This article has been reprinted from Tabletalk magazine, May 1999, with permission of Ligonier Ministries, P.O. Box 547500, Orlando, FL 32854, phone 800-435-4343.
The varied opinions offered regarding the question of the proper role of women in the church might lead someone to conclude that Scripture simply is unclear on this issue. This certainly is not the case. Nevertheless, if the Bible's teaching is explicit, as I maintain, how do we account for the existence of opposite perspectives among those who share a common view concerning the authority of Scripture? The explanation is two-fold.
First, there is a misunderstanding of what is implied if we say that women may not rule in the church. Many assume that in saying this we also must be saying that a woman is somehow inferior to a man. This notion, though not a legitimate representation of the beliefs of those who advocate male-only leadership in the church, persists in evangelical circles largely because of the influence of egalitarianism. This philosophy equates a distinction in function to a distinction in worth.
Second, there is a lack of zeal for the pure Word of God among Christians, which explains how egalitarianism got into the church in the first place. The teaching of Scripture on the matter of male-female role relationships has not been given appropriate attention. This situation is especially regrettable because the Bible does speak plainly regarding the respective roles of men and women in the church. It seems that just when our society needs critical guidance from the church, Christians are incapable of giving it because they do not know how forcefully the Bible speaks to this matter and are intimidated into compromise by the prevailing opinion of unbelievers.
The apostle Paul is unsurpassed in providing instruction in the subject under consideration. Male-female role relationships receive a significant amount of attention from Paul in his epistles. Consequently, the apostle makes a critical distinction for us. For Paul, the question of what function a woman fills in the church is not merely a matter of ability, it is a matter of purpose. To put it simply, if we ask, "Can a woman exercise authority in the church?" we are asking the wrong question. The question is and must be, "Should she exercise authority?" The Bible's teaching on male-female role relationships is about calling and design.
Paul writes concerning the regulation of a local congregation in 1 Timothy 2. In this passage, he explicitly forbids women to exercise authority. The reason for this prohibition has to do with God's respective callings for men and women and has nothing to do with a woman's worth before God. After instructing Timothy in a number of areas, Paul speaks of the behavior and role of women in the church: "[I desire] that the women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with propriety and moderation, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly clothing, but, which is proper for women professing godliness, with good works" (vv. 9-10). The apostle teaches that there is a connection between behavior ("modest apparel") and doctrine (what is "professed"). Paul encourages unpretentious dress and discourages external trappings that might reflect pride and vanity. By means of good works, not ornamentation, Christian women prove their claim of piety.
Paul then adds, "Let a woman learn in silence with all submission" (v. 11). The focus of this sentence is upon the attitude exhibited by women when they receive instruction. When the church gathers, a Christian woman willingly receives instruction; she does not give it. The next verse expands upon the role of women: "And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence" (v. 12). The apostle writes that women are to occupy a chaste and submissive station in the congregation. Naturally, this precludes certain activities involving the use of authority.
Paul uses two terms here, the first of which is didaskein, meaning "to teach." Generally speaking, this word refers to imparting doctrinal facts that result in a listener's growth in the faith. The second word, authentein, is found only here and means "to exercise authority over." Paul is referring to two matters: formal teaching and the exercise of authority. Paul prohibits women from teaching men the elements of the Christian religion, and he restricts women from holding any positions in which they would have jurisdiction over men.
Paul appeals to the Creation account: "For Adam was formed first, then Eve" (v. 13). Paul inerrantly interprets that Adam's position in the created order has significant bearing upon the subject now under consideration. The fact that Adam was created before Eve means that men are not to be subjected to the authority of women. Applying this principle to the organization of the church, Paul teaches that it is wrong for a woman to assume or hold a position in which she rules over a man; in such a case, the Creation hierarchy is violated.
Paul cites the fall: "And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression" (v. 14). The word translated "deceived," exapataō, means "to seduce wholly" or "to entice to sin." Paul is concerned that the authoritative structure, established at Creation, be maintained in the congregation. Because Adam was created before Eve, he held a position of higher rank as far as functional authority is concerned. Verse 14 illustrates the importance of maintaining the hierarchy which God established. When Satan tempted Eve, she disregarded the implications of the order in which she and Adam were created. Eve removed herself from the safeguarding environment that God designed and, consequently, fell into transgression.
The final verse says: "Nevertheless she will be saved in childbearing if they continue in faith, love, and holiness, with self-control" (v. 15). A significant part of Eve's obligation in the marriage relationship was the bearing of children who would be the means by which man would rule over God's creation. It was essential that Eve embrace motherhood. By fulfilling their roles, Adam and Eve could preserve the order that God created and expect His blessings. Therefore, when the apostle refers to women being "saved in childbearing," he intends to communicate that women should do what God intends women to do. Paul uses a literary device known as "synecdoche," in which the part is used to represent the whole. He picks that which uniquely belongs to women, the ability to bear children, and uses it as a figure to represent the whole of a woman's calling. This does not mean that women should do nothing but have children, nor that woman are regenerated by giving birth. Rather, Paul means that women should not seek to do what God intends men to do: teach and exercise spiritual authority.
Routinely, one verse is cited that supposedly contradicts the interpretation just offered. In Galatians 3:28, the same apostle writes: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." How are we to understand this statement in light of the previous passage, in which Paul makes clear distinctions regarding the roles of men and women in the church? The answer is in the context.
In this chapter, Paul is explaining the nature of the Abrahamic covenant whereby the blessing of salvation came to the world. The apostle views all of those who share in this redemption as represented in Jesus Christ. In this passage, therefore, there is an emphasis on the equality of status for all believers in the one Savior. Whether one is a Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, Paul proclaims, makes no difference. The union into which the sinner enters by faith is one and the same for all people, no matter what their circumstances, national origin, social status, or gender. Galatians 3:28 does not speak to role relationships; this verse is not intended to address the respective functional distinctions between men and women. Such an interpretation is wholly foreign to the context. Paul does not contradict himself by teaching that women are somehow functionally interchangeable with men in the Christian community.
Relying on the theology of Creation, Paul explains how the teaching ministry and rule of the church are to be structured. Knowing that God has established distinctive functions for men and women, the apostle urges that they not be confused or joined. Galatians 3:28 does nothing to establish some kind of sexless personhood, as though in Christ the blessings of manhood and womanhood are neutered. Only when men do what men are intended to do and women do what women are intended to do is there reason to anticipate God's blessings, personal satisfaction, fulfillment, and general well-being. We should acknowledge a distinction in function and, at the same time, recognize the spiritual equality of all people in the Savior. Men and women most certainly are one in Christ, but women may not rule in the church because God did not create them to rule; they have another, equally essential calling.
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