Women are Able to Minister Spiritually
Exodus 14:20 is the first record of a prophetess. God is not limited to men in His speaking to people. Throughout history, He has used both men and women to spread forth His message. Those who believe that because the woman is the weaker vessel, she is more prone to deception and therefore not to be entrusted with the divine message are plainly wrong. Scripture teaches no such thing. Even if one accepts the interpretation of the 1 Peter 3 passage as affirming the weaker nature of women (about which there is some doubt), such does not mean that women are weaker spiritually.
Miriam was a prophetess. Deborah was a prophetess who judged Israel (Judges 4:4). Huldah was a prophetess during the time of Josiah, who prophesied peace to Josiah but destruction to Judah (2 Kings 22:14-20; 2 Chronicles 34:22-28). Anna, the godly woman at the temple who saw Jesus, was called a prophetess (Luke 2:36). And during the age of the church, the four virgin daughters of Philip prophesied (Acts 21:9). Further, both Aquila and Priscilla are said to have explained to Apollos the way of God. Finally, Paul speaks of women prophesying in 1 Corinthians 11:5, as if it was common practice. There is nothing in Scripture to indicate that women are somehow less fit to be vessels of God’s message than men.
The “Silence” Passages
How, then, do we explain the passages in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15? We cannot explain them on the basis that God does not use women nor can we explain them on the basis that women are inferior to men in spiritual matters. We cannot explain them on the basis that women have no spiritual role in admonishing or spreading forth the Word of God. Such views are not supported by the remainder of Scripture. God has often used and spoken through women. Was it not the woman Abigail who was sent by God to meet David and give him some good advice (1 Samuel 25:23-35)? And even the great man of God, Moses, was saved by his wife from death from God (Exodus 4:24-26). Christ was ministered to by women and women formed an important role in the early church (Romans 16:1-15).
Within the Assembly
Why, then, do we have these passages instructing women to keep silent in the churches? I note that both are dealing with the public assembly of the church. 1 Corinthians 14 is speaking about the church being together. Verses 23-24 speak about an unbeliever coming into the “assembly” of the whole church. Verse 26 speaks about the church coming together. The passage is clearly speaking about conduct within the assembly.
Likewise, in 1 Timothy 3:15, Paul tells Timothy that “these things” were written that Timothy should know how to conduct himself in the “house of God,” and “the church of the living God.” The “these things,” I believe, must refer back to chapter 2, since chapter 2 is the closest passage referencing conduct. Chapter 3 is written, not as conduct instruction, but as qualification instruction – qualifications for church leaders. Thus, if 1 Timothy 3:15 references back to chapter 2, then again we see that it is the house of God that is in view. It is the assembled church.
Actions within the assembled church are sometimes separated from actions of the dispersed church. What is proper in the dispersed church is not always proper in the assembled church. In 1 Corinthians 11:18 and 22, Paul draws a distinction between eating in one’s house and eating in the church. Eating by yourself at home is permitted. In the church, it is not.
Wrong Thinking, Wrong Argument
I want to pause right here and write something that must be kept in mind with respect to this issue. Men or women that are uncomfortable with a regime that places someone under someone else are evidencing signs of Gentile influence, rather than godly character. We have too many people in the church desiring to lead and not enough in the church desiring to serve in quiet and unseen ways of hospitality and kindness. The church is starving for true Christianity to be displayed. True Christians affirm with Christ that those lowest on the order are highest in the kingdom of God. The placing of women under men in the authority and teaching structure of the church should never cause women or men to adopt Gentile thinking patterns.
Further, arguments based upon culture are extra-biblical and find no support from Scripture itself. I find it strange, if this were really a matter of culture, that Christ and Scripture accommodated culture. Christ never seemed to express any reluctance to confront culture on other matters that were not according to God’s plan, e.g., divorce, care for parents, equality of humanity, mistreatment of servants, etc. Today, we have some making the same sort of cultural and historical background arguments in favor of homosexual lifestyles. Where do we draw the line in reading culture into Scripture to undo what Scripture plainly seems to say?
