Return to Index Page


Women and the Bible

By Richard Gunther


   There are three main areas in which women feature in the Bible.  These three main  areas can be loosely described as:

  1.    Women in the secular world (their role as professionals, in business and industry)

  2.    Women in the home (their role as wives and mothers)

  3.    Women in church (their role as Christians in fellowships)


   In many cases the three different roles overlap. For example the Christian wife is also expected to be modest and a good provider for her family. This might involve spiritual, moral, secular and professional roles all within the same 24 hours.


   This essay is mainly (but not exclusively) about women and their role in the church.

   This is a subject which has produced centuries of debate, so it hardly likely that a single, short essay on the subject will solve every problem. However, God urges Christians to “Prove (dokimazo) all things; hold fast that which is good.” Thessalonians 5:21. ‘Dokimazo’ means to test or prove, with the expectation of approving, what is right. 



   One thing that stands out in the Bible is the tremendous variety of ministries that are open to women. The prophetic ministry was always open to women. Miriam, Deborah and Huldah are given the title of prophetess in the Old Testament. In the New Testament we have Anna the prophetess who recognised Jesus as the Messiah, when he was a baby in the temple. The four daughters of Philip are also described as having the gift of prophecy.


   Before we move on from here, let us look at each of these cases.




  “And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances.

   And Miriam answered them, Sing (all of you) to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider has he thrown into the sea.” Exodus 15:20, 21

   This is the first time the word “prophetess” is used in the Bible. In this event of rejoicing Miriam is not predicting anything, as the word “prophet” usually implies, but leading a song with dancing.


   Later, when God was speaking to His people through the prophet Micah, He placed Miriam in the same context of leadership as Moses and Aaron :

   “For I brought you up out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed you out of the house of servants; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.”  Micah 6:4




   “And Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth, she judged Israel at that time.

And she dwelt under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in mount Ephraim: and the children of Israel came up to her for judgement.” Judges 4:4,5


   When the battle was over and Sisera lay dead, Deborah led a song with Barak.

   “Then sang Deborah and Barak the son of Abinoam on that day, saying.” Judges 5:1

    “The inhabitants of the villages ceased, they ceased in Israel, until that I Deborah arose, that I arose a mother in Israel.” Judges 5:7


   See also 1 Samuel 18:6 “And it came to pass . . . when David was returned from the slaughter of the Philistine, that the women came out of all cities of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet king Saul, with tabrets, with joy, and with instruments of music.”




   During the reign of good king Josiah’s, the original copy of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) were discovered in the temple. Josiah had them read to him and became very upset. He quickly sent to Huldah for advice.

    “So Hilkiah the priest, and Ahikam, and Achbor, and Shaphan, and Asahiah, went to Huldah the prophetess, the wife of Shallum the son of Tikvah, the son of Harhas, keeper of the wardrobe; (now she dwelt in Jerusalem in the college;) and they communed with her.

    “And she said to them, Thus says the LORD God of Israel, Tell the man that sent you to me . . . “ 2 Kings 22:14,15

   (During the time of Huldah there were two other prophets working at the same time - Jeremiah (Jer. 1:2) and Zephaniah (Zeph. 1:1) and there were otherprophets in Jerusalem (2Kings 23:2) yet it was to a woman that Josiah turned for advice.)




   When Mary brought baby Jesus to the temple, in obedience to the Law of God, she met two people - Simeon and Anna.

   Simeon was “just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Ghost was upon him . . .” He found baby Jesus and spoke several prophecies. As a second witness, Anna came into the same room and confirmed what Simeon had said.


   And there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser: she was of a great age . . . she was a widow of about eighty-four years, which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day.

   And she coming in that instant gave thanks likewise to the Lord, and spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem.” Luke 2:36 Luke 2:37 Luke 2:38


   From this passage about Simeon and Anna we learn that :

   Anna had an equal share in the Spirit

   She also had a spiritual ministry in the temple

   She was permitted by God to teach and preach the news about Jesus


   Isaiah’s wife.


   “And I went to the prophetess; and she conceived, and bare a son. Then said the LORD to me, Call his name Mahershalalhashbaz. Isaiah 8:3 Isaiah’s wife’s son’s name means ‘haste, spoil, speed, prey’. The name was a prediction of what was coming to Israel - he (Israel’s enemy) hastens to take spoil, he speeds to take prey.



