A. Biblical Teaching on the Identity of Women[1]

1. 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 women in Christ. Only then will we have an adequate basis for considering the role of women in the church.

It has often been implied 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 view would seem impossible to maintain. As Stephen Clark says, “… 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.”[2]

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.”[3]

The exclusion of women from special office in the church (the eldership and diaconate) is a negative conclusion and so leaves open the question of what sort of ministry is given to women in their office as believers. Concerning that large question we offer several general observations.

Women, too, are part of the body of Christ (Gal. 3:27–28) and the unity and the fellowship of the Spirit (Eph. 4:3, Phil. 2:1); they, too, have been baptized with the Spirit (Acts 2:17, 18, 1 Cor. 12:13) and so share in the distribution of the Spirit’s gifts (Rom. 12:3-8; 1 Cor. 12:4–11; 14ff.). The question, then, how women may give legitimate expression in the congregation to these gifts, including the biblical insights and discernment given to them by the Spirit, must receive a positive answer. The principle of 1 Corinthians 12:7, 14:12; 1 Peter 4:10 is that in the church spiritual gifts are given to edify others, and what is given to edify others obviously must come to expression if others are in fact to be edified.

2. Within the New Testament, 1 Peter 4:10–11, perhaps better than any other passage, provides an overall perspective on the answer to the question before us:

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 word of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength that God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ.

Citing these verses in this format serves to highlight some pertinent observations either about or prompted by them:

a. The immediate context makes plain that Peter is addressing the whole church, men and women alike.

b. In view are all the gifts given to the church in their full diversity and as shared in by every believer (“Each … whatever gift …”).

c. Each gift, a particular ministration of God’s grace, is to be used for serving (diakonountes) others.

d. Verse 11 provides a fundamental profile on the gifts given to the church. Each of the gifts, in their full totality, reduces to either one of two kinds: speaking or serving (diakonei; note that this is a different, less broad use than that of the same verb earlier in verse 10, reflecting the variable meaning of this verb, and its cognate noun diakonos, in the New Testament). The ministry of the general office, embracing the exercise of the gifts of all believers, has a basic, twofold structure: word-ministry and deed-ministry.

e. It is difficult to deny an inner correspondence between this twofold structure of the general office and the permanent, twofold structure of special office in the church; the one reflects the other. Specifically, the eldership answers to the word-ministry of the general office, the diaconate to its deed-ministry. These two special offices are not only established in the church so that those who occupy them may exercise the respective ministries of each office to—and for— the rest of the church. Rather, their special office identity involves that, as head and fathers, they are also to lead the whole of “God’s household,” men and women alike, in the diverse word- and deed-ministries committed to the general office (cf. Eph. 4:12).

3. In working at our assignment we have been impressed with the paucity of explicit biblical evidence against women’s ordination, a paucity 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.”[4] Similarly, the comments of Charles Hodge[5] on 1 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?”[6]

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,[7] 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,”[8] 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.[9]

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

Does anyone 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 every one 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” (1 Cor. 4:6).

B. Women in the Life of the Early Church: Some New Testament Observations

1. Priscilla

a. Acts 18:24–26 In the missionary context set forth in these verses, Priscilla and Aquila instruct Apollos. Previously, the ministry of Apollos, while forceful and Scriptural, had not been conducted from the perspective of the fulfillment that had already arrived in Christ (“he knew only the baptism of John,” v. 25); his “adequate” teaching about Jesus needed to become “more adequate.” That lack is supplied by the teaching he receives from Priscilla and Aquila.

Noteworthy is the fact that in this teaching activity, as elsewhere with one exception, Priscilla is not only paired with her husband, but her name is mentioned first. Perhaps this implies some kind of initiative or superior expertise; perhaps it simply implies that she is better-known. No firm conclusion can be drawn. At any rate, her (apparently full) involvement in teaching Apollos is plain.

Priscilla, however, does not teach independently of her husband. What occurs is fairly described as a mutual or joint effort (“they,” in “their home,” v. 26). Further, their instruction is given privately, not in public but in the context of hospitality extended to Apollos.