Some today make arguments based upon gifts. They argue that since women have the gift of administration or teaching, and such gifts are given by God, God must intend them to administer and teach in the church. The argument is flawed. Experience must always be tested by Scripture. Our subjective understanding of possessing a certain gift cannot substitute for the objective Word of God. If someone prophesies, we do not accept such activity as being from God until it is first put to the test (1 Thessalonians 5:20-21). Every gift must be tested by the Word of God. Scripture provides the only rule for faith and practice.
1 Corinthians 14:34-35
The passage in 1 Corinthians bases its reason for the silence of women on the “law,” not culture (verse 34). What law is referenced? As far as I can tell, the only passage in the five books of the law that touches the subject is that found in Genesis 3:16. Genesis is part of the Torah portion of the Old Testament and therefore considered (generally) to be part of the law. That passage states that as a result of the fall, the man (my interpretation is “husband”) would exercise dominion over the woman (my interpretation is “wife”). This has caused all kinds of consternation among the pundits today. What a perfectly sexist remark! Yet, these are the words of God. But, I hasten to add, the image of the cavemen is not the image of Scripture when it comes to dominion. Dominion is not the exercise of autocratic rule for the benefit of the ruler, but rather the exercise of benevolent care for the benefit of the other. It is the idea of watching over. Thus, the sun and the moon were to rule the day and night: they watched over the day and night (Genesis 1:18). They set the bounds of the day and the night. Christ and the church form the supreme example of the husband-wife relationship.
The 1 Corinthians 14 passage may be read as restricted to married women (The Greek word is used both ways in Scripture, as woman in Matthew 11:11; John 2:4; 4:21, and as wife in Matthew 1:20; Mark 10:2; 1 Corinthians 7:3). The reference to the law increases my view that the passage primarily has wives in mind. As to its subjects, the passage teaches submissiveness as well as silence in the gathered church. Again, I emphasize that there is no link between the command and ability; none should be inferred.
1 Timothy 2:11-15
The passage in 1 Timothy 2 provides more explanation than the 1 Corinthians 14 passage and sets forth additional support for interpreting the law of 1 Corinthians 14:35 to be the Genesis passage. In 1 Timothy 2:13-15, Paul takes us back to Genesis 2-3 to establish the reason for the silence of women in the church. The connective “gar” used in this passage is most often illative and there is no grammatical reason to take it any other sense here (“gar” can also be explanatory or emphatic). As illative, the connector provides a reason for the preceding statement. Thus, the reason for the silence of women in the assembled church, as set forth in 1 Timothy 2, is the creation order and the fall. If the “law” of 1 Corinthians 14 is a reference to Genesis 3:16, it appears that Paul does not vary the reason why women are to keep silent in the churches either because of location (Corinth vs. Ephesus) or time (1 Corinthians [55-57 A.D.], one of his pre-prison epistles, vs. 1 Timothy [around 63 A.D.], one of his last epistles).
The required silence is related to the fact that Adam was first created, then Eve. God’s divine order of first creating Adam, instructing Adam, then creating Eve was the order of the first creation, and apparently it forms a type of the order God expects in the assembled church. In the assembled church, there are no examples in Scripture, of which I am aware, where women instructed men. The descriptive accounts are always the reverse.
Not only is the creation order illative, God goes further to include the fall as a reason for the silence of women in the assembly. God states that Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and fell into transgression. The order of the fall was backwards of the order of creation. Woman led man into sin.
Women are included in Eve
In our pragmatism, we fail to comprehend the impact and significance of events occurring at the beginning of time with present day practices. God often attaches great significance to what appears to be insignificant details of early events. The disobedience of Adam brought all mankind into sin. In like manner, the order of the fall provides a reason for the submission and silence of women in the assembled church. Just as all mankind was included in Adam’s disobedience, so all women were included in Eve’s transgression.
This view of the inclusion of women in Eve is supported by verse 15. Verse 15 states that “the woman will be saved in the childbearing, if they continue in faith, love, and holiness, with self-control.” There has been a great deal of debate about what this verse means. In verse 14, Paul is not speaking about women in general, but about the woman, Eve. Yet, the switch in verse 15 from the singular “she” to the plural “they” strongly implies that in verse 14, Paul not only has Eve in mind, but he has in mind a linkage of all women in Eve. (If the singular “woman” of verse 14 is not the antecedent of the implied plural subject “they” of verse 15, then we have no antecedent. No other substantive is available.) It seems to me that just as all mankind sinned in Adam, all women, in Eve, were deceived and fell into transgression.
