Focus Grace on the Role of Women in Church Life

For most of the history of the institutional Christian church, women were not eligible for leadership, especially for ordination.  There are many sociological reasons.  But be aware that, properly understood, Paul’s prohibitions at his time are not a reason for excluding women from church leadership today.

A grace-focused ministry should have a lot to do with the role of women in church life.  That role has been limited for a variety of historical reasons.  We have assumed the negative; rules for what they can’t do.  But shouldn’t we be emphasizing the positive of what they can do?  A full understanding of God’s grace should lead us to see the role of women in the church as the same for men.

Paul’s two passages cited for the limited role of women are 1 Timothy 2:12-14 (“I do not permit a woman to teach.”) and 1 Corinthians 14: 34-35 (“women should remain silent in the churches”).  Were these statements meant for all times or were they Paul’s principles for the culture he faced at his time?  The culture he faced was very different than our culture now.

To set the context, go to 1 Corinthians 7:10-12.  There he is addressing those who are married.  “To the married, I give this command (not I, but the Lord).”  Several verses later he wrote, “To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord).”  Paul was very comfortable distinguishing between what God expects for all time and what he, Paul, expected of church participants living in the culture of his times.

Now go back to his statement in his first letter to Timothy, “I also want women to dress modestly, not with pearls and expensive clothes.”  “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.”

Again, whose expectations are these for the role of women in the church?  A clue would be his second expectation that women should dress with modesty, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes.  Who today insists that women in the church not braid their hair nor dress with pearls nor wear expensive clothing?  This is Paul’s expectation, not God’s.  Isn’t the inconsistency apparent between, on the one hand, insisting that women remain silent in church yet, on the other hand, not prohibiting pearls or expensive clothing?  Paul was setting out his own (not God’s) principles for ministering to conventional society.  He was not a radical.  He clearly did not want to offend people in the culture at that time.

State Paul’s principle in the positive.  Women were very evident as leaders in those first house churches.  Is there any persuading evidence to the contrary?  These two passages certainly do not meet that high standard.

Paul was the apostle for the heart set free by the Holy Spirit.  Such grace-bestowed freedom should be true for women as well as men.  Why insist on following rules that no longer fit current times?  Why deprive churches of the leadership potential present in half the population?  Our challenge is to be lovingly Evangelical rather than freedom-denying Legalistic.

It makes sense for women to exercise the full range of gifts for ministry given by the Holy Spirit, as stated so clearly in 1 Corinthians 12: 7, “Now to each (not excluding women), is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”

Perhaps there are other reasons for excluding women from leadership in churches.  But they won’t be found in Scriptures.

In our culture today the number of women CEOs increases every year.  Company boards search for the best they can find.  They look for leaders who have proven their abilities.  In their search, they don’t exclude women right from the start as many churches have done in the past.  Churches, too, should start with positive assumptions, not with negatives appropriate 2,000 years ago.

What leadership roles do women have in your congregation?  Are their limitations?  Why?

Scroll to Top