Servants' News

Nov/Dec 2000

Where Do Women Fit in the Church?

By Linda Hardy White

On a bitterly cold day in January, a middle-aged teacher, her daughter and son-in-law made their way through the snowdrifts to a church in New Hampshire. The teacher had already attended several Sunday services with the congregation.

But she had also been a dedicated Sabbatarian for seven years. On this particular day, she was determined to share her conviction about the Sabbath and to challenge the members of the group to study the question with open minds.

So forceful and compelling was her presentation that within one week a few of the leading men of the congregation resolved to keep the Sabbath. And thus Rachel Oakes brought the Sabbath to the Adventists in January 1844, creating a chain reaction that separated the movement from its Sunday-keeping roots and led to the Church of God.

Ironically, the pivotal role of this woman in Sabbatarianism has been largely ignored and perhaps even suppressed by the Church of God organizations with preconceived notions of church eras. Most of the organizations tend to look at the Seventh Day Baptists as their spiritual progenitor. Yet the Sabbath was not brought to the Adventists as a result of the efforts of that Baptist denomination, whose candlestick was then supposedly extinguished, but through the personal evangelism of Rachel Oaks.

Since the 1970s, a great deal of scholarship has been dedicated to determining how women fit into the primitive church. It’s time to put our traditional view of women to the test and to see if our practices rest on a solid understanding of the Scriptures.

The Role of Women in First Century Judaism

After the Babylonian captivity, Jews began to thank God that they had not been born a Gentile, a slave, or a woman, praying: “Blessed are You, O Lord, King of the Universe, who have not made me a heathen. Blessed are You who have not made me a bondsman. Blessed are You who have not made me a woman.” Women were forbidden to have their own fellowship groups, with their religious role increasingly confined to family life only.

First-century Jews had a highly stratified and even racist society, with freeborn Jewish women ranking only slightly better than Gentile slaves. Women in upper class priestly families usually lived in seclusion, much like the Arab women of today, and veiled themselves in public. Women of the lower classes, in contrast, often worked in the fields side by side with men, but they too would have generally been scandalized to be alone with an unrelated male. The fact that there were eunuchs tells us that wealthy men often had harems or multiple wives who lived in separate quarters.

Jesus must have been quite shocking to rabbis and priests in Galilee and Jerusalem. For example, Martha no doubt was acting like a proper Jewish woman attending to the needs of the menfolk. The sages had spelled out in great detail all the many menial duties incumbent upon women. But her sister Mary was not behaving according to custom. She sat with Jesus so that she could hear His words. Jesus did not order Mary to get back in the kitchen where she belonged. On the contrary He gently let Martha know that by encumbering herself with these duties, she was missing out on important spiritual knowledge.

So, what did Jesus do that was considered revolutionary in His social environment?

1. He obviously disagreed with the Rabbis that association with women led to lust. This logic resulted in the segregation of the sexes within rabbinic Judaism and other cultures (Luke 7:37-48-10:49-32).

2. Jesus showed that a woman could divorce her husband for sexual immorality, while the rabbis said
only a man could initiate divorce, and he could do so for any reason (Matt 19:3-9; 1Cor 7:13-15).

3. Jesus touched “unclean women” such as the woman with the flow of blood; neither rabbis nor priests would do so lest they make themselves ritually impure (Mark 5:25-34).

4. Jesus not only spoke freely with women, healed them, and allowed them to bring their children to see him, but he also allowed them to serve him. His behavior would not have been unusual in a family setting, but it was unusual for rabbis, since they strongly disapproved of women even serving them at tables and shunned speaking to women in public (Aboth 1:5)

5. Jesus conversed at length with the Samaritan woman, surprising even his disciples (John 4:6-30). Rabbis would never do so since they considered Samaritan women “perpetual menstruants” (Niddah 4.1).

6. While women were witnesses to the resurrection accounts, they were not allowed to serve as witnesses under rabbinic or Roman law (Matt 28:1-10).

