NEW NOTE: 25 years ago, I wrote the following article about the women’s role, which I delivered in oral form for the Boston Church of Christ and later included as an appendix of my first full-length book, “Prepared to Answer.” The contents of this article marked a definite progression in my own thinking and teaching about the subject at the time. I have purposely left this article on this website as an illustration of my own willingness to continue studying challenging topics and to change my mind when convinced that my former views were incomplete and/or incorrect. While some might compare the older article to my current teaching in some sort of negative way, the comparison is actually quite a positive thing, demonstrating my own willingness to do what I am asking others to now do.
NOTE: This article was originally written long before the newest version of the New International Version (NIV) of the Bible was published. I have substituted the 2011 version for the older version that this appendix originally contained. It is actually more accurate than the older one, although this is not always true in other passages. I have also slightly edited a few other things in the article, but very few.
I Timothy 2:8-15
Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing. 9 I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, 10 but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God. 11 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15 But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.
As we examine this passage, the first thing that stands out is a focus on spirituality. Men were to be holy, without hot tempers and disagreeable attitudes (verse 8). Women were to be modest in dress, adorned by good deeds (verse 8—see also 1 Peter 3:1-6 for similar admonitions). Were these commands intended to be mutually exclusive? That is, were only men allowed to pray in any type of assembly? The word for “men” here is not the one denoting mankind, from anthropos, but a reference to males, from aner. If we take the affirmative, then were only women to dress modestly and to practice good deeds? How could you bind one as law and not the other?
Women did apparently pray in mixed groups, according to Acts 1:14 and 1 Corinthians 11:3-16. We will look at the latter passage in detail later in this chapter. Clearly men were to be the leaders in public services, but that would not necessarily rule out women praying in some type of format (such as a group prayer). Keep in mind that the focus of these directives was on the spirituality of the men and women in the Corinth church and their characteristic areas of need. The men needed to be harmonious in their relationships with one another, and the women needed to be modest in their dress and demeanor.
Next, we see a focus on leadership. The teaching here is not based simply on the culture of that day, for Paul goes back to the creation story to make his point (verses 13-15). The women is to show “full submission” (verse 11), which is a leadership issue that does not in any way demean women. It has nothing to do with value, intelligence or spiritual capacity. Submission is a necessary ingredient of life in many areas, but it demonstrates strength and not weakness!
She is to learn in “quietness” (verse 11). The Greek word is not the one for “silence,” as translated in some versions and even in verse 12 in the older NIV. The NIV2011 gets it right. The word for “silence” is found in 1 Corinthians 14:34, as we will see later. Actually, quietness is the correct translation of hesukia, and it refers to demeanor rather than sound! In 1 Thessalonians 4:11, the same Greek word is translated as “quiet life” in this phrase: “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business…” In 2 Thessalonians 3:12, it is rendered “settle down” in this sentence: “Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the bread they eat.” Then, in 1 Timothy 2:2, it reads: “…that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” It should be clear that being quiet is a matter of character and behavior, not of audibility.
In verse 12, the women are forbidden to teach a man in a public setting in a manner which gives her authority over him. She can do some teaching in more private settings (with a submissive spirit, of course), for Priscilla had a part in teaching the eloquent Apollos (Acts 18:24-26). The real issue is having authority over a man, and in my judgment, she has the freedom to do many things without assuming authority. A wife has the freedom to do many things without assuming the authority of her husband. Why would the role of women in the church be different in principle from the husband/wife relationship?
1 Corinthians 14:34-35
Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35 If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.
To those with the more restrictive view of the woman’s role, this passage seems to be proof positive of their position. Of course, the charismatics think that this chapter is also proof positive of their position on the use of miraculous spiritual gifts. But looking at passages without a consideration of their context produces all sorts of erroneous conclusions. Therefore, let’s look at this text in its context.
Note that women were to be “in submission as the law says.” The law here is likely a reference to the last part of Genesis 3:16, which reads: “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” This desire for her husband is a negative in the context, perhaps a reference to her desire for his position. Compare the use of the word “desire” in Genesis 4:7. At any rate, the submission enjoined in 1 Corinthians 14:34 is enforced with a reference to the Law, the Old Testament.
But just what did the Law allow generally in the case of women? Actually, it allowed a good deal more than the casual observer might think. It allowed Deborah to be a judge, and to lead in battle (Judges 4:4-10). On the latter point, was her leadership allowed only because no man was willing to lead? Probably, but she exercised this leadership in a team situation with Barak, and I am confident it was done with a submissive demeanor! The Law also allowed Huldah to be a prophetess whose advice was sought by male leaders in 2 Kings 22:11-20. It allowed Anna to be a prophetess also, as seen in Luke 2:36-38. Whatever else may be said, the Law did not rule out women leadership, even very prominent leadership. Therefore, it would be risky to make too broad of an application from this passage!
