Gender roles in the church.

December 28, 2014.

It seems that on of the topics on the minds of many people in the church today is the gender roles that are set up in the Bible, what they say and if they still apply to us today as our society and culture rapidly changes to define a new standard by which many of our morals and values are based. There is a lot of discussion on the topic of what women can and cannot do within the church setting, and honestly a lot of opinion is stated where truth should rather be sought. Today I want to discuss several aspects of truth and hopefully shed a new/renewed light on the topic in the most loving way possible, as I know that this is a delicate topic. There is false teaching all over the place, not just in one sector of Christianity, and I for one would simply like to sit down with the bible and look at it from a holistic point of view instead of defining what we believe by the thoughts of society and culture, whether that defining be from conforming to society or exactly the opposite. I believe the argument comes from a misunderstanding of gender roles and then from lack of study on the subject, on both sides of the coin. I do not claim infallibility on this topic, as I am just a man trying to understand the will of the Lord, whose thoughts are higher than my thoughts. Alas, what I can do is point you to where my convictions lie rooted in scripture and encourage further study no matter which side of the coin you fall on.

1. Roles do not imply superiority/inferiority.

I think one of the first things we need to consider when we talk about gender roles in the church is our perception of these roles compared to the reality of what they mean. Our perception is greatly influenced by our society around us that has drilled into our heads that leadership means the leader is superior to the follower and he or she is the one who is most important. Therefore, if you are not in a position of leadership, that means you are inferior to those who are. This is what is taught, though subtly, and thus society cringes when they hear about different roles and the possibility that one group of people cannot assume a leadership position in a given organization. It is this warped view of the meaning of leadership that has lead many of those who are against Christianity to label much of the Bible as hateful towards woman, claiming that the Bible views women as lesser beings. However, this is simply not the case.

When you stop to think about it, we have roles in all aspects of our lives. We assume roles of leadership and roles under the authority of another’s leadership, yet our inferiority in these roles is not really questioned. If you have a job, more than likely you have a boss that is in a position of authority over you. Does that make you less of a person? Does that make you inferior in society than he or she? Of course not. It is simply your position in the company, and each position fulfills a role. The chain of command is put in place for a reason, and that reason is not to keep you down, but rather so the company actually operates efficiently and is successful. If there were no leadership and all members had the same authority, nothing would ever get done, at least not on a large scale bases. Leadership and those who follow are both necessary for the success of the company.

Take anther example. If you have ever played sports, there was most likely a coach who called most of the shots. Perhaps there were even assistant coaches who were under him or her that were entrusted specific aspects of the team. Then there were probably team captains and those who were over different numbers of players on the field. Did that mean the coach was superior to any of the players? Did that mean that the assistant coaches were more vital to the team than the players under their authority? No. It was a hierarchy set in place (each position filled by different talents) so that he team could function as a whole.

Submission is not the same thing as inferiority. If I submit to you, I am not saying that I think of myself as less value as a person to you. It could be for any number of reasons (and it even could be that I would be thinking of less significant than you, as that is what Paul tells the church at Philippi they should do in Phil. 2:3). But it does not actually diminish our value in the sight of the Lord. Perhaps the best reasoning behind this comes from the life of Christ.

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
(Philippians 2:5-8)

Christ submitted to the will of the Father by coming to this earth and offering Himself as a ransom for our souls. He didn’t have to choose to do so, but He did. He chose submission and humility, and we are to follow his example. Is Christ in any way inferior to God because He took on this role? Absolutely not. Is the Holy Spirit in any way inferior to the rest of the trinity because He is called a helper and He helps with our infirmities? Absolutely not. It is simply the roles each of the trinity takes on. Roles are set up for a reason, but that reason is not to depreciate value from any of us. This is the perspective that we need to take when we consider gender roles in the church.

2. Society does not dictate or determine what truth is.

As more of a side point, I just want to say that when we consider gender roles, and anything else in the will of God for that matter, society has no power to dictate or determine what truth is. If God says one thing and society says another, then there is only one party that is correct, and I assure you that it isn’t society. This goes for many things that our society has accepted today that are against the will of God.

And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest questioned them, saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree.”
(Acts 5:27-30)

In context, Peter and the disciples of the early church were being persecuted for teaching in the name of Jesus and were told they could not teach in His name any more. When they continued to preach the truth regardless, the Jewish leaders got mad and arrested them, during which Peter says the famous words “We must obey God rather than men.” These words ring true throughout history, and it should always be the case that we follow the will of God over the will of man if they oppose one another. This includes not just redefining what we think the scriptures say in accordance to society’s thoughts on the matter, as often is the case when certain churches are pressured.

“Seek the Lord while he may be found;
    call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake his way,
    and the unrighteous man his thoughts;
let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him,
    and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
(Isaiah 55:6-9)

God’s truth stands regardless of what society thinks. Now, we need to figure out what God’s word says.

