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Women in the Church: Part 6 – The Pauline Letters

Having already examined five primary passages in the Pauline letters—1 Cor 11:2-16; 14:33b-36; Gal 3:28; Rom 16:1-2ff, and 1 Tim 2:11-15—in some detail, it remains to survey other portions of the Pauline corpus which relate in some way to role of women in the Church. As a way of organizing and presenting the evidence, I have decided to divide them roughly between:

(a) Passages which emphasize the equality and/or reciprocity of the genders, and
(b) Those which indicate that women are in some sense subordinate to men, or may be restricted from fulfilling certain roles

The situation, of course, is considerably more complex than this simple division suggests; however, I believe that it genuinely reflects two aspects of Paul’s thought and teaching regarding gender roles, etc. It also happens to follow the two basic views or approaches to the subject by Christians today. A serious error of modern commentators and church leaders, etc, is that they tend (or wish) to focus on just one side of the question, to the exclusion of the other.

1. Passages which emphasize the equality and/or reciprocity of the genders

1 Thess 2:7, 11—Paul uses mother/father (female/male) imagery, applying them equally, in turn, to the role and function of apostles. Cf. also Gal 4:19, etc.

1 Corinthians 7—According to the language and (reciprocal) style Paul uses throughout this chapter, men and women (husbands and wives) have equal status—i.e. in the context of marriage, especially with regard to sexual relations. There is no emphasis whatsoever on headship/submission here.

1 Corinthians 12-13 & 14:1ff—Spiritual “gifts” (charismata) relate to all believers—note the use of pa=$ (“all”) repeatedly in 12:6, 11-13, 19, 26, 29-30; 13:2-3, 7; 14:5, 18, 23-26, 31. There is really no indication that any of the gifts or roles mentioned in these sections (with the possible exception of “apostle”, cf. below) apply only to men or are restricted for women. According to 11:2-16 (cf. Part 1) women may function as prophets, which is the second ‘highest’ gift/role after in the church after apostles (12:28ff). This means they may exercise a role that involves preaching/teaching, and 14:3 would suggest that women who prophesy also instruct/edify men in the assembly. Only 14:34-35 refers to any restriction on the participation of women in the worship meeting, but the context of this reference needs to be examined closely (cf. the discussion in Part 2). The emphasis on unity among believers (in the corporate setting) also means that all gifts/roles in the church ultimately are subordinated to the love-principle (chap. 13, cf. Gal 5:14ff).

2 Cor 11:2-3Female imagery is applied to believers as a whole, without qualification or comment. Note above on 1 Thess 2:7, and cf. Rom 7:2-3; 9:25.

Rom 12:4-8—Cf. 1 Cor 12-14, and also Eph 4:11-13. It is possible that the language “the one teaching [o( dida/skwn]”, etc., in vv. 7-8 is gender-specific, but Paul does not make a point of it. He frequently uses masculine terms and (grammatical) gender when referring to believers (men and women) generally or collectively.

Along with these passages, one should note instances where Paul makes special mention of certain women, indicating they are fellow ministers/missionaries or otherwise hold prominent/leading roles in the churches. In addition to Phoebe and the others mentioned in Romans 16 (cf. Part 4), we have:

  • Prisca and her husband Aquila (1 Cor 16:19, also Rom 16:3; 2 Tim 4:19, and cf. Acts 18:2, 18, 26).
  • Chloe (1 Cor 1:11)—a prominent (and wealthy) person in Corinth, who may have been important in the church.
  • Euodia and Syntyche (Phil 4:2-3).
  • Apphia (Philemon 2), specifically called “sister” in context with the “brothers” of v. 1.
  • Nympha (Col 4:15)—like Prisca, she hosts a congregation in her house, and presumably has a prominent position in the church.

When Paul refers to such women in relation to himself and other (male) ministers, he generally does so without any distinction. See especially in Rom 16:1ff and Phil 4:2-3, where terms such as “servant/minister” (dia/kono$), “co-worker” (sunergo/$), and perhaps even “apostle” (a)po/stolo$, cf. Rom 16:7), are used equally of women.

2. Passages which emphasize subordination or restriction of roles for women

Gal 1:1ff; 1 Cor 3:5ff, etc—In the vast majority of instances where Paul uses the terms dia/kono$ (“servant/minister”) or a)po/stolo$ (apostle), he applies them to men—most often himself, but also Apollos, etc. Only once is dia/kono$ used specifically of a woman (Rom 16:1-2, cf. above). Similarly, in the New Testament, the term a)po/stolo$ is only used of men, with the possible exception of the reference to Junia in Rom 16:7. This relative imbalance may simply reflect circumstances of culture and social convention at the time, rather than a rule regarding the role of women in ministry. Admittedly, the evidence for women in these leading roles is fairly slight (cf. above), but it is significant enough (especially in light of Rom 16:1-2, 7) that it should, at the very least, give one pause before denying the positions to women outright.

Gal 6:6; 1 Cor 2:15-16, etc—It is possible that masculine gender expressions such as “the one instructing”, “the one (who is) spiritual”, “he judges”, “him”, etc, in certain passages assume a gender-specific context, indicating that men are (to be) in leadership roles (cf. on Rom 12:4-8 above)

2 Cor 8:17-18ff; 9:3ff—Here the representatives sent to the congregations appear to be men, i.e. “brothers” in the stricter (gender-specific) sense. This, however, does not necessarily mean that women were forbidden from such roles. Note again Rom 16:1-2, where Phoebe, a leading figure (minister) in the churches of Cenchreae/Corinth, likely is the one carrying the letter on Paul’s behalf, and he introduces/recommends her formally to the churches of Rome.

