Man and Woman in Biblical Perspective


James B. Hurley



The preceding chapters have surveyed the role of women in the Bible and in surrounding cultures. In this brief chapter we shall review some of the major observations which we have made and then consider guidelines for their application to various situations. Space makes it impossible to consider a large number of specific cases.


Our opening chapters discussed the role of women in the Old Testament and in the neighboring cultures of Assyria and Babylon. We observed that all three were patriarchal societies and that their social and legal structures presumed a tribe or clan rather than a nuclear family as the basic kinship unit. The Old Testament differed from contemporaneous cultures in its respect for the woman as an individual. In Israel women were not chattels and had rights which were closely guarded by the law. Although inheritance was passed through the male line, women could inherit in the absence of a male. In religious life, women participated in worship including the taking of vows and offering of sacrifice. In patriarchal times, the patriarch led in family worship. Under Mosaic law, the religious leadership was more closely restricted, only males of the Levite family of Aaron without physical deformity being allowed to serve as priests. Other males and all females were barred from the priesthood. In the social sphere, Israelite women were free to participate in social and commercial life, although they were subordinate authorities in the sense that their contracts were subject to their husbands' ratification. The role of women in civil life was more difficult to ascertain. We have examples of Deborah and Athaliah, a prophetess and a queen. Neither is condemned for her role. Deborah was divinely appointed. Examples of women in such roles are not numerous.

When we turned our attention to Judaism as it had developed in the time of Christ, we found that the subordinate role of women had led to their being viewed as inferior beings as well as subordinate ones. Concern for sexual impropriety led to an effort to restrict communication with women to a minimum. Women were frequently seen as seductive and prone to play upon men's weaknesses. Among the wealthy, and perhaps among the very pietistic, the effort to avoid women was accompanied by restricting them to the house and by veiling. These were, however, not generally practiced. Within the home, wives were valued and often tenderly loved. In the religious sphere, the male leadership and the low estimate of women led to the conclusion that women could not and should not learn about religious affairs. Worship was something which they could attend, but it was sufficient that their husbands attend. Civil affairs were seen as strictly the responsibility of men.

Graeco-Roman culture was extremely diverse and was in transition at the time of Christ. The older Creek attitude saw women as inferior beings who were useful only for labor, pleasure or children. Among the Romans of the wealthier class women had a stronger position. They could inherit, were often educated, and were socially acceptable, even in the highest society. Lower class Roman society apparently granted women a more servile place and no education. The urban nature of relations between the Creek cities and their Roman rulers was such that the benefits enjoyed by the wealthy Roman women influenced the status of their Greek counterparts.

The place of women in the ministry of Jesus stands in marked contrast to the place granted them by his Jewish contemporaries. His gospel reached to all human beings alike. Women enjoyed a natural place among those to whom he ministered. He chose none to be among the twelve disciples, who became the twelve apostles after his death, but he was accompanied by a number of women who ministered to his needs and learned from him. There is no evidence of any condescension to women on his part. He considered that they needed his message as did the men.

A key to Jesus' thought about the relation of the sexes was found in his response to questions about divorce. Divorce, he said, was permitted by Moses because of the hardness of Israel's heart. The kingdom which he proclaimed called for a different pattern of life. With respect to divorce, he called for obedience to the creational pattern of permanent marriage, with divorce only in cases of marital infidelity.

Jesus also proclaimed a new situation. Some of his followers would be single for the sake of the kingdom. His teaching thus taught both permanent marriage commitment and permanent single status as consequences of the arrival of the kingdom and the power of God. This dual situation was not seen as permanent. In the resurrection, marrying and giving in marriage would cease and all would be as the angels. The time between Jesus' announcement of the kingdom's arrival and the resurrection thus became an interim with a unique renewal of creational patterns and the beginning of patterns which will be universal in the new creation.

Jesus did not discuss certain questions which are of great concern to the twentieth century. While he spoke clearly to the manner in which authority is to be exercised, he did not give instructions about the manner in which his followers should organize themselves as the church or about the structure of authority within their families. These tasks remained for the apostles under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

The apostolic church manifests the same attitude toward women which marked Jesus' ministry. Women were incorporated in the body of believers. They were considered able to learn and were taught about the faith. Women played a very sizeable role in the expansion of the church. They were constantly in evidence in the churches and as companions and fellow-workers of missionaries such as Paul.

