Christian Living

Questions About The Role Of Women In The Church9 min read

January 30, 2014 6 min read


Questions About The Role Of Women In The Church9 min read

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Does God give men and women equal leadership capacities in the church?

This is one of the most hotly debated issues in Christendom today. Despite the ‘politically correct’ feminist agenda in our society, the concepts of (a) God giving men & women equal value and (b) God giving men & women different roles are not contradictory. Consider the following principles of men & women having equal value:

  • Women are not intellectually inferior to men.
  • Women are not to be ignored in either the family or the congregation.
  • “Woman” is included in the word “man,” which God said He made “in Our image” (Gen. 1:26) in creation. Therefore, it is clear that she too enjoys a full relationship with God just as the male does (cf. Gal. 3:28; 1 Pet. 3:7). (Edwards 157)

In Christian worship, men and women have equal opportunity. Women, just like men, can sing, pray, eat the Lord’s Supper, teach, and give.

Yet the Bible, in texts like 1 Timothy 2:8-15 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, teaches that men and women have different roles within the church. Men are charged with the responsibility of leading the Lord’s Church. Men are to be elders and deacons (1 Tim. 3, Titus 1). Men are to lead in worship (1 Tim. 2:8). This is a result of the order in which God created mankind (1 Tim. 2:13) and the way in which mankind fell to sin (1 Tim. 2:14).

Specifically, women are not to “teach or exercise authority over a man” (1 Tim. 2:12). This means:

  • She can sing, but she should not lead singing “over the man.”
  • She can pray, but she should not lead the prayer “over the man.”
  • She can eat the Lord’s Supper, but she should not preside “over the man.”
  • She can give, but she should not preside “over the man.”
  • She can teach, but she should not teach “over the man.” (Sain 371)

There is no indication in the New Testament that Christian women served in an official leadership capacity in the early church. We should not force the Bible and the Church into a politically correct box, even when it comes to the issue of gender roles. The role of women in the church is not an issue of discrimination or male chauvinism. It is an issue of interpreting God’s Word and obeying His commands. Indeed, it is a matter of faith — simply doing our best to serve the Lord.

Can a woman be a preacher?

11 Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. (1 Tim. 2:11-12, ESV)

There is no scriptural authority for women preachers. God has restricted women from serving in a teaching capacity “over a man.” This means she cannot scripturally preach a sermon or teach a class in the presence of a mixed-gender audience.

Can a woman be a pastor/elder/bishop/presbyter?

11 Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. (1 Tim. 2:11-12, ESV)

There is no scriptural authority for women elders. Elders are to lead each autonomous congregation of the Body of Christ. They are charged with the responsibility of overseeing God’s flock, watching over every soul, while being aware of the account they will have to give for their leadership (Heb. 13:17; 1 Pet. 5:2; 1 Thess. 5:12). Therefore, women cannot serve as elders.

Furthermore, consider the qualifications of an elder. He must be “the husband of one wife” (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:6).

Does God permit women to serve as deacons in the church?

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae. (Romans 16:1)

This verse fuels the argument that women can supposedly serve in the official office of “deacon” in the church. The NIV, NLT, and RSV translate diakonos in Romans 16:1 as “deacon,” whereas the ESV, NASB, KJV, NKJV, HCSB, and ASV translate diakonos as “servant.” Which translation is the most accurate?

“Diakonos” can be a general word for “servant” (and in this sense, all Christians are diakonois – cf. Mark 9:35; 10:43; John 12:26; 1 Cor. 3:5; 2 Cor. 6:4; 2 Cor. 11:15, 23; Col. 4:7; 1 Tim. 4:6). “Diakonos” can also designate a specific leadership office of “deacon” (and in this sense, only some are qualified to be diakonous – cf. Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:8, 12). The only way in which we can tell the difference – whether it is merely “servant” or an official office of “deacon” – is by examining the context. The context does not teach that sister Phoebe, in Romans 16:1, was an official “deacon” of the church.

Furthermore, consider the qualifications of the deacon office itself. Deacons must have “wives who are dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things” (1 Tim. 3:11). Deacons also must be the “husband of one wife” (1 Tim. 3:12). Female deacons cannot have wives.

Adding to this, as stressed previously, women cannot serve in a leadership capacity (and the office of “deacon” is a leadership role) over the Lord’s church (1 Tim. 2:12; 1 Pet. 3:1-6; Titus 2:3-5; Eph. 5:22-24; 1 Cor. 11:3).

Wasn’t that just culture? Culture has changed now, right?

The fashionable argument by those who do not fear God’s Word is that the apostolic teaching regarding the role of women merely reflected 1st century culture.

