Roles of Men and Women in Church

Roles of Men and Women in the Church

In the previous post, we started looking at New Testament passages about the roles of men and women in the church. Paul's letter to the Corinthians first discusses headcoverings. But there is another passage in this same letter about the roles of men and women in the church. 

Roles of men and women in church in Corinth

To understand Paul's words in context, I’ll summarize what Paul already wrote in the letter: he emphasized the importance of unity in the Assembly; he encouraged single women not to marry; he gave instructions on how women are to pray and prophecy in the Assembly; he ordered that everyone be allowed to worship at the Lord's table; he said that despite different spiritual gifts, every person is vital to the Assembly; he said the weaker members of the Assembly are necessary and are to receive more honor; he emphasized the importance of love; and he said that only two or three should speak at once so that all members of the Assembly have the chance to participate. All of this seems to encourage the participation of everyone in the assembly. The we come upon this passage:
“The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church."
This instruction stands in such stark opposition to the rest of Paul's letter, it has been suggested that Paul is actually quoting the Corinthians incorrect philosophy so that he could dispute it. Perhaps this is true. But it seems to me that that wasn't Paul's intention. If these are indeed Paul's instructions, why would he give them?

Notice that Paul's not just singling out women and telling them to be silent. Right before this, Paul tells anyone who’s disruptive to be silent: "If there is no interpreter, he must keep silent in the church; and let him speak to himself and to God. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment. But if a revelation is made to another who is seated, the first one must keep silent". Further, Paul is not just telling women to subject themselves, but everyone to subject themselves. He says earlier, "The spirits of prophets are subject to prophets". Both women and men are instructed to control and subject themselves.

From the context of this letter, we gather that the Corinthians were extremely disorganized and disorderly. Everyone was so eager to debate theology, divisions had formed. Wealthy people were so eager to eat, the poor had no chance to. The congregation was so eager to speak in tongues, no one was receiving anything from prophecy. Everyone was talking over each other, so no one could hear anything, and the Assembly wasn't being edified. Paul had to get control of the situation. His goal was not to keep women from participating, but to lay some ground rules for the Corinthians to minimize disruption and maintain order so that everyone could participate and benefit.

In telling women to be silent, his word "ask" indicates Paul is talking not about prayer and prophecy from women, but rather disruptive questions from women. Anyone who's spoken in public knows how quickly a Q&A session can get out of hand if there's not order. Questions should be directed through husbands in private rather than disrupting the gathering. But any woman following Paul's earlier advice not to marry wouldn't even have a husband to ask, so surely this instruction doesn't apply to every woman everywhere.

Instructions on roles of men and women to Timothy

Paul wrote another letter to Timothy which also touches on the roles of men and women in the church. You’ll notice this instruction is incredibly consistent with concepts of masculinity and femininity like the masculine and feminine character of women, and the restoration of the broken relationship between men and women through offspring from Genesis, Peter's letter, and the rest of Paul's letters. We can gain further insight by taking a look:
“Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments, but rather by means of good works, as is proper for women making a claim to godliness. A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression. But women will be preserved through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self-restraint.”
Some have speculated that Paul was speaking about a specific woman who should be quiet and receive instruction submissively. But if Paul was writing about a specific woman he would have referred to “the woman” not “a woman”. Others have said that this advice doesn’t apply to us in our culture today because he wanted Timothy to be sensitive to the cultural considerations of his time and location. But just like with headcoverings, Paul gives his reasoning for these instructions, and it wasn’t for cultural reasons, but because Adam was created first and Eve was deceived first. This is true in every culture.

Notice that Paul doesn’t instruct Timothy to keep women silent as he did to the Corinthian Assembly. Rather, Paul said they should remain “quiet”. The word he used for “quiet” is a “description of the life of one who stays at home doing his own work, and does not officiously meddle with the affairs of others”. In other words, Paul is saying that women shouldn’t take authority over others and should mind their own business. So it’s not that women can’t talk in church, but that they should embrace and pursue feminine traits such as submissiveness and diligence, and avoid being loud and controlling. These traits go hand-in-hand with a caring and gentle character. We discussed before how attractive these feminine traits are in women.

Corinthian context

Now picture a church in chaos. They get a letter from Paul laying some ground rules. He tells people to stop fighting, stop taking food from the poor, the prophets to subject themselves, the tongue speakers to stay silent, and the long-winded people to allow others to speak. Then he applies the feminine qualities we've discussed to the women in the Corinthian Assembly. It seems those women weren’t submitting to their husbands, talking too much, and asking too many questions. You can understand why he would tell the women to stay silent. 

Paul's argument to the Corinthians isn't based on a universal truth like nature or the order of creation as his argument for headcoverings was. Rather, his argument seems to be based on the problem of disorder and division specific to the Corinthian Assembly. If any Assembly today suffers from these same problems, they would be wise to follow these rules. But Paul wasn't necessarily telling the women in your church to stay silent. He was telling the women in the Corinthian church to stay silent.

But there is still a lot we can learn from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. Paul said it's improper for women to speak in the Assembly. This is a result of the authority men have over women. Therefore, women shouldn't speak over men. And if women are speaking, it's because the men are silent. If the men are silent, it's because they're not using their authority as they are commanded to. Certainly this is improper! And if women are to trust their husbands with their questions, there is an implication that husbands should be trustworthy. Men aren't to use their authority to rule over their wives, but to serve their wives.

Differences between men and women in Galatia

There is one final passage that many people consider to be relevant to roles of men and women in the church. Paul wrote the following to the Galatians:

“You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.”

Many have said that this passage shows that Christ Jesus nullifies the differences between men and women. Such an interpretation would conflict with the entire Bible, especially when God called the differences between male and female that bear his image “very good”.

In context, it’s very clear that it’s not what Paul is saying. The Galatians were being told that Christians had to convert to Judaism by getting circumcised to be saved by Christ. Paul is writing to refute that heresy. Paul is saying that circumcised Jews and uncircumcised Greeks both have equal opportunity to join in Christ, just as men and women, slave and free. In fact, Paul wrote elsewhere “Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God. Each man must remain in that condition in which he was called. Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it.” If a slave is to remain in that condition in Christ, than certainly men and women are to remain in that condition as well. Paul isn’t saying that Jesus takes away our differences, but rather gives us all the chance to enjoy Jesus in spite of our differences. Therefore, our differences as men and women are a good thing, because they allow us all to have a unique relationship with Jesus!


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