© Rosemary Bardsley 2017

Below are excerpts from a paper on Women in the Church: A Biblical Survey published in Christian Brethren Review, Vol. 33, 1982. FF Bruce is a respected Christian ‘Brethren’ scholar. This paper is a surprising document, given its source. It is well worth reading in its entirety - here .

[Note: Emphasis is added.]


The basic teaching of the creation narratives is that when God created mankind (Adam) in his own image, he created them male and female (Gen. 1:27).

In the narrative of Gen. 1 no question of priority, let alone of superiority, arises. In the narrative of Gen. 2 the female is formed after the male, to be ‘a help answering to him’ ― not, as a later interpreter put it, ‘he for God only, she for God in him’. The priority of the male in this creation narrative does not bespeak his superiority: any suggestion to this effect might be answered by the counter-argument that the last-made crowns the work - but either argument is beside the point.

It is in the fall narrative, not in the creation narratives, that superiority of the one sex over the other is first mentioned. And here it is not an inherent superiority, but one that is exercised by force. The Creator’s words to Eve, ‘your desire shall be for your husband, and he will rule over you’ (Gen. 3:16), mean that, in our sinful human condition, the man exploits the woman’s natural proclivity towards him to dominate and subjugate her. Subjugation of woman, in fact, is a symptom of man’s fallen nature.

If the work of Christ involves the breaking of the entail of the fall, the implication of his work for the liberation of women is plain.


(a) The attitude and teaching of Jesus.
Jesus was born into a male-dominated culture. Some of its basic presuppositions he quietly and indirectly undermined. His treatment of the divorce question, for example, not only illustrates his constant appeal to first principles; its chief practical effect was the redressing of a balance which was heavily weighted against women. His male disciples immediately realised this, as is shown by their response. ‘If a man cannot divorce his wife under any circumstances’, they meant, ‘it is better not to marry’ (Matt. 19:10).

Unwarranted inferences have sometimes been drawn from the fact that all twelve of the original apostles were men. But in fact our Lord’s male disciples cut a sorry figure alongside his female disciples, especially in his last hours; and it was to women that he first entrusted the privilege of carrying the news of his resurrection.

He treated women in a completely natural and unselfconscious way as real persons. He imparted his teaching to the eager ears and heart of Mary of Bethany, while to the Samaritan woman (of all people) he revealed the nature of true worship. His disciples who found him thus engaged at the well surprised to find him talking to a woman: for a religious teacher to do this was at best a waste of time and at worst a spiritual danger.

(b) The attitude and teaching of Paul
No distinction in service or status is implied in Paul’s many references to his fellow-workers, whether male or female. Among the latter we recall Phoebe, deacon (not deaconess!) of the church at Cenchreae (Rom. 16:1f.), who by her safe delivery of the Epistle to the Romans performed an inestimable service to the church universal, and Euodia and Syntyche of Philippi, who received Paul’s commendation as women who ‘laboured side by side’ with him in the gospel together with Clement and others (Phil. 4:3). Paul uses the designation ‘apostles’ more comprehensively than Luke does, and he may even include at least one woman among them, if the companion of Andronicus in Rom. 16:7 is Junia, a woman (as Chrysostom understood), and not Junias, a man.

From the standpoint of Paul’s upbringing he voices a revolutionary sentiment when he declares that ‘in Christ Jesus... there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave or free, there is neither male nor female’ (Gal. 3:28). Already in his time the Jewish morning prayer probably included the passage where the pious man thanks God that he was made a Jew and not a Gentile, a free man and not a slave, a man and not a woman. All three of these privileges are hereby wiped out: real as they were in the Judaism of Paul’s day, they are abolished in Christ. In Judaism it was the males only who received in their bodies the visible seal of the covenant with Abraham; it is a corollary of Paul’s circumcision-free gospel that any such religious privilege enjoyed by males over females is abolished. To the present day among orthodox Jews the quorum for a synagogue congregation is ten free men; unless ten such males are present the service cannot begin. (We may, incidentally, be happy that for Christian meetings we have the less stringent quorum of ‘two or three’, with nothing said as to whether they are men or women.) Paul, on the other hand, expects Christian women to play a responsible part in church meetings, and if, out of concern for public order, he asks then to veil their heads when they pray or prophesy, the veil is the sign of their authority to exercise their Christian liberty in this way, not the sign of someone else’s authority over them.

