Theological FAQ:

Does the Bible really affirm women's full participation in the life of the church, even leadership?

This is a difficult argument to make, because several biblical passages seem to argue against it. Then again, that Gentile believers may be righteous apart from observing the Law of Moses was an even more difficult argument to make, since many more biblical passages (including some in the New Testament) seem to argue against that. However, the first generations of Christians made it. A difficult line of reasoning may still be the right one.

Of all the New Testament's writers, it is Paul (and those who may have written in his name) who is most directly responsible for both the limitations the Church has put on the participation of women in leadership and liturgy, and the insights through which those limitations have increasingly been removed.

Some Christians believe Paul must be sidelined or overturned in order for women to be ordained. In some circles of Christians Paul is criticized for compromising the good news of Jesus Christ in all kinds of ways. I do not find the specific criticisms persuasive, nor do I find the general line of argument productive. Paul is a brilliant interpreter of Jesus. Moreover, if we begin editing the Scriptures, we cut ourselves away from some of the canonical heritage of the apostolic Church, according to some criterion besides the Church's own faith. Believe me, I appreciate that it is tempting to make this move when that heritage seems mistaken. But doing it ultimately makes us masters rather than trustees of the faith. It is the exegetical equivalent of killing the heir of the vineyard and taking the inheritance for ourselves (Matt. 21:33-41). And that is suicide, for the Church, not just the Son, now shares the inheritance.

My answer to the question thus centers on Paul.

Paul was right to commend the Corinthians for maintaining the traditions even as he delivered them (1 Cor. 11:2). However, right after affirming them he comes to a topic significant to our subject, the covering of women:

The head of every husband [or man] is Christ, the head of a wife [or woman] is her husband [or man], and the head of Christ is God. Any husband [or man] who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but any wife [or woman] who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled dishonors her head — it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a wife [or woman] will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a wife [or woman] to be shorn or shaven, let her wear a veil. For a husband [or man] ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. (For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for the woman, but woman for the man.) That is why a wife [or woman] ought to have an authority on her head, because of the angels (1 Cor. 11:2-10).

After anticipating contention on this point on the part of the Corinthians (11:13-16), Paul then goes on to fight abuses of the Lord's Supper (11:17ff). After developing a positive account of how the Church should work — harmoniously, like a body energized by the Spirit's diverse gifts (chapter 12) and characterized in all things by love (chapter 13) — he returns to problems in the ways the Corinthians are practicing those gifts (14:1-33). One of those problems appears to be interruptions from talkative wives:

As in all the churches of the saints, the wives should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a wife to speak in church. What! Did the word of God originate with you, or are you the only ones it has reached? (1 Cor. 11:33b-36).

This is a puzzling passage for several reasons. A number of commentators treat them as something other than Paul's own words. I am unpersuaded by their reasons. Both their topic and vocabulary match that of their immediate context. For several chapters Paul has been criticizing church practices that are indecent or disorderly (1 Cor. 14:40). Wives at home (which in the Greco-Roman culture is their domain; cf. 1 Tim. 5:14 where women "rule their households") may have been asking questions in house-church meetings in ways that are interrupting and disrupting church meetings.

Paul's advice in this passage matches his advice elsewhere in the letter. The Corinthians seem to treat rules for Christians elsewhere as not applying to them. They can make their own rules for morals, theology, worship, leadership, and the like. Paul tells the Corinthians (all of them, not just the women: "are you the only ones it has reached?" uses a masculine noun for "the only ones") to conform to the practices of other churches. They are not above the rules. Americans could do well to pay attention here.

However, note that in this passage the women are not preaching, leading prophesying, or speaking in tongues here; they are trying to learn. So this passage is not about women in leadership.

Note the prominence of the Genesis narrative in 1 Cor. 11. This is crucial for how to read them. Paul is commanding the Corinthians to respect the order of things in the old and fallen creation. (In this light, the phrase "even the law" fits. Elsewhere Paul goes back before the era of Mosaic law — to Abraham, to Adam, etc. — to make points that apply to communities of faith wider than Israel or to humanity in general. This would be an instance where he can appeal not only the whole created order but even the Torah to confirm his point.)

The Eden narrative is a story of human mutuality of male and female (Gen. 1:26, 2:18-24) which transgression and curse warp into mutual domination (3:16). God's word to the woman is that "your desire shall be [to dominate] your husband, and he shall rule over you." (See Gen. 4:7 for a parallel in which God advises Cain to master the sin that desires to dominate him.)

