Women, the Bible, and the Church

I believe [in] a holy catholic church-in many churches this statement of faith is expressed when believers say the Apostles’ Creed, a creed that has been used virtually from the beginning of the church’s history. This expression of faith stands alongside of affirmations of faith in God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

The church is not a human institution, but it is something that has been created by the Father, redeemed by Jesus Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit. The church must respond obediently to the Holy Spirit’s leading as the Spirit leads it into all truth: And the Holy Spirit leads the church as it binds the church to the final revelation God has given us—the Bible.

Today the church exists in a fragmented form. Some churches exist all by themselves, as independent congregations. But the most characteristic form the church takes these days is that of denominations. Denominations are large groupings of local congregations that respond together to God’s Word and, in addition to worshiping in local congregations, these denominations undertake programs that individual churches cannot do by themselves.

Over the centuries, the church has had to deal with enormous issues of faith. In the first centuries, it had to state exactly what the Bible said about God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. In the fifth century, the church had to state exactly what the Bible says about Jesus Christ, who is both the second person of the Trinity and a real human being. During the time of the Reformation, the church produced creeds that state the Bible’s teaching about salvation itself.

Today, the church is at a point at which it must talk about itself and state exactly what the Bible says about the church. How should it carry on its mission? And this question: How is the authority of Christ, its supreme Lord, expressed in the church today?

There are many sides to this last question, but I would like to concentrate on just one of them, one that is causing a great deal of agitation in various denominations these days. That is the question of the ordination of women to church offices. No issue generates a greater firestorm; denominations writhe in misery because of it.

The issue has two sides. On the one hand, the church must recognize that it has sometimes been part of a pattern of repression of women. Some of this suppression was a reflection of a social situation that did not give women their due. Lack of educational opportunities, the requirement of bearing many children and early death, put women at a serious disadvantage. Some of the suppression of women in the church was also caused, sadly, by a misreading of Biblical material which justified males in their inconsiderate and downright evil view of women as chattels—of their wives as servants.



Surely, the church must withstand all patterns of discrimination and injustice that denigrate the role of women in the church. The Bible recognizes the equality of women with men as imagebearers of God who have a common task to represent God in the care of His creation. Moreover, the finished work of Christ was designed to elevate both men and women to new levels of service in the church and kingdom. In Christ, there is no longer male or female, as Galatians 3:28 makes clear.


So, that is one part of the issue. There is another part of the issue, however, and that is the one that is causing the greatest consternation. While the church must do everything necessary to benefit from all of the gifts of all of its members, it is also required to maintain the pattern of authority found in the Bible.

This is where the issue of women’s ordination comes into the picture. Denominations that recognize that the church is an authority structure which represents the authority of Jesus Christ on earth, ordain certain people to these offices of authority—elders who rule in the name of Christ, and ordained ministers of the Word.

The issue of women’s ordination to an office of spiritual authority is extremely important and consequential. Notice carefully what I said: the issue is the ordination of women to an office of spiritual authority. There are many decisions which are made within church organizations that may be made by women or men. There are leadership positions in the church that both men and women may fill. But the authority that controls the preaching of the Word, that exercises discipline over church membership, and that guards the church against heresy is assigned to men only in the Bible.

There is reason to believe that any church that disregards this Biblical position will deprive itself of the energy it receives from the Scriptures and will find itself without the resources it needs to combat the pernicious forces that oppose the people of God in these days.

Actually, the issue is the same as that which exercised the church at the time of the Reformation; often we call it the issue of sola scriptura, or the Bible alone. The great reformer, Martin Luther, was obedient to the authority of the Bible, and because of this he took issue with church practices the Bible did not support. The Bible’s authority continues to be the issue for us. A church that ignores the Bible’s pattern of ecclesiastical authority puts itself in the greatest danger imaginable. A church without the authority of the Bible, which is actually the authority of Christ, is without defenses.