The early church reflected the structure of Jesus' teaching about the kingdom as well. They did not see the resurrection of Jesus as the initiation of the age when celibacy would be practiced (although certain believers at Corinth came to such a conclusion). Marriage was held in high esteem and was considered a permanent commitment. Celibacy, too, was viewed as a valid course to which one might be called and for which one might be gifted. The status of the believer as a member of Christ's body did not call for a breaking of old stations in life, but for new patterns of conduct which would honor God and demonstrate his power to strengthen people to be progressively conformed to his image, to live godly lives. Among the people of God, during the time before the return of the Lord, certain 'headship' or authoritative relations will continue to exist. This authority, we noted, is always for the sake of serving those under authority, not for the pride of those in positions of leadership.

Within the marriage relation the Christian is called to reflect the relation of God and his people. For the husband this means imitating Christ in his loving commitment of his own self and of all his resources for the sake of his bride. The husband is to be head, for the sake of the bride. The apostolic church understood the calling of the wife to be the image of God and to join her husband in glorifying God through ruling the earth and demonstrating the power of God to renew lives. With respect to marital authority she was called to respond to her husband's leadership as the church does to Christ's.

The appointive headship of men was not only in marriage but also in the church. As in Eden, and also in Israel, men were called upon to lead in the religious sphere. While all believers joined in the worship and vocal praise of God and in mutual encouragement, only men were to act as elders with responsibility for the spiritual welfare of God's people. Elders were charged to foster the spiritual growth of the flock, to ensure the faithful teaching of the Word, and to exercise the authority of Christ's undershepherds for the sake of the flock. Activities which involved the exercise of such authority, or verged on it, were restricted to men. This did not close off other areas of service and activity to women. They ministered widely in the church to the needs of the people. Among the 'deacons', understood as persons appointed to represent and to lead the congregation in deeds of mercy, we find provision for the inclusion of women. Phoebe is very likely an example of a woman deacon. In activities not involving the authoritative teaching and disciplinary authority of the elder, sexual distinctions seem not to have applied.

If the New Testament congregation is compared with the patriarchal and Mosaic organization of God's people, we find that in both times God appointed certain of the males to lead his people. No females and not all males were included among those called to exercise religious authority. In patriarchal times the patriarch was priest for the clan; under Moses the family of Aaron was called to act as priests; in the church certain men are called to be elders. From the point of view of authority within the church, all men who have not been called to be elders are in exactly the same position as women. Thus, it would be wrong to say that women (as a sex) are generically subordinate to men (as a sex) with respect to ecclesiastical authority. The entire congregation (men and women) is to honor God's calling of certain men to shepherd (nurture and teach) his flock. The entire flock is likewise called upon to receive the ministrations of certain persons (male and female deacons) who have been called by God to lead and to represent the flock in meeting physical needs. We note that nurture, teaching and ministering to others are not reserved exclusively to such officers. That which is distinctive is their formal role and responsibility.

In the churches of the first century, as in our modern churches, there were problems in the relationships of believers. Jealousy, anger, fraud, abuse and pride were all found. The Corinthian church, in particular, is a good example of such problems. The women wanted to reject any differences from the men. Some groups were drunken at the communion service while their neighbors had so little that they were still thirsty. Many were jealous of the 'high-profile' charismatic gifts (tongues, prophecy, etc.) of others. Others were depressed and felt that they did not really belong because they lacked such gifts or performed no 'really useful' function in the body. Paul's words to his fractured congregation reprimand their pride and their wrong assessments of what is an 'important' role in the body. They point the proud and quarrelsome Corinthians to the true purpose of their many gifts and callings: the building up of the body of Christ. Paul's words form a suitable closing to our discussion of the roles of women and men in the body of Christ. He said,

4There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. 5There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. 6There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men. 7Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good . . . . 11A11 these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each man, just as he determines. 12The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. 13For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body - whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free. . . . 14Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the foot should say, 'Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body', it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. . . . 18But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. . . . 21The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I don't need you!' . . . 22those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable. . . . 24God has combined the members of the body. . . 25so that there should be no division in the body, but its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it (1 Cor. 12:4-7, 11-14, 18-22, 24-26).

. . . 7who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not? . . . 19You are not your own 20you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body (1 Cor. 4:7; 6:19-20).