   Mary, filled with the Spirit, delivered a profound prophetic speech which begins with “ My soul doth magnify the Lord . . .” Luke 1:46-55




   “And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost:

   And she spoke out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Luke 1:41,42


Philip’s daughters.


   And the next day we that were of Paul's company departed, and came to Caesarea: and we entered into the house of Philip the evangelist . . .  and abode with him.

   And the same man had four daughters, virgins, which did prophesy.” Acts 21:8,9


   In the above verse, the word ‘prophesy’ is ‘propheteuo’. On this word Vines says : “to be a prophet, to prophesy, is used (a) with the primary meaning of telling forth Divine counsels, and (b) of foretelling the future.”

   So in the case of Philip’s daughters, they were evangelists like their father, and also quite likely to be gifted in other areas of prediction, teaching, and expounding the Scriptures.


   Joel’s prophecy:

   But God had already predicted that women would have a fair share of the spiritual work in the Church.

   In Joel 2:28,29 God says And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions:

   And also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out my spirit.”


   This prediction is identified and applied to the Day of Pentecost, when the ‘tongues of fire’ appeared over the heads of all who were waiting in the room.


   “But this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel;

   And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams:

   And on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy:” Acts 2:16-18 (See notes below on the word “prophesy”)


   Up to the day of Pentecost only a special few were privileged enough to be Spirit-filled. Here and there, in ones and twos, or small groups, God allowed certain men and women to be indwelt, but now He was opening the windows of heaven and making it possible for hundreds, thousands, and millions of people, of all ages, to receive the Spirit. Every believer was now able to exercise a ministry, regardless of their sex, age, or rank.


   Prophets and prophecy.


   The word “prophet” means, first and foremost, “one who speaks for God”, and secondly, “one who makes predictions”. Bullinger says : “A prophet was not necessarily one who foretold the future, though sometimes this was done, as in the case of Agabus (Acts 11:28, 21:10). Prophesy was one of the gifts of the Spirit, and its chief design was to comfort, exhort (Acts 15:32) and testify from the Scriptures for the edification of the believers. Prophets are included in the gifts of 1 Cor. 12:28 and  Eph.4:11. Directions for the orderly use of the gifts are given in 1 Cor.14.


    “Now there were in the church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers; as Barnabas, and Simeon that was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen, which had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.” Acts 13:1


   “Salute Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen, and my fellow prisoners, who are of note among the apostles, who also were in Christ before me.” Romans 16:7

   Junia is probably a woman. ‘Kinsmen’ (Greek : sungenes = family relationship) An apostle was primarily someone who was specially selected by God because they had been with Jesus from the beginning, with Paul being the exception. But after that an apostle was any Christian who was sent out in a missionary work. A woman who fulfilled this role was Priscilla:


   “ . . . a certain Jew named Aquila, born in Pontus, lately come from Italy, with his wife Priscilla . . .” Acts 18:2


   And Paul after this tarried there yet a good while, and then took his leave of the brethren, and sailed thence into Syria, and with him Priscilla and Aquila . . .” Acts 18:18


   And he began to speak boldly in the synagogue: whom when Aquila and Priscilla had heard, they took him to them, and expounded to him the way of God more perfectly.” Acts 18:26


   “Greet Priscilla and Aquila my helpers in Christ Jesus” Romans 16:3


   “The churches of Asia salute you. Aquila and Priscilla salute you much in the Lord, with the church that is in their house.” 1 Corinthians 16:19


   From all the above it is clear that women have an apostolic and prophetic ministry in the church since the day of Pentecost, and women have shared the spiritual gifts of God for thousands of years before that. Paul had no problem with either Priscilla or Junia functioning this way. Neither should we.


   The controversy.


   There are several verses in the New Testament, which taken by themselves, seem to imply that women are not allowed to teach or preach within the context of a gathering of other believers. However, it seems very contradictory for God to say on the one hand that women may receive His Spirit, be prophets, and teachers, and be counted among the fellow-workers with Paul the apostle, and then to turn around and say they are NOT allowed to do these things. God is not a God of confusion. There must be some way in which the seeming contradictions can be worked out.


   The abuse of power is common within some churches. The Roman ‘church’ is well-known for it. Popes have lorded it over kings, ordered armies about, instigated intrigue and murder, attacked true Christians, forbidden priests to marry, and so on. However, in the Mainline Protestant churches some measure of the same thing has also prevailed at times.


