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Women's Proper Roles in the Church

Updated: Oct 29, 2023

Do women have proper roles in a church setting?

I majored in civil engineering. My father who was a civil engineer did not believe women should be engineers. Back then it was a male-dominated field and he believed that women had proper roles and being an engineer wasn't one of them. There weren't many women in civil engineering in the late 70's. Often I would be the only female or one of two in a class. When I graduated and had six job offers to choose from, I thought the men were thinking I got that many offers because I was a woman. And when I headed off to my first job out of college my father said he couldn't believe I was making that much money when there were men in the world who had families to support who didn't make that much money. All I can say it was a different time and culture then.

I worked as a civil structural engineer for 10 years before I became a stay-at-home mom. My last engineering job I would go to construction sites and take a technician with me to do testing and the foreman would always walk up to the technician and start talking. The technician would look at the foreman and say, "She is the engineer" to which the foreman would always say something like, "A pretty little thing like that?"

When I received my Professional Engineering license (requires four years of work experience and two eight hour exams), my boss said to me he couldn't believe I passed and a specific male co-worker of mine didn't!

It seemed to me like there was this underlying culture that I wasn't quite intelligent enough or qualified enough simply because I was a woman.

I found it difficult to work in the engineering world and be a mother. My daughter would be the first one to daycare and the last one to leave. She got sick often and I'd be the one to leave work to get her. (My husband made way more money than I did plus her daycare was near my office.) I was the only female engineer at this small consulting firm. I got called in by my supervisor and told I wasn't putting in the overtime like "the men were" and he asked how was I going to fix that. A male-dominated field was not sympathetic to the plight of working moms.

After one particularly rough day when I had crawled under a prefabricated home by myself to see if the anchor supports met HUD requirements - in my work overalls, boots and a mask with swarms of grasshoppers flying in my face and getting stuck in my hair - and then to return to the office to have the woman client scream at me over the phone (whom I later found out when she apologized to me that she had just had a baby three weeks earlier and was just exhausted); I headed home and had a melt down and quit my job.

We'd like to believe things have changed for women in the past four decades. That we have shattered glass ceilings in how men perceive our worth. What they have found out is few women still major in engineering and those who do, the majority leave the profession within 10 years. I was interviewed for a major university research study on why women leave the engineering profession. Of all the women I knew who were in engineering I only know one who stayed in it.

I say all of this because I want you to realize that I am a person of above average intelligence who worked hard to achieve the career I had. I deserved it as much as a man did. I was as qualified.

Which brings me to the reason for this post - the role of women in the church. Recently I've seen several articles online, things being posted on social media, and even where a local group is having a luncheon on this subject,...

My women's group is doing an online theology class right now that was recorded 18 years ago. The last lecture was very odd. Apparently in the 1980's and early 1990's because of the feminist movement there was this push to describe God in gender-neutral language, attributing female qualities to Him based on six similes in the Bible. I did not know this went on. I am well aware of the move of gender-neutral language in modern Bible translations. That is a different animal. I've written posts about this: Including the Women dated 11/29/15 and Language Evolves QUICKLY dated 2/12/18. For example, many modern Bible versions have changed "him" to "them" and "brothers" to "brothers and sisters." The original language manuscripts used masculine language. We don't do that in modern language. But all Bible versions (which I've studied) always refer to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the masculine. As it should be!

I agreed with the professor's lecture. I was looking at the class questions provided for the lecture and it asked "What impact does this discussion have on your view of the proper roles of men and women in church life?" WHAT? His lecture did not address this. He was talking about God is masculine and that gender-neutral language should not be used in referring to God. I agree. How did he get from that to the "proper" roles of men and women in the church? It was two entirely different topics in my mind.

I pulled out my theology notes from a decade ago. A few years ago I went to an Egalitarian/ Complementarian debate at a local seminary. Because I am a woman and I teach Bible classes where men have been present, this is a topic I closely follow.

In the church there are two views of women in ministry:

Egalitarian - equality. Women can do anything men can do.

Complementarian - women are equal to men in God's sight, but with different roles. They complement each other.

Can women be ordained ministers? Can women preach? Can women teach men? Should men and women have different roles in the church? What should those roles be?

I believe the Bible is the authoritative word of God. I believe God has revealed His character, redemptive plan, and His will for us through the words in the Bible. And because I believe that, I believe the Bible is authoritative for my life. That means the Bible trumps my feelings on a subject.

The complementarian viewpoint will point to these Scripture verses as part of their argument.

1 Timothy 2:11-12

A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet.

1 Corinthians 14:34-35

The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church.

Here are my notes on this from when I took my first theology class from a pastor who has his PhD and taught theology classes at a nearby seminary.