As was noted before, Christian ethics, the doing of what is pleasing to God and right for man, involves norms, situations and motivations. If all three are not in line, an answer or course of action is not fully right. Consider, for instance, a situation having the right norm (moral standard), the right motive, but misunderstanding the situation: I want my child to do that which is right by confessing his theft of a toy, but he does not. Finally I punish him for his theft and for his unwillingness to confess - only to discover later that he did not really do it. With the right norms and with the best of intentions (motives) I have done wrong. We can all invent or remember similar situations with errant norms or motivations .

We should note here that our knowledge will always be less than total and our actions therefore will always involve less than total understanding. This does not mean that all our conclusions are completely wrong, for generally we have sufficient knowledge to make a valid judgment. It does mean that we must walk humbly and carefully. It also means that there will be 'grey areas' in which our perceptions will differ from those of others or in which a lack of information will make precise decisions impossible and provisional decisions necessary. We shall conclude our study of biblical role relationships with consideration of some areas in the relation of men and women in which problems of perception or definition enter the picture .

1. What does 'headship' entail?

Our discussion of headship has centered, to a large degree, on the question of authority. It is, however, a major mistake to restrict the biblical teaching to 'the right to command' or to be 'top of the chain of command'. If so reduced, it is quickly dehumanizing and also unworkable. Biblical headship and authority are for the sake of building up others. We have noted Christ's instructions that the leaders of his followers must be servants of all. Leadership involves the responsibility to take action for the sake of others rather than the right to command others for one's own benefit.

A further problem arises from the 'right to command' idea. Authority to lead and to direct automatically includes the necessity to delegate authority. If I am directed to clean the floor, I have authority to take the steps needed to achieve that end. If the one exercising authority comes to feel that all authority must reside with himself, he must make all the decisions and even take all the actions! This, of course, rapidly becomes absurd. In practice authority must be delegated. The debate is about how much may be delegated to whom and under what conditions.

Consider, for instance, the division of labor and the delegation of responsibility in the exercise of 'marital authority'. A counselor often sees couples struggling over issues related to 'headship' or power. Some men feel that their 'authority' is undercut if they are not asked what meals are to be served and what washing powder is to be used. They wish to hold all the reins, frequently crush their families and are seldom able to participate freely in family life. Any initiative on the part of others threatens their relatively fragile sense of control. Such headship is crippling to a family and to a marriage relation. The husband cannot hope to exercise his 'command' in every area and soon finds himself occupied at every turn with the defense of his status. The more thorough he is in his 'control' the more exhausted he will be from trying to be an expert everywhere and the more his family will feel alienated from him.

Headship modeled after Christ's must take into account the needs and abilities of those for whose sake decisions are made. It is the husband's responsibility to take initiative but not to do it all. The abilities and activities of the woman of Proverbs 31, for instance, show the extent to which authority may be delegated without challenge to 'headship'. Any effort to make all decisions or to make them independently undercuts real headship or leadership. Others are involved and a finite husband simply cannot be an expert in every area. While the responsibility to see that matters are dealt with and that others are nurtured, as well as ultimate responsibility for the decision, are his, he needs to seek the counsel of his wife and family and often to defer to their wisdom. His leadership should foster their full and free expression of their individual gifts. This ought not to be seen as an abdication of his responsibilities, but as effective fulfillment of them. Christ does not guide his church without paying the closest attention to the needs, desires and abilities of his people. The prayer life of virtually every husband will show his confidence that this is so. The husband's relation to his family should reflect a similar involvement .

Christ's role as husband of his church entails more than decision making. He is intimately involved with his people and is an example to them. The husband who understands his role only in terms of providing money and giving orders fails to be to his family as Christ is to the church. He must be immediately alongside them, if he is to know their growing abilities and changing interests. He must join his wife in preparing his children to be godly adults and he must know her if he is to love her as Christ does his church. Headship demands involvement. Involvement demands time. This is especially important in the twentieth century when we have so many distractions. It has been reported that the average American family spends 38 minutes each week in significant interaction. The average child spends less time than that with each of its parents. Fathers spend less time than mothers with the children. Biblical headship requires better performance than this. Effective leadership requires the ability to be an example, a model. Paul, the apostle with apostolic authority to command (1 Cor. 14:37), did not consider the giving of orders to be the fulfillment of his task. He also called upon his congregations to imitate his example as he imitated Christ (1 Cor. 11:1).

