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Preliminary theses regarding women in church office

by Tim Gallant

Author's note: The following is not intended to be regarded as a comprehensive work. Much of what is stated below needs to be established with thoroughgoing exegesis of the relevant passages - which has indeed been done by many accomplished interpreters. My intention here is to outline what I believe is the overall working position of Scripture, as well as taking into account God's work in church history.

1. In Scripture, women were never placed in ecclesiastical governing offices. "Ecclesiastical governing offices" refers here to ongoing, formally recognized leadership institutions by which the people of God were governed: e.g. priests, Levites, apostles, teachers, elders, evangelists.

2. Women were placed in non-official roles of religious leadership that were "ad hoc" - numerous prophetesses and one judge. It is to be noted that these were not "normalized institutions"; at various times during redemptive history, God "raised up" a judge here or a prophet there.

3. Women could also be set apart for special non-governing roles; cf. the women whom Paul speaks of as "servants of the churches." This, it would appear, does leave room for a servant office of "deaconess," provided it is understood as a non-governing position, as was done in the early centuries of the Church.

4. The prevalent Reformed tendency towards placing an "equals sign" between prophecy and the teaching office is an unfortunate exaggeration which obscures the biblical distinction between normative continuative office and the presence of non-official charismata, whether such charismata entail some sort of leadership (cf Deborah) or otherwise.

5. The biblical picture is not to be treated as mere cultural conformity, since the biblical norms frequently broke with the surrounding culture quite markedly. E.g. Jesus' acceptance of women as disciples was a radical break from the practice of the rabbis.

6. Galatians 3:28 and parallels (cf. Colossians 3:11) do not make church office equally available for all. By the nature of the case, not all can be teachers (1 Cor 12:27-30). Galatians, on the other hand, is not speaking to potentialities and possibilities, but to what must be true for all: equal covenant membership articulated in table fellowship. This is particularly poignant in connection with the issues at hand in the letter, which have to do with the norms of the Mosaic covenant: women were often excluded from matters of worship due to menstrual uncleanness. The statement in 3:28 cannot be severed from the broader issues of the abolition of Torah, such as circumcision and Levitical purity laws.

7. The attempt to harmonize 1 Corinthians 11 and 14 by way of eliminating the latter (cf. the text-critical work of Gordon Fee) insufficiently accounts for the challenge of 1 Timothy 2. Likewise, appeal to modern critical exegetes who isolate passages such as Galatians 3 and 1 Corinthians 11, all too often fails to account for these scholars' non-canonical views (e.g. viewing the Pastorals as non-Pauline and of at best secondary authority). Our solutions must account for all the relevant biblical material, and do so responsibly. (It is instructive to note that Galatians 3.28 has become perhaps the most central text for women-in-office advocates, and yet it is a text that is not dealing directly with church leadership at all, whereas the texts which speak directly to the issue in question tend either to be largely ignored, or explained away via contextual suggestions not implied in, but rather undermined by, the text itself [see next point].)

8. Paul's restrictions in 1 Timothy show no contextual evidence of being ad hoc advice given to Ephesus due to abuse by local women; and if this were the case, his blanket prohibition would have been unjust. (I.e. if women are normally permitted and encouraged to teach, then forbidding all women in Ephesus to do so, on the basis that some or many were heretical, out of order, etc., would have been a case of punishing the innocent.) Rather the opposite is true; rather than local circumstances, Paul bases his instructions squarely upon, not only the fall (2:14), but the created order (2:13).

9. The universal historic practice of the orthodox Church is a much more powerful witness than women-in-office advocates have appreciated. The precedent of 18 centuries of orthodox faith in practice ought to have incomparably more weight than a rereading of Scripture in the light of two centuries of a disobedient surrounding culture. The present fixation with promoting women in church government looks suspiciously like adaptation to the spirit of the age, rather than a Spirit-led rereading of Scripture.

10. As noted above, we can detect a strong biblical distinction between (special, revelatory) charismata and normative continuative office. It is significant that the historical roots of women in "ministry" are in ecclesiastical contexts of charismata-oriented ministry. This is true whether we are speaking of ancient history (Montanism) or the more recent reappearance of "women preachers" (revivalism, Pentecostalism). This historical factor should particularly give pause to any church with a generally cessationist tradition with regard to extraordinary gifts such as prophesy. Furthermore, with the exception of Montanism (which was suborthodox), the women-in-office praxis has only arisen within the context of a biblically-indefensible mindset governed by post-Enlightenment egalitarianism.

Related articles

As indicated above, this article is an outline. I hope from time to time to provide exegetical articles which will both flesh out and demonstrate the summary points I have made here. Such exegetical treatment can be found in the article(s) linked below:

"Saved in Childbearing: Paul's Employment of a Biblical Theme," is an exegetical treatment of much of 1 Timothy 2, and can be found at, a sister site to this Biblical Studies Center

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