Chapter 11: The Woman: Comportment and Function in the Church

Herrick Johnston, a moderator of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., toward the close of the nineteenth century wrote: “Christianity has lifted woman to a new place in the world, and just in proportion as Christianity has sway, will she rise to a higher dignity in human life. What she has now, and all that she shall have of privilege and true honour, she owes to that gospel which took those qualities which have been counted weak and unworthy and gave them a divine glory in Christ.”

The study of the woman’s place in the church requires that we reach our conclusions only after an examination of the various phases of her history.

The Woman in Creation

There are two accounts of the creation of man, male and female, in the Book of Genesis.

The first (Gen. 1:26-28) pictures Adam and Eve as if they were created simultaneously and states their divine origin, character and purpose. Man and woman both alike were created by God; they bore a likeness to Him; they possessed reason, the powers of God-consciousness, world-consciousness, self-consciousness, and the faculty of self-manifestation. God blessed both and instructed them to replenish and subdue the earth, and to have dominion over it.

Man and woman in this account of creation are treated as equals; what the one received the other also received; and what the one was to do, the other was to do.

The second (Gen. 2:7-25) describes the earthly origin of man; he is of the earth, earthy. The emphasis in this passage is not upon the equality of man and woman, but upon the fact that woman is man’s complement. She was created as an help meet for man; that is a help suitable for him, his counterpart.

Adam’s language when the Lord brought Eve to him indicates that he accepted Eve in this manner. “Adam said, This is now (colloquially speaking, This is at last) bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” Adam had considered well the animals around him; they came at his call; they were his daily companions, and were in their way helpful to him, but at last he recognized in Eve a second self, his very reflection, his true counterpart.

Matthew Henry quaintly says that woman was taken out of man’s side to suggest her equalitv with him: °t out of his feet to imply inferiority, or out of his head to suggest superiority, but out of his side, implying companionship and equality.

Such, then, was the blessedness and the blessing of woman in her creation.

Woman in Probation

The Apostle Paul states this succinctly, “Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression” (I Tim. 2:14). Paul is not suggesting that Adam was much superior to Eve and beyond ever being deceived, he merely is making a statement of fact in regard to the historical order of the fall; Eve was deceived and in her deception she assumed to lead Adam. “She took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat” (Gen. 3:6). So ruinous was her act that not again was she by divine appointment to be permitted in the place of leadership over man.

In Satan’s deception of Eve we see the beginning of the slimy trail that throughout the centuries has beguiled so many in the world: “The lust of the flesh;” “The woman saw that the tree was good for food.” “The lust of the eye;” “It was pleasant to the eye.” “And the pride of life;” “A tree to be desired to make one wise.”

The sentence of God upon Eve remains unto this day. It is well to notice that neither Adam nor Eve were cursed; only Satan and the earth were thus judged by God. “Unto the woman He (God) said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee” (Gen. 3:16). The God who had said at their creation, “Let them have dominion over the fish, … fowl, … and over every living thing” (Gen. 1:28) now says to the woman, “He shall rule over thee.” The period of the co-rule of man and woman had ended with the deception of Eve; she henceforth was to be in a position of subjection to man. Ever since, woman’s position both in the world and in the Church has resulted from her transgression.

The divine sentence upon the woman was suffering from the hand of God and subjection under the hand of man. Yet this sentence was alleviated by the promise of Satan’s final defeat. “The Lord God said unto the serpent, … I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.” Since sin came by way of the woman, God ordained that the blessed Saviour Himself also come by way of the woman. Although the channel of much misery, the woman has become the channel of all mercy.

The Woman in Paganism

How womanhood has suffered in the pagan world! In that world her subjection is complete; she is degraded, abused, and enslaved. One of the so-called enlightened philosophers of the ancient world expressed the feelings of his day in words something like these: “We need wives to bear us legitimate children, concubines to give us physical pleasure, prostitutes for our times of profligacy, and female slaves to provide us comfort.” Woman in the mind of pagan man, is little better than a serf oppressed by a lustful lord.

We think of the anguish and grief of womanhood in the pagan world when her child was taken from her breast to become a human sacrifice to Moloch. We think of the horror and dread when she herself became a human sacrifice to accompany her dead husband into the unseen world. The day was when even here in North America a maiden from among the Indians became a human sacrifice to the gods at the time of their religious festivals.

From this awful picture of abject subjugation, let us turn and consider the woman under the law.

The Woman under the Law

While the woman’s position in Judaism may have been paradoxical, under the Law she was held in esteem. There are several points that should be examined here: her subjection, her esteem, her spirituality and devotion, and the honour of all honours bestowed upon her.

Her Subjection: Woman was constantly reminded of her submission in the dispensation of the Law. First, by statute. For example, if a daughter vowed a vow and bound her soul before the Lord, and her father overheard her vow, he could disallow it. If her father so acted, the Lord freed her from her obligation; she was under submission to her father. The same was true of a married woman; her husband had authority over her to disallow her vow (Num. 30:3-8). Woman in both these cases was under subjection to man.