This is not the place to discuss particular jobs and tasks which might be assumed by the husband or by the wife. Other books explore such issues. It is, however, worth noting that there are no particular tasks which the New Testament assigns as 'men's work' or as 'women's work' within the marital sphere. The circumstances of a family may cause reassignments of tasks. It is not by certain actions but by a basic relationship that leadership is exercised. In the course of living, however, certain actions are soon associated with certain roles (e.g. the all-too-common but disastrous pattern: Daddy always reads the Bible; that is 'men's work'. Mother always prays; that is 'women's work'!). Such associations may have a positive value, but we need to beware of setting up wrong associations. The New Testament calls upon the husband to model Christ's headship, but does not spell out the tasks of that headship in detail. This suggests that it is not the husband's tasks but his initiative, example, leadership and responsibility which are in view. Each home and each culture must relate the husband's and wife's role to specific tasks - and be wary of 'canonizing' certain traits or tasks as exclusively male or female when the Scripture does not do so. Custom and tradition have a valuable role to play, but they must not be allowed to become absolute or to stand alongside the Scripture as a rule for faith and life.

2. What does it mean to 'teach or exercise authority over a man'?

When we turn from marital headship to headship in the church, we find that roles are somewhat more defined. The New Testament does give indication of the responsibilities of elders in the teaching, guiding, nurturing and shepherding of the flock. We have seen that the elders must be reliable men who understand the faith and are able to communicate it effectively (teach). Elders who teach and rule well were to be specially honored. Clearly theirs was the primary responsibility to ensure that the flock learned the message of the gospel and its application to life. Well and good. But how much division of labor and delegation of authority is entailed in their task? Were the elders to be the only ones teaching? We saw that 1 Corinthians 14:26 assumes that everyone and anyone might bring a 'word of instruction' when the congregation met. Was everyone therefore a 'teacher' in the same sense that elders were? Obviously not. We are faced with a continuum or scale of 'teaching activities' . The same may be said for the admonition of false teachers or of those whose lives deny their profession of faith (church discipline).

Consider, for instance, the following, absurdly detailed, but often debated options relating to the scale of teaching. From 1 Corinthians 14:26 we conclude that a woman might bring a two-minute 'word of instruction' for the assembly. Few would argue against this in a 'sharing time' in modern churches. This is one end of the scale. At the other end let us place the decision of the elders of the congregation concerning an issue such as the deity of Christ. If a controversy arose within the church over this issue, the elders might 'teach' the congregation what the Scriptures say. In many churches they might also discipline members who rejected the teaching of the Word, commitment to which is involved in membership. Ultimately they might even put some out of the fellowship. This would surely qualify as the sort of thing which Paul prohibited to women in 1 Timothy 2:11-12 when he said they might not 'teach or exercise authority over a man'. With these two extremes defined, let us fill in a few points between. 1. Could a woman take five minutes to speak her 'word of instruction'? 2. Could she have fifteen minutes to do it (approaching sermon length)? 3. Could a man who was not an elder have the fifteen-minute time period? (Is that 'teaching'? Would that not undercut the elders role?) 4. Could a woman be asked to share words of instruction for ten minutes on each of three weeks (regular 'teaching')? 5. Could a woman missionary (perhaps one of Paul's fellow-workers or Prisca) be asked to speak for a half-hour about God's work among the Gentiles and the way in which Paul confronted his opponents (this amounts to preaching about the material in Acts)? 6. Could she do so for eight weeks in a Sunday school class (woman Sunday school teacher)? 7. Could a woman who had worked with Paul be asked by the elders to testify about what Paul had said on a debated issue (is this participating in an act of discipline)? 8. Could she be asked to relate Paul's views on a regular basis (effectively making her the 'teacher' about Paul's message)?

This list is no doubt 'pedantic' but is intended to show the extent to which we are dealing with a continuum with space for 'grey' areas' as well as black and white.

The Scripture does not speak directly to any of the items in our list except the extremes. Differences will exist regarding the points between. These differences will have to do with our understanding of the Scriptures and with the significance of the acts discussed within our individual points of view and our particular ecclesiastical tradition. Value-judgments must be made at each point. How are these value-judgments to be made? We shall use this set of possible involvements of women as a test case and example. The principles and applications which we apply to them can be transposed to other similar issues.

