Women have an increasing role in the work of the church. Women not only lead women in “women’s ministries,” but also lead men and women in music, prayer, teaching and speaking. Some people wonder why women should be allowed to do anything in church; others wonder why women can’t do everything in church.
To give biblical perspective on this issue, let’s look at evidence that God has used women to speak to his people. Women have spoken the word of God, and they have done so with divine approval and divine authority.
The Lord gave Hagar a promise similar to the promise given to Abraham (Genesis 16:7-10). Hagar then “gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: `You are the God who sees me,’ for she said, `I have now seen the One who sees me’ ” (verse 11).
What Hagar said is now in the word of God. She told us one of the names that tell us who God is. He is the God who sees us, and Hagar is the person who spoke that truth.
After God brought the Israelites through the Red Sea, Miriam sang praises that are now part of the word of God: “Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women followed her, with tambourines and dancing.
“Miriam sang to them: `Sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. The horse and its rider he has hurled into the sea’ ” (Exodus 15:20-21). In public worship, Miriam sang what is now the word of God.
Miriam was a prophetess, which means that she spoke the word of the Lord. A prophet is someone who speaks on behalf of God to the people; a prophetess had the same role. Miriam had a role of spiritual leadership. [Click here for article on Miriam]
The next prophetess in the Bible is Deborah. “Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time. She held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites came to her to have their disputes decided” (Judges 4:4-5).
Deborah was a prophetess and a judge, and in both roles she spoke the word of God. Her role was not just a one-time event, but an ongoing responsibility. The people came to her for leadership on a regular basis—and there is nothing in the Bible to suggest that anyone thought it was unusual for a woman to perform this role. She was simply the most qualified person, and people accepted that.
God can raise up stones to do his work, and if he needed a man to do his work, he could raise up a man. But in this case he chose to work through a woman, showing that there is no theological reason that God can’t use a woman to speak on his behalf, or to have a woman lead his people.
There were many men in Israel at that time, but God wasn’t searching for one to be the judge, and apparently the Israelites weren’t, either. They were quite willing to go to Deborah to have their disputes decided. She had wisdom, and her wisdom was more important than her gender.
Deborah was a prophetess, someone speaking the words of God. “She sent for Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali and said to him, `The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you: “Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun and lead the way to Mount Tabor. I will lure Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his troops to the Kishon River and give him into your hands” ‘ ” (verses 6-7).
Here the Bible describes a woman speaking the words of God, giving commands to a man who was apparently enough of a leader that he could raise an army of ten thousand men. God is quite willing for a woman to give his commands to men. There is nothing in the nature of God or the nature of men and women that makes such a thing inappropriate. God can use women, and we need to be alert for the possibility that he is, and we need to be willing to respond.
Deborah went with Barak, and in verse 14 she again gives the word of the Lord to Barak: “Go! This is the day the Lord has given Sisera into your hands. Has not the Lord gone ahead of you?” So they went, and they won. It was a great victory, and Deborah and Barak commemorated their victory with a song of praise that is now part of the word of God.
“On that day Deborah and Barak son of Abinoam sang this song: `When the princes in Israel take the lead, when the people willingly offer themselves—praise the Lord! Hear this, you kings! Listen, you rulers! I will sing to the Lord, I will sing; I will make music to the Lord, the God of Israel’ ” (Judges 5:1-2)
Who is this “I” who is singing? In verse 7 we see that it is Deborah: “Village life in Israel ceased,” the song says, “ceased until I, Deborah, arose, arose a mother in Israel.” Deborah is the primary author of this part of Scripture. Like Miriam, she was singing praise to God in public worship. She is expressing spiritual leadership, speaking the word of God. This is a legitimate thing for women to do.
When the best person for the job is a woman, then God is quite willing to use a woman to do the work that needs to be done. Even in a patriarchal society, God can use women to speak his words.
A similar thing happened with Hannah, the mother of Samuel. “Hannah prayed and said: `My heart rejoices in the Lord; in the Lord my horn is lifted high. My mouth boasts over my enemies, for I delight in your deliverance. There is no one holy like the Lord; there is no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God’ ” (1 Samuel 2:1-2).
