The Role of Women in the Church

by George W. Knight, III

The matter of the role of women in the church comes under the principles of church government and the sufficiency of Scripture. The question that we must answer is: “Shall our newness in Christ, our being neither ‘male nor female,’ but ‘one in Christ’ as regards our salvation (Gal 3:28) mean that no longer is there male headship and leadership in the church or in the marriage and the family?” In both Corinth and Ephesus there were some who were arguing and seeking to act according to a positive answer to this question. 1 Corinthians 14 shows us several groups claiming the fullness and manifestation of the Spirit as a warrant for their speaking in tongues without an interpreter and for their prophesying simultaneously. Since the other items in that chapter relate to the work of the Spirit, we may well assume that women’s insistence upon participating in the teaching of the church relates to the same or a similar appeal to the Spirit's gifts. Paul, however, responds that God's character is one of peace, not disorder (verse 33); therefore “all things [must] be done decently and in order” (verse 40 KJV). Paul argues in effect that the Corinthians are wrongly appealing to the Spirit’s work to justify their actions, because such behavior is contrary to God’s nature and consequently what He requires of them. Speaking in tongues (languages previously unknown to the speakers; this ability was given only until the canon of Scripture had been completed) must be accompanied by interpretation for the congregation so they will understand and be edified, and prophesying must be orderly and beneficial. The order established by God for men and women must not be overturned, as if redemption had made His creation order null and void. The sufficiency of Scripture to resolve these difficulties becomes clear when one observes that Paul resolves all questions and difficulties by appealing to the Word of God as the ultimate authority for believers’ faith and conduct.

I realize that in presenting this material I may assume too much, so I will begin by assuming too little. Before examining and comparing several New Testament passages that deal with our subject, we will survey the Biblical background so that we can see the basis for the teachings given for us by Christ and His Apostles. Since Scripture is all-sufficient, we must submit to it regardless of how it may contravene the preferences of our own day.

Our survey begins in Genesis 1:27, where the creation account says that God made Adam and Eve, male and female, in His own image. They were created essentially equal: as holy bearers of God’s image before the fall, after it as sinners equally in need of redemption, and, as we read in Galatians 3:28, as spiritually equal receivers of God’s salvation. Peter speaks of this last point plainly, teaching that the wife is an heir of the gracious gift of life with her husband, or a fellow heir of the grace of life (I Peter 5:7). Nothing in the Apostles’ teaching indicates that men are intrinsically superior to women, even in marriage or the life of the church. To the contrary, each must submit to the Lord and each must respond and relate to the other as God has ordained. Because of their essential equality, Paul and Peter call on wives to submit voluntarily to their husbands as the loving heads of their families. Husbands are not called to require their wives to submit to them, but must rather themselves submit to God, and graciously, lovingly, and tenderly lead and guide their wives and families in the love of the Lord (I Peter 3:7; Ephesians 5:23-33). Husbands are to be neither harsh nor bitter (Colossians 3:19).

Why is it that the two towering figures in the New Testament, Peter and Paul, use almost identical words when writing about marriage? Why do they describe the husband’s place as one of leadership or headship? The answer lies in their awareness that in His creation activity, God Himself determined who shall lead in marriage and the church. Paul establishes this principle in three passages.

The Apostles’ Teaching

The first of the three major passages which we shall examine and compare with the others is 1 Corinthians 11:3-5; 7-12 (NASB):

But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ. Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying, disgraces his head. But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying, disgraces her head;… For a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man; for indeed man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake. However, in the Lord, neither is woman independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as the woman originates form the man, so also the man has his birth through the woman; and all things originate from God.

In this passage, Paul gives the reasons, all of which are founded upon the Creator’s plan, for women’s being subordinate to their husbands. First, man is by virtue of creation the image of God and reflects His glory, while woman reflects the glory of man (although she too was created in the image of God, as Genesis reveals); second, woman was created from man to be her husband’s helper as he works to obey God’s mandates.

The little word “for” indicating purpose (verse 9) has great significance; it indicates that woman was created for the sake or benefit of man, who, because of God’s priority shown in creating man first, is to be the head of his wife and family. The Lord Jesus made the same appeal to the creation order as He corrected the prevalent teaching on marriage and divorce (cf. Matthew 19:8). The subordination of a wife to her husband, let us not overlook, is taught despite the fact that the Apostles write after the redeeming work of Christ has been applied equally to men and women.