3. There is a pattern of leadership found throughout the Scriptures.

When the topic of a woman’s role in the church is brought up, I believe we too quickly dismiss the question with a couple of proof texts (which we will get to in a minute) and leave out the holistic view that is presented throughout all of scripture. When we do this, I believe that we can do more damage than good (especially if we do it in an unloving manner). When you just flip open to Paul’s writings on the subject, you miss the whole background and reasoning of why he said what he did and you leave out the necessary context that helps us understand and even accept what he says.

Gender roles did not begin at the end of the New Testament, or even at the beginning of Christianity for that matter. The role of the entire family was set up in the beginning. It is no secret that the Lord first records His creation of man before the creation of woman. This is the first set up of roles in the family. But I want you to notice why He created woman.

“Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit forhim.”
(Genesis 2:18)

Up until this point, everything that God had made He commented “and it was good.” The first thing in all of history that God says is “not good” is the fact that man is alone. Don’t underestimate the significance of this statement. It is not good for man to be alone, and thus God man woman. Not as an inferior being, but as a compliment to man, because it was not good for man to be alone. Just because the man and the woman serve different roles does not make one less important than the other (as seen in point one).

Beyond the fall, Israel’s society was set up as a Patriarchal society, having the father as the head of the household. When the children of Israel were lead out of Egypt by Moses, his father-in-law gave him some advice about how to govern the people, choosing able and trustworthy men to set as judges over different portions of the people (ref. Ex. 18). When the spies were sent into the land of Canna, 12 men, leaders of each of the tribes of Israel, were sent to spy out the land. When the Law was put in place and the Levites were given charge of the spiritual matters of the children of Israel, serving in temple, it was male leaders who were priest, training their sons to follow in their place. The pattern of male spiritual leadership has been set up from the beginning, even going back to the fall (which we will discuss in a moment). This pattern does not start with the church, but rather it originates from the way God set up the family in the beginning. I believe this should carry a lot of weight in our considerations of spiritual leadership.

Now, did this mean that women were lesser in the eyes of God? By no means. Women had influence and say in the spiritual matters of Israel. Rebekah played a vital role in the exaltation of Jacob over Esau. There is an entire book (Ester) that is dedicated to the courage of one woman and the blessing that she was to her people. Rehab, through hiding the spies, saved herself and her family and landed herself in the geology of Jesus. Women were important in the Jewish faith. The just didn’t find themselves in positions of leadership (with the exception of Deborah, but that is quite a different story). Again, not inferior, just a different role.

4. Speak where the Bible speaks.

And thus we get to those famous proof texts which are the cause of so much argument and confusion. Let’s jump right in.

I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling;likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works. Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.”
(I Timothy 2:8-15)

In context, Paul is writing a letter to Timothy, a young evangelist that has been trained by Paul at the church in Ephesus. Paul had written a separate letter addressed to the church as a whole, but this one was addressed to Timothy and gave Timothy instructions about how he should be leading the church. I have heard a range of different interpretations on this verse, mainly because it does not set well with some people, but I tend to believe that the simplest explanation is often the correct one (Occam’s razor anyone?). Perhaps the answer simply lies in the passage. Paul was giving Timothy instructions on how the church should be operated. Paul said that the women were not to exercise authority over men. This fits perfectly within the confines of Jewish religion which was the foundation of Christianity. So, could it not just be the way God wants the church to operate?

I really want to drive this point home. Roles do not imply superiority/inferiority. They are put into place so that an organization runs effectively. The church is no different in this sense. Many make the argument here that this reasoning was a cultural thing, because in Paul’s time women were not as important (again, see point one) and they did not hold positions in leadership, therefore since our culture is different today, this no longer applies. I cannot agree with this understanding for two reasons.

The first reason I do not believe this to be the correct conclusion is because the gender roles of men and women in spiritual matters had existed since the creation of man. Yes, it is true that in Paul’s day and age that women did not take positions of leadership in the churches or synagogs. But this is not only true for Paul’s time, but for all history before him. It was not new, as we discussed in point two. Therefore, why would it change afterwards? If this had been the case since God set up the roles in the beginning, what makes today any different?

Secondly, Paul explicitly states the reason he gives this edict, so to speak. He says women are not to exercise authority over the man because Adam was created first and Eve sinned first. If you go back to what we were talking about earlier, this makes complete sense. God set up the roles in the beginning with the first creation of Adam. Then, in the fall, Eve sinned first, and this was what God said to her:

“To the woman he said,

“I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;
    in pain you shall bring forth children.
Your desire shall be for your husband,
    and he shall rule over you.”
(Genesis 3:16)

So, the role of submission of a wife to her husband was established directly after the fall. Let me ask you a question. If you were a Roman citizen in the time of Jesus, who was created first and who sinned first? What about if you were a Jew in the time of Jonah? Who was created first and who sinned first? What if you live in the year 2014 in middle class America? Does time and culture change who was created first and who sinned first? This is the reason that Paul gave for his statement. He didn’t say “because that’s the way our culture works today.” He says “because Adam was created first and Eve sinned first.” This is why I cannot get on board with the cultural arguments.

