In this age of equal opportunity and storming the glass ceiling, we should expect to see women in the pulpit. Or should we? The way I see it we shouldn’t, unless we’re listening more to 20th-century feminism than the Bible.
Does that mean women were not involved in ministry and teaching in the early church? On the contrary, women are everywhere present and active in the New Testament. Women helped form churches (Acts 16; 17:4, 12), were hostesses (Acts 12:12; 16:15; Rom 16:3-5; 1 Cor 16:19; Col 4:15; Phlm 2), exercised charity (Acts 9:36), spoke in tongues, prayed and prophesied (Acts 1:14; 2:17-18; 21:9; etc.). Paul regarded women’s contributions with obvious respect and affection (cf. Rom 16).
Women engaged in teaching and evangelism: Priscilla, with her husband Aquila, privately instructed Apollos (Acts 18:26). Timothy’s grandmother, Lois, and mother, Eunice, had a powerful influence on the young Timothy (2 Tim 1:5; 3:14-15).
A less flattering picture of the teaching ministry of women is Philippians 4:2ff, where Paul pleads for peace between two women who had ‘laboured’ with him in the gospel.
A word of caution
Before we go any further, it needs to be highlighted that these examples have all been ‘descriptive’. They describe certain situations and people. Passages such as these must be governed by the expressly instructive parts of Scripture or ‘prescriptive’ passages. As we shall see, the two do not conflict.
There are two commands to women: one to ‘teach’; the other to be ‘silent’.
Commands to teach
Older women are instructed to teach younger women (Titus 2:2-5) and we are all to “teach and admonish one another” (Col 3:16). Within the Christian fellowship, there is a place to teach and encourage one another; male and female, old and young. The extent to which we are free to do so is determined by various situations and relationships, to which we now turn.
Commands to silence
1 Corinthians 14:34 instructs women to be silent. 1 Timothy 2:12 does the same. The obvious questions are ‘why’ and ‘when’?
1 Corinthians 14:34 is best understood in its wider context; the benefit of tongues and prophecy in the Christian gathering. The word ‘silent’ is applied to three groups within that gathering. Women are commanded to silence, but they are not the only ones. Our translations make this easy to miss. The women are joined by those who have a tongue but no interpreter and those whose prophecy has been interrupted.
As ‘everyone’ will have something to contribute (14:26; cf. 1 Cor 11:5ff), these commands to silence apparently apply to certain situations. We are told what these are for the prophet and tongue-speaker. For the women, the explanation that makes most sense is that they were not to participate in ‘weighing’ the prophecies (14:29). This doctrinal evaluation and leadership was a task only for the men, to whom the women were to submit. The situation is similar in 1 Timothy 2:11ff, where women are not to teach men and thus exercise authority over them. Instead, they are to learn in quietness, receptiveness and full submission.
Headship and submission
In both passages above, the commands to silence arise from the woman’s submission to male headship in the Christian gathering. In 1 Corinthians 11, this submission was to be symbolized by an appropriate head covering. In 1 Corinthians 14 (despite the head covering) and 1 Timothy 2, women were not to participate in the binding doctrinal instruction, governance and discipline of the assembly.
If women teach or govern within the congregation, this relationship of headship and submission is disregarded.
Finally, we cannot dismiss a woman’s submission as first-century cultural baggage. God created us this way. When God created man and woman, man was created first and woman was created from man and for man (1 Cor 11:8-9). He is her head; she is his helper. God has given us different job descriptions. He is a God of order and we were created for relationships that reflect his order and purpose.
A closing parable
There were two brothers—an optimist and a pessimist.
One Christmas the parents filled the optimist’s room with manure; the pessimist’s they filled with wonderful presents. On waking, the pessimist wailed, “There are too many presents—I’ll never open them all”. The optimist, however, happily foraged through the manure muttering, “There has to be a horse in here somewhere”.
Our tendency is to notice what is withheld rather than that which is given. The pulpit reaches but a fraction of God’s world and only a fraction of the time. But the scope of women’s ministry is inexhaustible within God’s loving bounds. More than that, conformity to God’s order and purpose will bring blessing to ministries and harmony to relationships.