The Role of Women in the Church

The role of women in the church is vast in terms of its breadth, and vital for the health of the church.  Women have always played a significant role in the life of the church. In terms of value or worth, women and men are equal: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).

In this post I would like to survey some of the more difficult passages in Scripture regarding women in the church. Can a woman teach a man? Does a woman have to remain silent? Is it a problem for a woman to wear her hair down?

1 Timothy 2:11-14 says this: “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.”

Let us come back to the “learn quietly” part and focus on “teaching and exercising authority.”  Does this mean women cannot teach at all?  This is doubtful, for we see in Scripture women teaching other women and children (c.f., Deut. 4:9; Prov. 22:6; 31:26; 2 Tim. 1:5; Titus 2:3-5). The prohibition in this text is twofold: (1) not to teach men and (2) not to exercise authority over a man. (Some want to see only one prohibition in this verse, namely, authoritative teaching, i.e., pulpit preaching, but it is doubtful a hendiadys is present).

But is this a prohibition against teaching any subject matter at all? Or does this passage have something more specific in mind?  Bill Mounce gives the answer:

Paul does not identify what it is that women may not teach… [didaskein] in the PE [Pastoral Epistles] is used in a positive sense of teaching the truth of the gospel (1 Tim. 4:11; 6:2; 2 Tim 2:2)… the cognate noun [didachē], “teaching,” occurs twice in the PE, both times describing the gospel message. The cognate [didaskalia], “teaching,” occurs fifteen times in the PE, and every time except one (1 Tim 4:1, referring to doctrine of demons) it refers to the gospel (1 Tim 1:10; 4:6, 13, 16; 5:17; 6:1, 3; 2 Tim 3:10, 16, 4:3; Titus 1:9; 2:1, 7, 10)… the overwhelming use of the word group in the PE is to describe the positive teaching of the gospel, often (as the context shows) by a person in authority (especially 2 Tim 2:2; 1 Tim 5:17; Titus 1:9; c.f. 1 Tim 3:2).[1]

Therefore, the kind of teaching this passage is referring to be that of the gospel contents (i.e., theological subject matter). Douglas Moo comments that the word to “teach” mainly denotes “the careful transmission of the tradition concerning Jesus Christ and the authoritative proclamation of God’s will to believers in light of that tradition.”[2] It should thus be clear that the prohibition is against women teaching men doctrinal and theological subject matter. Also, given its contextual positioning, and for the fact that elders must be “the husband of one wife,” “apt to teach,” and exercise authority over men (1 Tim. 3:2), women are not permitted to be elders/pastors/overseers in the church. Thus, titles like “Worship Pastor,” or “Pastor of Children,” are inappropriate if given to women, for the word “Pastor” or “Elder” denotes the office. To be a pastor, elder, or overseer (these words are synonyms), is to be “apt to teach” and the ability to “rule well,” which, as seen, is a position for qualified men.

As mentioned, this does not mean that women should not teach in the church, nor does it even mean that women should not teach men in the church. Women can, after all, teach Scripture to other women and children, and can teach men non-Scriptural things. For example, if there’s a woman in the church who is an accountant or financial wizard, it might be beneficial to ask her to teach a class on financial planning.  The same could be true if, say, a woman played the piano well and wanted to give lessons to men and women in the church. These things are great for Christ’s church and are not forbidden.

But could a woman lead and teach a Bible study that contains both men and women (i.e., a mixed group)? The answer to this must be “No,” for this passage prohibits, as we’ve seen, exercising authority or teaching the traditions of Jesus to men.  Mixed Bible study groups should be taught, according to Scripture, by men who are equipped for said task.

The where question also plays a factor in this. Does this mean women cannot teach Scripture to men in other contexts?  For instance, can a man read a commentary for his sermon if a woman wrote it?  Mounce gives wise counsel on this as well:

Paul does not specifically identify where women may not teach men. “In every place” (v 8), and the general nature of v 12 may suggest that this applies everywhere one finds the house of God. We do know that Priscilla and Aquila “expounded” the way of God to Appollos (Acts 18:26), but this reference can hardly bear the weight often placed on it. [v.8] can also mean “in all the churches”… and 1 Tim 3:15 defines the scope of this passage as how one ought to act in the household of God.[3]

Therefore, the scope of the prohibition gets even narrower. In this passage, the probation is against women teaching men theological and Scriptural content in the function and life of the church, which would include both the preaching from the pulpit, and the teaching and leading of Bible studies or small groups in homes—all which are part of the life of the church.

