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Women's Role in the Church

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Text:  Selected (New American Standard Version quoted)

Author:  Ralph Sorter


            Someone once said, “Being a woman is a terribly difficult task since it consists principally in dealing with men.”  With the exception of a couple of societies, women have had a very difficult position when compared to man.  The struggle for acceptance has been a long one.  Culture and tradition have played a significant role in what women can and cannot do within a society.  The acceptance women are finding in this current century is quite new in view of their role through history.  The caution to heed in the woman’s role in the church is that we not let culture and traditions interfere with our interpretation of Scripture in this matter.  Even the view of women under the old covenant might hinder our view of the woman’s role in the church if we approach it with bias.

            Therefore the purpose of this study is to approach the woman’s role in the church by clarifying what is Scriptural and what is cultural.  Scriptural exegesis leads to clear conclusions if we are able to remove our cultural biases.  Exegesis results in unity with all passages if it is done properly.  You will not have to make an exception rule if you have properly interpreted the Scriptures.

            Our study of women begins with her first occurrence: the Garden of Eden.  Man was created first and God saw that he was incomplete, so He made woman to be a helpmate at his side.  As Peter says, woman is the weaker vessel (1 Pet. 3:7), so Satan attacked the first couple at the weaker link.  Adam was at fault too in relinquishing his leadership about whether to follow the serpent’s temptation and tasted the forbidden fruit also.  What resulted from the fall is a curse that has plagued relationships and women’s roles through the ages.  Let’s look at the curse.

      Gen. 3:16  “To the woman He said, ‘I will greatly multiply your pain in childbirth, in pain you will bring forth children; yet your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.’”  (emphasis mine)  Desire in the Hebrew is teshuqah, which means, “to raise the head above, to desire to take the role of authority, to dominate.”  You could say the poison of the curse is for woman to want to raise her head above man’s to usurp his authority.  Equally, man received an injection of poison with the curse, and his poison is found in the meaning of the word for rule in the Hebrew, mashal, which means, “to sit in an elevated position to rule, to subdue.”  Therefore, when man sees woman raising her head above him, he has desire to subdue her, pounding that head back down.  Clearly this is the result of the poison and it should not be this way.

      To get another view of the usage of these two words we only need to look to the next chapter, in Gen. 4:6-7.  The setting is of Cain and Abel offering sacrifices to the Lord.  Abel’s is accepted and Cain’s is not.  Cain’s jealousy turns to murderous anger.  God sees it raising its ugly head in his heart, so He speaks to Cain about it: “Then the LORD said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen?  If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.’” (emphasis mine)

            In this text, desire is the same Hebrew word teshuqah, and master is the same Hebrew word mashal.  In this passage you have a jealous man with whom Satan is knocking at his heart’s door with rage.  The anger wants to raise its ugly head and take charge, but God cautioned Cain that he must subdue it, push its head down, or he was going to take this into dangerous territory.  The Scriptures reveal he was not able to subdue it, and sin raised its ugly head and led to murder of his brother.  Now we clearly see the intent of these Hebrew words and the poison that resulted from the curse.      

      The antidote for the poison is found in the New Testament in Ephesians 5:21-26.  “Be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.  Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord.  For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body.  But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything.  Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word.”

      Paul states in verse 21 that when it comes to standing before the Lord and subjecting ourselves to each other spiritually, we stand on equal ground.  Next comes the antidote for the ugly poison that was injected clear back in the Garden of Eden.  The wife is to be submissive to her husband as she would to Christ, and the husband is to love his wife as Christ loves us.  Satan attacked Eve first and convinced Adam that it was OK to eat the forbidden fruit.  Therefore, for her protection, God made man to be her sanctifying leader.  God tells the wives to submit to their husbands.  But to make sure the husband does not overpower and subdue her, He commands husbands to love their wives just as Jesus would if He were in their place.

      It makes sense that this is God’s plan to overcome the curse from the Garden.  She wants to raise her head up and usurp his authority, so God says to submit.  When he sees her do that, he wants to push that head down and subdue her, so God says to love her, sanctify her, and wash her with the Word.

      Spiritually, man and woman find their equality in Jesus Christ.  Galatians 3:28 says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

      But now, what about the woman’s role in the church?  Everything previous has set the tone for the words we find Paul writing in 1 Cor. 11:3-10  “But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.  Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying disgraces his head.  But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head, for she is one and the same as the woman whose head is shaved.  For if a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head.  For a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man.  For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man; for indeed man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake.  Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head.”

      Verse 3 is a critical verse to those that follow.  This verse defines what Paul means by “head” in the verses to follow.  “Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.”  Now look at verse 5:  “Every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head (her husband), for she is one and the same as the woman whose head is shaved.”  The veil was a symbol of submitting to her husband and being under his authority and protection.  It is understood in this verse that in public worship it was now all right for women to pray and prophesy, but they were to be under their husband’s authority.  If what she was to pray or prophesy met her husband’s approval, she could then contribute to public worship.  This is amplified in verse 10 where Paul says, “Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head.”  The veil was the symbol of being under her husband’s authority.  This is further clarified in Titus 2:4-5“…so that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be sensible, pure, workers at home, kind, being subject to their own husbands, so that the word of God will not be dishonored.”

            Therefore, could not a woman speak, pray, participate in worship, prophesy or teach if the content met with the husband’s and the church leader’s approval?  If a woman wanted to teach where there were men willing to sit under her teaching, could not the church leaders preview the content for unity with the church’s doctrine and stand?  Otherwise, how do you have so many women participating in worship, speaking and prophesying throughout the Scriptures if they are to keep silent altogether?  To come to that conclusion is poor hermeneutics at the basic level.  You cannot have a correct interpretation of a single passage if it conflicts with other passages.

            Who are those women throughout the Scriptures that did so?

