The Role of Women in the Church

This paper looks at the biblical teaching on the role of women in the church. Does the Bible place certain restrictions on the types of ministry which women are to exercise in the church? Should certain positions in the church have a “men only” sign on them?

It is helpful to first contrast 2 opposing views on this subject. The “male authority” view (abbreviated MA) holds that the exercise of spiritual authority, including public teaching, is restricted to men. The “equal authority” view (abbreviated EA) holds that there are no such restrictions.

1) The “male authority” view

Adam and Eve were created with an equal status in God’s sight (ontological equality, equality of being), yet their relationship to one another involved a functional subordination, i.e. Eve was “ordered under” Adam. He exercised authority over Eve, who was to submit to his authority.

This subordination (without in any sense implying inferiority) is the norm for all subsequent relationships between male and female within marriage, and also in general between the sexes. It implies a different leadership or authority role in God’s church. Leadership over a mixed group of men and women is the prerogative of the man.

This creation principle can be seen clearly throughout the Old Testament. The full light of the gospel in N.T. times restores women (and men) to their full potential for ministry, yet in respect of authority there is no change to the established pattern.

The New Testament, consistent with all that has gone before, leaves authority in the church (including teaching) with the man. This is established firstly by reference to N.T. narrative, and secondly by reference to specific N.T. teaching with respect to male authority, and restrictions on the role of women.

2) The “equal authority” view

The fundamental equality of male and female at Creation is stressed, and any differentiation of role established at creation is seen as purely in terms of marriage (even this is disputed).

The subordination or subjection of woman to man is seen as being a result of the fall (Gen 3:16), and is taken to be a deviation from the creation norm. The Old Testament authority structure is taken to represent, like divorce, a divine concession to the fallen structure of human life.

Jesus and the N.T. age bring the restoration of woman back to original equality. This is seen both in teaching (e.g. ‘neither male nor female’) and in action (e.g. the ministry of Jesus to women, the frequent references to the work of women in Acts and the epistles).

However in the prevailing culture of the age, attitudes were such that the church could not move too quickly in emancipating women without causing offence that would detract from the gospel. Hence the leadership remained predominantly male, and prohibitions were required in specific situations to preserve good order.

Yet the principles and practice (when such ministry was possible) point in the direction of an equality of role. In an emancipated climate, we are now in a position to implement the principles and throw out all restrictions to the ministry of women.

The “male authority” case is regarded as being based on a few isolated verses which have been interpreted without due regard to the cultural context, and the precise meaning of certain key words, largely because centuries of male domination have created a hermeneutical bias in this area.

My own belief is that the former view represents the biblical position.

I have read 9 articles or books on this subject (5 support MA, 4 EA), and can claim to have considered all the main arguments on both sides in this paper. The reader must decide whether fair weight is given to each argument, and whether the evaluation is correct in each case.

Since the question of cultural interpretation will figure prominently in the discussion, I feel I should state the cultural infuences to which I have been subject up front.

I am a strong adherent of Reformed Theology, and most commentaries I have consulted are by Reformed writers, who took the MA view to a man. However I am also firmly of the opinion that the Reformers were not infallible (their approach to baptism is a prime example) and I have not simply accepted their views on the issues under discussion uncritically. As far as I understand my own heart, I would be happy to accept a role for women in authority in the church if I could find scriptural justification for it.

I also live in a society where equality of roles for women is now treated as the norm, an infuence supportive of EA.

The approach adopted is to consider the scriptures of relevance to the subject, and then to consider some general arguments which do not relate to any specific scripture. The relationship between male and female in the marriage context is considered only in so far as it bears on the church ministry issue. I have avoid citing authorites from church history (the Fathers, Reformers, etc) since little is proved by doing so. If the evidence of scripture is subject to dispute, how much more Church tradition.