The other major argument that Paul uses in this passage is based upon the relationship between the Father and the Son: “the head of Christ is God.” Consequently, we find Jesus during His earthly ministry repeating words to this effect, “I didn't come to do my own will. I didn't come to speak my own words. I came to do the will of Him who sent me and to say what He gave me to say.” Did that role demean Christ's Sonship? Did it detract from His full deity as the Incarnate One? Was it any cause for shame or reproach? The answer is absolutely no. But God in revealing this relationship between the Father and the Son, has said to us for all times, “I require you to relate as men and women as we also relate as Father and Son. I am not imposing upon either of you, males or females, a demand that we do not manifest in our relationship to one another as Father and Son.” Hence we see that both the order established in creation and the voluntary submission of the Son provide the model for how men and women ought to relate within marriage.

Paul follows a similar line of reasoning in 1 Timothy 2:11-14, where he deals with the question of whether women may teach or have authority over men in the church:

Let a woman quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being quite deceived, fell into transgression.

Here Paul states categorically that women are neither to teach nor exercise authority over men in the realm of the church and spiritual matters. Why does he teach this? Because “Adam was formed first, then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being quite deceived, fell into transgression.” Here, too Paul appeals to the creation account as the basis for his forbidding women to teach or exercise authority over the men in the church. Therefore, one who overturns this headship of man in the church is on the slippery slope that leads to the overturning of the headship of man in marriage, and vice-versa. Both headships are built on the same premise, the same truth, the same passage; they stand or fall together.

We should also take note that this passage in 1 Timothy contains injunctions that many today, even among evangelicals, consider unnecessary or offensive, i.e., that a woman should learn in quietness and full submission, and remain quiet in the church. Although a woman should learn, Paul warns against her rationalizing as students often do, “I am capable of articulating the same things we are being taught. In fact, I might even sharpen the instructor’s presentation by asking the right questions or proposing some further ramifications.” Many a teacher receives “questions’ that aren’t questions but requests for equal time and then some. A woman must learn quietly and in submission to the authority of the teacher.

Notice that this passage does not say, “I do not permit a woman to be ordained.” It does not say, “I do not permit a woman to be a bishop or an elder.” Paul knows these words and could have used them. What Paul prohibits in the words “teach” and “exercise authority” is the activity, not merely the office. If we choose to let a woman teach any church gathering, whether official or unofficial, we are directly violating the prohibition of the apostle Paul when he says “I do not permit a woman to teach…a man,” that is, instruct men in spiritual matters within the church. We need to hold on to this thought: Paul is repudiating the activity, not simply the office. This will be the nub of the discussion in the life of our church. Do not misunderstand, however, what I am saying. Those who say that a woman should not be ordained are quite correct. Paul’s words do have a very direct application to that realm, but this passage should not be said to be prohibiting only ordination while allowing a woman to do everything else.

Our last text to be considered is 1 Corinthians 14, particularly verses 33-36.

As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.

In this context, it seems evident that Paul uses the word “speak” not in a broad sense that would include normal conversation, but as in equivalent for “teach.” It is reasonable to assume that Paul chose “speak” because speaking was the element common to all the phenomena dealt with in chapter 14: bringing a psalm, speaking in another language, offering an interpretation, and teaching the truth of God in a worship service. Paul corrected their manner of using each (except psalms, on which he had no comment because they were being used properly) in order, beginning with the last. Some terms are variously translated (teaching/doctrine/word of instruction/prophecy/revelation), but all gifts are to be used for the edification of the church, in an orderly manner. Although the Apostle permits various individuals to participate in the worship service, he does not permit women to speak.

Applying the hermeneutic principle that Scripture is its own interpreter, we will compare this passage with 1 Timothy 2:12 which we have considered previously. Both passages are similar in content as well as in Paul’s use of the terms “submission” and “silent,” so it is reasonable to infer that his saying that women are not allowed to speak correlates or is equivalent to his saying that women are not allowed to teach. The 1 Corinthians passage does not need to specify that a woman must not teach a man because the setting for the problems being discussed is the congregation, which consists of both males and females.

In all three of the passages written by Paul, which we have considered, he appeals to the law (the account of creation revealed n Genesis) as the basis for prohibiting women to speak, teach, or exercise authority over a man. Besides not being allowed to do these things, a woman is also forbidden to ask questions while receiving instruction, since her speaking in the assembled congregation is a disgraceful (shameful) thing, an overturning of the order established in creation. Rather, Paul directs her to ask questions of her husband, the head of the family.