But the concept of all women being in Eve is not confined to this passage. Genesis 3:15, the verse immediately preceding the antecedent verse for the 1 Corinthians 14 passage, speaks about the seed of the woman. The context of the passage reveals that God was speaking to and about Eve. Her seed would bruise Satan’s head. We find Paul emphasizing in Galatians 4:4 that Christ was born of a woman, an apparent reference to the fulfillment of Genesis 3:15. Yet, we know the woman of Galatians 4:4 is Mary, not Eve. In the Scriptural view, it appears that the referenced in Genesis 3:15 cannot be limited to Eve, but rather must be seen to be woman as the feminine sex. Thus, the birth of Christ fulfilled this passage when the Seed was born of a woman.
Now, I turn back to 1 Timothy 2:15. The antecedent for the implied “she” in verse 15 must be “the woman” of verse 14 which must be a direct reference to both Eve and to all women. I believe that Paul has the same meaning for “woman” in mind that existed in Galatians 4:4. It is woman that will be saved in the childbearing.
What is the childbearing?
Paul does not have in mind the indefinite concept of general childbearing. Rather, he uses a definite article to modify the childbearing, making this a definite childbearing. Further, he does not say that women will be saved in bearing children. That is a plural idea. Rather, she shall be saved in bearing a child. He uses a singular idea, a singular noun. I believe that there is only one childbearing in view. And it is a definite one.
Given this from the grammar, and the Genesis connection from the context, I conclude that the childbearing referenced in verse 15 must be a reference to the Christ child. Women as “the woman” are saved through the childbearing, but only if they continue in faith, love, holiness with self-control. That is, women are given the exalted position of bearing the Christ child. This is a privileged position. Yet, in order for this action to lead to their salvation, “they,” each one individually, must persevere in order to be saved. Salvation comes the same to men, although that is not Paul’s point in this passage. The privilege of bringing salvation comes exclusively to woman. The effect of salvation comes only on those who persevere.
Now, if this is the proper understanding of verse 15, I return to our discussion of the explanation for women keeping silent in the churches. The great role of the feminine sex in bringing salvation to the world demonstrates for Paul that hers is not an inferior lot. But if women join with Eve in gaining the glory for bringing Christ into the world, so women join with Eve in the shame of the deception and transgression. In the pleasure of God, God has chosen to impute to future generations of women the actions of the past. If this is so, it is not only wives, but women that are included in required submission and silence.
1 Corinthians 11:2-16
My interpretation of 1 Timothy 2 is strengthened, I believe, by the statements in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. Again, the view of the submission of women forms a central tenant to the inter-relationships of men and women in the church. Interestingly, this passage also takes us back to the creation account (verses 8-9). Thus, in each of these three passages addressing the subject, the support of Scripture is based upon the accounts of the creation, or the fall, or both. God has ordained an order among those who are in Christ based upon the creation and fall.
However, unlike the other two passages, this passage does not call for silence, but rather submission. There is a reason for this. 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is speaking of Christian behavior generally, rather than the assembly specifically. The assembly is not in view until verse 18. Beginning in verse 18, Paul gives explicit instructions concerning the assembly. Thus, generally, women are encouraged to pray and prophesy publicly as long as they do so in submission to their own husbands.
What is prohibited?
Verse 11 of 1 Timothy 2 introduces the concept of the silence. Then, in verse 12 Paul states that women are not permitted to teach or to have authority over a man. There has been a great deal of debate about whether the “or” should be read disjunctive or in an adverbial fashion; that is, whether it is both teaching and authority that is prohibited or whether it is teaching and authority (that is authoritative teaching) that is prohibited. The Greek (oude) is used primarily as a negative conjunction. However, the word can possess an adverbial idea as well, meaning “not even.” The construction here is that of “de . . . oude.” This construction is found in other places in Scripture. Thus, in Matthew 6:15, “And if you do not forgive men, neither will your father forgive . . .” (See also Mark 11:26 in Majority text.) In Matthew 9:16-17, “And don’t sew new cloth into old garments neither put new wine . . .” 1 Corinthians 2:6 says, “And we speak wisdom, and not the wisdom of this age neither the rulers of this age.” 1 Corinthians 11:16, “And if anyone thinks to be contentious, we do not have this custom, neither the churches of God.” In each of these passages, it is the disjunctive idea that is in view. I have not found any passages where a clear adverbial concept flows from this construction.
