The thoughts that follow are based on an address given by J.I. Packer in 1988. It is remarkable how rapidly thought and practice in the Christian church have moved on since then (Packer was focussing on women as presbyters; now the urgent discussions are about women as bishops). But that might make his discussion more, rather than less, relevant.
It is often assumed that the Bible is hostile to women. Arriving at a correct view of the biblical view of the role of women is complicated for both secular and churchly reasons.
In the secular world, many women have seeking to secure freedom, justice and equality for a number of reasons:-
The traditional role of the woman (Luther’s Kinder, Kirche and Kucher) is now regarded as unsatisfactory and unsatisfying. This is partly because there is no longer a community (extended family, and so on) within the home that the woman can feel a part of. And, in any case, the two world wars showed how effectively women could function as part of the workforce.
Moreover, women have been hurt. They have often been treated as second-class citizens in the world, and often been abused and neglected in the home. More capable women have been tempted to challenge the inadequate leadership of men. All this has expressed itself in the ‘women’s movement’, and in an unsatisfactory rivalry between men and women.
As far as the church is concerned, there is the question of women’s gifts and ministries can be fully used among the people of God. The liberal answer is for the church to follow the world uncritically wherever the world leads. The conservative response is to resist all change.
These two pressures – the secular and the churchly – must be kept separate in our minds. It is wrong – that is to say, -unbiblical – to suppose that Christian concern for women’s ministry is all about secular ideas of freedom and justice for women. It is wrong, in other words, to jump to conclusion that women and men should have exactly the same roles within the church. It is wrong for a number of reasons:-
First, God has made the two sexes distinct and different. The mother’s role is not the same as the father’s. The role of the presbyter in Scripture is specifically a man’s role, and the job of teaching and ruling specifically a man’s job. Second, the presence of women within the ranks of the clergy is likely to amount to a demeaning form of tokenism. Third, the admission of women to those rannks is likely to prove divisive.
Several factors influence our approach to the relevant biblical texts. First, we sympathise with the plight of women who have been abused by men. Second, we oppose everything that robs women of their God-given dignity. Third, mothers and fathers together should be concerned about the present disintegration of the family in the Western world. Fourth, we should be zealous for every-member ministry – and that includes women as well as men. Fifth, we should see that making women presbyters is bad for women as well as bad for the church.
In seeking the mind of Scripture on this matter we are seeking the mind of Christ. And we know that Jesus honoured women as friends and disciples, just as he welcomed men. But we know too that to be faithful to Jesus means being faithful to the Bible in its entirety, and that means refusing to drive a wedge between the Old and New Testaments; ensuring that God’s order as established at Creation is not neglected.
We must be prepared to set aside our present assumptions and prejudices if we are to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit coming from the Word of God. The Bible judges and corrects us, and not the other way round.
What, then, does the Bible have to say about the co-equal responsibilities of women and men before God?
Leading voices in the Christian church, such as Tertullian and Aquinas, have asserted the inferiority of women. But the Bible does not support this. Genesis 1:26-28, for example, teaches that men and women are equally made in the image of God. This image implies rationality, relationality, and righteousness. According to Genesis 2:18-23, the man was there first, and has the primacy and the initiative, but the woman stands in a unique relationship to him as his colleague and partner. Then we meet the reality of marriage in Gen 2:24-25, and the idea that in marriage each sex completes the other. In the very complementarity, their differences are to be celebrated.
According to Galatians 3:28, ‘there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus’. But this does not imply that the differences established by creation do not exist, but simply that within the fellowship of the Christian church we are equally united to Christ and on the same level before God both as needy sinners and as his adopted children.
What, now has the Bible to say of the co-operative relations of women with men in the community?
With regard to marriage, the biblical doctrine is established in Genesis 2:24f. The initial ‘therefore’ of this passage takes us back to what has just been taught, namely, that the woman whom a man takes to himself is the person in whom he sees the complement and completion of what he is himself. His primary and life-long relation is now to his wife. They become one flesh in a personal covenant sealed by a physical relationship. Something of the beauty and glory of this is seen in the Song of Solomon, in which it is right too to see a parable of the love-relationship between Christ and the church. The Bible strongly warns against physical sexual relationships outside the covenant of marriage, simply because of the total commitment that covenant implies.
Not surprising, then, to find Paul in Ephesians 5:22-33 setting a standard for marital love in terms of the highest model, Christ and the church. The husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church. He must put her needs before his own. So must the wife seek to please her husband, as the church is to seek to please Christ. All of this is in a context, not of domination of one over the other, but of mutual submission. But the roles of the husband and the wife are not reversible, any more than the roles of Christ and the church are reversible. But it is love both ways. Each seeks to honour the other.
Peter takes a similar line in his 1st Epistle, 3:1-7. Husband and wife are called to a mutual submission. If the woman is in some respects, as Peter teaches, she is not to be despised, but rather to be loved and cherished. There is nothing her to suggest that the woman is supposed to be the man’s lackey or doormat (the ideal wife of Prov 31 is very far from passive). Nor is there anything here or elsewhere in Scripture to suggest that a woman may not take major responsibility in either domestic or business life.
Turning now to the issue of headship, the key texts are 1 Corinthians 11:3 and Ephesians 5:23. Although the precise meaning of ‘headship’ terminology is disputed, we can assume that the notion of ‘primacy’ is included. If ‘the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church’ then the responsibility for leadership in Christian marriage lies with the man. And this implies co-operation and goodwill, motivated by love. Sociological terms such as hierarchy and patriarchy, military terms such as subordination, and political terms such as domination and dominion, are not appropriate.
We move finally to the roles of women in the home and church. Proverbs 31, 1 Timothy 5:14; and Titus 2:4-5 all emphasise the wife’s role as homemaker. In Paul’s teaching, the fulfilment of that role communicates the dignity and excellence of the Christian life before the watching world.
And what of women’s role in the church? In 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 Paul seems to be teaching that women may lead in prayer and prophesy providing she is covered in a way that shows to the angels that she knows her place in creation and is not seeking to usurp the role of men. In 1 Timothy 2:8 the apostle shows his preference for men leading prayer in church meetings. 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 can be taken either of two ways. It might imply that Paul is trying to end a local abuse in which women were using the new-found freedom in Christ to disrupt the church meetings. Alternatively, Paul might be quoting what someone in Corinth has been teaching, and which he has just refuted by giving permission to women to pray and prophesy in the church meeting.
In 1 Timothy 2:12 Paul says that a woman may not teach. The reason given is that the woman is more likely to deceive the church. In those days, of course, printing was unknown and literacy levels were low; the teacher had to say ‘take it from me’, and had to be trusted to teach within the boundaries set by the teaching of the apostles and by the Old Testament. In that situation, women were more likely to be led into, and lead others into, error. But the situation is very different today, and it is doubtful whether the prohibition still applies in the same way.
1 Timothy 3:11 comes in the middle of a paragraph about deacons, and so implies that women may be deacons. That role includes leadership in the provision of practical care for the needy.
In conclusion, we see ample scope in the Bible for women’s ministry. But this does not obliterate the God-given distinctions between the two sexes. Women’s ministry should be maternal, not paternal; motherly, not fatherly; womanly, not manly. Its primacy locus is the home, with the family and with informal groups. For too long we have been distracted by the question of whether women should become presbyters. We need to focus on how to give women’s ministry that maternal shape and that informal style.
J.I. Packer Collected Shorter Writings Vol 3, 185-197.