The Barnabas Ministry

The Role of Women in the Church and the Assembly
The intent of this paper is to examine the role of women in the early church and in the church assembly. Examining such a topic can appear overwhelming. One reason is that the New Testament devotes very little attention to structure and the assembly— after all, Christianity is concerned about all of life and not just what happens for a few hours on the first day of the week.

Another fact complicating this study is that much of the New Testament record concerning the assembly is corrective, not merely instructive. For example, Paul didn't give the Corinthians guidelines and instructions for the assembly as much as he gave them corrections against some wrong things that were going on. The elements of the assembly were taught when churches were first started (e.g. 1 Corinthians 11:2, 2 Thessalonians 2:15); in the absense of problems needing correction nothing more would need to be said.

In addition, our cultural and religious traditions and biases are likely to make it harder to take a fresh look at this topic. As a matter of nature, we are very much inclined to read our own understandings into the Biblical record. To counter this tendency, we must strive to consider what the Bible is saying in its context without allowing our biases to distort that picture.

The approach I will take in this paper is first to examine all the Biblical evidence that appears to relate to the topic at hand, and then to pull this information together into some general guidelines.

A Short Survey of Women in the Church

Early Followers of Jesus
A logical place to begin this study is to examine the role of woman in the church. To begin, there were several women that associated with Jesus during his earthly ministry. It is significant that the apostles were all men, but there were some women who were closely associated with him. Indeed, women were highly visible in significant events in the life of Jesus:

After such an intimate involvement with Jesus, it follows that these women were a part of the band of 120 that met with the apostles for prayer in the upper room after Jesus' ascension into heaven  (Acts 1:13-14).

Women Active in Ministry
As the church started and grew, women were both converted (Acts 5:14, 8:2) and persecuted (Acts 8:3, 9:2). From time to time, many individual women distinguished themselves as outstanding servants of the Lord and his church.

An excellent example of this is Lydia, a businesswoman from Thyatira. Her designation as a "worshipper of God" indicates that she was probably a Gentile attendee of the synagogue. Not only did she and her household (probably servants) respond to the gospel, she opened her home to the early Philippian church (Acts 16:15, 16:40).  In such a way, Lydia seems to have followed in the footsteps of Jesus' female benefactors (Luke 8:1ff). As Luke identifies other prominent women converted in Acts (Acts 17:4, 12, 34), it is likely that these women served their local churches in similar ways. Chloe may also fit this model (1 Corinthians 1:11).

Other women distinguished themselves as missionaries. Most notable among these is Priscilla (or Prisca), the wife of Aquila. Together, they served in the churches at Corinth, Ephesus and Rome. Like Lydia, they hosted the church in their home (1 Corinthians 16:19, Romans 16:5) and drew high praise for their service from Paul (Romans 16:4).

Similarly, we may also draw attention to Phoebe, the servant of the church at Cenchrea (Romans 16:1-2). She was probably the bearer of the letter to the Romans (see Acts 18:18). She could well have been a businesswoman like Lydia and took this letter to Rome as she went there on business, using her business activities to serve the church.

Reflecting the Greek grammatical fact that a word ending in -an is feminine, "Junias" (Romans 16:7, NIV Greek Iounian) is probably better translated as Junia (as in Today's NIV), a woman. What is meant by "among the apostles" is probably that Andronicus and her were well-known and prominent missionaries or church-planters. (It is not clear from the context that these two were married to each other.)

Paul cites several other women who had been "hard workers" in ministry: Mary (16:6), Tryphena, Tryphosa and Persus (16:12). Paul pays honor to the mother of Rufus (16:13). Paul called Euodia and Syntyche at Philippi his "fellow-contenders" (Philippians 4:2-3, Greek sunathleo).

Apphia (Philemon 1:2) was a co-addressee of the letter to Philemon, along with Philemon and Archippus. Interestingly, Philemon is a "fellow-worker" and Archippus a "fellow-soldier", but Apphia is a "sister." This form of address may suggest that she did not serve in ministry like the others. Her relationship to Philemon is unclear; she could have been a wife or daughter.

There seems to be some distinction between married women and single women in this discussion. Many of the women cited as co-workers seem to be single, yet Priscilla was married. Contextually, Junia might have been married to Andronicus, but need not have been. In any case, there is no mention of children in any of these situations.

Prophetesses
Women were probably not involved in the initial outpouring of the Spirit in Acts 2 (the Greek term for "all" in Acts 2:1 is masculine, referring to the apostles in 1:26, see also 2:15). However. women are included in the promise of 2:17-18: "your sons and daughters shall prophesy…. both men and women"

There were several women in the New Testament who were prophetesses. The four daughters of Philip possessed this gift (Acts 21:9). It is interesting that as Luke mentions these, he tells how the male prophet Agabus is the one to bring a message to Paul, Acts 21:10. It is also interesting that Luke emphasized that these daughters were unmarried (Greek pathenos, virgin).

