If we are going to do a thorough look at what the Bible has to say about the role of women we have to start with the creation story in Genesis 1 and 2. Right at the beginning of the Bible we find God on a mission… creating the world with a purpose, that being to build the best place possible for mankind to have a relationship with Him and with one another. Genesis 1 is the account of God rapidly speaking all things into being… He doesn’t stop and deliberate and we don’t get the details of what he is up to until he gets to the creation of mankind; only then does God stop and make this important statement, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky over the livestock and all the wild animals and over all the creatures that move along the ground. So God created man in his own image, in his own image he created them; male and female he created them.” Genesis 1:26-27. Here, at the creation of mankind, we find no mention of a hierarchy or a differentiation of roles. Man and woman are equal in all aspects of dignity as image bearers of God and called to the same mission. The chapter 1 high-level overview of creation is then followed in chapter 2 by a look into the details of day six, the day which includes the creation of both Adam and Eve. And what we find there is that our first parents were created at slightly different times. Adam first, then Eve and this too was purposed. God knew that Adam would need some time alone to fully understand that he was incomplete, that he needed, as it says in verse 20, a ‘suitable helper.’ Only after this alone time would Adam realize the great gift that Eve was to him. Again, there is no talk of a hierarchy due to the order of their creation; what is said is that Eve was the answer to Adam’s need of a ‘suitable helper.’ Many people see the word ‘helper’ here and assume that a helper is a subordinate, someone that is not as well-trained or is present in case the person in charge needs a hand. This couldn’t be further from the case. The word used is EZAR… it is commonly used in the Old Testament is to speak of God being our helper: Eleazar. Certainly, no one would say that God is our less-knowledgeable side kick. Had Moses intended to imply a weaker position for Eve he had 4 other Hebrew word choices that would have said just that, but he, with the help of the Holy Spirit, chose ‘ezar.’ The use of this word eliminates any implications about women being weaker or subordinate to man… on the contrary, the word tends to mean ‘one of strength who stands alongside.’ Eve’s creation completed God’s design for mankind: man and woman: two together, working side-by-side, each with equal value and purpose. And the wonder of that union is expressed in the final verse of Chapter 2. “The man and his wife were naked and they felt no shame.” Genesis 2:25. This ‘naked’ means both ‘without clothing’ and ‘fully open and honest… fully known to one another.’ This was God’s plan and we believe it is still his ideal!
Sin, of course, immediately created a separation between God and mankind and caused a breakdown in the relationship between men and women. It is important to note that in Chapter 3 of Genesis, as God dealt with Adam and Eve’s sin, He spoke directly to them about how differently their lives would now look because of their sin. Adam had hard work ahead of him since the land would now fight against him. Eve was told that while she would always long for the kind of relationship she’d had with her husband before the fall, he would now rule over her rather than with her. What we have to keep in mind is that God never desired any of this. He didn’t want Adam to struggle alone in his relationship with the creation nor did He want Eve to have painful childbirth or be subject to Adam’s rule. And yet sin broke God’s intended design… and the whole of history from this point onward reflects this brokenness. And the brokenness of the relationship between men and women is now one of the world’s sad realities. And this particular brokenness has shown itself in terrible ways; I will talk about some of the specifics of this later, but again, we must always remember that the conditions in this damaged world are not God’s design. They are the result of sin. Thankfully, what the Bible shows us from this point onward is God is working to mitigate against the brokenness that sin has brought into the world.
This is particularly clear in the Old Testament law. In fact, much of the law was purposed specifically by God to hold at bay certain sinful practices that were abundant in the OT world… practices such as polygamy, rape, adultery, divorce, kidnapping, sexual slavery and corruption… these are all things that have their roots in sin; things that flourish when wicked men exercise their power over others. And God directly addressed many of these practices in his Law hoping to limit their impact. God’s intention was that The Law would lead his people away from the sinful practices of the cultures around them and into the kinds of relationships that reflected his initial designs for men and women. We also find God endorsing the leadership and influence of women in the Old Testament: Tamar, Deborah, Sarah, Abigail and Esther to name a few. And it’s important to note how rare ANY examples of women like this exist in ancient literature. In fact, outside of the Bible I don’t know of any ancient literary works where women are depicted as examples of faith or leadership; they are only shown to be objects of desire or possessions. The OT is alone in lifting the status of women.
