Observe

 women in church leadership 

We all know that women are as capable and intelligent as men, and that some of them have excellent leadership skills. While men are more naturally inclined as leaders because of the way God designed them, some women are better leaders than many men. Women serve very admirably in business and politics, as judges and police officers. So it's no wonder that some people get angry and argumentative when discussing the issue of women in church leadership. Compared to our world's modern, liberated understanding of the role of women, the biblical commands regarding women can seem archaic.

Why then, did God include commands in the Bible that seem to limit women's leadership roles? These are not vague references, but clear and concise:

The women should keep quiet in the churches, for they are not authorized to speak, but should take a secondary and subordinate place, just as the Law also says.
--1 Corinthians 14:34 (AMP)

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.
--1 Timothy 2:12-14

If they have any questions to ask, let them ask their husbands at home, for it is improper for women to speak in church meetings.
--1 Corinthians 13:35 (NLT)

Women should listen and learn quietly and submissively.
--1 Timothy 2:11 (NLT)

The instructions are there in black and white. What we do with them becomes the issue in our modern culture, creating conflict in and outside the church. Were these simply temporary rules for a time long past? Or is something deeper meant to be conveyed -- something that transcends cultural changes? Let's take some time to explore the verses and the reasons why they are included in the Bible.

Foundational Truths

Before we begin this study, it's important to establish several foundational truths from the Bible.

The first truth is that the Bible is God-breathed. Scripture is not some accident of writing. It isn't the work of men who just happen to write about things of God. God inspired every book, every word of the Bible. It is written as He wanted it written.

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.
--2 Timothy 3:16

As for God, his way is perfect; the word of the LORD is flawless. He is a shield for all who take refuge in him.
--2 Samuel 22:31, Psalm 18:30

Every word of God is flawless...
--Proverbs 30:5

God knows everything. He cannot be surprised by anything. There is no situation in which God can suddenly learn some new truth that He was unaware of in the past. Some passages may seem at first glance to suggest that a human argument shed light on something God hadn't thought of, like the discussion with Moses in Exodus 32 (more on this here). Yet a closer examination reveals that appearances can be deceiving if we don't look more closely.

Scripture is meant to be understood. A common approach to dealing with difficult passages in our complex, fast-paced world is to quickly throw up our hands and say, "if it's not comfortable, let's just ignore it!" This isn't an option. God did not design the Bible to be hard to understand, but to be so simple even a child can grasp it. God calls us noble if we dig into Scripture for clarification (see Acts 17:11). If we have trouble grasping the relevance of any Scripture passage, our next step is to see what else the same writer has said on the subject. Then we look at other parts of Scripture to clarify our understanding. In the end, things become quite clear, especially when it comes to instructions for the church.

Now that we understand these foundational truths, let's begin the study.

Four empires, two cultures

The prophet Daniel was given a vision back in the sixth century BC in which he was shown four unique empires. These four empires -- the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and Romans -- covered the period from the time of Daniel to the long-anticipated "Day of the Lord" that we are still looking forward to. Through the four empires emerged two distinctly different cultural attitudes. The patriarchal system of the Babylonians and Persians began to give way under the Greeks to more freedom and power for women. This continued into the Roman empire, where women gained even more freedom and held roles as lawyers, politicians and business tycoons. They didn't enjoy the variety of options they have today, but women actually had more freedoms in early Rome than they had in North America just a couple of centuries ago.

In the eyes of God, we are still living in the "fourth" empire created by the Romans. Of course, we no longer wear togas or crowns of olive leaves except at certain college parties. But the system of democratic government we live under, the legal structure, modern military strategy, many of our cultural practices and even the Christian church were all established under the Romans and have changed very little during the past 2,000 years. While women certainly do have greater freedoms today, women's rights have not changed all that much either, because they had more rights under the Roman empire than they did during many of the intervening generations.

