By Lorelei Pinney Nij
It is incredible the modern church remains mired in the centuries-old debate of the role of women in ministry. In the late 1970s, when I was a senior at Dallas Christian College, one of my professors challenged me to examine this topic using only Scripture as my prooftext. It was enlightening and empowering to discover the principle limitations on women were not divinely inspired but were placed on them by men.
Jesus’ View of Women
I explored this question first: “How did Jesus treat women and what did he teach about women?” It is relevant that Jesus overthrew centuries of Jewish laws and customs. He treated men and women as equals, which was contrary to normal behavior of the time. His actions toward women were revolutionary. Here are a few examples:
- He ignored the laws of ritual impurity (Mark 5:25-34).
- He spoke to foreign women (John 4:7-26).
- He entrusted a woman with the first declaration of his purpose on earth and she became one of the first evangelists (John 4:13-42).
- Jesus used terminology that put women on the same level as men (Luke 13:16).
- Jesus forgave a woman’s sins (John 8:11).
- He accepted women in his inner circle (Luke 8:1-3).
- He appeared first to one or more women after his resurrection (John 8:11-18; Matthew 28:8-10).
- At his execution, among his followers, mainly women were present (Mark 15:40, 41).
- Women were the first to testify of his resurrection (John 20:18).
- Jesus commended the faith and actions of women as examples to be followed.
Women in the New Testament Church
Not only does the New Testament speak of the revolutionary way Jesus validated women and went against cultural norms, many women are mentioned in the historical account of the early New Testament church.
- Priscilla likely was at least as well educated as her husband, Aquila, and she probably held a higher social standing. Both Priscilla and Aquila were named as teachers of the Way and both contributed to the missionary education of Apollos (see Acts 18).
- Women opened their houses and shared their resources for the betterment of the church: Lydia (Acts 16:13-15); Phoebe (Romans 16:1, 2), whom Paul called a sister, a deacon, and benefactor (the verb form of that last term is proistanai, which is used of male church leaders elsewhere in the New Testament); and Junia (Romans 16:7), whom was referred to as an apostle.
- Women were referred to as prophets, people who spoke for God. In the early church, prophets provided guidance (Acts 13:1-4), instruction (1 Corinthians 14:31), strengthening, encouraging, comfort (1 Corinthians 14:3), and the most desirable of the spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 14:1). Acts 21:9 says Philip had four unmarried daughters who prophesied.
- Women were identified as evangelists. Evangelists were men and women who preached the gospel of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Euodia and Syntyche of Philippi were female coworkers of Paul, of whom he said had “contended at my side for the cause of the gospel” (Philippians 4:2, 3).
Having established that women in the New Testament were evangelists, prophets, deacons, and one was even referred to as an apostle, we must move on to the difficult task of understanding the two prooftexts that have been used by men for years to silence women in the church.
Women and Remaining Silent
Paul wrote, “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church” (1 Corinthians 14:34, 35).
The passage, in context, logically refers to speaking in “tongues” or prophesying. The Word laleo in Greek is often translated as “useless and senseless babble or gossip.” A literal reading of the text as proof that women are never to speak in the congregation would directly contradict 1 Corinthians 11 (the same letter) when Paul specifically said that when a woman prays or prophesies in the congregation she should do so with a covering on her head. (She would have hair, in other words, unlike the shaven heads of prophetesses of the time.) This portion of Scripture obviously was speaking of the assembly of the saints because it flowed directly into instructions about the Lord’s Supper.
Why would Paul instruct women to pray or prophesy with their head covered (or under a sign of authority) and three chapters later instruct them to never speak?
The first problem is that in the preceding verses (1 Corinthians 14:26-33), Paul instructed both the people speaking in tongues and the prophets to remain silent. This text seems to apply to both males and females.
Another problem is that the word frequently translated “women” can also refer to “wives”; since verse 35 refers to “their own husbands,” it is logical that “women” in verse 34 should be translated “wives.”
