The Role of Women in Church Meetings

By Brian Anderson

If the Bible teaches that our church meetings should be open and participatory, what role should the women play? This is a good question, and one that needs answering. There are two passages in the New Testament, which seem to place restrictions on women in the meetings of the church.

The first is 1 Timothy 2:11-15. The text states,

Let a woman 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. For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being quite deceived, fell into transgression. But women shall be preserved through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self-restraint.

Some have sought to evade the explicit teaching of this passage by claiming that Paul was not speaking of a universal principle for all churches of all time, but a localized and temporary situation in Ephesus brought about by his desire to correct the false teaching certain women in the Ephesian church had introduced. Again, it is affirmed that the reason Paul would not allow women to teach or exercise authority over a man was because the women were uneducated in that culture, and thereby more liable to spread false teaching. However, the apostle gives his reasons for prohibiting women from teaching or exercising authority over men in the context. His explanation is twofold: 1) because it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve; and 2) because it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being quite deceived, fell into transgression. The reasons Paul lists for prohibiting teaching and leadership refers back to the original creation of man and woman. If Paul's instructions in this passage were applicable only to the culture of the people he was immediately addressing, it is very odd that he would base his reasons on the original creation of man. In the passage Paul gives no hint that his instructions are situational or impermanent. Neither does He suggest that women ought not teach because they are uneducated. The reasons he gives apply to all people for all time in all cultures, because they are grounded in the creation of our first parents in Eden.

Therefore, if we are to be honest with the natural and obvious meaning of the passage, we must admit that God has not given women liberty to teach or exercise authority over men when the church gathers. Thus, women are not to serve as elders in the church, for the elders' responsibilities include teaching (1Tim.3:2; 5:17; Tit.1:9), and exercising authority (1Thess.3:12; 1Tim.5:17; Heb.13:7,17).

The second text which places restrictions on women in the meetings of the church is found in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 which states,

Let the women keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but let them subject themselves, just as the Law also says. And 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.

This passage has given birth to a whole host of interpretations. Some believe this passage is teaching that women must remain absolutely silent when the church meetings. The greatest obstacle to this view is that three chapters earlier in 1 Corinthians 11:5 Paul has already taught that women may pray or prophecy as long as they have their heads covered. Those who believe that women must remain completely silent in church meetings must argue that the praying or prophesying mentioned in 1 Corinthians 11:5 is in reference to informal home or small group gatherings, not to the official meetings of the church. This is extremely unlikely, however, because the meetings of the first century church were small, informal, and held in homes. It would be very difficult for a first-century believer to make a distinction between "formal" and "informal" church meetings. Furthermore, Paul speaks repeatedly of prophecy as a gift that should take place in the meetings of the church (1Cor.14:23-29). Additionally, when Paul states,

But if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God. 1 Corinthians 11:16

he seems to have in mind a "church" practice, not simply a private or small group concern.

Others argue that the meetings of 1 Corinthians 11:5 where the women prayed and prophesied consisted of women only. However, the injunction to the women to cover their heads as a sign of subjection to men makes no sense if there were not men present in the meetings.

Still others believe that Paul's restriction of women speaking in church meetings was a local concern of the Corinthian church alone. They inform us that the word Paul uses for "speak" is laleo, which can mean "to babble, or prattle." Therefore, they conclude that certain women were distrupting the meaning by questioning their husbands during the teaching and chattering idly. Thus, the conclusion these scholars draw it that Paul is not restricting women from all speaking, just disruptive speaking. However, this does not explain why Paul prohibits all women from speaking. Why not just ban the disruptive women from speaking? And, were there no disruptive men?

Others believe that Paul silences women because they were uneducated. However, why doesn't he simply silence all uneducated people rather than women? Furthermore, this restriction on women is universally binding on all the churches (verses 33b-34). Do we really believe that all women believers in the first century were uneducated?

Others believe Paul is teaching exactly the same thing he taught in 1 Timothy 2:11-15 - that women must not teach or exercise authority over men. However, the context of 1 Corinthians 14 is not authoritative teaching, but prophecy and tongues.

For these many reasons, I have adopted the interpretation offered by D. A. Carson and Wayne Grudem that sees Paul's prohibition of women speaking in the meetings of the church as limited to the judging of prophecies. In 1 Corinthians 14:29-33 Paul has been teaching on the exercise of the gift of prophecy in the meetings of the church. In verse 29 he mentioned

and let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment.

In verses 30-33 he amplifies

let two or three prophets speak

by explaining that the one prophesying should give way to another if he is given a revelation, and that in this way all may learn and all may be exhorted. He goes on to explain that this is completely consistent because a prophet has control over himself while prophesying. Finally in verses 34-35 Paul returns to the judging of prophecies he had mentioned in verse 29b. When he teaches that women must keep silent in the churches, therefore, he is not limiting all speaking of women, but the speaking of women in the judging of prophecy.

This view fits the context of the chapter, and harmonizes with Paul's teaching in 1 Timothy 2:11-15 that the women should not teach or exercise authority over men. If women were to participate in the evaluation and judging of prophecies, they would, of necessity, be taking authority in the meetings. In contrast, Paul commands them to subject themselves as the Law also says. Paul's reference to the "Law" should probably be understood as an allusion to Genesis 2:20-24, for he refers to that passage elsewhere in 1 Corinthians 11:8-9 and 2 Timothy 2:13 when discussing the role of women. The apostle goes on to instruct the women that if they desire to learn anything, they ought to ask their own husbands at home, for it is improper for a woman to speak in church. Instead of asking questions which would tend to cast doubt on the veracity of prophecies given in a church meeting, the women should leave that job to the men, and ask their husbands their questions in the privacy of their homes. In this way, male leadership in the meetings of the church can be preserved.

If our interpretation of these two passages is correct, there are two restrictions placed on women in the meetings of the church: they are not to give authoritative teaching or judge prophecies. However, does the New Testament permit them to function in other ways? It most certainly does. There are many church activities in which no restrictions are placed upon the woman.

First, as we have already seen women may prophesy. In Acts 2:17-18 Peter quotes Joel 2:28-32 and says that in the New Covenant age of the Spirit, both sons and daughters, men and women will prophesy. Anna (Luke 2:36) and the four daughters of Philip (Acts 21:9) functioned as prophetesses.

Second, women may pray. Acts 1:12-14 specifically mentions women as part of those who continually devoted themselves to prayer (see also 1 Corinthians 11:5.

Third, women may exercise various spiritual gifts. In 1 Corinthinians 12:7 Paul instructs,

but to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.

Paul makes no gender distinctions when it comes to the exercise of spiritual gifts. Indeed, in light of Peter's proclamation of men and women prophesying in Acts 2:17-18, it appears that women enjoy equal liberty to exercise their spiritual gifts. As Jon Zens has aptly pointed out,

1 Cor.14 involves the whole body: "all of you" (v.5), "whole church," "all speak in tongues" (v.23), "all prophesy" (v.24), "each of you has a psalm, etc.," (v.26), "you may all prophesy one by one" (v.31), "all may learn, all may be comforted" (v.31).

Women, it appears, may also encourage (Heb.10:25), comfort (1 Thess.4:18), speak in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Eph.5:19), and build up (1 Thess.5:11) the church. In all of these passages, the apostles include no restrictions on women.

Thus, according to God's Word, women enjoy a wide range of freedom to participate in the meetings of the church. The only restrictions come in the areas of authoritative teaching and judging of prophecies.