When we get to the NT, the landscape concerning women changes dramatically. While the Old Testament gives us strong hints of God’s concern for women and their dignity as human beings, in the New Testament, especially in the Gospels, it is a new day! Now, from our cultural vantage point it would be easy to make the incorrect assumption that women playing a role in the story of Jesus was normal. But let’s set things straight… Women in the 1st Century lived their lives in the shadows… they were property of less value than a donkey. It was against Jewish law to teach a woman to read and considered a sin equal to teaching lechery to teach a woman the Law. Women could not participate in any manner in synagogue services. It took the testimony of 2 women to equal the word of one man in a trial. A woman could be divorced for any reason; not being as pretty as she used to be was reason enough. Women could be accused of committing adultery; men could not. Adulterous men only damaged another man’s property. 1st Century literature almost never includes women except in vulgar comedies where they are objects of ribald humor. But women are everywhere in the gospels and not once are they shown to be the objects of derision; in fact, what we see in the gospels is Jesus’ direct concern for, his teaching of, his healing of and his empowering of women. Jesus’ ministry, both in his attention to women and his allowing women to function as his followers, challenged and changed the social and spiritual givens of his day. Something else, rabbis tried their best to never speak to women and yet, Jesus directly, publically and scandalously, I might add, engaged many women; the woman with 12 years of bleeding, the widow of Nain and the bent and crippled woman of Luke 13 come to mind. Jesus gave high honor to women as faith models by using women as the primary characters in many of his parables. He also spoke critically of the misogynist regulations related to adultery and divorce. I even believe that I can prove that Judas’ decision to betray Jesus stems from a moment where Jesus shamed Judas publically in favor of a woman, an offense which caused Judas to seek retribution. Jesus also allowed women to travel with him and to serve him and he called these female followers his ‘sisters!’ This would have been especially shocking. And then there is the place of privilege Jesus gave to women. The 4 women in his genealogy come to mind. We don’t have time talk about this in detail but it is both unusual and instructive. And we can’t forget the gospel’s attention to Mary’s role in the incarnation; or that the first Samaritan convert was the woman at the well; or that the first Gentile convert was the woman from the region of Tyre and Sidon who debated with Jesus and won; or that the first witnesses to the resurrection and the first to give witness of the resurrection were women. And while Jesus was acting in ways that showed his desire to give equal dignity and honor to women he was also preaching a new attitude toward leadership: the greatest was to be the least; the most important should be the servant of all; the desire for power and authority had no place in his new kingdom and he said these things in a world where importance and power and authority all lay in the hands of men. It was truly a new day!
The truth is Jesus, himself, never gave any direct teachings on the authority structures between men and women in the church. But the history of the early church, coupled with many of the things said in the epistles should give us clarity as to what God’s desires are for his church. Pentecost, from what we can tell, was a gender-neutral event: 120 men and women, empowered at the same moment by the Holy Spirit, proclaiming the gospel, together. Plus, Peter’s use of Joel 2:28-32 in his Pentecost message about the coming of the Holy Spirit is very instructive. In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. Acts 2:17-18. All members of this emerging, new community would be equally empowered by the same spirit with no reference to their birth, fortune, rank, gender or class. I believe this passage in Joel was quoted at Pentecost because it was to be the template for the ministry of the church. And this racial, class and gender blindness continues throughout Acts. This fits well with Paul’s statement on the unity of all believers before God in Galatians 3:26-28. ‘So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ Jewish men often prayed a prayer thanking God that they were not born a gentile, a slave or a woman and Paul’s statement to the Galatians directly refuted that prayer. No Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male or female… all are one in Christ Jesus. We also see throughout the epistles that women are named as leaders, deaconesses, apostles and teachers. Why, even the person chosen to deliver Paul’s letter to the Romans is thought to be a woman. There are multiple examples of women who were part and parcel of the ongoing spreading of the gospel, women who opened their homes to the church, women who prophesied and women who taught, corrected and redirected both men and women. I cannot over emphasize how radical this level of the inclusion of women in the fabric of the church would have seemed in the 1st Century. This was to be the norm for those who were followers of Jesus; a norm which reflected God’s initial intensions in Eden: men and women together, working alongside one another in the absence of shame or domination. We believe that this norm should still set the tone for the way God’s people live in today’s fallen world.
