Definite instructions are given in the New Testament concerning the position and service of women in the church. We shall now summarize these instructions. (by Wm. MacDonald)
1. The Primary Matter
With regard to such matters as salvation or acceptance before God, woman is on an equality with man. “There is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). This does not mean, however, that differences of sex are abolished in the church. When dealing with matters of everyday life, the Scriptures distinguish between male and female. For instance, in Ephesians 5 we have the admonitions: “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands” (v. 22); “Husbands, love your wives” (v. 25). Therefore, we may say that as far as her standing before God is concerned, woman is treated exactly the same as man; but that as far as her position in the church is concerned, a distinction is made. The distinction, in brief, is that woman should be in subjection to the man (1 Corinthians 11:3).
2. Accentuating the Negative
Specifically, the following injunctions are laid down in the Word in order to define the various ways in which the subjection of the woman is to be manifested. She must remain silent in the church (1 Corinthians 14:34, 35). What is meant by “remaining silent” is further explained. She is not permitted to teach (1 Timothy 2:12). She should not ask questions publicly (1 Corinthians 14:35). She should learn in silence with all subjection (1 Timothy 2:11). She must not usurp authority over the man (1 Timothy 2:12). She must not pray or prophesy with her head uncovered (1 Corinthians 11:5). That this does not permit women praying publicly in the church, however, is strongly implied in 1 Timothy 2:8, “I will therefore that men pray every where.” Here the word used for “men” means “males” in contrast to “females.” The Greek word employed here excludes women.
If these instructions are forced on women in a harsh, legalistic spirit, the result is usually twofold. God is not pleased with an enforced obedience which does not spring from the heart (Psalm 51:17). The women themselves are apt to become bitter and resentful. If, on the other hand, the reasons for such instructions are clearly understood, and there follows the obedience of a loving, submissive heart, then this is of great price in the sight of the Lord (1 Samuel 15:22).
3. Reasons Why
God has graciously condescended to state certain underlying principles in His Word in order to explain why Christian women should be in subjection to the men.
First of all, in the order of creation, man had priority over the woman. “Adam was first formed, then Eve” (1 Timothy 2:13). “The man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man” (1 Corinthians 11:8). The argument here is that the order instituted by God in creation is the order which He intends to be maintained in the church; namely, the head of the woman is the man (1 Corinthians 11:3).
Secondly, the purpose of creation indicates the headship of the man over the woman. “Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man” (1 Corinthians 11:9). Thirdly, sin entered into the world when Eve usurped authority over her husband, Adam. “Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression” (1 Timothy 2:14). The Lord does not wish His new creation to be marred through this type of insubjection, and so He has instructed the women to be under obedience.
In the fourth place, Paul appeals to the consistent testimony of the old Testament Scriptures to show that women should be under obedience (1 Corinthians 14:34). “They are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. While no particular commandment states this clearly, yet it is the tenor of the Old Testament.
4. The Covered Head
With regard to the instruction that women should be covered (or veiled) when praying or prophesying, two additional reasons are presented. Angels are looking on. “For this cause ought the woman to have a sign of authority on her head, because of the angels” (1 Corinthians 11:10, R.V.). This verse seems to picture the angelic hosts observing God’s order on the earth, and it states that women should wear a covering on their head as a sign or badge of the authority of the man. Thus, the angels see that the transgression of Eve in the first creation is not perpetuated in the new creation.
The lesson is taught by nature itself. “Doth not even nature itself teach you …”, (1 Corinthians 11:14). In the original creation, God gave women a distinctive covering—that of long hair. Paul argues from this that a divine principle is illustrated thereby; namely, that woman should wear a veil or covering over her head when praying or prophesying.
5. Accentuating the Positive
The fact that woman is in subjection to the man might seem to indicate to some that she has no place or ministry in God’s economy. However, the Scriptures contradict this by showing that woman’s ministry, though not a public one, is nonetheless real and important. Her position is saved by childbearing (1 Timothy 2:15). This difficult verse might mean that a godly mother, though restrained from ministering publicly, is not thereby relegated to a place of uselessness. Her position is to rear her family in the fear and admonition of the Lord. If she and her husband continue in the faith, she may one day have sons to preach and teach the Word. Thus the expression, “she shall be saved,” might refer, not to the soul’s salvation, or even to being saved from physical death in the act of childbearing, but rather to the salvation of woman’s place and privilege. She will not become a nonentity, but will have this glorious ministry of rearing children to live for God’s glory.
Other examples of women’s ministry are found in the New Testament, such as ministering of their substance (Luke 8:3), showing hospitality (Romans 16:1), and teaching the younger women (Titus 2:4).
6. Some Common Objections
Numerous objections and questions arise in connection with the subject of women’s ministry. Does not Paul’s teaching on this subject, it is argued, represent the views of an unmarried man with a prejudice against women? No! They are teachings of the Holy Spirit of God, or, as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 14:37, “the commandments of the Lord.”
Then it is asked if Paul was merely teaching what was a local custom in his day without any idea that this state of things should be applicable to us today. The answer is that his first epistle to the Corinthians was written not only to the church of God in Corinth, but to “all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:2). Therefore the instructions are of universal application. But, we are asked, does not Paul indicate in 1 Corinthians 11:16 that the things that he had been teaching were not binding, and that such customs were not practiced among the churches of God? (“But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.”) Such an interpretation undermines the inspiration and authority of the Bible. What the verse really says is that contention about these commandments of the Lord was not a custom in the churches. The churches accepted them and obeyed them, without arguing or explaining them away. Since woman’s hair is given to her for a covering’ it is argued, is not that the only covering that is required? There are two coverings in 1 Corinthians 11. A woman’s hair is mentioned as a covering in verse 15, but a veil is necessarily in view in verse 5. Otherwise verse 6 would be saying in effect, “For if a woman does not have her hair on, let her also be shorn, but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her put her hair on.” Obviously such a meaning is impossible. It must mean that a covering, other than her hair, is necessary.
Does not the instruction for women to keep silence in the church (1 Corinthians 14:34), merely prohibit their chattering or gossiping while the service is in progress? No! The passage says, “It is not permitted unto them to speak.” The word translated “speak” here never has the meaning of “chatter” or “babble” in the New Testament. The same word is used of God in verse 21, “With men of other tongues … will I speak.”
Many additional questions arise, such as whether it is all right for women to give a testimony in public, to give an account of their missionary work, to sing a solo. Where individual cases are not specifically dealt with in the Bible, then the general principles of the Word must be allowed to decide. Thus, in any doubtful situation, we should ask: Does this constitute a usurping of authority over the man? Is woman taking a place of leadership? Is she teaching the Word? Since these things are prohibited, we should avoid anything that might constitute an infringement of the spirit of these teachings of the Word.
7. God’s Wisdom is Manifest
God’s design in setting forth these instructions was His people’s good as well as His own glory. Where His Word has been ignored or willfully violated, strife and disorder have ensued. The positive evil of women usurping authority and teaching publicly is seen in the rise of many cults—notably Seventh Day Adventism, Theosophy, Christian Science—in which women had a prominent role.
On the other hand, nothing is more comely and pleasant than to see Christian women occupying their God-appointed place and exhibiting “the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit” (1 Peter 3:4).