1.      Miriam.  “Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took the timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dancing.  Miriam answered them, ‘Sing to the LORD, for He is highly exalted; the horse and his rider He has hurled into the sea.’” (Ex. 15:20-21)

2.      Deborah.  “Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time.   She used to sit under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the sons of Israel came up to her for judgment.”  (Judg. 4:4-5)

3.      Huldah.  “So Hilkiah the priest, Ahikam, Achbor, Shaphan, and Asaiah went to Huldah the prophetess, the wife of Shallum the son of Tikvah, the son of Harhas, keeper of the wardrobe (now she lived in Jerusalem in the Second Quarter); and they spoke to her.  She said to them, Thus says the LORD God of Israel, ‘Tell the man who sent you to me, thus says the LORD, behold, I bring evil on this place and on its inhabitants, even all the words of the book which the king of Judah has read.  Because they have forsaken Me and have burned incense to other gods that they might provoke Me to anger with all the work of their hands, therefore My wrath burns against this place, and it shall not be quenched.’”  (2 Ki.22:14-17)

4.      Anna.  “And there was a prophetess, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years and had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then as a widow to the age of eighty-four.  She never left the temple, serving night and day with fastings and prayers.  At that very moment she came up and began giving thanks to God, and continued to speak of Him to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”  (Lk. 2:36-38)

5.      Phillip’s daughters.  “On the next day we left and came to Caesarea, and entering the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven, we stayed with him.  Now this man had four virgin daughters who were prophetesses.”  (Acts 21:8-9)

6.      Leading women.  “And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, along with a large number of the God-fearing Greeks and a number of the leading women.”  (Acts 17:4)

7.      Priscilla.  “Now a Jew named Apollos, an Alexandrian by birth, an eloquent man, came to Ephesus; and he was mighty in the Scriptures.  This man had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he was speaking and teaching accurately the things concerning Jesus, being acquainted only with the baptism of John; and he began to speak out boldly in the synagogue. But when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately.”  (Acts 18:24-26)

8.      Phoebe.  “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea; that you receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and that you help her in whatever matter she may have need of you; for she herself has also been a helper of many, and of myself as well.”  (Rom. 16:1-2)

9.      Euodia and Syntyche.  “I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to live in harmony in the Lord.  Indeed, true companion, I ask you also to help these women who have shared my struggle in the cause of the gospel.”  (Phil. 4:2-3)

            One might ask, how do these Scriptures agree with 1 Cor. 14:34 where it says women are not to speak in church?  “The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says.  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.”  (1 Cor. 14:34-35)

            Remember, proper Biblical hermeneutics delivers principles that are consistent throughout all passages.  Based upon what was explained above in 1 Cor. 11, we can see the consistency in this passage.  Women were not to speak out independently, usurping their husband’s authority.  Instead they are to submit to their husband and if she had questions about a matter, she was to ask him at home instead of disrupting public worship.

            We have one final verse to reconcile with our hermeneutic, 1 Tim. 2:11-12.  “A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness.  But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet.”  As stated above, woman is not to usurp her husband’s leadership role, but to submit to his love and cleansing with the Word (Eph. 5).  The clincher is verse 12, in the words “exercise authority over.”  In the Greek it is authenteo, which means usurp authority, govern, exercise authority.  This is consistent with all previous passages where it states that woman is not to usurp man’s authority, but to learn under his leadership.

            The Big Question: If what a woman has learned is consistent with what any man would teach of the same material, and is consistent with the church’s teaching, could not the church leadership approve and bless her to teach it to those who are willing to sit under her delegated blessing of the church?  The problem is not in the teaching of truth; for truth is truth no matter who speaks it, male or female.  The problem Paul was trying to avert (which is consistent throughout all Scripture) is for women not to usurp the headship and authority of her husband or church leaders (the pastor and elders).  God put a head over woman for her protection and blessing; not to continue the curse and push her down and subdue her.  To continue to do so is to still be under the curse, having not found the antidote given after Christ shed His blood on the cross.

Footnote to Page 1

The NET Bible  -  Genesis 3:16

3:16 - To the woman He said, “I will greatly increase your labor pains; with pain you will give birth to children.  You will want to control your husband, 48 but he will dominate 49 you.”

48tn Heb “and toward your husband [will be] your desire.” The nominal sentence does not have a verb; a future verb must be supplied, because the focus of the oracle is on the future struggle. The precise meaning of the noun hq*WvT= (T=vWq*h, “desire”) is debated. Many interpreters conclude that it refers to sexual desire here, because the subject of the passage is the relationship between a wife and her husband, and because the word is used in a romantic sense in Song 7:11 HT (7:10 ET). However, this interpretation makes little sense in Gen 3:16. First, it does not fit well with the assertion “he will dominate you.” Second, it implies that sexual desire was not part of the original creation, even though the man and the woman were told to multiply. And third, it ignores the usage of the word in Gen 4:7 where it refers to sin’s desire to control and dominate Cain. (Even in Song of Songs it carries the basic idea of “control,” for it describes the young man’s desire to “have his way sexually” with the young woman.) In Gen 3:16 the Lord announces a struggle, a conflict between the man and the woman. She will desire to control him, but he will dominate her instead. This interpretation also fits the tone of the passage, which is a judgment oracle. See further Susan T. Foh, “What is the Woman’s Desire?” WTJ 37 (1975): 376-83.

49tn The Hebrew verb lvm (m*v*l) means “to rule over,” but in a way that emphasizes powerful control, domination, or mastery. This also is part of the baser human nature. The translation assumes the imperfect verb form has an objective/indicative sense here. Another option is to understand it as having a modal, desiderative nuance, “but he will want to dominate you.” In this case, the Lord simply announces the struggle without indicating who will emerge victorious.

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