Another distinctive characteristic of the Churches of Christ is the absence of women in leadership roles in relation to the worship assembly or church governance. Is such a practice an act of discrimination or is there a biblical precedence for it?
The absence of women in speaking or leadership roles in congregations associated with the Churches of Christ is not the result of gender discrimination but the result of adherence to God’s Word. Scripture places limitations on the roles of women. Two specific divinely inspired statements are worth noting.
The first is 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 in which Paul wrote, “the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” In this passage, Paul placed a limitation on the involvement of women in roles that address the congregation in the worship assembly. Take note of the context of the entire chapter because Paul’s statement is set amidst a series of instructions that are intended to promote edification (1 Corinthians 14:26) and propriety (1 Corinthians 14:40) as it relates to those who orally address the assembly. Paul specifically addressed three groups of people, instructing them when they could speak and when they could not speak. First, Paul addressed the tongue speakers (i.e. those miraculously gifted during the apostolic age with the ability to speak in tongues as alluded to in 1 Corinthians 12:10) and told them when they could speak in the assembly (i.e. one at a time according to 1 Corinthians 14:27) and when they should keep silent (i.e. in the absence of an interpreter according to 1 Corinthians 14:28). Then Paul addressed the prophets (i.e. those miraculously gifted during the apostolic age with the ability to prophecy as alluded to in 1 Corinthians 12:10) when they could speak in the assembly (i.e. one at a time according to 1 Corinthians 14:31) and when they should be silent (i.e. when a revelation is received by another prophet according to 1 Corinthians 14:30). Finally, he provided guidelines for when women could speak in the assembly and when they should keep silent. Therefore, Paul’s instruction for “women…to keep silent” in 1 Corinthians 14:34 is specifically placing limitations on the involvement of women in addressing the worship assembly.
The second statement in Scripture that is worth noting comes from 1 Timothy 2:12, in which Paul wrote, “ I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” In this passage Paul placed a limitation on the involvement of women in positions of authority in the church. Again, notice the context surrounding the passage. This limitation is set in contrast to the functions of men, which included praying in the preceding section (1 Timothy 2:8) and serving in leadership positions in the succeeding section (1 Timothy 3:1-13). Thus, the speaking at issue in this passage is that which is representative, such as in congregational prayer, which is implicitly forbidden by the juxtaposition with instructions for men to pray, and that which is authoritative, which is explicitly forbidden in 1 Timothy 2:12 and evident from the juxtaposition with the male-oriented roles of elders and deacons in the following chapter. Thus, Paul’s instruction for women not to “teach or exercise authority over a man” in 1 Timothy 2 is specifically placing limitations on the involvement of women in positions of congregational representation or authority.
But what about statements in Scripture that indicate equality among genders such as Genesis 1:27 and Galatians 3:28? Both of these passages do indicate gender equality, but in what context? Genesis 1:27 says, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” This passage indicates that men and women are equal in nature because they were both created in the image of God. One gender does not possess a greater likeness to God than the other because they both possess His image. In Galatians 3:28 Paul wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave[g] nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This passage addresses salvation as evidenced by the preceding references to the process of receiving salvation “through faith” and baptism as well as the phrase “put on Christ,” which is a status that can only result from entering a saved state. Therefore, Paul’s statement is not addressing roles but is addressing the equality between men and women in regards to being saved. In other words, your gender has no bearing on whether or not you can receive salvation just as your ethnicity or socio-economic status has no bearing on your salvation status. Thus, when it comes to salvation there is no distinction between genders, just as there is no distinction between ethnicities or socio-economic statuses. Dan Chambers may have summarized the relationship between these passages indicating gender equality and the passages indicating gender inequality best when he titled a section of his book, “Equal Natures, Equal Salvation, Different Roles.”
Limitations on roles in the church based on gender may seem discriminatory to our 21st century sensibilities, but we must recognize that they do not reflect the inferiority of women; but, instead, reflect the prerogative of God. Adherence to and application of these biblical instructions boils down to whether or not one accepts God’s authority to dictate how His church operates regardless of whether or not it makes sense to us.