The world was not meant to be a theater for the battle of the sexes, but a garden for cultivating in partnership. Paul subtly points to this, and serves his overall agenda in this section of 1 Corinthians, by undercutting claims of male dominance in the very passage in which he is recommending head coverings:

Nevertheless, in the Lord woman not without man nor man without woman; for as the woman from the man, so also the man through the woman. But all things from God (1 Cor. 11:11-12).

I have left verbs out of these sentences because they are not present in the Greek. It is left to readers to infer the tense. I think the right inference requires that we not overlook a critical phrase in that passage: "in the Lord". That is, "in the Lord Jesus" — in Christian community. What do relationships between husbands and wives, men and women look like in Christian fellowship, which points forward to the goal of creation and not just backward to the source? Paul goes to lengths to describe them concretely as 1 Corinthians progresses, and we will return to his argument, but for the moment let's set aside this narrative to appeal to a different letter to a different audience — and perhaps even from a different author — for an answer.

How do things work between men and women "in the Lord"? A natural place to look is Ephesians, a letter that focuses with unparalleled intensity on what it is to be "in Christ" (Eph. 1:1, 1:3, 1:4, 1:6, 1:7, 1:9, 1:10, 1:11, 1:12, 1:13, etc.). With respect to marriage, Ephesians describes the relationship in terms of the mutual, differentiated, complementary submission between Jesus and his Church.

Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject 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, and is himself its Savior. As the Church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, that he might make her holy, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the Church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. None hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the Church, because we are members of his body. "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. In any case, let each one of you [husbands] love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she fears her husband (Eph. 5:21-33).

The language in this passage is distasteful in our culture in large part because abusive husbands and the powers that defend them have taken over the language of submission and fear without informing it with the content of Christ's love. Jesus manifested that love in utter life-yielding solidarity, even ontological unity, with those who are least worthy; in unyielding truthfulness to those deafened by both pride and shame; in a patience that refuses to divorce those who fail to appreciate him (cf. Gen. 2:24 in Matt. 19:5 and Mark 10:7); in intercession for and restoration of those who are unfaithful to him; in stunning delegation of power and authority through the empowering gift of his own Holy Spirit; and in eternal rule that adopts his subjects as brothers and sisters and shares his throne with them.

Even so, I would be more comfortable with egalitarian language that refused to differentiate between a husband's and a wife's roles. Indeed, I think the passage would support an egalitarian or even a matriarchal interpretation in a society with such marital structures. (Ephesians respects Jewish-Greco-Roman family and employment structures throughout 5:21-6:9, though it uses them subversively to tell the story of Jesus as determinative.) As an American husband, I cringe at the asymmetry of this passage. Yet as a Christian husband, I cringe for an entirely different reason: because I know how radically and continually I fall short of my wedding vows. I realize how much more demanding on both the husband and the wife a truly liberating Christian marriage is than the "liberated" Western-style marriages that come and go in our culture and even in our churches. One cannot characterize the relationship here in Ephesians as either subordinationist or egalitarian. The mystery explodes our cultural categories.

As a Christian believer in the midst of this new creation (2 Cor. 5:7), I recognize that I am a member of a bride. As such, the whole Church is vulnerable to the temptations all sinning wives have to dominate their husbands:

I feel a divine jealousy for you, for I betrothed you to Christ to present you as a pure bride to her one husband. But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if some one comes and preaches another Jesus than the one we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you submit to it readily enough (2 Cor. 11:2-4).

You see, in the Lord — that is, in the life of the Church — all Christians lie on the feminine side of this partnership insofar as we are under authority. Likewise all Christians lie on the masculine side insofar as we are in authority. While in Ephesians 5 Christ presents the whole Church to himself, in 2 Cor. 11 Paul presents the Corinthians. In the two different contexts and in two different senses, Paul is on both the "male" and "female" sides of the relationship of mutual submission.

Thus it should not be such a surprise that in Paul's churches we find women in positions of authority: Lydia with respect to her household's early support of Paul's mission (Acts 16:14-15, 40, Phil. 4:15-16), Junia with respect to apostleship (Rom. 16:7), Prisca with respect for her work alongside Paul and her husband Aquila (Rom. 16:3), and so on. These women, like Paul, are also on both the "male" and "female" sides of the relationship.