I don’t believe that much of what we’ve talked about up to this point raises much controversy…. But the roles that women play in worship and in local church body leadership do cause controversy. And this is primarily because of 4 New Testament passages. These passages are 1 Corinthians 11:2-16; 1 Corinthians 14:31-40; 1 Timothy 2:11-15 and 1 Timothy 3:1-7. These are 4 of about 6 passages that have the potential to surprise and divide us in the mix of all that we have seen so far…but they are important and we have to look at them… but please remember that we can only do so briefly. As Dave said, I will disappoint some of you and probably confuse some of you due to the amount of time we have today.
The first passage is 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. Page ??? This is primarily a passage about head coverings and modesty during the gathering of the believers, something I talked about last week. What is important to look at today is verse 3 which says, “I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man and the head of Christ is God.” Now, many say that this passage outlines a hierarchical structure that places men above women… and they base this on the assumption that the word ‘head’ in this verse means ‘authority’ as in ‘the boss of’ as it often does in English. The Greek word used here is Kephele. This word was most often used to talk about your literal head, it was also used to talk about something being ‘the source of something’ and occasionally ‘the one in charge.’ The question is, ‘What does it mean here?’ Now, when we see the word ‘head’ in a context like this, English takes us right to the notion that we are talking about the ‘one in charge.’ And yet, after much study and consideration of Greek, I’ve found no concrete proof that the word means this here. Truth is, most Greek texts that use this word are either talking about a person’s literal head or are talking about the source of something in the same way that we still use the word ‘head’ in English to speak of the ‘head waters of a river’… their source. But, I feel the most helpful and convincing fact is this: the Hebrew word for ‘head’ is ras and it is a word used in the Old Testament to speak of someone who is an authority or a ruler. Now, when this word was translated from Hebrew into Greek in the writing of the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament and the most commonly used Old Testament of the 1st Century, never once in over 150 opportunities did the translators use the word Kephele to say ‘authority.’ The translators apparently saw no connection between kephele and being the boss. I can’t imagine why Paul, someone so trained in the scriptures, would suddenly use a word in a way that almost no one would recognize. It makes no sense. And to be honest, if we substitute the word ‘source’ into this verse it helps us understand what Paul was saying here. We don’t feel that Paul was listing an order of authority here but rather an order of creation. Christ is the source of man… in creation; man is the source of woman… in creation; and God is the source of Christ, the source of his incarnation, in this world. Also, if this was a hierarchical authority list God being the head of Christ would have had to have been listed first. Paul certainly knew that men and women were not more authoritative than God. But again, we don’t feel that Paul was stating a list of who has authority over whom; we believe he was setting the stage for a very complicated, very Jewish discussion about head coverings as they relate to bringing glory to one’s source in creation. We see nothing in this passage that speaks to male authority over women.
1 Corinthians 14:34-40 Page ???. Much of Chapter 14 is about order in the church: when to speak in tongues, when to sing, when prophets should speak and so on. And then we get to verse 34 and a surprising statement by Paul about women in the church. “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.” This is surprising because just a few sentences earlier Paul had encouraged women to pray and prophecy… with their heads covered, but he gave no hint of keeping women from participating in church services! What do we make of this? Well, I want to mention 2 ways of looking at this passage and I know that what I am going to say next may surprise some, but I wouldn’t bring it up if I didn’t feel it had strong exegetical merit. The original Greek manuscripts had no punctuation and so, no quotation marks. We are always making educated, contextual guesses when we add any punctuation. Paul has 8 previous times in this letter quoted statements by members of the Corinthian church that needed to be refuted…. Statements like, ‘I have the right to do anything’ and ‘It’s good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.’ And this sudden, surprising statement in verse 34 sounds very much like one of these statements that needs to be refuted. It actually sounds exactly like statements that Jewish legalists were making as they tried to drag the church back into old synagogue rules, rules that reinstated the misogynistic treatment of women during worship. I think seeing this statement as a quote from someone Paul wants to refute makes sense… and it certainly makes sense of Paul’s response in verse 36. It begins with ‘ey’ which Paul does a number of times in this letter as a way to say “what?” or “bunk” or “nonsense!” This is very common in secular Greek and I believe it works here. Again, I know this will sound crazy to some, but I don’t think this is Paul making a statement at all about women needing to be silent in the church; I believe that Paul is quoting those who would place rules on worship which would have disallowed exactly what Paul commands in verse 39: equal practice of prophecy and allowing speaking in tongues in the church service. His intent is to refute them, which is exactly what he does in verses 36-39. These words need to be in quotes just like the other statements that need refuting are. Now, if you can’t buy this, there is the cultural reality of early Christian worship in the synagogue at work here as well: women sat in the back or balcony; men sat in the front facing the front discussing amongst themselves. Since women couldn’t hear what was going on they often talked amongst themselves as a way of passing the time or they called out to the men hoping to get the men to speak up… all to the detriment of both the conversation down front and to the decorum of the service. Paul may be addressing this reality in the early church. This is possibly why he says, ‘Women be quiet and ask your husband what was going on at home.’ I’m not sure how unmarried or widowed women were to learn without the benefit of husbands… But I tend to believe the first explanation. It makes sense in the structure and the message of the whole of the letter… 1 Corinthians is a letter which champions participation by all members of the church, regardless of gender, as long as they participate in an orderly manner.