   One of the areas in which power is abused at times is in the office of Pastor. Not only is the title ‘Pastor’ an abuse, but the actions of some ‘Pastors’ amounts to nothing short of mini-popes.


   In Greek, the word for ‘pastor’ is ‘poimen’ meaning ‘shepherd’ - a service also given to the elders, overseers and bishops. (Eph.4:11, Acts 20:17 and 28) The ‘pastor’ was not set up as head of a church, nor was his gift elevated to the status of having a capital ‘P’. Yet there are Pastors today who seem to be at the top of a pyramid of power, rather than sharing the work on an equal basis with other responsible Christians within the fellowship. Early churches were governed, fed and helped by a collection of elders, not a single Pastor (or Reverend, Minister or whatever)


   For example, I once met a broken fellowship in which several women told me that ‘Pastor X’ had mistreated them so badly they would take years to get over it. He, apparently, treated all the women in the fellowship with contempt, refusing to credit them with any importance, and constantly used put downs rather than praise for anything they tried to do.


   Were there elders in the church? Definitely. (Eph. 4:11,12)


   Were there female elders? It would not be inconsistent with what we already know. There were female apostles and female prophets. A woman may fulfil the role of an elder with just as much wisdom and compassion as any man, and she is as equally open to the Spirit as any man.


   “Rebuke not an elder, but intreat him as a father; and the younger men as brethren;

   The elder women as mothers; the younger as sisters, with all purity.” 1 Timothy 5,2


   In this verse we have the word “elder” used two ways. In the first verse it applies to men, in the second verse it is the female form and applies to women. (‘presbuteras’) But it is impossible to say with certainty exactly what Paul meant. We can only go on what we already know about women and their role in the church, which means that it is highly probable that there were female elders.


   The two ‘difficult’ passages :


   The two verses which have caused tremendous debate about the role of women in the church are 1 Tim. 2:11-14 and 1 Cor. 14:34-36.


   First passage.


   “I will therefore that men pray every where, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting.

  In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array;

  But (which becomes women professing godliness) with good works.

  Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. (a)

  But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, (b) but to be in silence.” 1 Timothy 2:8-12


   First of all the passage is about the behaviour of both men and women who profess to be Christians. They are all expected to be self-controlled, humble, quiet etc.

   Secondly, the word “silence” means, in Greek “quietness”. This is a key word in the verse, so it needs to be studied.

   “Silence” or “quietness” comes from the Greek “hesuchios” which (according to Vine) indicates tranquility arising from within, causing no disturbance to others. It can also be translated “quiet” and “peaceable”. In 1Pet.3:4 it is associated with “meekness”.

   So the first part of the verse in question does not mean that women are to sit in silence all through the meeting, but to simply show respect and deference to others.


   The second part (b) is about teaching. When Paul wrote these words, the word “teach” meant something quite different to its modern meaning. In Paul’s day it meant a relationship of authority, or a discipling power over someone else. Women should not have the authority to teach men because that puts them in a dangerous place, and opens them and the man they are “teaching” to temptation. This is just as true today as it was 2000 years ago.

   Women were allowed to “teach” women however, because women normally do not tempt each other. This is why Paul tells older women to teach younger women - Titus 2:3-5.


   Paul is saying that men should disciple men and women should disciple women. As Ronald J. McKenzie says, in ‘The Bride of Christ’ page 29 : “It would be wrong and dangerous for a woman to gather a group of men and make disciples of them. But the converse is also true. Men should not be allowed to disciple and teach women. We can see this in the ministry of Jesus. He did not choose 12 men because he considered men to be superior. He chose men because he knew it would be wrong for him to disciple women. Where men disciple women, and women disciple men, gossip and temptation will follow.”


   Second passage  


   “And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets.

   “For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints.

    Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law.

   And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.” 1 Corinthians 14:32-35


   First of all the passage is about unruly, noisy, disruptive meetings. Paul is teaching strongly that a church ought to be an orderly place. This context throws light on the whole matter. As Bullinger notes : “subject to” i.e. under the control of their possessors. So there was no warrant for the scenes of excitement exhibited in ancient, as well as in modern, days.”


   Secondly, if we go back to 1 Cor.11 we see that women are allowed to pray and prophecy, which means they are speaking in the fellowship, teaching and sharing, and enjoying the same spiritual freedom which men also share.


