The role of women in the church

By Johnny O. Trail

Women are an important part of the body of Christ.  Indeed, many efforts that are attempted in the Lord’s church would fail miserably if godly women were not dedicated to supporting the work of the church.

God, through His word, selects people to serve in various ways in the body of Christ.  The word of God is prohibitive in regards to the works of an elder and a deacon inasmuch as it outlines the requirements that one seeking such a work must satisfy to serve in such a capacity.  If one is not qualified, he should not serve.  All workers in the Lord’s church must seek authority for their actions and words whether male or female, elder or otherwise.

These things being said, God loves all people equally—men and women.  John 3.16 says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”  Galatians 3.27-28 says, “For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”  God does not love an elder any more than He loves a preacher.  Nor does He love a man more than a woman.  Simply stated, there is a distinction in the works they are authorized to be a part of in the church (Ephesians 4.11).

In the public worship assembly, a woman is not to have a leadership role with Christian males in attendance.  I Timothy 2.8-15 says,

“I will therefore that men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting.  In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with braided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array; But (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works.  Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection.  But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve.  And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression. Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety.”

These passages are most likely offered in the context of the worship assembly.  How do we know this?  For one thing, the word “man” is used in these passages rather than the term “husband.”

Next, the dress of the woman is discussed by Paul, and it seems unlikely that Paul would address this if a public setting was not under consideration.  Why would Paul be discussing the apparel of a woman in a private setting?  Thus, these passages seem to regulate a problem that is happening in a public setting.

These passages do not mean that a woman cannot make any sound in the worship assembly.  The ESV translates this passage in 1 Timothy 2:12 as, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.”  If she could not make a single sound, it would not be possible for her to sing.  Clearly, she is commanded to do so.  Colossians 3.16 says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.”

From this line of study, other questions sometimes emerge.  Some have asked, “It is biblical for a woman to teach a young boy in her class if he has been immersed into Christ.”  From a moment, we need to consider the wording that Paul uses in these passages.

The Greek word that Paul uses in these passages is aner, and it means “man” (I Timothy 2.12). The same word is used in Acts 8.12 in contrast towards women. “But when they believed Philip preaching the things concerning the kingdom of God, and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.”

Moreover, the term aner makes a distinction between adult men and boys.  Mounce defines it as “a male person of full age and stature, as opposed to a child or female, I Corinthians 13.11.”[1]  The term is used in contrast to “child” in various places.  I Corinthians 13.11 is one example.  “When I was a child, I spake as a child (nēpios), I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man (anēr), I put away childish things.”

Moreover, scripture refers to Christ as a “child” when he was just twelve years of age.  Luke 2.43 says, “And when they had fulfilled the days, as they returned, the child Jesus tarried behind in Jerusalem; and Joseph and his mother knew not of it.”  Even though He was twelve and the Son of God, He found it necessary to continue submitting unto his father and mother.  Luke 2.51 says, “And he went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject (hupotassō–continued to be in submission—J.O.T) unto them: but his mother kept all these sayings in her heart.”

In connection with this point, Wayne Jackson avers, “It is ludicrous to think that a mother no longer has authority over her son when he is ten or eleven—or even when he is a young teenager.”[2] Surely no reasonable parent would argue that a mother no longer has any authority over her preteen or teenage son when he obeys the gospel?!

Next, some might ask “Is it biblical for a woman to ask a question during a Bible study class where Christian men are present?”  This question most closely revolves around I Corinthians 14.34 which reads, “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law.”  Specifically, does the word “silence” mean that a woman is to be absolutely and totally quiet in the assembly?

Suffice it to say that the word for “silence” needs to be examined in its context to determine how the word is being used.  The Greek word for silence is sigaō.  It is defined as “To be silent, keep silence.”[3]   The word is used in the LXX (Septuagint) and the New Testament to mean various things depending upon the context.

In Exodus 14.14 the term sigaō is used in the LXX to mean exercise silence rather than engaging in murmuring and unbelief.  The term is used in Psalm 32.3 by David to indicate that he kept silent regarding his sins rather than ejecting them from his life.

