Does the Bible teach distinct roles for men and women in the church? This debate is a frequent and sometimes heated one in the church today. We recognize the sensitive nature of this question. It’s understandably an emotional issue, and one that touches people deeply. Naturally, this subject affects women in ways it doesn’t affect men. But most men under a certain age are accustomed to working with and for women, so they, too, are often culturally uncomfortable with any gender restrictions in the church.
As evangelical Christians though, our criterion is not our cultural comfort, but our biblical faithfulness. We must not simply seek out a plausible sounding argument for “our side”; we must search the Scriptures to determine what the Bible really teaches. And we must be prepared to adopt either viewpoint if we find it consistently taught in Scripture.
So what does the Bible teach? We should rightly begin with creation. From the beginning, God created us male and female. Gender distinction is an integral aspect of God’s original creation. So what are the differences? One obvious difference is the ability of women to bear children. Of course, this doesn’t define and limit what it means to be a woman . . . but neither can it be excluded. Not if we’re seeking God’s design. We see from the beginning intrinsic differences between men and women that are not transferable. We shouldn’t extrapolate from this a detailed list of “men’s work” and “women’s work,” but we also can’t ignore how God distinguished us in creation and equipped us differently for differing roles.
Why did God create us this way? One clue is in Ephesians 5:31-32. Apparently, God intends for us to be living illustrations of the relationship between Christ and the church. If this is true, it would require one spouse to represent Christ and one to represent the church. This wouldn’t have anything to do with competence, intelligence or character; it would simply be a role for us to fulfill in this lifetime. The previous verses in Ephesians 5 indicate the husband is to represent Christ, and the wife represents the church.
We see a pattern of this distinction throughout the Bible. The people God chose to lead Israel were all men (with one exception), God directed that the priests all be male, and Christ chose twelve men to be apostles of the church. This wasn’t because women were any less capable of filling these roles. There are certainly times when women are more competent or knowledgeable than the men serving in leadership. But we’ve all experienced working for someone who is less competent than we are. This doesn’t negate their management role, but it shows that being in leadership doesn’t make a manager a superior being (or make us somehow inferior). God doesn’t declare either gender superior or inferior, but he has given us different roles to fulfill.
This brings us to a key passage in 1 Timothy 2:11-12:
Women should learn quietly and submissively. I do not let women teach men or have authority over them. Let them listen quietly.
This seems fairly clear. Most scholars agree the word “quietly” in this verse doesn’t mean absolute silence, but is contrasted with teaching and having authority. There are two things the apostle Paul says are inappropriate for women in ministry: teaching men, and having authority over men.
Some say this is only Paul’s personal opinion, or that he didn’t intend to write some kind of church manual. But Paul is writing as an apostle of Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 1:1), so he is writing the words of Christ with the authority of Christ, as he frequently mentions in his letters (1 Corinthians 14:37-38; 1 Thessalonians 2:13). He also clarifies (in 1 Timothy 3:14-15) his intention for this letter:
I am writing these things to you now, even though I hope to be with you soon, so that if I am delayed, you will know how people must conduct themselves in the household of God. This is the church of the living God, which is the pillar and foundation of the truth.
Could Paul have written this instruction to address a certain situation in Ephesus at that time, and not have intended it for the whole church? No, because Paul doesn’t support this teaching by referring to a local problem, but instead gives theological reasons for this command and refers back to creation (1 Timothy 2:13-14), showing these gender distinctions went back to the beginning.
Some have claimed Paul was addressing a specific problem of women teaching false doctrine in the church of Ephesus. But there is no scriptural evidence to support the idea that women were teaching false doctrine. And if women were teaching what was false, they shouldn’t have been restricted from teaching only men, but also kept from teaching women and children as well!
Others say the reason for this instruction was to prevent uneducated women from teaching in the assembly. But this also doesn’t hold up under closer examination. Were all of the women in the church in Ephesus unknowledgeable? Were there no uneducated men who would therefore, apparently, be unqualified to teach? If so, why single out the women? Why this emphasis on education when unlearned fishermen served as apostles to the church? And, again, why would the women be allowed to teach women and children if they weren’t competent to teach men?
Even many who are sympathetic to this desire (for equal opportunity for men and women in the church) feel like Scriptures are being turned upside down and inside out to get them to say something they simply don’t. Most of us today are culturally uncomfortable with this teaching, but it’s difficult to see any legitimate interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:11-12 other than that, in the church, women should not teach men or have authority over men.
The passage most commonly used to support the right for women to serve in any capacity in the church is Galatians 3:28:
There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.
But when we look at this passage in context, it seems clear it’s not removing all gender distinctions. The context is one of salvation and our relationship to Christ. There is no distinction in how we relate directly to God, no matter whether we’re Jew, Gentile, slave, free, male, female—it makes no difference in our access to Christ. To teach that this passage is doing away with any distinction between men and women goes way beyond the context of this passage and contradicts everything else Scripture says on the subject.
When we look at the New Testament, we see a great number of women actively involved in ministry. The accounts of the early church in Acts and the letters of Paul frequently acknowledge women who shared in ministering to God’s people (Acts 9:36; 16:14-15; 18:26; 21:9; Romans 16:1-12; 1 Corinthians 16:19; 2 Timothy 4:19). However, none of these examples violate the principle that women should not teach or have authority over men. These same numerous areas of ministry are available to women today.
The many ways Jesus involved women in his ministry were amazing. In doing so, he went directly against the culture of the day. Jewish women were not supposed to be disciples and receive religious instruction—Jesus taught them and used them in ministry. Jewish women were not considered reliable witnesses in court—Jesus chose a group of women to be the first ones to see him after his resurrection and to carry the news back to the other disciples he had risen. Clearly, Jesus was not bound by first century convention in the way he used women in ministry. But when he chose the leaders for his church, he appointed twelve men as his apostles. We can’t ignore this. The elders of the first churches followed this example; there is no mention of a female elder anywhere in Scripture or in the history of the early church.
We must point out that throughout history women have been horribly mistreated and unjustly suppressed. We do not, in any way, support the domination of women by men. God created us equal, but different, with different roles to fill. The differences were intended for us to complement each other and work together, not for one to dominate and suppress the other. We should all advance the rights of women to be fairly and equitably treated.
We’re all different parts of the body of Christ, with different areas of gifting and different areas of ministry. Is it unfair for God to call one pastor to serve in a church of 5,000 and another to serve in a church of 50? Of course not. Is it cruel for God to give a gift of leadership to one man but not to another? No, because each man will be blessed with an area of service, and each man will be uniquely used by God. Is it inequitable for God to entrust certain areas of ministry to men and not to women? No, because both will be given the areas of service God intends for them, and both will be uniquely used by God.
We enthusiastically support the involvement of women in every area of ministry and leadership, except for those requiring teaching men or having spiritual authority over men.
But our bodies have many parts,
and God has put each part
just where he wants it.
How strange a body would be if it had only one part!
Yes, there are many parts, but only one body.
1 Corinthians 12:18-20