The Role of Women in the Church 
EDITOR’S NOTE: The findings of this report led to BFC Conference adopting this paper as the position paper of the Bible Fellowship Church in the final session of the 1977 Annual Conference.
• Women as Deacons. This report did not propose any changes to the Faith and Order, but the Government Committee proposed to allow women to serve as deacons on the basis of this paper’s findings. It narrowly passed the 2/3 majority requirement at First Reading in 1977 (Yes – 66; No – 26); However it failed to receive a 2/3 majority at Second Reading in 1978, passing (Yes – 51; No – 39). Decades later, the BFC did formalize in the Faith and Order in 2007 through a later Study Committee on Women as Deacons.
• Women Teaching and Leading. This study also concluded with a distinction between authoritative teaching and non-authoritative teaching, positing that a woman is permitted to serve in the same ways that a non-elder man can serve in the church.
There is obviously a great deal of ferment in society at large on the place of women. This ferment has spilled over into the church in recent years and is growing in intensity. Many books and articles have recently been written from both secular and religious perspectives on the various aspects of womanhood, dealing with such subjects as the role of women in the family, in the church and in society. In those books and articles written from an “evangelical perspective,” some have uncritically restated traditional positions, some have taken non-traditional positions, supportive of the “feminine ferment,” that raises serious questions on the inspiration and infallibility of the Scriptures, and some have tried to honestly grapple with the issues in an exegetical manner within the framework of the full authority of the Scriptures.
Yet, the question of the role of women in the church is not a new one. Although the Issue was not as intensely debated in past years as it is today, some helpful material was written on the main issues involved. Because the role of women has become such an important issue in our day, it is important for us to address ourselves to the issues at hand, considering past as well as current treatments of the subject.
In our approach to the subject, if we are to take seriously our position as a Church that the Holy Scriptures are “the supreme and final authority of faith and practice,” we must respond to pressure from within the Word and not to pressure from without from society. We must be concerned to be “biblical” and not merely “contemporary.” Our methodology must be exegetical and not pragmatic. We are to seek to interpret Scripture with Scripture and to interpret the less clear passages by the more clear passages.
One of the real issues in dealing with the crucial texts that bear on the subject is to be able to distinguish biblical principles from cultural applications and practices. We must seek to understand the difference between that which has a universal and abiding application from that which is local and temporal. For example, in I Corinthians 11, where Paul writes concerning the subordination and veiling of women, almost without exception commentators see the wearing of a veil by a woman as cultural, temporal and local; but the subordination of women that is taught in the passage is seen as a universal and abiding principle.
Consideration of three lines of evidence are suggested in coming to the subject:
1. What the Bible tells us about the official positions that women occupied.
2. What the Bible tells us in describing the religious activity of women.
3. Consideration of key texts that bear on the subject.
I. WHAT THE BIBLE TELLS US ABOUT THE POSITIONS THAT WOMEN OCCUPIED
In the Old Testament we have some instances of women holding official and public positions. In Exodus 15:20 we are told that Miriam was a prophetess. We read in Judges 4:4 that Deborah was both a prophetess and a judge. Huldah was a prophetess according to II Chronicles 34:22. She was the prophetess whom Josiah consulted on the authenticity of a book found in the temple and whose advice he followed in enacting important reforms. Noadiah was a prophetess according to Nehemiah 6:14 and Isaiah’s wife is also referred to as a prophetess in Isaiah 8:3. We can add to this the New Testament references to Anna in Luke 2:36 which says she was a prophetess. Luke also records her public testimony to the Messiah. It seems apparent that all these women gave public testimony to divine revelation, not only in the restricted sense of “foretelling” but also in the general sense of “forthtelling.” That these were not the only women who had the prophetic gift is plain from such a passage as Psalm 68: 11. “The Lord gives the command, the women who proclaim the good tidings are a great host” (NAS).
In the New Testament record, we find that on the day of Pentecost Peter tells us that the prophecy of Joel is being fulfilled.
And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams: And on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. (Acts 2: 17,18, KJV)
The consensus of opinion is that the phrase, “last days,” in this passage comprises the time between the two comings of Christ: so that we are now living in the “last days.” We are plainly told that in these “last days” the Spirit of God would be poured out on the “daughters” and “handmaidens” as well as on the “sons” and “servants” and that they would prophesy. In the history of the Church we find that the practice followed the prophecy. We are told in Acts 21:9 that Philip had four daughters who did prophesy. In I Corinthians 11:5, we have evidence that women prayed and prophesied in public worship. (This passage will be considered later in more detail.) Again, it would seem that this involved “forthtelling” and not just “foretelling.”