On the basis of the studies in this book I would propose the following biblical principles to guide the activity of women in the church and the following considerations as guidelines for evaluating where we should draw lines within grey areas. I am keenly aware that any brief formulations, even after hundreds of pages of development, lack the sort of qualifications which would prevent them from being misused. That which follows is intended to foster discussion, not to provide 'rules' which would cut discussion off. I have tried to indicate clearly where my own valuejudgments enter in. The formulations which follow are offered with the sure conviction that they are subject to wooden misuse, caricature and distortion. They are, nevertheless, offered, in the hope that they will prove useful.

a. Biblical principles

1. The marriage relationship entails the self-sacrificing headship of the husband and the responsive submission of the wife. Practices which signify abdication or rejection of these roles ought not to be adopted.

2. The creational pattern of divinely appointed, representative male leadership in the teaching, ruling and nurturing of the people of God is to continue until the Lord returns . Activities and roles which reject or undercut this ought not to be entered into.

3. The restrictions which apply to the office of the elder do not apply to other ecclesiastical activities, including the diaconate (as understood in this book). Women and men serve on like footing outside the office of elder. Recent discussions of the priesthood of all believers have done much to call attention to the possibilities open to all congregational members. Church renewal movements, lay ministries and the mobilization of laypersons have all helped to overthrow ideas of clericalism which, in some communions, relegated virtually all but the clerics to a situation of pew-warmers.

4. Both the Old and the New Testaments show that the appointive headship of certain men does not apply outside of marriage and the church. In social and civic life there is no restriction on the roles of the sexes.

5. The exercise of leadership and authority must be marked by the attitude which Jesus required. 'the greatest among you shall be like the least and the one who rules like the one who serves' (Lk. 22:26). Jesus is head over all things for the sake of the church (Eph. 1:22-23). Christian leadership and authority must actively reflect his example. Ascertaining biblical norms does not ensure right action. In addition to norms, we must have godly motives of love for God and for our neighbors. Harsh, cruel or holier than-thou imposition of right conclusions is dishonoring to God and reprehensible in men. To speak the truth without visible love is to fail in our calling. The principles set out above can become ugly, cruel rules used to crush rather than to build up God's people. They ought not to be so used. Corruptio optima pessima est.

b. Guidelines for applying biblical principles

We have discussed norms (biblical principles) and motivation as crucial elements in faithful biblical ethics. A third aspect must also be taken into consideration: the actual situation. As in all aspects of life, principles alone do not describe reality. Each situation combines many actual details in a unique way. Faithful application of biblical principles requires that each distinctive situation be carefully assessed. An example from physics helps. Many of us learned rules governing the motion of a billiard ball when struck by another billiard ball. In first-year physics, those rules are set up to deal with ideal billiard balls in a vacuum on a table without friction. We have no such tables. If we are going to deal with real billiard balls on real tables we must find out (among other things) how air resistance, the surface of the table and the elasticity of the balls affect their behavior upon impact. If we make foolish assumptions in these areas, we shall have the right guidelines but the wrong results.

When we seek to apply biblical principles, a similar set of considerations apply. We must take what steps we can to ensure that we truly understand both the situation with which we are dealing and the full range of biblical principles which should be brought to bear. We cannot succeed in billiards or physics without careful work and reflection. The application of ethical principles with people is more important still and worthy of our most careful attention.

The following guidelines are useful in assessing the context of any sort of action in a 'grey area'. They are formulated with the question of women's activities in church in mind. Examples of their application follow. Each guideline is formulated in two ways in order to highlight the element of personal evaluation necessary and to help to limit possible misuse. The first formulation of each guideline is prohibitive, the second permissive. The guidelines by no means exhaust the list of relevant considerations. They do, however, provide a usable frame from which to approach issues at hand.

1. Scriptural instructions:

a. Prohibitive: Does Scripture expressly prohibit the activity?

b. Permissive: Does Scripture expressly permit the activity?

2. Realities and definitions:

a. Prohibitive: Does the activity effectively overthrow a biblical norm or motive, but escape censure on a technicality of definition?

b. Permissive: Is the activity in fact in keeping with the obvious purpose of Scripture, but prevented by a technicality of human definition?

3. Perceptions:

a. Prohibitive: Is the activity likely to be misunderstood or perceived in such a way that it leads to confusion or becomes a stumblingblock?

b. Permissive: Can the activity be explained sufficiently that it is not likely to be wrongly perceived or to become a stumblingblock?

 c. Examples

We shall consider the application of the guidelines to four specific examples which illustrate important points.

