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Women’s Leadership in the Church

Category Articles
Date November 26, 2004

An Interview with Dr. George Knight

By Byron Snapp, Editor of the Presbyterian Witness, Hampton, Virginia

Dr. George Knight lectures in the Greenville Seminary and is the author of a commentary on the Pastoral Epistles.

Q.Why is women’s role in church leadership continually pushed, even in some Reformed churches?

A.Reasons may vary in each case. However, as a general rule, it is probably a concern to make sure that women are not left out of roles in which supporters believe they should be involved. They probably have not adequately considered the prohibition passages in the New Testament and recognized their continuing relevance. Some, such as a Fuller Seminary professor, have argued that they have had students come to them and say, “You defended the rights of blacks, a minority group. Now is it not your responsibility to defend the rights of another minority group – women?” It is conceivable that a concern for a minority group may be wrongly influencing people who are advocating women in church leadership roles. As we continue to talk we will see some very clear passages that recognize the equality of men and women made in God’s image and redeemed by our Lord Jesus Christ. Yet the same writers indicate that there are distinguishable roles for men and women.

Q.What is the root issue in this discussion?

A.The root issue, from my perspective, is whether or not God by His creation activity and the instruction given in His Word shall determine how our worship is ordered and how our men and women shall conduct themselves in it. I think if we make any other thing the root issue without taking into account what God has done or said we may end up taking a wrong position. This would violate the regulative principle of worship which states that God alone prescribes how we are to worship Him.

Q.In some churches the argument has been given that it is okay for women to teach men if they are not ordained because they are under sessional authority. How would you respond?

A.I think that argument has this to commend it. Those who rule the church are the Session. The Session decides who should be participating in the worship service. I do think we must remember that the Session is to be governed by what the Word of God teaches. The question then is “Does the Word of God allow women to teach men, even when the women are under sessional authority?” I am struck by the fact that when Paul writes his words of instruction to us in I Timothy 2:11 he says, “I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man” and concludes by saying “she must be silent.” I think the significance here is that people in the church at Ephesus could have written back to Paul and said, “Paul, the Session here is allowing women to do that.” The Session should not allow women to teach men if Paul prohibits a woman teaching the Word of God and Biblical truth to men. Paul’s prohibition does not allow a Session to be granted the authority to extend the permission to someone whom Paul has forbidden to teach men.

Sometimes they argue that the teaching that is prohibited here is preaching by an ordained person. It is one of the main implications of the text, but it is not all Paul forbids. In I Timothy 2:12 he forbids an activity, not an office or an ordination. To simply restrict this to ordination, particularly when you have the words “she should learn in quietness and full submission” preceding and “she must be silent” following, is not indicated by the passage.

Q.What Scriptures speak most directly to this issue? How would you summarize their basic thesis?

A.The interesting thing is to notice that Paul is dealing with the same problem with which we are facing Let me back up one step They right understood that Christian males and females are one in Christ with regard to salvation. They misunderstood by believing that there was therefore no difference in the roles of men and women in the church. Thus, all the Apostles needed to instruct the people to keep them from making the wrong deductions. I think the passage in I Timothy 2 is quite helpful because it is dealing with what a woman may do in the life of the church in regard to teaching the Word of God. Thus I Timothy 2:11-14 is very helpful. A similar passage is I Corinthians 14. Here Paul deals with the question again in vv.33-38. Both I Timothy 2 and I Corinthians 14 command that women be silent in the church in reference to speaking and teaching. They are not to teach men. Therefore, they are not to teach the entire congregation because men would be in the congregation. Both of these passages describe the activity in which women should not be involved. They do not say women should not be office bearers only. Office bearing is a prohibition. However, it is not the only prohibition.