Paul recognized that in the church at Corinth women were praying and exercising their gift of prophecy in the assembly (1 Corinthians 11:2-6).

Widows
Widows were a significant group in the early church. From the days of Moses, God himself was the protector of widows, and God commanded Israel to care for widows and not take advantage of them (e.g. Deuteronomy 27:19) . Even in the time of Jesus, widows were often treated unkindly and wickedly (Matthew 23:14). It is no surprise that care for widows would be a priority for the early church (James 1:27).

The early Jerusalem church had a program in place that took care of feeding its widows (Acts 6:1).  It is interesting to consider that some of the women who were members of the church from the beginning (Acts 1:14) may have been widows and possibly beneficiaries of such a ministry.

Tabitha, who was raised back to life through Peter, was a widow. She was known for her serving in kindness and devotion and for making clothes (Acts 9:36-39), traits that would come to characterize other godly widows.

Later, Paul gave instructions to Timothy concerning widows in the church at Ephesus (1 Timothy 5:3-16). Younger widows were encouraged to marry, but those over the age of sixty and known for kindness and good works were to be given support if they had no immediate family to care for them. These widows in turn devoted themselves to prayer (1 Timothy 5:5).

The letter of 2 John is addressed to the chosen "lady" (Greek kuria, feminine for "lord" or "sir"). This seems to be to a real individual, not a figurative "lady" such as a particular church. She is old enough to have believing children (1:4) as well as believing nieces and/or nephews (1:13). There is no mention of a husband, she was probably a widow. This woman is instructed not to welcome any preachers who do not acknowledge Jesus as having come in the flesh (1:7-10). This command indicates that this woman was in the habit of showing hospitality to traveling preachers. If this woman also hosted the local church (and such was not an uncommon practice), welcoming false teachers would be giving them access to the local church and thus "sharing in their work."

The Wives of Office-Holders
To the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 14:5), Paul discussed the "right" (Greek exousia) of taking along a "believing wife" (Greek adelphen gunaika, literally one who is both a sister and wife). Contextually, what is in view is the benefit that having a wife might have been for Paul and Barnabas, but that they put aside this right (and others) for the greater good of advancing the gospel. However, in this discussion there is no indication of any ministerial role or work that a wife would have necessarily or implicitly exercised; if such work was common it certainly would have negated Paul's argument that he denied his rights for a greater good. Instead, he could have been open to criticism that if he "really wanted to advance the gospel" he would have a spouse to help him do the work.

In his letter to Timothy, Paul makes mention of "women" or "wives" in his discussion of church office-holders:

Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things. (1 Timothy 2:11 NAS)

In the same way, their wives are to be women worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything. (1 Timothy 2:11 NIV)

There is no possessive pronoun or genitive case in the Greek, nor is the word "gunaika" restricted to meaning "wife." In this respect the NAS translation is more accurate technically, yet the context indicates that the wives of both overseers and deacons are in view. No specific work for such officials' wives is mentioned here. Unlike the qualifications for overseers and deacons, the qualifying traits mentioned here have nothing to do with leadership; there is no implicit or necessary leadership role for these women. What matters is not their leadership ability but their spirituality.

Women's Ministry in the Local Church
In the maturing churches of Crete ministered to by Titus, an important principle of women's ministry is brought to light:

Older women likewise are to be reverent in their behavior, not malicious gossips, nor enslaved to much wine, teaching what is good, that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be sensible, pure, workers at home, kind, being subject to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be dishonored (Titus 2:3-5) .
In this passage Titus has a role in training older men, older women and younger men, but the training of younger wives in godliness was left to older women. This model appears to work together with the principle of 1 Timothy 5:1, where Timothy is told to instruct older men and women with the respect due a parent, to treat younger men as brothers and to treat younger women as sisters with absolute purity.

These "older women" need not be elder's wives or deacon's wives, though the wives of spiritual office holders certainly could be qualified and able to perform this task. The scope of this ministry is quite practical and limited in addressing the young Christian woman's role in her household; it does not seem to extend into the broader areas of Biblical teaching or church leadership.

Women's Involvement in the Assembly
Having broadly discussed the role of women in the church, let us now consider their role in the assembly.

Fundamentally, the assembly of the early church was where all of the collective or corporate elements of Christian practice took place— whether praise, prayer, teaching, preaching, encouragement, love— all of these aspects (and more) of Christian relationships found a place in the assembly of the early church.