Phil 1:1, 14—It is possible that here in v. 1 dia/kono$ (“servant/minister”), along with e)pi/skopo$ (“overseer”) refer specifically to men, though this depends somewhat on the relationship with 1 Tim 3:1-13; Tit 1:5-9 (cf. below). If “brothers” in verse 14 is taken in a stricter, gender-specific sense, it may assume that certain speaking/preaching roles are (to be) filled by men.

Col 3:18-19 (and Eph 5:22-24ff)—Here Paul (or the author) is referring to the marriage relationship—husband and wife—within the Christian community. The verb u(pota/ssw literally refers to being under (an arranged) order, but the passive/reflexive form often indicates obedience or even being (made) subject to a higher (ruling) authority. The wife/woman is to be “under order” (i.e. subordinate) to her husband (i.e. to his position/authority), but the same is not said of the husband/man (contrast this with the reciprocal language in 1 Cor 7); instead, it is said that he must love (and be gentle/caring toward) his wife. Much the same is stated in Eph 5:22-24ff, but the instruction has been expanded with the illustration of the relationship between Christ and the Church (his Bride) in vv. 23-24, which is worth quoting:

“…(in) that the man/husband is head [kefalh/] of the woman/wife, even as the Anointed (One) {Christ} is head of the congregation [e)kklhsi/a], he (being) savior of the Body—but (then) as the congregation is set in order under [u(pota/ssetai] the Anointed (One) {Christ}, so also the women/wives to the men/husbands in all (thing)s.”

Ephesians is considered by many (critical) commentators to be pseudonymous, but, even if this were granted, the statement here would still seem to reflect genuine Pauline teaching (cf. 1 Cor 11:3ff).

The Pastoral Letters—For the difficult critical questions related to these letters—in terms of authorship, date of composition, historical background and interpretation—along with a discussion of 1 Tim 2:11-15 in particular, cf. Part 5. Of all the letters in the Pauline corpus, these (esp. 1 Timothy) provide the clearest evidence for a restriction of leading/ministerial roles in the churches. In addition to 1 Tim 2:11-15, note the following passages in particular:

  • 1 Tim 3:1-13—The context makes fairly clear that “overseers [e)pi/skopoi]” (certainly) and “servants/ministers [dia/konoi]” (probably) are to be men. The only uncertainly is in the reference to “women” in v. 11 (cf. the note on this verse).
  • 1 Tim 5:2-16, 17ff—The widows in the congregation (vv. 2-16) have a role (as female “elders”) comparable to the (male) “elders” (vv. 17-20). This also suggests a definite division/distinction, especially if it is assumes that the elders (presbu/teroi) are men, as in Tit 1:5-9. According to v. 17, preaching and teaching are generally reserved as roles for the elders.
  • 2 Tim 2:2; 3:17—Similarly, teaching is to be done by “trustworthy men” (2:2), where a)nqrwpoi (“men”) is almost certainly used in a gender-specific sense; this is likely true for the expression “man of God” in 3:17 as well.
  • Titus 1:5-9—The context makes it clear that the “elders” (presbu/teroi), especially those appointed as “overseer” (e)pi/skopo$), are understood to be men.
  • Titus 2:3-5—The role of older women (i.e. female “elders”) would seem to be limited to instruction of the younger women. Here also we have the directive, stated briefly, that wives are to be “in (proper) order under” their husbands (using the verb u)pota/ssw as in Col 3:18-19; Eph 5:22-24, cf. above).

Conclusion

The passages which most clearly (and directly) emphasize restriction of roles for women, and/or their subordination under the men of the Community, are in those letters which are commonly regarded as pseudonymous—the Pastoral letters (esp. 1 Timothy), Ephesians (and Colossians). This means that there are likely to be significant differences of opinion as to what Paul himself actually believed and taught, depending on one’s view of authorship of these letters. Similarities and parallels can be found, to some extent, in the undisputed letters (e.g., 1 Cor 11:3-9ff; 14:33b-36; Phil 1:1), but it is methodologically unsound (and unwise) to read the teaching of the Pastoral letters, for example, back into 1 Corinthians, etc, without further ado. Each passage must be examined in the context of the letter and the situation which is being addressed. Overall, the evidence from the undisputed letters would indicate that women could serve in leading roles, as ministers in the churches, with few restrictions. A somewhat different picture is presented in 1 Timothy (and perhaps in Titus). The only role which seems to be reserved for men, without question, is that of the elder (presbu/tero$) who is to function as overseer (e)pi/skopo$) of the congregation. Unfortunately, these positions are scarcely mentioned at all in the undisputed letters—presbu/tero$ (“elder”) is never used, and e)pi/skopo$ (“overseer”) only once (Phil 1:1), briefly and without further comment (but cf. Acts 14:23; 20:28). Otherwise, while the evidence is relative slight (and occasionally ambiguous), women in the ‘Pauline churches’ seem to be recognized and allowed to function as ministers in various ways, including certain roles involving preaching and teaching. However, there continue to be differing views on the subject, and so it should remain open for dispute and discussion, without prejudice.

For additional background on this subject, see the separate article on “Church Organization in the Pauline Letters“.

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