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© Rosemary Bardsley 2005, 2015

In the history of discussions regarding the two passages relating to women in ministry there is an obvious selectivity and inconsistency when compared with the interpretation and application of other verses about other matters in the same biblical letters. This selectivity and inconsistency needs to be honestly faced and considered. If, on the one hand, the interpretation and application of these verses to exclude women from a range of ministry roles is right, then the church’s interpretation and application of a great number of other verses about other matters is wrong. If, on the other hand, the church’s interpretation of these verses proves to be both selective and inconsistent due to a particular bias colouring this issue, then the church needs bring some kind of conformity into its interpretation and application of the Scripture, and to allow these verses to be interpreted and applied in a way that is neither selective nor inconsistent with its interpretation with the rest of Scripture.


In reading the Scripture it does not take much intelligence to notice the practice of selective application and selective enforcement of the Biblical commands.

A.1 Within the 1Corinthians 14 passage
In the immediate context of the 1Corinthians 14 passage the following commands/instructions are not generally applied or practiced in churches today:

The practice of ‘everyone’ having ‘a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation …’ all of which ‘must be done for the strengthening of the church [verse26]. Even if we leave aside the revelations, tongues and the interpretation as having ceased with the apostolic age, we are still left with ‘everyone’ contributing hymns and words of instruction. This is not obeyed in many contemporary churches.

The instructions relating to a number of people giving messages in the service, including members of the congregation [verses 29-32], are not practiced in many contemporary churches.

In some churches: all the commands and instructions about tongues, interpretations, words of prophecies and revelations are discarded as being relevant only to the apostolic age, and the instruction ‘do not forbid to speak in tongues’ [39] is also discarded on this basis.

If we look broader within 1Corinthians we find the following commands that are not applied or enforced in churches today:

The command that all should agree with each other in perfect unity of mind [1:10] – about which Paul spends portions of three chapters – is not obeyed in contemporary churches.

The commands not to boast or be proud about men [scattered through chapters 1 to 4] is not enforced.

The commands not to tolerate sexual immorality in the church [chapter 5 and 6] are not obeyed.

The command that believers should not have lawsuits against each other [chapter 6] is not enforced or obeyed.

Various of the commands relating to singleness, marriage, divorce in chapter 7 are ignored.

The command that each one should retain the place in life that he had when God called him is neither obeyed or upheld [7:17ff]. [This includes a man staying uncircumcised if he was uncircumcised when converted – a direction that Paul himself did not keep when he circumcised Timothy [Acts 16:3] ]

The command not to do anything that will cause a brother to sin [chapter 8] is not obeyed or enforced.

Do not grumble [10:10] – neither obeyed nor enforced.

Nobody should seek his own good but the good of others [10:24] – neither obeyed nor enforced.

Do all to the glory of God [10:31] – neither obeyed nor enforced.

Do not cause anyone to stumble [10:32] – neither obeyed nor enforced.

Commands relating to women praying and prophesying with covered heads [11] – neither obeyed nor enforced except in strict groups.

A.2 Within the 1Timothy 2 passage
Similarly there are commands within the Timothy passage which are not obeyed or enforced in churches today:

That ‘requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority …’ [2:1-2]. Even though this instruction is prefaced by ‘first of all’ and even though it is accompanied by a purpose ‘that we may live peaceful and quiet lives’, and by the statement that ‘this is good and pleases God our Saviour’. Only rarely is this instruction obeyed in or by the evangelical church. [Note that this command is obeyed in the Anglican church, where such prayer is written into the order of services in the Prayer Book.]

‘I want all men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer …’ [2:8]. This is not obeyed; indeed one could say the practice here described is shied away from or discouraged in some churches.

‘without anger and disputing’ … disobeyed, and  even allowed in some contexts

Women not to wear ‘braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes’ [2:9]. Not enforced or even mentioned. In fact some men buy these things for their wives.

In the broader context of 1Timothy the following commands are not enforced in churches today:

The instruction that overseers and deacons must be husband of one wife and manage his family, and have obedient children. [3:2-3, 12]. The explanation is added that if a man cannot manage his family how can he manage the church. This instruction assumes, if taken literally, that overseers and deacons will be married.

A good minister of Christ must point out the specific errors of specific false teaching [4:1-6]. Rarely is the congregation made aware of contemporary false teaching.

The instructions relating to widows [5:3-8] are not taught as commanded in 5:7.

The criteria for determining which widows get financial help from the church are not obeyed [5:9-10]

Financial and other material help is given by churches to young single mums – clearly contrary to the intentional meaning of 5:11 which denies such assistance even to young widows, who are guilty neither of immorality nor of marriage failure, but are in their needy state because of the death of their husband.

Elders, especially those who rule well, and preach and teach, are supposed to be paid [5:17-18].

Elders who sin are to be rebuked publicly [5:20] so that others take warning from it.

Wealthy people are to be commanded to ‘do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share’ [6:18]. Churches usually give this command to rich and poor alike.

