Building up believers and the New Testament church

Woman, An Honored Vessel

A Woman's Place in the Church

Let's consider the very special place given to women and their function in the church. There is much controversy about this area, both in the religious world and in the secular world around us, and I do not expect to give a "final word" on the subject. This is simply the emerging understanding that the Holy Spirit has been giving to one woman (in union with her husband) who has been seeking His light to be shed upon her own pathway.

It is important, in this process of seeking His light, to recognize the difference between being "legal" in our approach, and recognizing God's word to our own heart. An illustration might help. The command in I Timothy 2:9 reads, "...that the women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with propriety and moderation..." Recognizing that every woman (and man) who reads this passage might have a different picture of what the words modest, propriety, or moderation might mean, a group of elders might take it upon themselves to clarify the matter by setting precise definitions upon the type and style of clothing considered acceptable. This would be "legal" in the sense that men have set the interpretation of written words, rather than letting the Holy Spirit illuminate them to the heart of each individual believer. In this case, one could obey what the elders say (who might indeed be spiritual men and correct in their interpretation), and seem to be obeying God, but actually be obeying men, with no necessity of having the Holy Spirit within.

To respond to the very same verses "in life" (in a relationship with God), an individual woman may sense the Holy Spirit speaking within her own heart that the clothing she is wearing or considering would grieve Him, even though she might not be able to precisely identify why; so in faith she responds by choosing to not wear that garment. The Holy Spirit might speak to her through another person, and she can follow certain principles in dress, but she should be able to sense in her own spirit from the Lord what would not be modest or proper for her. Clothing worn by Christian women might end up being similar, but the woman in our first example would be watching for the elders if she suspected her clothing might not be acceptable, and in this way she would be responding to man. In the second example, the woman is responding to the Holy Spirit directly in her personal relationship with Jesus, and will be satisfied when she pleases Him.

It is not my purpose to be "legal," then, in discussing the following scriptures, but to share the understanding that has been accumulating over many years in my heart, with the desire that the Holy Spirit will open His revelation to every seeking heart.

Head Covering

"But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, for that is one and the same as if her head were shaved. For if a woman is not covered, let her also be shorn. But if it is shameful for a woman to be shorn or shaved, let her be covered.

"For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man is not from woman, but woman from man. Nor was man created for the woman, but woman for the man. For this reason the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.

"Nevertheless, neither is man independent of woman, nor woman independent of man, in the Lord. For as the woman was from the man, even so the man also is through the woman; but all things are from God.

"Judge among yourselves. Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him? But if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her; for her hair is given to her for a covering, But if anyone seems to be contentious, we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God" (I Corinthians 11:3-16).

The foundation for understanding this passage is again, oneness, and within that oneness, diversity of activity and responsibility. This basic concept is a continuing thread throughout the New Testament revelation that Jesus builds of His relationship with His Father and with those who are His: "...that they all may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me, And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me..." (John 17:21-23).

In I Corinthians 11 we see the visible expression of one aspect of this oneness. It opens with the depiction of Christ as head of man, man the head of woman, and God the head of Christ. Remember, Christ is not less than God, nor woman less than man, but there is an order of functioning in which each voluntarily takes a place of submission for the glory of the whole. The word "glory" (a fascinating study in itself) might be defined as "the honor resulting from a very high opinion, splendid, worthy of all praise." Man is "the image and glory of God"; woman is "the glory of man"; and her long hair is "a glory to her."

The opposite of glory is dishonor, or disgrace. A man is told that he dishonors his head (Christ) if he covers his physical head while praying or prophesying. (Men remove their hats for prayer.) A woman who uncovers her head while praying or prophesying dishonors her head (man). It puts her on the same level as a woman whose head is shorn or shaved. Too many cultural explanations can undermine the spiritual meaning of a passage, but these can be helpful when we do not readily understand things that were more obvious at the time these words were penned. Scholars explain that when a woman was found guilty of immorality, her hair was shorn or shaved as a public embarrassment and warning to others. The fact that a woman had her own long hair was a public testimony to her purity and faithfulness. So if a woman prayed or prophesied with her head uncovered, she would bring the same shame to her husband as if she were known to be immoral. Even though we do not have such a custom in our day, the woman's use of head covering is obviously a very serious matter.