The church inherited its basic form of worship from the Jewish synagogue. Jewish custom (from the Mishnah) allowed that any ten Jewish males might form their own synagogue, and it is likely that early Christian congregations began in this way (for example, Acts 18:7). Let us consider what the Jewish synagogue service was like.

Jewish Synagogue Worship and the Christian Assembly
Christian worship took many of the forms of Jewish synagogue worship, including singing, Scripture reading, and preaching.

Consider the following excerpt from Ralph Gower's "The New Manners and Customs of Bible Times" (Moody Press, Chicago, IL 1987, p. 346):

All synagogues were built to a common pattern so that the Jew could feel "at home" wherever he worshipped. Only the men entered the main door of the building; women entered through a separate door and sat in a gallery at the rear. And the end of the building, opposite the entrance, was a curtained alcove where the cupboard (or ark) containing the synagogue scrolls was kept. In the centre of the building was a raised bema or pulpit, and on the bema, a lecturn where the prescribed portions of the law and the propehts were read and the sermon was preached. Those called to read ascended by the stairs nearest to them and descended by another set of stairs. "Moses Seats" faced the congregation from the end of the synogoge by the ark, and they were occupied by the more important scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 23:2).

In the normal service, psalms were sung, the Scriptures were read, and the sermons was preached (Luke 4:16-21). A time of questions and discussion followed. This seems to have been utilized by Stephen to ask questions that would lead to the proclamation of the Christian gospel (Acts 6:9-10).

To the Jewish practice, Christians added the practice of taking the Lord's Supper, reading the writings of the apostles and (as we shall see) a period of time for the exercise of spiritual gifts. This Jewish custom of questions and discussion following the sermon was likely practiced in Christian worship and has a great bearing upon the instructions Paul gave concerning the role of women in the assembly. Let us now consider three passages where Paul specifically addresses the role of women in worship.

1 Corinthians- The Covering
In the following passage, Paul discusses the fact that women both prayed and prophesied in the assembly (in contrast to the Jewish practice of women remaining in a outer gallery). He makes this observation in passing, the real point of his remarks is that these women should have their heads covered to pay respect to the natural order of authority of men in the church.

Now I praise you because you remember me in everything, and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you. [3] But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ. [4] Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying, disgraces his head. [5] But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying, disgraces her head; for she is one and the same with her whose head is shaved. [6] For if a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head. [7] For a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. [8] For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man; [9] for indeed man was not created for the woman's sake, but woman for the man's sake. [10] Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. [11] However, in the Lord, neither is woman independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. [12] For as the woman originates from the man, so also the man has his birth through the woman; and all things originate from God. [13] Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with head uncovered? [14] Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him, [15] but if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her? For her hair is given to her for a covering. [16] But if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God (1 Corinthians 11:2-16).
At one time I considered that a woman's hair was a sufficient covering for her and that any other covering would be superfluous. However, if Paul meant to communicate this, the entire paragraph has no purpose whatsoever; the women already had hair. Paul's purpose of addressing the issue is so that the church in Corinth will be in harmony with the other churches, where the covering was used. His point about the hair being a covering isn't an argument for the removal of the cloth covering but rather a proof from nature that the covering is appropriate.

The remark about "being shaved" is a hyperbole (not unlike Paul's remark in Galatians 5:12 about self-mutilation for the proponents of circumcision). Paul doesn't want the women in the church at Corinth to have their heads shaved, he wants them to wear the covering when praying or prophesying in the assembly.

The Covering in the Post-Apostolic Church
David Berçot in his book "Common Sense" (Scroll Publishing, Tyler, TX 1992) addresses this very issue and demonstrates that the early post-apostolic church in fact practiced the use of the covering in the assembly. He cites Tertullian's work, "The Veiling of Virgins" (c. 200), a discussion of whether this teaching applied to all women or just unmarried women.  Tertullian argued that the teaching applied to both married and unmarried women. More than that, his work shows that there was no dispute in the church at that time that the passage in question applied at least to unmarried women.

Berçot also cites Clement of Alexandria (c. 190 in "The Instructor") and Hippolytus (c. 200, "Apostolic Tradition") as supporting the use of the veil. Berçot also cites archaeological evidence, specifically pictures dating from the second and third centuries from the catacombs that show women praying with a cloth veil on their heads.

In the late second and third centuries, apostolic teachings and practices were subject to various distortions and "spiritualization." In this matter, Paul's argument about the covering was about authority and natural order, whereas Clement's argument was not about order but about purity and protecting men from the temptation to lust.  Accordingly, discussions about the veil centered on whether the cloth could be opaque or clear, and how much of the head should be covered. But the presence of the veil is not in dispute: it appears to be a reasonable conclusion that the early church did in fact use the covering for women in prayer and prophesy in the assembly.