A.3 Questions arising from the above
This selectivity of application and enforcement could be seen relative to the whole New Testament, however the cases identified above are sufficient to show that both within the immediate passages, and in the broader context of each of these two letters, there is an inconsistent approach to Paul’s commands and a selective application of his commands. Some are interpreted culturally; some are interpreted with historical restrictions; some are interpreted figuratively; some are applied contrary to their plain literal meaning; some are simply ignored altogether. Yet the two passages seen to outlaw women in ministry are understood and applied in a strict literal sense with current and mandatory relevance.

This raises serious questions in terms of our approach to Scripture and the principles by which we interpret the Scripture.

On what basis are these two passages about women in the church interpreted [and enforced] in a certain way, while other clear commands within the same chapters are either interpreted in a different way, or ignored, or discarded altogether?

Is this selective enforcement/application done on the basis of sound principles of Biblical interpretation or on the basis of existing presuppositions or bias?

If we allow ‘culture’ to permit our ignoring or re-interpreting of commands in the same passage or the same letter, why do we not permit ‘culture’ to dictate our understanding of these verses?

If we allow ‘the apostolic age’ as the criteria by which to discard clear instructions in the Corinthians passage, on what basis to we demand unaltered application of the verses in question? [This is perhaps the easiest of these questions to answer.]

Is it possible that in interpreting these two commands to outlaw women in ministry church leadership is inadvertently engaging in Pharisaism? Enforcing the letter of the law, rather than looking behind the letter of the law to the spirit of the law? Because here the command is something that is actually enforceable, while other commands are not so easy to enforce? So these commands are selected for enforcement while others, such as the much more frequently stated and much more significant command to love one another, are not enforced at all? One can easily stop a woman from speaking in a formal setting; it is impossible to enforce loving. Yet it is loving one another that actually identifies Christians as the disciples of Christ.

In the context of women in ministry – the spirit of Paul’s command is that the woman lives and acts in the church under the authority of the leadership. There could be a hundred women in a church not speaking from the pulpit, but quite un-submissive in their hearts either to male leadership or to their husbands; and there could be one woman speaking from the pulpit, totally submissive in her heart to the authority of the pastors and elders, and to her husband.


In addition to selective application of the two passages relating to women in ministry, there is also selective or inconsistent interpretation of Scriptures relating to women speaking in public, leading in public and/or instructing men.

B.1 1Corinthians 11:4-5,13
These verses assume that women were praying and prophesying in mixed gatherings. The very fact that they are instructed to have their heads covered indicates that men were present, for it is the presence of men other than their own husbands that made it culturally necessary for women to be covered, to indicate that they were in fact under the authority [and protection] of a husband [or father]. [The modern Islamic culture still practices this rule – even without the verbal activities of praying and prophesying. Note an example from the Old Testament: Rebekah, travelling in the company of a male servant of Isaac had her head uncovered, but as soon as Isaac, to whom she was not yet married, came in sight she put on her veil.]  

Contemporary Christianity is for the most part happy to discard the instruction about head coverings as simply a cultural thing and conclude that hats, scarves, veils, etc are not necessary today, for in non-Islamic culture they have nothing more than a fashion or sun-protection significance, and bear no relationship whatsoever to a wife’s submission to her husband.  

However, people who are against women in any kind of verbal ministry to men, overlook the obvious cultural indication that men were present, and conclude and assert that this praying and prophesying must have been at women’s meetings or even at home.

In addition, the fact that men are also referred to as praying and prophesying [verse 4] in the same context outlaws any division between what men do and what women do, and where men do it and where women do it. The context is the same. The verbal actions are the same. The women are instructed to do it with their heads covered. The men are instructed to do it with their heads uncovered, or, in some translations, not with long hair.

Culturally there is another problem here, for in the Old Testament we find:

The high priests were instructed to wear mitres on their heads – Ex 24:6; Lev 8:9

Aaron and sons were not to uncover their heads even for mourning for the two sons of Aaron who perished - Lev 10:6ff where the NIV ‘let your hair become unkempt’ is translated ‘uncover your heads’ in other translations. [See also Lev 21:10]

For a man to have his head uncovered was a sign of uncleanness - Lev 13:45 [some translations]

Priests were forbidden to shave their heads and trim of edges of their beards [Lev 21:5ff]

Nazirites were not to cut hair during period of their vow of consecration [Num 6:5]

Thus Paul, in instructing the men not to pray with their heads covered, or with long hair [see NIV footnote on vv.4-7] is actually teaching the direct opposite of the instructions given to the men most intimately involved in the worship of God in the Old Testament. He has set aside instructions given by God and replaced them with instructions applicable and relevant for his contemporary culture.

B.2 1Corinthians 14:34,35; 1Timothy 2:11,12
Many teachers and preachers interpret these verses to forbid women speaking in the church, but even the interpretation of what that actually means varies:

[1] The meaning of ‘in the church’ varies:

Some apply it only to the context of formal worship services.

