Women - Coming Back to the Original Blueprint - Part 4


Paul and the early church


This article is part 4 in a series. If you haven’t read the other articles you can start with Part 1 here

The early church.

The early church continued to follow Jesus’ example and women were accepted as leaders – evangelists, prophets, pastors, teachers and even apostles.

There are many women leaders mentioned in the New Testament, such as Priscilla, Lydia, Phoebe, Euodia and Syntyche, Junia, Nympha, several Mary’s, Photini, and more. Women in leadership were a normal and accepted part of church life in the early church.

Many people have read our English versions of Scripture and concluded that when Paul came along he preached against women teaching and being in leadership positions, but nothing could be further from the truth. Before meeting Christ, Paul, who was a Pharisee, had traditional and strong Jewish views on women and their place in society, even to the point of praying every morning what is now known as the Jewish prayer “The Three Blessings” in which they thank God that they are not a slave, a gentile, or a woman.

After his encounter with Christ on the Damascus road Paul underwent profound changes in his beliefs and became one of the most outspoken champions for women since Christ. What a heart and mind change had to happen to Paul in order for him to later go on to say, “There is neither slave nor free, Jew or gentile, male or female, but all are one (equal) in Christ.” (Gal 3:28) 

Paul worked alongside, and respected, women as leaders in the early church. 60% of the women he mentions in his letters, he calls colleagues or co-workers, acknowledging them as leaders, deacons, pastors, evangelists and apostles.

So how do we view the Scriptures in our English Bibles that appear to say that Paul believed that women should not teach or hold leadership positions?

Pauls tricky passages

1 Corinthians 14

We need to understand some things about how the Scriptures, and Paul’s letters in particular, were written. Paul’s letters were not written to us today; they were written to specific churches and often addressed very specific situations within those churches. We cannot take his teachings and apply them all as an apostolic mandate by Paul to the modern church without first sorting out, and understanding, what was written about specific situations, and was for them only, and what can be applied to the global church of today. To take everything Paul wrote and say it is for us today is bad scholarship and unwise stewarding of Scripture.

For example in 1st Corinthians we see Paul addressing specific issues that had developed within the Corinthian church. They were behaving like those of other religions, and their meetings had descended into being a place of disorder, where everyone did what was right in their own eyes.

In this letter to the church at Corinth Paul’s goal is to help establish order and give guidelines in a church where people interrupted each other, tried to all speak at once, and even tried to include wrong teachings that didn’t line up with Christ’s example and teaching.

In this letter he covered a number of different issues related to both church life and doctrine. He addressed the topics of divisions and quarrels, sexual immorality, lawsuits among believers, marriage and singleness, freedom in Christ, order in worship, the significance of the Lord’s Supper, and the right use of spiritual gifts, and he also included a teaching on the resurrection. In all the subjects Paul covers in this letter there is a common theme – Paul’s emphasis on Christian conduct in the local church. Paul expected that Christian people would live according to Christ’s example and ideals. Or, as he told them, “You have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body” (6:20).

In 1 Cor 14 Paul addresses three main groups of people – tongues speakers, prophets, and women. He uses the same Greek verb for “be silent” or “hold your peace” (sigaō) to address each of these three groups of people.

  • A tongues-speaker, male or female, is to be silent (sigaō) and stop speaking in tongues if there is no one to interpret (1 Cor. 14:28 ESV).

  • A prophet, male or female, is to be silent (sigaō) and stop prophesying if someone else receives a revelation (1 Cor. 14:30).

  • Women are to be silent (sigaō) and stop asking questions if there is anything they want to learn; they should keep their questions for home (1 Cor. 14:34-35). This is the first time in the NT that men are instructed to teach their women, meaning that women have the right to learn, just as men do.

Paul was not telling women that they had no right to speak, or teach, in church; he was simply trying to bring order into chaos. Verse 26 is the main thought for this whole chapter – take turns, listen to each other!

We must understand that 1 Corinthians 14 is not written to today’s church. Can we learn from what Paul wrote to the Corinthian church? Definitely! And can we find in what he wrote wisdom for corporate gatherings? Yes! But, we must not make the mistake of thinking that he is writing specifically to us today. 

In 1 Corinthians chapter 11 Paul acknowledges that Corinthian women prayed and prophesied aloud in church gatherings, and he doesn’t tell them to be silent then (1 Cor. 11:5). In chapters 12 and 14 of 1 Corinthians, Paul mentions several ministries, some of which involve speaking or singing, and tells the church to eagerly desire them, but he does not exclude women from seeking them or say that they are only for men (e.g., 1 Cor. 12:7-11, 28; 14:26).

