Design of Women: For the Church Part 1
Updated: Oct 5, 2019
God gives spiritual gifts to both men and women for the edification of the church (1 Cor. 12:7–11; Rom. 12:3–8). These gifts include evangelizing, pastoring, teaching, and preaching (Eph. 4:11–12). When everyone in the church is equipped and encouraged to use their gifts, the church flourishes. The members of the body are meant to use their God-given gifts to make the body whole and full of life.
But the question remains: what are the biblical limitations for women in the exercise of their gifts?
Can a woman speak? Can she teach? Can she teach a man?
First, let’s consider some examples of women serving God in the Old and New Testament*:
The Lord used the God-fearing Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, to overturn the kingdom of Egypt (Ex. 1:15–21).
Miriam spoke to the whole congregation of Israel (Ex. 15:1, 20–21).
Deborah acted as a prophetess and judge for Israel (Jud. 4:4).
King Lemuel’s mother’s words and instructions are recorded (Prov. 31).
Joel’s prophecy of the end times included “sons and daughters” (men and women) prophesying (Joel 2:28, 29). This prophecy was reiterated by Peter in the Pentecost outpouring of the Spirit (Acts 2:17, 18).
The poor widow offered all she had, and Jesus used her as an example to teach others (Mark 12:41–44).
In a group of men, Mary sat at the feet of Jesus to learn his teachings and was commended by Jesus for this action (Luke 10:42).
Mary, the mother of Jesus, announced to the world that Christ had come (Luke 1:46–55).
Anna, a prophetess, led public temple worship and spoke about the Messiah (Luke 2:36–38).
The woman at the well evangelized to people in the city of Sychar (Jn. 4:5–7, 26–30).
The Holy Spirit fell on men and women (Acts 2:1–4).
Women were persecuted for their faith and activity in ministry (Acts 22:4).
Dorcas was a prominent disciple, known for her “good works and acts of charity” (Acts 9:36–42).
Phoebe served as a deacon in the church at Cenchreae (Rom 16:1–2).
From the evidence above, it’s fair to say that women were actively involved in ministry throughout the stories of the Scriptures. They served in public and teaching ministries that included audiences of men and women.
Even with all the biblical examples of women involved in public and teaching ministry, we have to understand and deal with the challenging texts that appear to limit and restrict women. Let’s take a look at one of the most debated passages in this conversation,
“Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or 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. Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.”
One of the biggest flaws with some interpretations of this text is that they pull out certain parts to interpret literally and leave the rest up to mystery—or don’t attempt to deal with it at all. For example, “Adam was formed first then Eve,” so Adam is said to be superior to Eve, have authority over her, and exercise his role as the chosen leader of humanity because he came first. In addition, some interpret “I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man,” as women can teach male and female children, maybe even teens, but once those males become adults, she has crossed the line (especially if she is teaching men and women from the pulpit on a Sunday). I think these interpretations are too simplistic and fail to recognize the complexity of this text.
As a woman reading this passage in our modern context, I have many questions: Am I allowed to speak in the church at all? What does it look like to exercise authority over a man? Am I more gullible and easily deceived as a woman? Do I have less value than a male? Do I need to have kids to receive salvation? What about other Bible passages where women are teaching and prophesying in mixed audiences?
Gifted, mature women ought not to be simply “tolerated” or “allowed” to teach in the church but encouraged and supported to exercise their gifts.
It’s obvious from a simple reading of the passage that we have to dig through cultural layers built up over centuries to really understand what Paul means and who he’s speaking to.
Dr. Sandra Glahn in her academic article,The First-Century Ephesian Artemis: Ramifications of Her Identity, points out that the Ephesian audience Paul writes about is heavily influenced by the cult of Artemis (Acts 19:28–37) where the female, not the male, came first in the Gentile creation story. In the Artemis cult’s creation story, Linda Bellville in “Teaching and Usurping Authority” argues that the female was considered superior to the male. With this in mind, it would make sense for Paul to correct the Ephesians’ false creation story with the Jewish-Christian creation story—that the man came first. He only points out the true story of creation and doesn’t say that the creation order denotes superiority or authority.
Paul does say that “Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” Again, I think he’s issuing a corrective to their false creation narrative and pointing out that the woman sinned first. Keep in mind that the influential Artemis cult in Ephesus believe the woman was superior to the man. He’s reminding them that the woman is just as flawed as the man. In Paul’s words, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).
The mindset of female superiority among the Ephesians could also connect to Paul’s admonition for a woman to “learn quietly with all submissiveness” and “not teach or exercise authority over a man” (1 Tim. 2:11–12). It’s likely that women in the Ephesian church were disrupting and domineering over male teachers and leaders, which does not align with God’s design of male and female partnership. With the examples I pointed out earlier, it wouldn’t make sense that Paul was making a statement for all women everywhere in all times to never speak up in a church gathering or teach a mixed (male and female) audience. Paul even talks about his appreciation for Priscilla and Aquila’s ministry and calls Priscilla his fellow worker (Rom. 16:3).
I do not believe that the admonitions given in 1 Timothy 2:11–15 are timeless principles but rather contextualized commands.
Not only did the female come first in the Artemis cult’s creation narrative, but Glahn notes that Artemis of the Ephesians was also known as a protector of women in childbearing, which connects to his reference, “she will be saved through childbearing” (1 Tim. 2:15). The word “saved” refers to salvation, or being kept safe. They trusted Artemis to keep them safe and well through the risks and dangers of childbirth. The Ephesians probably also trusted her for deeper and more spiritual matters. Paul emphasizes that they’ll only be saved through childbearing “if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control” (1 Tim. 2:15). I don’t think Paul is literally saying women are saved through having kids, but he’s refocusing their hope and trust to be in Christ. Their faith in Christ, not Artemis, will bring salvation (Rom. 5:1-2).
Overall, Paul’s instructions to Timothy seem tailored to the Ephesus culture, influenced by the Artemis cult that believed a different creation account and trusted in Artemis as their savior and hope, especially for birth. Therefore, I do not believe that the admonitions given in 1 Timothy 2:11–15 are timeless principles but rather contextualized commands. I believe the timeless principles that come out of this passage is to not cause unnecessary disruptions or disunity in corporate worship and to trust Christ as our only savior (1 Tim. 2:8, 9, 11, 12).
The Bible provides evidence that, yes, a woman can publicly speak and teach in the church, and she can teach mix audiences too. Gifted, mature women ought not to be simply “tolerated” or “allowed” to teach in the church but encouraged and supported to exercise their gifts. When women and men use their gifts to build up the body, the whole body flourishes.
*Examples of women serving God in the Old and New Testament gathered with the help of Recovering Biblical Ministry by Woman by George and Dora Winston and Irving Bible Church’s document on Women in Ministry at IBC.
Previous articles in the DESIGN OF WOMEN series: