Hermeneutics of Women in Ordained Office

Presented to the Fifty-fourth General Assembly (1987)

[Note: General Assembly reports (whether from a committee or its minority) are thoughtful treatises but they do not have the force of constitutional documents—the Westminster Standards or the Book of Church Order. They should not be construed as the official position of the OPC.]


In response to an overture from the Presbytery of the Midwest, the Fifty-first General Assembly established a committee of three members "to consider the hermeneutical aspects of the debate over the role of women in ordained office and to report to the 52nd General Assembly with specific applications to this issue." This Committee presented a preliminary report which discussed some of the hermeneutical tensions involved in such a study and provided a series of hermeneutical guidelines. It quoted extensively from the 1978 report of a similar committee of the Christian Reformed Church. The 52nd General Assembly recommitted the whole matter, including the preliminary report with its recommendations and the report of the advisory committee, to the Committee, which it enlarged by the addition of two members. Two alternates were elected as well, who became members shortly after the Assembly due to the resignation of two of the original members. Thus the undersigned have (with the exception of the present chairman, who replaced George Cottenden after he resigned following the 53rd General Assembly) functioned as the Committee during virtually the whole period between the 52nd and 53rd General Assemblies. During this time six meetings were held in Philadelphia, during some of which one or more members were present by telephone hookup.

The recommittal motion further instructed that "an exegesis of passages relevant to the debate over the role of women in ordained office be included in the Committee's report to the 53rd General Assembly." The Committee determined, in the light of this addition to the mandate, not to attempt another systematic treatment of hermeneutical principles. Rather, we have sought to identify the texts of Scripture which appear to have the most bearing on the matter and to exegete them, raising particular hermeneutical questions as they occur.

Central to both the original mandate and the recommittal motion was the question of women in ordained office. Section II of this report deals with Women and the Office of Elder. Section III was to address the question of women and the office of Deacon, but has still not been completed. Due to the debatable nature of this section of the report, it will be completed for separate consideration at the next Assembly. One of the matters recommitted by the 52nd General Assembly was Recommendation 3 of the original report, which called for a study of ways in which women's gifts might more fully be used in the church apart from ordained office. Section IV of the present report lays some groundwork for dealing with this issue. Section V presents a proposed budget for 1987-88, and Section VI presents three recommendations. Since the J & R debate preempted consideration of this report at the 53rd General Assembly, the following text is virtually identical to the report prepared for that meeting.


A. Key Texts

1. I Corinthians 11:2-16; 14:33b-36; I Timothy 2:8-15

a. These three passages are the major New Testament texts on the relationship between men and women and their respective roles in the corporate of communal life of the church. Consequently, they, especially I Corinthians 14 and I Timothy 2, have become crucial in the debate over the role of women in ordained office; they are perceived as addressing that issue more directly than any other texts in Scripture. Those who argue against women's ordination find that most explicit support for their position in these passages; those who argue the contrary usually expend a great deal of effort in trying to show that they do not exclude women's ordination.

b. In current treatment of these passages, particularly I Timothy 2, there are three basic positions: (A) Paul, the man, intends an absolute, perpetual exclusion of women from ordained office, but Paul is wrong and therefore to be disregarded. (B) Paul, the inspired apostle, intends, and therefore God intends, to exclude women from ordained office, but that exclusion is necessitated by circumstances (cultural and/or religious-ecclesiastical) unique to the time and place of his original readers or at least other than our own. The exclusion, then, is limited in its applicability and temporary; by God's design it is not relevant today, at least directly, and therefore is no longer binding. (C) Paul, the inspired apostle, intends, and therefore God intends, an absolute, perpetual exclusion that is binding until Christ's return. On the assumption of the divinely inspired origin and authority of these passages, only (B) and (C) merit consideration; is the exclusion in view temporary or permanent? localized or universal?

c. Particularly in the last decade or so, these passages, especially I Timothy 2, have been scrutinized intensively in relation to the issue of women's ordination. The result is a bewildering, almost overwhelming array of interpretive details and hypotheses, of exegetical claim and counterclaim. That gives rise to the great danger of getting stuck in a morass of conflicting interpretive opinion and so of losing sight of the "forest." So it is all the more important to strive for balance and to lay hold of what these passages clearly teach in the midst of much that is admittedly imponderable and uncertain. The discussion that follows, then, does not attempt exhaustive exegesis, but seeks to grasp that clarity, primarily by identifying boundaries or parameters for properly understanding these passages.

d. All three passages are expressly didactic in character and include legislative elements. At the same time they, like all Scripture, are historically conditioned; they are "occasional," that is, addressed to specific problems in a particular time and place. That "occasional" factor in no way prevents these passages from containing teaching of enduring validity, but it can be a source of some difficulty in trying to identify that validity. How are we to distinguish within these passages between abiding norms and what may be temporary, localized expressions of those norms? (Clear examples of the latter are the specific form of head "covering" in I Corinthians 11 and the "braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes" in I Timothy 2:9.) It needs to be stressed, then, that to pose this question is not a sure sign of weakened or abandoned confidence in the authority of Scripture, but is prompted by the text itself; everyone has to wrestle with this question.

e. In fact none of these passages explicitly addresses the question of women's ordination. In I Corinthians 11 the issue is women praying and prophesying, apparently in public; nothing is said about office or ordination. Similarly, in I Corinthians 14 and I Timothy 2 the issue is women speaking/teaching "in church" ("in God's household," I Timothy 3:15); "it is the publicity, not the formality of it, which is the point" (Warfield, The Presbyterian, October 30, 1919; italics added). The time-honored conclusion that the latter two passages exclude women from ordained office is an (apparently unavoidable) a fortiori inference: because women are prohibited from speaking in public gatherings of the church they are therefore necessarily excluded from the ordained office of teaching in the church.

f. How are we to understand the references to women praying and prophesying in I Corinthians 11:5, 13? Charles Hodge, following Calvin, believes that Paul is making a concession for the sake of his argument: although he does not approve of women speaking in church meetings, as I Corinthians 14 and I Timothy 2 plainly show, he grants that practice here in the interest of highlighting his main point, namely, the impropriety of women praying and prophesying with uncovered heads. Warfield, on the other hand, stresses the lack of clarity in I Corinthians 11:5, holding at the same time that "there is no reason whatever for believing that 'praying and prophesying' in the church is meant."