   Thirdly, a key word in the passage is “speak”.

   The Greek is “laleo” meaning “to talk, or to use the voice without reference to the words spoken”. As we might say “Mr Brown was speaking to a woman when he stopped and began to address the crowd.” Some ‘speaking’ is just a noise, while some ‘speaking’ is clear and addressed to someone clearly.


   Abbot-Smith points out that one of the meanings of “laleo” is ‘to chatter’. It can be used of birds chirping.


   It may be that some of the Corinthian women were calling out and asking questions, or chattering among themselves during worship (not uncommon in some fellowships today), and if they had any questions they were to ask their husbands when they got home. Paul is not prohibiting all speech, but only that which disturbs the peace and order of the church.


   Other Scriptures which show that women had an equal share in the fellowship


      “How is it then, brethren? when you come together, every one of you has a psalm, has a doctrine, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done to edifying.” 1 Corinthians 14:26

   It has been argued that “brethren” refers to “men only” but the Greek word for “brethren” is ‘adelphoi’ which is applied to women as well  -  see Matt.12:48-50.



   “And the things that you have heard of me among many witnesses, the same you (must) commit to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.” 2 Timothy 2:2

   The word “men” is, in Greek ‘anthropos’, which means “people”, “human beings”, “men and women”.

   There are dozens of other verses where ‘anthropos’ is used in the same way. See for example 1Tim.4:10, 1Tim.3:17, Titus 2:11, Heb.9:27 and James 3:8.


   C.S.Lewis and his approach.

   Lewis never claimed to be a theologian, yet for all that his understanding of Scripture has often shown profound wisdom for a ‘mere’ layman. Unfortunately Lewis was brought up within the established church, and so he became familiar with the usual order of service. For him ‘church’ meant buildings, ministers, choirs and pews, vestments and church furniture, and the huge array of other add-ons. He was used to the idea that the church had a man who officiated - the priest, or reverend, minister or pastor. If he had dug a little deeper - searched the Scriptures -  he would have realised that the Biblical ‘church’ has a plurality of elders and other responsible people, all shepherds, all helpers and supporters, and no single head, or ‘managerial’ office.


   It was because of this lack of Biblical understanding of the original pattern for the ‘church’ that Lewis actually defended the place and position of the Protestant “priest”, which is why he wrote an article (in 1948) titled “Priestesses in the church?”


   The article strongly advocates the male dominance of the “priesthood” and sets the woman aside, not because she is inferior in any way, but because, for Lewis, the man was the best representative of God because God is (usually) portrayed as male in the Bible.


   But what Lewis wrote about women, by way of showing that apart from their feminine nature they are the equals of men in almost every way, makes interesting reading. Lewis noted that women are “. . . competent in administration, tactful and sympathetic as advisers . . . have a natural talent for ‘visiting’ . . . we have discovered in one profession after another that women can do very well in all sorts of things which were once supposed to be in the power of men alone . . .women are just as capable as men in piety, zeal, learning and whatever else seems necessary for the pastoral office. What, then, except prejudice begotten by tradition, forbids us to draw on the huge reserves which could pour into the priesthood if women were here, as in so many other professions, put on the same footing as men? And against this flood of common sense, the opposers (many of them women) can produce at first nothing but an inarticulate distaste, a sense of discomfort which they themselves find it hard to analyse.”


   One of the reasons Lewis puts forward, to defend the ‘men only’ position is the mistaken view that here were no women in the room on the day of Pentecost. However, if one reads Acts 1:13,14 it is clear that there were women present :

    “And when they were come in, they went up into an upper room, where abode both Peter, and James, and John, and Andrew, Philip, and Thomas, Bartholomew, and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon Zelotes, and Judas the brother of James.

    These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren. (brethren = alelphoi, see above) Jesus had sisters as well as brothers.


   Now we know that Jesus was the firstborn of a large family. He had brothers and sisters, so this word “brethren” could include several young women as well. (Matt.13:55,56) and it is clear that the tongues of fire fell on all (Acts 2:3) the people in the upper room (about 120 of them) in fulfilment of the prophesy by Joel.