It is not easy to assess the complete significance of the latter circumstance. Very likely a strategic element is present; Priscilla and Aquila are concerned not to do anything in public that might diminish the reputation and ministry of Apollos. But is there perhaps as well an intimation that the teaching takes place in a private, nonpublic setting, because Priscilla, as a woman, is involved? The text does not provide an answer. Nor, at the same time, is there any indication that the teaching was “official,” that is, that Priscilla (or Aquila) occupied special office in the church. In sum, the teaching that Apollos received from Priscilla (or Aquila) is best understood as private and personal, nonofficial and nonpublic.

b. Romans 16:3 In this context of “serving” (v. 1), “helping” (v. 2), and “working hard” (vv. 6, 12), Paul mentions Priscilla and Aquila as “my fellow workers in Christ Jesus.” Paul’s “fellow workers” comprise quite a band of men and women in this “greetings” chapter and elsewhere in the New Testament: for example Urbanus (v. 9), Timothy (v. 21), Titus (2 Cor. 8:23), Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:25), Euodia, Syntyche, Clement, and “the rest” (Phil. 4:2, 3), Aristarchus, Mark and Justus (Col. 4:10–11), Philemon (Philemon 1), Demas and Luke (Philemon 2).

The designation “fellow workers” personalizes and intimates an apparently extensive support system of service. Such men and women were extensions of Paul, widening his ability to direct the life of the church in various locations, especially to care for various needs that arose. It is difficult to specify their service in detail and to circumscribe its extent. In the light of the contexts where their work is mentioned as well as 1 Peter 4:10, 11 (cf. above, IV.A.2.), it may fairly be seen to cover the full range of ministering the gospel in word and deed. Also, without undercutting the special office structure in the church, their activity gave them an identity that in relation to himself Paul sees as genuinely collegial rather than subordinate.

Priscilla and Aquila are especially valued members in this partnership for the gospel. Their impressive self-sacrifice and love is evidenced in the fact that Paul says, “they risked their lives for me,” and their renown is such that both, Priscilla at least equally with Aquila, have the gratitude of “all the churches of the Gentiles” (v. 4).

c. 1 Corinthians 16:19 (cf. Rom. 16:5) Aquila and Priscilla find mention here in relation to “the church that meets at their house.” It is precarious to draw conclusions based on the fact that in this instance Aquila is mentioned first. Perhaps there is in this order an intimation that Aquila, as head of the household, takes the lead in extending the greetings of the church. However, it is, after all, “their house,” not “his.” Also, in Romans 16:5 there is an identical description (the church meeting “at their house”) where Priscilla has just been mentioned first (v. 3).

d. 2 Timothy 4:19 This text adds nothing to our discussion except to reinforce 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

(1) It cannot be said that women would never teach men. Priscilla, together with Aquila, taught Apollos.

(2) In the one passage where Priscilla’s teaching is mentioned, it is a joint effort. She is a coworker with her husband.

(3) Priscilla taught “at home.” The New Testament is silent as to whether or not she taught the congregation as a whole or in a public setting.

(4) There is no reason to suppose that Priscilla had authority over her husband, or that their relationship was ordered in a manner other than that prescribed elsewhere by the New Testament (e.g., Eph. 5:22f.).

(5) Finally, the case of Priscilla reminds us that having gifts in the church does not imply or bring with it the right to hold special office. The possession of requisite gifts is a necessary but not a sufficient qualification to hold office. Certainly, the nongifted should not occupy special office. In no way, however, does that establish that the gifted have the right to office, and that office is merely the way in which, operationally, we make fullest use of their talents.

2. Phoebe

Romans 16:1–2 contains the sole reference to Phoebe in the New Testament. While she is apparently a person of some importance in the early Christian community, her precise status is less clear.

Paul’s commendation of Phoebe is rather full. First, he introduces her as “a servant of the church in Cenchrea,” a somewhat official-sounding phrase, although, as we have already argued (cf. III.C.1.c. above), not requiring a reference to the office of deacon. Secondly, she has been “a great help” to many, including Paul himself.

Paul’s commendation serves a request he makes of the Corinthian church: “give her any help she may need from you.” This request in 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 as she continues (presumably) to be “a great help to many people.”