The famous scholar Raymond Brown summarizes this contrast well: “In the Talmud, Rabbi Eliezer declared, ‘There is no wisdom in a woman except with the distaff.’ One version adds, ‘It is better that the words of the Law should be burned, than that they should be given to a women.’ In the Mishnah the same rabbi made a similarly strong statement when he said ‘If a man gives his daughter a knowledge of the Law it is as though he taught her lasciviousness.’” Jesus broke with rabbinical tradition when he taught women and included them among his followers.

The Role of Women in the New Testament Church

In 1 Timothy 2, Paul preserves male leadership, headship, and governing authority in the church. We accept the traditional role of only male elders and rulers over the assembly. Yet as many NT scholars point out, women praying and prophesying in church, described in 1 Corinthians 11, do not involve the speaker in assuming functions of pastoral leadership or governing authority. First, the scholars point out that the requirement for women to have an appropriate head covering as a matter of decorum is only an issue if she is in a public setting. The noted conservative scholar F.F. Bruce, now deceased, wrote in his commentary on First Corinthians:

That there was liberty in the church (for it is church order, not private or domestic devotion, that is in view here) for women to pray or prophesy is necessarily implied by Paul’s argument: he does not suggest that there is anything undesirable about their doing so (whatever the injunction of 14.34 means, it cannot be understood thus), but requires them to do so with their heads covered.

Scholars also point out that prayer in ancient times was not silent as it is today, but vocalized. Thus many are convinced that women exercised those two functions in NT times because they did not involve usurping the responsibilities of the elder or overseer of the church or the principle of male headship. While neither Jewish nor Greek women spoke at a public ekklesia (Greek word used for “assembly” or “church”), in the private ekklesia of Corinthian Christians, women prayed and prophesied under male leadership.

Although no women are elders or overseers, Paul does refers to Phoebe as a diakonos (Rom. 16:1), which is actually the masculine form of the word, since there is no feminine form used in the Greek New Testament. Diakonos is translated as minister or servant, and is used of Jesus, Paul, and Timothy in other passages.

Since Paul did indeed refer to Phoebe as a diakonos, this may help to explain 1Timothy 3:8-12, where in a passage on the qualifications of an elder, Paul also drops in a whole verse on women’s qualifications. The Churches of God have traditionally interpreted this section to mean that women did have some type of religious office, although they followed an ancient practice in transliterating diakonos to deacon and deaconess, which splits the word away from its true meaning of servant.

When Paul wrote his epistle to Titus, he discussed some aspects of proper teaching to several classes of people: older men (2:2), older women (2:3), younger women (2:4-5), younger men (2:6-8) and slaves (2:9-10). But not only Titus was to be involved in teaching these groups.

Paul does not instruct Titus to exhort the younger women in any fashion; rather, Paul bids the older women teach—coming from a Greek root meaning encourage or urge—the younger women. There are two underlying premises in this passage: First, male leaders should avoid caring for younger women. Such direction is likely given in order to avoid temptations or inappropriate personal attachments. Second, women are better able to teach other women how to be mature Christian women.

We need to remember that in the first century, Jewish and Greek women in upper class families often lived in virtual seclusion in women’s quarters. In parts of ancient Greece, they could not so much as talk to a non-related male without bringing shame and dishonor to the husband. If they left the home, these Jewish and Greek women veiled their faces. Generally, they sent their slaves to any public setting such as the market, forum, etc. In this cultural setting, the older women of the church had the responsibility of making sure that women converts were properly instructed in the Gospel.

Did women converts also gain knowledge from elders in the assembly, perhaps on the Sabbath day? Maybe they did, but given the culture of that time, there were undoubtedly circumstances where they were not at liberty to leave their household. Think of Moslem women of today. Another woman can visit them in their quarters, but no man outside of the family can do so. And certainly they cannot go to a mixed assembly without a veil and their male relatives as escorts. What would a woman of the first century have done if she were part of such a household and she had no male relatives who were God-fearers? While she could not attend a private ekklesia of men and women, she could freely mix with other women. It was common in ancient times for women to meet for religious purposes as long as no men were present.

Notice that Titus 2:3-5 places no restrictions or limitations on where women are to teach younger women, how frequently the instruction is to take place, or on which days. Especially today, there is sound wisdom in having the older women teach the younger and thereby avoiding the inappropriate male/female relationships that sadly can and have taken place in the church.