The problem with this argument is that the context does not rest upon culture. Rather, in each of the four major contexts where the male-female relationship is discussed (1 Cor. 11:2-16; 14:33-35; Eph. 5:22-33; 1 Tim. 2:8-15), the principle of male headship/leadership is “grounded upon historical facts related to the origin and constitution of human relationships, and not upon culture” (Jackson). This is a very important point to be made.

While understanding the cultural context of Scripture can be beneficial to our understanding of Scripture, it should not be the basis of our interpretation.

Well, what about Galatians 3:28?

26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 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. 29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. (Gal. 3:26-29, ESV)

Historically, theologians have [correctly] understood Paul’s words in the context of salvation by faith. Yet in modern times, Galatians 3:26-29 has become a kind of ‘proof text’ among those wishing to undermine God’s plan for church leadership. This view is without Scriptural support.

First, Paul himself was unaware that his teaching in Galatians 3:28 nullified the notion of unique gender roles. How do we know this? Because his letters to Timothy (which contain 1 Tim. 2:11-14) were written after he wrote Galatians 3:28.

Second, Paul later wrote that servants were to be obedient to their masters (Eph. 6:5; Col. 3:22), despite Galatians 3:28 saying “there is neither slave nor free.” Could it be any more obvious that Paul is not talking about gender roles, but rather our relationship with Christ in His Body?

Third, if Paul were talking about an en egalitarian arrangement in the church, it would be in sharp disagreement with other passages of Scripture (1 Cor. 11:2-16; 14:33-35; Eph. 5:22-33; 1 Tim. 2:8-15). Scripture, being “God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16-17), is never contradictory.

In the words of S. Lewis Johnson, Jr.,

There is no reason to claim that Galatians 3:28 supports an egalitarianism of function in the church. It does plainly teach an egalitarianism of privilege in the covenantal union of believers in Christ. [Redemption]… belongs universally to the family of God. Questions of roles and functions in that body can only be answered by a consideration of other and later New Testament teachings. (164)

What roles can a woman fill in the church?

Women, just as much as men, are required to minister to others, demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22), and teach lost souls the gospel (cf. Matt. 28:19; Mark 16:15-16). A woman may teach a man (e.g. Aquila & Priscilla, Acts 18), but she may not teach “over” a man.

They should be the salt and light of the earth, bringing glory to God (Matt. 5:13-16). They should teach Bible classes and mentor the younger women (Titus 2:4-5). They should do good to those of the household of faith (Gal. 6:10) and have compassion on the fatherless and widows (Jas. 1:27). They are to raise godly children, be hospitable, help the afflicted, and follow every good work (1 Tim. 5, 2 Tim. 1:5; 3:14-15).

The Lord’s Church needs her women! We need women who are supportive, encouraging, and zealous for good works (Titus 2:14).

Does a female Sunday-school teacher need to stop teaching her 12-year-old boy student when he is baptized?

I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. (1 Tim. 2:11-12, ESV)

Here Paul uses the word “man” (anér), thus meaning a woman is not to teach or exercise authority over an adult male.

Many well-meaning brethren believe that when a young boy (perhaps aged 11 or 12) is baptized, he cannot be taught by a female Sunday school teacher. Yet, Paul’s prohibition in 1 Timothy 2:12 is not about a woman exercising authority over a male Christian. Rather, she is not to function as an authority-figure over an adult male – period (whether or not he is baptized)! “Remarkable reasoning it is to assume that because a ten-year-old boy is baptized he suddenly becomes an adult” (Woods 160).

Paul isn’t talking about Christians or non-Christians. He’s talking about adult males. It is up to the church leadership to determine when a boy – Christian or non-Christian – is to be considered a man. I see no problem with a woman teaching a Bible class wherein young boys are students, whether or not they are baptized.

Edwards, Earl D. “The Role Of Women In The Work And Worship Of The Church.” Freed-Hardeman University Lectures. FHU: Henderson, TN. 1995.

Jackson, Wayne. “The Role Of Women.” Christian Courier. <>. Accessed 30 Jan 2014.
Johnson, S. Lewis, Jr. “Role Distinctions In The Church.” Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood. Crossway Books: Wheaton, IL. 1991.
Sain, Paul. “Confusion Over Service: Deacons And Women.” If The Foundations Be Destroyed, What Can The Righteous Do? Sain Publications: Pulaski, TN. 1997.
Woods, Guy N. Questions And Answers: FHU Open Forum. Volume 2. Gospel Advocate Company: Nashville, TN. 2001.

