Is It Time to Reassess Women’s Roles in the Body of Messiah?

The head of one of the world’s most significant powers, Germany, has been led by a woman for many years. A woman, Golda Meir, was Israel’s Prime Minister in the 1970’s. One of England’s greatest leaders was a woman, Margaret Thatcher. In a few months, the US likely will elect to the Presidency, the most powerful position in the world, the first woman President. In fact, throughout history, women have been very influential world leaders, e.g. Queen Elizabeth – England, 16th century, Catherine the Great – Russia, 18th century, Benazir Bhutto – Pakistan, 20th century.

Despite the above, until recently in most societies women’s roles were limited either by law or through social norms. Today, in most Western countries, women share with men leadership roles in business, law, science, medicine, government, finance, media and entertainment. The one sector where women’s roles remain limited are in Evangelical and Messianic Jewish communities. The argument against women leadership primarily arises from certain Biblical texts. While I do not intend to exhaustively explicate those texts, I will make some remarks. But first, I begin with my own journey.

When I joined the Messianic Jewish community as a leader twenty-five years ago, I was part of an organization that limited women to non-governing roles in the community. In addition, another organization I joined recognized women leaders who were appointed as such in a local congregation but refused to ordain women leadership. For years I accepted this as the norm, and justified my position through the Biblical texts I mentioned above. Until 2008 our leadership was comprised solely of men. Over time, though, I began to question the wisdom of this practice. One, as a leader I knew and worked with many godly women. I realized that women often have different views and needs than men. Assuming that one half of the congregation was comprised of women, how could we as men make decisions without women’s direct input? Two, with women increasingly focused on building careers, how could our congregation appeal to intelligent and working women, who rise to the top of their professions, while their roles in congregational life are limited?

By the early 2000’s, I began reading books on women in leadership and on the Biblical texts that seemingly limited their roles. I became convinced that my view was simply incorrect, invalid and potentially destructive. Our congregation rewrote our by-laws, creating a Board of Elders and an Executive Committee. The Board of Elders would be limited to spiritual matters. The Executive Committee would handle administrative matters. To the Executive Committee we appointed several women. I was interested in also appointing a woman to the elder board, but realized since I would be moving to Israel within the next few years, this was not the time to make such a significant and potentially controversial move. Upon immigrating to Israel, I have witnessed that most congregations continue to put serious restraints on women in leadership. For the younger generation, particularly for the women, this is highly problematic.

As I have noted, there are a few Biblical texts that seemingly limit what women can do in a religious community; almost all of them exist within the New Testament. When we seek to interpret the Bible, we must try and understand to whom was the original letter or prophecy intended and what was the underlying historical events that led to the writing of the letter or the uttering of the prophecy. Once we have determined the above, we can then extrapolate the Biblical principle and seek to apply it to today’s world. We also should seek to understand the historic views of these passages by both the Jewish and Christian worlds and whether such worlds are wrestling with a re-interpretation of the selected passages.

We must never be so arrogant to assume that we categorically know the final truth on a particular passage of Scripture. Sometimes intervening historic events cause a genuine reconsideration of the traditional interpretation. As an example, take the well-established historic view of replacement theology. This theology formed in the second century around the idea that the church had replaced the Jewish people in God’s economy. Eventually, this view led to the perpetration of atrocities against Jews by so-called Christians. This theology was the predominant Christian theology until the latter part of the twentieth century. Following the Holocaust, many Christian denominations recognized that this theology was an underpinning of the rise and popularity of the Nazi regime. As a result, many denominations, including the Roman Catholic Church, renounced this theology. In addition, with the establishment of the modern nation of Israel and the return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel, many churches, especially in the Evangelical world, saw these events as direct fulfillment of numerous Biblical passages, particularly from the Hebrew Scriptures. Previously, most considered these passages either allegorical or fulfilled in the ancient world. In other words, intervening historic events caused a wholesale change in understanding various Biblical passages.

There are a few Biblical texts that seem to limit women’s roles in congregational leadership, and in particular, two problematic passages: I Cor. 14, calling for women to be silent in the churches; I Tim. 2, forbidding women to teach or have authority over men. That seems pretty clear except when it’s matched with various Biblical narratives. The most well-known is the story of Deborah the Judge from Judges 4 and 5. It’s possible she ruled over Israel for up to 40 years, including Israel’s leading general. Another story is that of Huldah the prophetess, who lived during the time Josiah was king over Judah. Upon finding a heretofore lost Biblical book in the Temple (likely Deuteronomy), the king requested the views of Huldah. She prophesied about the coming destruction of Judah. As a result, Josiah called for national repentance, and Judah was spared destruction during his reign. In the New Testament, the recipient of the letter of II John was a woman, who may have been leading a small church. The Books of Acts, Romans and Corinthians all mention Priscilla, wife of Aquila, who instructed the apostle Apollos and who led a church in Corinth. In most of Paul’s letters, despite his admonition mentioned above about women’s limited roles, he specifically highlighted women’s roles in the ministry as co-leaders and helpers with him. In a couple of cases, he likely considered them apostles.

So, how do the few passages about limited women’s roles comport with various narratives, showing the opposite? There is no question that throughout history women have played subordinate roles to men. In fact, that is seen today in most of the underdeveloped and even developing world. The Bible simply reflects the norms of society at the time. That doesn’t mean as society changes, Biblical interpretation should change. But it does mean that accepted norms in congregational life should be reviewed in the context of the entire Bible and the society in which it’s being lived out. Certainly, most congregations today find pernicious the I Cor. 14 apparent mandate for women to be silent. Typically, women share testimonies, sing and even prophesy in congregations where that is accepted. Quite frankly, almost all congregations simply ignore the I Cor. 14 apparent prohibition.

As Bob Dylan wrote fifty years ago, “the times they are a changing.” Women’s roles in modern society have undergone nothing short of a revolution. Most women today do not want to be relegated to lesser (or in spiritual vernacular “different”) roles than men. If our congregations want to be just, effective and appealing, we need to reassess the roles women can assume in congregational life.