But there are several substantial objections to this understanding. First, if the passage is read on its own terms, its plain suggestion is that women praying and women prophesying in public meetings of the church are recognized and accepted practices; nothing in the passage even intimates disapproval, and it is even more unlikely (see the third objection below) that the passage is concerned with private activities. It seems fair to say that Hodge and others reject this suggestion only because of the resulting contradiction with what they believe I Corinthians 14 and I Timothy 2 plainly teach. Second, the fact that Paul repeats his reference to women praying at a different point in his argument (verse 13) counts against the idea that the reference is concessive and points instead to an established practice. Third, Hodge recognizes that verse 5 take for granted that women receive and exercise the gift of prophecy (I Corinthians, p. 305); so, since in his view the public exercise of the gift is prohibited, presumably he is left with its private exercise for women. But what can that mean? In the light of the overriding emphasis in chapters 12-14 that all spiritual gifts are given "for the common good" (12:7) and "for the edification of the church" (14:12) as well as the stress in chapter 14 on the special, heightened value of prophecy just in this respect, such a notion of "private prophecy" is a virtual contradiction in terms and certainly an artificial abstraction.

Our conclusion, then, is that I Corinthians 11:5, 13 imply that in some form public prayer and prophecy by women was an accepted practice in the churches known to Paul (see verse 16; of the four daughters of Philip the evangelist at Caesarea who were known by the fact that they prophesied, Acts 21:9).

g. I Corinthians 14:33b-36 is not decisive for the question of women's ordination.

(1) It is not as clear as some think exactly what Paul intends to forbid. Within the passage itself a sweeping prohibition on women speaking (publicly) in church would seem to be undeniable. With I Timothy 2:11ff. also in view, Warfield, for instance, speaks of "these two absolutely plain and emphatic passages" (that establish the exclusion of women from "specifically the functions of preaching and ruling elders"). But he can assert such clarity about I Corinthians 14 only because, as we noted above, he considers I Corinthians 11:3ff. to be so unclear as to present nothing counterindicative. As we have tried to show, however, I Corinthians 11 clearly implies that some women were praying and prophesying publicly with Paul's tacit approval.

On that assumption, then, and on the further assumptions (1) that Paul is not contradicting himself and (2) that 14:33b ff. is not a non-Pauline gloss, it follows that 11:3ff. limits the apparently absolute sweep of the prohibitions in 14:34 in some way. How? Several explanations have been offered (see J. Hurley, Man and Woman in Biblical Perspective, pp. 186-188). While in our judgment none is entirely convincing, most satisfying perhaps is the view that in the light of the immediately surrounding context, 14:33ff. prohibits women specifically from participating in the (authoritative) judging or evaluation of prophetic utterances. How exactly the prohibition is limited is not so easy to answer; that it is not absolute, however, seems clear in the light of 11:5,13.

(2) I Corinthians 14 deals with the specific matter of prophecy and tongues and their exercise. The chapter as a whole is structured by a comparison between these two gifts in the interest of showing the relatively greater value of prophecy. That contrast runs like a backbone down the body of almost the entire argument, beginning with verses 2 and 3 and culminating in the concluding declaration of verse 39. Now it is certainly possible that in verses 33b-36 Paul could momentarily digress from his central argument to address another matter. But that is not likely, given the structure just noted, nor is there anything in the passage that demands such a parenthetical excursion. This confirms that verses 33b-36, whatever their precise meaning, are related in some way to the exercise of prophecy. But then, on the assumption that prophecy and tongues are revelatory gifts that were confined to the apostolic, foundational period of the Church's history and do not continue today, we are brought to the conclusion that I Corinthians 14, including verses 33b-36 with their prohibition on women speaking, addresses a particular set of issues in a church situation that by God's design no longer exists; what is said about the exercise of prophecy and tongues is not directly applicable to the Church today.

For the foregoing reasons, then, we conclude that I Corinthians 14:33b-36 has no direct bearing on the issue of women's ordination.

h. The situation in I Timothy 2 differs significantly.

(1) Numerous efforts have been made (in some cases, we should not hesitate to recognize, by those fully committed to the inspired authority and integrity of Scripture as God's Word) to show that the commands of verses 11-12 are no longer applicable today. Those efforts, by now sustained and repeated, have nonetheless been unsuccessful. They are unconvincing in handling some of the details of the passage (e.g., in trying to show that "quietness" [verses 11,12] is somehow not intended to exclude women from the teaching or exercise of authority in view, or in maintaining that authentein [verse 12] means the rebellious abuse or some other misuse of authority). Unconvincing as well are efforts to reconstruct the background at Ephesus that allegedly limits the applicability of Paul's commands to that time and place. No doubt his prohibition is occasioned by the particular circumstances of his original readers (what statement in Scripture isn't?), but an accurate profile of the opposition he is concerned about has not been demonstrated persuasively. Nor in all likelihood can it be, given the limitations of the biblical and existing nonbiblical data. Probably it was some form of Judaism or Jewish Christianity with syncretistic, Gnosticizing tendencies, but if and, if so, how far and in what manner it had penetrated the Ephesian church remain unclear. It is an extremely questionable hermeneutical procedure to attempt to limit the current applicability of biblical teaching, especially a command, on the basis of an historical reconstruction that necessarily is largely speculative. It is risky indeed, as many today are doing, to view the prohibition in verse 12 "as based primarily on a situation for which we have no clear evidence" (D. Moo, Trinity Journal, 2 [19811:217).

(2) There are certainly a number of exegetical uncertainties in this passage (e.g., what exactly is the analogy between men and women in verses 8-10? are women's prayers in view in verse 9? how are we to understand the use of Genesis 2-3 in verses 13-14? the reference to childbearing in verse 15?). But it is thoroughly wrongheaded to hold that because of these difficulties in the surrounding context it is arbitrary in principle and therefore not permissible to draw firm conclusions about the commands of verses 11-13, especially to conclude that they are still binding today. The extension of such an hermeneutical approach to Scripture as a whole would mean that because it contains "some things that are hard to understand" (II Pet. 3:16) therefore nothing it teaches is clear.

In fact, with all that remains imponderable about Paul's argument, it is hard to deny that he is plainly basing the commands of verses 12-13 on an order established in creation at the beginning and on the fact of the sinful malfunction of that order at the Fall, and that he therefore intends that as long as the present creation order exists the commands continue in force.

Several broader contextual considerations reinforce this conclusion.

(a) We need always to be on guard against our tendency to treat the Pastoral Epistles as a kind of first Book of Church Order, which they are obviously not. Still, the Pastorals have a unique role in the New Testament canon. They embody apostolic provision for the postapostolic future of the church, particularly as they order aspects of church life for that coming time, "until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ" (I Tim. 6:14).

(b) The controlling concern in the section I Timothy 2:1-3:16 is "how people ought to conduct themselves in God's household, which is the church of the living God" (3:15). This means that 2:8-15, despite some puzzling elements (e.g., the reference to childbearing in verse 15) addresses (permanent) relationships in the church community as a whole, not just between husbands and wives.

(c) Within the section 2:1-3:16 Paul goes on immediately, connecting directly with 2:8-15, to deal with the permanent offices in the church, beginning with the qualifications of the overseer/elder (3:1-7, cf. Titus 1:6-9). In other words, in 3:1ff. Paul orders and makes positive provision for the teaching and rule he has just prohibited to women.