I Corinthians 14:33 makes the argument that God is not a God of disorder but of peace. Paul explicitly says “in all the church of the saints.” The instruction in I Timothy 2 and I Corinthians 14 is not given only to the two congregations but to the entire church in the first century. Of course, there is no reason for it not to apply to us today. The reason these passages are given is because Paul is teaching how God created woman from man to be a helpmeet for him. Remember that he said in I Timothy 2 that Adam was formed first and then Eve. He is appealing to the creation order. In I Corinthians 14:34 he appeals to the law of God “as the Law says.” Presumably, he is appealing to the same passage he had written earlier in I Corinthians 11 :2ff and also in I Timothy 2 – that God created woman from man. The I Corinthians 11 passage deals with the question of headship.

Note I Corinthians 11:2-16. In verses 8 and 9 he argues for the headship of man by saying this: “For man did not come from woman but woman from man.” He goes on to say in verse 9: “Neither was man created for woman but woman for man.” He has done that to argue that husbands or males in the congregation have authority both in marriage and the life of the church. He writes in I Corinthians 11:3, “I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ and the head of the woman is man, the head of Christ is God.” It is interesting to notice in I Corinthians 11:3 that Paul argues from the example of the Trinity. God the Father exercises authority over Christ, His Son, not only in sending Him from the perspective of the Trinity in operation even prior to Christ’s coming to earth but also in Christ’s doing what the Father asks Him to do and saying what the Father asks Him to say. When Paul calls on us to emulate that practice of headship, he is calling us to emulate the practice that the Father and the Son practice for us and make clear that we are to follow.

There are two arguments given by the Apostle. We should follow the divine pattern. We should do this knowing which person fulfills which role in the pattern, remembering that God made woman from man and for man.

I think it is helpful to notice that what the apostle Paul argues for in the life of the church is the same argument he uses for headship in the marriage relationship. Man is head over the woman because headship is established by the creation order. God created woman from man. You find the marriage relationship and the question of headship as it manifests itself in the life of the church having one and the same doctrinal root – that of God’s creation order. This establishes how men and women should relate to one another. I think this gives the summation of the argument for us.

We argue that the Scriptures speak of men and women as equal by creation and redemption but have distinguishable roles that are given by God Himself. We also see some distinguishable roles in the curse announcements. The woman is going to experience the relevance of the curse in her motherly duties-her giving birth. The man is going to experience the significance of the curse in his particularly male responsibilities in earning a livelihood. This is not to say men are not involved in childbirth or that women are not equally involved in gaining income, as Proverbs 31 indicates. The Genesis account is certainly interesting in singling out the distinguishable roles of men and women when it pronounces God’s curse upon their sin. They know they have died spiritually and are separated eternally from God unless He delivers them. They also experience this in their callings.

Q. Is it right to conclude that a successful attack in male leadership roles in the church can adversely effect the role of male leadership in the home?

A. It is almost inevitable that this will occur. Male leadership in marriage and male leadership in the church are based upon the same passage God created woman for man and woman is to be a helper for man. Therefore, if one denies or ignores this in the church it will probably have some boomerang effect on the marriage relationship.

Q. A number of arguments are often raised in support of women’s leadership over men in the local church. How would you answer the following? Some say that women should be ordained to the office of deacon but not elder.

A. Before I answer that question I need to confess to your readers that I once argued that way in a statement I submitted to defend my doctoral work in Amsterdam. I argued that deacons are not teaching nor are they exercising authority over any man when they minister to the needy. That was the conclusion I made as a young man by deducing things from Scripture without rightly observing the whole counsel of the Bible.

I did not take into account the Apostolic ban in Acts 6. There the congregation was to elect seven males from their midst. The Greek word anthropos, which means human being, is not used in Acts 6. Instead Luke used andres, a word which distinguishes men from women. We catch the significance of this as we note who were elected-seven men. They were men with Greek sounding names because the Apostles were concerned for the Greek-speaking Jews. They went out of their way to select Greek-speaking or perhaps bilingual Jews who could minister to both groups equally well.