In the Roman empire, women held roles as lawyers and in some cases were business leaders with considerable clout, their influence matching that of Martha Stewart and Oprah today. Roman matrons held a great deal of power and were highly respected, just as women leaders are today. 49 different women were featured on Roman coins. Appian records a speech by Hortensia before the triumvirs in the Senate, circa 49BC, protesting unfair taxation. Though politically they usually ruled through their husbands, there were a number of high profile women of great power, such as Messalina, Livia, Octavia, Antonia, Agrippina and others. Education was limited, but even men had no formal educational opportunities like we have today. Training came in the form of apprenticeship. Only a handful of universities even existed.

While the Roman empire as we know it is long gone, God sees today's western civilization as being included in that "final" fourth empire before the return of Jesus Christ. So, in His eyes, we are still living in the Roman empire even if we tend to refer to it only historically -- the architecture and clothing -- rather than as a cultural foundation for how we live.

Why is this important? Because when we read the apostle Paul's instructions, we often think of his audience as a primitive culture radically different from our own. In actual fact, his audience thought more like ours than we are willing to admit. Some of Paul's letters were directly aimed at Gnostic teaching, which was prevalent in the first-century Roman culture. Gnostics wanted to do away with all created distinctions and saw androgyny as the spiritual goal. The knowledge they aimed for was a direct personal enlightenment devoid of reason, and they welcomed the subjective emotional experiences of women as marks of enlightened spirituality. Very similar to some of the arguments made today.

Equal yet different

God created men and women to be equal in their value as persons and capacity to fellowship with Him. Yet He created them to be very different from one another. There are both physical and physiological differences.

Women have four times as many neurons connecting the left and right hemispheres of the brain. This enables women to process many things simultaneously that involve both the left (logical) side of the brain and the right (creative) side. The result is a very real capacity to deal with the complex problems of relationships.

You might think that men have a disadvantage because they lack all these cross-brain neurons, but in fact it simply gives them an equal but different strength. Men have a greater ability to focus on a single problem. This "tunnel vision" capability makes men naturally adept at mechanical skills, mathematics or focused processes such as driving race cars or flying high-speed aircraft where even an instant of distraction can mean disaster. In these roles, women's constant cross-brain communication actually makes it more difficult to excel, because they can become easily distracted. This design difference is also one of the reasons men are natural leaders. Because there is far less cross-brain communication, men find it much easier to keep emotions out of decision making, an important factor in stressful situations or times of danger.

Each physiological design is ideal for the purpose God intended it to be used for. Neither capability is better. They are just different. Men and women have different roles in God's design, intended to be combined for maximum impact. Even the Bible talks about how men and women are not independent of each other:

But in relationships among the Lord's people, women are not independent of men, and men are not independent of women. For although the first woman came from man, all men have been born from women ever since, and everything comes from God.
--1 Corinthians 11:11-12

Men and women approach problem solving in very different ways, evident even in young children. You can see these differences at work while observing them attempt to find their way out of a maze. Boys generally establish a hierarchy or chain of command with a leader who emerges on his own or through demonstrations of ability and power. Boys explore the maze using scouts while remaining apart. Girls tend to explore the maze together as a group without establishing a clear or dominant leader. Girls seek discussion and employ "collective intelligence" to the task of discovering a way out. Girls tend to work their way through the maze as a group. Boys tend to search and explore using structured links and a chain of command.

In the early days of personal computers, I wrote a computer program that allowed children to select a pattern from a "palette" of inks and click on part of a clown to fill it with the pattern. Demonstrating this to groups of 5 and 6 year old children in schools, I discovered an interesting consistency. Boys always asked "how does it work?" while girls always asked "what else can I do with it?" They approached the technology with vastly different interests. Boys wanted to dominate the machine by understanding its inner workings, giving them authority over it. Girls found the machine meaningful only if it could contribute in useful ways to the needs of society. These differences were not the result of social engineering; they were part of God's different designs for men and women.

God designed men and women differently. While He made men naturally inclined to be leaders, He created us with an equal capacity to relate to Him. If men and women are equal in status before God, then why would He limit women in leadership roles within the church?

Part 2: Why would God establish hierarchy for men and women?