Women’s Roles in the Church

Straight Talk

The Question:

What are women’s roles within a church and what leadership positions should they hold, if any, and what is the scriptural basis for it?

– KD from Charlotte, NC

The Answer
Part 1: Women in the Bible
Part 2: A rose by any other name…
Part 3: Does the Bible contradict itself?

Women in the Bible (Part 1)

The Bible is our first stop for any question so we should answer by looking at some of the roles women have filled in scripture. We need to pay particular attention to any places in scripture where women held leadership positions. I will start with Deborah in the Old Testament.

Deborah’s story is told in Judges 4 and 5. “Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth, was judging Israel at that time. And she would sit under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the mountains of Ephraim. And the children of Israel came up to her for judgment.” (Judges 4:4-5) “Judges” was the time in Israel’s history before God raised up kings to run things. A Judge made spiritual and political decisions for the country and for individuals. Even though she was married, it was she, and not her husband, who had this authority.

Because of Deborah, we know that God calls women to governmental positions in the church. Deborah’s ministry was called of God and confirmed by him through her successful ministry. In the old covenant we see an example of a woman in a strong leadership position with spiritual authority, even over men.

In the New Testament we find that women played a role in all aspects of church life. They are mentioned heavily. They certainly held a place and position with Jesus during his public ministry and they were present in the Upper Room when the Holy Spirit fell on Pentecost. It is no surprise that they also took up the work of spreading the gospel immediately after their Holy Spirit baptism.

Peter sets the stage for all believers in his first big sermon when he says; “Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy” (Acts 2:17) and “And on My menservants and on My maidservants I will pour out My Spirit in those days; and they shall prophesy.” (Acts 2:18) Prophecy is basically being God’s mouthpiece and speaking out what he wants the church to know and hear. True prophecy carries great weight and prophets have spiritual authority.

Two noteworthy women with authority are found in Romans 16. Phoebe probably carried Paul’s letter to the Roman church. Paul asks that the church receive her properly “and assist her in whatever business she has need of you; for indeed she has been a helper of many and of myself also.” (Romans 16:2) The word servant could also be translated as “minister” (which might be the same function as a pastor today) and sometimes “deacon.” Further in the passage, Paul mentions Junia, a woman who was an apostle. There are those who deny that Junia was a woman but I believe she was.

A rose by any other name… (Part 2)

They say that a rose by any other name would still smell as sweet. It would also still be a rose. The point is that we can call people by any titles we want or use any names that are “politically correct” in our times but we have to look to the spiritual gifts the person actually operates with.

I saw this clearly many years ago in a certain church. A woman I knew there had no official title but she devoted herself almost full time to ministry. The most important thing she did was take people under her wing and encourage them and she never gave up on them. The truth was, no matter what anyone called her, she was a Pastor. She didn’t have the title or the salary but she had the heart and that is exactly how she functioned.

Amy Carmichael was on the mission field to India most of her adult life in the late 1800s. Her work was tremendous and far reaching. She started a new work in a new land and she penetrated India with the gospel to a great degree. As far as I know, she has always simply been called a missionary and certainly she never gave herself any title of authority. Her work, however, is that of an Apostle and she certainly also operated as a Pastor.

The late Kathryn Kuhlman was Pastor of a church she started for many years during her ministry but she never allowed that title to be used because women were not accepted as pastors then. She didn’t want to offend the church or bring any division. But her work and her authority were that of one in the office of Pastor.

The church often divides itself over this issue and I think we play into the devil’s hand when we let that happen. We can legalistically pour over scriptures and look at the Greek and Hebrew and argue all day long over what women can do and not do or we can use every willing hand to spread the gospel. Women have always had willing hands.

Additionally, they have gifts – Holy Spirit given gifts. If God gives a gift of pastoring or evangelism or prophecy or apostle to a woman, who are we to refuse it? Certainly if God gives the gift, that’s all the authority that is needed. I say to both men and women: use your gifts!

Does the Bible contradict itself? (Part 3)

There are certain passages that are always quoted when arguing over women’s roles in the church. For instance, there is 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 which says; “Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church.” There are also other passages that could be mentioned.

What do we do with these things? We know that all of scripture is God’s inspired Word. Without getting into a long theological discussion, let me pose another question. Wasn’t that passage, and others, written by the same man – Paul, who spoke of Junia and Phoebe and scores of other women functioning in first century church life? Why would Paul contradict himself, let alone the Holy Spirit inspiring Paul’s writing?

I think our dilemma comes because we can’t go back in time and look at exactly how the church was functioning so we could see that there is no contradiction at all. If we could invite Paul over for coffee and say; “Why did you say this or that?” he would laugh and say; “Oh, you misunderstand. Here’s what was happening and here’s why I said that to the Corinthians.” Clearly, Paul respected women and trusted them in ministry because he mentions so many of them in his writings. God seems to trust women also because he keeps calling them over the centuries to do great works on his behalf in all the earth.

This answer to your question is very brief and incomplete. I can suggest a further more in depth study if you are interested. Women of Destiny by Cindy Jacobs is an excellent resource. It is subtitled; Releasing You To Fulfill God’s Call In Your Life And In The Church.” I agree with an endorsement from C. Peter Wagner on the front cover. It says; “Women of Destiny encourages both men and women to be co-laborers for the Father’s glory.” Amen to that. Let’s get out in those white fields for harvest!


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