Notice that the task of the deacons was to minister to the widows. If ever there was a time to elect women to the office of deacon, then surely this would have been the time. Those elected would be ministering to female widows. The congregation heeded the admonition of the Apostles who instructed them to choose seven men.

The actions of the Apostles have guided us since that time. They also guided Paul when he charged us to elect deacons in I Timothy 3. It is interesting that when one looks at the qualifications for deacons in I Timothy 3 they are described in verse 8 as “men worthy of respect.” That word man is probably no more than a translation choice. In verse 12 they are described with a male characteristic. The deacon must be the head of one wife. He must manage his children and his household well. I think this is indicative of the fact that the Apostle has already precluded women from serving in a role of teaching men or having authority over men in I Timothy 2:11-12. That is why he speaks of the deacon in those terms.

Notice the title deacon is given to these men in I Timothy 3:8-12. There is a reference to wives. I think that is the way we should translate the Greek word. It can be translated wives or women. I think it is introduced here because verse 11 is leading to verse 12 where the family characteristics of the men are being described. Before going to these characteristics, Paul sets down what should characterize their wives in their involvement in assisting their deacon/husbands in this diaconal task. Thus they are given certain qualifications. They are to be women worthy of “respect, not malicious, temperate, trustworthy in everything.” They are designated as wives, not deaconesses. The ones holding the office are men. The wives assist them.

We must recognize the Biblical principle that in worship and in the government of the church we should do what God prescribes in His Word. We see Him prescribing males as deacons in Acts 6 and I Timothy 3. We do not find women called deacons in the sense of those who are associated with elders anywhere in Scripture.

We do find one reference to the word used in a general sense. This word diakonos means servant in the Greek-an able servant who serves in ministry or outside the ministry or one who is serving in a special way alongside the elders. This reference is in Romans 16:1, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant in the church in Cenchrea.” It is interesting to note that almost all the translations have used the word servant. The translators recognize that the Apostle Paul never uses the word diakonos for women in the sense of a deacon who serves alongside an elder, bishop or overseer. It is improper for them to presume that this person is an officer in the church. Instead, they recognize that she is a servant within the church. I think that is the proper way to render verse 1 of Romans 16.

It is also in accord with other usages of the word servant in Romans. In Romans 13:4, Paul instructs regarding those who rule for God in the state as “God’s servant.” Later in the same verse he again refers to “God’s servant.” In both places, as well as in verse 6, the word servant is used. Here the word does not describe a deacon, but one who is serving God in the realm of civil government. Thus, Paul uses this word to describe Phoebe who serves God in the realm of the church.

Now we have dealt with all the passages that possibly could be argued from in regard to women as officers in the local church. In Acts 6 “men” were to be chosen by the congregation for the office. In I Timothy 3 they are to be the husbands of one wife. Their wives are to have certain characteristics.

It seems to me that if the Bible describes only men as deacons, then we should follow the Bible’s instructions. We should not presume to know more wisely than the twelve or the Apostle Paul regarding Who should be in that office.

Q. Another argument that is sometimes raised is that women need to worship God actively in public worship services, thus they should be involved in leadership such as reading the Scripture prior to the sermon and leading the congregation in prayer.

A. I agree with the premise that women should be involved in worship. I would not agree with the conclusion. If this is true, we could also say that unordained men and children need to be involved in worship leadership. All need to be involved in worship, but this does not necessitate that they are to be leading through Scripture reading or congregational prayer. It seems to me that when we speak of the public reading of Scripture in worship and leading the congregation in the congregational prayer, we are dealing with a leadership role.

Usually, the individual who reads the Scripture and the one who leads the congregation in prayer is the same one who preaches. I believe that it is exercising authority to lead in these capacities in the worship service.

It can be argued from I Corinthians 11 that the women are praying in the congregation as well as prophesying. I think that the praying that is in view here in verse 4 is in a situation in which individuals in the covenant community in the congregation are called upon to pray. In these situations women can pray as well as men, by all indications of I Corinthians 11.