In verse 34, absolute silence with no speaking at all was being demanded. Both the context and the meaning of the Greek word make this idea clear. The word is sigao, and its other usage will demonstrate the point. In Acts 12:17, the same word is translated “quiet,” but the context shows what it means: “Peter motioned with his hand for them to be quiet and described how the Lord had brought him out of prison…” Then, in Acts 15:12, it says “silent”: “The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them.”
This command is found in an overall context of orderly worship in 1 Corinthians 14:26-40. Our word for “silence” is found three times in this section, and in each case it means absolute silence without any speaking at all. In verses 26-28, those speaking in tongues were told that no more than three could speak at any assembly, one at a time, if an interpreter were present to interpret. If no interpreter was present, the tongue speaker was told to “keep quiet” in the church (from the word sigao, absolute silence). In verses 29-33, the prophets were told that no more than three prophets could speak at any one assembly, one at a time, and when the next to speak was given a revelation, the one speaking “should stop.” (Again, this is the root word sigao—no speaking at this point.) Finally, in verses 34-35, the women were to “remain silent” in the churches (also from the root word sigao).
If this command were taken literally, with no attempt to determine the context, women would be forbidden to make any sounds at a public assembly. Of course, no one would interpret it in such an extreme way, but the reasoning is normally something like this: “Well, it cannot mean that the women are forbidden even to sing.” Why not, if we insist on taking the passage at face value, with no real attempt to determine the meaning in its context?! The word sigao means exactly that silence. It should be obvious that I do not take the traditional restrictive view, but what is the meaning of this directive in its context? Some questions raised and answered will be helpful in discovering the meaning.
One, who were the women being discussed? They were women who were disrupting orderly worship, acting disgracefully, and not in submission. (Surely all the women present were not guilty of such behavior!) They were married women who could ask questions of their own husbands at home. From looking at 1 Corinthians 7, we know that there was quite a contingent of singles in the church at Corinth. However, only the married women are given the directive in chapter 14. At this point, many people will say “other women are included too.” Of course, they have the liberty to say it, but we should keep in mind that it is their opinion and nothing more. God certainly appears to be addressing women with husbands! The word translated “women” is the Greek term gune, which can be translated either women or wives, depending on the context. This context seems clearly to be directed at wives, and not women generally. Further, these women appear to be a specific group of wives, the wives of the prophets and perhaps of the tongue speakers as well.
Two, what was their wrongful speaking? They were asking questions of their husbands (who were speaking), and thereby interrupting the assembly. In this contextual situation, it was disgraceful to speak in the church. However, to apply the passage more generally would be assumptive, and it would demand absolute silence on the part of women in assemblies if we stuck with the meaning of sigao. Unless the context is taken into consideration, you would have to forbid women even to sing! Therefore, 1 Corinthians 14 is dealing with a specialized situation which has little to do with the role of women generally (except to teach them not to disrupt services by asking questions).
It is tempting for those who want to reach their foregone conclusions without dealing with the context to take a very simplistic view, such as “See, it plainly says that women must remain silent in the churches, and we need to simply accept that statement for what it says!” Those who take that approach often claim that an explanation like the one used in this present article is explaining away the clear and obvious truth.
However, they themselves are accused of the same thing by the Pentecostals even within this same chapter! The Pentecostals quote verse 39, “Therefore, my brothers, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues.” Then they say that all of the explanation about why people do not speak in tongues today is simply a dodge of the obvious truth! The point is simply this: just because a doctrine must be explained contextually and in some detail does not make it wrong! Simplistic explanations of involved issues may sound good, but the conclusions thus reached may also be quite erroneous! Many examples of simplistic explanations which are quite wrong can be cited, including such false teachings as salvation by faith only, the literal thousand-year reign of Christ on earth, and many, many others.
1 Corinthians 11:3-16
But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. 4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. 5 But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. 6 For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head. 7 A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. 8 For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; 9 neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God. 13 Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, 15 but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. 16 If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.
In contrast to 1 Timothy 2, this passage has much to do with the issue of customs in the first century in the city of Corinth. At this time in Corinth, the wearing of a veil signified that the woman was an upright person, but the absence of a veil demonstrated the very opposite. Immoral women went without veils. Evidently, some Christian women were appealing to their elevation in Christ (Galatians 3:28) as an excuse for dismissing this customary dress for women. This connotation of the veil, or the lack of a veil, was a matter of custom at that time in that place, because back in Genesis 38:14-15, Tamar wore a veil, which apparently was the custom of prostitutes, since she was posing as one. Obviously, customs change with time.
