Friday, 29 October 2010

The role of women in the church

Post by Ian
Always a topic of debate in the more traditional doctrinal churches, the role of women has been hotly contested - especially in the Orthodox and Catholic churches. However, there's evidence in the Bible that women not only taught in the early church, they helped fund Jesus' mission. There's even evidence in the Bible of a possible female disciple. Not one of the twelve, named in Mark, Matthew and Luke; but possibly one of the seventy. Firstly, the role of teacher in the church. Women are mentioned throughout Paul's final salutations in the Letter to the Romans (Romans 16). A lot of the women in this list are in high positions of authority in churches. Junia (or Julia) has been generally edited out as Junias, but the oldest and most authoritative texts have a female name. The reason, she is counted as an apostle of Christ by Paul. Paul generally addresses his letters to "brothers and sisters" within the texts. This alone is significant as Paul obviously expects both men and women to be present at its reading - something that was not necessarily true of Judaism of the time. Acts 18 describes the actions of Priscilla and Aquila. These two are always mentioned together, husband and wife, obviously a team in their ministry. Galatians 3:28 states that there is no male or female, as we are one in Christ.

Yet it is also Paul, generally showing a very egalitarian attitude throughout his letters, who gets the blame for the main piece of scripture against women teaching in church. Passages like 1 Timothy 2:12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34 have been used to ban women from the priesthood in the Orthodox churches. At least we have the argument that the Timothy letters are of the pseudepigrapha, written much later in Paul's name. But Corinthians is a letter that scholars agree is written by Paul. So, what did Paul actually think? Is the passage in Corinthians a later addition? Personally, I agree with those who regard this passage in Corinthians (34-35) as a later scribal addition to the text - possibly as a result of a marginal note referencing Timothy being incorporated in the text during copying.

Let's then look at Jesus' mission. In Luke (Luke 8:1-3) states that the Jesus and his disciples were supported financially by a number of women. Jesus addressed women directly in his teaching. He used women as examples of exemplary faith. It was a woman who first saw Jesus after the resurrection and who was sent to spread the message of his rising.

Also, in Luke (Luke 10:38-42), there is an indication of the discipleship of at least one woman - that of Mary, sister of Martha. She sits at the feet of Jesus, listening to his teaching. To sit at the feet of a teacher was the position of a disciple. For Jesus to allow a woman to do this, accept the role of disciple, was unusual. Jesus not only allowed it, but rebuked Martha when she commented on it and asked for Jesus to send Mary to help her.

To me, the Bible shows that Jesus and Paul both considered women to be important contributors, and even teachers. Both considered men and women to be equal, working together and being taught by each other.

But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honour to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
1 Corinthians 12:24-27


  1. Who was Mary Magdalene ?
    Was she a disciple of Jesus?
    Was she in fact married to Jesus ?
    and did she bear him a child ?
    or was she (as some say)a reformed prostitute ?
    answers on a postcard please !!

  2. A very interesting thesis, Ian. You obviously know a lot more about the Bible and Christian history than I do! Your argument throws into sharp relief all this nonsense going on in the Anglican Church at the moment about women bishops. Whatever the background to the story, I do think the Church needs to adapt to the 21st century- Graham