Again, a woman’s words are now inspired Scripture. She spoke the word of God with words of worship that have inspired synagogues and churches for thousands of years, and that is a notable achievement for anyone. God inspired her to sing a song of praise.
Most of God’s spokesmen were men. In this patriarchal society, all the priests were men, the kings were men, the military leaders were men. But even in that male-dominated society, God could use women to do his work.
In 2 Kings 22, we catch another glimpse of what God was doing with women. In the 18th year of Josiah’s reign, workers found a scroll of the law in the temple. Josiah told the high priest what he should do: “Go and inquire of the Lord for me and for the people and for all Judah about what is written in this book that has been found” (verse 13).
The high priest wanted to ask the Lord about the scroll, so he “went to speak to the prophetess Huldah, who was the wife of Shallum son of Tikvah” (verse 14). They could have looked for Jeremiah, but there was no reason to. Huldah spoke the word of the Lord just as much as Jeremiah did. A prophet speaks the words of God, and a prophetess speaks the words of God, and God inspires one just as much as the other.
So they asked Huldah, and in verses 15-16 we read her reply: “She said to them, `This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Tell the man who sent you to me, “This is what the Lord says: I am going to bring disaster on this place and its people, according to everything written in the book the king of Judah has read.” ‘ ”
Huldah was commenting on the meaning of the Scriptures and predicting the future, giving an authoritative message from God. Again, there is no indication that anything unusual was happening. No one said it was strange to go to a woman instead of a man. Huldah was known as a prophetess, which means that she was known to speak the word of the Lord. She was doing the same thing she had on many other occasions: She spoke on behalf of God to the people. That is what prophetesses did.
In the New Testament we learn of other women who spoke the word of God. Mary sang praises that are now in Scripture (Luke 1:46-55). Anna was a prophetess (Luke 2:36-38). After Jesus was resurrected, he appeared to some women and gave them a message: “The women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples.
“Suddenly Jesus met them. `Greetings,’ he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, `Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me’ ” (Matthew 28:8-10).
Jesus has no problem with women delivering commands to men. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. He gave them that authority by giving them the message, and in doing so, these women were speaking the words of the Lord. Jesus expected the men to listen to the women and obey the command they delivered.
There were prophetesses in the early church, too. When the disciples were speaking in tongues, Peter told the crowd what was going on. It was a fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy: “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy” (Acts 2:17-18).
God inspires both men and women to speak. That was not unheard of in Old Testament times, and this is the way it should be in the new covenant age, too. God will cause both men and women to speak. Luke does not tell us what the women were inspired to say. All the preaching done in the book of Acts is done by men. That was probably a practical necessity in that culture. But there is nothing theoretically or theologically wrong with women being inspired to speak.
Luke mentions in Acts 21:9 that Philip had four daughters who prophesied. As prophetesses, they would speak the word of God, as they were inspired by God. They may have composed songs of praise, like Miriam and Deborah did, or they could have commented on the meaning of the Scriptures, as Huldah did. All of those are within the range of what is biblically possible. [Click here for longer article about women in the New Testament.]
1 Corinthians 11
1 Corinthians 11 gives us another example of women speaking the word of God—and this in a letter from Paul, who is sometimes quoted as saying that women should not speak. But that kind of quote is possible only when it is taken out of context, because 1 Corinthians 11 shows that Paul did approve of women speaking, even in church.
There are many details in the chapter that we cannot explore now, but we can take note of a few things about women. Paul writes: “Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is just as though her head were shaved” (verses 4-5).
Christians have debated the meaning of these words for centuries. Paul was writing about a cultural custom we do not have today. His point seems to be that that men and women should act in culturally appropriate ways when they pray or prophesy.
Paul is addressing something that is done in public. He is not worried about whether people cover their heads in private—and prophesying almost by definition has to be done in public. Paul is discussing something that other people can see. The concepts of shame and honor concern what other people can see.
In chapter 14 he talks in more detail about prophesying, and it is something done in church, in the worship services. It seems clear that in chapter 11 Paul is talking about women praying and prophesying in church.