(3) This last observation, (c), provides an important qualification on the commands in 2:11,12. We have already seen (II,A.g. above) that I Corinthians 11:3ff. limits the apparently absolute imposition of silence on women found in 14:34-35. In keeping with that limitation, I Timothy 3:1-7 suggests that 2:12-13 prohibits women specifically from exercising the teaching and ruling functions reserved to the office of elder. Warfield's statement quoted above, then, needs to be modified. In the case of I Timothy 2:11,12, the point is not only "publicity" but also "formality," formal (official), public teaching and ruling; women are not to be (ordained as) elders.

(4) An important substructure of Paul's argument in this passage, explaining in part his use of Genesis 2 and 3, is the unique analogy that exists between the church and the family. The basic form and role relationships established in the home (cf. Eph. 5:22ff.; Col. 3:18-21) have a carry-over into the church: the elders are to the rest of the church as the husband/father is to the wife/children in the family. This substructure, rooted primarily in the biblical doctrine of the covenant, reflects the parallel found throughout Scripture between the family and the church (the covenant community as a whole), a parallel unlike that between any other human institutions. This unique correspondence, we believe, is one that only a Reformed doctrine of the church, in distinction from the various ecclesiologies of non-Reformed evangelicalism, is able truly to appreciate and capitalize on in trying to identify and articulate a genuinely biblical rationale for defining the role of women in the church. A fundamental reason why women are not to be ordained as elders is that the church is not an aggregate body of individual believers but the family (believers together with their children) in covenant with God. As Paul says, the church is "God's household." In our judgment there can be little doubt that an unbiblical individualism, present in many who are otherwise fully committed to the authority of Scripture, is a source of considerable confusion in current debates about women's ordination.

2. Galatians 3:28

a. No discussion of the "key texts" relating to women and the office of elder would be complete, of course, without reference to Galatians 3:28. As Stephen B. Clark notes:

"Nowadays many assume that Galatians 3:28 is the place in which we find the heart of scriptural teaching about the roles of men and women. Moreover, many interpret Galatians 3:28 to mean that ideally in Christ there are no role differences between men and women, an interpretation which opposed Galatians 3:28 to all the other texts which assert such a difference. According to this line of interpretation, this tension should be resolved by giving a preference to Galatians 3:28 (Man and Woman in Christ, p. 138)."

A recent exponent of this approach is F. F. Bruce, who writes in his commentary on Galatians in The New International Greek Testament Commentary (p. 190): "...if a Gentile may exercise spiritual leadership in church as freely as a Jew, or a slave as freely as a citizen, why not a woman as freely as a man? Paul states the basic principle here; if restrictions on it are found elsewhere in the Pauline corpus as in I Corinthians 14:34ff. or I Timothy 2:11ff. they are to be understood in relation to Galatians 3:28, and not vice versa."

It is your Committee's judgment that the context in which this verse appears supports Clark's conclusion as the more accurate one (pp. 138-139):

"While Galatians 3:28 does provide a helpful perspective on men's and women's role in the New Testament, it is hardly the locus classicus on men's and women's roles. It does not even properly qualify as a key text since it does not explicitly address the subject of the roles of men and women.... For a key statement on men's and women's roles, one should look at the passages on personal relationships and social order that are directly concerned with the matter."

b. The fact is that there seems to be general agreement among those appealing to Galatians 3:28 in the current discussions as to Paul's basic teaching in this text. There are certainly differences of opinion regarding the precise force of the apostle's references to the law (verses 21, 23, 24), the pedagogue (24, 25), baptism (27), et al.; but it must be clear to all that these closing verses of chapter 3 are part of his impassioned argument for the gospel of justification by faith in Jesus Christ, the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham, a promise which the addition of the Law four hundred and thirty years later could not nullify. The same Scripture that reveals that all are sinners announces the good news that salvation is promised to all who believe, whatever their race, social status, or sex.

The basic thrust of verse 28 is expressed in various ways in the recent literature, but there is essential agreement that it speaks of the oneness of male and female as beneficiaries of God's grace in Christ. Everyone who believes, without distinction, is God's child and an heir to the promises of the covenant made with Abraham.

c. Since the theme of the rest of the epistle focuses on the distinction between Jew and Gentile, it has been asked why Paul here adds the contrasting pairs slave/free and male/female. And it has become common to suggest that he is consciously rejecting the Jewish thanksgiving of his time that God had not created him a Gentile, a slave, or a woman. The earliest written source for such a Jewish prayer seems to be the second century AD., but the maxim is found earlier among the Greeks; and it is assumed that such a prayer was part of Paul's Jewish training.

The basis for such a thanksgiving was not disparagement of Gentiles, slaves, or women as such, but rather recognition of the fact that significant religious privileges and responsibilities were open only to free Jewish males. Women, proselytes, and slaves were not fully responsible members of the worshipping community. Women did not have equal access to God's presence with men. They were allowed only as far as the Court of Women.

It may be that Paul was aware of such a Jewish prayer and that a recognition of this fact can deepen our appreciation of his affirmation that believing Gentiles, slaves, and women are all full and equal members of Christ's body; but it is not at all clear how a recognition of a possible allusion to such a prayer necessitates the conclusion that Galatians 3:28 requires a denial of all role differentiation in the church.

d. Another popular suggestion is that Galatians 3:28, like I Corinthians 12:13 and Colossians 3:11 (and Rom. 10:12), represents an early Christian baptismal formula. Again, this may be the case. Baptism is certainly prominent in all these contexts. And in such a setting the reference to sex would take on special significance since the Old Covenant sign (circumcision) was applied to males only. But again this would underscore the soteriological thrust of Galatians 3:28. "The woman...comes into the covenant relation of God's people through her own faith and baptism, and is fully part of the covenant relationship with God" (Clark, p. 141).

e. Attention is often called to the change in construction when Paul states the third pair in Galatians 3:28. After the two references to ouk eni...oude, Paul adds ouk eni...kai. The most likely suggestion is that Paul is here influenced by the LXX rendering of Genesis 1:27 (arsen kai thelu epoiesen autois—cf. Mark 10:6), but more by way of natural reminiscence than purposeful allusion. Bruce points out (p. 189) that the "slight change of construction" makes "no substantial change in meaning."

f. Certainly it would be a mistake to imagine that Paul is suggesting that in Christ the original created male-female relationship is negated. Redemption does not destroy but rather renews creation. Redemption does not destroy the creation ordinances of God. Contemporary rhetoric often seems to obscure this, however. Howard Keir, for example, writes that:

"...Paul states unequivocally that for those 'in Christ' natural distinctions no longer exists.. .the old Adam has been manifestly dissolved in Christ and the new humanity, free from distinctions of the old world, takes its place" (Evangelical Quarterly, LV [1983], 31). Whether Keir is calling for some new androgenous order in the church is not made clear.

