The role of women has greatly increased over the years in the western world. In the year 1900, only the country of New Zealand granted suffrage to women. By 1914, seven countries were on board (New Zealand, Australia, Iceland, Finland, Sweden, and Denmark). In 1918, Great Britain could be included in the list. In the USA, the territory of Wyoming granted the vote to women in 1869. Utah soon after followed in 1870. The Nineteenth Amendment was passed in 1920. We should have no problem with this.
World War II took women out of the house and into the factories and business world in record numbers. Women are now police officers, fire fighters, paramedics, politicians, physicians, lawyers, executives, accountants, etc.. They are in nearly any and every field of work one wishes to look. Again, we should have no problem with the concept of a woman working outside of the home (Prov. 31:13-14, 16, 18-19, 24; Acts 16:14-ff; Acts 18:1-3). However, a woman still has a duty to be a “homemaker” (Tit. 2:5 NKJV) and a helper of her husband (Gen. 2:18; Prov. 31:11-12, 15, 21, 23, 27; 1 Cor. 11:8-9).
The religious landscape in America is changing. (1) In 1972 (Cincinnati, OH) Sally Preisand was made the first female Rabbi. (2) In 1974 (Philadelphia, PA) eleven women received their ‘holy orders’ in the Episcopal church. (3) In 1987 (Memphis, TN) Nancy Sehested was named ‘Pastor’ of the Prescott Memorial Baptist church. (4) The 1990’s saw the Bering Drive church of Christ in Houston, TX and the Cahaba Valley church of Christ in Birmingham, AL using women to wait on the Lord’s table, leading prayers, publicly reading scriptures and the like during the Sunday morning worship assembly. (5) I remember, as a college student, visiting the college class at Oak Hills (San Antonio, TX) in the mid ‘80’s. A woman was leading the class back then!
There are a number of ways in which some attempt to justify such increase of women’s role in the church.
What do we know about Deborah? We know that she was a married woman (Judg. 4:4). We know that she was a judge in Israel (Judg. 4:4). We know that God raised her up to this position (Judg. 2:16, 18; Acts 13:20).
This is not a religious role. Many women have served as national leaders (Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, Queen Elizabeth, Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher, and others). This has no bearing on the subject of New Testament roles in the church.
She was a prophetess (Judg. 4:4). This places her in the company of Miriam (Ex. 15:20), Anna (Luke 2:36) and others. This in no way justifies increased women’s roles in the church. This is an Old Testament passage. Moreover, being a prophetess does not indicate how this gift was utilized.
She is a prophetess who spoke before five men (2 Kings 22:13-15; 2 Chr. 34:20-23). But notice, this is a private setting, not a public assembly. Moreover, this is an Old Testament passage and therefore has no bearing on the role of women in the New Testament church.
3. New Testament Prophetesses
Clearly there were inspired women in the first century church of Christ (Acts 2:18; 21:9; 1 Cor. 11:5). It is clear that women taught (Acts 18:26; Tit. 2:3-4).
Three questions are in order: (1) When did they do so? (2) Where did they do so? (3) To whom did they do so? The previous bulletin might be helpful in answering these points. There is no evidence that they stood in the church worship assembly and used their gifts with God’s approval. There is much to indicate that God does not want this occurring (1 Tim. 2; 1 Cor. 14).
4. Galatians 3:28
Things must be kept in context. The book of Galatians is largely a defense of Paul’s apostleship and teaching (Gal. 1:1, 6-9, 11-12; 3:1-5). This may have been needed due to the fact that he wasn’t one of the twelve. However, the real controversy concerned his work among the gentiles (Gal. 2 cf. Acts 15). In chapter 2, Paul addresses two questions: (1) Was it necessary for the gentiles to be circumcised, and keep the Old Testament law (Gal. 2:7-9 cf. Acts 15:23-24)? (2) Should full fellowship be extended to gentile Christians (Gal. 2:11-14)? Galatians 3:28 fits within this context.
Galatians 3:28 does not teach: (1) The slave-master relationship had ended. It was in fact still recognized by God (1 Cor. 7:20-24; Eph. 6:5-9; Col. 3:22-4:1). (2) The husband-wife relationship had ceased. It was still in place (Eph. 5:23-33; Col. 3:18-19; Tit. 2:5; 1 Pet. 3:1-7). (3) Nationalistic distinctions no longer existed (Acts 18:6; 21:11; 21:39). (4) There was no religious difference in the roles of men and women in the church (1 Cor. 14; 1 Tim. 2).
Instead, Galatians 3:28 is teaching that all can equally stand as children of God. This is taught elsewhere as well (Acts 10:34-35; Rom. 1:16; 1 Pet. 3:7).