Example 1:

Situation: A charismatic church devotes a portion of each service to prophecy. Men and women prophesy. After each one, the congregation explores the message of the prophet and the elders render a judgment on the validity of the message.

Question: May the women join in the examination of the prophets?

Guidelines: 1. Scriptural instructions: Our first example is biblical. Paul answered its question in the negative in 1 Corinthians 14:33b35. We need go no further, but it is worth while to do so for the sake of practice in applying our conclusions.

2. Realities and definitions: We are not entirely certain what the women of 1 Corinthians 14 were actually doing. If they were rendering judgment, as such, on the prophets, then they were exercising authority over a man' . They were effectively overthrowing a biblical norm. The prohibitive guidelines la and 2a would then clearly apply. If the women were not 'officially' rendering judgment, but were in fact doing so by 'questions' and comments which voiced judgment (I judge this a serious likelihood in the vociferous Corinthian congregation which judged Paul: 1 Cor. 4:15), then we would conclude that they were effectively overthrowing a biblical norm, although they were not 'technically' exercising authority over men. Once again, prohibitive formulation 2a applies.

3. Perceptions: Paul directed that women with real questions should ask them at home (or elsewhere) but not in the judging of the prophets. We surmised that he wished to guard their right to learn and also to avoid the appearance of having women judge men. In effect, Paul applied prohibitive guideline 3a.

We find this same sort of reasoning in his handling of the question of meat offered to idols in 1 Corinthians 8 and 10 and in Romans 14. In these passages Paul sought to educate his congregation about situations in which some of them held unnecessary scruples about eating certain foods. He asked those who were 'stronger' and did not have the unnecessary scruples to abstain from such foods when their eating might tempt the weaker brothers to violate their consciences by eating. If Paul's educational discussion succeeded in teaching the weaker brothers that their scruples were unnecessary, it would become unnecessary for the strong to abstain.

This points the way to possible changes in our ideas about which ecclesiastical activities are appropriate for women or for nonelders. Those activities which are associated by custom with the activities of elders, but need not be, are open to change. If, in such cases, the congregation were taught to view the activities in a new light and not to associate them with the exercise of the elders role, then there would be freedom for women or for non-elders to participate in them.

Consider, for instance, the reading of the Scripture during the worship service. In some churches this task is strongly identified with the authority of an elder. If we judge that it need not be so, and if the congregation were taught to view it in such a light, then anyone would be free to read Scripture in the service. This amounts to moving from the situation of prohibitive guideline 3a to that of permissive guideline 3b.

Example 2:

Situation: A well-known and well-educated Christian woman is asked to address a local congregation about the role of women in the church. Her teaching is well known to the elders, who approve of it. She is given a half-hour during the Sunday worship service for her talk. The pastor follows her talk with the usual (brief) sermon.

Question: May she 'teach' in this way?

Guidelines: 1. Scriptural instructions: Whether we judge that Scripture expressly prohibits this exercise will depend in part on our assessment of Paul's statement that women may not 'teach or exercise authority over men' (1 Tim. 2:12). It is my judgment that this instance is not really a border-line case and is not prohibited. Some may disagree and apply guideline la.

2. Realities and definitions: It is my opinion that the sharing and teaching under discussion does not in fact place the woman in the role of an elder. Her teaching has no authority apart from the approval of the elders. She is not seeking to enforce her teaching with discipline and is not assuming the elders' responsibility of ensuring that the flock is taught true doctrine (although we shall assume that what she teaches is true doctrine). Her participation in the worship service is still within the bounds of the priesthood of all believers. I therefore do not apply guideline 2a. I recognize that some will disagree. Paul did not forbid women to bring any teaching whatsoever. We have seen that all may bring a word of instruction. What he spoke of was the continuing, authoritative teaching which structures the faith of the church. A half-hour talk would not do this. Any acceptable person may address the congregation .

Let us assume for a moment that someone in the flock objects to the woman speaker on the grounds that any speaking to a congregation is a form of teaching and that only elders should teach. Thus only elders should speak publicly in church meetings. As articulated, this view is defective in that 1 Corinthians 11:5 and 14:26 contradict it. It is a good example of the problem pointed to in guideline 2b: a human definition overthrows a biblical purpose. Other objections might be raised to a woman speaking, but this one is invalid. It does, however, point to the issue raised in guideline 3: how people percieve an action.