When men and women gather in the presence of God as the body of Christ, only one thing should be visible: the glory of God (not the glory of man). Here is where the angels enter the picture. Watchman Nee offered an explanation for the puzzling phrase "because of the angels." Lucifer refused to be satisfied in his original high and holy position in the presence of God and let pride in his own beauty fill him with lust to ascend and be "like the Most High." The angels, eternal beings, were looking on, and many of them were swayed to join him in his rebellion (see Isaiah 14:12-15, Ezekiel 28:14-19, Daniel 8:10-11, Revelation 12:3-4). Now women have the same choice, to rise up and refuse to be content in their own honored place, or to choose the place of submission to the order God has established. The angels are "looking on" to see what our choice will be. Could it be that we mortal women have the privilege of being able to encourage angels?

Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words comments on I Corinthians 11:7 (under "Glory") "of man as representing the authority of God, and of woman as rendering conspicuous the authority of man." When the woman puts a "symbol of authority" on her head, she is showing the angels, if no one else, that she recognizes and is content in her submission to the authority God has given to the man (Genesis 3:16). She has the great privilege of voluntarily covering her own glory, her hair, so that man's glory (the woman) is not "seen" when the church gathers together in the presence of God. As with other symbols in the church, such as the communion cup and loaf, water baptism, anointing with oil, or laying hands on the sick, it is not the physical act that has meaning and power in the spiritual realm, but the reality it represents.

This scripture makes the appeal to "nature itself" that long hair dishonors a man but is a glory to the woman. The world shows its innate awareness that long hair is a "glory" to women by its advertisements of everything from shampoo to cars, which rarely depict women with short hair. One could wonder what underlying motivation causes many women to prefer short hair, and why long hair is often the first expression of rebellion for men. We should not look to the world's styles or to convenience for our standards in these things, but to the Spirit of God to guide us each individually, with pure motives, to express the beauty He has given us in a way that honors Him. We do not want to be those "who seem to be contentious."

To Speak or Not to Speak

"Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church" (I Corinthians 14:34-35).

"...In like manner also, that the women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with propriety and moderation, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly clothing, but, which is proper for women professing godliness, with good works. Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression. Nevertheless she will be saved in childbearing if they continue in faith, love, and holiness, with self-control" (I Timothy 2:9-15).

As we discuss this area, let us establish again that it is all positive. All that God does and says is for a positive purpose, never negative. The suggestion that God is trying to keep something good away from us was the very first thing the serpent put into Eve's mind, and it is often the thought he will attempt to put into ours. If we allow the slightest hint of doubt about God's character, it will undermine everything, so we must examine our hearts down to the deepest motives. If Jesus fills our vision with His love and we realize all He has done to reveal Himself to us, He can guard us from these doubts that will eat away at the foundation of our relationship with Him.

These verses have a primary application to the woman's place "in the churches," and this should be kept in mind, but there are deeper principles that guide her conduct and demeanor in every area of her life. Of course she is a whole person, not one way in one place and another way in a different situation. The original word translated "shameful" is expressed by Vine's as "of that which is opposed to modesty or purity." That is, a woman who does not "keep silent in the churches," "teaches or has authority over a man," or does not "learn in silence with all submission" is by her actions opposing her ordained expression of modesty or purity. She exposes herself to great risk or spiritual vulnerability when she removes herself from her place of God-given safety and protection.

What is the basic issue involved in "Let your women keep silent in the churches"? Some have suggested that it is direction to correct a cultural problem: women who tended to chatter during the church meetings. Vine's says this is "a meaning absent from the use of the verb everywhere else in the N.T.; it is to be understood in the same sense as in I Corinthians 14, vv. 2, 3-6, 9, 11, 13, 18, 19, 21, 23, 27-29, 39" (under the second entry for "Speak"). All these verses discuss the speaking gifts of the Spirit and their use in the church meetings. Why are women excluded here, and where are they to use these gifts, if not "in the church"? We will address the second question later, but let us think through the first one carefully.

When one speaks in the church, he is told to speak "as an oracle of God" (I Peter 4:11). Again, Vine's is helpful in explaining "oracle": "the utterances of God through Christian teachers." It is clear that Jesus, as the head of man, will express what He wants to say to His church through His representatives there, the men. Anyone who speaks to the church should do so with the authority of God. So if a woman speaks, she assumes a place of leadership that is not according to God's order for her in the church.

