Q&A: Women in Authority

Women in Authority

Question

Is it biblically sound to have women in leadership positions (elders, deacons, and/or pastors) in the church in light of 1 Corinthians 14:34; 1 Timothy 2-3; and Titus 1? I was always taught that these verses plainly teach that leadership roles are for men, but the pastor of the church I attend now understands them differently.

Answer

These are really controversial issues nowadays. Here are my two cents:

On the issue of women's ordination, I don't believe Paul's stance in 1 Timothy 2:11-15 was culturally conditioned. Rather, it was grounded in creational ordinances that are normative for all time. Specifically, Paul argued against women teaching or holding authority over men on the bases that Adam was created before Eve, and that Eve was deceived. This passage is immediately followed by the qualifications of the office of elder (1 Tim. 3:1-7), which seem to pertain only to men on the assumption that women are excluded from the office (per 1 Tim. 2:12-14). I take this to mean that women should not be ordained to teaching or ruling offices in the church, namely to the office of elder (I am a Presbyterian, and do not recognize the distinct office of bishop). Pastors are a subset of elders, so I do not believe women ought to be pastors either.

In excluding women from the office of elder, Paul was not suggesting that women were not able to learn as much as men, or that men would not be deceived or mislead in their studies. Rather, the issue was one of propriety in the eyes of God (compare the first half of this argument in 1 Tim. 2:9-10, which deals with how women are to dress and conduct themselves). Paul's point was that God had established an order in creation, and the that church was to respect and follow that order. Because creational ordinances do not change, the application that women should not be ordained to the office of elder also does not change.

Paul also does not seem to have prohibited women from all teaching roles, or even from teaching men. For one thing, Luke (Paul's associate) spoke positively of Priscilla's role in the teaching of Apollos (Acts 18:26). For another thing, because 1 Timothy 3:1-7 (the qualifications of elders) follows immediately after 1 Timothy 2:11-15, it indicates that 1 Timothy 2:12-14 pertains to women as elders, not as other types of teachers or leaders.

In 1 Timothy 3:8-13, however, Paul turns to address the qualifications of deacons. Although some translations might indicate that he spoke specifically of "men" as opposed to women (e.g. "deacons ... must be men of dignity" [1 Tim. 3:8 NASB]), the Greek text includes no word for "men." The NRSV and NKJV offer much better translations at this point by not inserting the word "men." Moreover, in the middle of this list of qualifications, Paul explicitly mentions "women" and lists qualifications which pertain directly to them (1 Tim. 3:11). The NIV understands this verse in reference to the wives of deacons ("their wives"), but the Greek does not indicate this meaning -- it does not say "their." The same Greek word may mean either "wife" or "woman," but in this case it seems to me that the NASB, NRSV and NKJV follow a more natural reading by simply translating "women."

My conclusion regarding 1 Timothy 3:8-13 is that Paul lists the qualifications for deacon, and includes specific qualifications for those deacons who are women (1 Tim. 3:11) and for those who are men (1 Tim. 3:12). This is potentially supported by Paul's reference to Phoebe as a "deacon" (Rom. 16:1). In this conclusion, I differ from my own denomination which has, in my opinion, inappropriately assigned to deacons certain authority which Paul restricts to men (1 Tim. 2:12-14). Because my denomination recognizes that this authority is not rightly bestowed on women, it has barred women from the office of deacon. I think a better solution would be to withdraw this authority from the deacons and to include women in this office.

With regard to 1 Corinthians 14:34, some people believe that in this verse Paul was prohibiting women to speak at all in church. Since pastors have to speak in church, they exclude women from being pastors on this basis. I disagree with this interpretation and argument, but as already mentioned agree that women should not be pastors. The context of 1 Corinthians 14:34 has to do with the broader argument regarding worship and unity in 1 Corinthians 11-14. Some aspects of this section include that in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 Paul argued that wives ought to honor their husbands in worship services, and in 1 Corinthians 14:20-35 he argued for propriety, order and honor in worship services. As I understand 1 Corinthians 14:34 in these contexts, it teaches that wives (Greek has only one word that may mean either "wife" or "woman") are to honor their husbands in worship by not challenging their husbands' prophecies in public. Rather, they are to question their husbands privately at home. The public challenging of prophecy is to be done by the "others" (1 Cor. 14:29). Oddly, Paul refers to the "Law" in support of this instruction to wives, but nowhere in biblical Law does such a command appear per se. On the other hand, neither does any command appear in the Law to indicate that women ought to remain silent in church. Paul may be arguing from a general principle which he sees in the Law that wives are to honor their husbands. In any event, it does not make sense to me to imagine that he prohibited women from speaking in church. This is because in 1 Corinthians 11:5 he assumed that they would pray and prophesy in church, arguing only that they ought to cover their heads when they did so.


Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.