And now we get to 1 Timothy 2:11-15 Page ???; A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But the woman will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety. Timothy was the pastor of the church in Ephesus and one of the big issues in the Ephesian Church was the presence of false teachers (I Tim 1:6). Paul challenged Timothy to fight the battle against false teaching and lead his people into lives of truth. These verses fit into this framework. Women in the wider culture were never teachers. In fact, they were rarely, if ever, learners. Paul clearly didn’t believe, as many men did in his world, that women should not be taught the scriptures. These verses give women the right to learn… but just as Paul demanded appropriate behavior and dress he also demanded an appropriateness when learning. ‘Quietness’ in the Greek denotes an assumption that the teacher knows a great deal more than the student… and ‘submission’ is a chosen posture of allowing someone else to lead you. Paul was saying women are free to learn but they are to do so in the right spirit. We have to start there. Then he says something that is once again unexpected I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. We need to carefully look at this passage. First, is Paul prohibiting women from teaching altogether or just teaching which assumes authority over men? The text literally says, ‘I do not allow a woman to teach’ period. Plus, Paul uses a word for ‘authority’ here that is only used once in the NT and its meaning is unclear; most say it implies wrestling power away from someone... which is really different from simply being an authority figure. And to be honest, this statement of Paul’s sound at odds with much of his other teaching: the need to do away with the differences based on race, class and gender, for instance, or his call in Col 3:16 for everyone to teach one another or his directives in Titus to women teachers specifically. Also, Paul himself said in I Corinthians 12 that the most important roles in the church are first apostles, then prophets… then teachers. Teachers show up 3rd. Paul refers to Junia in Romans 16 as an apostle and he often encourages women to prophecy. If women are allowed these more authoritative roles but not the role of teacher it’s like saying that women can serve as president but never as a senator. This all seems very confusing. But we must take a step into Paul and Timothy’s world. Women in Ephesus were on the front end of learning anything about the faith… and a teacher in the world before the New Testament books were written were the primary source of all of knowledge about Jesus. This is why false teachers were such a threat to the church. And these recently converted Gentile women, living in a highly pagan world had a lot to learn in order to have a faith that could not be deceived! Paul’s uses the story of Adam and Eve because it has a specific meaning in this context: Genesis tells us that Adam was created first and he learned what he knew about eating the tree of the knowledge of good and evil directly from God. Eve, created later, learned what she knew from Adam. Her knowledge of what God had actually said was second hand and this made her more easily deceived when Satan asked, ‘Did God really say that?’ She couldn’t be totally sure. And the women of Ephesus were in this exact same situation: new to the world of the faith and new to the world of learning… And they needed to learn a lot! They needed to listen in quietness and allow their teachers to open the word to them without argument or trying to usurp authority. It makes perfect sense that Paul would say he doesn’t allow a woman to teach in Ephesus at that time. Also, his directive is in the present tense and that tense has the force of saying, ‘I do not allow a woman to teach… now.’ I know that some will find this unacceptable, but I feel Paul’s final statements on this actually lend credibility to the occasional nature of his statement. He speaks of the prospect of redemption for Eve… and he ends with this odd fragment: ‘if they remain in faith and love and sanctification with sobriety’ I feel this was Paul’s way of saying, “if women learn with quietness and full submission and if they live in faith and love and sanctification with sobriety they can be like Eve… fully redeemed.” Remember, Eve’s redemption is this: even though she brought sin into the world, through childbirth she also became the mother of all men and in a grand way the means of the salvation from sin. And Paul holds out the possibility that the women of Ephesus could also be redeemed… they too, could move from a place of easy deception and into the role of bringing others the good news of the gospel by learning in the right spirit and attitude, not wrestling authority away from men and living lives of faith, love and sanctification.