What might be some of the reasons this direction is given? We observed earlier that woman was formed from man's rib, next to his heart, the place of closest affection and emotion. She is more likely to express the loving, caring, compassionate side of human nature. She responds more readily in her emotions than the man, who responds more strongly in his mind. This quality is not unnecessary, inferior, or undesirable, for she was meant to complement the man. But emotions, when unrestrained or unchecked by wisdom, can be easily led astray; hence, we read "...but the woman being deceived, fell..." Adam sinned, but he did it knowingly, by choice. We may wonder how he could do that, but Eve, who was the focus of his love and finer instincts, had gone ahead of him. To resist, he would have had to stand against her and separate himself from her!

Adam was held responsible by God, although he tried to shift the blame to Eve. The words of God to Adam must have been very painful for her to hear: "Then to Adam He said, 'Because you have heeded the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree of which I commanded you...'" (see Genesis 3:12-19, and also Genesis 16:2). Adam might have been able to withstand Satan in the form of the serpent, for he was not deceived, but he did not withstand "the voice of his wife." Do women today have any lesser effect upon the men in our lives? Can we take warning ourselves, and not bristle at the instructions to us as if we were being restrained from our "right to speak"?

Another reason the woman is to be silent in the church is for her own protection. Because of her emotional nature, she is in a vulnerable position when she expresses herself publicly--where she might feel misunderstood, rebuffed, or hurt. Her first reaction might come in her emotions, rather than under the control of the Spirit, and the distinction is not always readily obvious. God has made the man in such a way that he is more thoughtful and cautious. Women tend to move ahead of men to fill in the "gap" that men seem to leave by acting or speaking more slowly. A man usually will let a woman go ahead if he is not sure yet of God's direction, so the woman finds herself out in a place of leadership. But if the woman is wise and obedient to the Spirit, and waits according to God's order, she will find safety and contentment, knowing that God will uphold her and meet her needs in His way. Can we sense the great significance of the instructions given specially to us?

What kinds of speaking are not appropriate for women in the church? Basically, anything that would put them into a place of leadership or authority before the church. When one teaches or preaches, he is leading the church in a certain direction and is responsible directly to God for all that is said. The spiritual gifts of tongues and prophecy address the church with authority and direction. When one leads in prayer, he brings the whole church together to the throne of God--a place of great responsibility and leadership. In sharing a public testimony, a person brings before the church some area of importance, and directly or indirectly leads the church to a common awareness or response. Essentially, when any individual person addresses or leads the church even in expressions such as singing, he comes into public display as an individual; the attention of the whole church focuses upon him, and what he is doing or saying will affect the church.

A woman is a responsible member of the body of Christ. She must have her own relationship with Christ, which makes her a part of the body. God has given her a special trust to be submissive to the place of the man as her head in the church, and God will meet her needs in the process. If she has questions, she is to "ask her husband at home" rather than bring it publicly before the church as her husband might do if it were necessary. An unmarried sister might take her spiritual questions privately to her father, an elder, or other spiritual leader whom she respects. If a woman has a testimony to share with the church, it could be communicated by her husband or another brother in a way that does not put her into a place of leadership or exposure. She is responsible to be spiritually active within the areas of expression God has given her, but in the church meetings, her place is one of quietness and submission "as to the Lord."

As a part of the body, a woman joins her voice in praise and adoration through song. She should be actively praying and communing with the Lord in her own spirit (I Corinthians 14:28b). She is responsible to give her witness in spiritual matters, although not in a public manner. Her attentive presence in quietness and submission is an encouragement to the brothers to be responsible and active in their place of speaking, to feed and nourish her from the hand of the Lord. Her place is a very active one in every way, because submission is always active, never passive! There are no passive members of the body of Christ.

Where does a woman speak, then, if not in the public assembly of the church? Numerous examples in the scriptures speak of situations in which women take part in spiritual discussion and encouragement, such as the instruction in Titus 2 to older women in their "teaching of good things," specifically to the younger women. Priscilla, together with her husband, had a good influence upon Apollos in correcting the lacks in his understanding. Women were active in the use of spiritual gifts, such as the four daughters of Philip who prophesied, but not in a public setting. We will examine some of these more thoroughly, but the basic guidelines are: 1. Not in the public meeting of the church; 2. Not in authority over a man; and 3. Not lifting herself up in a place of leadership. Whenever a woman senses that she is being drawn out in a way that is "opposed to modesty or purity," she should stop and consider very carefully. The Holy Spirit is well able to communicate this to her if she desires to hear and please the Lord. There is great freedom in this place.