Finally the term is used in Luke 9.36 (ESV) “And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent (sigaō) and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen.”  This simply means that they did not discuss with others the transfiguration of Jesus.  It does not mean that they never spoke again of the matter.  They merely kept silence “in those days.”

When one considers the context of I Corinthians 14 and the use of the term sigaō, it becomes clear that it is used to mean keeping silence in regards to the matters that Paul found to be problematic in their assemblies.  That is, these provisions are offered within the context of worship.

Those using tongues were instructed to be silent if no interpreter was present.  1 Corinthians 14:27-28 says, “If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret.  But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God.”  The person engaging in prophecy was told to remain silent to avoid confusion and lack of edification in the assembly.  1 Corinthians 14:30 says, “If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent.”  No reasonable person would argue that these two categories of people—ones speaking in tongues and prophets—were never expected to engage in such pursuits again.

By the same token, the passage under consideration should not be taken to mean that a woman must remain in absolute silence in the church.  These passages say in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 that “The women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says.  If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.”  If a woman must remain totally silent, she could not participate in congregational singing (Colossians 3.16). If a woman is to remain totally silent, she could not publicly confess Christ prior to baptism (Romans 10.10).[4] If a woman must remain totally silent, she could not correct disruptive children while in the assembly.

One might ask, “What was their silence intended to correct in the worship assembly?”  Jackson avers,

The overall context of this concluding portion of 1 Corinthians 14 suggests that there was a definite problem in the Corinthian church, and it had to do with aggressive women…Some of these Corinthian sisters were asserting themselves, speaking out in such a manner as to challenge the role of the male public teachers. Under the guise of wanting information, they likely were asking pointed questions that were designed to put the service-leaders on the defensive.[5]

Clearly, publicly teaching God’s word is an authoritative work.  Titus 2.15 says, “These things speak, and exhort, and rebuke with all authority…”  As such, the authority of the man teaching the assembly was not to be challenged by these women.  By the same token, modern assemblies should not be categorized by women who ask pointed questions that are aimed at challenging male leadership.

The second portion of the text under consideration, I Corinthians 14.35 says, “And if they will learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.” In regards to this passage Wayne Jackson writes,

Some, who have not understood the context of 1 Corinthians 14, and who have taken this matter to an unwarranted extreme, i.e., alleging that the woman may not make a comment at all or ask a question, contend that the text specifically says that if the woman would learn anything, she must ask her husband at home.  If this extreme, restrictive view is valid, the following conclusions surely must follow.  The woman must resolve not to learn anything during a church meeting, for that is what the text says.  If she were unmarried, she could then learn nothing at all ever for she would have no husband from whom to learn at home. If, therefore, she has a desire to learn, she must marry, or forever remain in ignorance.  The conclusion is absurd, because the argument is invalid.[6]

From these things, it becomes evident that Paul is not compelling women to keep complete and total silence in the assembly.  It seems more likely that Paul is prohibiting women from engaging in formal, authoritative speech in public settings.  Lightfoot states, “It seems, therefore, that Paul is giving directions not against idle talk or questions but against formal speech by women in the public meeting.”[7]

As with all matters, we should to follow the teachings of God’s word.  We must always study His holy writ to determine what His will is for our lives (Colossians 3.17).


[1] Mounce, William D. (1993).  The Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament.  Zondervan, Grand Rapids, pg. 77.
[2] Jackson, Wayne.  “May Christian Women Teach Christian Boys?”  ChristianCourier.com. Access date: September 27, 2017.
[3] Mounce, pg. 414.
[4] Highers, Alan E. (1996).  “I Corinthians 14.34-35—Keep Silence.”  The Spiritual Sword, “A Review of Feminist Theology. Volume 27, Number 2.
[5] Jackson, Wayne. “May a Woman Ask a Question?” ChristianCourier.com. Access date: October 3, 2017.
[6] Jackson, Wayne. “May a Woman Ask a Question?” ChristianCourier.com. Access date: October 3, 2017.
[7] Lightfoot, Neil (1978).  The Role of Women. Memphis, Student Association Press, pg. 31.

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