g. Actually the evidence that the apostle is employing the "New Adam" imagery when he says here that "you are all one (New Man?) in Christ Jesus" is not totally compelling. Appeal can be made to the echo of Genesis 1:27 in "male and female." Appeal is also made to Genesis 2:24 as the background of "you are all one" in Galatians 3:28 (though Paul does not follow the LXX "sarka mian"). And the strongest argument perhaps is the fact that in the similar text, Colossians 3:20, reference to renewal in the image of the One who created the first Adam is clear. But, again, renewal in the Second Adam is just that—renewal, not destruction, of the created order.

h. As we shall stress again below (see IV), Galatians 3:28 certainly does have social implications regarding the interrelations of men and women. It should be evident, however, to those who affirm the absolute authority of the whole Bible as our rule of faith and life that our own conclusions regarding such "implications" must not be allowed to set aside the clear teaching of the Scripture when it addresses such a question as the qualifications for special offices in the church, but rather our fallible and unauthoritative conclusions must be judged and revised in the light of Scripture. But for many contemporary Christians there's the rub. "It is a fairly common assumption in current interpretation that unity and equality in Christ, coram Deo, if consistently understood, implies both functional interchangeability in all social groups, including the Church, and strictly egalitarian, non-hierarchical patterns of authority" (John Jefferson Davis, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 19 [1976], 7).

i. There are in general three possible answers to the question of how the texts we have considered under II,A.1. relate to the teaching of Galatians 3:28 regarding the positions of men and women in the church.

(1) The teaching of these other texts contradicts the teaching of Galatians 3:28, and so a choice has to be made as to which is truly Christian, truly in line with the gospel of Christ; and the choice obviously must be for Galatians 3:28. In its bald form (Paul was correct in Galatians 3:28; Paul was wrong in those other texts) this view may appeal to few. But with certain refinements in the interest of preserving respect for Paul as a teacher, this view is very popular today. Krister Stendahl speaks in the same sentence (The Bible and the Role of Women, p. 35) both of Paul's understandably gradual transcendence of "the inherited fundamental view" and of the special "circumstances at Corinth" (see option 2 below). Howard Keir suggests that in I Corinthians 11:3-17 "the argument.. is tortuous to say the least and uncharacteristically Pauline;" and therefore may well be an interpolation (p. 33 of work cited above). In dealing with the Corinthian text, William Klassen can speak of the way Paul accommodates or compromises the freedom he had spelled out so clearly in Galatians 3:28 when writing to a church which "found this freedom too threatening." But regarding I Timothy 2:9-15 Klassen concludes:

"The whole of this section has to be rejected as so blatantly contradicting Paul's clear teaching...that it cannot be seen as normative for early Christianity. To argue on the basis of God's creative sequence for the submissive role of the women is out of character for Paul.... We have, therefore, no other option but to treat I Timothy 2:9-15 as the work of someone in the early church who could not come to terms with the freedom of Jesus and Paul on this matter.... It is hard to measure the damage it has done in the history of the church. Responsible exegesis demands that we come to terms with it" (From Jesus to Paul, ed. by Peter Richardson and John C. Hurd, pp. 203, 204). Though they differ among themselves as to how they do it, all such views may be seen as various ways to "come to terms with" the perceived contradiction between Galatians 3:28 and these other texts.

(2) Perhaps this second "answer" to the relationship between Galatians 3:28 and the texts dealing explicitly with women in the church situation should be considered but another variety of answer (1). (The fact that a writer like Stendahl combines both answers points in that direction.) But here the exegetes do not speak at all of contradiction but rather of a basic harmony. The harmony, however, is achieved by asserting that the women-in-the-church texts are all so conditioned by the culture and the time that they are no longer normative. Keir says that I Corinthians 14:34 addressed "clearly a local problem" (Keir, p. 38). Osborne says that the teaching of I Timothy 2:8-15 is based on the implications of women teaching men in the first century. Since those implications are not present in our time the teaching is no longer authoritative (Grant Osborne, "Hermeneutics and Women in the Church," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 20 [1977], 337-352). F. F. Bruce seems to suggest a similar approach, though his comment is very brief.

We have already examined the "culturally-conditioned, therefore not normative" interpretation of I Corinthians 11:2-16 and I Timothy 2:11-15 (above) and rejected it. In an interesting article in the Catholic Biblical Quarterly CXXXI (1969), 50-58, Madeleine Boucher insists that to a first-century Jewish mind like Paul's, there was no tension between two apparently different view of the role of women, "a theory of subordination and a theory of equality." She appeals to I Peter 3:7 as evidence for this and suggests that Judaism and Christianity "were alike in teaching at once the religious equality and the social subordination of women, and that no break occurred between the rabbis and Paul on this matter." She herself agrees with Stendahl that we today must choose between Galatians 3:28 and Paul's view that the creation order grounds a certain subordination, but she insists that we be clear that "the tension arises from modern man's inability to hold these two ideas together"—and that we find no support in the Bible for choosing the one idea and rejecting the other.

(3) There is but one answer to the question of the relationship between Galatians 3:28 and the texts considered above under II,A.1. that is open to the Bible-believing Christian, if he is not convinced that the teaching of I Timothy 2:11-15 and I Corinthians 11:2-16 is so culturally conditioned as to be no longer normative for the church; namely, that full equality and oneness for male and female in the Lord and role differentiation in the church are compatible and are both a part of God's authoritative revelation to his church today.

Clark suggests that "unless we assume that Paul is normally incoherent, it would make more sense to begin with the view that Paul had some way of putting together passages like Galatians 3:28 and I Corinthians 11:2-16, which were probably written within a year or two of one another;" and that Galatians 3:28 "is not directed against those differences of social role for men and women which other scripture passages indicate are based upon the way God created the human race" (p. 150).

Clark stresses that according to the Pauline perspective, reflected most clearly in the so-called household codes, "As long as a certain relationship exists, it needs an order." This is where he finds Paul King Jewett's position so clearly untenable. "No one can arrive at the combination of exalting the sexual relationship and eliminating role differences on the basis of scripture. The whole position can only be explained as an attempt to find a basis in scripture for some favorite opinions of our contemporary society" (pp. 159-160).

And this is where the insistence that the church must achieve consistency in eliminating all distinction based upon any of the three coordinate contrasts in Galatians 3:28 flounders. Clearly the comparison among the Jew-Greek, slave-free, and male-female relationships does not apply in all respects. "In Galatians 3:28 Paul compares these relationships according to one common quality. All three involve status distinctions in one's relationship with God according to the Mosaic Law. In other respects, the three relationships are very different, and Paul's approach to them differs" (Clark, p. 158). Slavery is a man-made institution, a sinful one at that, and it is rightfully abolished altogether. But the male-female relationships are ordained by the Creator. They are not abolished, and they are still governed by role relationships in accord with God's created order. Those are perhaps correct who translate I Corinthians 7:21, "if you can gain your freedom, do so" (N.I.V.). Paul would never give such advice to marriage partners or to children. In I Peter 3:1-7 there is reflection upon the full equality and oneness of the wife with the husband "as a fellow-heir of the grace of life."