Although the phrase “diakonos of the church in Cenchrea” does not set forth the ministry of Phoebe in formal or official terms, deference is still very much due to Phoebe and her ministry. Also, the phrase perhaps points up that Phoebe does not operate on her own but is under authority, the authority of her “home” church in Cenchrea.

3. Other women

a. Romans l6

In addition to Priscilla and Phoebe, Paul mentions a good number of other women in his “greetings list” of Romans 16: for example Mary (v. 6), Tryphena and Tryphosa (v. 12a), Persis (v. 12b), the mother of Rufus (v. 13), etc. These women are characteristically “(very) hard workers” (vv. 6, 12) in their endeavors, laboring for the good of the Roman Christians and others. Some of them are especially dear to Paul: for example Persis (v.12b) and Rufus’s mother, who had befriended Paul in a motherly way (v.13).

b. Philippians 4:2–3

Two women mentioned here by Paul are Euodia and Syntyche. Along with his expressed concern about the disagreement between them and his exhortation for them to be reconciled, he recalls (1) that they “contended at my side,” and (2) that in doing so they “contended … in the cause of the gospel.” The precise character of their ministry, however, is not spelled out.

c. “House churches” associated with women

Lydia (Acts 16:14–15, 40) 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 willing and generous hospitality. Mary, John Mark’s mother, is pictured (Acts 12:12) as a courageous woman, willing to allow her home to be used for an “underground” prayer meeting to secure Peter’s release from prison. Nympha (Col. 4:15) is yet another woman who makes her house available for the church to assemble.

d. Conclusions

(1) Paul pays women in the Christian community high honor.

(2) Such honor invariably devolves on their “hard work” and apparently diverse usefulness in the cause of the gospel.

(3) Their “hard work” is a work of “partnership in the gospel” (cf. Phil. 1:5); these women are Paul’s partners in a variety of ministry contexts and situations. His choice term for describing that partnership is “fellow worker,” a term that suggests coordination, not subordination, a shared common involvement underlying whatever differences may be involved.

4. The specific ministry of women

Besides the above examples of women’s ministry to the church of Paul’s day, there are several passages in the Pastoral Epistles which have a more distinctly normative or prescriptive character: 1 Tim. 2:15; 3:11; 5:9, 10; Titus 2:3–5. These will be treated as suggestive rather than exhaustive of the positive role of women in the New Testament. The committee is aware that the argument against ordaining women must not be construed as negating or denigrating the ministry of women in the general office of believer. Hence, we conclude our report not with what women may not do but rather with what they may and must do to be faithful to their Lord and Savior.

a. 1 Timothy 2:15

At least four possible understandings of this verse can be found among commentators. The differences focus on the understanding of the idea of the woman being “saved in childbirth.” In his commentary on the pastoral epistles, William Hendriksen[10] summarizes these (111–112):

(1) saved by means of The Childbirth, i.e., the promised seed Jesus Christ,

(2) saved, i.e., kept safely during childbirth,

(3) saved through the meritorious efforts of childbearing,

(4) saved by way of, or in the sphere of, childbearing.

The reasons for rejecting 1–3 are:

(1) While the messianic interpretation is not contrary to the analogy of faith, it has no precedent. Its only other usage is the verbal form in 1 Tim. 5:14, which refers to ordinary childbirth. Furthermore, this interpretation doesn’t fit the context in which the subject is the woman’s place with respect to man’s authority in the church.

(2) “Protection” in childbirth does not fit the normal usage of the verb “saved.” While it often means “to make whole” in the gospels, the Pauline usage is exclusively soteric (cf. 1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Tim. 4:18). “Childbearing” is not narrowly defined as “giving birth” but has broad reference to the entire task of raising children. More decisive is the fact that v. 15 is meant to be a consolation in light of the exhortation of the previous verses. The focus is on roles, a concern considerably larger than mere safety in childbirth.

(3) The concept of meritorious salvation is contrary to the entire Pauline soteriology (cf. Rom. 3; Galatians). Moreover, Paul emphasizes “faith” in the second half of the verse.

(4) This alternative commands our respect because it fits the context and does justice to the Pauline usage of “saved.” Covenant women are saved in their God-given, created roles as mothers in the tradition of Sarah, Elizabeth, and Mary (cf. 1 Pet. 3:5–6). The curse for which she was partly responsible, by failing to submit to her husband’s authority, is lifted in God’s gracious salvation. Now by recalling to her God-given role as a suitable helper in the Covenant task, the Lord promises to save her as she trusts and obeys.