There is no reason that I know from the context or from grammar to push this conjunction into a meaning different than its normal meaning. If we really want Scripture to speak to us, with care we must not allow our expectations to drive our interpretations. I believe that both teaching over men and holding authority over men is prohibited in the assembly. However, even an adverbial interpretation of this conjunction would prohibit at the least teaching with authority in the assembled church.
It appears to me that both the 1 Corinthians 14 passage and the 1 Timothy 2 passage speak of the silence of authoritative speech and action. Women are not allowed to teach in the assembly nor are they able to interrupt in assertive ways with questions. I do not interpret this to be total silence. Few would go so far as say that women could not even speak to their children in the church. The context is determinative and the passages should not be divorced from their respective contexts. In 1 Corinthians 14 the context deals with prophesying and speaking in tongues. Such are out for women in the assembly. The context in 1 Timothy 2 speaks of teaching and having authority over men. Such actions are out for women in the assembly. I do not go beyond the contexts. I do not deny women any other roles in the church.
What is the assembly?
I do not believe that every Bible study and assembly of two or three believers constitute an assembly of the church. The presence of Christ in the midst of two or three believers is never equated with the existence of an assembled church. I grant that there may be some differences of opinion here. To me, the passages seem to link assembly to the coming together of the church in a more formal way. I do not believe that women are restricted from speaking in Bible studies generally or encouraging and admonishing men to holy living, as long as 1 Corinthians 11 is followed. However, in the church assembly, silence is required.
What about Galatians 3:28?
I note that many bring the Galatians 3:28 passage into the argument. I fail to understand such logic. The context of Galatians 3:28 deals nothing with ministry roles in the church. Rather, it deals with position in Christ as heirs of the promise. That we equally all are in Christ and heirs of the promise does not undo the Biblical teaching of diversity of ministries. We are all one, but we are not all apostles, or prophets, or evangelists, or pastor-teachers. Equality in Christ does not mean that Christian women should be the heads of their homes. Such is contrary to Scripture. Equality in Christ does not mean that slaves should rule their masters. Such is contrary to Scripture. Galatians 3:28 does not deal with ministry roles. 1 Corinthians 11, 14 and 1 Timothy 2 deal with ministry roles in the church. We should let passages addressing the issue give the rule of conduct for that issue.
My understanding, then, of Scriptural teaching on the subject is this: Outside the assembly of believers, 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 gives equal freedom to men and women to pray and prophesy, as long as the woman is in submission to her husband and the man is in submission to Christ. In the assembly, women are to keep silent and neither teach nor hold authority over men. I believe that all Scriptural passages dealing with the role of women in the church are harmonious with this conclusion. Again, I emphasize, the reason for the silence of women in the church is never linked to ability, but rather to God’s divine order. Neither the 1 Corinthians 14 passage nor the 1 Timothy 2 passage carries any connotations of inferiority or lack of ability.
I note, notwithstanding the large number of women who followed Christ, not one of them was appointed an apostle. Further, scripturally, it is “necessary” that a bishop be the husband of one wife (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6). This is the same “necessary” we find in John 3:7. Yet, we would not say that the new birth is optional. Who would say that it is not necessary for the bishops of the church to be men? God has long observed a difference in ministry based upon sex. Israelite priests were required to be male. God has never limited His working to males. God’s choices are His; they are ours to obey.
I close with an observation. It appears as if much of the dialogue carries an inherent assumption that the “best” place in the church are in the teaching and leadership positions. Our society places a great deal of emphasis on teaching and leadership. Those who work under others are devalued. The work of the church, however, is not primarily in the teaching and authority structures of the church, but rather in the under-service of kindness and love towards those within and outside the church. Both men and women are free to share equally in this exalted place of lowly service, if they would.