There is a debate in Christian circles about the role of women in church life and worship. (Actually, it’s been a debate for as long as I’ve been a pastor.) The issue I want to deal with in this blog is simple and came up again a few weeks ago by a guest who asked me the question:
I see that you have women in your church who lead worship and speak and pray. Doesn’t that violate the teaching of 2 Timothy 2:12? For it says, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.”
No, we are not violating Scripture.
My slightly longer answer—which is all I had time for right before worship—was, “No, it does not. There are many verses in the Bible on the role of women; that is only one of them. There’s much more to what the Bible teaches. Let’s talk later!”
I’d like to expand on that short answer in this blog!
When dealing with any issue it is very important to take an overall view of the teaching of the Bible rather than letting one verse define the issue. Letting Scripture Interpret Scripture is one of the key principles of Bible interpretation. Many Old Testament passages show women in key leadership positions, but since this question has to do with the church, I will limit my answer to a few key passages from the New Testament:
In each of the gospels, women were commissioned to go and tell others about the empty tomb. Clearly Jesus had a much higher opinion of women as witnesses and speakers of truth than did Jewish culture, in which women were not allowed to be witnesses in a trial. Jesus’ trust in women to be the first witnesses and to spread the news of the resurrection to the disciples is a clear break from Jewish culture.
Acts 18:24-26 tells us of a husband-and-wife team (Priscilla and Aquila) who instructed Apollos and “explained to him the way of God more adequately.” By breaking with tradition and naming the wife first, it is clear that she was not a silent partner. She actively taught Apollos, possibly even as the lead teacher. This is one example of a woman teaching a man.
Acts 21:8-9 says that Phillip the Evangelist (one of the original seven who were later called deacons) had four unmarried daughters who prophesied. Clearly, it was permissible to have women teachers in the early church.
Romans 16 mentions a list of friends and co-workers of Paul and several are women. He mentions Phoebe (a deaconess) as well as Priscilla and Aquila and the church which met in their home. In addition, he mentions several hard-working women, including Mary, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Persis, and others. We don’t know the role of these women in the church, but clearly Paul valued their contributions to church life. They were more than just wives of key men; they were leaders in the early church.
In 1 Corinthians 11 (part of several chapters in which Paul is giving instruction to the church on worship, the Lord’s Supper, and the use of spiritual gifts in the church), Paul gives instructions to a woman on how to show proper respect when she does pray. It’s obvious that a woman praying in church is not prohibited in the New Testament, or why would Paul give instructions for them?
Clearly, women were allowed to pray and even teach in the early church. That leads to an obvious question, “If women are allowed to teach and pray in church, what was Paul trying to teach in 1 Timothy 2?”
To correctly interpret any passage in the Bible, we must note the difference between the principle the Bible is teaching and the cultural application of that principle. The principle is universal; the cultural application is not. The application of the principle changes depending upon the setting and culture.
Let me give you an example on a different subject that will help us understand the difference. Four times (Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, 1 Thessalonians 5:26), Paul says to, “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” The universal principle is clear, “Show brotherly kindness to each other.” In American culture, that is shown appropriately with a handshake, a hug, a fist bump, a “high five,” or a greeting. I don’t believe that Paul is mandating kisses. He is mandating brotherly love and giving a culturally appropriate way (in his culture) of putting that principle into practice.
A principle applies to all believers; the appropriate way of living out that principle is cultural and not universal.
Understanding the difference between the two—the universal principle and the cultural application—is necessary for proper Bible interpretation. It is especially important in 1 Timothy 2, for there are multiple issues in that one chapter alone in which the distinction must be made in order to properly apply Paul’s teaching:
For example, verse 8 says, “I want men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing.” The principle is that men are to pray in holiness and in unity. The cultural application of that in Ephesus was for men to lift their hands while praying. The principle applies to all—men are to pray in holiness and unity. But few if any churches insist that all men must raise their hands while praying—that’s cultural. (Honestly, I rarely raise my hands while I’m praying.) In our culture, it may be more appropriate to kneel, sit, stand, bow heads, or look up toward heaven—though raising hands is also appropriate but not commanded.
Again, in verses 9-10, Paul teaches women the principles of modesty and service. The cultural application of that in Ephesus meant that women were not to wear fancy (or braided) hair or gold or pearls. That women should serve God in modesty and with good deeds is a universal principle and it applies to all women. The prohibition of fancy hair and jewelry was a cultural application of that in their culture. In Ephesus, it showed a lack of modesty, but neither fancy hair nor fancy jewelry conveys the same message in our culture. Modesty and service are universal; the appropriate outward way of showing that changes in different cultures.
In verses 11-14, Paul is teaching a universal principle of order, authority, and submission—women should not have ultimate authority over a man. The cultural application of that in Ephesus was that women should be silent in churches. In that culture, it would imply a lack of order. However, other verses in the New Testament indicate that it wasn’t a universal application.
I believe that the above is a consistent and Biblical way to approach that chapter. If we are going to insist that women can’t speak in churches, we must also insist that men raise their hands while praying and we must prohibit braided hear and all jewelry. Unfortunately, there are many who are inconsistent. They insist that women must be silent; but they don’t insist that men raise their hands in prayer.
I believe that the above interpretation is the most consistent and the most Biblical.
In our church, we maintain that principle of order, authority, and submission. Even in worship, women are free and encouraged to use their giftings in music, teaching, speaking, praying, and in other ways—under the leadership ultimately of our Senior Pastor. We do not prohibit women from speaking in worship; we encourage it! But it is done in order and under appropriate leadership.