Whether authority in the Church takes the form of meekness and gentleness, or boldness and aggression (2 Cor. 10:1-6), Paul assures the Corinthians that it is a gift from God "for building you up and not destroying you" (10:8). In the bride, a husband or father or employer is not to rule after the way of the old and fallen creation. The curse of Genesis 3 no longer applies in the new creation. The relationships between husbands and wives that characterize the cultures of the Mediterranean at the time of the Paul's letters — and also the cultures of the globalized west in the twenty-first century — are not the way of the Church. These 'old creation' relationships naturally affect relations in the community of new creation. However, they are not to characterize or determine church relationships. The new relationships of Christian community heal and redefine all the social relationships of the old world.

Look at the way Paul overturns images of both coercion and freedom with familial language as he writes to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus, a runaway slave:

I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you. Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love's sake I prefer to appeal to you — I, Paul, an ambassador and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus — I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment. ... I would have been glad to keep him with me ... but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own free will. Perhaps this is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother ... (Philemon 7-16).

This gentle radicalism is a long way even from the mutuality of "slaves, obey your masters ... masters, do the same" (Eph 6:5-9). Our relationships in Christ surpass and determine our relationships in the flesh, not the other way around. So Paul unlocks a door that will someday emancipate all slaves of Christian masters, opens it, and waits for Philemon to walk through it.

This is equally true of ethnicity. There are still nations in the New Jerusalem, but one Church (Rev. 21:24-26, 22:2). The unity of all believers in Christ transcends the divisions of humanity into peoples (for instance Jews and Gentiles), without erasing the continuing distinctions. It is hard for us nowadays to appreciate how revolutionary this change was. Yet it was precipitated not by overt teachings from Jesus or obvious indicators in the scriptures of the New Testament Church, but by the coming of the Holy Spirit upon uncircumcised God-fearers (Acts 10). Soon Gentiles — prophesied as servants of the eschatologically restored Israel — were taking leadership positions in that restored Israel, without becoming Jews! It took a while, but the Church came to understand this shift as a fulfillment of God's promised restoration of Israel's self-rule through the Messiah, not a contradiction. Under and alongside the King of Kings, all peoples reign (Rev. 2:36, 3:21, 22:5).

The ones with whom Jesus shares his reign are Jews as well as Gentiles, slaves as well as free people — and women as well as men. It is in Galatians 3:28 that Paul makes this point most clearly and forcefully.

Now that faith has come, you are no longer under a custodian [like the Law of Moses]; for in Christ Jesus you are all children [literally, sons] of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise. I mean that the heir, as long as he [or she] is a child, is no better than a slave, though he is the owner of all the estate. ... Through God you are no longer a slave but a son [or daughter], and if a son then an heir (Gal. 3:25-4:1, 4:7).

This is not just directed to men. This is not just about some future, but about the present. This is not just about "being saved" in some narrow sense of the word, but about taking ownership of all God's estate. Women hold full title.

It is commonly argued that a wife is an inappropriate church leader because the lines of authority between her and her husband would conflict. I have never once heard it logically extended so as to bar children from pastoring churches in which their parents would be members, or employees from pastoring churches with their employers — though Ephesians goes on from wives obeying husbands to tell children to obey their parents and slaves to obey their masters. These "conflicts" are uncontroversial. In America, common civilians pastor presidents, senators, and judges. We have walked through these open doors. What about the door of "no male and female"?

But why is there such a difference between Paul's words to the Corinthians and his words to the Galatians?

The difference is context. The Corinthians are becoming libertines. They are divided and disorderly. They are out of control. In response, Paul prescribes rules and obedience. These respect the presence of new creation but do not deny the natural order against which the Corinthians are rebelling, and they acknowledge the continuing effects of sin that the Corinthians only imagine they have escaped. By contrast, the Galatians are becoming legalists. They are giving up their Christ-won freedom. In response, Paul prescribes liberty and authority. These respect the new order into which the Galatians have entered while acknowledging the continuing temptations to return to the rules that had promised salvation, however imperfectly.

