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Women in Ministry: An Introduction to the Questions
part 3

Paulís comments in 1 Corinthians 11

In 1 Cor. 11, Paul seems to accept the fact that women could pray and prophesy in public worship meetings. But in chapter 14 and in 1 Tim. 2, he said that women must be silent. A common way to resolve this is to conclude that Paul permits some kind of speaking, and forbids a different kind of speaking. This is the approach the 1997 study paper used. But it is very difficult to define what is allowed and what is not.

If a woman is inspired by God to prophesy, she is saying something important. I can imagine a greater administrative authority, but I cannot imagine a greater teaching authority than authentic prophecy, which edifies, encourages and comforts. Why does Paul permit women to prophesy in church, but not to teach? Do we have enough biblical evidence to say what the difference is? Isnít a preacherís authority more in the words than in the person?

The egalitarian approach is to say that Paulís restrictions were temporary guidance for Corinth and Ephesus only. It was a cultural matter, and a different approach is needed in Western culture today. I find a few problems in the cultural solution: Paul connects his argument not only with culture, but also with creation. Also, he puts his instructions in a generalizing contextó"in all the congregations of the the Law says...what I am writing to you is the Lordís command" (14:33-37).

In 1 Cor. 11, where Paul speaks about head coverings for women, he argues on the basis of honor and disgrace, which are often culturally defined. Different cultures have different concepts of which hairstyles and clothing styles are a disgrace to men and women. A manís hair grows as fast as a womanís, but culture teaches us what length and which styles are appropriate to women and which to men. Paul cites a "practice," a custom, in verse 16. So his argument is partly built on culture.

But Paul also argues theologically: "The head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God" (11:3). People argue at great length on the meaning of "head," as to whether it involves authority or merely source, but the point I wish to make does not depend on the meaning of "head." My point is that Paul is tying his argument into something that is timeless and not based on culture. Just as Christ and God are equal in divinity, but distinct in relationship within the Godhead, so also males and females can be equal and yet have distinct roles in relationship to one another.

The New Testament includes commands that apply to males but not to females, and vice versa. Paulís instructions in 1 Cor. 11 are but one example of gender-specific commands. Many egalitarian arguments seem to be built on the assumption that equality requires identical roles, but this assumption does not seem to be correct.

Egalitarians often cite Gal. 3:28: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." They conclude from this that the church should not make any distinctions on the basis of ethnicity, socio-economic status or gender. In Galatians, Paul argues that the equality of Jews and Gentiles in Christ necessitates social equality in the church. In Gal. 3, however, Paul may not be addressing social roles. He is talking about salvation and proclaiming equal worth; he is not addressing the question of interchangeable roles.

There are other verses that talk specifically about church leadership. Nothing in the New Testament implies that gentiles cannot have authority in the church. Nothing implies that slaves cannot have authority. But some verses do indicate that women cannot have authority.

The comparison with slavery is sometimes used. Gal. 3:28 mentions that in Christ, in the church, there is neither slave nor free. Nevertheless, Paul told slaves to obey their masters. The principle of Gal. 3:28 did not require an immediate change in the social structure, but it paved the way for it. Christians eventually realized that slavery should be abolished despite the fact that Paul did not legislate against it. Many interpreters believe that the same logic that ended slavery should also end all restrictions on women in the church. They believe that Paulís commands for women to submit are no more binding than his commands for slaves to obey.

However, there are two major differences between slavery and womenís roles: 1) Paul connects womenís roles to the way that God created humanity. He never does this for slavery. Slavery cannot be seen in the pre-sin world, but gender differences may be. 2) The difference between slave and master is a completely social one; it can be completely eliminated. Gender differences, however, cannot be completely eliminated. Men and women have different anatomy, different hormones and different biological roles in infant care that cannot be eliminated in this age.

Another argument is the concept of spiritual gifts. There is no indication in Rom. 12 or 1 Cor. 12 that God makes any gender discriminations when he distributes gifts. If a woman has the gift of prophecy, she should use it. If she has the gift of evangelism, she should be encouraged to use it. So if a woman has gifts for pastoral care, is she obligated to be a pastor? Noóthere is a difference between function and office. A person can evangelize without becoming an evangelist, and a person can teach without being appointed a teacher in the church. A person can give pastoral careójust as many lay members doówithout being a pastor.

