What is God’s intention for how men and women serve together in the body of Christ?

By Deryl Hurst

What is God’s intention for how men and women should serve together in the body of Christ? What role should women take in the church? These questions represent challenging subjects in the church today.

I feel it is a tragedy that for centuries the church has not grasped the concept of men and women serving together to build the body of Christ. We will tackle this topic with the help of the Bible, including insights from the Greek language. Two books have been helpful to me in this discussion: Why Not Women? by Loren Cunningham and Fashioned to Reign by Kris Vallotton.

I grew up in a conservative church where men sat on one side of the church and women sat on the other. It was an accepted fact that women were to bake muffins, organize fellowship meals and teach children in Sunday School. That was their place. As a child I was never sure why this was the case, but I clearly remember the scandal when several couples sat together in the back of the church so they could take care of their young children together. I could not understand why that was a bad thing!

For nearly fifty years, I have been taught from, and have looked at Paul’s writings to Timothy and the Corinthian church on this subject, without paying very much attention to the context, or looking into the Greek, to assess what Paul actually intended to communicate. What I am sharing is the culmination of eight years of study and hundreds of hours of research. I have sought to understand, with a completely open mind, void of the dictates of religious tradition, what the Word of God is saying. We can do this best if we move beyond the possible bias of various translators and learn the intent of the original writers. Because of language and cultural barriers, this can be extremely difficult.

Let’s consider one example. The Bible tells us very little about Satan’s origin or history. Most of what we “know” about Satan, is found in Isaiah 14. But verse 3 of Isaiah 14 clearly says it is a prophecy against the king of Babylon. However, in verse 12 of the King James Version (KJV), we read, “How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! How art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations!”

The following verses in the KJV then talk about Lucifer’s attributes and history. All my life, I have been taught that this was a passage about Lucifer, the worship leader in Heaven. Here is the problem: the word “Lucifer” is not in the original Hebrew text. It was simply added by the King James authorized translators. In fact, the very word “Lucifer” was not even invented until the middle ages, thousands of years after Isaiah wrote his book in Hebrew.

Modern translations do not include that little add-on, “Oh, Lucifer.” This passage could indeed be talking about the king of Babylon and have nothing to do with Satan. Both Martin Luther and John Calvin taught this view.

On the other hand, Babylon is used many times in Scripture as a metaphor for that which is evil and satanic. So perhaps this is indeed a reference to Satan. But the clear point is, the bias or opinion of King James translators deeply influenced centuries of Christians, perhaps incorrectly. This demonstrates that if we blindly accept age-old religious traditions, without carefully researching them with Holy Spirit revelation, we are subject to potentially being badly mislead.

With that in mind, let’s prayerfully and carefully take a look at some of the most noteworthy and controversial passages that have been debated for centuries regarding questions about women in leadership in the church.

8“I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; 9likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair [remember that one, no braided hair. So…not with braided hair…] and gold or pearls or costly attire, 10but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works. 11Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control” (1 Timothy 2:8-15).

Let’s break this passage down.

First, note that the opening admonition is for men. Men are to be holy, worshiping without quarrelling or anger.

What about women? They are to dress respectably, with modesty. I think we have a long way to go in this area, certainly in society, but in the church as well. That will be a topic for another day.

Then the next line states, “not with braided hair.” Really? Do any of us believe that a woman is being ungodly, or a temptress, if she braids her hair? I doubt it. In fact, among conservative religious sects, one of the hallmarks of many of their young women is braided hair. Today, no one thinks braided hair is an abomination.

What is the Take-Away?

We must remember, “Context is king.” We need to ask who Paul is writing to, and what he is addressing.

In this passage, Paul is writing to Timothy, the leader of the church in Ephesus, a city with a culture worshipping the Greek goddess Diana (or Artemis). To the Greeks, Diana was the goddess of the hunt as well as the moon. It was said that her powers were invoked at childbirth because children were believed to be born occasionally after seven, or usually after nine, lunar revolutions.

Diana also had a connection with fertility. She was worshiped by women who wanted to be pregnant or who desired an easy delivery. Images of Diana show her scantily clad, usually with short or braided hair. She sometimes had symbols of reproduction attached to her waist. One statue had her entire upper body covered in breasts to symbolize her fertility.

Sexual perversions were a frequent part of religious ceremonies in the Greek culture. In fact, there were one thousand “sacred prostitutes” at the temple in Corinth.

Paul had already gotten into trouble for speaking out against Diana. In Acts 19:27, the silversmith Demetrius shouts to the crowd, “Not only is this trade of ours in danger of falling into disrepute, but also the temple of the great goddess Diana may be despised and her magnificence destroyed, whom all Asia and the world worship.” Now when they heard this, they were full of wrath and cried out, saying, ‘Great is Diana of the Ephesians!’”

