Rethinking Women in Ministry

I’m often asked the question, “What is your position on 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 14 where Paul seems to argue that a woman cannot speak or teach in a church meeting?”

Some years ago, I wrote a 20-page essay answering this question. It was originally slated to be a chapter in my book Reimagining Church, but the publisher said it couldn’t fit the page count. So a footnote was added in the book directing people to read the chapter online.

Over the last two decades, several good books have been published which have tackled the subject. But many Christians struggle with finding time to read. In such cases, a short essay consolidating the issues is easier fodder.

In my essay, Reimagining a Woman’s Role in the Church, I list a series of recommended books at the end which weigh deeper into the subject. Nevertheless, the essay covers the waterfront on the matter in a very small space.

What follows is the introduction to the essay. Note that it’s written as an open letter, inspired by one of the many letters I have received on this question.

I suspect a few of my subscribers will disagree with my conclusions. But I expect that you’ll understand (and perhaps respect) the reasoning behind them.

Dear Sister,

Thank you for your gracious letter. You’ve asked an excellent question. What is my view on a woman’s role in the church and how do I understand the “limiting passages” that seem to restrict their ministry?

To be honest, I’m monumentally disinterested in adding more noise to the ill-fated gender brawl that rages in some Christian circles. It is for this reason that I’ve been loath to write on the subject. Yet I keep meeting women who have been spiritually straight-jacketed by what I find to be a wooden interpretation of certain Biblical texts.

Their stories have provoked me to tread on this hazardous minefield. And for their sake, as well as for the sake of all my beloved sisters in Christ, I regret not having done so sooner.

With that said, I’m now ready to have my ears singed with the hand-wringing, nitpicking, nailbiting, and tooth-gnashing that may be generated by my response.

So let this letter forever settle the whole controversy. Here, dear sister, is the answer to your question. Here is the final word on the subject:

Paul put it plainly when he said that under no condition and under no circumstance may a woman speak in a church meeting. She must never, ever, under any situation, say a word in the church. She must without exception keep absolutely, totally, and completely silent.

Unless . . . 

she has her head covered!

Are you clear now?

I trust you are laughing, for I was being facetious. Yet I was also trying to make a point. The fact is that Paul seems to contradict himself on this subject. The so-called “limiting passages” are incredibly difficult to interpret.

Given their obscurity, no one can be dogmatic as to what Paul really meant when he penned them. This being so, every interpretation that’s been given to these texts has shortcomings. And I will shamelessly admit that this applies to my own.

For the sake of those reading this letter over my shoulder, the “limiting passages” are those texts that seem to put some restriction on a woman’s ministry in the church. Interestingly, there are only two such passages in all the New Testament. Here they are:

Let the women keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but let them subject themselves, just as the Law also says. And if they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in the church. (1 Corinthians 14:34-35, NASB) 

Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and become a transgressor. (1 Timothy 2:11-14, NRSV).

Before we discuss these two passages, let me explain how I arrived at my conclusions . . .

Click here to read the rest of the essay.

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Frank Viola
FRANK VIOLA has helped thousands of people around the world to deepen their relationship with Jesus Christ and enter into a more vibrant and authentic experience of church. His mission is to help serious followers of Jesus know their Lord more deeply, gain fresh perspectives on old or ignored subjects, and make the Bible come alive. Viola has written many books on these themes, including God's Favorite Place on Earth and From Eternity to Here. His blog, Beyond Evangelical, is rated as one of the most popular in Christian circles today.