3. Perceptions: In some congregations a long speech by a woman would be understood as an assumption of the elders role (apply guideline 3a). In such cases she should not speak without adequate preparation of the congregation, which would effectively make guideline 3b applicable. Such preparation would not necessarily entail the whole-hearted approval of all members, but would require the education of them and a serious, loving effort to persuade them by searching the Scriptures with them. In congregations which are used to guest speakers and which are able to distinguish such talks as this woman gives from an elders task, only the possible effect on guests need be considered at length.

Example 3:

Situation: The woman 'teacher' lives near the church and is invited to become the teacher of the Sunday morning adult Bible class which is studying Christian doctrine. This class is the primary avenue of instruction for the congregation.

Question: May she take on the responsibility of preparing and teaching the lessons for this adult class?

Guidelines: 1. Scriptural instructions: It is my judgment that the responsibility for the regular, official instruction of the people of God in the doctrines of the faith belongs to the elders. It is authoritative teaching within the definition of 1 Tim. 2:12. As set out, the task offered to this woman teacher should not be given to any but an elder. If there are competent elders, they are the ones to do this teaching. As set out, I would apply guideline la to this situation. Guidelines 2a and 3a would also apply.

2. & 3. Realities and definitions: Perceptions: The situation described may be made somewhat more complex by introducing a few additional factors. Let us suppose that there are not enough qualified elders. Who will teach the people? The elders might decide to appoint and supervise non-elder teachers. By maintaining effective supervision and awareness the elders might fulfill their responsibilities to ensure faithful teaching without actually doing all of it. In this case it would be important that the nonelder teachers be clearly under the guidance of the elders. Given that fact, it would make no difference what the gender of the appointed teacher is. Neither women nor men so appointed would necessarily prejudice the role of the elders. This potentially confusing and ambiguous situation would need to be handled with care and with clarity.

It should be noted that the issue raised by the appointment of a woman to teach the class is essentially the same if a non-elder man is appointed. There is less chance of confusion in the case of a man, but either would be taking up a responsibility for the official structuring of the faith of the people, a job which is the responsibility of the elders except in extraordinary circumstances. If a non-elder man is appointed and proves both gifted for teaching and otherwise qualified by his life to serve as an elder, it would be an obvious question whether the Holy Spirit has not called him to the office of elder. Women with equivalent gifts may and should use them to spread and to share the gospel, but not in the situation under discussion.

We should consider the situation of a woman missionary or of a woman or a man who is not an elder in a situation in which there are no elders (e.g. China after Mao's take-over or Uganda under Idi Amin). Such a situation is much like that of Prisca and Aquila in the education of Apollos (Acts 18:24-26). Prisca was involved in teaching Apollos, but did not take an elders public role. In the absence of a church structure the Word should nevertheless be taught. Care needs to be taken, however, that such decisions and practices are clearly understood (guideline 3) and do not lead to wrong church structures. They should lead to the establishment of biblical church structures. I suspect that Prisca would have been an outstanding elder. Her gifts were not wasted, but it is certain that she was not an elder in a Pauline church! The modern church must develop and use the resources of all its members - and do so in a biblical manner.

I conclude that women and men who are missionaries should by all means teach the faith. Their activities in this area need not be equivalent to adopting an elders role. The end result of their work should be the establishing of a strong biblical church with its own government. With the establishment of such a church, the initial teaching role of the outside missionary, regardless of sex, changes. The local elders assume the teaching responsibilities for their flocks. The time of transition from a mission work to a church with no missionaries present is one which needs thoughtful definition of roles to prevent confusion.

Example 4:

Situation: A group of students begin to meet together regularly for Bible study. The study prospers and soon there are a number of such groups. In some, a single person teaches each time. In others, the leadership rotates from member to member. Over time a campus-wide organization is formed with elected officers and ultimately paid staff members who co-ordinate activities and teach.

Question: Can women students teach the studies and serve as staff members?

Guidelines: 1. Scriptural instructions: Paul does not permit women to teach with authority in the worship or congregational setting (1 Tim. 2:11-12). He does permit any member of the congregation to bring a word of instruction or an insight (1 Cor. 14:26) and all believers are to join in encouraging one another in the faith. This process of ministering to one another's needs and encouraging one another in the faith is naturally a part of the priesthood of all believers. We are called to share our understanding of the Word with one another. If a woman shares in or leads a study group, it is a valuable contribution to the body of Christ.