The pressure to ordain women to ecclesiastical office is part of a growing movement in the churches that reflects the aggressive feminism within our society. To be sure, some who are pressing for the ordination of women take exception to the excesses of the secular feminists, but the general movement in this direction is related to what is going on in society as a whole in many cases.

An article that appeared in the Atlantic of August, 1993, provides important information as we evaluate whether or not women should be ordained to the offices of elder and minister in the church. Cullen Murphy, the author of the lengthy indepth article called “Women and the Bible,” surveys the developments in feminist theology. He reports that the field began to develop in the sixties and is now advancing rapidly.

There are two items which come out of this article that must be kept in mind when we evaluate feminist theology. First of all, Murphy shows, in a conversation with Professor Elaine Pagels of Harvard Divinity School, that the feminist position rests to a significant degree on the writings of the Gnostics, a body of writings that were produced one to five centuries after the New Testament books were written.

Now the Gnostics had many Christian elements, but they developed into an anti-Christian movement which was rejected by the early church. Feminist theologians lean heavily on these writings because these writings elevate women in the religious community. According to this article, the Gnostics have provided the feminist movement with its forward thrust.

Second, Murphy describes the uneasiness, even embarrassment of feminist theologians with what they call the androcentnic nature of the Bible. That word means the “man-centered” nature of the Bible. Andro in the word androcentric comes from the Greek word andros which means man.

Now these are important points to notice. Cullen Murphy is not a theologian; he’s an editor of Atlantic. His article does not betray any denominational bias. He seems to agree that it is past high time that churches quit their discrimination against women and open all the offices to them. But in this article, two important points emerge that should be very important to anyone who takes the Bible seriously. Let me repeat them: feminist theology has received much of its forward motion from Gnostic writings, and the Bible is clearly man-centered; it is androcentric.


I don’t happen to like this, and possibly you don’t either-that is, I don’t like the fact that the Bible is man-centered-that man has a special role in society, according to the Bible. I have been infected with enough of the egalitarian spirit to feel more comfortable with a situation that simply says: “Come on, let’s forget the past, and let’s recognize that men and women are the same.” But as a person who believes that the Bible has ultimate authority for our lives, and certainly for the church, I cannot avoid recognizing that God, for His good reasons, has structured society in general and His church in particular in such a way that certain responsibilities have been given to men only.

Biblical Prohibitions

There are statements in the Bible that contain explicit prohibitions of women having spiritual authority over men. Second Timothy 2:11–14 is an example: “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.” Now, this statement has caused a lot of ink to be spilled. And there are theologians whom I respect who have succeeded in showing that this statement, which does not permit a woman to have authority over a man, was occasioned by certain conditions in the church in Ephesus where Timothy was a preacher. But the fact remains, whatever the circumstances were that caused this statement, the apostle felt it appropriate to make the statement. And the reason he did was that he was working in terms of the total Biblical pattern which consistently assigns men to roles of spiritual authority. That he made this statement at all, regardless of the circumstances in Ephesus, has to be explained.

Biblical Encouragements

Surely he did not do it because the Bible is against women. On the contrary, the Bible takes women very seriously. As I mentioned earlier, it assigns to both men and women the great task of caring for God’s creation; they are both told to fill the earth, subdue it and rule over it according to Genesis 1:28. The exploits of many women are highlighted in the Old Testament.

For example, 1 Chronicles 7:24, which contains a male-dominated genealogy, tells of a woman named “Sheerah, who built Lower and Upper Beth Horon as well as Uzzen Sheerah.” And the daughters of Zelophehad were given the right to receive their father’s inheritance—they are cited several times. (See Numbers 36.)

Those who know the Old Testament well know that women played a prominent role, especially in terms of their influence. Let me just list some of the names of the more illustrious ones: Miriam, Moses’ sister; Abigail, King David’s wife; Huldah the prophetess; Hannah the mother of judge Samuel; Deborah, the valiant judge. Women are serious players in the Bible’s drama.