Before going on to consider some objections that are raised to the Apostles’ teaching on women, let us note what they do not forbid in regard to women’s part in worship and teaching in general. Women may pray in family or private worship, for example, and may participate in corporate prayers led by men during congregational worship (Acts 1:12-14). [1] Mature women are directed to encourage younger women to love heir husbands and children, to be sensible and pure, workers at home, kind, and subject to their own husbands, so that the word of God may not be dishonored (Titus 2:3-5). Mothers must teach their children, helping their husbands to “bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). Furthermore, women, like other believers, are instructed to testify to Christ’s resurrection and therefore to present the Gospel itself (Matt. 28:7, 9-10). Privately, a woman may, with her husband, explain doctrinal truths to a man, as Priscilla and Aquila invited Apollos into their house “and explained to him the way of God more adequately” (Acts 18:26).

Rationales Used to Evade the Apostles’ Teaching

Even though for most of its history the church has understood and submitted to the Apostle’s teaching on the role of women in the church, at least three less-than-Scriptural positions, each having its own rationale, have been developed during recent years. Adherents to the first group say that Paul is wrong in the passages we have cited and that his old Jewish mind-set is showing in them. Clearly this position directly denies the sufficiency of Scripture, as well as its inspiration, infallibility, and authority.

A second group asserts that the teaching is purely and simply cultural, applying only to the first century and the Greco-Roman situation. [2] They advance their argument by saying that other words of Paul, e.g., Gal. 3:28, give a more basic truth, that there is no difference between men and women at all. Both the first and second groups, however, run up against Paul asserting that his words are the commandment of God (1 Cor. 14:37), and that the way God made man and woman determined the headship and leadership function (1 Co 14:34; 11:8-9; 1 Tim. 2:13).

We should note that the second position is sometimes supported by the argument that if women can prophesy, they should also be able to teach and preach. This appeal to the phenomenon of prophecy must be addressed, since prophets are placed just after apostles and before teachers or preachers in Paul’s list in 1 Corinthians 12:28. Even more problematic is that Paul forbids a woman to speak or teach in the congregation; rather, she must be silent, as we have seen earlier. Lest Paul be accused of inconsistency, we must acknowledge that he, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, makes a distinction between the two activities without giving an explanation for the apparent exception to his prohibition. He accepts the one (prophesying), even while forbidding the other (teaching). Being subject to God’s Word, we must accept Paul’s distinction whether or not we can understand it. Nevertheless, there are several factors that may contribute to the resolution of this apparent inconsistency. First, prophecy is the giving of a direct revelation from God, but the one chosen to convey an authoritative revelation does not thereby have authority conferred upon him. He is merely an instrument or organ for God’s revelation, as was Balaam’s donkey (Num. 22:28); he does not convey his own ideas, and even when he thinks he is doing so (as in the case of the high priest related in John 11:49-52), his words have a meaning other than he intends, and are used by God to convey truth to His people. (Other Reformed commentators do not regard Paul’s acceptance of prophecy by a woman as an exception to his clear and unqualified statement “Let your women keep silent in the churches.” For example, Charles Hodge explains, “The apostle himself seems to take for granted, in 11:5, that women might receive and exercise the gift of prophecy. It is therefore only the public exercise of the gift that is prohibited.”)

While a prophet exercises no authority of his own while prophesying, a teacher or preacher, by contrast, has and exercises authority while explaining God’s word, applying it to His people, and exhorting them to faithfulness. Therefore, Paul is unambiguous in his prohibition of women’s teaching or exercising any authority over men in the church.

A third group proposes to avoid Paul’s prohibition by saying that his teaching is intended to exclude women only from the ordained offices of teaching and ruling elders. Without “only,” this contention is certainly true, because teaching and exercising authority come to their highest expression in those ordained offices. However, to restrict the interpretation and application of Paul’s teaching thus is to fail to deal with his explicit language and the context of his prohibitions and injunctions. He does not say, as he could have, that a woman must not be ordained; rather, he forbids a woman to exercise authority over men in the church.