Some attempt to separate the teaching of elders from the teaching of lay people in the church. That is, some say the teaching that elders do (“official” teaching and preaching) is only for men, but women can be lay teachers in the church, even over men. Did Paul really have this distinction in his mind as he wrote 1 Timothy 2:12?  Was he really thinking, “This prohibition is only for the pulpit”? I think this separation is a false one, because all teaching done in the church—whether from the pulpit, in a Bible study, or in a community group—is an extension of and accountable to the teaching office of the church, which is guided and protected by the pastors of the church.  Therefore, the pastors are to oversee all of the teaching in the church—whether in a Bible study before or after the sermon, or in someone’s home during the week—and in this sense we can say that all teaching is “official” teaching. For this reason, those who the pastors allow to be teachers in the church (by which they are speaking and teaching on behalf of the church) should be well trained[4] and bound by the same confessional standards as the pastors. Also, it will not do to allow a woman to preach or teach men “under the authority” of the lead pastor.

Others, trying to find a way to get around Paul’s prohibition, will argue that this prohibition was temporal. They say that the church in Ephesus had a problem with women teaching false doctrine, and therefore Paul is only speaking to that particular situation in Ephesus (which means this has nothing to do with us today).  The problem is Paul doesn’t say that.  He doesn’t say, “I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man because of the false teaching going on in Ephesus.”  Rather, Paul says, “I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man because Adam was created first.”  Paul appeals to creation to ground his argument. You might think Paul’s argument to be lacking, but that would be illustrative of a low view of Scripture.

In fact, from the creation narrative (Gen 1-3)—something Paul appeals to several times—we can glean at least twelve ways Adam’s headship is seen:

  1. Adam was formed first, which gives Adam primacy
  2. The woman was made as a “helper” to the man (Gen. 2:18, 20)
  3. The woman was taken from Adam (c.f., 1 Cor. 11:8)
  4. The woman was presented to Adam as a gift, because it was not good for him to be alone
  5. Adam names the woman, which means Adam was in authority
  6. After man and woman were created, all of humanity is called “Man”
  7. Satan goes to Eve, not the couple at once. This turns creation order on its head. Instead of man to woman to animal, Satan went: animal to woman to man.
  8. The eyes of the couple were not opened until the man ate the fruit.
  9. God first calls to Adam – Whoever gets the call when trouble strikes is the responsible party.
  10. Adam is held more responsible for the sin than the woman (Rom. 5:12-14).
  11. Adam was judged for listening to his wife over God’s command.
  12. The text refers to the couple as, “The man and his wife,” which adds to the cumulative case for the headship of Adam.[5]

But even if we grant, hypothetically, the second objection—that Paul is just speaking to a problem with false teaching in the church at Ephesus—G.K. Beale comments:

If false teaching is part of the inaugurated end-times tribulation that continues throughout the whole epoch before Christ’s parousia, then Paul’s prohibitions are a response not just to a local situation but rather to that situation as it is an expression of the broader end-times trial. Since the inaugurated latter-day trial means that the churches will be either affected or, at least, threatened by false teaching and deception, Paul’s prohibitions are always valid. Therefore, Paul’s prohibitions are part of eschatological ethics pertinent to the entire church age, during which the end-times tribulation of false teaching is either actually affecting churches or threatened to corrupt them.[6]

Now, returning to the “learn quietly” part, it appears that Paul wants women to be “wise learners.”[7] This, however, doesn’t mean that women can’t contribute their insights during, say, a Bible study. After all, Priscilla (a woman who knew her Bible) took Appollos (a man who lacked understanding) aside and instructed him (Acts 18:26).  But notice that Priscilla wasn’t ordained to be the pastor, nor was she asked to be the teacher.  She simply pulled Appollos aside and corrected error. A woman’s insights are both needed and welcome during a Bible study or small group..

Regarding the exhortation to “learn quietly,” Lindsey Carlson says this:

By God’s design, men (as seen later in 1 Timothy 3) are called as pastors, overseers, and elders to guard the gospel; protecting and caring for the church as Adam cared for Eve. Women are exhorted toward gentleness and submission (vv. 10-11) to allow these men the governing authority established by God.