Nothing that Paul says elsewhere on women’s contribution to church services can be understood in a sense which conflicts with these statements of principle. This applies to the limitations apparently placed on their public liberty in 1 Cor. 14:34 (‘the women should keep silence in the churches’) and 1 Tim. 2:11 (‘let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness’). Critical questions have indeed been raised about the text of 1 Cor. 14:34f. (which the ‘western’ recension places after verse 40) or the direct authorship of the pastoral epistles.

The evidence is not sufficient to extrude 1 Cor. 14:34f. from the authentic text; the prohibition expressed in these verses refers to the asking of questions which imply a judgement on prophetic utterances (so, at least, their context suggests). As for the pastoral epistles, we have received them as canonical scripture, and that goes for 1 Tim. 2:9-15. I am disposed to agree with Chrysostom, who read the Greek new testament in his native language, that in 1 Tim. 2:9f we have a direction (developing the teaching of 1 Cor. 11:2-16) that woman’s dress and demeanour should be seemly when they engage in public prayer. In verses I l and 12 of this chapter, however, women are quite explicitly not given permission to teach or rule. The relevance of the two arguments ― (a) that Adam was formed before Eve and (b) that Eve was genuinely deceived whereas Adam knew what he was doing when he broke the divine commandment ― is not immediately obvious; I am not too happy with the suggestion that the former is an early instance of the principle of primogeniture, which the special rights of the firstborn are recognised.

Exegesis seeks to determine the meaning of the text in its primary setting. But when exegesis has done its work, our application of the text should avoid treating the New Testament as a book of rules. In applying the New Testament text to our own situation, we need not treat it as the scribes of our Lord’s Day treated the old testament. We should not turn what were meant as guiding lines for worshippers in one situation into laws binding for all time. (It is commonly recognised that the regulations regarding widows, later in 1 Tim., need not be carried out literally today, although their essential principle should continue to be observed.) It is an ironical paradox when Paul, who was so concerned to free his converts from bondage of law, is treated as a law-giver for later generations. The freedom of the Spirit, which can be safeguarded by one set of guiding lines in a particular situation, may call for a different procedure in a new situation.

It is very naturally asked what criteria can be safely used to distinguish between those elements in the apostolic letters which are of local and temporary application and those which are of universal and permanent validity. The question is too big for a detailed discussion here. Where the writings of Paul are concerned, however, a reliable rule of thumb is suggested by his passionate emphasis on freedom ― true freedom by contrast with spiritual bondage on the one hand and moral licence on the other. Here it is: whatever in Paul’s teaching promotes true freedom is of universal and permanent validity; whatever seems to impose restrictions on true freedom has regard to local and temporary conditions. (For example, to go to another area, restrictions on a Christian’s freedom in the matter of food are conditioned by the company in which he or she is at the time; and even those restrictions are manifestations of the overriding principle of always considering the well-being of others.)

An appeal to first principles in our application of the New Testament might demand the recognition that when the Spirit, in his sovereign good pleasure, bestows varying gifts on individual believers, these gifts are intended to be exercised for the well-being of the whole church. If he manifestly withheld the gifts of teaching or leadership from Christian women, then we should accept that as evidence of his will (1 Cor. 12:11). But experience shows that he bestows these and other gifts, with ‘undistinguishing regard’, on men and women alike ― not on all women, of course, nor yet on all men. That being so, it is unsatisfactory to rest with a halfway house in this issue of women’s ministry, where they are allowed to pray and prophesy, but not to teach or lead.

Let me add that an appeal to first principles in our application of the New Testament demands nothing should be done to endanger the unity of a local church. Let those who understand the scriptures along the lines indicated in this paper have liberty to expound them thus, but let them not force the pace or try to impose their understanding of the scriptures until that understanding finds general acceptance with the church - and when it does, there will be no need to impose it.’