In the end, the question returns to the Scriptures, since we do not believe that the Holy Spirit contradicts the Scriptures. If we accept the Scriptures as our ultimate authority, we cannot allow experience or subjective analyses of giftedness to do something that Scripture forbids. But the church still needs to allow and encourage women to use the gifts they have been given.

Letís return to Paulís use of creation as a basis for making distinctions in the role of men and women. In 1 Cor. 11:8-9, Paul appeals to the sequence of creation. In v. 12, he appeals to biology. In v. 11, he appeals to mutual dependence in Christ. In v. 3, he appeals to theology. In v. 10, he refers to the spiritual world. These are trans-cultural, timeless principles. We cannot declare them all invalid simply because modern cultural assumptions are different from Paulís.

We may not understand all the details of Paulís arguments, but I believe that one point is clear: The mutual dependence of males and females does not mean that they must behave in identical ways, either in culture or in Christ. Even in the Lord, men and women may have different social responsibilities. Gender distinctions are allowed in the church, based on the fact that God made males and females different. It can be legitimate to have commands that apply to one gender but not the other.

1 Corinthians 14

In 1 Cor. 14:33-36, Paul appeals to culture again, to concepts of what is "disgraceful." He appeals to what is done in "all the congregations"; he refers to other believers. He also appeals to what is "allowed" and to "the law." When Paul cites "the Law" elsewhere, he means the Old Testament. (However, he does not cite it elsewhere as an ethical authority, since the old covenant does not have authority over Christians.)

But there is no Old Testament law that says women must be silent in the assembly. Nor is there a scripture that says they must be submissive. So why is Paul referring to the law at this point? Perhaps he is referring to a Roman law, or else to the creation account, which (since it came before sin and before the old covenant) did not become obsolete (Jesus used the creation account as authoritative). This is not clear.

Paul also uses the word "submission," which is a red-flag word for egalitarians. They seem to think that submission implies inferiority. In this sinful world, authority is often misused, and people who have authority often think that they are superior to others. The word "submit" has often been used as a club against women and others. But we must not force this distorted meaning into the biblical word.

Egalitarians often cite Eph. 5:21: "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ," as if this implies interchangeable roles. It does not. Mutual submission does not mean mutual obedience and equal authority. We are all equal in Christ, but the church still has leaders whom we are to obey (Heb. 13:17). Mutual submission does not mean that parents have to obey their childrenóbut it does mean that parents should love their children and consider their needs. Parents can submit to their children without abandoning their own authority. Eph. 5:21 does not negate the concept of authority.

In the church, we submit to one another in varying ways, according to our respective gifts and roles. In Godís kingdom, subordination does not mean inferiority. A Christian can submit to civil authorities (Rom. 13:1-7) without being inferior to those authorities. A slave can submit to an evil master (1 Pet. 2:18) without being inferior to him. Christ can be subordinate to the Father without any implication of inferiority. The fact that Christ serves our needs does not make him less important than us. Submission does not imply inferiority.

However, letís suppose for a moment that Paulís comments were culturally conditioned. Some of his other comments were. What if Paul was compromising with a sinful element of culture so that the gospel would not be maligned? Wouldnít this approach mean that we should have the opposite policy in Western society today: equality so that the gospel is not maligned because of gender discrimination? This would be difficult to apply, because even in Western society, there are many subcultures. Some will be offended if we do; some will be offended if we donít.

Should the church tolerate sinful elements of culture, or does the gospel imply that we must challenge those sins even if fewer people accept the gospel in the short term? Does the example of slavery give us any guidance as to which approach should be taken? Should we take a vote in each church to determine which policy would offend the fewest members? Or should we take a vote in society, among the people we are trying to reach with the gospel? How often should we take the vote to see if cultural shifts are occurring? Some people act as if "culture" is the solution to the exegetical problem, but it raises serious issues of its own.

Part 4: 1 Timothy