Because God designed this structure of authority, he asks me to willingly submit, trusting the pastors and elders of my church body to submit themselves to God in their given role of influence, on behalf of the gospel…

Because God requires my quietness and surrender, I rest, trusting in faith instead of fighting in opposition, with my church’s authority structure. When I’m tempted to disagree or doubt, I allow God to fight on my behalf or change my heart. Submission to authority on earth teaches me submission to God and vice-versa.[8]

We also read in 1 Corinthians 14:34, “The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves.” Does this mean that when a woman steps in a church she can’t utter a single word?  Hardly. Paul just got done talking about women praying and prophesying in church (1 Cor. 11:5), which would mean that we must dig deeper into the context of chapter 14 to see what Paul means by “keep silent.”  It is implied from the surrounding context that Paul is prohibiting women from judging prophecy spoken by others. That is, women could prophesy, but it was given to the men of the church to test or judge the prophecy in order to make sure it was from the Spirit and in accord with sound doctrine.

What might be a modern application of this?  Since prophecy and speaking in tongues were gifts that have ceased with the apostles, how might we apply this to our modern context? I would say that an equivalent of prophesying is the public reading of Scripture. Therefore, I think it is good and perfectly acceptable to have a woman read Scripture during Sunday service. Just as women could pray and prophesy in the First Century church, so too do I think women can pray and publically read from the Bible in today’s church.

But what about head coverings for women? 1 Corinthians 11 says, “every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven… That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels” (vv. 5, 10). This is a complicated section, but I think Thomas Schreiner’s treatment of it is sound. In short, Schreiner argues that the idea of head covering itself was a cultural thing that was rooted in a timeless principle. Wearing your hair down or uncovered during this time was a sign of rebellion or even sexual immorality (c.f., Lev. 13:45; Num. 5:18). The “loose hair” or “uncovered head” meant something then that it does not mean today, but the underlying principle that motivates Paul’s exhortation is the male headship of the church (1 Cor. 11:3), which we’ve seen above.

It is important to reiterate that men and woman have equality when it comes to worth, value, and the fact that we’re both made in God’s image and one in Christ Jesus.  But, as per God’s design, we do not have role equality. This is not a sexist or chauvinistic principle; God loves women. But regarding role or job responsibility, God has tasked only qualified men to be the pastors/elders/overseers in the church, and has forbidden women from teaching Scripture (theology/doctrine) or exercising authority over men in the church. God has tasked men and women to carry out different tasks, and we—men and women—should protect each other so as not to put the other in a position of sinning by going beyond our God-given roles.

Candi Finch sums up well what we’ve just said so far:

It is true that in the spiritual gifts lists found in Scripture, no gift is ever restricted by gender. However, just because a person has a certain spiritual gift, that does not mean that she can exercise it any way she would like. Women are given the gift of teaching to teach other women and children for the building up of the body of Christ. I am distressed when I hear women say that it is a “waste” of her gift if she is only allowed to teach women and children—women and children are a worthy investment!

Both men and women are created in God’s image. Just because God has given some distinctions in roles for men and women, that does not mean women are any less valued or any less important in His plan. God chose to make men and women different and chose to give distinctions in roles, specifically as it pertains to the church and the home, in order to teach important truths about His relationship to humanity.  When we do things God’s way in regards to the way the church operates and in regards to the marriage relationship, a lost world should be able to see a picture of the gospel.[9]

While the Bible is clear regarding women becoming pastors/elders, there has been much debate with regard to women becoming deacons.

Scripture details that there are only two offices in the church today: Elder (also called “Pastor” or “Overseer”) and Deacon (Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3). The office of elder is the office that leads the church and is tasked with shepherding, instructing, guarding doctrine, and disciplining the flock (1 Tim. 3:2; 5:17; Titus 1:9; Heb. 13:17; 1 Pet. 5:1-3) – they are those who will have to “give an account” to God (Heb. 13:17), and who will incur “stricter judgement” (Jas. 3:1).

The word “deacon” can actually mean a “waiter” or “servant.” The office is an office of servitude, reserved for those who meet the character qualifications of 1 Timothy 3:8-13, and those who are called to care for the needs of those in the church.

