Q&A: Are women’s roles cultural or universal?

Question: Why is it that a women wearing her hair long or wearing a head covering is interpreted as a cultural issue for the church at that time, but that women not being pastors is taken as an all-encompassing blanket rule down through the centuries? How is this not a double standard or a misconstruing of scripture?

Answer: Of utmost importance in answering this question is our humility and willingness to submit to whatever the Scriptures say. If the Bible teaches women should cover their heads then we should submit. If the Bible teaches that women should not be in authority in the church then we should submit. With that said, let’s look at the text.

            It appears that from the very creation of man and woman, we were given equal significance, but separate roles. Both men and women have equal dignity before God because they both are created in God’s image (Gen. 1:27). Yet, we know that they have different roles because God said the woman would be a “helper” for him (Gen. 2:18). But in what ways do men and women have different roles in the church? As you mentioned, 1 Cor. 14:33-35 seems to suggest that women have a submissive role being under and not part of church authority. This is also confirmed in other passages as well (1 Tim. 2:11-15; Titus 2:3-5). Since Paul teaches this to the Corinthian church, the Ephesian church (Timothy), and the Cretian church (Titus) it appears to be a general model for all churches. The more difficult question to answer is “What does a woman’s submissive role in church look like?” Can she serve as a deaconess? Can she teach Sunday Schools or small groups? Can she serve the Lord’s Supper? These are all more difficult to determine, but I think it is clear to say that the absolute most authoritative human position in a church, the pastor, is one that she could not hold and still be considered to be in a submissive position.

            As for head coverings, there is a debate as to whether this passage (1 Cor. 11:1-16) is indeed a cultural issue or not. Some say it is because in Corinth head coverings were a known sign of submissiveness while women with shaven or uncovered heads were associated with pagan worship. This is not a bad interpretation, but it is impossible to prove from scripture and difficult to prove historically. Others have suggested that it is not cultural and that women today should wear a cloth covering during worship. I see a third interpretation which is that the command is not cultural, but that the covering refers to a woman’s hair (1 Cor. 11:15).

            So in summary, the teaching of female authority in the church is tied to a distinction in roles based in creation and it was taught in multiple church contexts. Therefore it is universally applied. The teaching regarding head coverings is taught to one church and has multiple possible interpretations. Most importantly though, both of these teachings place an emphasis on distinguished male and female roles that God designed as a reflection of his own glory. Ephesians 5:22-33 teaches that male and female roles are not arbitrary commands, but are a beautiful depiction of the greater spiritual truth that the church submits to Christ and even that Jesus Christ submits to the Father (1 Cor. 11:3). How these roles play out is another discussion altogether, but by discovering and engaging in the roles God has designed for us we are able to accurately and lovingly display the glory of God to a lost world.

Q&A: Are women’s roles cultural or universal?