Some who interpret Paul’s teaching in the third way have also suggested that in 1 Corinthians 14, he intends only that women are not to judge the prophets in the congregation. This understanding, novel as it is, is in no way implied in the context: nothing is said about judging prophets in the entire chapter. Furthermore, it fails to take into account the many similarities between 1 Timothy 2:11ff. and the 1 Corinthians passage: both enjoin silence and prohibit a woman from speaking or teaching because she may not exercise authority over a man. Since the former passage is correctly understood as prohibiting a woman’s teaching in the church, the latter passage can hardly be dealing with such different concerns. Furthermore, Paul’s injunction against a woman’s speaking or asking a question, as well as his instruction that “if they want to inquire about something [a neuter indefinite pronoun that here means “anything” as well], they should ask their own husbands at home” are so broad as to be inconsistent with the “prophet-judging” interpretation.

In spite of all evidence to the contrary, those who wish to restrict the meaning of Paul’s teaching have coined the maxim, “A woman may do anything that an unordained man may do.” Following this principle, some contend that an exception should be made, allowing a woman to speak and lead in worship, if there are no ordained men present, and she is the most gifted person in the gathering. Others contend that a woman may instruct men in a study of the Bible in Sunday school or elsewhere, with or without a male cohort, because such activities are not restricted to ordained men. As we have repeatedly observed, the difficulty with these suppositions is that they allow precisely what Paul has forbidden, i.e., a woman to teach a man or the church, and furthermore, they ignore his requirement of silence and submission. To deny that Paul prohibits women from teaching or exercising authority in the church is to deny both the perspicuity and sufficiency of God’s Word.

Recently another contingent that wishes to circumvent Paul’s prohibitions has appealed to 1 Peter 4:10-11, contending that this passage is helpful in providing perspective on the role of women in the church. The passage reads as follows: “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God's grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.” The argument proceeds in this way: Peter is addressing all the church and each individual in it (cf. “each one” in verse 10); the masculine Greek word rendered by “anyone” in verse 11 and followed by “he”, is a gender inclusive form. Therefore to both men and women God has given either a “speaking” gift or a “serving” gift and they should exercise these gifts as Peter has indicated. This view may seem plausible, but, since we use Scripture to interpret itself and know that it does not contradict itself, this passage must be compared with the Bible’s teaching elsewhere. While it is true that women, like men, are recipients of God’s gifts, they may use those gifts only in ways that He allows. For example, a woman who has a gift for teaching may instruct women who are younger either in years or in the faith, as well as children. This passage, however, may not be used to overturn Paul’s very clear teachings, nor Peter’s elsewhere. To do so would be to allow implications derived (in this case, faultily) from one passage to obviate clear and specific teaching elsewhere; reversing a hermeneutic principle.

Having briefly looked at alternative views of our subject, let us turn again to the principles found in the passages we have examined, remembering that the Scriptures are our sole and sufficient guide in this realm, as in all others. We have seen in the creation account that the Lord determined that man should be head of the woman, who was made from man in order to be his glory and helper. Basing his teachings on the order of creation and the example set by the Son in freely submitting to the Father’s headship, Paul requires a woman to submit voluntarily to her husband’s leadership and to learn silently in the church, and to take any questions about what she has learned to her own husband, at home. He does not permit a woman to speak, teach, question, or exercise authority in the church.

We who believe and confess that the Scripture is sufficient for ordering all of life, had best allow its clear language to capture our hearts and minds; release us from the intimidating power of this corrupted world and its culture; and bring us to submit our every thought, purpose, and action to the sovereign, revealed will of our Lord, for His honor and glory. [3]


1. During the apostolic era women were also allowed to prophesy (cf. 1 Cor. 11:5, 13-16; Acts 21:8-9). However, this gift, which was given for the edification of the church, like tongues, ceased when the canon of Scripture had been completed. For a thorough treatment of this subject, see my book Prophecy in the New Testament (Dallas, TX: Presbyterian Heritage Publications, 1988).

2. The position that women should be ordained to any and all the offices in the church, that women in marriage are not under the headship of a husband, and that the Pauline passages are culturally relative is espoused and advocated by an organization in the USA calling themselves Christians for Biblical Equality.

3. The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood is an association and organization that is committed to the historic teaching of the Bible expounded in this article. It publishes a journal, recommends literature helpful in this area, and produced the great volume, with its many chapters, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1991). The association welcomes subscribers and contributors and may be contacted at its administrative office: P.O. Box 7337, Libertyville, IL 60048, or (847)573-8210, or

George W. Knight III is adjunct professor of New Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He holds a B.D. Westminster Theological Seminary, 1956; Th.M Westminster Theological Seminary, 1957; Th.D. Free University of Amsterdam, 1968.