Let me add that, by reference to women prophesying, the text does not indicate that women have the right to teach men. Paul grants the woman the right to prophesy in I Corinthians 11. He repudiates her right to teach or speak in the sense of teaching in I Corinthians 14 as well as in I Timothy 2. I think that why Paul allows a woman to prophesy is because she is not teaching or exercising authority.

First, she is not instructing from revelation previously given from God. She is simply giving what God has placed in her by direct revelation. She is simply saying something, not teaching it. Secondly, I think we need to recognize that she is not exercising authority over men because she is not saying, “This is what you must do,” or “This is what you must believe.” She is simply saying, “This is what God has spoken.”

I think the word of prophesy was granted to women in the Apostolic Age, but teaching was not. Paul distinguishes between these two. We had best not confuse the matter by presuming that prophesying is another form of teaching. This would be joining what Paul has separated.

Q. Some argue for women’s leadership in worship because of the priesthood of believers.

A. I do not think her participation in leading in worship is due to the priesthood of believers. We do not have women or children giving the sermon. They are part of the priesthood of believers. We do not ordain them to be ministers and ruling elders. Ministers have as one of their main functions the leadership in worship services. Thus we are not violating the priesthood of believers.

The priesthood of believers means that believers should participate in worship. All who are believers, men and women alike, should participate in worship. It does not mean that we have the right to take the pulpit or give the pastoral prayer or the sermon. The priesthood of believers grants the high participation in worship not the higher authority to lead others in worship.

Q. Is a female choir director allowable in a church that does not permit women to lead the congregation in worship?

A. I believe that the role of guiding the choir is not the kind of leadership that Paul is prohibiting. I believe this is true because of several analogies. I do not think we prohibit women from playing the piano which guides the congregation and helps them in their singing. I do not think that in churches where only psalms are sung a capella that women are prohibited from pitching the tone or giving notes that will help the a capella singing.

As long as the choir director, whether male or female, has what is sung approved by the Session or the pastor as being in accord with Scripture and appropriate for the worship service, then I think this is an appropriate role in which a woman can serve the church without exercising authority.

Q. What are some helpful books you would recommend on this subject?

A. There are many fine books written by a number of men. I will mention some with which I am most familiar. I wrote The Role Relationship Between Men and Women which is published by Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company. I contributed two chapters to the work published by The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. This is a very good organization with which one should have contact. They have published numerous works on this subject. They published Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. It was edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem. I contributed the section entitled “Husbands and Wives as Analogues of Christ and the Church Ephesians 5:21-33 and Colossians 3:18-19” and the section entitled “The Family and the Church: How Should Biblical Manhood and Womanhood Work Out in Practice?” Readers can contact them at the following address: Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 2825 Lexington Road, Box 926, Louisville, KY 40280, USA. Their website is Do you have any closing words?

A. It is important to recognize what Paul says on the matter. I would like to read a passage as my concluding comment. It is found in I Corinthians 14. Here he has argued against people who, because of their view that they have been moved by the Spirit, are wanting to prophesy or speak in tongues. Women are wanting to speak in church. All feel they can argue from a prompting. Paul writes that God is a God of order. He says that tongues speakers should not speak unless they have an interpreter. Only a few prophets should speak in order. Women should not speak at all because of the creation order.

Then he asks these questions of them as he concludes this section. These are the verses I want to read (vv.36ff). He asks the Corinthians who are arguing the other way. (He is having to correct his own converts.) “Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached? Anybody that thinks he is a prophet or spiritually gifted let him acknowledge what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command.”

I would encourage people who read this material to acknowledge that what the apostle Paul has written is the Lord’s command. We need to heed this command for the good of our families, our marriages and our church life.

With permission from the Presbyterian Witness Vol. XVI, No.1 February, 2002 of the Calvary Reformed Presbyterian Church in Hampton Virginia

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