Now for the purposes of this discussion (role of women in the assembly), it seems that women in the Corinthian church seem to have both prayed and prophesied in the assembly. Prophecy was an exercise of the spiritual gift of prophecy, and prayer of men and women together has a long history in the church (Acts 1:14, 21:5). Christian women had indeed come a long way from their Jewish counterparts!

1 Corinthians- No Questions?
Paul again addressed the role of women in the assembly in the discussion of the use of the gift of tongues.

What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification. [27] If anyone speaks in a tongue, it should be by two or at the most three, and each in turn, and let one interpret; [28] but if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in the church; and let him speak to himself and to God. [29] And let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment. [30] But if a revelation is made to another who is seated, let the first keep silent. [31] For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted; [32] and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets; [33] for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.

[34] Let the women keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but let them subject themselves, just as the Law also says. [35] And 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. [36] Was it from you that the word of God first went forth? Or has it come to you only?

[37] If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize that the things which I write to you are the Lord's commandment. [38] But if anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized.

[39] Therefore, my brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak in tongues. [40] But let all things be done properly and in an orderly manner. (1 Corinthians 14:26-40)

In the Corinthian worship service, there was a period of time set aside where spiritual gifts of instruction (prophecy, interpreted tongues, and presumably others) could be exercised. There is an aspect of inclusiveness, that those who participate in the assembly should do so for the building up of the church. There also seems to be a certain spontaneous element to the practice.

Regarding the exercise of spiritual gifts, he states that those speaking in tongues should be silent if there is no one to interpret, and those desiring to prophesy should do so in an orderly manner. Based upon 1 Corinthians 11:2ff, this would seem to include women speaking in tongues or prophesying.

Then Paul makes his remarks about the silence of women. Contextually, this is not related to the exercise of spiritual gifts but rather it relates to the topic of discussions. It seems that what Paul has in view is the question and discussion period similar to that of Jewish synagogue worship. His admonition of silence was based upon propriety widespread Christian practice and the command of the Lord himself. (The NAS translation of the Greek aischros as "improper" in 14:35 may not communicate the strength of the original term, which is also used in 1 Corinthians 11:6, Ephesians 5:12, Titus 1:11. The NIV translates aischros in 14:34 as "disgraceful"),

1 Timothy- No Teaching or Authority over Men?
Interestingly, Paul's remarks to Timothy concerning the role of women in the assembly seems similar to 1 Corinthians 14:34ff. Let's look at what Paul said to Timothy:

Therefore I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and dissension. [9] Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments; [10] but rather by means of good works, as befits women making a claim to godliness. [11] Let a woman quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. [12] But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. [13] For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. [14] And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being quite deceived, fell into transgression. [15] But women shall be preserved through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self-restraint.  (1 Timothy 2:8-15)
Paul is citing traits of godliness for women: proper clothing, modesty, discretion, not drawing attention to themselves with outward adornments but being godly, faithful, loving, and self-controlled. The idea of "learning in silence" is rooted these traits, with submission due to the priority of Adam over Eve (ref. Genesis 3:16) and a content acceptance of the natural role God has given women (namely, bearing children).

So What of Silence?
Women participated in both prayer and the exercise of spiritual gifts. In both the admonitions for silence from Paul (1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2), the command seems to be in regards to the period of discussion and questions following the time of instruction from the Scriptures.

Women in the Assembly
There is direct Scriptural evidence that women prayed and exercised the spiritual gift of prophecy. There is no evidence that these were done in a gender-segregated environment or some other contrived circumstance; these things were clearly done in the presence of the entire congregation.

In corporate worship, women were required to demonstrate proper respect and submission towards male leadership (and their husbands if they had one). An important part of this proper respect was silence during public discussion and questioning. Another element of this was the wearing of a head covering. Such a practice would need to be restored today unless a convincing case can be made that this command was only relevent in their culture. However, such a discussion is beyond the scope of this article.

In our day and age compared to the first century, specific elements of Christian worship have changed. Some first-century elements (like the period of open questioning and discussion) are not normally practiced today. Likewise, some modern elements (such as testimonies or presentations) are not discussed in the Scriptures. Thus, all that can be done in the present context is to retain the Scriptural principles that we have discussed and apply these to the role of women in services today.

In the public assembly, it seems reasonable and right for women to exercise whatever gifts they have (ref. Romans 12:6) and engage in various elements of the so-called "one another" relational elements for the building up of the church (ref. 1 Corinthians 14:26). But they must be in a position of respect and submission concerning the male leadership of the church.

Copyright © 2001, 2003 John Engler. All rights reserved.

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