Some extend it to include any gathering where both men and women are present – such as prayer meetings or home groups.

Some raise questions relative to the age at which a boy becomes a man, and must therefore no longer be taught by a woman – can a woman teach Sunday School? Can a woman lead youth group?

[2] Some connect ‘as in all the congregations of the saints’ [33b] with verses 34 and 35, and make it mean that Paul’s statement about women is referring to a practice common to all churches. Then the question is raised: is he talking about formal church meetings or all gatherings together of believers? And, does the ‘all’ to indicate a universal application for the every church meeting in every place in every generation, or in just the churches known to Paul or established by Paul? [However, respected Greek scholars Westcott and Hort affirm that this phrase really belongs to what came before it, not what comes after it, and does not, therefore, relate to ‘women should remain silent’.]

[3] The meaning of ‘speak’ and ‘teach’ is also interpreted variously. Again some see it as a total prohibition including prayer, reading of the scripture, sharing a testimony, as well as formal teaching or preaching. Others make differentiations: A woman might teach a mixed Bible study or give a formal lecture but not preach a sermon or give a communion talk. An unlearned, untaught woman might give her testimony to the congregation, or a female soloist can talk about the song she is going to sing, but even a theologically trained woman is not allowed to teach and instruct the congregation from the Scriptures. The net result of the latter inconsistency is that the talking that is allowed is actually less Biblically sound than the talking that is not allowed. What the effect on the congregation is is anybody’s guess. So also is what God thinks about that.

[4] The meaning of ‘woman’ is also inconsistently applied. A female child can stand at the pulpit and read the scriptures or even read out a prayer, but a mature Christian woman can do neither. [One might also ask: is this not giving the child the idea that it is alright for females to stand at the pulpit and speak?]

[5] And frequently the same people who deny women the permission to speak or teach in all or some contexts within their local church proactively encourage women, and even support them with prayer and finance, in situations of personal evangelism and cross cultural mission where they will almost inevitably be teaching men. One can only wonder if unconverted males and cross cultural males are seen to be less than true men, or if by some strange event, walking out the door of the church building or out of the context of an organized church meeting robs a woman of her gender, or, worse, changes the meaning of the Word of God.

This inconsistency of interpretation relevant to the geographical or spiritual location in which a woman may teach raises the serious suspicion that there is more than commitment to Scripture that dictates a hard stand on these verses.


A further area of inconsistency and/or selectivity is in the areas of command, gifting and calling. Without going into great detail the following problems arise here:

C.1 Are all Christians commanded to go into all the world and teach? Or are only men given this command?
Once we start to draw a line the question ‘Where do we draw the line?’ has to be answered.

If we are going to be strictly literal we have to draw the line so that only the eleven disciples present at the ascension are impacted by this command. This however, is immediately countered by the New Testament evidence. Paul, for instance, instructed Timothy to ‘teach others also’.

If we draw the line to include only men, or to also include only women teaching women, this is also immediately countered by [1] the Samaritan woman evangelizing the men in her village, [2] the women witnesses of the resurrection telling the disciples the good news, and [3] Priscilla instructing Apollos.

We need to answer this question: does this command and others apply to all in all circumstances? Or does it not?

C.2 Are only men given the gift of teaching? Obviously not. Then in what context are women with the gift of teaching supposed to teach?

Here we are confronted with a few questions:

Can a woman’s gift of teaching be used as described in Ephesians 4:7-16? [Note that where Paul writes ‘and gave gifts to men’ the word anthropos is used not aner. Anthropos refers to man [the human being] as distinct from animal, not man [the male] as distinct from woman.] The gifts mentioned here, including teaching, are for the building up of the whole body and the protection of the whole body against the onslaughts of false doctrines.

If a woman is allowed to teach only women in any context, then a church in which there is a woman gifted in teaching, and if there are no men with or using the gift of teaching, or only men with a lesser gifting in teaching, will be a church in which the women taught by this woman will outstrip the men of the congregation in understanding of the Scripture, the men in the congregation will feel then inferior to their wives and step back from their God-given leadership role in spiritual matters, and the gift which God has placed in the church for its edification and protection will be achieving its intended purpose for only half of the body.  It will be the women of the congregation who are alert to false teaching, it will be the women of the congregation who are being built up into Christ. The very loss of male authority which the men sought to avoid by refusing to let a woman teach men will be upon the church because she was forbidden to teach men.

Is it then the way of wisdom that, even in a church where women do not minister in the public worship, men in leadership, with the responsibility of the church on their shoulders, will consult gifted women on matters of interpretation and doctrine, and will find other ways in which these gifts from God to his church can be used for the benefit of the whole church?

C.3 The question of calling
This is similar to the question of gifting. If God has gifted and called a woman to teach, then surely it is the responsibility of the elders of her church to appoint her to a role and a ministry relevant to that gifting and calling and for the well-being and edification of the body of Christ.