The High Calling of Women

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In big, bold type the January 20, 1992, TIME magazine cover asked the question: “Why Are Men and Women Different?” In much smaller letters, almost as if apologizing, the thesis of the cover story was suggested: “It isn’t just upbringing. New studies show they are born that way.”

No doubt that bit of information was news to many who had imbibed the feminist doctrine of the previous thirty years. But for anyone familiar with the teachings of the Bible, such discoveries hardly seem newsworthy. God designed men and women to be different and to fulfill different roles in the home and church.

Sadly, the differences between men and women have been used to justify mistreatment of the “fairer sex” throughout history. Even in cultures that are considered advanced and enlightened, women have often experienced severe repression and at times, abuse.

One of the morning prayers recorded in the Talmud to guide Jewish men (obviously) in the start of the day says, “Blessed are you, Lord, our God, ruler of the universe who has not created me a woman.” That blessing stops short of the cavalier attitude reflected in a letter written by a traveling Roman man to his pregnant wife back home in 1 BC. After admonishing her to take care of the child growing within he writes, “If you have the baby before I return, if it is a boy, let it live; if it is a girl, expose it,” referring to the practice of leaving a child in a public place either to be claimed by someone else or to die.

Against these kinds of misogynistic practices Christianity appeared with a completely different ethic regarding the worth and status of women. Many of the original followers of Jesus were women, and women were among those who gathered in prayer as they waited for the Holy Spirit to be given at Pentecost (Acts 1:14). 

The apostle Paul warmly commends specific women (Rom. 16:1–16; Col. 4:15; 2 Tim. 1:5) and describes women in Philippi as co-workers in laboring in the gospel (Phil. 4:3). He also makes an unequivocal statement about the spiritual equality of men and women in the new covenant when he writes, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). 

This esteem for the inherent value and dignity of womanhood is the context for the New Testament’s teaching on the different roles assigned to men and women in the church. Failure to recognize this can lead casual Bible readers to misconstrue some of Paul’s instructions to Timothy as being chauvinistic. 

The apostle teaches his young colleague what women must do and must not do in the worship gatherings of the church. “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet” (1 Tim. 2:11–12).

Because of the strength of the prohibition in verse 12, many often miss the important admonition found in verse 11. Christian women are to be learners, something that was not generally promoted by the Jews. In the church, women are encouraged to grow in knowledge and understanding. The quiet and submissive attitude that is to characterize their learning is no slight to the personhood of women. Elsewhere Paul encourages all believers to cultivate the former quality (2 Thess. 3:12) as well as commending the latter (2 Cor. 9:13).

Christians are always to display submission to proper authorities (Rom. 13:1; Titus 3:1) including those who serve as elders in the church (Heb. 13:17). As Paul makes plain later in his first letter to Timothy, that office is to be filled only by a “one-woman-man” (3:2). As the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood puts it, though “men and women are equal in the image of God,” they nevertheless “maintain complementary differences in role and function” in the home and in the church.

The restriction that prohibits women from teaching men or exercising authority over men in the church is not a denial of spiritual worth, it is a divinely instituted parameter for ministry. May women teach in the church? Absolutely. In fact, some are instructed to do so. “Older women…are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children” (Titus 2:3–4).

While Paul’s restrictions on women’s roles are out of step with the egalitarian spirit of our age, the foundation of his argument makes it clear that his instruction is not culturally conditioned. “For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor” (1 Tim. 2:13–14).

The order of creation and the order of the fall provide the reason that women are not to exercise authority over men in the church. From the beginning God has intended that men lead in the home and in the church. This is no slight to women. It is God’s wisdom commanding what is best for His people and His world.  

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