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Women in the Church: Summary and Conclusion

Having examined the most relevant passages in the Scriptures—Old and New Testaments—as well as the evidence from early Christianity taken overall, through the notes and articles of this series, it remains to offer a summary of this evidence, so as to frame a useful concluding assessment of the issues at hand. During this series, I began with the specific passages in the Pauline Letters (Parts 1-5), moving back to examine the New Testament and (earlier) Old Testament as a whole (Parts 6-8). Here, in summary, I will reverse the process.

The Old Testament

When considering the Old Testament passages, it is most important to recognize the ancient Near Eastern cultural context. From the later Bronze and Iron Ages (c. 2000-500 B.C.), down through the Greek and Roman periods, society was predominantly patriarchal and patrilineal—that is, male-oriented, with emphasis given to the position of father, husband, and (eldest) son. The laws, government, and social conventions of Israel naturally reflect this, and we must be careful not to assume that such historical-cultural circumstances, as they are reflected in the Old Testament Law (Torah), are binding on later Jews and Christians. As a similar example, the acceptance of the institution of slavery in Israelite society certainly does not mean that it ought to be accepted by Christians today.

When we turn specifically to the religious side of things, there are three key points which, I believe, can be established with reasonably certainty (cf. the discussion in Part 8):

  1. With but few exceptions, in the Law and the practice of Israelite religion, men and women had more or less equal status. Apart from the priesthood, women were able to participate in the rituals and feasts alongside men, with little or no restriction. Similarly, access to the Tabernacle does not seem to have been limited; only in later Jewish tradition were portions of the Temple reserved for men. Perhaps more importantly, the sacrificial ritual—in terms of sin, cleansing, and redemption, etc—applied to men and women with little apparent distinction.
  2. The Priesthood was reserved for men—that is, for Aaron and his descendents, as well as the males from the tribe of Levi (the Levites).
  3. Men and women could serve equally as inspired/authoritative Prophets.

The New Testament

When we turn to the New Testament (Part 7), the evidence is similarly mixed. On the one hand, Jesus’ circle of close disciples, those specifically chosen by him to serve as his representatives (apostles), were all men. At the same time, there were women who followed him, and traveled/stayed together with him (alongside the men). The evidence for this is relatively slight (cf. Lk 8:1-3; Mk 15:40-41 par), but established well enough to be completely reliable (on objective grounds). Moreover, Jesus’ dealing with women (also well-established in Gospel tradition) were frequent and distinctive enough to cause comment and objection among observers (Lk 7:36-39; Jn 4:7-30, etc), indicating that he may have challenged the accepted social conventions, in certain respects, regarding the interaction of men and women. Martha and Mary, sisters of Lazarus, should be counted among Jesus’ close friends and followers (Lk 10:38-42; Jn 11:5, 19-27 ff; 12:1-3ff). Perhaps the most important Gospel tradition regarding women is the appearance of Mary Magdalene (along with other women) at the tomb; they were the first to see the empty tomb, encounter the resurrected Jesus, and to proclaim the good news of the Gospel (i.e., the resurrection). Mention should also be made of the role of Mary, mother of Jesus, especially within the Lukan narrative (Lk 1:26-56; 2:5-7, 16-38ff; 8:19-21; Acts 1:14).

In the book of Acts, there is a strong egalitarian character to the early Christian community, in which men and women are mentioned together as believers without any apparent distinction (1:14ff, etc). The Spirit comes upon them all as they are gathered together in one place (2:1-4ff), the gift and manifestation of the Spirit coming to men and women both, in fulfillment of the key prophecy in Joel 2:28-32 (Acts 2:17-21). Admittedly, those mentioned as apostles (a)po/stoloi) in Acts are all men, as well as the seven chosen as “servants/ministers” (“to serve”, diakone/w) in Acts 6. Indeed, throughout the entire New Testament, there is only one (possible) instance where a woman is referred to as an apostle (Junia in Rom 16:7, discussed in Part 4), but the interpretation of this reference is by no means certain. However, women do feature prominently throughout the book of Acts, and are mentioned among the notable early converts to the faith. Perhaps most significant is Priscilla who, with her husband Aquila, served as Christian leaders (ministers) in three different cities—Corinth, Ephesus and Rome. Priscilla (or Prisca) was a close companion and fellow-minister of Paul (Acts 18:3, 18; Rom 16:3; 1 Cor 16:19; 2 Tim 4:19), who appears in Acts 18. The role she plays (with her husband) in instructing Apollos (v. 26) is a key New Testament reference for our subject, though its import should not be exaggerated.

