WOMEN IN CHURCH LEADERSHIP
Regi George Varghese
To arrive at a consensus on the role of women in the New Testament Church seems to be a bit difficult. Particularly when it comes to women leadership roles or teaching involvements, at least a few denominations have already excluded its female members. Episcopal churches might say that they cannot find any female presence near the altar, even from the Aaronic days. Churches of more congregational or Presbyterian orientation would say that the instructional lines of New Testament writings clearly avoid women for doctrinal reasons.
Does the Bible speak directly and conclusively on these matters, as some suggest? Do the Scriptures permanently exclude women from all spiritual leadership in the church?
The prominence of women in the New Testament Church is not easy to bypass. During the earthly ministry of Jesus, some women provided for them (Mk.15:41). When the entire rabbinic world excluded women from studying the Torah (law), the 'Jesus movement' appreciated these women pupils (Lk.10:42). After the resurrection, these Galilean women heralded the basic kerygma "The risen Christ is the Lord" to the male apostles. When the church began in the Judean and foreign territories, many women became prominent members and custodians in the local congregations.
The church began in the Roman world where the culture was predominantly Greek. The thinking of Socrates, propagated by Aristotle and Plato, universalised the disdain against women. The Stoics also contributed towards it. This Greek thinking even influenced rabbinic Judaism during the inter-Testamental period. The Hebrew reformists pioneered corrective movements to cleanse Judaism from such Greek corruptions. To an extent the 'Jesus movement' was a similar force inside the first century Judaism. Hence we can see many women around Jesus.
How can one expect a different voice from Paul, a student of Gamaliel, a similar reformist of his time? How could one expect anything less from Paul on women, having been schooled in Scriptures under such a scholarship? He acclaimed that there was no male or female in Christ (Gal.3:28). Following his Saviour's footprints, he too included several women in his ministry and church leadership positions. We may find many of their names in the salutation passages of Pauline letters.
It is against this background one must study those Pauline passages in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy that are commonly rendered to exclude women from church leadership. The most difficult one is 1 Timothy 2:8-15. Today there are preachers who argue for the plain meaning of the text. However, how will those who advocate for a plain meaning of this text explain 1 Timothy 2:15, which says that women will be saved by childbirth?
In the given passage, the plain meaning of the text is that women cannot exercise any spiritual authority over the congregation and especially over men because Satan deceived her in the beginning. But does this verse imply that the women will always be tempted and deceived by Satan and so she cannot take any spiritual authority, whereas men do not have any such problem? The Bible not only denies it, but also says clearly that both men and women can be tempted and deceived by Satan. The history of Christianity has proved that much of the heretic teachings entered the church by deception of its men preachers and not necessarily through it female members.
A few references in this letter might help us to solve the puzzle of these verses. In 1 Timothy 5, one can notice Paul vehemently opposing certain behaviours of the Ephesian women who went from house to house (probably house church to house church) to misguide the members. One good explanation is that some female false teachers, who were already active in the congregation, believed that like Eve they were the enlightened Eves (a Gnostic idea) to teach in the church. In that case, Paul might be correcting them by quoting the true story of Eve and at the same time encouraging them to learn first (v.11).
Similarly v.12 might raise another problem where it reads that women are not expected to exercise authority over men. Therefore the immediate conclusion might be, "Women cannot exercise any spiritual authority over men." However, before drawing any such general conclusion, care must be taken to see the possible range of meanings for the original Greek text. It is better to translate the Greek word as something similar to 'bullying.' Most probably, Paul was asking the wives (the Greek word for woman can also be translated as wife) not to bully their husbands, but to be subject to them to learn first.
When it comes to the other two Pauline passages (1Cor.11,14), the explanation is more direct and simple. In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul was not actually restricting women from teaching in the church, but encouraging them to be prophetesses for the congregation. Nevertheless, his particular concern for those women prophetesses who were speaking God's Word in the church was only about their dress. He did not want these women to be mistaken by the public with those prostitutes who went without their head covered. In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul's concern was not at all women leadership in the church, but the indiscipline of uneducated Corinthian ladies who were chattering during the church worship.
Paul encouraged women to involve actively in the church by giving the Word of prophecy. Joel's vision about the daughters of the church was fulfilled there. "Let your daughters prophesy" (Joel 2:28). It was a period when these charismatic individuals guided the church. Nevertheless, the present church is doctrinally more stable, as the teachings are given primarily through the Scriptures that are already canonised. If the apostles sanctioned women teaching and leadership involvements even in that formative charismatic period of the church, it will be even more today.