The second “proof text” that is often brought up sometimes even causes more problems.

“For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.”
(I Corinthians 14:33-35)

This is actually one of the very few places in the New Testament that we actually get a glimpse into how the early church operated when they came together (contrary to popular belief). In chapter 14, Paul is dealing with a lot of things that the church is doing and what they should be doing. Towards the end of the chapter he deals with an orderly worship. Many of the Christians that composed the church at Corinth had come out of a very pagan world and religion and everything was new for them. Some of them took their Christian liberties too far, as Paul addresses in chapters 6 and 10 of the letter. I think this is another case of that. Finding liberty in Christ, I believe the women mentioned here were indeed causing a stir in the church, forcing themselves into positions of leadership whether that was because they could do that in their previous religion or because they always felt like they couldn’t and now they found liberty. Regardless, it caused a stir, so much so that Paul has to address the problem. Now that we have looked at the background of the Jewish religion and pattern of leadership, it should be no surprise that Paul answers the way he does, even citing the Law as a way to guide the assembly. Before we go too far, we must understand that this “speak” here likely does not mean that they could say no words, but rather they were not to get up and give a speech, much like a preacher would today. I have come to this conclusion for two reasons. One, that is what the word in Greek supposedly means (though I am no Greek scholar). And two, because if women couldn’t say anything, they couldn’t sing (or pray and prophesy as Paul mentions them doing earlier in the book). Thus, this interpretation would not fit with the whole of scripture.

This passage has too been written off as a matter of culture or even as a specific teaching of Paul and not the actual word of God. I cannot get behind this interpretation because of what Paul says directly after giving this statement:

Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached? If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized.”
(I Corinthians 14:36-38)

This is what is said literally right after Paul talks about women not speaking in the assembly. “The things that I am writing to you are a command of the Lord.” That statement tells me that gender roles in the church superseded time and culture. Again, this makes perfect sense with a holistic reading of Scripture, as that is how God set it up in the beginning, and there is really no reason that He should change His mind on the way things operate in principle. Though this is not a popular teaching, I am convicted that though providence, God has laid out what His will is for us. Not because men are any more important than women, but because that is the role they fill.

These roles are further shone in the qualifications of the office of Elders and Deacons (I Timothy 3 and Titus 1), stating that those in this position must be the husbands of one wife, ruling their household well. It would seem that the roles of the family (also found in the latter portion of Ephesians 5) remained constant in terms of how God sees fit. When we understand our roles, and understand that each role has its strengths and weaknesses, we can better fulfill the will of God and better glorify Him within our roles.

5. But really, Christianity is so much more than the pulpit.

Honestly, this is probably what bugs me most about the whole argument. So much of our fighting, so much of our division, occurs over what we decide we can and cannot do for literally three hours of our 168 hour week. If you do the math, that’s about 1.8% of our week. We get so upset over what we can do during 1.8% of the week! Granted, if we met more like the first century church that number would likely grow a bit, but the fact of the matter is, the majority of our Christian lives is spent outside of this time. Sometimes I think we get so upset because we define our Christianity by our church attendance. This should not be so, for Christianity is so much more than “going to church.”

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
(Romans 12:1-2)

Our worship is daily. Our mission is carried out outside of the church walls. The majority of our duty as Christians has nothing to do with who is in the pulpit or teaching a certain Bible class. Not that these things are petty, but they are small in comparison to the time we spend elsewhere. What’s more important, what a preacher (which is not even all men) says for an hour on Sunday morning, or the gospel you preach to your family at home? What a Bible teacher says for 45 minutes on a Wednesday night, or proclaiming Christ to the lost outside of the church walls? It is obvious which is more important. And you know what, both women and men play a vital role in this aspect of Christianity. And that is what is important. What a beautiful thing this is.

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.”
(Galatians 3:27-29)

Women and men both do so much for the kingdom. So much. Yes, we have different roles to play in the assembly, but none of the roles are less important than the others. And it could be argued that the role we play outside of the assembly is more important than the one we play inside. So, why fight over the things that don’t really add up for much? We should rather focus on what we can do, and what we should be doing. And it takes good men and good women to make this happen. Let us do all for the glory of God.

Suggested Daily Reading: Genesis 2-3, I Corinthians 14, I Timothy 2.

The Lord give us wisdom.


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