This context is extremely important. It was in this spiritual atmosphere that Timothy was working and into which Paul was writing.

So again, do any of us think it is evil for women to braid their hair? I highly doubt if we do.

What about the next part of that sentence: “no gold or pearls or costly attire”? Does anyone think that it is evil for a woman to have pearl earrings? What about a gold wedding band—is that evil?

We are able to understand Paul is speaking in a cultural context, in first century Ephesus, regarding braided hair, gold rings, and pearl earrings. But as the church we have struggled with the issue of women in leadership. Let’s look at the next line.

“Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness.” What does Paul mean here?

The Greek word here for “submissiveness” is hypotagḗ. It means “to be in subjection,” or “to be subject to.” The context of this verse is that the woman is to be in subjection to the instruction, not the instructor. No instructor is named or implied in the text, although some would maintain that women are being told to submit to men. But that is not substantiated in the text.

It is interesting to note that this Greek word hypotagḗ is used only four times in the Bible, this being one of them. One other place it is used is 2 Corinthians 9:13, where it is applied to both men and women: “By their approval of this service, they will glorify God because of your submission that comes from your confession of the gospel of Christ…”

That word “submission” in this verse is the same Greek word hypotagḗ. The verse speaks to all saints being under submission to the gospel, not another person.

Verse 12 in 1 Timothy 2 could be the most problematic: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.”

Again, we need to look at the original Greek vocabulary. The Greek word that is translated “to exercise authority over” is authenteō.

To usurp is “to seize and hold (a position, office, power, etc.) by force or without legal right. The primary definition of authenteō from Strong’s Bible Dictionary is “to usurp authority over,” with secondary definitions being:

  1. one who with his own hands kills another or himself
  2. one who acts on his own authority, autocratic
  3. an absolute master
  4. to govern, exercise dominion over one

Ephesus was known for having a strong Jezebel spirit. Remember, Jezebel was the queen in ancient Israel who usurped authority and power from her wimpy husband Ahab. Jezebel perfectly defines the word authenteō.

Ephesians worshiped a sexually provocative goddess of fertility and her demonic spirit had the city under her thumb. Remember that Paul nearly was lynched because he dared speak out against Diana.

The original root word of authenteō meant to “murder with one’s own hands.” It is a very strong word, used only once in the entire Bible. However, twelve other words in the Greek dictionary deal with exercising authority. An amazing forty-seven different words relate to “rule” or “govern.” Yet the Apostle Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, did not choose any of them. Instead he chose this unique word, authenteō. I think it is very clear what he was trying to communicate.

Paul was addressing demonic spirits that would attempt to control and usurp authority that was not rightly theirs. In the city of Ephesus, this was manifest in the demon goddess Diana and in the women who worshipped her.

Now to verses 14 and 15 in the 1 Timothy 2 passage. Paul talks about the deception of Adam and Eve, but then drops this confusing statement: “She will be saved through childbearing…”

Can women be saved through childbirth? What if a woman lives a heathen life and practices witchcraft, then has a baby? Is she therefore saved? What about godly women who are barren: can they not be saved? None of us think this is what Paul is saying. But what is he saying?

The Greek word for “saved” here is a common word that is used 110 times in the New Testament: sozo. Its literal definition is: “to save, keep safe and sound, to rescue from danger or destruction.”

In the Bible, sozo came to mean that we are eternally safe from hell’s fire and that we will spend eternity with Jesus in heaven. We are “saved.”

But what does it mean in the context of our passage? Paul was certainly not saying that the eternal salvation of women comes through having babies. The clue is in something mentioned earlier. In the time when the New Testament was written, infant mortality was extremely high. Both women and babies would often die during childbirth. I mentioned earlier that the women of Ephesus would call upon Diana and invoke her powers to keep them safe during childbirth.

What Paul is saying is that the women of the church would be sozo-ed, or “kept safe” during childbirth by God, and that they did not need to call on a heathen goddess.

We don’t adopt the idea that women are saved for eternity through childbirth. Nor do we take literally the prohibition of braided hear or the wearing of jewelry. We understand that Paul is talking about a prideful spirit or ungodly sensuality. But the one line many in the church have taken literally over the centuries, and I believe have completely misunderstood, is the one about women exercising authority. I believe it is really talking about seizing or usurping authority.

Another verse is common to many of us who grew up in traditional churches is, “Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven” (1 Corinthians 11:4-5).

I do not intend to discuss head coverings for women. However, I find it interesting that the people who quoted this scripture focused only on the part of a woman having her head covered and missed the part about those same women praying and prophesying. This seems inconsistent and disingenuous to me. Clearly, Paul expected a woman to pray and prophesy in the church.

