Steef van ‘t Slot, Ph.D. Candidate

Role of Women – Some Assumptions of the Past

The topic of women in (missions) ministry has caused much debate. Before World War II it was assumed that women should be in submission to men, did not minister the Word and were hardly seen in leadership roles. At first glance there seemed to be a Biblical legitimacy to this.

In the past half century these discussions have sharpened and an evaluation of traditional assumptions versus newer counter-arguments seems necessary. It is another topic under the category of ‘Bible & Culture’ – and as such is missions-related.

Three Keys of Understanding

I approach this topic with three ‘keys of understanding’.

1. The first is culture, a negotiable, because it differs much, depending on era and area. 

2. The second is Godly creation-order, and therefore non-negotiable, independent of external circumstances. 

3. Finally, it is important that the spirit of the text should be discovered, the deep underlying intentions, instead of superficially reading the literal text without such deliberation. When these keys are handled properly, little will remain to fight over.

The Cultural Key is Flexible

The cultural key could be called ‘Flexibility in Changeable Secondary Issues’.

First we must assess what Paul’s and Peter’s words1 meant to their original readers in the first century Roman Empire. Then we should check in what ways that culture differs from our own and what its message is for our time and culture. In this way we don’t discard their words, but try to understand them in the context of our era and area. This is necessary, lest we sink into interpretational irrelevancies that obscure the message for today.

Interpreting Paul’s Letter to Corinthians for the Present Times

Consider the following verses:

Now 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. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head-it is just as though her head were shaved. 6If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head. A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. 1 Cor. 11:3-7

When we read 1 Cor. 11 we would answer Paul’s questions different from how he does. For example, in our time it cannot be considered improper for a woman to have short hair or go to church without a hat. And although long hair for a man would be considered disputable in some circles, most would agree that calling it ‘dishonorable’ is a bit far-fetched.

Consider also 1 Corinthians 11 : 15

but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering.

In Jewish-orthodox culture long hair for men was and is commonly accepted. This shows that Paul in his letters had first century Roman culture in mind, rather than first century Jewish culture. We deal here with cultural issues that only have to do with externals.

To Remain Silent in the Church

Next comes the issue that women have to remain silent in church.

Consider 1 Corinthians 14:26, 33, 34, 35, 39 and 40.

What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church. (26) 

For God is not a God of disorder but of peace. As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. 35If 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. (33-34) 

Therefore, my brothers, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. (39) 

But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way. (40)

Paul cannot have meant that in an absolute sense, because he allows men and women to pray, to prophesy and to speak in tongues. Since women were usually less educated, there were relatively more things they did not understand. That was fine, as long as they did not interrupt the service by asking questions aloud. Paul advises to rather ask questions at home.

The disgrace he mentions is found more in the interruption of events than in the speaking itself. Meetings should be orderly and everyone, also women, were allowed to participate.

Women’s Dress Code and Postures

Also the passage in Timothy has cultural aspects: the lifting up of hands, hair-dress, clothing, wearing of jewels and teaching (the latter is nowadays commonly accepted, based on education and experience, and therefore should not be rejected in church).

Consider the following verses in this regard:

Ephesians 5:21-24, 32, and 33:

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. (21) 

Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. 22-24.

This is a profound mystery-but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband. (32-33)

Paul writes in his letter to Timothy, 1 Tim. 2:8-12:

I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing. (8) 

I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God. (9-10) 

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. (11-12)

The Apostle Peter admonishes us:

Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives(1 Pet. 3 : 1). 

Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers. (1 Pet. 3: 3-7) 

What is generally considered respectable and decent in one’s culture, does not automatically become disrespectable or indecent at the moment one steps into church.

The Second Key – Godly Creation Order

The second key is about Godly creation-order and moral immutabilities.

God is the head of Christ, Christ is the head of the Church (with man as first responsible); man is the head of woman. Because of this context there is no threat to the value or position of woman.

This order offers her protection and security. Female attempts at breaking this order is as ridiculous as a man trying to usurp Christ’s position as head of the Church. After all, there has to be one who carries the final responsibility and has the authority to take decisions when no consensus can be reached. That person however, is accountable to Him Who has been placed over him by Godly creation-order.

The rule of thumb is to not offend Christians with different opinions, especially those whose lack of insight in these things would have been classified by Paul as ‘weak’.

The Third Key – Inner Beauty

Peter’s passage shows that inner beauty is the norm. That is the third key.

It is about how we behave, men as well as women and about showing the spiritual fruit of Christ’s love in our lives. In such an attitude there is no place for dominance of one over another. Do we desire a meek, gentle spirit in our wives? Well, Christ expects the same of us.

Rather than criticizing women because of certain roles (seemingly more important than our own), we should treat them with love, respect and appreciation. When we do, the differences we used to fight about will grow dim. Besides, what Christian woman would not love to submit to the leadership of men who really act in the Spirit of Christ?

On the Missions Trail

Now back to missions. When apostles travel they ‘have the right to take a believing wife with them’.

1 Cor. 9:5 Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas?

How likely is it that these women left their families, spent money on travel, just to keep their husbands company? Or would they have come along to minister? How would they minister by ‘remaining silent in church’? When Paul calls his relatives Andronicus and Junia (not Junias, the male form of the name) ‘outstanding among the apostles’ and ‘having been in prison’ with him?

3 Rom. 16:7 Greet Andronicus and Junias, my relatives who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.

How likely then is the possibility that this woman apostle was in prison for ‘remaining silent’? And what about his many other female co-workers Apphia, Euodia, Syntyche, Mary, Persis, Phoebe, Tryphena and Tryphosa? Let’s think twice before we tell women to remain silent. Do they not minister on the mission fields of the world, in larger quantities than men do?

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Steef van ‘t Slot, Ph.D. Candidate
Go 100 Consultant
Bethany International

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