With context in mind, let us consider the Pauline text that most clearly supports the subordination of women in church. (Whether Paul really wrote the letter or when it was written are issues that do not decisively affect thisinterpretation.) In order "that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way," attractive to civil leaders and pleasing to a God who wants all to be saved (2 Tim. 2:2-4) — for the PR of the Kingdom, so to speak — the writer tells Timothy that

I desire that in every place the men [husbands?] should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling. Similarly women [wives?] should adorn themselves modestly and sensibly in seemly apparel, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly attire but by good deeds, as befits women who profess religion. Let a woman [wife?] learn silently, submissive in every way. I permit no woman [wife?] to teach or to have authority over a man [husband?]; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman [wife?] was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through the childbearing, if they continue in faith and love and holiness with modesty (2 Tim. 2:8-15).

Let's go over those rules: 1. Men: no brawling in church! 2. Women: Draw attention to yourselves with good acts rather than dressing like harlots or showing off your wealth. (An aside: Few churches that forbid women to preach also forbid conspicuous consumption.) 3. Everyone get along. As men are not to quarrel, so women are to learn quietly and submissively. 4. Because of both the original order and the effects of sin, women (or wives; in Greek the same word has both meanings) are not to be in authority over their counterparts.

(How literally are we to take the example to Eve? Paul makes the same move in 2 Cor. 11:2-3, comparing Eve's gullibility not to that of women or wives but to the whole Church in Corinth and all the believers in the area of Achaia [2 Cor. 1:1]. In that context, the whole Church is Christ's bride, and so the whole Church needs to be on guard against deception. It is if the gender role of 'wife' in either its literal or figurative forms, rather than some constitutional feature in women, deserves special consideration.)

Our passage ends with a promise (perhaps to the women, perhaps to both genders): Such behavior — trust and love and holiness all characterized by modesty — will heal them from the transgression that made such strictures necessary.

Those rules and that promise fit the literary purpose of Paul's letter, which is to strengthen Timothy as he works in Ephesus to wean its church from myths, spiritualistic and superstitious speculations, and ill-informed teaching (1 Tim. 1:3-7). Other sections of the letter confirm the urgency of the task (4:1-10) and the challenges facing the young Timothy (4:11-16, 6:20-21) as he combats them. Our passage's allusions to aggression (see also 1:19-20, 3:3, 6:4-5), class snobbery and greed (see also 3:3, 3:8, 6:6-10, 6:17-19), inexperience (3:6), and deceptive and manipulative family politics (see also 3:4-5, 3:12, 5:11) also indicate a volatile and unhealthy environment. Other problems include welfare fraud (5:3-8), idle gossip and lax parenting (5:13-14), inconsistent and unjust church discipline (5:17-21), slaves growing disrespectful of their masters because of their common faith (6:2).

The passage's attention to the watchful eyes of outsiders and the city's authorities (see also 3:7, 6:14) suggest the missionary cost of these misbehaviors and even the threat of persecution. Christians cannot afford to be seen as troublemakers!

This set of vices looks more "Corinthian" than "Galatian." So Paul sets out to teach Timothy the appropriate skills of "how one ought to behave in the household of God" (3:15). It is striking to consider that wives are being shushed in the very town in which Prisca and Aquila (note that her name precedes his in both Acts and Romans) once took the evangelist Apollos aside to correct his theology (Acts 14:24-28). Things have changed. It is a time for caution and conservatism.

Advocates of women's full participation often characterize Paul's words in Galatians as universal and Paul's words in 1 and 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, and Galatians as local (or, to use the wrong word, "cultural"). That is the wrong distinction to make. The restrictions on women in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy are all obviously general ("in all the churches", "in all the places"), though they allude to specific problems. Besides, Galatians is just as "cultural" a letter as the rest. Its arguments are no less contingent upon specific problems in a local church. The Holy Scriptures are not exempt from the rule that all human speech is contextual!

We might pit Galatians (and perhaps Philemon) together against 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy. But the structure of the New Testament refuses to let us oppose or choose between them. These are the Church's most treasured memories of itself. We all have our own favorites, but favoring some does not allow us to neglect or dismiss the others.

The first list speaks to every church. It proclaims liberation from everything in the old creation that would holds us back from full mutuality and participation in Christ. It states unambiguously that all that Christ is and has is now ours so that we will lack nothing. The second list also speaks to every church. It commands that we all use our power responsibly, regard our weaknesses and failings realistically, and honor the ways outsiders are likely to perceive and misperceive us.

