The Role of Women

By Mike Willis

The national news networks recently used long segments to report the ordination of Barbara Harris as the first Episcopalian bishop. Ms. Harris’ appointment was more a statement to the world of the doctrinal stance of the Episcopalian Church than the filling of a need by the best qualified person to serve. Ms. Harris is a divorcee and a proponent of civil rights (including gay rights), according to TV networks. She had never met the denomination’s educational requirements for a priest. Nevertheless, she was chosen to be ordained as a bishop over the protests of a sizable segment of the denomination.

Episcopalians have been working to bring unity with the Anglican Church, the denomination from which they originated. “Robert Runcie, the archbishop of Canterbury and leader of the Church of England, recently announced he would not recognize women bishops in England. The statement came in his opening address to the General Synod of the Church of England, partly in response to the Episcopal Church’s election of Barbara Harris as suffragan bishop of Massachusetts” (Christianity Today [13 January 1989], p. 60). (The Anglican Church, which refuses to allow women to serve as bishops, states that the monarch of England is the head of their denomination; that monarch is Queen Elizabeth. Archbishop Runcie is speaking from a very inconsistent position.)

The appointment of Ms. Harris is part of a wider movement, the women’s liberation movement, which is creating a broad impact on society. Other denominational fellowships are affected. “The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) ordained 132 persons in 1987. Of these, 51 were women. This equals 38.6 percent of all ordinations” (Christian Standard [26 February 19891, p. 23). What is happening in the Christian Church is happening in most other mainstream Protestant denominations – their seminaries are increasingly filled with women.

In addition to the influence of the women’s liberation movement on mainstream Protestant denominationalism, the influence of Pentecostalism cannot be ignored. Historically, Pentecostalism has used women preachers more than the mainstream denominations. While the Pentecostals began using women preachers before the mainstream churches, the mainstream churches are rapidly gaining ground on the Pentecostals.

How Are We Affected?

To think that we can live in a society with such a movement as the women’s liberation movement influencing religious groups around us without some spillover occurring among us is naive. In the milieu of this movement, we are now seeing articles asking whether or not women should attend the business meetings. Is this the portent of a demand for a leadership role for women?

The Biblical Teaching

Modernists have discarded the biblical teachings regarding the role of women as the society mores of a bygone era which need to be discarded in this more enlightened age. Those who believe the Bible is inspired of God recognize the teachings of the Bible as God’s word for mankind. What the Scriptures teach about women’s role must be taken just as seriously as what the Scriptures teach about redemption. We turn to those Scriptures for enlightenment regarding the role of women:

1. 1 Corinthians 11:3. Paul wrote, “But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.” This text places woman in submission to man. Submission does not mean inferiority; Jesus was equal to God (Phil. 2:6) but also subject to him (1 Cor. 11:3). Many women are more intelligent than men. In every congregation I have worked with, I have seen women more devoted to the Lord than many of the men. Hence, we are not concluding that women are inferior to men because they must be submissive to them.

2. 1 Corinthians 14:14. “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak: but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also said the law.” This ordinance is for “all the churches of the saints” (14:33). This commandment forbids women publicly addressing the entire assembly.

3. 1 Timothy 2:11-12. “Let the women learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be silence.” The limitation placed on a woman’s teaching by this passage is d &over a man.” She cannot be placed in a role in which she usurps authority over a man.

Women Elders or Deacons?

Can women serve as elders (also known as bishops, pastors, presbyters) or deacons? They cannot because they do not meet these qualifications for these offices laid down by the Holy Spirit through the apostle Paul: (a) The bishop and deacon must be a man (1 Tim. 3:1 – “if a man desires the office of a bishop”); (b) The bishop and deacon must be married (1 Tim. 3:2,12 – “husband of one wife”); (c) The bishop and deacon must rule his house well (I Tim. 3:4), something women are forbidden to do (Eph. 5:22-25). Even a man should not be appointed unless he meets all other qualifications and if the appointment divides the local church.

Women cannot serve in the office of an elder without violating the commandment forbidding them to usurp authority over a man (1 Tim. 2:12). Elders take oversight (1 Pet. 5:2), have the rule (Heb. 13:7,17; 1 Tim. 5:17), and are “over you in the Lord” (1 Thess. 5:12). For women to occupy this position is a violation of 1 Timothy 2:12 – “But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.”

Women In the Business Meetings?

But, the question is asked, “May women attend the business meetings?” Before answering that question, I pose this question, “Why do they want to attend the business meetings?” Is it (a) for better communications or (b) to make input on decisions? Whatever reasons can be given for women to attend the business meetings can also be cited as justification for them attending the elders meetings. If they can attend the business meetings for better communications, they can attend the elders meetings for the same reasons.

The business meeting is a expedient manner for the business of the church to be taken care of in the absence of elders (actually elders also have business meetings; they are just called elders meetings). This is a decision making meeting. Those placed in the position of decision making in the home are the husbands and in the church the men. God has specifically placed this role on the men and withheld it from the women. Why then would women want to put themselves in meetings designed to do what God forbids them doing? Could some of our women have been influenced by the feminist movement of the particular time in which we live?

I freely confess that some churches with which I have worked have suffered from poor communication, both with men and women. The input of the congregation was not considered before decisions were made nor was much effort made to keep the membership informed after decisions had been made. This problem should not be solved by putting women in positions forbidden them by God (i.e., meetings designed to make decisions for the oversight of the church); rather, this problem should be solved by the men recognizing their obligations to seek input from the entire congregation and to keep all of the members informed. The problem is one of communication and can easily be resolved by a little effort in this area without resorting to a questionable practice which might divide the congregation.


A few years ago, I asked a godly woman to write an article for Guardian of Truth on the subject of “Esther.” She sent me a kind letter back, declining to write the article. As best I remember, she stated that she did not want to do anything which might be construed as teaching or usurping authority over a man. While one may or may not agree with her decision, he certainly can commend her spirit. How different is her spirit from that which presses the boundaries of what women are allowed to do. Women preachers are not that far away for some of the more “progressive” liberal churches of Christ. Already there are some men-women teaching teams addressing mixed audiences.

Let us be content to be what God wants us to be. The pressure to conform to society’s mold is present for both men and women. The society’s mold for a man is a “macho” man who drives around in a sports car, goes to the bars, and commits fornication or adultery with any woman when he has the opportunity. We teach our Godfearing men not to be conformed to this mold for men. The godly man loves his own wife (not the wife of someone else), works to provide an honorable living for his family, brings up his children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, and devotes himself to God’s service.

The pressure to conform to society’s mold is also present for the woman. She is being told that being a housewife is a waste of one’s life; she should pursue her own career in the area of her skills. She is told that “quality time” with the children is more important than “quantity time.” She is coached to reject “obey” as a part of her marriage vows. The modern society’s role model for women is different from the role model God gave for women. Women are to be submissive to their husbands, love their children, and manage the house. What they contribute to the welfare of mankind through their roles as mothers and wives is more important than the dollars they bring home from a job outside the home. We need to encourage our women not to allow society’s mold to shape their thinking of what a woman should be.

Guardian of Truth XXXIII: 6, pp. 162, 182-183
March 16, 1989