THE ROLE OF WOMEN
T. PIERCE BROWN
Partly as a result of the Women’s Lib movement, and partly because some connected with the church simply want to change things to suit themselves, there has been considerable discussion recently concerning the role of women, both in the church and otherwise. We have no interest in merely upholding what some scoffingly call “the traditional viewpoint,” whatever that is. The traditional viewpoint we value is the one which says, “Every man should study God’s word for himself to see what it says, and strive to conform his life and teaching to its principles as best he can.” We deplore any attitude which tries to array one scripture against another, or to pick one, like John 3:16 and say, “This is my scripture. Acts2:38is yours.” Or, “Romans 5:1 is my scripture. James2:17is yours.” A person with that attitude would probably not be persuaded though one should rise from the dead.
There are some legitimate questions one may raise, with which we shall attempt to deal, but the principle on which we shall deal with them is this: Paul’s plain statement in 1 Timothy 2:12 is not to be discarded on some assumption one may have regarding the propriety of some action of someone either in the Old Testament or New. Now, let us examine some examples of what women did in both dispensations, apparently with the approval of God, and see how they relate to Paul’s (the Holy Spirit’s) restrictions.
First, look at the case of Priscilla andAquilain Acts 18:26. It seems evident that Priscilla was involved in teaching Apollos. We know nothing about the extent of her involvement, but conclude that even if she did all the talking she would not have violated Paul’s restriction in 1 Timothy 2:12, which says, ” But I permit not a woman to teach, nor to have dominion over a man, but to be in quietness.” There are two reasons for this conclusion. First, in any private conversation of a woman with a man, she is not teaching over him, and there is nothing either in the Old Testament or the New that indicates it is wrong for a man to learn something from a woman. Second, the quietness that is to characterize her is not the word that involves not saying anything, (sigao) but (hesuchia), the word which suggests an attitude of quietness or lack of being aggressive. Just now my wife came in and suggested quietly that I go out and uncover her plants when I finished working on this article. Most of those who characterize my wife say that she is very quiet, but I have learned a few things from her in the 52 years we have been married. Yet she has never taught over me, or usurped authority over me.
Let us now look at the case of Philip’s virgin daughters who prophesied, as recorded in Acts 21:9. Did they prophesy to Paul and those in his company? There is no record of it, and the fact that Agabus came down fromJudeaand prophesied concerning Paul (Acts21:10-11) would suggest otherwise. However, even if we could prove that they prophesied to Paul, there is nothing in that idea of which we are aware that would mean that they were violating the principle of 1 Timothy 2:12. If Priscilla had been a prophetess and had told Apollos something the Holy Spirit revealed to her directly, would she have been in violation of Paul’s admonition to Timothy any more than she was when she told him something the Holy Spirit had revealed to her indirectly through the preaching she had heard? However, it is a moot point because we find no proof that they prophesied to Paul and his company. If we assume they did, then it would be proper for us to discover whether their telling Paul and his company what was in store for them violated God’s law for a woman not to teach or usurp authority over a man. It is very unsafe to build a theology on a series of assumptions.
The Holy Spirit had said as recorded in Acts 2:17, “Your sons and daughters shall prophesy,” so any theory which would prohibit or prevent females from prophesying is wrong. Also, any theory which would allow them to prophesy with God’s approval in a way that would violate a plain command of God must be rejected, for that would amount to God contradicting himself.
Let us raise a question now concerning whether the prohibition in 1 Timothy or any other place in the Bible would prohibit a woman from ever being in a situation where she would be in a position of authority over a man. If she owned or operated a business, and she has a man working for her, and thus under her authority, has she violated God’s law? If a housewife hires a man to mow the lawn or plow the garden and tells him how she wants it done, has she violated God’s law? If a woman has an advanced degree and is teaching a college class in English literature with men in the class, has she violated God’s will? Is it improper for a woman to stand in front of a school and direct the traffic so the children may safely cross the street, even though she will be directing men drivers? My answer to all those questions is, “No.”