Second: She was reminded of her subjection by ceremonies. The submission of the woman is obvious in the law of purification (Lev. 12). Third: She was also reminded of her position by the example of the mother of the Hebrew nation of whom we read, “Even as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord” (I Peter 3:6).

Her esteem: That womanhood, especially motherhood was to be highly regarded under the Law is demonstrated by the commandment, “Honour thy father and thy mother; that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee” (Ex. 20:12). “Ye shall fear every man his mother and his father” (Lev. 19:3). “He that smiteth his father, or his mother, shall be surely put to death” (Ex. 21:15).

The usual sphere of the woman under the Law was her home. Public affairs, therefore, were considered outside the woman’s province altogether.

Her special service: Notwithstanding the quiet and more or less secluded sphere of her home, during the dispensation of the Law woman reached a high standard of spirituality, and because of the weakness of man in certain circumstances she gave leadership: Miriam was called a prophetess (Ex. 15:20). Deborah was called a prophetess and a judge (Jud. 4:4). Huldah was a prophetess in the days of Josiah (II Chron. 34:22). Isaiah’s wife is called a prophetess (Isa. 8:3). Noadiah in the days of Nehemiah was a prophetess, but she hindered the work of God being done at that time (Neh. 6:14). This list would not be complete without the name of Anna of the tribe of Asher who as a prophetess served God with fastings and prayers (Luke 2:36). In all these cases, with the exception of Miriam and Anna, God used these women in a public sphere because of weakness on the part of man. Notwithstanding, none of these are mentioned in the great chapter of faith and fame, Hebrews 11. In fact, although Deborah, rather egotistically sings of her own prowess, in that wonderful chapter of the New Testament, she is not even mentioned and the credit for the victory is given to Barak (Heb. 11:32).

Her spirituality: Our hearts are warmed by the devotion seen in some of the godly women who lived near the end of the dispensation of the Law, women who developed strong spiritual characters and who waited for the consolation of Israel: Joanna, Susanna, Salome, the Marys and many others. We admire and thank God for the blessed virgin Mary, the example of womanhood in its noblest and purest form.

The Woman under Christianity

Through Christianity the woman has a place she finds nowhere else. We shall look at her in Christ, in the home, and in the Church.

In Christ: In Christ all distinctions among believers are lost. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ” (Gal. 3:28). In Christ woman becomes equal to man. She therefore is accepted in the Beloved as well as he (Eph. 1:6), and becomes a member of the Body of Christ (I Cor. 12:12), a member of the Christian priesthood (I Peter 2:9). She, as well as man, is justified, sanctified, and glorified (Rom 8:30). These are the concepts which have led to the elevation of woman under this dispensation of the grace of God.

In the home: In her home the Christian woman should be loved by her husband (Col. 3:19), honoured and obeyed by her children (Eph. 6:1-3. Col. 3:20). There she should be submissive to her husband (Col. 3:18. Eph. 5:22), for if unconverted, through her conduct, he is sanctified (I Cor. 7:14), and eventually may be won to Christ (I Peter 3:1-6). She should always dress decently and act decorously (I Peter 3:3-4).

The Christian woman may make her home the centre of hospitality (Acts 16:14-15), a means of spiritual instruction (Acts 18:24-28), and a place of intercession (Acts 12:11-17). Through her own spirituality, the Christian woman may make her secular sphere a sacred sanctuary.

In the Church: The place of the Christian woman in the Church is a highly controversial matter today; consequently, we must adhere closely to the Holy Scriptures, and examine in them her status, subjection, service, and silence in the local church.

/. Her status: Paul has forcefully expressed this, “Treat … the elder women as mothers; the younger as sisters, with all purity” (I Tim. 5:1-2). The attitude of all in the church to elderly sisters should be that of respect and love worthy of maturity; the attitude of all in the church to younger sisters should be one of restraint and holiness worthy of chastity. The attitude of all in both of these cases should be that of care and love.

//. Her subjection: Paul opens up the second section of First Corinthians by commending the brethren at Corinth for their observance of the oral instruction he had given them; he then adds to former congregational instruction a lesson on divine headship. “The Head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the Head of Christ is God” (I Cor. 11:3).

Since there is headship, argues the Apostle, there must also be submission; Christ to the headship of God; man to the headship of Christ; and woman to the headship of man. He then suggests a visible symbol of headship and submission to be worn by the woman.

The symbol: The symbol is a head-covering which is illustrated by nature (I Cor. 11:14-15), but the reality must not be confused with the illustration. That these are altogether distinct may be proven by substituting the hair of the illustration for the covering of the symbol, and reading the passage aloud. By this means it will be readily seen that the natural hair of the woman is not the covering that Paul is advocating.

The reason: This passage raises the wearing of a hat by our sisters far above the idea of etiquette; it states the true reason. “For this cause ought the woman to have a sign of authority on her head because of the angels” (Margin, K.J.V.). As the angels, invisible spectators, view in the Church the manifold wisdom of God, they see the symbol of headship and submission on the heads of Christian woman, and they are reminded of their own subjection to the headship of God.

The statement about woman praying and prophesying in I Corinthians 11:5, is a difficulty. Although there have been different attempts to explain it, there seems to be only one that is in keeping with the context and the whole tenor of Scripture.