It is perhaps worth noting, also, in response to such biblical feminists as Jewett, that the revealed life of the Trinity demonstrates that functional subordination for creative or redemptive purpose in no way demeans essential personhood (see David article, p. 208).


(To be presented to the 55th [1988] General Assembly)


As we have argued above (II,A.1.h.), I Timothy 2:11-12, though not directly, decisively addresses the issue of the ordination of women as teaching and ruling elders; apparently it is the only passage to do so. That prohibition, however, is specific and so leaves unanswered the question of what ministry, including speaking/teaching may still be permissible for women in the church. Concerning that question we would offer several observations.

A. In the church women are part of the unity of the Spirit and the fellowship of the Spirit (Eph. 4:3, Phil. 2:1); they, too, have been baptized with the Spirit (Acts 2:17-18, I Cor. 12:13). The question, then, how women may give legitimate expression in the congregation to the biblical insights and discernment that they, too, have received from the Holy Spirit's illumination must receive a positive answer; what is given to edify others must come to expression if others are in fact to be edified. That positive answer calls for the continuing, careful deliberation of the church today. This is the single reference to Phoebe in the New Testament.

B. At this point, however, we wish to put our comments on the passages discussed in a somewhat broader perspective. In working at our assignment we have been impressed with the paucity of, and, to a certain degree, the indirectness of, the biblical evidence against women's ordination, a paucity and indirectness all the more remarkable in view of the fact that some are making that issue a mark of fidelity to biblical Christianity in our time. We have also been struck, for instance, how extensively Calvin's remarks on these passages are based on what is "unseemly" and "incompatible" with "natural propriety" and "common sense" (Commentary on First Corinthians, Fraser trans. [Eerdmans], 1960, pp. 306 ff.; his comments on the I Timothy 2 passage for the most part refer the reader to what he has already said on I Corinthians 14). Similarly, the comments of Charles Hodge on I Corinthians 11:13 are revealing (the text is "Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?"; but what Hodge says here he would apply as well to women speaking publicly in church meetings):

"This is an appeal to their own sense of propriety. The apostle often recognizes the intuitive judgments of the mind as authoritative.... The constitution of our nature being derived from God, the laws which he has impressed upon it, are as much a revelation from him as any other possible communication of his will. And to deny this, is to deny the possibility of all knowledge."

As we have reflected on such statements we have come to recognize that the strength of much of the current opposition to women's ordination stems from a very large premise, a premise that is not taught in Scripture itself but is assumed to underlie and solidify biblical teaching on the subject.

What is that assumed premise? In the words of one fairly recent Reformed exponent of it, "the premise underlying the Biblical teaching on this subject is that the Creator has not equipped women for positions of authority and initiative in the Christian Church. Her constitution, both in its strength and in its weakness, renders it inappropriate that she had such positions.. .To require a woman to exercise an authoritative, teaching ministry is like requesting her to sing bass. It is a violation of nature"; "the woman is not constitutionally fitted to be the asserter, maintainer and defender of the Christian faith.... If her Creator intended her for submissiveness, can the woman hope to cope adequately with a situation requiring authoritativeness and assertiveness?" (Donald MacLeod, The Banner of Truth, 81 [June 1970]: 37, 40).

It is the premise that often includes the ideas that men are relatively more important than women and that women are more susceptible to temptation (A. Schlatter, Die Briefe and die Tessalonicher, Philipper, Timotheus und Titus, [1950], p. 143), that woman "is easily misled and easily misleads. The world has always sized her up in this fashion: she is both seduced and seducer. Sharpness of discernment is not in general her principal quality" (E. L. Smelik, De brieven van Paulus aan Timotheus, Titus en Filemon, [1961], p. 42), that "the peculiar power and usefulness of women depend on their being the objects of admiration and affection" so that "the refinement and delicacy of their sex...should be carefully preserved" by permitting them in church to learn as much as they wish but not to speak (Hodge, First Corinthians, p. 305).

These statements have come to light randomly during the course of our reading. They could easily be multiplied.

Does any among us wish to defend this premise, particularly its "ontology" of women or the doubtful piece of natural theology expressed by Hodge? We doubt it. Yet we dare say that because of deeply rooted cultural and historical factors that have found their way into the thinking and life of the church virtually everyone of us is under its influence to one degree or another. And as long as that premise continues to control and the decidedly unbiblical elements in its assessment of women persist, we will not be able to put the issue of women's ordination in proper perspective, nor will we be able to make necessary and constructive advances in grasping why Scripture prohibits their ordination. We need to be especially sensitive here to the apostolic injunction found in another context, "Do not go beyond what is written" (I Cor. 4:6).

C. Biblical Teaching on the Identity of Woman

Our consideration of the proper ministry of women in the church must take into account what the Bible says about the identity of women in Creation, the effects of the Fall, and the identity of woman in Christ. Only then will we have an adequate basis for considering the role of women in the church.

1. The identity of woman by virtue of creation

a. The generic unity and the individuality of man and woman

The early chapters of Genesis speak of man and woman as a unity and also as individuals. As they relate the story of creation, they speak, on the one hand, generically. God created man, both male and female. With a slight change of focus, they speak, on the other hand, of man and woman individually.

These two perspectives are joined in a striking way. It is said that God created "man" (Gen. 1:27). God counsels with himself, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness" (Gen. 1:26). This reference is to man generically; but immediately thereafter, as reference is made to man's rule over the creatures, the attention shifts to man distributively. God counsels with himself, "They shall rule" (Gen. 1:26). The same pattern occurs in the next two verses. "Man" is used generically, "And God created man" (Gen. 1:27); but this generic word "man" refers to both male and female, "male and female he created them." It is interesting that both the singular pronoun "him" (otho) and the plural "them" (otham) appear in this sentence. "Man" is used generically, including both male and female; but, with a slight shift of focus, male and female are considered individually and the plural is used. God's blessing is pronounced on male and female, "God blessed them...," and male and female are charged to fill the earth and to rule over it. Later, the man, Adam, is clearly distinguished from the woman, Eve. For instance, it is the woman, not the man, who first sins (I Tim. 2:14).

The generic unity of man and woman is further indicated in that woman is taken out of man (Gen. 2:23). She is taken from man's side; she is fashioned from man's rib (Gen. 2:21-22). God could have created man and woman separately and then brought them together. According to the record, he did not: he created man and then formed woman out of man. Eve is called woman, because she is taken out of man.