Now let’s look at what women specifically did to assist with the Gospel. Women functioned as patrons of Jesus’ ministry, just as women had been patrons of Elijah and Elisha. Luke 8:1-3 describes how Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna and many others were helping to support Jesus and the apostles out of their own means. Obviously, these women had a measure of financial independence.

After Paul saw a man in a vision saying “Come over to Macedonia and help us” (Acts 16:10), he and his preaching companions immediately sailed to Philippi. On the Sabbath day, they went out of the city to the riverside to a place where prayer was customarily made—but by whom? On that day a group of women had assembled. Again, it was not customary to have silent prayer at that time and a group of women gathering for religious purposes without men present was both acceptable and common.

Who was the first to respond to the Macedonian call? It was a woman named Lydia who worshipped God before she met Paul. The inference is that she was one of the pagans who accepted the ethical monotheism of Judaism and attended the synagogue, but who did not obligate themselves to keep the burdensome Jewish rituals so common during that era. Since churches were basically households at that time, scholars believe that Lydia thus established a church in Philippi. What is significant about this home fellowship group? It is considered the very first Church in Europe.

Wherever Christianity spread, some of the women set up house churches. Mary, the mother of John Mark, sponsored a house church of Hellenistic Jews in Jerusalem. It was on her door that the astonished Peter knocked to announce to the Christians assembled there that he had been liberated from prison by an angel (Acts 12:12-17). Apphia worked with two others to sponsor a house church in Colossae (Philem. 2). Nymphas had a group in Laodicea, and Phoebe at Cenchrea sponsored the congregations that met in their homes (Col. 4:15; Rom. 16:1). Phoebe was not only a benefactor of the church in Cenchrea (Rom. 16), but commentators believe that she personally carried Paul’s letter to the Romans. These women seem to have been Romanized in that they moved about and talked with men freely. Rome was much more liberal about including women in social and public functions—a few notable women even served as public officials.

The apostle John addresses his second epistle to the “elect lady”. There are many interpretations as to whether this greeting was symbolic of the church or refers to an actual woman. If it was indeed a woman, then John is giving her instructions about how the local church meeting in her home should deal with false teachers.

Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica results in the conversion of “not a few prominent women” (17.4). His ministry in Berea results in the conversion of “a number of prominent Greek women” (17.12). Paul at different times lists women whom he calls his “fellow-laborers”, and he asks churches to assist them in their tasks. Along with Lydia, Paul references Euodia and Syntyche (Phil 4:1-3), Tryphena and Tryphosa as fellow laborers.

Priscilla and Aquilla, who also had a church in their home, and Junias and Andronicus worked as a type of husband and wife teaching teams to carry the faith to others. There is no indication from Scripture that either Priscilla or Junias were preachers with public ministries, but they were nonetheless active in helping promote and teach the Gospel. And while Priscilla’s name is first, in ancient times, this was more likely to indicate that she had a higher social status than her husband rather than a higher religious status.

Did Paul mention women’s names in his epistles just to be nice, or because they were actively helping to promote the Gospel? When he said that there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, bond nor free in Christ (Gal 3:28), is it possible that he was denying the validity of the Jewish prayer I mentioned earlier? The reader can draw his or her own conclusion.

Women in the Emerging Catholic Church

After the fall of Jerusalem and the scattering of the Apostolic church, Gentile women began to eagerly embrace Christianity. The early appeal of Christianity to women has been well attested because they were afforded a higher status within the community of believers than they had in their surrounding culture.

In an inscription in Egypt dated from 66-86 AD we find a reference to a Christian woman named Paniskanes who is a presbytera. We also know that the earliest references by Romans around 100 A.D. to Christians described women as ministrae—but it is very uncertain as to what the writer exactly meant. Ministrae is the Latin translation of diakonos. These inscriptions do not, however, tell us what duties that title might have included.

More to Come

We have received many other articles and letters about Biblical roles for men and women. We printed Tommy Willis’ perspective in the Sept/Oct Shelter in the Word and the article this issue has particularly interesting historical facts. As is usually the case with doctrinal controversies, there are “difficult” scriptures that clearly say one thing to one group of people, while other scriptures clearly say something else to another group of people. Frequently, writers do not deal with the scriptures that seem to disagree with their view. We will attempt to provide one or more articles that cover most of these scriptures in the future.