The Pauline Letters

Five primary passages in the letters—1 Cor 11:2-16; 14:33-36; Gal 3:28; Rom 16:1-2ff, and 1 Tim 2:11-15—were discussed in detail in Parts 15 (cf. also the overview study in Part 6). Here I will summarize the overall evidence, distilling it into a number of central points. I begin with the letters where Pauline authorship is more or less undisputed (esp. Corinthians, Romans, and Philippians):

  • When Paul refers to women who are his companions and fellow-workers, he does so without any special distinction to suggest that they serve a lesser or subordinate role. As I discussed in Part 4 (on Rom 16:1-2ff), he uses the terms dia/konoi (“servant/minister”) and sunergoi/ (“co-workers”), etc, equally of men and women, without any apparent qualification; and may even use a)po/stolo$ (apostle) of a women (Junia) in Rom 16:7.
  • Based on the references in 1 Corinthians and Romans, it would seem also that men and women receive the various spiritual “gifts” (charismata) equally, with little or no restriction (with the possible exception of the ‘highest’ gift, apostleship). As such, women would have been expected to exercise their gift (i.e. ministry) within the life of the Community.
  • Women could serve as “prophets” (the second ‘highest’) gift within the Community. This included speaking—delivering prophetic messages—within the congregational meeting (1 Cor 11:2-16). The only restriction Paul lays upon them is that they prophesy with their head covered (wearing a covering over their head/hair). Cf. the extensive discussion in Part 1, along with the notes on 1 Cor 11:10.
  • Paul does seem to accept some (hierarchical) distinction between men and women in the congregation which does effect their ministerial role and position in certain ways (cf. the discussion in Parts 1 and 2). The extent to which he restricts the role of women in this regard is based on two main factors: (1) observing accepted social custom, and (2) an interpretation of the Creation account in Genesis 1-3. The latter factor is most problematic from our standpoint today, and yet it cannot be ignored.
  • At the same time, we have the fundamental statement in Galatians 3:28c—”in (Christ) there is no male and female”—which would seem to abolish gender distinctions among believers, just as it does for religious-cultural (Jew/Gentile) and socio-economic (slave/free) distinctions (v. 28ab). While this is certainly true in terms of basic Christian identity (note the baptism context), Paul does not seem (or was not willing) to apply the principle absolutely in practice. I discuss the subject in Part 3, and in a set of supplemental notes on Gal 3:28. Interestingly, this statement (with the specific expression “male and female”) almost certainly ties back to the Creation narrative as well.

Mention should also be made of the Pauline tradition recorded in Acts 14:23 and again in 20:17ff, whereby Paul (and, presumably, other Apostles) appointed elders (presbu/teroi) to lead and guide the congregations established in the various cities. There may be an echo of this in Phil 1:1, but it becomes far more prominent in the Pastoral letters, which present a stronger and more distinctive picture of church organization and government than we see in the undisputed Pauline letters. I discuss this at length in Parts 5 (on 1 Tim 2:11-15) and 6. If the Pastoral letters are genuinely by Paul, and relatively early (c. 60-63 A.D.), then it is necessary to study them closely in comparison with the relevant passages in 1 Corinthians, etc. However, if they (esp. 1 Timothy) are pseudonymous, and a later product (c. 80-100?), then we must consider the traditions and instruction contained in them in a somewhat different light—as part of the subsequent ecclesiastical development in the early Church (cf. below). Folding the Pastorals into the overall evidence from the Pauline letters, we should distinguish several key terms which play an important part in understanding the roles of men and women in ministry in the New Testament period:

  • Apostle (a)po/stolo$)—as mentioned above, with one possible exception, this title is only applied to men. Traditionally, it goes back to the idea of those disciples (the Twelve, etc) whom Jesus appointed and “sent forth” as his representatives, to proclaim the Gospel, work miracles, and, ultimately, to establish congregations (churches) of believers around the world. Paul uses the term frequently (25 times in the undisputed letters), often in reference to himself and the ministry to which God has called him.
  • Servant/Minister (dia/konoi)—With one possible exception (Phil 1:1), Paul always uses the term in a general sense—applying it to himself and his co-workers (men and women alike)—as a minister (lit. “servant”) of Christ and the Gospel. In the Pastoral letters (1 Tim 3:8-13), the word seems to refer to a more distinct role or “office” in the Church, as it certainly came to be in later tradition (but note the general sense of the word still in 4:6). The context of 3:8ff seems to assume that these ministers are men, though, because of the ambiguity surrounding verse 11, we cannot be certain of this.
  • Elder (presbu/tero$)—According to the tradition(s) in Acts 14:23; 20:17ff, Paul established “elders” (presumably gender-specific, i.e. men) to “oversee” and guide/lead the congregations. Interestingly, however, Paul never once uses this term in any of the undisputed letters, which is indeed surprising. By contrast, it is used a number of times in the Pastoral letters (Titus 1:5; 1 Tim 5:17, 19, cf. also 4:14), where almost certainly it refers to men. In this context (5:9-16), widows functioned as a type of “female elder”.
  • Overseer (e)pi/skopo$)—This term is used in Phil 1:1, as parallel to, but distinct from, that of “minister” (dia/kono$). According to Acts 20:28, it would have referred to the elders appointed to guide and oversee the congregation(s) in a particular city or region. In early Christian parlance, it was essentially synonymous with the term “shepherd” (poimh/n), which was probably the older traditional term (cf. 1 Pet 2:25). As such, it corresponds generally with the English word “pastor”. The Pastoral letters (1 Tim 3:1-7; Tit 1:7-9) provide instruction regarding overseers, who, according to the context, should be understood as elders who function in a leading role, though the distinction between overseer and elder was not as pronounced as it would subsequently become in the early Church, and the translation “bishop” should be avoided. Based on the example of the narrative setting of the Pastorals, Titus and Timothy functioned as overseers of all the churches in a particular region (Crete and the area around Ephesus, respectively).
  • Prophet (profh/th$)—This is the distinctive role in the earliest Christian congregations for which there is the best support for women serving. Going all the way back to the ancient (Old Testament) tradition of female prophets, the foundational use and interpretation of Joel 2:28-32 among early Christians established the acceptance of women functioning as prophets in the Churches, though the direct evidence for this is relatively slight (Acts 21:9; 1 Cor 11:2-16). Presumably, the majority of Christian prophets were men, but there would seem to be no restriction on women in this role, except for the cultural observance required by Paul in 1 Cor 11.
  • Teacher (dida/skalo$)—This may understood in terms of one who exercises the distinct (spiritual) gift of teaching, or as the specific role of the elder/overseer. The latter sense is emphasized in the Pastoral letters, in the context of transmitting and preserving the correct (Apostolic) tradition, passed down from men like Paul. Originally, it would have related more directly to the proclamation of the Gospel. In the charismatic context of the Pauline churches (e.g. in Corinth), it likely refers to special inspired instruction, under the guidance of the Spirit, closely related to the gifts of prophecy and the imparting of spiritual knowledge (revelation). Of considerable importance are the passages (1 Cor 14:33-35; 1 Tim 2:11-15) which seem to restrict women in functioning as teachers in the congregation; on this, cf. Parts 2 and 5, and the separate note on “teach/teaching” in the Pauline letters.

