What principles of interpreting Scripture should we apply to understand the passages that are used to limit women’s leadership in the church?
There are two specific Bible passages that people use to limit what women can do in a church, especially in leadership in the congregation – 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15. We will use them as examples to apply the principles of interpreting Scripture outlined in the FAQ: How do we read the Bible to decide what to do today?
The question of what women should do in the church is often discussed in terms of their moral nature. So the starting point before we look at the New Testament must be the foundational texts of Genesis 1 and 2 that present God’s intention in creating men and women. In particular we ask: What do they tell us about the nature of men and women and their relationship to one another?
Genesis 1 is quite clear that men and women are made in the image of God and given joint responsibility as stewards of the created world. Genesis 2 emphasises the oneness of the man and the woman. The focus is on their companionship in work and marriage. There is no hint of competition or separation of responsibility. They are created to inherit together God’s wonderful creation and relate to him openly in an unclouded relationship.
The disruption of this ideal comes with their sin in rejecting God’s sovereignty, seeking to be equal with him in knowledge and power. The consequences are spelled out in Genesis 3. Work will become oppressive for the man; childbirth for the woman. She will lose the open partnership she enjoyed with the man who will now rule over her. This is not what God intended for them, but God promises a future descendant would one day put things right. We understand that descendant to be Jesus. His redeeming work on the cross begins the process of restoring what the Creator intended at the beginning.
The coming of Jesus, therefore, inaugurates a new era, and the church is the place where this is to be displayed. The clearest statement of this restored order is Galatians 3:28, addressing the disruptions to human relationships of ethnic, social and gender divisions. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
With that framework of God’s intentions, we next apply to any limiting passage the principles of biblical interpretation listed in the FAQ: How do we read the Bible to decide what to do today? We will use the 2 passages mentioned above as examples.
- What kind of literature it is? These 2 passages are in letters by Paul to specific churches, probably addressing local problems.
- What do Jesus’ life and teaching say about this topic? Jesus did not treat his women disciples (Luke 8:1,2) differently from men and was not threatened or embarrassed by their presence. He commends Mary at Bethany for wanting to learn from him and engages her sister Martha in theological discussion (Luke 10; John 11). He entrusts the good news of his resurrection to Mary Magdalene as the first witness.
- How did the early church understand Jesus’ teaching on this issue? The early church had women, Phoebe, Philip’s daughters, Junia, Priscilla, Lydia and others among its church leaders and teachers. Joel’s prophecy was quoted by Peter in his Pentecost sermon says: ‘In the last days . . . your sons and daughters will prophesy.’ (Acts 2:17) Paul is generous in his commendations of his female ‘fellow workers’ (Romans 16). The early church had women leaders and teachers.
- What did this passage mean to its original hearers? Given the attitude of Jesus and the early church’ women leaders, we cannot read these passages meaning women should never speak in church. The instructions must have a local application.
- To understand verses that appear to contradict the Bible’s other teachings, we ask more questions:
- Is this part of the core message of the Bible, a universal principle that we should give most attention to? Women not speaking or leading in church is not part of the core message of the Bible.
- Is it a moral or a cultural issue? Genesis 3 gives no hint that women are more morally sinful than men, so this must be a cultural issue. In Corinth, Paul’s concern is order in the church, so he is discouraging worship being interrupted by women shouting questions across to their husbands. In Ephesus, he is encouraging the women to learn but do it quietly – surely good advice for all learners. It was a city dominated by priestesses of the fertility goddess Diana. Christian women needed to be different from them in their demeanour.
- What options are available today that were not possible in the first century? We know that first-century women had little education and much to learn in biblical understanding. Today women are as equally educated as men.
To read more on what women did in New Testament times, see
Junia is not alone: Breaking our silence about women in the Bible and the church today by Scot McKnight (Englewood, CO: Patheos, 2011)
Holding up half the sky: A biblical case for women leading and teaching in the church by Graham Joseph Hill (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2020)
Questions in this series:
1. How do we read the Bible to decide what to do today?
2. What principles of interpreting Scripture should we apply to understand the passages that are used to limit women’s leadership in the church?
3. What roles did women play in the early church?
4. Did Jesus have female disciples?
5. Does the Holy Spirit give spiritual gifts to all Christians?
6. How can men pave the way for women to have greater opportunities in the church?
7. Why is it important to hear women preach and teach Scripture?
8. I am uncomfortable with the fact that women are restricted from leading and teaching men in my church. What advice can you give to help me raise this issue at my church?