at the end of Paul’s letters to churches.

Paul mentions Lydia and Nympha 3, whose marital status is not certain, but both had groups of Christians meeting in their homes. Were they silent and able to avoid any teaching of men? Luke tells us that Philip, one of the seven (deacons?), had four daughters who prophesied, 4 and there is no suggestion that they prophesied only to women and children.

And Paul Commends More Women

There is more: for example, the numerous women mentioned by Paul in his closing statements in his letter to the Roman Church reveals that there were a number of women who were involved in a variety of unspecified labors in the kingdom of God. In Romans 16:3 he mentions Prisca and Aquila, a husband and wife, who are described as “fellow workers.” We know from Acts 18 that Paul met them in Corinth on his second missionary journey. There Luke mentions Aquila and then secondarily introduces the reader to Aquila’s wife Priscilla. Then in Acts 18:18, Luke reverses the order. We also note in Romans that the order is reversed with Priscilla (Priscilla is a diminutive form for Prisca) being mentioned first, perhaps indicating she was the more prominent of the two. At any rate, in Acts we find the couple taking Apollos aside and explaining to him “the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:26). Would this have been a violation of Paul’s later warnings about women teaching men? One last bit of information about the couple: Paul mentions that there was a gathering of believers meeting at their home in Rome to where they had returned after the banishment of Jews from Rome by Claudius had run its course.
Back to Romans 16, where we find more women who had worked with Paul. There is Mary in verse 6, who had “worked hard.” Then in the very next verse we find mention of Andronicus and Junia, likely another husband and wife team, Paul’s fellow prisoners. They were “well known to the apostles” or even “well known among the apostles.” 5 Then in verse 12 are mentioned Tryphaena and Tryphosa, and in verse 14 we find Julia and Nereus’ sister—and I might have missed one or two like Olympas in verse 18.
My question, when looking at all the women actively engaged in ministry with Paul or known by Paul, is what were these women doing? If we examine the gifts of the Spirit, 6 those gifts by which ministry was carried on, do we suppose there was a system of careful monitoring practiced to assure that no woman was influencing a man?

Culturally Conditioned?

My pastoring of churches for four decades taught me that if I were to have tried to prevent women from having authority over men or tried to keep them silent all together, my stress level would have been off the charts as I tried to paddle upstream in a fast-flowing cultural river. This is not to say we are beholden to our culture. We want to be careful not to resort to a “culturally conditioned” position that says Paul’s admonition about women being silent in churches applied to the conditions of that day only and not for our own day. Such an argument is often used by the pro-gay lobby to say that the biblical injunctions against homosexuality applied then but not now.

It is important to distinguish between ethical or moral laws that are found throughout Scripture, as in the case of homosexual behavior, and cultural practices that were germane in one era and are then applicable where similar circumstances demand their relevance.  Homosexuality must be rejected as normal on the basis of the Genesis creation accounts. The Law—Leviticus 20:13 is an example—warns against homosexuality, and the theme is taken up in the New Testament (see Romans 1:26-27 and 1 Corinthians 6:9). My point is that stating that homosexual behavior is not culturally bound but rather universal upholds the biblical mandates. Does this reasoning apply to women’s ministry in the church?  

Without going into the issue of Paul’s acceptance of slavery and food offered to idols, it is worth mentioning the circumstance of the “head coverings” for men. In 1 Corinthians 11:1-12 Paul clearly pronounces, “Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as if her head were shaven”(1 Corinthians 11:4-5). 7 Somewhere along the line this injunction was dropped, especially in western Christianity, by the majority of Christians. Paul is very strong on this, and likely behind his concern were cultural understandings. (Remember too, that some Christian women in the Corinthian Church were praying and prophesying.) 8

Paul, in the same passage, says it is “disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head” (see verse 6). Is this to be universally applied? And in verse 14 Paul appeals to “nature” to show that men ought not to wear their hair long, as “it is a disgrace for him.” (I was not able to ascertain when it was that Christian artists began to depict Jesus with long hair.)

Perhaps the point has been adequately made; some admonishings in Scripture are culturally influenced and have been largely ignored by Christians at varying times. While it can be thought that some words of Paul are irrelevant in some circumstances but relevant in others, we have to be discerning in how we apply this assumption.

What's In a Label?

Am I egalitarian or complementarian? Frankly, I do not care which I am labeled, since my goal is to be faithful to Scripture and not be beholden to a system developed by humans, however logical and wonderful it is deemed. In practice I encourage women to teach and preach to whomever will listen, including men. These women I am referring to did not demand this as a right, but I, along with approval from our church family, encouraged these women to pursue their gifts in these areas. Therefore, they act both under my authority as pastor and the approval of the congregation. We have also licensed several women, but none are designated as pastors, and under normal circumstances I would not encourage this. My sense of it is that it would be unfair to them and would stretch them too far to place them in such a position. (We are created equal yet with differences.) Yes, I think it is best if men, qualified men, assume pastoral leadership. And if there were none available, I would not hesitate to approve that a woman fulfill that role.

Over Zealous or Something Else?

Finally, this has too often been an area of conflict among those who hold to the doctrines of grace. I do confess that I refrained from commenting on some rather sad events that have taken place around the issue of women in ministry. At times I have bemoaned to myself and close associates the rise of a Taliban kind of mentality among those of us who subscribe to the doctrines of election. Perhaps I am being unfair, that the situation is simply a case of over zealousness, but in light of the possibility that our views may not always be entirely in conformity with the will and intent of God we might approach our work with humility.

Egalitarian or Complementarian? Can someone be in the Reformed tradition and hold either position or something in between? Some will say yes and some no.

1 There is no explicit reference in the Old Testament about women keeping silent in an assembly of worshippers.

2 Bruce W. Winter’s book, Roman Wives, Roman Widows, published by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company in 2003, examines “The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities.”

3 See Acts 16:40, which suggests that believers were meeting at Lydia’s house; then Colossians 4:15 for the reference to the church meeting at Nympha’s.

4 See Acts 21:9.

5 This second phrase, “well known among the apostles” is a more literal translation of the Greek text and does certainly confuse the notation. Either they were well know apostles or well known by the apostles. The debate is not a simple one to reslove.

6 See Romans 12:6-8 and 1 Corinthians 12:8-11.

7 It is likely that a married woman without a head covering would be signaling she was not married, and thus she would be dishonoring her husband.

8 See 1 Corinthians 11:5, 13.


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Last Update: 2013-08-12 16:41