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Women In the Church

by Tim O'Hearn

What is the role of a woman in the church? The answer to that may be the most disputed (and perhaps most misunderstood) issue in the church today. On the one hand we have the people who say women can only prepare meals and teach nursery classes. On the other hand, there are those who say women can do anything, from pulpit preaching to serving as elders. As with most things, the truth probably stands somewhere between the extremes.

One problem is that people tend to think in terms of the cultural church. In America that means many people’s truth is the American version of the church. They would be shocked by those people in Australia and other places that say, “I want the church; I just don’t want the American church.” Both of the extremes in this issue are, by the way, very American. Some macho American men generally take the attitude that women should be “barefoot and pregnant.” They don’t allow their women to work outside the home. Even if they are deployed overseas in the military, they still control the check book and pay all the bills. Although a woman has not yet been elected president, in other aspects of life American women have become prominent and powerful. This is true in business, trades,I want the church; I just don’t want the American church. and even churches. These positions are not uniquely American, but they do seem to represent the extremes in American churches more so than in the churches in many other countries; and not just in third-world countries.

So what is the role of the woman in the church? That is actually a much more complex question than it appears.

Public Assembly

The public assembly is the area that most of the controversy about women occurs. Can a woman preach? Lead prayers publicly? Be a song leader or worship leader?

Part of the issue here is that American (and other) churches have adopted a model that is not necessarily scriptural. That is not to say it is wrong; but the current model is much of the controversy. Most modern churches have adopted the orthodox model of a hired or appointed preacher delivering a sermon or homily as part of the public gathering. Today anywhere from half to three-quarters of most assemblies are taken up by the preaching. This was apparently not the model for the first century church.

The early church assemblies were modeled, at least in part, after the synagogue gatherings. The rabbi then, and in many Jewish congregations today, was not equivalent to the modern preacher. Instead, each week had its assigned scripture reading. Any notable man could be invited to read the daily or weekly portion, and then comment on it.

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up: and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up for to read. And there was delivered unto him the book of the prophet Esaias. And when he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written, The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, To preach the acceptable year of the Lord. And he closed the book, and he gave it again to the minister, and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him. And he began to say unto them, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears. (Lk 4:16-21)

This pattern was followed, possibly with some modification, in the early church. “How is it then, brethren? when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying.” (1 Cor 14:26)

And yet, most of the time when women object that they are considered second-class Christians it is because a congregation is not allowing them to preach. Instead of asking why she cannot preach from the pulpit, should the biblical woman rather be asking why we hire anybody to do so?

Nevertheless, in the assembly the general admonition was for women to learn in silence, and not to usurp authority over men. Most people have heard the scriptures.

Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church. (1 Cor 14:34-35)
Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression. (1 Tim 2:11-14)

Lest anybody think that Paul’s admonitions were merely based on the culture of his time, he refers back to the Law of Moses, and even further back, to the creation. The context of the passage to the Corinthians clearly puts it in the public assembly. (“If the whole church be come together,” and “when ye come together.”) If there are men present, women are not to teach in the public assembly, or to lead in prayer. Except ….

There are exceptions. When we sing together, women sing too, even though we are teaching. Women (today) speak in even the most conservative congregations, when they speak in Bible classes, which are a public gathering of the church for the purpose of teaching.

If they can sing, what else can a woman do in the public assembly? In the Churches of Christ, where congregational singing is the norm, can a woman “lead” the singing? Many song leaders are merely song starters these days. If a woman can sing, what is the difference if she sings from the pews or from the pulpit? Even some conservative congregations allow a woman in the seats to start a song that begins with an alto or soprano solo. In congregations where the Lord’s Supper is passed among the congregants, women routinely pass the trays within the seats; what is the difference if they stand to pass them, as long as they don’t pray? Each congregation will have to answer those questions for themselves.

Evangelism

If preachers in the first century, or at least those mentioned in the Bible, were not pulpit preachers in the modern sense, then what were they? Can women preach like they did?

Most, if not all, the preachers in the New Testament were evangelists. That is, they preached the good news of the death, burial, resurrection, and post-resurrection sightings to people who had not heard or did not believe. They were what we might call missionaries today. (One church bulletin listed such a preacher who targeted the local area as their missionary to their own city.) If women want a role in the church beyond “cooking and children’s classes,” this may be one option.

We know from the scripture that women were sometimes as involved as men in teaching the lost, or teaching in private. The prime example is Priscilla.

And he [Apollos] began to speak boldly in the synagogue: whom when Aquila and Priscilla had heard, they took him unto them, and expounded unto him the way of God more perfectly. (Acts 18:26)

It is interesting to note that, in all the times that Priscilla is mentioned by name, exactly half of them list her before her husband. Paul obviously held her in high regard as an evangelist. He calls them “my helpers” (Rom 16:3), and probably not just because they made tents alongside him in Corinth.

Preachers need to get out of the office and spread the gospel to the lost. That is true of both men and women who feel the need to preach.

Servants

It has been said that if women did nothing in the church except cook and teach, nothing would get done. Others have said that the reason that elders must be men (“a one woman man” in 1 Tim 3:2) is that otherwise the men would let the women do all the work.

Of course, the secretary is the backbone of any organization. Not all secretaries are women, but most church secretaries are. Even if a man is put in charge of getting something done, it is usually the women who figure out the how, and carry through. This is certainly true of the “people” tasks, but is often true of the manual labor as well. Gone are the days when plumbers and carpenters were men and secretaries and nurses were women. If a woman wants to feel useful and usedEven some conservative congregations allow a woman in the seats to start a song. in the church, there are so many other areas of service, and more important, than delivering a sermon or saying a prayer in the public assembly. Phoebe may have been recognized as a special kind of servant (Rom 16:1), or it may be that she did what every other woman and man did and caught Paul’s attention.

Are women important in the church? Certainly! Do they have a special role? Most assuredly! Are they any less important because they are not allowed a vocal role in the assembly or a title among the leadership in the church? Definitely not! Men have their roles; women have their roles. Sometimes those roles coincide; sometimes they do not. Does that make men any less because they are not (usually) mothers, or organizers, or doers? Not in the family, and not in the church.

For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling? But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him. And if they were all one member, where were the body? But now are they many members, yet but one body. And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you. (1 Cor 12:14-21)