Forty years ago many churches in Christendom were engulfed in a fierce controversy surrounding the issue of women’s ordination. At that time we as a body looked askance at that debate and concluded that this was just another sign of a corrupt system sliding further into apostasy. Sadly, however, this same issue has now arrived on our front doorstep.

It first began with challenges to our long-held viewpoints on the role of sisters within the ecclesia by a few individuals. Over the last few years though there have been an increasing number of publications and web sites that are becoming very vocal on the subject. The most recent and most comprehensive of these booklets is entitled “All One in Christ Jesus” and is authored by Brother Ian and Sister Averil McHaffie. The purpose of this article is to examine the key claims of this publication in the light of the Scriptures.

General comments

Despite the fact that the New Testament appeals to the Old Testament for proof, the booklet argues that Old Testament principles in relation to men and women have been superseded by the New Testament. It builds a case for the leadership of women on generic texts and then attempts to argue that the clear quotes and practices of Christ and the apostles must be amended to harmonise with that case. It examines a few examples of women in positions of leadership in the Old Testament, assumes that this is proof of God’s approval of women leading in the ecclesia and then dismisses clear New Testament teaching on the subject as vague and inconclusive.

It seeks to promote unbiased translations yet favours gender-neutral translations. It argues that there is not one clear expositional answer possible because of the ambiguity associated with words and a range of expositional choices are available. Furthermore it concludes that because there have been a multitude of different practices within the brotherhood over the years no one can be dogmatic on the subject.

There is also a strong humanistic appeal too. The authors state that if sisters are excluded from decision making in the ecclesia, excluded from speaking, reading and praying, then they are allotted an inferior position before God. They conclude that there is no place within the community of believers for discrimination on grounds of gender, race, or status. In fact, they say, that the long history of antiwomen attitudes in church writers has influenced the way texts have traditionally been translated and interpreted.

The effects of the booklet have become apparent in that its teaching has destabilised a number of sisters and it seeks to establish an agenda which actively promotes a change to ecclesial practices.

There are many arguments that are presented in this booklet but we will confine ourselves to some of the key ones.

Argument – 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 concerns marital relationships and not ecclesial ones

The booklet argues that in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 the Divine hierarchy is confined to marital relationships, not ecclesial ones, because the rsv translates verse 3 “the head of a woman is her husband”.

Answer: 1 Corinthians 11:2–15 in dealing with headship principles concludes with verse 16: “But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the ecclesias of God.” This points to an ecclesial concern, not merely the concern of a private home situation. Also 1 Corinthians 11:12 reads: “for as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman.” This does not make sense if you substitute the words “husband” and “wife” for “man” and “woman” in the verse.

Argument – Ephesians 5:23 only expresses 1st century secular laws

The argument goes like this: When Paul wrote that the husband is head of the wife in Ephesians 5:23 he was repeating 1st century secular laws, not the laws of God. Paul’s idea of leadership is not to take the lead over the woman but to care for her, to serve her and to see to her needs.

Answer: How can the phrase “the husband is head of the wife” be classed as a secular law to be ignored when the rest of the verse goes on to say “even as Christ is head of the ecclesia”?

This is not speaking about secular laws; it is speaking about God’s principles. Furthermore the husband’s example follows Christ’s example who both led and cared. They are not mutually exclusive as suggested by the argument presented.

Argument – 1 Timothy 2:11–15 contains so many ambiguities that its meaning is open to debate

Answer: This approach contradicts the basic foundation principle of John 17:17 and 2 Timothy 3:15–17 where the Scriptures are said to be an expression of God’s Truth without any reference to the need to understand cultural backgrounds. Just because these verses seem inconclusive to some doesn’t necessarily mean that it is incapable of a correct interpretation by others. The hallmark of a teacher of sound doctrine is to rightly divide the Word of truth.

Argument – Galatians 3:28 (“there is neither male nor female”) is not speaking about salvation being open to all. It is speaking about equal service by sisters and by brothers within the ecclesia.

Answer: The thought flow is significant. Galatians 3:26 states: “ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus.” The Greek word for children is huios (plural huioi) which means “sons”.

Paul argues that faith classifies everyone as “sons” and unites them all under this singular title – almost like a federal head principle. How can you be called a son of God if you are a female or a slave or a Gentile? Verse 28 supplies the answer. Being in Christ all disparate groups are united.

Now is Paul taking about equality or unity? It is true that the conditions of salvation for men and women are the same. They are both in need of redemption. They both need to believe the same truths and both are brought nigh by the blood of Christ. But the context of Galatians 3:28 uses “oneness” in the sense of unity (cp v16, v20).