Even a casual reading of the passage convinces one that Paul is correcting one of several abuses prevalent in the Corinthian church, the insubordination of the women. In his statement, Paul, for the sake of logic, is merely accepting what was being practised in the local church. He does not break the force of his argument here to correct this abuse; he later returns to it in chapter 14:34, and says, “Let your women keep silence in the churches.” A proper exegesis of these two passages requires that the statement of I Corinthians 11:5 be interpreted in the light of I Corinthians 14:34, because six years later, when writing to Timothy, Paul restates his correction, saying, “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection” (I Tim. 2:11).

Again, it should be noticed that ever since she was deceived and in the transgression woman is in the place of subjection.

III. Her service: There are three what might be called recognizable titles used in regard to the service of women in the Church: prophetess (Acts 21:9), servant or deaconness (Rom. 16:1. I Tim. 3:11), and succourer or patron (Rom. 16:1-2).

Inasmuch as we have seen that the gift of prophecy was to cease, and in fact did cease eventually when the Canon of Scripture was completed, the title prophetess has little significance for us today. Since there have been false prophetesses from apostolic times until the present, it is only proper that we be ready to detect and expel them from our fellowship. The Word of God exposes one such woman, “That woman Jezebel which calleth herself a prophetess” (Rev. 2:20).

The title deaconness is in perfect accord with the teaching of God’s Word concerning women for it means under-worker. That there is much for women to do is obvious, but they must do it in the place of submission. As we formerly saw, the noun deacon is very comprehensive and embraces many different types of Christian activity which assist in the work of the church. A sister may be a deaconess of the church; she may be appointed to some special task within her own sphere of usefulness and submission. The word deaconness indicates her relationship to her own church.

The third title is that of succourer, a patron, and indicates a Christian woman’s attitude toward others. If the word deaconness suggests the how of sisters’ service, the word patron suggests the what of her service. Woman’s service in the church is under the brethren, the elders, and toward others as advocate and defender, a strong capable helper in the time of need.

In the New Testament there are commendations of many women who served the apostolic churches. In Roman 16, Paul commends a long list of his helpers; eleven of the names he mentions are feminine. He commends Euodias and Syntyche (Phil. 4:1-3) and other women in the early churches, but from what he says, we cannot gather the specific work they did. He commends the service of Phoebe, the devotion of Priscilla and her husband, and says that Mary bestowed much labour upon him and his helpers. Of some of the others he says, “They laboured in the Lord,” or “They laboured with me in the gospel.” The reasonable conclusion is that sisters’ service in the churches may be any ministry for, and with, and under the brethren overseers which will assist in the furtherance of the work of the Lord.

IV. Her silence: In this regard there are two important points which must be covered, the fact of the woman’s silence and the reason for the woman’s silence.

The fact of her silence (I Cor. 14:27-35): As intimated earlier in our study, here Paul is correcting the abuses of woman in taking public part in Corinth (I Cor. 11:5). This he does by stating imperatively that she must be silent in the church. This command has been explained away by some. They have suggested that all Paul meant was that women were to stop gossiping and chattering before and during the church services. An examination of the context precludes such an interpretation.

The clause to keep silence occurs three times in this passage. First, in connection with the gift of tongues (Vs. 27-28); the absence of an interpreter in the church required silence. Second, in regard to the gift of prophecy (V. 30). A further revelation from God through a prophet meant that the first speaker, in silence must give place to the second. Third, it is used relevant to the woman and must be understood within the immediate context. In the first two cases the clause is not used to silence chatter, but to control divinely endowed gifts. This control required that under certain conditions even spiritual gifts had to keep silence; it must therefore mean that in the gathering of the saints the woman is to remain in silence.

The reason for her silence (I Tim. 2:8-15): Six years after writing his imperative to the Corinthians, Paul gives instructions to Timothy whom he left at Ephesus during his absence, “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.” Paul now gives his reasons for this. The first, Adam’s priority in creation, “Adam was first formed, then Eve.” “The head of the woman is the man.” The second, woman’s priority in sin, “Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.” Woman in her deception assumed the place of head over man with calamitous results; therefore, henceforth in the church she must remain silent.

Her commendation: That Paul had the highest possible esteem for the Christian woman is seen in many of his writings. One may slightly adapt and paraphrase one of his statements and find an exceedingly warm commendation: “Well reported of for good works; because she has brought up children, because she has lodged strangers, because she has washed the saints’ feet, because she has relieved the afflicted; well reported of because she has diligently followed every good work.” See I Timothy 5:10.

Tests on This Chapter

1. How did Satan bring about the Fall of mankind?

2. What did Adam, at the time of her creation, see in Eve?

3. State the elements in God’s penalty upon Eve.

4. If man was not cursed by the Fall, what does bring curse upon him?

5. Name some of the prophetesses under the Law.

6. Under the Law, what reminded woman of her subjection to man?

7. What, in Christ, is the woman’s position compared to man’s?

8. Why should the Christian woman wear a hat or veil?

9. Name some of the Christian women commended by Paul.

10. Give both reasons why woman is to be silent in the churches.