Ben Giselbach is the pulpit minister at the Edgewood church of Christ in Columbus, GA. He and his wife Hannah have two children, Ezra & Colleyanna. Ben is a graduate of Freed-Hardeman University and has returned to pursue his MDiv. He has written three books in his You Are A Theologian Series: Thinking Right about the Bible, Thinking Right about God, and Thinking Right about Salvation.
  1. Hiram kemp

    Have a question that may not make sense,,however,where does the role of women written material fit in?if she can teach through printed material ,,should material written by a woman be used in a bible class,etc?or like a commentary written by a woman,seeing many teach through those material

    • Ben

      Hiram, you always ask good questions. 1 Timothy 2:11-12 forbids a woman from teaching "over a man." She is not forbidden from teaching a man, just from teaching over a man. Consider the example of Priscilla, the wife of Aquila, who taught Apollos with the approval of the Holy Spirit (Acts 18:24-28). Adding to this, it would have been entirely appropriate had she written the instructions she had given him in person. To teach "over" a man is to exercise authority (which 1 Tim. 2:11-12 condemns). This would include preaching (cf. Titus 2:15), and to a degree teaching a Bible class (especially a public Bible class, wherein the teacher directs and controls those who are participating). In reading printed material, the reader is not subject to the author. One can exercise his own will and read at his own leisure. This would not be a violation of 1 Timothy 2. Naturally, wise church leadership will exercise judgment in determining whether a mixed-gender adult class should use material written by women. Not that doing so would be wrong in and of itself, but that the wrong message might be communicated, and thus possibly cause a weaker Christian to stumble (cf. 1 Cor. 8:9-13).

  2. L S

    I would like to see someone make points of a womans role OUTSIDE of church...can a Christian woman privately teach a man the gospel?

    • Ben

      There is a huge difference in teaching in the presence of men and teaching over men. 1 Tim. 2:11-12 simply means that a woman cannot teach "over the man" and cannot exercise dominion "over the man." Thus, a woman teaching a man the gospel while, say, riding the bus is not only okay - it is fulfilling the great commission (cf. Mark 16:15-16)! Of course a woman may privately teach a man the gospel. We simply must respect God's plan for male leadership within the church.

  3. Jim Maxwell

    Please say more about the point you are making regarding "over" a man. Frequently in the article the word over is either italicized or put in quotations.

    • Ben

      Good question! By "over a man," Paul is talk about exercising authority over a man. One of the jobs of a preacher is to "rebuke with authority" (Titus 2:15), and therefore a woman cannot serve in a preaching capacity (though there is an essential difference between teaching and preaching). Let me anticipate a follow-up question: "At what point does one "exercise authority over" another?" Again, good question! Some roles will always be roles of authority. For example, filling an official office (such as preacher, deacon, or elder) are authoritative positions. But what about non-official roles and tasks and actions? That, to a degree, is determined by culture. For example, the 'head-coverings' discussion in 1 Cor. 11:2-16, I believe, reflected a cultural view of 'headship' and 'authority.' (see a discussion on this passage here). We need to ask the question today, "At what point is a woman exercising authority over a man in the assembly?" We need to respect God's Law by (a) not sending a message to society that we are inconsistent with following the apostolic teachings, and (b) not fearing His design for authority within the church. Thanks for the question! -Ben

  4. Luke Dockery

    L S, Acts 18.24-26 relates the story of Priscilla and her husband Aquila taking Apollos aside and explaining the way of God to him more accurately. That would certainly indicate that a Christian woman can privately teach a man; I believe that Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 clearly refer to the corporate assembly of the church.

  5. David Malley

    Ben. Excellent article as always and well written. However, I do have a couple of questions in regard to what you said about female deacons. I was wondering what you do with 1 Timothy 3:11 where Paul says "Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things" and why Paul would include this statement in the middle of a discussion on deacons? The use of the word "likewise" in this statement seems to point to an office because Paul uses the term in verse 8 when he says "deacons likewise" following the discussion on elders. This brings me to my next question, if women cannot be deacons (or deaconesses) why is it that in the church we have some women who seem to be serving in a very public manner in whatever capacity? Granted they are not exercising authority over a man but simply engaging in a task in service to the church that is public in nature like maybe coordinating a church event or organizing classes or along those same lines? Just was wondering what you thought on this. Keep up the GOD work brother! God bless! Look forward to hearing your thoughts.

    • Ben

      Bro. David, Thanks for the kind words, and the GREAT comment! Concerning your first question, 1 Tim. 3:11 is sometimes a difficult passage. I think bro. Dave Miller does a very good job answering this (better than I can anyway!) - good enough to include as my answer:

      "Five contextual observations, however, provide assistance in ascertaining the meaning of the passage. First, a woman cannot be “the husband of one wife” (3:12). Second, in speaking of male deacons from 3:8-13, it would be unusual for Paul to switch, in the middle of the discussion, to female deacons for a single verse without some clarification. Third, referring to the wives of church officers would be appropriate since family conduct is a qualifying concern (3:2,4-5,12). Fourth, “likewise” (3:11) could mean simply that wives are to have similar virtues as the deacons without implying they share the same office (cf. 1 Timothy 5:25; Titus 2:3). Fifth, lack of the possessive genitive with gunaikas (“of deacons”) or “their” does not rule out wives of deacons, since neither is used in other cases where men/women are being described as wives/husbands (Colossians 3:18-19; Ephesians 5:22-25; 1 Corinthians 7:2-4,11,14,33; Matthew 18:25; Mark 10:2)." (SOURCE)
      To be true to the Word, I don't think Paul is creating an official "deaconess" office. There is no idea of women officers in the church taught in the New Testament. The burden of proof rests on the notion that women can serve in such an official capacity while being approved by God. Concerning your second question, my answer would depend upon the situation. I certainly don't think it out of order for wise elders to assign specific tasks and responsibilities to women where they feel a need. Elders, when asking women to do certain jobs, would be wise to heed the qualities outlined in 1 Tim. 3:11 and 5:9-16. However, we need to be very careful not to abuse the distinctiveness of church leadership; God is the Master church Organizer. There are certainly congregations that are blurring the lines. Thanks for the comment! -Ben

  6. Vicki

    Ben, this was a very good article. Another aspect of women's roles is submissiveness. Probably a thought for an article all on its own, but it does tie in well here. Why do we do anything the Lord tells us? Because we are submissive, men and women. In 1 Peter 2:11-3:5 we see that we are all to be submissive respecting people in authority, respecting masters in authority then wives respecting husbands in authority. But I think the often missed overarching idea for ALL of these thoughts is that when you rebel against authority in any form, you are rebelling against God. You are not trusting that He has complete control so then you must step in and do it the way you think is right. "There is a path before each person that seems right, but it ends in death." And in 1 Pet 3:5, the Scripture tells us that 'They trusted God and accepted the authority of their husbands', showing that submissiveness is accepting the authority of another. It is voluntary. And the way to show you trust that God will work through your husband, elders, employers, political figures is to accept their authority. Because we all know that all things work together for good, for those who love God and are called according to His purpose. Sadly, this is a topic not often approached in any form...pulpit, Bible class, article, because we women don't want to hear it. The feminist movement has greatly damaged the church in some respects. Always enjoy your articles. Keep up the good work!

    • Ben

      Great comment Vicki!

  7. Chuzzlewit

    Ben, "Does God give men and women equal leadership capacities in the church?" Yes, God gives equal leadership capacities to both men and women in the church. But "equal capacities" does not mean "same capacities" if you consider that the word "equal" connotes value, while the word "same" connotes complete congruence. God also gives differing capacities to some men as opposed to others; or some women as opposed to other women. Both men and women are to be leaders in the church and, the home. But their leadership is to be manifested in different ways. Men are to be public leaders in the worship and the home; women are to be submissive and/or private leaders. Which is more important? Neither. They are both essential to God's plans and so of exactly equal value. In the interests of long-walling, Martin

    • Ben

      You said it better than me! Great comment.

  8. […] Ben Giselbach answered a series of questions about women in the church, presenting what I consider to be answers representative of the traditional teaching in churches of Christ: Does God give men and women equal leadership capacities in the church? […]

  9. Kaitlyn Richardson

    I have a question...when Paul tells Timothy that women are to be silent in church. Does that mean that we can't talk in like, bible class and those sort of things? If so, what's the point of us going to bible class if we can't find out what we're wondering by asking? Does that mean we need to get boys to ask for us? Maybe that's a silly question, but I was just wondering! Thanks!

  10. Lima

    A timely article...great job brother, praise God.

  11. Lisa Leke

    do women preachers just take these verses out of the Bible? what to do when the preacher ask questions from the pulpit and a woman answers it

  12. allentackett

    Generally negative and discouraging comment which will leave you wondering if I actually read the article or if I'm just looking to give you headaches. ;) Great thoughts, as always.

  13. David Falkenheim

    Ben - great article, as it is both timely and timeless in its content. As a best practice, I do advocate moving baptized males (even young ones) into classes with male teachers. I have always looked at it this way: 1) the decision to put on the Lord in baptism signifies the subject is past what some would call the "age of accountability," which, to me, signifies the entry into adulthood, 2) congregations will ask even these newly baptized males to fill a "man's role," during worship, whether leading a prayer, waiting the table, etc. I see it as a more consistent approach to either start treating them as "men", or to continue with them as "boys," but Sneed confusing to try to do both. But, again, that's just one man's opinion, and I think this is something that the Elders of each congregation should prayerfully consider. Thanks again for your fine article and teaching the simple truth of Scripture.

  14. Valerie

    I very much enjoyed your article, but I do have a question. From what you understand from scripture, am I allowed to lead a prayer between me and my husband in our home? I don't currently because I am unsure, and I would like your opinion on the matter.

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