Unity is not the same as equality. God and Jesus are “one” (John 10:30;17:11,21–3) but that doesn’t mean that they have the same roles. In speaking about “oneness” in Christ, Paul is not addressing roles or responsibilities; he is speaking about “heirship” which belongs to those who are called sons (v28).

Just as the “neither male nor female” statement (Gal 3:28) cannot be used to endorse homosexuality (Rom 1:24–32), so it cannot be employed to abolish the Divine arrangement of role distinctions.

The apostles certainly saw no incompatibility between “equality” and “subordination” themes.

Peter puts them directly alongside each other in 1 Peter 3:5–7: “the holy women also, who trusted in God, adorned themselves, being in subjection unto their own husbands… as being heirs together of the grace of life.”

Argument – Jesus did not send out women disciples to preach because it was culturally unacceptable to do so

The authors argue that the women were classified as disciples (Matt 12:49), and like the male disciples they gave up all and followed Jesus. Being viewed by Jesus in the same way as male disciples the women could promote and teach the gospel, but the conventions of society were still restrictive. Hence Jesus did not send the women out to preach because it was culturally unacceptable and they would not have been given a hearing.

Answer: There are two unsupported assumptions here.

By calling the women “disciples” Jesus gave them the authority to teach.
Jesus was bound by the culture of the day.
The Greek word for disciple is mathetes which means “a learner, a pupil”. There is no suggestion in the Greek word itself that it relates to a teacher or that the role is associated with teaching. On the contrary the status of discipleship was one of following not leading (cp Luke 14:27).

In addition to this Jesus was not bound by the pressures of society norms. He condemned the commandments of men, warned against cultural practices such as seeking the uppermost seats in synagogues and praying on street corners. He exposed the hypocrisy of the culture he found around him (eg Matt 23).

The fact that he did not appoint female disciples to teach or lead must have been for another reason – the principle of headship.

Argument – Jesus did not appoint women teachers because of current Jewish attitudes. It was only after the resurrection, when the message began to spread world-wide, that women, Gentiles and slaves were able to take a fuller part.

Answer: This assertion does not square with the evidence. Post resurrectional appointments were male as the following quotes demonstrate:

Replacement of Judas – “Wherefore of these men [aner – males] which have companied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus… ” (Acts 1:21–22).
Appointment of seven ministers – “Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men [aner – males] of honest report (Acts 6:3).
Appointment of ecclesial delegates – “Then pleased it the apostles and elders, with the whole ecclesia, to send chosen men [aner – males] of their own company” (Acts 15:22).
Argument – Sisters are called “fellow workers” by Paul which meant that they shared the same work of teaching and leadership

Answer: There is an elementary mistake in logic here which goes like this:

Some co-workers preach and hold positions of authority.
Therefore all co-workers preach and hold positions of authority.
This is as fallacious as saying:

Some co-workers were women.
Therefore all co-workers are women.
There is no quotation that can be advanced that specifically describes women publicly preaching the gospel like Paul. To work alongside Paul as a fellow worker does not necessarily mean that identical work was being done.

Argument – 1 Corinthians 11:5 teaches that sisters could pray and prophesy in the meetings just like brethren. Prophesying is teaching, hence women can publicly teach alongside brethren.

Answer: There is no doubt that sisters were recipients of some gifts (Acts 21:9), and 1 Corinthians 11:5 states that they could exercise the prophetic gifts if they wanted to. They were not compelled to because the Spirit was still subject to the individual (14:32). However in doing so they had to demonstrate their submission to the order established by God and wear a head covering.

Two questions need to be addressed. Was the praying leading in prayer? Is prophesying teaching?

There are three suggestions about praying:

  1. It was praying in an unknown tongue (14:14–15).
  2. It was praying for the gift to be stirred up (Acts 2:17–21; 2 Tim 1:6).
  3. It was a private prayer, like Hannah’s.

Whichever suggestion is appropriate there is no hint that sisters led in prayer. In fact in 1 Timothy 2:8–15 Paul states that men, not women, should offer public prayer in the assemblies.

As to the question about prophesying and teaching we find that there is a significant difference between New Testament prophecy and Old Testament prophecy. When Old Testament prophets spoke it was absolutely and authoritatively the Word of God. When New Testament prophecies were received the ecclesia had to interpret and test the message (1 Thess 5:20–21; 1 Cor 14:29).

Prophecy is based on spontaneous revelation, but the teaching that came subsequently was based on the exposition of the revelation. Hence the offices of prophets and teachers were separate and the gifts were separate.

