WOMEN AND LEADERSHIP IN THE CONGREGATION

Frances Williams

ecently I listened to a taped lecture about women and their role in the assembly. The speaker suggested the reason God does not want women to speak in the assembly is because they possess too much natural influence over men. "Imagine what could happen", he said, "in any situation where one person has virtual control over others". Furthermore, the speaker was certain that wives have the strength - if they are convicted of their right action - to resist doing any evil that their husbands might propose. Husbands, on the other hand, are easily influenced by the femininity of their wives to do what the husbands know is evil.

The lecturer stated what appears to be a common concern among men: That a woman left unchecked has the power to control men, whether for good or evil. Certainly Adam must have thought so when he said, "The woman you put here with me - she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it." (Gen. 3:12)

Problems with this View

However, not all men feel in danger of being virtually controlled by women. Not all men find it difficult to resist their wives promptings to do evil. In healthy relationships between husbands and wives, and between men and women in general, we find interdependence and influence, but not control by one over another. It might be asked, if God created women to have virtual control over their husbands, why did God hold Adam accountable for eating the forbidden fruit?

In any case, how can we make sense of the curse that came upon Eve, "Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you"? Some have suggested that it is because the woman so strongly desires the affection and protection of her husband that he exercises control over her. Take Sarah for example, who agreed to lie about her relationship with Abraham. Abraham had told her this was the way she could show her love for him. (Gen. 20:13) Over the centuries, the handful of historical female figures who exercised control over their men are by far outnumbered by the women who were considered little more than their husband's chattel.

The speaker commended those godly women who shape and mold their children by virtue of their strong influence over them. He held up Timothy's mother and grandmother as examples to be followed. But if I push the speaker's argument to its logical conclusion, I would have to say that the influence they had over Timothy as a child became dangerous to Timothy as a grown man.

But the real problem I have with the speaker's argument is that he made no explanation for the Old Testament account of Deborah. This prophetess was chosen by God to be leader over all the nation of Israel. She served as judge and led her people to war against their enemies. Yet the nation of Israel was - at least symbolically - the congregation of the Lord. This should give us pause for thought.

A Contradiction

The lecturer exhorted women to pattern themselves after Esther and Abigail. He said that these women used their God-given beauty (not necessarily sexual in nature) and a meek spirit, to influence King Xerxes and David to do good. These women did not angrily demand their rights, nor demand that the men do what was right. That would have been disastrous under the circumstances. The speaker said it was because these women remained in subjection to the men that they were able to have such an influence over them.

But in holding up Esther and Abigail as examples, the speaker contradicted his own argument. To begin with he said that women, because of their femininity, have virtual control over men. He said that it was in order to control women's natural influence over men that God planned for women to be in subjection to men, to be quiet in the assembly, and so on. Then the speaker turned right around and warned women that they would have little influence over men unless, like Esther and Abigail, they appreciated and enhanced their God-given beauty and remained in subjection to men. My question to the speaker is this: Does subjection control, or does it enhance, women's natural influence over men? Do women have more control or less control over men when they are in subjection to men?

The speaker stated, "What is attractive to a man is the helpless woman he can rescue". He advised women to act helpless, even when they knew more than their husbands about repairing the car. Does every husband want his mechanically-inclined wife to remain silent while he struggles with the carburetor? Some men appreciate and are attracted to competent women. The competent women, not the helpless women, are commended in the Scriptures (Prov. 31). Nowhere is a woman commended for being helpless or dependent.

Principles, Not Rules

No, I just can't agree that God wants women to remain silent in the assembly because of their natural influence over men. In fact, some women did pray or prophesy in the assembly (1 Cor. 11:5). Paul insisted that these women have their heads covered. We are so far removed from the cultures of that time it makes it difficult for us to understand the problems that the congregations were facing. Even so, we must search for underlying principles so that we may apply them to our own lives. It is a mistake to look for rules instead of principles.

No one scripture contains all truth on a specific topic, but each scripture must be interpreted in light of the rest of the scriptures. When interpreting the restrictions on women teaching in 1 Timothy 2:11-12, we need to take note of Deborah and 1 Corinthians 11:5. Some scholars believe that Paul's emphasis in 1 Timothy 2:11-12 is for women to learn, in contrast with women's lack of opportunities to learn in Ephesus in the 1st century. Women who had not had an opportunity to learn were commanded to learn, not teach.

I wonder how the people felt when God chose Deborah to be judge over all of Israel? Is it mere chance that the first person to be filled with the Holy Spirit in the New Testament was a woman? (Luke 1:42-45) That Anna, a prophetess, proclaimed in the temple Christ's coming to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem? (Luke 2:38) Or that the first person to see Jesus risen from the dead was a woman (John 20:14-16)? Or that it was Mary of Magdela who first proclaimed the resurrection of Christ to the disciples? (John 20:18) Does God have a message for us here? What a tragic error it would be to perpetuate the historical fear and disrespect shown toward women. What a mistake to accept Adam's excuse for his own weakness, that the woman God had given to him had made him sin.