Some of the reasons for my conclusion are: The context of Paul’s statement indicates to me that he is talking of church relationships. It is true that Genesis 3:16-17 shows that the husband is to be the head of the wife, as do 1 Cor. 11:3 and Eph. 5:23. But neither those references, nor any other in the Bible of which we are aware indicate that God ordained that all women are in all situations to let men make all decisions. The implications of answering those questions, “Yes” in the light of the situations mentioned in the paragraph above are so great and without any Biblical or logical support that we hesitate to dwell long on it unless it is seriously challenged. The virtuous woman of Proverbs 31, Lydia, Deborah, Hulda, (2 Kings 22:14ff) Anna, (Lk. 2:36) the honorable women that were Greeks (Acts 17:12) Philip’s daughters (Acts 21:9), and many other examples of women who were privileged to make momentous decisions or prophesy without any apparent disapproval of God are examples which we cannot ignore. They indicate that a person who assumes that Paul’s prohibition in Timothy would preclude a woman ever teaching a man, or ever telling a man how to act is making a baseless assumption.
But then the question may be raised, “Since Paul appealed to the Old Testament principle of Adam and Eve when he made the statement that a woman should not teach over a man, nor have dominion over him, why does it not follow that the principle of woman always being subordinate to man is universal in its application? That is, does that not indicate that all women, in all situations, were forbidden to have any sort of dominion or authority over men?” The answer is, “No” and there are at least two reasons.
First, the original statement was made with regard to the husband and wife acting as a family unit, and to assume that God meant that it must apply to universal situations is to assume that which is not in evidence either there or in all the examples we have mentioned. Paul could properly use that as an example because in the church that is the order of subordination which God ordained, since God is the head of Christ, Christ is the head of man, man is the head of the woman (1 Cor. 11:3). It may be granted that when God decreed that Eve be subject to Adam, and wives are to be in subjection to their husbands, it suggests a principle that women in general are expected to be in a subordinate position to men. Note, however, an important truth: the suggestion of a principle is not equivalent to making a law binding our specific application of that principle on all mankind. Anytime we assume that our particular application of a principle is the same as God’s specific law, we are in trouble. The Jews did this on many occasions that resulted in making their traditions supersede the commandments of God.
It is proper for us to ask, “Did Deborah violate the will of God by being a judge?” If we answer, “Yes,” it would be proper for us to show how and why she did so, or how we came to that conclusion. If we answer, “No, but she was an exception to God’s rule,” it then would seem proper for us to answer,”To what rule was she an exception, and how?” Even if she were an exception to the rule (which we think cannot be proven), we must remember that if God wants to make an exception to His own rule, that is His business, and we must not presume that we can do likewise, and make our own exceptions. Our present conclusion is that Deborah did not violate God’s law, for we know of no law that prohibited or prohibits a woman being a judge. The fact that in Genesis Eve was told that she would need to be submissive to her husband has nothing to do with this situation. If one contends that it does, he should be able to show how and why God’s rule that a woman be submissive to her husband means that all women must always be in subordinate positions to all men, regardless of the circumstances. Is there anything in the Bible that indicates that the Queen ofShebaor Candace, queen of the Ethiopians (Acts8:27) would have needed to abdicate the throne if they had decided to let God be their authority? Is there anything to suggest that it was improper for the Eunuch to serve under Candace since he became a Christian?
Miriam the prophetess (Ex.15:20) was not rebuked or condemned for being a prophetess. God gave her that ability. She was rebuked for speaking against Moses (Num. 12:1). Hulda, the prophetess (2 Kings22:14, 2 Chron. 34:22) spoke the word of the Lord to those who requested input from her. “So Hilkiah the priest, and Ahikam, and Achbor, and Shaphan and Asaiah, went unto Huldah the prophetess, the wife of Shallum the son of Tikvah, the son of Harhas, keeper of the wardrobe (now she dwelt in Jerusalem in the second quarter); and they communed with her. And she said unto them, Thus saith Jehovah, the God of Israel: Tell ye the man that sent you unto me, Thus saith Jehovah, Behold, I will bring evil upon this place, and upon the inhabitants thereof, even all the words of the book which the king ofJudahhath read.” Nothing in that or any other Biblical account indicates that it was contrary to the will of God to do so.