What is the veil under discussion? The word for “cover” is from the Greek katakalupto, designating a woman’s artificial covering. The word for “covering” in verse 15 is another Greek word, peribolaion, which refers to the hair as a natural covering. If you tried, as some have, to make the covering of the earlier verses the same as this one, then only bald-headed men could have prayed or prophesied, according to verse 4! Paul’s point in verse 4 is that it is no more appropriate for a woman to refuse to wear her customary attire than for a man to wear a woman’s garment (not that the men were really doing that). He states that if the women were going to discard the veil, then they might as well cut their hair (like the prostitutes) or even shave their heads (like the women accused of adultery).
What about the angels of verse 10? Although the question has little relevance to our discussion, it is a matter of curiosity. One good possibility is that the angels are good ones, who serve Christians (Hebrews 1:14). They would be offended, as would God himself, by the sisters’ rejection of their veils, which were a “sign of authority.” Another possibility is that these angels are bad ones, who lost their lofty positions with God because they did not stay in their submissive roles (Jude 6). If that interpretation is the one intended by Paul, the sisters had better learn from the angel’s example of disobedience!
Thus far, what are the lessons for us in our setting? One, men and women are different by design, and this difference is not to be denied either by dress or appearance. In verses 14-15, the issue seems not really the length of the hair, but the blurring of the sexes. That is always wrong, no matter what the specific customs may be. Two, custom is not to be discarded if the discarding hurts the influence of Christians with those whom they are trying to evangelize. If all prostitutes wore red dresses today, then Christian women should not wear them.
The most relevant issue in this text for our study involves the praying and prophesying of the women. In what context were they doing these things? If you were to take 1 Corinthians 14 out of its context, as many do, you would be forced to assign 1 Corinthians 11 to a setting where only women were present. Difficulties are readily apparent with such an assumption. For one thing, 1 Corinthians normally places the use of these particular spiritual gifts in a context of corporate worship (see 1 Corinthians 12:7-11, 28; 14:3-4). For another thing, the passage speaks of both men and women praying and prophesying. By what principle of interpretation can you limit one and not the other? The principle of assumption? Finally, why would women praying and prophesying need a “sign of authority” on their heads if the authorities to whom they were to show submission were not even present? Surely women did not have to wear veils with other women in a private setting.
I have no problem in assuming that their practice was based on the presence of supernatural gifts in the church and that women are no longer divinely directed to preach to a mixed audience (especially in view of 1 Timothy 2). But this passage strongly militates against the highly restrictive interpretation of 1 Corinthians 14 which would prohibit the sharing of a personal testimony. She cannot teach men the Bible in a public setting, thus taking an authoritative role, but sharing with a submissive demeanor is another matter, and I think a permissible one.
Several other areas of judgment about how to apply the principles of the woman’s role need to be briefly addressed before closing this appendix. Can women serve as ushers and distribute communion to the assembly? It seem clear that such actions are issues of serving, not of exercising authority, unless a woman were the appointed leader in one of these functions and had to assume leadership over men. Our practice is mainly to use non-leader brothers for serving communion, as a way to encourage them as good disciples of Jesus. To use women for the same reason is an excellent practice. The lead usher should be a man, but women can surely serve as ushers.
Is it permissible for women to participate with men in chain prayers in devotional settings? As long as a man is in charge of the overall session, giving the instructions regarding procedure, then the women would not be in a leadership position. If they can comment in a Bible class setting with men and women present, then they can direct their comments to God in the presence of brothers and sisters. If men never hear women comment or pray, they are missing some very special spiritual encouragement.
How about women baptizing other women—is that permissible? For some reason, this question stirs up a lot of emotions for some people when they first hear of this practice. But the reaction rises from an emotional concern more than from a Biblical concern. Matthew 28:19-20 commands disciples to make other disciples, baptize them, and to train them after baptism. In the past, women have been able to do only two of the three things mentioned here. Why? Tradition! We have always said that any disciple can baptize, in contrast to the denominational practice of allowing only the clergy to baptize. But what we evidently meant is that any male disciple can baptize! It is time we followed our own statements. The Bible is totally silent on the subject, which allows us some freedom to choose. The practice does not necessarily give a woman authority, but even if it did, the authority would be over another woman. Can a woman baptize a man? Since the act can bond us in a special way, as seen in 1 Corinthians 1:14ff, it might not be an expedient practice. If men are present when women are baptizing women, a brother should be in charge of the overall activity. This will eliminate misunderstandings. But the practice of women baptizing those with whom they have studied is a very good one indeed!