5. Philippians 4:2-3
The argument is made that since these women are said to labor with Paul in the Gospel such means that they were preachers; Moreover, not only preachers but preachers like Paul, over men.
In response: (1) One does not have to be personally preaching to be a fellow-laborer (3 John 5-8 cf. 2 John 9-11). (2) One can be a fellow-laborer and still not equal in authority (1 Cor. 3:9). (3) Assuming they did preach, there still are the restrictions of 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2. However, nothing indicates they were preachers.
6. Romans 16:7
It is argued that ‘Junia’ is a female apostle. This is said because she was of note among the apostles.
In response: (1) No one can prove that this is a woman. The Greek name is not ‘Junia’ (feminine) or ‘Junius’ (masculine), but ‘Junian’ which could be masculine or feminine. (2) It does not say that this one is an apostle. It says “of note among the apostles”. The meaning may be that this one was well-known among the apostles. Modern example – “he is well-known among preachers.”
7. Romans 16:1-2
This question comes up as to whether Phebe was a deaconess in an official sense. Some insist that she was.
Let’s remember: (1) The word servant (deacon) can be used generically or technically. It is used of Jesus (Rom. 15:8). It is used of civil government (Rom. 13:4-6). Neither of these passages are using the term in a technical sense, that is for the office of deacon. Paul is sometimes called a minister, a deacon (1 Cor. 3:5; 2 Cor. 3:6; 6:4; Col. 1:23). Yet, Paul wasn’t even married (1 Cor. 7:1-9; 9:1-6; cf. 1 Tim. 3:12). (2) We read of bishops and deacons (Phil. 1:1). Where does one read of bishops, and deacons, and deaconesses? Or bishops and deaconesses? (3) While it is true they were to ‘assist’ her, the word does not necessitate that she had positional authority over them. A form of that word is used in 2 Tim. 4:17. It is translated ‘stood’. This is what the Lord did for Paul!
Bill Jackson wrote, “If Phoebe was given some particular function or task, as is the case with many men and women in the congregations, then she was most certainly a ‘servant’ as pertains to the assigned task. This however, is a far cry from assuming that she was in a particular office…” (The Current Digression II, The Second Annual Shenandoah Lectures, p, 282). It seems to me that Phebe went to Rome on some businesses (perhaps church related). She evidently transported this epistle. They were to receive her. They were to help her if she had some need while there.
What does history say? In one sense it doesn’t really matter. We get our authority from the Bible not from historical precedence. However, I will summarize: (1) Early writings from ‘Christian writers’ mention bishops and deacons. They do not mention deaconesses. (2) Pliny the Younger, Governor of Bithynia wrote to the Emperor Trajan in about 110 A.D.. He said, “I judged it so much the more necessary to extract the real truth, with the assistance of torture, from two female slaves, who were styled deaconesses…” Whether he was using the term in a technical or generic sense is a point of dispute. Tim Nichols writes, “The word that Pliny used in Latin for ‘deaconesses’ could just as well be translated ‘servants.’ He simply reported that he had tortured two slaves who were called ‘servants’ by themselves or someone else. Any faithful Christian could have rightly been called a ‘servant’ (Studies in Romans, The 15th Annual Denton Lectures, p. 486). (3) “Not until the late third century in the Syria Didascalia do we find any reference to deaconesses (in ‘Christian writings’ B.H.). Their work consists of assisting at the baptism of women, going into the homes where believing women lived, and visiting the sick (ministering to them and bathing them). A full-blown order of deaconesses does not appear until the fourth and fifth centuries. Again, their responsibilities consisted of keeping the doors.” (Piloting the Strait).
It is true that in many places in the Roman Empire, women had a lowly position. This was not true everywhere. Luke mentions, “prominent women” in Antioch Pisidia (Acts 13:50 NKJV). Strabo (63 B.C. – 22 A.D.), the Greek geographer indicates that the women of that region were “the leaders of [religious] superstition’ being influential over their husbands” (Wayne Jackson, The Acts of the Apostles,p.162).[for additional info. on women’s role in pagan religions see “Who Said So?“ in our bulletin from Aug. 2, 2008 by Tommy J. Hicks].
Some say Paul was simply a male chauvinist. However, the same Paul who wrote 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 14, also wrote Galatians 3:28.
The truth of the matter is that the role of women in the church is not cultural. It is grounded in creation (1 Tim. 2:8-13).
We’ve looked at the key passages. I find no passage which supports the idea of women having the same roles as men in the church. I do find however, many thing that a woman can and even should do to the glory of God.