It is an interesting exercise to trace through the work of women prophets in the Old Testament in comparison with their male counterparts. We discover the following facts:

Women prophets did not govern or teach. These roles were left to the royal sons of David and the male priesthood (1 Kgs 15:4; Lev 10:11; Mal 2:7).
Miriam’s public work was leading other women in victory songs (Ex 15:20).
Other examples given show prophetesses ministering in a private capacity, generally when requested (Judg 4:5–6; 2 Kings 22:14; Luke 2:36–38; Acts 21:8–9).
Male prophets moved around the nation and addressed assembled crowds. Prophetesses on the other hand are always presented as being in one location and available for private consultation if people wished to seek out their message. Women like Deborah were also supportive of the male headship principle by her more private ministry and her private appeal to Barak to take the lead.

Argument – 1 Corinthians 14:34 is only forbidding disorderly speaking not rational teaching

Answer: 1 Corinthians 14:34 states: “Let your women keep silence in the ecclesias: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law.”

Paul is talking about speech that is not in submission to some authority. Is the silence enjoined on women in 1 Corinthians 14:34 purely a command that women are not to be disruptive during meetings?

If women were being disruptive Paul would have explicitly forbidden disorderly speech, not all speech. He also would be unfair in punishing all women in all ecclesias (v33–34) if it was just limited to disorderly women. And also we must ask – were there no noisy men?

Clearly the context demands more investigation. In 1 Corinthians 14:30–31we read, “If any thing be revealed [apokalupto – to uncover] to another that sitteth by, let the first hold his peace. For ye may all prophesy one by one, that all may learn, and all may be comforted.”

Learning and comfort were to come through the orderly way in which the prophets and revelators conducted themselves and through the uncovering of the meaning of the prophecy.

The verse immediately before this verse is significant. “Let the prophets speak two or three, and let the other judge” (v29). The Greek word for “judge” is diakrino, meaning to separate thoroughly, to discriminate, to discern, and hence to decide, to judge (Vine).

Paul permitted women to prophesy providing they acknowledged God’s headship principle (1 Cor 11:5), but here he was commanding women to remain silent during the evaluation, analysis and weighing up of the prophecies. The reason for this was later explained in 1 Timothy 2:11,12. To publicly participate in the exposition of the prophecies was considered to be usurping the headship responsibilities of the man.

Paul does not want to prevent sisters from understanding the significance of the prophecies because he advises them to ask their husbands once they return home (v35).

Argument – The traditional interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:8–15 that men, not women, should offer public prayer in the assemblies cannot be so because Paul didn’t state “and not the women” and in 1 Corinthians 11:5 Paul approved of sisters praying aloud.

Answer: When Paul said that the men should hold up holy hands in 1 Timothy 2:8 he used the Greek word aner which means “man as opposed to woman” (Liddell-Scott Greek-English Lexicon, Ninth Edition with Supplement, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968). Hence Paul does not have to say “and not women” because aner specifies males.

Did Paul say that women were praying out aloud in 1 Corinthians 11:5? There is no indication that this was vocal or silent and therefore cannot be used to support a view that sisters were leading prayer groups.

Argument – The ban on women not teaching but keeping silence was intended for an immediate crisis, but when the crisis was solved and when the women had learned “in full submission” they would then be properly trained and able to teach.

Answer: Is the prohibition only a temporary arrangement? If this was the case, then this would mean that the immediate context must be viewed in the same light – praying for all men (1 Tim 2:1–5,8), and appointing suitable elders (3:1–10). Clearly this is not just something for “the immediate crisis”. This is a permanent arrangement.

If a sister had “learnt” and had “been properly trained” and had then become a teacher would she not still be exercising authority over the man in that teaching capacity? The answer is, “Yes”.

Argument – The organisational arrangements in Titus were necessary only in the environment of the first century, not for ecclesial arrangements for all time.

Answer: Are these just interim and local requirements which are no longer required today?

The evidence in fact points in the opposite direction. Hence we read:

Titus 1:5 – elders were appointed in every city. This is not local and temporary.
Titus 2:11–15 indicates that these commands are bound up with the eternal work of salvation. This is not local and temporary.

The arguments presented in the booklet do not stand up against the context and truth of the Scriptures. It is distressing to see a number of young women and sisters destabilised by these erroneous teachings and we counsel each one of us to stand fast to the traditions that have been handed down to us, not because they are traditions as such, but because they are reliable interpretations of what God requires from those who are “all one in Christ Jesus”.