Early Christianity

The principles and points of Church organization contained in the Pastoral letters are continued and developed in the early Church, as can be seen by a survey of the evidence from the so-called Apostolic Fathers (writings c. 90-160 A.D., cf. Part 9). Over time, a distinct hierarchical structure with official positions (“offices”) developed, centered on the principle of episcopal (from e)pi/skopo$, cf. above) authority. Women came to be increasingly excluded from leading ministerial roles; at the same time, certain positions—Widows and Virgins—tied to the (ascetic) ideal of ministerial celibacy and virginity, gained in prominence. However, by the 5th century, women had been officially barred from any kind of priestly activity (i.e. approaching the altar, administering baptism, etc), from teaching doctrine, serving as deacons, and so forth. It is hard to say whether the Gnostic Christian groups were more accepting of the participation of women in leading roles, as might be assumed from the language and female characters/images featured in many of their texts. For more on this, cf. the article “Women in Gnosticism“.

It was in the Monastic movements, begun in the mid/late-3rd century, that women would find their place (and empowerment) as ministers within the Church. Female solitaries and communities (i.e. monasteries) spread alongside the male monks and houses, all throughout the ancient Near East (beginning in Egypt), then the entire Greco-Roman world, and, eventually, into Europe. The monastic community (monastery) functioned as a sub-culture, a separate society within the larger Christian community. As such, while women were still under the authority of (male) bishops and priests, they had the ability to govern themselves. At first, the majority of monks and nuns (the traditional title for female monks) came primarily from the upper classes, but, as the tradition expanded, women from lower segments of society had opportunity to join and participate in the communities.

The Medieval and Reformation Periods

For centuries, while there was relatively little change in the official position(s) of women, either in the Church or society at large, the opportunities for participation and expression within Monasticism were considerable indeed. A rich Monastic culture developed, for both men an women, maintaining centers of learning and art throughout the so-called “Dark Ages”. By the time of the high Middle Ages (12-14th centuries), a good number of women in the monasteries were highly educated and skilled in many areas (including art, music, medicine, and other sciences). Many beautiful and erudite examples of writings from female authors have survived, such as those of the “Rhineland Mystics” in Germany. Of the many notable names from the period, one could mention Elisabeth of Schönau, Mechtild of Magdeburg, Gertrude of Helfta, Hadewijch, Bridget of Sweden, Catherine of Siena and Julian of Norwich. The great abbess Hildegard of Bingen, at the peak of her career (c. 1150), was, along with Bernard of Clairvaux, perhaps the most influential Christian leader in all of Europe. Hildegard’s legacy, her writings, and the evidence of her vast learning and creativity, have made her an inspirational figure for many women today.

In the era of the Renaissance in western Europe (14th-15th centuries), humanist trends prompted a marked increase in the status (and education) of women, at least among the upper classes and members of the aristocracy. In England, Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII, was an important patron of learning and played a role in the growth of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Women such as Christine de Pizan, Cecilia Gonzaga, Isabella d’Este, Cassandra Fedele, Margaret of Navarre, and Margaret Roper (daughter of Sir Thomas More) could be counted among the most gifted and educated persons in Europe.

Sadly, the legacy of the Protestant Reformation with regard to the role and status of women is rather mixed. On the one hand, the closure of monasteries in the Protestant territories cut off those opportunities for women, effectively forcing them into the more traditional family roles of wife and mother. With very rare exceptions, women did not serve in any sort of leading ministerial position in the Protestant churches. This was true even among the Anabaptists, who were somewhat more tolerant and liberal-minded in certain respects. Only in the Spiritualist traditions, such as the Quakers of the 17th century, were women allowed more freedom to function as ministers in the congregation. At the same time, there can be little doubt that the Reformation, in the long run, was influential in helping to shape democratic and egalitarian ideals, emphasizing personal freedom and basic human rights, in Western society over the centuries to come.