For those who assume that God demands that a woman in no circumstance is to have any authority over a man, or transgresses some law of God when she passes on some information to the man that God has revealed, they are obligated not only to explain all the cases in the Bible we have mentioned, including the women who prophesied, were judges or operated businesses. It is always wrong for a woman to usurp authority over a man, or take authority that does not belong to her. That raises another question: Suppose the elders give a woman the authority to preach or teach over a class of men. Does she then usurp authority (authenteo)? She does, because the elders have no right to authorize her to do something that God prohibits. Note carefully: God did not prohibit Hulda and others prophesying, Deborah being a judge, or Priscilla teaching Apollos. He does prohibit a woman in a religious context as Paul had in mind in writing to Timothy, from preaching and/or teaching over a man, for in so doing she would be usurping authority that He did not give her.
There are those who, in our judgment, have “strained out gnats and swallowed camels” by assuming that since Paul said in 1 Corinthians 14 that women are to keep silent when the whole church is come together, and since he said in 1 Timothy 2 that she is not to teach over a man, that she is sinning if she makes any kind of comment in a Bible class. If it hurts your conscience to make such a comment, then be quiet. But it seems a little arrogant or arbitrary to try to bind your assumptions on the church and make your misapplication of some presumed principle equivalent to a law of God. To sharpen the distinction which we think every person should try to understand, let us suppose there is a woman in a mixed adult class that is both brilliant and scholarly, conversant with Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and theology in general, knowing more than any man in the class, or even more than the teacher, who happens to be the preacher. Suppose he asks her some question the answer to which neither he nor other members in the class know. Does she transgress any law of God by answering the question? If you answer, “Yes,” you should know that you stand against almost all scholarly sound brethren who have spoken or written on the subject. You have a right to stand against them if you can prove your answer from the scriptures. If you are willing to try that, start by giving the scripture that forbids her doing that. Now, let us suppose that since the preacher is going to be away the next Sunday and needs a good teacher to teach his class, he asks her to be in charge of the class. Since she has been making such good comments, what is the difference in her standing up in front of the class and making the comments and sitting on the pew making them? That is the kind of so-called logic that is being used by those who scoff at what they call “the traditional view” and are so desperate to change the church to suit their image of the way things should be. The logic is wrong, and the answer is simple. It would be unscriptural for her to do that because in the first case she was under authority, and not teaching over a man. In the second case, if she were in charge of the class as a teacher, she would be teaching over men, and that is forbidden. That is about as simple and short an answer that can be given. If we are allowed to disregard the plain statement of Paul on that matter, there seems to be no limit to what we may disregard. To be able to see a difference when God makes a distinction, and simply to make our own prohibitions based on our assumptions and opinions are two different things. Perhaps at this point we should emphasize the fact that a woman does not have to stand in front of a class as a teacher in order to usurp authority, be domineering, disrupt the class, and in general be a nuisance and unscriptural. We have seen women who seemed to think their conclusions and opinions were the only ones worth considering, and, in effect, took the class away from the teacher. This transgresses 1 Timothy 2:11, which says, “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection” just as much as her taking the position as teacher in the mixed class would transgress the next verse.
We suggest that if you take the position that Paul’s prohibition of what women are allowed to do in the church relationship applies to all human relationships that you make sure, if you are a married man, that you die before your wife does, for otherwise if, when you die, she directs some man to milk the cows or mow the lawn, she will be transgressing God’s law. Never drive by a school building where some woman may be directing the traffic, with authority to tell you what speed or in what direction to go. Never enroll in a college class where your teacher may be a woman.
We are simply striving to do what all sound, conservative brethren have always done. That is, examine all the Bible says on the subject and try to apply the principles in a way that is consistent. We realize we have not exhausted the subject or examined in this article all God has to say on the subject. Nevertheless we have tried to show that we should not try to get around Paul’s prohibition by stating that it was a mere cultural situation, that Paul did not know whereof he spoke, there are contradictory doctrines, so we will pick the one we want, or we simply do not like some teaching, and will disregard it. But let us not strain out a gnat and swallow a camel by assuming that God decreed that all women must always be subordinate to all men, no matter who they are, or what their qualifications or attitudes may be. If we take that position, we will probably have a bigger task on our hands than most of us are capable of handling.
T. Pierce Brown
1068 Mitchell Ave.
Cookeville, TN. 38501
Phone: (615) 528-3600