The Woman's Place in the Assembly

It may seem an anomaly that the companies of Christians who seemed to be so far ahead of the times in standing for a lay ministry when Christendom jealously tried to preserve the privileges of the clergy should seem to lag behind the times by denying their women folks the right to take part in their public gatherings when women everywhere were becoming emancipated.  This feature of assembly seems to be all the more remarkable since almost every other evangelical group was happy to regard no distinctions between men and women.

There is only one explanation for this situation and it is a simple one -- God’s Word says that it should be.  That be so how else can folks who make the scriptures their guide behave?  If God’s Word says it, it is my duty to obey.  Otherwise I am challenging the inspiration of scriptures and inferring that I know better than God.  All other explanations tendered for those passages of scriptures are weak and unacceptable.

The first passage is 1 Corinthians 14: 33-35.  The R.S.V. renders these verses thus: “As in all the churches of the saints the women should keep silence in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak but they should be subordinate as even the law says.  If there is anything they desire to know let them as their husbands at home.  For it is shameful for a woman to speak in the church.”  Does the passage require explanation?  It seems so simple and clear that only people who don’t want to accept the meaning of it would quibble at it.  The meaning taken by some is more of an insult to Christian ladies than any prohibition against preaching.  What greater insult could be given than to be told like unruly children that they are to be quiet and not chatter?

But then we are told that Paul was contradicting himself since 1 Corinthians 11 doesn’t seem to square with chapter 14.  1 Corinthians 11:5 says, “any women who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled dishonours her head.”  We are told that if Paul envisages a woman speaking in either capacity in chapter 11 then we must seek another meaning for chapter 14.  It is always useful to go to the commentators with no assembly bias but with the sole desire to get nothing more than the correct meaning of the text for a problem like this.  The clergyman quoted are  Jamieson, Faussett and Brown.  “This instance of women speaking in public worship is an extraordinary case and justified only by the miraculous gifts which such women possessed as their credentials, e.g. Anna, Priscilla.  The ordinary rule to them is silence in public..... This passage does not necessarily sanction women speaking in public, even though possessing miraculous gifts, but simply records what took place at Corinth without expressing an opinion upon it, reserving the censure of it till chapter 14.  Even those women endowed with prophecy were designed to exercise their gift rather in other times and places than the public congregation.”  

This explanation seems to the writer a better reconciliation of the two passages from the one man’s letter than the viewpoint that he contradicts himself followed by the choice of the meaning that best suits our prejudices.

The second passage is 1 Timothy 2: 11-12. “Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness.  I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men: she is to keep silent.”  Again the meaning is crystal clear and again the clergy who produce the Cambridge Bible for Schools had no alternative but to explain that this meant that women were not to take part in any public place.

Both passages explain that women are to take a subordinate place rather than take the lead.  In 1 Timothy 2 the teaching is that a woman once took the lead and led us into the Fall so that she must not take the precedence again.  The person taking part in a meeting, whether in prayer, worship or preaching, is leading it and that is the position forbidden by God’s Word to women, no matter how clever or godly.

Does this then mean that women, who tend to be more numerous than men in religious circles are of little account?  Far from it.   The New Testament lays emphasis on their importance.  They still form the backbone of many an assembly.  If we got things in perspective and realised that preaching and leading are not all that is involved in Christianity then nobody would be unduly perturbed at what is denied to women.

Certain women were found by the Apostle Paul having a prayer meeting by a riverside in Philippi.  They were not yet converted to Christ but would they not continue that important exercise once they were?  Other women from the same city “laboured with Paul in the gospel” (Philippians 4:3).  We can’t imagine him encouraging them in the activities he had forbidden to them in other epistles.  New Testament evangelism didn’t consist of arranging a series of meetings: rather did it involve meeting people in public places and on their doorsteps and telling them about the Saviour. “And every day in the temple and at home they did not cease teaching an preaching Jesus as the Christ.”  (Acts 5:42)  It was in this kind of activity that those women joined and it is still open to all.  A particular sister is commended as a servant of the church in Cenchrea, a helper of many around, for every assembly needs her, not to take meetings but to do everything that a Christian out to be doing.

All this is addition to forming the lives and characters of her own offspring, for children of such women are the nuclei of most assemblies.  All this in addition to maintaining Christian homes -- little citadels of truth and purity amongst paganism -- where the Lord’s people and servants can be refreshed.  If only we would each do what we can there would be no time to envy the other portion allocated to him by God.


© Douglas Carr 2021