The Situation Today

In more recent times, of course, ideals of liberty, equality and human rights have gained more prominence in society, aided both by religious and secular (humanistic) philosophical principles. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, there have been strong and widespread movements championing civil rights for (ethnic) minorities and for women. There has been much success in terms of women’s rights—i.e. to vote, pursue higher education, function in professional occupations previously reserved for men, and so on. To be sure, even today many of the ancient biases, prejudice and mistreatment of women remain, but the fundamental principle of the equality of men and women (including the ideal of equal opportunity) is emphasized today, in the United States and other nations, as never before. The Church can, and ought, to be at the forefront of the struggle for equality and empowerment. Yet it is just at this point that many Christians find themselves at a crossroads between two different viewpoints—the modern mindset stressing gender equality, and the ancient (male-dominated) worldview reflected in the Scriptures. In early Christianity this ancient outlook has been re-interpreted and modified by leaders such as Paul, but it is not quite the same the modern view. There remains considerable tension as to how, and to what extent, we may combine the perspectives and hold them in balance—respecting and remaining faithful to the teachings in the Scriptures without ignoring important areas of social progress.

Concluding Note

For those who wish to better understand the Scriptural evidence (and teaching) regarding the role of Women in the Church, I hope that this series as been helpful and inspiring. I have tried to be as faithful and objective as possible, without reading modern concerns into the various passages. However, if one wishes to apply the New Testament evidence overall to the situation of churches today, this perhaps could be done best by focusing on the two leading roles in early Christianity—that of apostle and prophet.

1. Apostle—According to the New Testament witness, the apostles (a)po/stoloi), the ones “sent out”, i.e. by Jesus, were, it would seem, all men. While this may simply reflect the patriarchal, male-oriented character of the society, it has to be admitted that it was fundamental to early church organization. The apostles and their own representatives (also “apostles”, in a sense), as missionaries throughout the Near Eastern and Greco-Roman world, in the establishment of churches, appointed elders to govern and oversee (i.e. the role of “overseer”) the congregation(s). As far as we can tell, these elders—persons mature and responsible in the faith—were all men, though there may have been corresponding female “elders” to oversee the younger women in the congregation. The role of elder/overseer more or less corresponds with the traditional figure of pastor in Protestant churches. This emphasis on male authority, according to the early Christian way of thinking, represents the vertical dimension of Church structure—i.e., a hierarchy of authority.

2. Prophet—As is clear from the foundational use of Joel 2:28-32 in Peter’s Pentecost speech in the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit comes upon men and women equally, and they all are to prophesy. The existence and acceptance of female prophets is reasonably well-established in early Christianity (cf. above). It is only in the second century, following the New Testament (Apostolic) period, that the role disappears, kept alive at the fringes by heterodox/charismatic movements such as Montanism (cf. the discussion in Part 9). This raises the question as to whether the role and function of prophet in the New Testament reflects a temporary gifting, limited to the New Testament period, or whether it relates to believers today. I discuss this question in the note on 1 Cor 13:8. On the whole, I find no evidence in the New Testament to suggest that this role of prophet/prophecy was not expected to last until the return of Christ. In traditional terms, the prophet was a spokesperson or representative (of God), who communicated the word and will of God to the people at large (i.e. the believers of the Community). As such, it corresponds generally to the role of preacher (and/or teacher) today. Using the same model as above, it also could be said to represent the horizontal dimension of the Church—believers sharing their (spiritual) gifts and instructing one another. According to this view, women could (and should) function as preachers and ministers as they have been gifted by God.

Whether, or to what extent, these two dimensions—hierarchical and egalitarian, vertical and horizontal—can be combined effectively in Church life and the organized Community today is a question that each believer, or group of believers, must address. There are no simple solutions. However, as a closing exhortation, and word of advice, I would return to the sentiment expressed by F. F. Bruce (commenting on Gal 3:28), which I have previously mentioned and with which I entirely agree, that the passages which seem to restrict the role of women (e.g., in the Pauline letters) “are to be read in relation to Gal 3:28, and not vice versa(Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians, New International Greek Testament Commentary [NIGTC], Paternoster Press / Eerdmans: 1982, p. 190).

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