2. Realities and definitions: The situation in view is not quite as simple as an informal Bible study. The students have established regular teachers and even staff personnel who are involved in structured instruction in the faith. Do these activities begin to place a woman in the sort of position which will in fact infringe upon that which is in fact the responsibility of elders? The answer to this question is complex, and needs to be answered at several levels .

a. Para-church organizations. I have posed the question in a manner which calls attention to the role of a woman in the instruction. The same problem would confront a man who begins to be involved in the regular structuring of the faith of believers. The leaders and staff members of the Christian fellowship have begun to teach others. Some Christians believe that such para-church organizations are not legitimate, precisely because they do what the church should do (evangelize, teach, shepherd) without being a church or formally responsible to a biblical church government. The dangers of such an organization are clear.

As we consider, for example, the campus Christian fellowship as a para-church organization we must ask carefully whether it is replacing the church or 'doing what the church should do'. All Christians are to spread the gospel and to encourage one another in the faith. This is the job of the church, but not the exclusive job of the organized church. I see no wrong in the organization of support agencies to reach areas which are difficult for the church to reach. If they begin to supplant the church, the problem which they pose has nothing to do with the role of women. It must be confronted at the level of the debate over the Legitimacy of parachurch organizations .

b. Women leaders. The leaders of the campus fellowship are very much involved in discipliningg and teaching other believers. Their teaching, however, has no formal authority or church discipline behind it. It is, technically, advice and counsel from one believer to another. Whether men or women, the staff workers are not elders. From this point of view they are not violating Paul's teaching. It should, however, be carefully noted that if the students and staff begin to regard the campus fellowship as their primary fellowship and to substitute the instruction and views of the staff workers for the instruction of the church, the staff workers begin to function as elders. To the extent that this takes place, the definition of the fellowship changes . It begins to become, de facto, a church. Its problem would not be that it had women teaching, but that it was becoming what it should not be. With regard to the matter of realities and definitions, then, I would conclude that it is quite appropriate to have women staff workers and student leaders in support agencies. They have a perfectly natural and appropriate role to play in such situations . That role in no way jeopardizes that of ecclesiastical elders.

3. Perceptions: In many modern churches the role of the elder is poorly defined and understood. The function of a staff worker or Bible study leader may well be indistinguishable from that of a pastor or elder to many believers. This danger is inherent in the establishment of a para-church organization. The remedy for it is clearly not the prohibition of women staff workers. The solution must lie either in the disbanding of such organizations or in the education of the congregation. It does not seem likely to me that many will confuse women staff workers with elders. I suppose it is possible that those who are used to learning from women staff workers could come to question the biblical teaching concerning the eldership. It seems to me that careful biblical teaching is more than a sufficient response to this possibility.


The examples which I have worked through provide some idea of the way in which I would apply the principles worked out in this book to situations confronting the Christian community today. I have tried to show where individual value-judgments enter the picture. I invite you to try the principles and guidelines on the various teaching situations which were mentioned on pages 240242. Once you have done so, share your conclusions with a couple of others. If you do, you will gain a good idea of the effectiveness of your grasp of the biblical material and, I suspect, a good idea of the places where your own value-judgments enter into your conclusions .


This chapter has reviewed the findings of our study of the relation of women and men in the Scriptures and has considered the application of our conclusions to two areas of particular concern to the church at the end of the twentieth century. The nature of the topic itself has drawn our attention, especially in the latter chapters of the book, to matters to authority and headship in the man/woman relationship. It is right and good that we should consider the relationship of men and women in the body of Christ; but these things are not ends in themselves. We should willingly receive Paul's teaching that 'the body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though its parts are many, they form one body' (1 Cor. 12:12); yet we must realize that God did not assemble that body and give gifts to its members so that we may quarrel or pass our time contemplating who shall be greatest in the kingdom. He has done these things so that both men and women, joint heirs of the gracious gift of life, may use all their talents and gifts in his service to spread his kingdom and to call humans of all sorts from death to new life in Jesus Christ. This book is written in the hope that a more precise understanding of the Scriptures teaching about the relation of women and men will help the members of Christ's body to be more effective in the service of Jesus Christ who calls Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female to be one in himself.


Man and Woman in Biblical Perspective. James B. Hurley. Academie Books. Grand Rapids, Michigan. Zondervan Publhishing House, 1981, pages 234-252.