For those who believe the Bible allows deacons, the following lines of biblical evidence are usually cited:

1) When Paul is giving Timothy the character requirements for the office of deacon, he appears to switch midway to address women specifically: “Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things” (1 Tim. 3:11). The NASB footnote states that another possibility here may be “deaconesses.” It appears, perhaps, that Paul is seeing women as being eligible for this office, and addresses them specifically in the text. Some, however, say that Paul meant “wives” here. In this case, Paul is giving requirements for the wife of the deacon. Therefore, when a church examines a man for the office of deacon, his wife is also examined. This certainly is possible, but it seems odd that the section on elder qualifications does not specifically address the wife of the elder. Why would the wives of the deacons be addressed but not the wives of the elders? Would it not make more sense that Paul is addressing deaconesses?

2) Romans 16:1-2 says, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.” Here we may have an example of a women deacon. Because Phoebe is designated as “deacon of the church in Cenchreae,” it does appear that she served in a special capacity. Schreiner points to further evidence of this: The word for “deacon” in Romans 16:1 is a masculine noun, which suggests the office of deacon (see: Thomas Schreiner, Romans, 787).

3) The prohibition with regard to women is in exercising authority, teaching men, and operating as the head of the church (1 Cor. 11:3; 1 Tim. 2:12; 3:2; 5:17). The duties of a deacon do not conflict with any of these biblical prohibitions, for deacons do not govern, nor must they be “apt to teach.” However, if a church has deacons unbiblically operating as elders, then there is more rearranging that must take place before a woman can be considered for deacon.

Those who believe women can be deacons in the church also anticipate and counter three main objections:

Objection 1: “But deacons must be a ‘husband of one wife’ (1 Tim. 3:12), and thus women cannot be deacons.”

Counter: Here we could easily see Paul’s phrase as a male generic. The Bible will say “He” referring to “He or she” (Lev. 14:1-2), and will say “him” referring to “him or her” (John 14:23). Likewise, “husband of one wife,” could also be understood as saying, “wife of one husband” as well.

Objection 2: “But only men were chosen as deacons in Acts 6:1-6. The examples of the apostles are certainly programmatic for the church.”

Counter: But when we have an example of a female deacon, we must reconcile the texts (Scripture interprets Scripture). Why must Acts 6:1-6 be programmatic and not descriptive? Just because the first deacons were only men, does it follow that no females were added later (e.g., Phoebe)?

Objection 3: “But ordaining women deacons is a slippery slope to ordaining women elders.”

Counter: It is clear that elders must rule and teach in the church. The male headship of the church is pretty well explained and established in Scripture. Ordaining women to an office of servitude has nothing to do with ordaining them to an office that governs and teaches. That is, the former in no way leads to or implies the latter. The slippery slope fallacy seems to be just that: fallacious.

Others, however, are not convinced by the above arguments. From Acts 6:1-6 being only men, to the exhortation to be the husband of one wife, to the innate “authority” the office of deacon has in the church, they are convinced that women are not to be deacons.

Recommended Resources

© copyright J. Brandon Burks

Also see:

Covenantal Apologetics Part One

TULIP (Calvinism) According to John Piper

7 Reformed Baptist Books (as of 2014)

Arguments Against Christianity – Episode 11 – No Evidence

Spanking Children: 36 Thoughts

Covenant Theology: Baptist or Presbyterian?

The Two Wills of God: How Shall We Understand Them?

Why I Like Sojourn

The Problem of Evil: 10 Considerations

12 Reasons to Go to Church Every Sunday

Søren Kierkegaard: Survey and Critique

Evangelizing Witches

Calvin, Catholicism, and the Bible

5 Reasons I’m Not a Roman Catholic

The Age of the Earth and Church Unity

[1]William D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, in Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 46, ed. by Bruce Metzger, Ralph P. Martin, and Lynn Allan Losie (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2000), 124-125. [Brackets mine].

[2]Douglas Moo, “What Does It Mean Not to Teach or Have Authority Over Men? 1 Timothy 2:11-15,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, ed. by John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), 185.

[3]Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, 126. [Brackets Mine].

[4]I know one church that takes all aspiring teachers and walks them through Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology and the church’s confessional standards for nine months before sending them off to teach. They also are constantly walking through books with them (several a year) in order to continually pour into them.

[5]Heath Lambert, “Marriage and the Family,” Boyce College class notes, 2013.

[6]G.K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 821-822.

[7]Moo, “What Does It Mean Not to Teach or Have Authority Over Men?” 183.

[8]Lindsey Carlson, “Woman in the Local Church: 1 Timothy 2:11-12,” the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood,

[9]Candi Finch, “Should You Teach a Mixed Bible Study?” Biblical Woman, April 4, 2012,


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