Even so, the Bible is unquestionably man-centered, or androcentric, as we have already noted. Cullen Murphy also refers to this characteristic of the Bible in his article by calling it “The Problem of Patriarchy.” The revelation of God is dominated by male language and male figures of speech. While both men and women were members of the schools of the prophets, the dominant prophets in the Old Testament are male. Only males served as priests.

Spiritual authority in the family was centered in the parents, and mothers had great responsibility for nurturing the children. Information about the kings of Israel and Judah often identifies a king’s mother, recognizing that the moral quality of the Icing’s rule was largely determined by his mother. Yet, the father was the spiritual head of the household and women were under the control of their husbands who even had veto power with regard to the vows wives would make (Numbers 30:3–8).

Compared to the surrounding nations, the Jewish people, as portrayed in the Old Testament, had a high regard for women. I am talking about the Bible’s view of women now; Pharisee men, to be sure, thanked God that they were not women, but then, they were confused about many things.

Jesus too, had a high regard for women. In fact, it is possible to point out that Jesus was concerned to overthrow the conventions that assigned women to a lower place in society. They were part of His most intimate circle of disciples. He taught them, though women were not supposed to be taught, and He chose them to be the original messengers of His resurrection.

And the apostle Paul, who says that a woman should not have authority over a man in 2 Timothy 2, had the highest regard for women. The 16th chapter of the book of Romans is a roster of highly regarded, gifted women who worked alongside the apostle. The Biblical data conveys the impression that the apostle viewed women co-workers as equals in the ministry of the Lord.

Yet, in 2 Timothy 2, he insists that women must not exert authority over men. He wants them to learn, but they are to do so in submission. Why this language?

Biblical Structure

The reason is that, for reasons that God has not chosen to reveal to us, Biblical religion has a specific structure to it—an authority structure. Biblical religion is androcentric. This is not because men are better, more gifted, more spiritual, more holy. By no means. It is just the way it is. And those who want to ordain women to the offices of the church can do so only after they have tried to explain away the androcentric nature of the Bible, or simply have chosen to ignore it.

It is very striking that Jesus Christ, for all of His emphasis on the equality of men and women, never designated a woman to be an apostle. If He had done that with just one, the church would have been spared this distressing controversy. Now, some have said that He didn’t do that because He knew that He would cause a lot of confusion if He did. Really now? Jesus Christ had a record for turning society upside down so that people would see reality. Are we to believe that He wouldn’t do something because a lot of people would be offended if He did?

The more likely reason that He never gave a woman spiritual authority in His church but built it on the apostles (Revelation 21:14) was that God intended that this is the way Biblical religion should be. In any case, this is the way Biblical religion is. There are no women apostles, and Jesus could have appointed one or more if He had felt there should be.

So far as the apostle Paul is concerned, he was certainly no misogynist, that is, he was not against women as women; yet he speaks against women being in a position of spiritual authority. When he gives the qualifications for officebearers he consistently describes them as men. And when he uses the word men, he means males.

It is sometimes said that he did this to keep from offending the culture of which he was a part, but this does not hold up when we examine that culture. In his day, the dominant religions had women cultic leaders. For Christians to have women leaders would have built a bridge between their communities and paganism.

The fact is that Biblical religion does not allow for the ordination of women to all the offices. Certain sentences speak of this directly, but even more weighty is the fact that Biblical religion as a whole does not allow for this. It is not just a sentence here and there, it is the very structure of the Bible that is involved.

Many liberal theologians acknowledge that this is so—they admit that clearly the Bible is against the ordination of women. But they come right out and say that this is a flaw in the Bible, and they tell us that we have to move beyond the Bible. More conservative Bible students who argue for the ordination of women are forced to develop ways of interpreting the Bible that show that it does not really mean what it appears to mean when it reserves the spiritual offices for men. Sometimes they say that what Paul had in mind when he excluded women from the offices was conduct he knew would be offensive to the male-dominated society of his time. Or they too, declare that after all, the Bible was written for a special time, and we are living in another time. It gets pretty difficult to handle the Bible once you adopt that approach.