Paul is giving a universal teaching here to all places. In this day, in this culture - women had no rights. 1.) Paul was saying women had rights. 2.) Paul was not saying women couldn't teach in church. It was already happening with Paul's approval. 3.) He was not saying women couldn't talk or lead in churches. So what is Paul saying here? The thrust of Paul's concern was the issue of authority. He sees the authority issue as universal and the rest as cultural. Universally clear - women should not have spiritual authority in the church. Submit is about leadership - in family, man should be the leader. When it comes to the church we need to respect authority. Women can teach, lead, minister. However, we must not violate God's order for the church. Women can have pastoral roles. The Bible is clear there is an idea of authority in the church.

This professor believed women could teach and even be pastors, but there was an authoritative limit to their roles. What does this specifically look like? He said at the church he pastors only a male can be the Senior Pastor. This led to a million questions in my mind about how he concluded that from what he had just said, but the professor moved on to Eschatology (last things).

After these Scripture verses, complementarians will go to woman is created from man in the creation account, the submission of the Son to the Father's will, and the men are the authority of the household passage (Ephesians 5:22-33 to which I say verse 24 says the church is subject to Christ) and say this lays the groundwork for the male authority in the church. They will add historically males have had authority in the church. (Well of course they have! Historically women were thought of as second class. But is this a biblical commandment?)

Egalitarians will point to the triad of texts in Galatians 3:28, 1 Corinthians 12:13, and Colossians 3:11 saying we are all equal at the foot of the cross. (To which complementarians will argue those verses are talking about salvation and do not apply to roles here on earth.) To which egalitarians will move on to the argument that there were female judges and females involved in the ministry of the early church. Then they will talk about reading the Bible in historical and cultural context and the verses on head coverings, jewelry, braiding hair, and tattoos that we say are historically specific and should be read in cultural context.

Honestly, to me the logic of both sides has flaws and it is exhausting to follow the chain of their reasoning. There seems to be a lot of cherry-picking of verses by both.

I am reminded of Jesus taking us into deeper understanding saying over and over in His Sermon on the Mount that "You have heard that...; but I say to you..." In other words is there a difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law? Filter it all through what honors God.

Men and women were designed differently and they bring different things to the table. Intelligence and knowledge of the Scripture and spiritual maturity aren't one of those inherent differences.

Churches are not usually completely complementarian or egalitarian. They fall over the full gamut perhaps allowing a woman to be a deacon, but not an elder; or to teach, but not preach. This is where the debate continues to rage in the local churches. Where is the line in the sand? What are the "proper" roles of women in the church? It is often dictated by the governing body of their denomination. The Catholic Church has clearly defined the roles of women and they are complementarian. Protestants more so argue about this and the roles of women in ministry greatly varies per church.

Back before I ever taught a Bible class, I wanted to make sure I was not doing something that went against God's word. Remember I believe the Bible is authoritative for my life. So I did a considerable amount of reading about the egalitarian and complementarian viewpoints. I looked up Scripture. I spoke to a pastor who had his PhD, a pastor who has his masters from seminary, a woman who has her masters from a seminary, and a woman church staff member who has a masters from seminary and her doctorate. I got their feedback and wise counsel. I did my due diligence. Obviously I concluded I could teach men.

I am naturally a curious person. I will read something in the Bible and pull out my reference books and commentaries and do research on it. I will spend hours going down a proverbial rabbit hole to learn all I can about a topic. Eventually I felt God's calling to teach what I've learned.

I am a good teacher. I can explain the historical eras of the Bible, geography, culture, the difference in the synoptic gospels and the gospel of John, the Canon, the Apocrypha (I was told by a seminary graduate that I know way more about this than he did), in depth on the genealogies of Christ, the differences in the various Jewish sects, the importance of the synagogues in the spread of the Gospel, the Dead Sea Scrolls (I made it through 12 of 24 lectures by a Rutgers University professor on this),... I have knowledge about the Bible - interesting fascinating knowledge. Biblical literacy is at an all time low according to surveys. Each year, less and less people are reading the Bible. This knowledge might encourage them to read or enhance their Bible reading!

I don't understand why this is considered wrong for me to teach men in many churches.

Is the information I pass on any less valuable because I am a woman?


Is it only applicable to young women and to children?

Of course not!

I try to be very mindful of James 3:1:

Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment.

(Note the "my brethren" and that is because I read from a literal masculine language Bible version.) Now I don't know what that "stricter judgment" will look like, but that verse reminds me that I am dealing with God's holy word and I better get it right. I better check my facts and double check what I am saying. I am quick to let students know if I've said something in error.

If a church had a large structural crack in their foundation, they might come to me knowing that I used to be a civil structural Professional Engineer and ask my opinion. But some complementarian churches would not let me teach men about the Jordan River, or the time period between the Testaments, or the Old Testament prophecies concerning Jesus,... because I am a woman. Does anyone else see a disconnect there?

I have something of value to offer to the church.

Look back to that above definition of complementarian by that professor - "women are equal to men in God's sight,..."

I may not be equal in the sight of a lot of churches, but I'm equal in His sight. He knows my heart. He knows me. He's the One that counts.

Perhaps women haven't come as far as we think they have.

It just seems to me that the church might have a greater impact on this world if they put everyone's spiritual gifts to use. Just saying.

Other articles I wrote on this subject:

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