Hence, the preposition dia in the context refers not to the means of salvation (“through”) but the sphere in which one is saved (K.J.V. “in,” “by way of,” i.e., the “accompanying circumstance”).[11]

Among commentators who have held this view are: William Hendriksen, Gordon Clark, John Calvin, Matthew Poole, Richard Lenski, John Trapp, Heinrich Meyer, James Vander Kam, and Patrick Fairbairn.

This sphere to which grace restores her is her highest dignity. As she raises children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, she “exerts tremendous influence.” Christ came by her childbearing,[12] as do all men (1 Cor. 11:11–12). The promise of blessing to the godly woman who uses the whole range of her gifts and calling, both inside and outside of the home (Prov. 31:10–11), within God’s authority structure, is a promise which contemporary women need to take seriously.

b. l Timothy 3:11

Having denied the ordained status of the “women” (K.J.V. “wives”) of this verse, it is all too easy to say no more. That is a shame, because whether these women were wives of elders or deacons or both, it is clear that Paul had “deaconing women” in view. They were recognized as special assistants to the ordained officers of the church. Phoebe is a classic example. Because of this association their spirituality had to be commensurate with the diaconate which they assisted.

Furthermore, there are aspects of diaconal ministry which can only properly be executed by women. These focus on (though they are not limited to) personal, private needs unique to women and needs in the area of hospitality.

Modern-day diaconates need to employ the gifts of women and even consider publicly recognizing some as officially associated with the diaconate in unordained status.

c. 1 Timothy 5:9–10

Biblical concern for orphans and widows is an ancient one (Exod. 22:22; Deut. 10:18; Jer. 7:6). This concern is not blind sentimentality. Widows supported by the church must be “truly needy” in the sense of having no other means of support; they must have lived as faithful covenant women who have used their gifts and calling as women to minister practically to the saints. Anna is a classic example (Luke 2:36–37). It is interesting to note the accent on domestic service. Prior to 60 years of age the role of wife-mother is the norm (1 Tim. 5:1ff.).

The point is that true covenant widows have much to offer the church from their godly experience, not the least of which is prayer (v. 5). The early church designated certain women “intercessors of the church.”[13] Married women don’t have the same amount of time available for intercession.

Though marriage is the Biblical norm, younger single women, like widows, need to be encouraged to develop gifts of service to use their freedom wisely as well as make themselves more “marriageable” in the wholesome covenant sense of that word.

The contemporary possibilities are endless. We need to replace our concept of “career,” focusing on self-fulfillment, with the Covenantal idea of “calling.” It was out of this sense of service (v. 10) that the “hospice” and the “hospital” grew. Hence: the modern orphanage, crisis pregnancy center, and L’Abri Fellowship, which never would have given “shelter” to anyone without the tireless service of Edith Schaeffer.

d. Titus 2:3–5

Here is a broader category than widows. “Aged women” does not mean 60 or older, but rather “mature,” i.e., “older,” more experienced. They are to be examples of godly Christlike character and behavior. But they are also to be “teachers.” The Greek word in v. 3 has the same root as the word used for the office of “teacher” in 1 Tim. 2:7, 2 Tim. 1:11, and the verb form used in the prohibition of women teaching men in 1 Tim. 2:12. The point is that while women are forbidden to give official instruction to men in the doctrines of the faith, mature women are encouraged to verbally instruct younger women in the specific area of godliness as wife-mothers.

The verb “teach” in v. 4 is different from that of “teachers” in v. 3. It is translated in other passages as: “to be sober minded” (v. 6); “to be sober” (v. 4); “sound mind” (2 Tim. 1:7). The idea is discipleship in godly wisdom. The mature wife-mother is to instruct, by word and deed, other wife-mothers in maternal wisdom and domestic discipline which distinguishes the Christian woman from her worldly counterpart. She might use Proverbs 31 and a host of Biblical examples such as Abigail and Lois. While the world teaches its women, like its men, to assert their rights and pursue self-fulfilling careers, the women of the church are to teach the pursuit of godliness (1 Tim. 2:9–10; 1 Pet. 3:3–4), submitting to their husbands, loving their children, “keeping” their homes, (vv. 4–5). They will thereby witness to the world that God’s Word is true (v. 5).