What does Paul mean when he talks about prophesying? In chapter 12, he lists prophecy as a spiritual gift. In chapter 14, he says: “Everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort. He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church” (verses 3-4).
Prophecy is an ability that God gives to people to strengthen, encourage, comfort and edify others. Paul wished that everyone in the church could do this. It is a valuable gift, for the strengthening of the church as a whole. It is done in church, for good of the church. Verse 24 says that prophecy is something that could convince people of sin and could lead someone to faith in Christ.
When Paul writes about women who prophesy, he means women who encourage, comfort, edify and strengthen the church. He means women who are speaking in church to help the church grow, to help believers become better servants of God. [Click here for a longer article about this passage.]
Some speakers must be silent
In verse 26, Paul gives some instructions for the worship services. “When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church.” The priority in our worship services is building and strengthening the church.
In verses 27-28, he says: “If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God.” “Keep quiet” is a Greek word that is later translated as “silent.” It does not mean total silence, but peace and order. Instead of everybody talking at once, people ought to take turns.
Verse 29: “Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said.” We don’t have to assume it is a message from God just because somebody said it is. Rather, we should judge it carefully, thinking about what it means and how it fits in with other things we know about the gospel.
Verses 30-31: “And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop [the same Greek word is used here for being quiet]. For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged.” Everyone could prophesy, as God gave the spiritual gift to encourage, comfort, edify and instruct.
Paul said they could all prophesy, as long as they took turns doing it. So in verse 34, “women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says,” what did Paul mean? Is he contradicting what he wrote in chapter 11? Is he saying, contrary to the Scriptures that we have seen, that women are not allowed to speak the word of God? Or that they can do it anywhere except church?
No, Paul is not contradicting himself. There are several reasons to believe that this verse applies to a limited situation. First, common sense tells us that women do not have to be completely silent in church. They can say amen; they can sing hymns; they can whisper a question to their husband to find out what verse is being discussed.
Paul does not forbid all talking or all questions—he is concerned mainly about peace and order in the worship service, and what he forbids is talking that disrupts the worship service. When he tells women to be quiet, he uses the same Greek word that he had used for men who were speaking in tongues or prophesying. He is referring to out-of-turn talking. The second clue that Paul is discussing a limited situation is that the Law does not tell women to be silent in the worship meetings. The Bible says that wives should be in submission to their husbands, but not to all men in general.
When Paul says that women must be silent, he means that wives are not to be asking disruptive or non-submissive questions of their husbands in the worship service—and he assumes that similar rules would apply to women who aren’t married to believers. Whispered questions are not disgraceful, but disruptive questions are. If wives want to find out something, they can ask their husbands at home. If it’s somebody else’s husband, of course, they couldn’t ask at home; they would have to ask in church just like everybody else. [For a more detailed study of this passage, click here.]
If we take verse 34 out of context, we could turn it into a requirement for total silence of all women in church. But that is not what Paul meant. Paul is simply requiring women to be silent for a time, just as he required everybody else to be quiet for a time. The context itself tells us that Paul’s words are limited to a specific situation—a situation that rarely occurs in churches today, because our worship services use a different format.
A basic rule of biblical interpretation is that we should try to understand a writer in such a way that we don’t make him contradict himself. The Bible clearly says that women can speak the word of God, and Paul allowed women to speak in church. So when he says that women have to be silent, we need to understand that his comments are limited in some way by the situation.
That is what we have done here, and that is what we need to do in 1 Timothy 2. When it says that women are not allowed to speak in church, we should not try to make it say more than it means. We should try to understand the words in such a way that they do not contradict the clear examples in Scripture that women can speak the word of God. [For a more detailed study of that passage, click here.]
Peter gives us a fitting conclusion when he says, “Each one should use whatever gift he [or she] has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks [whether man or woman] he should do it as one speaking the very words of God” (1 Peter 4:10-11). Anyone who speaks in church should strive to speak the words of God, and women are certainly included in those who may speak the words of God in church.
Author: Michael Morrison