We neglect the first list at our peril. If we let the marks of the old and fading creation qualify our full enjoyment of God's gifts in the Church, we turn our backs on the new and dawning creation in which we hope. If women stay silent not to promote decency and order but to capitulate to the sexism of fallen powers and principalities, we quench the Holy Spirit. Christ breathed his Holy Spirit on all his people and anointed them to service. In his Kingdom, Gentiles and slaves and women all cover their heads — with crowns. When the anointing falls on women, God is speaking just as God spoke when the unwashed and uncircumcised centurion Cornelius and his household spoke in tongues. Let those with ears hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.

Likewise, we neglect the second list at our peril. If we let enthusiasm for the new and dawning creation lull us into false confidence that we have put away Eden's curses forever, we lose our sensitivity to the lingering effects of the old and fading creation in us and leave ourselves more vulnerable than ever. If women use their authority in ways that needlessly offend the sensibilities of outsiders and disrupt the exchange of gifts at the heart of Christian worship, we confess a god of confusion rather than of peace, a god to which the Holy Spirit can never testify. Sanctification is not a function of wishful thinking or brute force; it comes only through the will of God.

The whole landscape of biblical texts demands discernment not whether one or another set of texts applies — they all apply, all the time — but how both sets apply in a given culture. They certainly both apply here in America, where the arrogance among both conservatives and liberals of all denominations needs both a dose of Corinthian propriety and a dose of Galatian liberty.

Liberals would do well to learn that women do not have a right to speak in church any more than men do. Speaking, teaching, and leading in church are gifts that come and go as the Spirit blows. As God made skins to cover the shame of the first sinners, so the Spirit makes allowances for the suboptimal aspects of fallen communities when the alternative is leaving them behind. American liberals are often less patient. Some of its communities are so individualistic, so litigious, so achievement oriented, and so ferociously self-sufficient that they dismiss any suggestion of cultural deference. That is a sure sign that culture has in fact taken control. The culture of self-assertion threatens to imprison liberals in a fantasy of justification by self-realization that delights in offending traditional standards of decency. This new legalism is just as destructive to authentic faith as Galatian nostalgia for circumcision.

Conservatives would do well to learn that the Spirit does have a right to speak in church however he wills — and further that Scripture describes that will as the intention to build up all believers through the abundant bestowal of his gifts. When Paul desires all the Corinthians to pray for the higher gifts of apostleship, prophesying, and teaching, he is not just addressing the men (1 Cor. 12:27-31, 14:1). When women who lead, teach, or speak are automatically treated as blasphemously as Jesus once was for "casting out demons by the prince of demons," it is a sure sign that raw sexism rather than authentic discernment is doing the judging. This is not how Christ treats his bride! Ushering in the new creation means, by definition, that new and unfamiliar things will be happening. To judge them according to criteria from the old creation is to make the same mistake as the Galatians made when they decided to look back rather than forward. It puts the Church on the wrong side of salvation history.

I hope you see that more is going on here than just "concession to culture" or "resistance to culture." This issue is not about hierarchy or segregation. Nor is it about egalitarianism or affirmative action. The Spirit speaks and silences not according to agendas of the old creation but according to the agenda of the Kingdom, to God's agenda of drawing all people together in the mutuality of Christ. "In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love" (Gal. 5:6). "Neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but new creation. Peace and mercy be upon all who walk by this rule, upon the Israel of God" (Gal. 6:15-16).

Am I saying that there might still be circumstances in where it would be appropriate for local churches to restrict women's full participation? Yes, I am. Missionaries and church planters in Muslim lands can probably think of some. Yet to make a circumstancial case is to concede that there are other circumstances where restrictions are inappropriate — where Christ is leading and teaching and speaking through women in ways that build up his body. And to use the technical political language of our original question, that means the Bible ordains the full participation of women in the life of the Church, including to roles of leadership. As a door once opened for Gentiles and Jews to cease from division, as another door opened for Christian community to overturn slavery and all other exploitation, so a door has long been open that leads out of the old order in and out of Eden and into a new order of mutual submission and exaltation. Churches that have walked through it have generally found it a blessing, and do not want to go back. That is testimony that all churches need to take seriously.

The Corinthians, the Galatians, and the Ephesians all found themselves ceding Christ's reign to cultural taboos that reigned more tenaciously and insidiously than they realized. These texts are not really on one side or another at all. They all stand in the Kingdom. They all offer grace in the face of the various manifestations of sin and death that linger, defeated, in the world that is being made new.

Grace and peace, Telford