   The problem Lewis had, and which most Christians still seem to have today, is an inability to see the Biblical model of the church. So ingrained is the traditional model that the framework given in the Bible is either ignored, overlooked, or twisted to fit the Man-made shape. So common in the Western world is the pyramid structure of power that the biblical structure is possibly even seen as a threat - just as much of the teaching by Jesus was seen as a threat to the organised religion set up by the Jewish priests.


   Women in the church.


   The issue of whether a woman should be a ‘priest’ (Minister, Pastor or Reverend) is not an issue at all if we come from the Biblical point of view.


   According to Scripture, there were women working as elders, and deaconesses (1Tim.3:11, Romans 16:1)  - see 1Cor.12. A fellowship (church) is supposed to function with the use of many types of gift - “Now there are diversities of gifts, but by the same Spirit” - “the word of wisdom, the word of knowledge, faithfulness, healings, miracles,  prophecy,  discerning of spirits,  different languages,  the interpretation of languages . . . apostles,  prophets, teachers, miracles, healings, helps, administrations, different languages . . .” - all open to women.


   Having said all the above, we have only covered briefly the position of women in the church. Most of the above could be expanded and laid out in more detail.


    In order to move a fellowship from the traditional church to the Scriptural pattern would take a huge change in thinking, and (in my experience) most Christians I meet are totally unwilling to go that way. They prefer the established traditional church, despite its many faults and inadequacies, rather than the difficult and challenging path of obedience to God’s Word.  The very idea of abandoning the familiar and choosing instead to follow the guidelines of Scripture is too much for them!  Yet it is because of the unwillingness by Christians to follow the Bible that many of the present woes beset most of the churches. Rather than decentralise and share the gifts among smaller home-based groups, most Christians prefer to take second best and meet in centralised power-structures, where only a tiny fraction of those present actually contribute to the meeting - in some fellowships only the men contribute, in others, only one man. Today’s Westernised church is a sad indictment on people’s unwillingness to obey what is written in God’s Word, and the poor quality of Christianity is their fair reward.


   Additional Notes.

   Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus. Both of these woman had important roles to play as witnesses of the life and ministry of Jesus, his death, and the preaching of the gospel.


   The following are verses where both Marys, and/or Mary Magdalene appear :


  “Among which was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee's children.” Matthew 27:56

   “And there was Mary Magdalene, and the other Mary, sitting over against the sepulchre.” Matthew 27:61

   “In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre.” Matthew 28:1

   “There were also women looking on afar off: among whom was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the less and of Joses, and Salome.”Mark 15:40

   “And Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses beheld where he was laid.” Mark 15:47

   “And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him.” Mark 16:1

   “Now when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had cast seven devils.” Mark 16:9

   “It was Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and other women that were with them, which told these things to the apostles.” Luke 24:10

   “Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene.”John 19:25

  “The first day of the week came Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark, to the sepulchre, and saw the stone taken away from the sepulchre.” John 20:1

   “Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and that he had spoken these things to her.” John 20:18


   Mary Magdalene was undoubtedly present on the day of Pentecost (Acts 1:14 (along with Mary the mother of Jesus), Mary Magdalene was the first person to see Jesus after the resurrection. However, in two accounts it is Peter, or (Cephas) who is said to be the first, but this is because women were not considered to be reliable witnesses (along with children or slaves). Luke 24:34 and 1Cor. 15:5 both put Peter first, but Luke is writing to Theophilus, a Gentile convert of rank, and Paul is writing to Gentile Christians at Corinth. To quote the evidence of women in these cases would be to suggest doubts as well.

   Jesus appeared to Mary, a woman, first, knowing that the testimony of a woman was not reliable, or valid - according to the culture of the time. Of all the events, we should expect a man to be the witness, but Jesus chose (through an angel) a woman, and told her to “Go quickly, and tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead.” Matthew 28:7

   By choosing a woman, Jesus showed that women can be reliable and valid witnesses. This is consistent with other things Jesus did, such as showing great love and respect for children - quite the opposite to the normal behaviour of a respected teacher or Rabbi of the day; and doing good works on the sabbath, which some defined as “work”; and his willingness to render to the ruling political power its dues.



   Recommended reading :

   The Bride of Christ, a vision for the church’ by         Ronald McKenzie

   ‘Man and Woman in Christ’ by   S.B. Clarke

   The New Reformation Review

   The writings of Catherine Booth

   The Home-church Movement

   ‘God in the Dock’ by C.S.Lewis

   The book of Acts

Back to Index Page