This issue remains a controversial one in many
churches and denominations. It stems from two scripture passages written by
the Apostle Paul, which are frequently interpreted differently. In the
first, Paul writes, "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" (1 Cor. 14:34-35).
Some churches interpret this to mean that Paul forbade women to speak
publicly or preach in the church. However, others contend that he used the
Greek verb that described "talk or chatter," and was only discouraging
conversational interruptions in the assembly. The tradition of the early
church (synagogue) was that the men and women sat on opposite sides, divided
by a waist-high partition. There's speculation that during the teaching,
there was disruptive chatting between the women or perhaps they asked
questions of their husbands across the partition.
The other passage written to Timothy is even more
controversial. Paul wrote, "I do not permit a woman to teach or to have
authority over a man, but to be in silence [submission]" (1 Tim. 2:12). This
is seen by some as an indisputable restriction against women holding church
positions of teaching or authority, but others believe that Paul was
speaking to a wife's domestic submission to the authority of her husband.
Whatever Paul meant, it apparently was not intended to be a sexist bias
against women, as he explained elsewhere that gender held no distinction to
those in Christ. "...there is neither male nor female; for you are all one
in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28).
What is clear is that the broad context of the New
Testament shows that women did have a significant role in the early church.
Besides continuing with the Apostles in prayer, there were women, such as
Phebe, whom Paul described as a deaconess (Greek, DIAKONOS), a term which
referred to an office of ministry (Rom. 16:1). And there were other women,
such as Philip's four daughters, who prophesied, proclaiming public messages
from God (Acts 21:8-9).
Throughout church history, women have played a vital role in its success. Many a pioneer church, while in short supply of men, has relied upon the faithfulness of women to carry the load of prayer, ministry and other responsibilities. Today, women continue to play a great part in the success of church ministries. Many churches authorize women to teach, preach or even pastor churches, but there are others which still restrict their participation to non authoritarian positions.