Ephesians 5

In Ephesians 5 we read some verses that appear to say that men have headship, or authority and rule, over women. Nowhere in the original versions of his writings does Paul encourage the ruling of one gender over another. But over the centuries the church perverted Paul’s teaching in order to promote a doctrine that said men have leadership over women. Some even went so far as to say that all women, married and unmarried, must submit to the headship of men. Let’s have a look at those verses and see what Paul is, in fact, saying.

In verse 21 Paul says very clearly that we should be in mutual submission, one to another. The tricky verses in this passage are verses 22 – 33. In verse 22 in our English versions it says “Wives submit to your husbands…” In the original writings the word submit is not used at all, it is a given in light of the verse before it, where we are told to mutually submit one to another.

In verse 23 we read in our Bibles that Paul says “the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church…” Over the years we’ve taken the word “head” to mean “boss”, ‘authority” or “ruler” when in fact it means “source”. It is the word ‘kephale’ in the original, which at the time Paul was writing meant - source, headwaters of a river, point of origin. In the writings of Scripture, and in common literature of that time, the use of the word ‘kephale’ referred to the source of something. It wasn’t until almost 200 years after Paul’s death that it started to be changed in the church to mean leader or authority.

So Paul is saying here that man was the source from which woman came just as Christ was the point of origin of man, because he created man. Paul goes on to say that the head of every man is Christ. If the word meant “authority” then every man ever born must already be under the authority or lordship of Christ. Yet we don’t take it to mean that.

Early church leaders knew what Paul meant in using the word “head”.

  • CYRIL, BISHOP OF ALEXANDRIA (AD 376 -44) commenting on 1 Cor 11:3, defines the head metaphor as ‘source’: ”Thus we say that the kephaleo (source) of every man is Christ, because he was excellently made through him. And the kephaleo of woman is man, because she was taken from his flesh. Likewise the kephaleo of Christ is God, because he is from him according to nature.”

  • THEODORE, BISHOP OF MOPSUESTIA IN CILICIA (AD 350-428) interprets the metaphor as ‘source or origin of life’. He held that” just as Christ was considered head of all who had been born anew in Him, so the woman has man as her head or source since she had taken her being from him.”

  • JOHN CHRYSOSTOM, BISHOP OF CONSTANTINOPLE (AD347-407) commenting on 1 Cor 11:3 said the “head” metaphor does not mean that one has authority over another or one is under subjection to another. He wrote “For had Paul meant to speak of rule and subjection, as thou sayest, he would not have bought forward the instance of a wife but rather of a slave and a master.”

Man as head of the home

Another aspect that the church over the centuries has applied to these verses is that Paul meant that the man is the “head of the family” or the “priest of the family”. Nowhere does Paul say this, and nowhere does Scripture support this teaching. It is a man-made doctrine established to place men in a position of superiority to their wives and children. Again we must look at what God’s original plan for mankind was, and what Scripture teaches overall. If we do so we see that man and women were made equal, given equal dominion and authority; and are told to be mutually submissive one to another. Scripture also says that as believers we are all priests and kings. Therefore we must conclude that as husbands and wives they share mutual and equal responsibility for their family, neither having rule over the other. They are both held responsible in God’s sight for the spiritual atmosphere in the home, both responsible to see their children trained in the ways of God, and both are called to worship Him and to warfare on behalf of each other and their family. God promotes a marriage of equality of responsibility, of teamwork, of honouring each other’s gifts and strengths, and using them to build a family together.

Paul Commends godly women

In 2 Timothy Paul commends godly women for their input into Timothy’s life and goes on to say to Timothy in chapter 2 “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses, entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others. The word people in that verse is gender inclusive, not exclusive. Paul is saying here – find faithful men and women that you can entrust my teachings to who can in turn teach others.

There are other passages, too, from Paul’s writings which have been misconstrued throughout church history and used to form a particular narrative that served certain men’s agendas. I won’t go into all the others at this time, as I didn’t set out to write a book, just a small series of articles.

You can do your own study into those passages and I encourage you to do so. The information is out there if you choose to look.

Paul, sadly, has been greatly misrepresented over the centuries. After Jesus, he was probably the most outspoken and greatest champion of women in the New Testament church.  His words set in place a record, for all time, of the equality of women in the church and society.

Click here to read Part 5.