People on both sides of the debate over women in church leadership tend to dismiss the other side’s beliefs and write them off as less Christian – either because they are “suppressing the work of the Holy Spirit” and “oppressing women” or are “not taking the Word seriously” and are sinning by “being too worldly” and “refusing to submit.” Few people are willing to have an open discussion about whether the Bible does, indeed, prohibit women from being leaders in the church.
When discussing this topic in a religion class at my Christian college, my favorite professor gave us a general guideline for interpreting Scripture. If the passage in question is still an issue in our culture, we should interpret it literally. If it is not an issue, the principles can be applied to similar situations. So, for example, the passages that tell us not to lie or murder are literal and timeless, while those about eating meat sacrificed to idols were meant for first-century Christians and can be applied to things like drinking alcohol today.
The question is, into which category does I Timothy 2:9-15 fall? Many contemporary Christians say the passage, particularly verse 13 (“I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.”[ NIV]) was meant for a specific time, but the appeal to Adam and Eve in verses 14-15 makes me think that this particular command is a timeless one. By contrast, verses 9-10, which prohibit gold jewelry and braided hair, are examples to illustrate the original command of verse 9 to dress modestly. Gold jewelry and braided hair are no longer considered immodest, so I could apply the overall command to today’s standards and avoid wearing tight micro-minis and low-cut crop tops.
Supporters of women in leadership often point to the deaconesses mentioned in the Bible. What about them? For one, the term “deaconess” does not appear in any of the most common Bible translations. I have little to support this argument, but I believe that the women mentioned in Scripture whom some call “deaconesses” were not necessarily church leaders but played other vital roles in the church’s ministry.
So, if I am correct that women still should not “teach or have authority over a man,” how does that play out? I would understand it to mean that women should not be in any positions where they might be able to make decisions by which men must abide and should not be preaching from the pulpit or teaching adult Sunday school classes. Following this idea logically, I still have some uncertainty about the application of the verses in other circumstances:
What about women in charge of a church’s children’s program, where their main purpose would be leading and teaching children but they may be required to hold authority over male teachers?
What about small group leaders? In our current small group, it is a woman who “leads” by asking questions from a book. But is she really teaching , or is she enabling a discussion? Should the book itself be considered the teacher? If so, does that limit what kinds of books Christian women can write?
What does it mean for a woman to “be silent” in church? Can she sing? Can she pray out loud? Can she offer her opinion in group discussions?
What about parachurch organizations? Can a woman be the director of a pregnancy care center? I believe that women could hold some of those positions, but only if the rest of the staff members are women. So does that require reverse discrimination, in which men are not hired for lower positions because they would be working under a woman?
What about secular roles of leadership and authority in business or education? I personally struggled with this issue when I taught at two local post-secondary schools and had men as students. Should Christian women avoid taking jobs that put them in charge of men, and should Christian men refuse to work under women in secular businesses? If so, should men quit existing jobs if women are hired as their bosses and women quit if men are hired to work under them?
Maybe I am splitting hairs, but I believe that it is important to understand how we should apply Scripture to our lives on a practical level. I would love to hear your opinions. If you believe women should lead alongside men, how do you interpret the referral to Adam and Eve? If you believe that it is not biblical for women to be in church leadership, how would you answer some of the questions above?
I am writing a series of posts about Bible passages Christians tend to overlook or underemphasize. If you have any suggestions for any ignored Scriptures to include, please let me know!