It has been ascertained that human beings have both masculine and feminine qualities. Whether one is male or female depends on the predominancy of one set of qualities over the other. There are rare cases where feminine characteristics predominate in one who has a male body, and vice versa. We regard such confusion as abnormal; but its possibility emphasizes the generic relatedness of male and female, who are both referred to in the generic term "man."

b. The complementarity of man and woman in their difference

In their unity, man and woman also differ, and in their difference they complement each other. This is brought out clearly in the Genesis account. The Lord says that it is not good for man to be alone and counsels with himself to make a "fitting helper for him" (Gen. 2:18). God brought the birds and the wild animals to man, to see what he would call them (Gen. 2:19). Adam gave names to the cattle, the birds, and the wild beasts; but, as the record says, "for Adam no fitting helper was found" (Gen. 2:20). We need not think that we are presented here with a series of experiments and failures. Our attention is focused on the inability of man to find in the lower creation anything with which he could identify in such a way as to fulfill his deep-seated need. It is only as woman is formed out of what has been taken from his side that Adam can name or identify one to whom he can relate in this satisfying way. In Adam's response there is a jubilation of recognition. He names or identifies her thus: "Then the man said, ‘This one at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. This one shall be called Woman, for from man was she taken’" (Gen. 2:23). In recognizing and naming Eve thus, Adam sets her apart from all the rest of creation.

The generic unity and complementarity of man and woman is sometimes explained in terms of the Androgyne theory. According to this theory, man and woman are originally one. They are then separated and after their separation are involved in a continual search until they find each other again. This theory indeed teaches the generic unity of man and woman. It thinks of the original man/woman unity, however, as a complete whole. It is only when the two parts are separated that they seek each other out to be reunited. The book of Genesis also teaches the generic unity of man and woman. But it speaks of Adam as seeking for something that will complement him, even before Eve has been taken out of his body. He has a need that only the formation of the woman will satisfy. When Eve is formed, the kind of creature with whom he can have satisfying fellowship has appeared on the scene, and he recognizes her and names her appropriately. Even though the Bible speaks of man generically, as male and female, it is clear that its teaching does not square with that of the Androgyne theory.

The Bible teaches that there is a diversity between man and woman, between male and female; but with this difference there is a unity. In his created estate, before woman was taken from his body, man needed woman. According to the Bible, male and female complement or "round out" each other. This cannot be understood simply in physiological terms; the unity-in-diversity of male and female must be understood in terms of what makes man man and the full individuality of man and woman.

c. The high standing of woman as the complement of man

The Genesis account ascribes to woman an exalted standing. As Adam names her, he recognizes something in her that clearly distinguishes her and sets her apart from the other creatures and that constitutes her a fitting helper for him. She has in common with these creatures and with the man, that she has been taken from the ground. Together with them she is an "earthling." Nevertheless, she has been taken out of man. She shares with Adam his having become a living being by virtue of God's breathing in to him the breath of life (Gen. 2:7). When God counsels to make man in his image and likeness, he is also speaking of her. God also speaks of woman individually when he gives man and woman the place of dominion over the creation. It is she whom Adam recognizes as the one who can properly complement him.

The appropriateness of Eve did not reside simply in the fact that she could offer Adam "social" or even "spiritual" fellowship. There is an inner bond between the man and the woman that is expressed Adam's excited declaration, "This one at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh" (Gen. 2:23). What immediately follows is the description of the marriage bond that we call "the institution of marriage."

d. The complementarity of man and woman expressed in the marriage bond

It is difficult to escape the conclusion, that the complementarity of man and woman, which is an expression of a unity in their difference, is brought to quintessential expression in the marriage bond. The Bible strongly suggests that it is in marriage that the mutual complementation of man and woman comes to its fullest expression.

In this context, it is possible to understand why in the marriage relationship man and woman are said to become "one flesh" (Gen. 2:24). We rightly associate becoming one flesh with sexual union. The believer is forbidden to join himself with a harlot, because he thereby becomes "one flesh" with her (I Cor. 6:16). Sexual union, however, cannot exhaust the meaning of "becoming one flesh." In view of the biblical teaching on the subject as a whole, it is better to think of sexual union as an integral part but only as a part of becoming one flesh. The apostle Paul expresses the depth of the relationship when, as he speaks of the institution of marriage, he refers to a mystery and says that he is speaking of Christ and the church (Eph. 5:32). The bond between man and woman in marriage is like that of Christ and the church.

e. Authority and subordination as expressed in the marriage bond

The Bible is clear that together with the generic unity of man and woman and their mutual complementation, there is a definite order between them in the marriage relationship. Woman was taken out of man. The New Testament interprets this to mean that woman was created for man and not man for woman (I Cor. 11:9). Carrying through the analogy between Christ, the head, and the church, his body, it teaches that the man is the head of the wife (Eph. 5:23). Wives, therefore, are to submit to their husbands as to the Lord (Eph. 5:22), even as the church submits to Christ (Eph. 5:24). This relationship should not be misunderstood. Scripture teaches that the husband is to cherish and nurture his wife as Christ cares for his body, the church (Eph. 5:25), and as a man naturally cares for his own body (Eph. 5:28). The natural authority he has with his wife gives the husband opportunity to make room for her and to let her come to herself in the fullest way. In doing this he asserts his place of headship and leadership, but in such a manner that the mutual complementation of himself and his wife comes to expression. Conversely, the manner in which he and his wife complement each other is molded by the particular relation of authority and subordination that holds between them in their marriage, on the analogy of the relationship between Christ and the church.

f. Is the relationship of man and woman in marriage paradigmatic of their relationships in general?

Clearly since they speak of the one man and of the one woman, the first two chapters of Genesis focus attention on the marriage bond. Are the relationships that pertain there typical of an order that holds between man and woman in general, or are they restricted to marriage? This is by no means an easy question to answer. But we remember that God called man and woman, individually, to do more than enter into marriage, procreate, and fill the earth. God gave the dominion over the earth to both man and woman, individually, and called them to subdue it. That the terms of the cultural mandate extend beyond marriage gives us warrant to believe that there is a broad terrain of society on which man and woman relate to each other in such a way that the order between them is determined only by their individual ability and training, and not by a typical relationship of authority and subordination, as in the family. Their relationship as man and woman in other connections, such as that of the church, would then depend on whether this particular grouping is characterized by the typical authority/subordination relation between man and woman, or whether it is composed of a free association in which men and women relate as individuals.