The only question for the church, at any time in its existence, is whether it will allow the Bible to form it or whether it will allow other forces to override the Bible’s message. At the time of the Reformation, the question was whether or not the church was going to let the Bible speak on the issue of salvation by grace alone. Today the issue is whether or not the church will let the Bible speak on the issue of the ordination of women. The Biblical issue is the same in any case. Will the church obey the Bible’s teaching, or will it insist that the Bible’s teaching must be modified in terms of our modern age?

You see, if you believe that the Bible is our ultimate authority for spiritual life and that we must submit to its teachings, you have to live according to the Bible. Followers of Christ, filled with His Holy Spirit, are stuck with the Bible. It’s there. It’s the only spiritual authority we have. If we manage to escape the force of that authority, we will put our spiritual lives and the spiritual lives of our children in the gravest jeopardy.

Read the Bible through twenty five times or so, and you will discover that Biblical religion is totally different from any religion that mankind dreams up. I do not have the time to get into it, but let me just say that non-biblical religion is highly sexual, dominated by women in many cases—Gnosticism is a case in point. Biblical religion assigns high responsibility to males and requires that they preserve the holiness of society. Relieve men of these responsibilities and society will deteriorate, as it is doing now.

The position of aggressive feminism—and not all those who argue for the ordination of women are aggressive feminists—but the position of aggressive feminist theology can be maintained only with the use of extra-biblical material such as the Gnostics furnish, and only through the development of a way of interpreting the Bible that escapes the force of what is called androcentrism. If we take our stand in the Bible and the Bible alone, we find ourselves instructed in a religion that exalts both women and men and that assigns spiritual authority to men only.

Let me repeat what I said earlier. There is no question that the church has much to learn about using the gifts of all of its members to the full. There is no question that the appearance of the church must change as women fill more and more spiritual roles among its membership. There are serious injustices that must be overcome. But the exclusion of women from ordination is not an injustice, and it should not be approached in terms of individual rights.

What I have been talking about is the exercise of spiritual authority, the role of governance of the church in the name of Christ. This is a very narrow range of churchly activity. And this role has been assigned to men.

It may appear that this message is basically negative. It is not. For when the church obeys the Bible, it is strong. Each time a local church ordains ruling elders and restricts this office to men only, it is announcing that it lives in obedience to the Lord who has given us His holy Word so that we will be equipped to serve Him effectively.

Those of us who are alert to what is happening in our society these days the massive social changes that involve gender blending among other things-know very well that the issue of women’s ordination does not stand alone. It is part of a movement along a wide front that is designed to change the very nature of social relationships. Among other things, the changes will seriously affect the role of men in our society. There is reason to believe that confusion regarding their roles in the church will confuse their roles in other social relationships as well.

A church that continues to reserve the offices of spiritual authority to its male members reminds all of its members that it is living under the control of the holy Word of God which clearly indicates that believing men and women together have received the Holy Spirit and His gifts and are obligated to serve Him.


I would be saddened if what I have said would obscure the point that I have made more than once: the church must do all it can to insure that it will benefit from the gifts of all its members. I want to be among the first to acknowledge the unique sensitivities that God gives to women in the church, and I know that the church will be impoverished if it does not encourage its female members to engage in rich ministry within its fellowship.

But I am convinced that, if the church disregards Biblical religion and creates a form of Christianity that has moved beyond the Scriptures, it will not enjoy the riches of God’s grace. What will appear to be a step forward for its female members will be in fact a serious regression for them and for the entire body of Christ.

The church has nothing if it does not have the Bible. The Spirit-inspired Bible mediates the presence of Christ among us. All of us, men and women, need the discipline of the Scriptures if we are to survive. The greatest disservice we could do for one another would be to substitute for the religion of the Bible, a religion of our own making.

Dr. Nederhood is Director of Ministries for the Back to God Hour, Palos Heights, FL.