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Women in the Church - January 25

Women in the Early Church

While most discussions of the role of women in the church focus on a couple of restrictive texts in the apostle Paul, the ministries of women in the church receives significant mention in the New Testament documents. There are prophetesses (just as in the Old Testament) and women who work with Paul in his missionary activities. Usually people begin with the restrictive texts, but below we begin with the ministries of women specifically noted in the text. But where do we place the emphasis? Do we emphasize the restrictive texts in order to relativize or limit the ministries, or do we read the ministries in order to relativize or limit the meaning of the restrictions? Or, is there some way of "harmonizing" these texts into a coherent picture?

I. Prominent Women in the Church.

A. Prophetesses.

1. Daughters will prophesy (Joel 2:28; Acts 2:17). One of the signals of a new age where the Spirit fills the hearts of God’s people is that our daughters will prophesy.

2. Philip’s daughters prophesied (Acts 21:9). Luke notes the fulfillment of Spirit’s promise through Philip’s daughters. Though we are not given any specific details about them, prophesy was intended for public ministry and a public witness that the Spirit had been poured out upon the church.

3. Corinthian women in 1 Corinthians 11:5-6 prophesied. They were not prohibited from prophesying but were encouraged to honor their “heads” when they prayed and prophesied. Prophesy in 1 Corinthians is intended for the church and the edification of the body.

B. Female “Fellow-Workers” with Paul (e.g., Philemon 24).

1. Euodia and Syntyche (Philippians 4:2-3; cf. 2:25) were Paul’s fellow-workers in Philippi.

2. Priscilla (Romans 16:3; cf. 16:9,21) was Paul’s fellow-worker in Corinth.

3. Junia was a well-known Jewish “apostle,” i.e., missionary (Romans 16:7).

4. Tryphena, Tryphosa, Maria, Persis labored in the Lord (Rom 16:6, 12). The term “labor” is often used by Paul to describe his evangelistic and missionary activities (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:8; 15:10; Galatians 4:11; Philippians 2:16; Colossians 1:29; 1 Thessalonians 3:5).

C. Deacon (Servants)

1. Phoebe (Romans 16:1). This is the only place in the NT where we have the phrase “deacon [diakonon, masculine gender] of the church,” and this describes a female (Phoebe). She is more than just a “sister” (cf. Philemon 2), but a diakonon. If this were a male individual (e.g., Phillip), we would immediately identify the person as a “deacon of the church.” Phoebe was apparently of great help to Paul during his time in Corinth. She was a prostates or “helper”; a term that includes not only resources but leadership in ministry tasks.

2. Women are identified with ministry leadership in other ways in the New Testament.

a. Dorcus (Acts 9) is praised for her benevolent activity within the church.

b. Nympha (Colossians 4:15) hosted a house church in her home which may involve more than simply the use of the house but also leadership in the church.

c. Priscilla (Acts 18:18-21, 24-28; Romans 16:3) was one of Paul’s fellow-workers who ministered with her husband to Apollos and others.

d. The widows in 1 Timothy 5:1-8 pursued a ministry of prayer within the church as a special class of supported workers.

e. Women ministry leaders in 1 Timothy 3:11 were appointed in the light of their character and giftedness.

II. Limitations for Women’s Ministry?

A. The Texts: Only Two.

1. 1 Corinthians 14:34-35: “As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.”

2. 1 Timothy 2:11-12: “Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.”

3. But Galatians 3:28 says: "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus."

B. Egalitarian Interpretation.

1. These texts address specific situations in those local churches. The occasion gave rise to these applications and were not intended as timeless applications to all situations.

a. The Corinthian women (perhaps prophet’s wives) were disruptive during the assembly (just as prophets and tongue-speakers were disruptive) and were consequently silenced in a specific way. Women prophesied in the Corinthian assembly (1 Corinthians 11:5-6) and therefore the silence is not absolute but is directed toward some particular disruptive behavior.

b. The women in Ephesus were heavily influenced by false teachers and thus were not entrusted with teaching leadership in the body at that time. Perhaps it was a lack of maturity on the part of the women in Ephesus that disqualified them for leadership in the church. Or perhaps the prohibition is against teaching in a domineering way which was the particular temptation of wealthy Ephesian women.

2. Perhaps also these texts were accommodative to the culture so that the gospel would not be hindered in much the same way that slavery was accommodated for the sake of the gospel during the first century. However, the “seed” text of Galatians 3:28 indicates that the gospel should ultimately trump these cultural accommodations.

3. The problem for Egalitarians is how to understand Paul’s appeal to creation and the “Law” as authoritative factors in his teaching if these applications only apply to specific situations or are only intended as cultural accommodations.

C. Complementarian Interpretations.

1. 1 Corinthians 14 is variously interpreted as complete silence for women to specific disruptive speech in the assembly. Complementarians and Traditionalists do not generally agree as to the specific meaning of this silence. However, they do believe that the ground of this specific injunction is rooted in the Law (the story of creation). In other words, women are silenced in this specific situation because their behavior reflected an insubmissive spirit that is incompatible with the Law.

2. 1 Timothy 2 is variously interpreted as prohibiting women from teaching males the gospel in any setting to only limiting them from preaching/teaching as elders. Complementarians and Traditionalists do not generally agree as to the specific meaning of this restriction. However, they do believe that the ground of this specific injunction is rooted in creation (cf. 1 Timothy 2:13-14).

3. The problem for Complementarians and Traditionalists is the diversity of understanding how these texts should be applied. It is difficult to generate consensus applications of the creation principle. In addition, it is difficult to reconcile these restrictions with Galatians 3:28 and some of the activities in which women participated, especially prophesying to the church.

Questions for Discussion:

1. What is the significance of the fact that the God gifted women with the task of prophesying to the church? How should this influence how women serve God in the church today?

2. Did any other text or ministry by women in the New Testament documents impress or surprise you?

3. Why do the restrictive texts receive such attention in the contemporary discussion of women serving God?

4. Which should come first? Do we use the restrictive texts to understand the wide range of activities in which women were engaged (e.g., “that text cannot mean ‘X’ because 1 Timothy 2:12 does not permit ‘X’) or do we understand the restrictive text in the light of the wide range of activities in which were engaged (e.g., “1 Timothy 2:12 cannot mean ‘X’ or be universally applied because women served God by doing ‘X’ in other texts”)? Or, another way of saying that is, should we interpret Galatians 3:28 with 1 Timothy 2:12 or do we interpret 1 Timothy 2:12 with Galatians 3:28? Or, is there some way of harmonizing the two texts? Or, is it inappropriate to try to harmonize them because that would distort their original point to their original audiences?

5. Which readings of the restrictive texts are more convincing to you—egalitarian or complementarian? Why? Can you explain why others might differ with you?


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