The positive calling of women outlined in the Bible is as wide and varied as any calling on earth. The feminist climate offers Christian women a unique challenge and opens a fruitful field of labor as they exemplify the richness and humanity of serving their risen Lord.

In conclusion, the church, exemplified in its ordained officers, needs to encourage and instruct its women as to the dignity of the unique role as women. We have only suggested lines of Biblical teaching along which this encouragement may take shape.

V. Conclusion

To the degree to which we as a church have emphasized what women are forbidden to do, and failed to lovingly and wisely lead them to do what God’s Word encourages them to do, we need to change our attitudes and the practices which flow from them. The church is always threatened with the attitudes of the flesh which lead men and women to abdicate their God-given roles and either domineer others or retreat from service. To be always reforming is to be always repenting and following our resurrected Lord.

Women, therefore, need to repent, where necessary, of the unbiblical desire to usurp authority in the church or the home. Men also need to repent, where necessary, of a failure to encourage women in the use of their gifts, and of making their womanhood more of a yoke than a privilege.

The church under the leadership of its officers needs to be thankful for the faithful women who serve the church in a rich variety of ways at present. We need to protect our women from being overwhelmed or seduced by the lie of secular feminism which promises liberation for disobedience to God’s authority structure and demeans the high calling of Christian women as wives and mothers. We need to instruct them as to their dignity as women in Christ (Gal. 3:28) and treat them accordingly.

Finally, sessions should 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 (cf. IV.B. above). And may the church be wonderfully adorned in these days with gifts from her risen Lord.

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


[1] From the Report of the Committee on Women in Church Office [Extracted from the Minutes of the Fifty-fifth General Assembly (1988), 344–52].

[2] Stephen B. Clark, Man and Woman in Christ: An Examination of the Roles of Men and Women in Light of Scripture and the Social Sciences (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Books, 1980), 151.

[3] Report 33 – Committee on Headship in the Bible, Agenda for the 1984 Synod of the Christian Reformed Church, 320.

[4] John Calvin, Commentary on First Corinthians, trans. Fraser (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960), 306f.; his comments on the 1 Timothy 2 passage for the most part refer the reader to what he has already said on 1 Corinthians 14.

[5] Charles Hodge (1797–1878) was a Reformed Presbyterian theologian and principal of Princeton Theological Seminary between 1851 and 1878.

[6] Donald MacLeod, “The Place of Women in the Church,” The Banner of Truth, 81 (June 1970): 37, 40.

[7] A. Schlatter, Die Briefe an die Tessalonicher, Philipper, Timotheus und Titus (Leipzig, DE: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 1950), 143.

[8] E. L. Smelik, De brieven van Paulus aan Timotheus, Titus en Filemon (Nijkerk, Netherlands: G. F. Callenbach, 1961), 42.

[9] Charles Hodge, An Exposition of the First Epistle of the Corinthians (repr., 1857; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 305.

[10] William Hendriksen (1900–1982) served as a minister in the Christian Reformed Church, with a period (1942–1952) as Professor of New Testament at Calvin Theological Seminary.

[11] Richard Lenski, Commentary on the New Testament: 1 Timothy (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1960), 572.

[12] Henry Vander Kam, Bible Lessons on 1 Timothy (Grand Rapids: Reformed Fellowship, n.d.), 23–24.

[13] William Hendriksen, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1957), 173.

Ordained Servant Online, February 2021.

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Ordained Servant: February 2021

Women and Office

Also in this issue

Phoebe Was a Deaconess, but She Was Not Ordained

A Summary Report of the Committee on Women in Ordained Office

Women Deacons? Focusing the Issue[1]

Phoebe Was a Deacon: Other Women Should Be, Too

Commentary on the Form of Government of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Chapter 13

The Irony of Modern Catholic History by George Weigel

The Confession of Faith: A Critical Text and Introduction by John Bower

Ecclesiastical Sonnets - Part 2, “The Point At Issue” (XXX)

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