In fact, both the prophet Joel in the Old Testament and Peter in the New Testament declare:

“‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions,

   and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy” (Acts 2:17-18).

The Word of God says, Both My sons and my daughters will prophesy. Even on my male and female servants, I will pour out my spirit” (emphasis mine). God isn’t pouring out His spirit on His daughters and giving them prophecies so they can just sit and be silent. That makes no sense.

Now we will consider some passages in 1 Corinthians.

“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. Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached?” (1 Corinthians 14:34-36).

There is a fascinating little Greek word I want to teach you. It is the Greek word . This word is in the New Testament 357 times, yet you probably never heard of it. The reason is that translators don’t know what to do with it, but it can be extremely important. In fact, many translations just completely ignore this word. If they do translate it, the often use the word “or.”

According to my research, could be described as an “expletive of dissociation.” We tend to think of an expletive as a swear word—don’t think of it that way. Think of it as strongly worded counterpoint.

Strong’s describes as “a primary particle of distinction between two connected terms.” Some common English words we might use to get the same meaning could be “no way,” “nonsense,” or “What?” as in, “What are you talking about?”

Let me give you an example. “Do you think you are the only one who has suffered from this pandemic? , I have lost my job, too.”

In these examples from 1 Corinthians from the New International Version, I have inserted a possible modern English vernacular phrase for .

  • 1 Corinthians 1:13. (No way) were you baptized into the name of Paul.
  • 1 Corinthians 6:2 . (What?) Do you not know that saints will judge the world?
  • 1 Corinthians 6:9 . (Nonsense) Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the Kingdom of God?
  • 1 Corinthians 6:16 . (Really!?) [the KJV actually translates this as ‘what’] Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body?
  • 1 Corinthians 6:19 . (What) Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit?
  • 1 Corinthians 9:6 . (nonsense) Is it only I and Barnabas who must work for a living?
  • 1 Corinthians 14:36a . (nonsense) Did the word of God originate with you?
  • 1 Corinthians 14:36b Or (What?) Are you the only people it has reached?

We could give many more examples, but I hope you are getting the meaning of this one-letter Greek word. And as you can see, this one symbol dramatically changes the way we would read these restrictive verses in 1 Corinthians 14:34-16.

When the men of the Corinthian church say that their women should keep silent until they get home, Paul’s rebuttal is “ἤ (Nonsense!) Was it from you that the word of God first went forth? ἤ )What?) Has the word of God come to you only?”

We just read in verse 34, “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.”

The phrase “as the law also says” is interesting. Where does it say in the Torah, or even the entire Old Testament, that women must be silent, or women must be in subjection to men?

Sometimes people quote Genesis 3:16: “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.”

But the problem with this as a proof text is that this is not a commandment from God, nor is it God’s perfect will, but rather a statement that God makes about the consequences of Adam and Eve’s sin. This is part of the curse, and Jesus came to set us free from the curse. Furthermore, there is no mention of women being silent in this passage.

Back to Our Question

Where in the Old Testament law does it say that women must be silent? I can’t find it anywhere. So, what is Paul talking about?

Could it be that Paul was quoting what the people in the Corinthian church were arguing about? Indeed, the entire book of first Corinthians is framed around Paul’s response to questions that were submitted to him by the church. This can be verified in 1 Corinthians 7:1.

Many biblical scholars believe, and I believe that we have demonstrated as plausible, that in 1 Corinthians 14:34-36, Paul is quoting the teachings of misinformed people in the Corinthian church.

One must consider whether Paul saying that women may not prophesy would be a way of forbidding the very gifts that God gives to members of His body. “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith…” (Ephesians 4:11-13).

If we believe that women cannot have spiritual gifts, or at least should not use them, we thereby defy Scripture which clearly shows women being gifted by the Holy Spirit and used in prophetic ministry. This is seen in several other scriptures.

Acts 21:8-9: “We entered the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven, and stayed with him. He had four unmarried daughters, who prophesied.”

Luke 2:36-38: “And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years…She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.”

Please notice that not only was Anna a prophetess, but she clearly ministered on the temple grounds, and ministered to worshipers who were at the temple. The Sadducees who administered the temple grounds did not chase her away. This means it was normal and acceptable for women to minister in this way.

Paul expected women to minister. As I pointed out earlier in 1 Corinthians 11:5 Paul says “but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head…” He obviously expected women to be praying prophesying.

One should also ask, if Paul were telling women they must remain silent, would he be going against biblical prophecy?

Let us consider some selected passages from the book of Acts.

Acts 1:14: All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers…. Notice that the women were present with the disciples praying as they awaited the coming of the Holy Spirit.

Acts 2:1, 4: “When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.” If they were all together, then the women were also with them.

Acts 2:16-18 “But this is what was uttered through the proph