2. The effects of the fall on the identity of woman (Gen. 3)

a. A hermeneutical principle

The Bible teaches that there has been a distortion of the relationship between man and woman, male and female, because of the fall. We take it as an established principle of interpretation that the relationships between man and woman in the form that they take after the fall are more or less distorted forms of what they were in the pristine created order. Even though the distortion is at times grotesque, we may understand that the created order was not destroyed by the fall but only distorted by it. The above principle may be deduced from a consideration of the terms as a whole of the curse that fell on man and woman. God's curse did not remove the ground from man, not did it prevent man from tilling it; the curse declared that man would till the ground and obtain its fruits with difficulty. God's curse did not prevent the woman from bearing children nor from enjoying the children she bore; it declared that the woman would bear children with difficulty and pain.

b. The distortion of the relationship between man and woman

The curse that was pronounced on woman suggests that the natural relationship between husband and wife had been disturbed by sin. It suggests, further, that this disturbance affected the relationship of authority and subordination that pertained between them.. We read, "Yet your urge shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you" (Gen. 3:16). As we saw, the complementarity of man and woman comes to quintessential expression in the marriage bond. This complementarity can exist only on the foundation of difference between man and woman, male and female. In marriage there is a natural order, of authority and subordination. The terms of the curse of the woman, however, suggest that these natural relationships have been disturbed. The order involved is still there; but it has been distorted, so that it is often obscured almost beyond recognition.

c. What this distortion entails

It is difficult to interpret Genesis 3:16 and to discover just what is meant by the woman's "urge" being to her husband and by her husband's ruling over her. Employing the above hermeneutical principle, however, we may infer that as a consequence of sin there is a distortion of the natural desire of the woman for her husband. In addition, the statement that her husband will rule over her suggests that the natural authority of the husband has been distorted so as to become coercive. It has also been suggested that Genesis 3:16 has in mind an effort on the part of the woman to wrest authority from her husband. On the part of some women, on the contrary, there is a slavish dependence on men. Whatever may be involved, we have here a distortion of the created order, in which the true identity of the woman is obscured.

That there is a distortion of the natural order only brings more firmly to our attention the fact that there is a relationship of authority/subordination in marriage and a mutual need of the marriage partners for each other.

3. The identity of woman in Christ (Galatians 3:28)

As was stressed above (see II,A.2.), the apostle Paul teaches in Galatians 3:28 that in terms of the believer's relation to God in Christ there is absolutely no distinction between male and female, each is viewed as child and heir with full covenant rights and privileges.

It has often been implied by conservatives that Galatians 3:28, relating as it does to the position of men and women coram Deo, has nothing to say regarding their interpersonal roles and relationships in church and in society. This would seem impossible to maintain. As Stephen Clark says (p. 151), "...the view that Galatians 3:28 only applied to people's standing before God neglects the communal or social consequences of religious distinctions. In Paul's time, religious differences were the basis of social structure."

And this is not merely something that we would expect theoretically. It is something that we see happening in the church in Paul's day. "Paul.. saw social implications of the new oneness in Christ for male-female relationships. It is noteworthy that women in the early church were taking on some roles prominent enough to be mentioned in Paul's letter" ("Report 33—Committee on Headship in the Bible," Agenda for the 1984 Synod of the Christian Reformed Church, p. 320).

D. The Role of Women in the Early Christian Community, with Particular Focus on the Female Acquaintances and Friends of the Apostle Paul

1. Priscilla and Aquila

a. Acts 18:24-26

In the missionary context set forth in these verses Priscilla and Aquila minister to Apollos. The ministry of Apollos, while in many ways impressive, had not been conducted out of the full perspective of Christian baptism, or fulfillment in Christ (25). He needed an orientation curriculum to complete his understanding. That orientation is supplied by Priscilla and Aquila.

(1) Order of names

As the husband and wife team who provide Apollos with the needed perspectives course Priscilla's name is mentioned ahead of Aquila (26). Perhaps this implies some kind of leadership or superior expertise. Perhaps it implies that she is simply better known. No firm conclusion can be drawn.

(2) Teaching methodology

Certainly, however, Priscilla does not "explain to [Apollos] the way of God more adequately" independently of her husband. "They" do it in "their" home. The language is closer to a model of "team teaching."

The text observes that Priscilla and Aquila "explained the way" to Apollos in "their home" (26). In the only New Testament passage that has Priscilla in an instruction context, the venue is private or non-public.

It is not easy to gauge the force of this. Perhaps it is merely strategic: a tactful and thoughtful initiative out of respect for the person and calling of Apollos. Thus understood, Priscilla and Aquila are at pains to do nothing that might undermine the reputation and ministry of Apollos. Then, perhaps this "home schooling" reflects biblical conventions of decorum and good order with respect to women in the teaching role. Again, no firm conclusion can be drawn.

Finally, the text observes a "pupil-teacher ratio" of "one on one," or rather "two on one." Taken with the language of "invite" or "home" there is given a personal and more intimate cast to their "explaining the way more perfectly." This is the case versus instructing or teaching a community out of an official or formal relationship.

(3) Educational qualifications

It might appear that the ability to instruct one such as Apollos is predicated on superior ability, giftedness, and educational qualifications enjoyed by Priscilla and Aquila. The text does not clarify or confirm such an inference.

b. Romans 16:3

In this context of "deaconing" (v. 1), "helping" (2), "working hard" (6, 9, 12), and relieving need, Paul mentions Priscilla and Aquila as "my fellow workers in Christ Jesus" (3).

(1) "Fellow workers"

Paul's "fellow workers" comprise quite a band of men and women in this "greetings chapter" and the broader New Testament. E.g.: Urbanus (v. 9), Timothy (v. 21), Titus (II Cor. 8:23), Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:25), Euodia, Syntyche, Clement, and "the rest" (Phil. 4:3), Aristarchus, Mark and Justus (Col. 4:11), Philemon (Philemon 1), Demas and Luke (Philemon 24).

"Fellow workers" is a designation that personalizes and intimates an extensive support system of service and diaconal ministry. Such men and women were extensions of Paul, widening his ability to organize the life of the community and to care for the various needs in the community. More than a reference to "adjunct help" it sets the Apostle Paul in a "team ministry." And Priscilla and Aquila are valued members of the "team."

(2) True neighbors

Possessed of impressive diaconal self-sacrifice and love, even to the willingness to "lay down their lives for their friends" (4), Priscilla and Aquila excelled in doing "good to all men, especially the household of faith." Hence Paul and "all the churches of the Gentiles" owe them a profound debt of gratitude (4b).

c. I Corinthians 16:19 (Cf. Rom. 16:5)

Aquila and Priscilla find mention here in the context of the "house church."

The order of names, here, is "Aquila and Priscilla...." Why? It would appear that the "Aquila and Priscilla" who send their greetings to the church at Corinth do so either in the name of their own household or God's "household," the church, meeting in their house. In either case, Aquila is the "head of the house."

In placing Aquila's name first, Paul is perhaps acknowledging the headship and administrative leadership of that particular "house" where Priscilla and Aquila live or where God's "household" meets. On this understanding, the order of names may recognize Aquila as the "head of the house" and the locus of authority.