The final section we must look at is 1 Timothy 3 Page ???. This is a passage in which Paul outlines the qualifications for those who are chosen to serve in the church. In this particular chapter Paul lists the character traits needed to serve as an episkopos, a Greek word that is translated variously as elder, overseer and, bishop... a word, which by the way simply means ‘someone that takes care of or guards another,’ Deacons, which originally meant ‘a waiter’ when the office was first created in Acts and a group called ‘the women’ which some do and some don’t consider an official office of the church. For the sake of time I am going to cut to the chase here. The problem with leaning heavily on this passage as a template for church authority is that there is no simple answer to what church government is supposed to look like. It is all over the map in the New Testament where we see all sorts of arrangements and offices beyond those listed in this passage. And this confusion is still playing out in the church today with its myriad of authority structures and offices. I have to ask if anyone is prepared to say that the list of leaders given to Timothy for the church at Ephesus in this passage is the only model sanctioned by God? If so, that mean that all churches with differing structures are misguided, even the ones that we see in the Bible such as the Jerusalem church, a church which from what I can tell had three different structures in Acts. This would also mean that many churches today, probably most, are out of line with God’s definitive word on the subject. At least they are if they’ve chosen to have elders but no deacons; or to have deacons but no elders; or if they have an office called apostles or some other structure that isn’t in line with what Paul tells Timothy here. Plus, there is nothing in this passage that tells us which office is more authoritative. What I believe we have is a language problem. The term Elder which simply means ‘someone who looks out for others’ means different things to different people depending on their history with the title. Paul’s great concern was that people who knew the truth were ‘looking out’ for the believers in Ephesus. And as we’ve already seen, most of the Christian women in Ephesus were illiterate gentiles with next to no training in the things of God. It makes sense that the leadership in that church was limited to godly men who could teach, which, by the way, was the only gift listed as a necessity for being an elder in this passage. Yes, the title elder in this passage is always masculine. I get that. But in Paul’s world leadership and gender were tied together in every sphere of life. But let’s be honest. We don’t live in that world any longer. And just an aside, in Paul’s list of qualifications for serving as an elder and a deacon he says that they must be the husband of one wife and that they must manage their family well. Under these stipulations neither Paul nor Jesus would have been qualified to serve in the leadership in a local church. You might say that’s crazy talk, but it’s there. Again, the larger hermeneutical point is who is qualified to serve the church at a local level within whatever structure that the local church has chosen? The local church needs leadership; the titles given to those leaders are really the prerogative of the local churches. And both men and women are now clearly capable of the kind of high character, great learning, expertise and wisdom that local church leadership demands. Our governing board deeply studied the overall tenor of all of scripture related to leadership within the people of God. The board wrestled with God’s initial intensions, the world’s brokenness and God’s desire to repair that brokenness. They affirmed that the task of the church is to heal the broken places that resulted from the fall and to live out in the world as best as we can God’s initial desires for his world. And they came to the conclusion that one of these broken places is the inequity that exists between men and women. This decision is not a slippery slope; it is getting in line with God’s initial design for his people, it is taking the whole of scripture seriously and standing against the power structures of a fallen world. The issue, in 1Timothy is competence and character… The governing board recognized the desire on God’s part to see his church lead by those with competence and character; they also came to the belief that just as Paul was directing Timothy in what was best for his congregation in Ephesus we have to rest in the assurance that the Spirit will take into account our specific circumstances and our specific congregational needs before given us instructions on how we are to work together to best fulfill our mission. Do the qualifications for those that give care and protection to this congregation needs to be carefully defined and adhered to? Absolutely! Do teachers need to be properly vetted? You bet they do! But, according to Paul race, class, and gender are not to be issues… We need the best people God has given our community at the table. People who meet the character demands that Paul gives us; people that know the word, walk in submission to the Spirit of God and live lives of prayer. The board suffered together over this decision and in the end came to consensus that it is time that we lift gender restrictions… not to make a point or to please the culture outside of our walls but to make it possible for all of the people of Grace to stand together with God in his mission to bring hope to the world.