Since the entirety of 1 Corinthians 14 refers to chaos and disorder during the church service, it is logical to interpret Paul’s instruction as not forbidding speech but, instead, banning distracting chatter . . . talking and asking questions out loud during the teaching. If a woman did not understand something, it is logical she would ask her husband to explain it to her. Thus Paul admonished women to listen in silence, and if they needed clarification, to ask their husbands when they got home.
The message of this passage is clear: Respect one another during public worship. Show love by remaining silent when others are speaking so that those around you can listen and learn. Nothing more, nothing less.
Women and Teaching/Authority
Paul also wrote the second prooftext in question: “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man” (1 Timothy 2:11, 12).
Again, Paul did not believe a woman must be silent at all times (recall his instructions in 1 Corinthians 11). This text says that the “woman should learn . . . in full submission.” However, are women to be in full submission to all men? Or should they learn in full submission to their man?
In traditional translations of this passage, the most problematic issue is the rendering of the verb authentein as “authority.” This word is used only here in Scripture and rarely in extra-biblical texts, where it usually is associated with aggression and sometimes even murder. The Latin Vulgate translated this word as “domineering” and “aggression.” Since Paul usually used the word exousia when referring to the use of authority in the church, it is likely Paul was objecting to something other than the legitimate use of authority. It is possible the verb didaskein is linked to the verb authentein by a conjunction, making them equal and a single point. This would make the meaning of the passage, “I forbid women to teach in an abusive, aggressive, and domineering way.” This interpretation would be in harmony with the rest of the chapter.
An interpretation should not contradict the rest of the author’s teaching. In Galatians 3:28, Paul expressly stated there is not “male and female,” thus giving prominence to equality. In other passages he mentioned both males and females as co-laborers in the gospel. Above all, interpretation should not contradict the overall teaching in the New Testament, especially the example and teaching of Jesus. In the Gospels, Jesus never suggested that women’s roles were to be secondary or limited in the community of faith, even when he had the opportunity to do so.
I honestly think, all exegesis aside, speaking from 40 years of teaching experience, that in 1 Timothy 2 Paul was addressing a problem of women trying to domineer and establish dominion and authority over others, not just men. I find it significant that Christ, from the beginning of his ministry, taught and exemplified that authority is established by an attitude of service. Paul used the word servant over and over when he referred to himself and his ministry.
As a teacher, and especially when I instruct teenagers, I need to establish my authority in the classroom. I do not establish it by yelling, demanding, punishing, or even enforcing rules (law). My classroom authority is established by many things: my firm, quiet spirit; my confidence; my consistency; my knowledge; because the teenagers know I mean exactly what I say; and (most of all) because those teenagers know I love them dearly and will go to Hell’s gate if necessary to rip them from Satan’s grip. They know I will love them, defend them, and go to war for them, but they also know I will hold their feet to the fire, demand their best, and accept no excuses.
I personally believe there were women in the church in Ephesus who perhaps used their economic status or some other means to try to domineer, control, and manipulate the church. I believe Paul was speaking to a heart attitude—an attitude of dominance. Over and over, Paul exhorted the early Christians to submit to Christ, their rulers, and each other. The instruction was always to submit to one another out of love (Ephesians 5:21-33), not dominate.
As a woman serving in ministry, I do not desire to rule over men. The only thing I ask is to be allowed to take the message of Christ and his love to the nations, inside and outside of the assembly.
I ask to be allowed to teach the things that God in his grace and others in their wisdom have taught me. I ask to teach anyone who will listen.
That is the fire that burns within me. As Amos said, “The lion has roared—so who isn’t frightened? The Sovereign Lord has spoken—so who can refuse to proclaim his message?” (Amos 3:8, New Living Translation). I ask this for myself and for hundreds of other devout Christian women who long to preach the Word, and teach others, and follow the calling Christ put upon their lives.
Lorelei Pinney Nij directs and administrates Morning Glory Christian Academy, a private school in San Raymundo, Guatemala. She graduated from Dallas Christian College, attended Cincinnati Bible Seminary, and has worked on the mission field since 1979. She has taught Christian education classes at Colegio Biblico.