The problem of ascertaining any significance in the order of names looms large once again. Certainly foundational premises cannot be concluded from the data.

d. II Timothy 4:19

This text adds nothing to the discussion short of furnishing additional testimony to two things: the high profile of "Priscilla and Aquila" in the heart and labors of Paul, and Paul's heavy reliance on Priscilla and Aquila.

e. Conclusions

Firstly, it cannot be said that women would never teach men. Priscilla, together with Aquila, taught Apollos.

Secondly, in the instruction contexts where Priscilla is mentioned, it is a "team teaching" situation. She is a co-worker with her husband.

Thirdly, Priscilla taught at "home." The text does not tell us whether or not she taught the congregation as a whole or in a public setting.

Fourthly, there is no reason to suppose that Priscilla had authority over her husband, or that their relationship was ordered in a manner different from that which was taught by Paul.

Finally, the case of Priscilla reminds us that having gifts in the church does not imply and bring with it the right to hold office. Gifts are the necessary but not sufficient qualifications to hold office. The ungifted should not serve in a specific teaching or ruling office, generally speaking. In no way, however, does this establish that the gifted have the right to the office, and that office is merely the way in which, operationally, we make fullest use of their talents.

2. Other activity of women

a. Phoebe

(1) Romans 16:1, 2

This is the single reference to Phoebe in the New Testament. While it is clear that she is a person of some importance in the early Christian community, her precise status is not clear.

(a) Paul's commendation

Paul's commendation of Phoebe is rather full. Firstly, he introduces her as "a servant/deaconess of the church at Cenchrea" (1), in several respects a rather official-sounding phrase. Secondly, she has been to the Apostle Paul himself, a "great help" (2).

(b) Paul's request

The commendation serves a request Paul makes of the Corinthian church: "give her any help she may need from you" (2). The request itself seems to hint of a woman with some kind of mission, authorization, or capacity to enlist, if not command resources for a specified ministry of relief as she continues (presumably) to be "a great help to many people."

(2) Conclusions

Firstly, whether "diakonos of the church in Cenchrea" sets forth the ministry of Phoebe in more or less formal terms, deference to Phoebe and her ministry is very much for the help's sake.

Secondly, it is perhaps to emphasize that Phoebe is a woman "under authority" - the authority of her "home church," that Paul seemingly takes pains to mark her connection to "the church at Cenchrea." On this understanding, "diakonos" may point beyond Phoebe's being commended as an exemplary servant of others whose membership happens to have been in the church of Cenchrea.

b. Other women

(1) Romans 16

In addition to Priscilla and Phoebe, Paul mentions a good number of other women in his "greetings list" of Romans 16. E.g.: Mary (v. 6), Tryphena and Tryphosa (v. 12a), Persis (v. 12b), the mother of Rufus (v. 13), etc.

These women are characteristically "hard workers" (6, 12) in missionary endeavor, laboring for the good of the Roman Christians. Some of them are especially dear to Paul. E.g.: Persis (12b) and Rufus' mother who had befriended Paul in a motherly way (13). Paul affectionately acknowledges those who have shown him affection.

(2) Philippians 4:2, 3

Two other women whom Paul highly regards are Euodia and Syntyche. Just now, however, instead of "contending for the faith once delivered to the saints" they are contending with the saints! Even with each other! Affectionately remembering how they had "contended for the gospel" with him, flanking and fleshing out his ministry, Paul "pleads" (2) for "agreement in the Lord" (2).

It is clear from Paul's declared admiration for these women that [i] they "contended at the side of Paul," and [ii] they had contended at the side of Paul "in the cause of the gospel" (3). The precise character of their ministry, however, is not spelled out.

(3) Other "house churches" of women

(a) Lydia (Acts 16:15, 40)

Lydia was a woman of some prominence and station in the community. She makes her home available for missionaries (Paul and Silas) and for "the brothers" (v. 40) in a ministry of glad and generous hospitality.

(b) Mary, John Mark's mother (Acts 12:12)

The New Testament picture is one of a courageous woman "laying down her life for a friend" (Peter) by allowing her home to be the venue of an "underground prayer meeting" to secure his release from prison.

(c) Nympha (Col. 4:15)

Yet another woman who makes her house available for the "church."

(4) Conclusions

Firstly, Paul pays women in the Christian community high honor.

Secondly, such honor invariably devolves on their "hard work" and richly diverse usefulness: hospitality, resources, diaconal help, motherly and sisterly affection, prayer, support ministries, etc.

Thirdly, their "hard work" is a work of "partnership in the gospel" (Phil. 1:5). These women are Paul's partners in a variety of ministry contexts and situations.

Fourthly, Paul's choice term for describing that partnership is "fellow-worker," a term that underscores co-ordination, not subordination.

Fifthly, women obviously have a wide scope of activity in Christ's church and kingdom.

3. Exhortation to sessions

Many of our churches are woefully impoverished for our failure to capture the Biblical and "Pauline" richness and diversity of women's ministry. Our neglectfulness of the ministries and gifts of women have lost to our church the breadth and depth, color and warmth of the New Testament and Pauline pattern of Christian experience and church life.

The matter is more serious, however, than what the church and the women of the church have "lost." It is a matter, also, of Whom the church has offended. Yes, women themselves, but also our Lord. For we have often spurned, not women's but God's gifts!

It cannot be said, then, that the church experiences merely "impoverishment"; it experiences chastisement. For the reason that as the Father's sons we have not recognized the Father's daughters; as their brothers we have not recognized our sisters; as God's family of gifted ones we have too often said that which the Apostle Paul asserted cannot be said: "I do not need you" (I Cor. 12:21). But "on the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable"!

With respect to the ministries and gifts of women, then, it is the Committee's prayer and hope that the church and her officers will be stimulated to repentance from less than biblical attitudes and practices, and to deployment of all God's gifts as they are richly expressed in the talents and abilities of the women in the church as well as the men. We believe that General Assembly should encourage sessions to consider ways to make greater use of the gifts of women in the total life of the church, so long as good order is not subverted by replacing or undermining or otherwise eclipsing the teaching and rule of the elders. Specific implementation should be left to the discretion of individual sessions and will, no doubt, vary from session to session (see Recommendation 2). And may the church be wonderfully adorned in these days with gifts from her risen Lord.




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  1. That the report of the Committee be sent to the sessions for study.
  2. That sessions be encouraged to search out ways consistent with the Scripture and the subordinate standards of our church to recognize, nurture, and utilize the rich and diverse gifts given by Christ to the women in their congregations (see Section IV).
  3. That the Committee be continued in order to complete work on Section III (Women and the Office of Deacon) and report to the 55th General Assembly, and that a budget of $1,000 be allotted for its work.

Ivan J. Davis
Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.
Robert D. Knudsen
Robert B. Strimple
Gregory E. Reynolds, Chairman


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