While I am sure that I have more to learn regarding the Eternal’s will on this subject, there are two points that I hope are clear to everyone:

  1. While the Bible primarily discusses the deeds of men, both men and women have the same spiritual potential. Heb 11 mentions both men and women as “the faithful”. Acts 1:14 shows women were present when the Church began; Acts 22:4 shows that they went to prison for what they believed; and Math 24:40-42 shows that women and men will meet Christ together when He returns.
  2. The idea that there should be no difference between the roles of men and women within the family, society and Church is clearly unbiblical and against nature. Both scripture and modern science show significant differences in the physical and mental capabilities of men and women.
  3. We should not think of this subject as “men vs. women”. The Eternal wants everyone to learn to work together in peace to serve Him, not to fight over power, positions and authority. However, we should all want to do this in the way His word teaches us. — NSE


About 100 years after Paul, Clement of Alexandria described the work of New Testament women as follows: “The apostles, giving themselves without respite to the work of evangelism, as befitted their ministry, took with them women, not as wives, but as sisters, to share in their ministry to women living at home: by their agency the teaching of the Lord reached the women’s quarters without arousing suspicion” (Stromata Bk. 3, 6, 53).

In the second-third century there is a memorial to Amonnian the presbytera set up by a bishop named Diogenes. In the third to fifth centuries there are isolated writings referring to women as both presbytera and episcopa. The fourth-century Pricilla Catacomb in Rome shows women breaking bread at an agape meal.

We learn of the activities of women serving as diakonos in the eastern churches from several sources (especially Didascalia apostolorum). Here are some of the services they provided when modesty was a concern:

• assisted male bishops in the baptism and anointing of women.

• assisted women who were in need or who were ill.

• served as an intermediary between women and the male clergy.

• bore messages and traveled about on congregational business.

• gave instructions to new converts when necessary.

In western Catholicism, there was considerable reluctance to accept women diakonos as a recognized institution. The Council of Nicea decreed that deaconesses were to be accounted as lay persons and not to be ordained in the same way deacons were. The Council of Orange in 411 (can. 26) forbade the ordaining of deaconesses altogether. One source comments that when baptism by immersion was abandoned, there was really no further need for deaconesses, and thus the eastern church also began to drift away from having them.

Yet the issue of women in church leadership positions did not truly get settled until the beginning of the Dark Ages. In 494, Pope Gelasius I wrote in a letter to bishops in Sicily and southern Italy: “Stop ordaining women priests.” According to Catholic scholars, the language of this letter reveals that a few women took the duties (preaching, teaching, and directing) of a duly-ordained priest. Interestingly, the 15 Catholic communities that offered testimony of women priests were not considered heretical, but were in full communion with Rome.

What can we conclude from this evidence relating to the Catholic church? Despite anti-women invective from a number of church fathers, the role of Catholic women was not rigidly defined. The duties of deaconesses described above were likely a reflection of New Testament practices. The few women who became priests represented a later development in the evolution of Catholicism.

My conclusion is that the role of women in the NT church was less restrictive than we have traditionally interpreted it. Women were working side by side with the apostles, sponsoring home fellowships, providing financial support, carrying messages to other congregations, even teaching men individually once in a while to help them better understand the Gospel (Acts 18:24-26). A few of them, like Philip’s four daughters and unnamed Corinthian women, had the gift of prophecy.

And in an era in which men and women did not mingle freely, women were much more likely to have performed some religious services for other women. I believe that they actively taught other women as commanded by Paul in a teaching role that continued to be exercised for several hundred years afterwards and that we should still follow today. As one writer put it, “Suffice it to say that the pastor who fails to draw on the Biblical resource of qualified older women in the congregation to fulfill the church’s ministry to younger women is not only risking the effectiveness of his ministry but also operating in clear contradiction to the instruction of Titus 2:4-5.”

Let’s make the church whole by encouraging women to accept and exercise their biblically-defined roles.

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