In Romans 16:1 we are told of Phoebe, who was a deacons of the Church. The word, deacons. has been rendered: servant helper deacon, and minister. If the word does not designate an official “office” in this passage it most certainly speaks of an official “function” in the Church. It is important to point out that Paul did not choose to use the feminine form of the word but rather broke gender to identify Phoebe with the as a “deacon” of the Church at Chancre. In I Timothy 3:11, we read: Even so must their wives be grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things. (KJV) The word gunaikas (women/wives) found at the start of the verse may be translated either “women” or “wives.” There is no way to tell the precise meaning from the word itself, but the meaning must be ascertained from the context. The KJV, NEB and NIV translate the word as “wives” while the ASV, RSV and NASV translate the word as “women.”
What does Paul have in mind in this passage? Is he speaking of wives of deacons or of women who were deacons? The most consistent usage with the context seems to be that he had in mind “women” who held the office of deacon. In the same passage when Paul discusses the office of elder he makes no mention of the qualifications of their wives. Why would he then specify qualifications of the deacons’ wives since the office of deacon is a lesser office than that of elder Paul could have clarified the issue if he meant to speak of deacons- wives by adding the word Tas., (the) or auton (their) before gunaikas (wives/women), but he did not.
Further strength is given to understanding gunaikas as women deacons by noting he general structure of the passage. Both verse 8 and 11 are introduced by the word hosautos (likewise). These both make reference back to verse 2. The three verses give the following sequence: “elders must be… likewise deacons… likewise women.” The force of the parallels requires that the women of verse 11 be a class parallel to the elders and deacons mentioned in verses 2 and 8 rather than a class subordinate to deacons such as wives. The qualifications for deacons and women are similar. This similarity of qualifications suggests a similarity of responsibility.
II. WHAT THE BIBLE TELLS US THAT WOMEN DID
A. Public Witness – In Acts 2:4 we are told that “all,” men and women, were filled with the Holy Spirit and Acts 2:11 tells us they gave witness “to the wonderful works of God.”
B. Public Prayer – In Acts 1:14 we find that women were included in the group who were with “one accord in prayer” waiting for the promise of the Father. In Acts 12:12-17 we find that women were gathered together in a prayer meeting although we don’t know if men were present. In I Corinthians 11:5 we find Paul instructing the women on the proper decorum for prayer in public worship.
C. Teaching – In II Timothy 1:5 it seems to be implied that Timothy who from a child had known the Scriptures was taught by his mother and grandmother. There are many Scriptural passages that indicate that children were taught by women. In Titus 2:4 the older women are given specific instruction to teach the younger women. In Acts 18:26 we are told that Priscilla and Aquila instructed Apollos “in the way of God more perfectly.” In putting the name of Priscilla first it seems to suggest that Priscilla was the more active in this.
D. Benevolent Service – In Acts 9:36 Dorcas is reported to have performed a ministry “of good works and alms deeds.” Acts 16:13-15 tells us that Lydia exercised the gift of hospitality. The work of widows contained many benevolent ministries such as lodging strangers, rearing children, relieving the afflicted and following every good work (I Timothy 5:2-10).
E. Some Form of Ministry in the Gospel – Paul tells us that Priscilla was a “fellow laborer” in Romans 16:3. In Romans 16:6 he commends Mary, who bestowed much labor on the church. In Romans 16:12 he mentions three women: Tryphena, Tryphosa and Persis, who “labored in the Lord.” In Philippians 4:3 he speaks of women who “labored in the gospel.” In Romans 16:7 he speaks of Junia, who may have been a woman. It is not certain if the name is masculine or feminine. Junia was a fellow-prisoner of the Apostle Paul and he indicates that he/she was of “note among the apostles.” Some understand this phrase to mean to be a “noteworthy apostle.” They understand the word “apostle” in the broad sense of “sent one” or missionary. Others understand it to mean one who was held in high esteem by the Apostles. These various references seem to imply that these women were involved in some form of gospel ministry and were not just involved in the performance of menial tasks.
F. Spiritual Gifts – In I Corinthians 12:7 in the discussion on spiritual gifts it is clear that women as well as men were recipients of these gifts as members in the body of Christ. “But to each one is given the manifestation of the spirit for the common good” (ASV). Although it is not certain that women received all the spiritual gifts, it is evident that they received at least some of the gifts as we have already noted. These spiritual gifts were all to be exercised for the blessing and the benefit of the entire body.
III. CRUCIAL TEXTS ON THE ROLE OF WOMEN
I Corinthians 11:1-16 contains the longest single discussion on women in the New Testament. This passage is primarily concerned with the expression of the marital role relations in the worship service. The woman is presented as being in a subordinate position to her husband according to the design of God. Apparently the women of Corinth had discarded the visible sign of their subordination to their husbands in the public worship service. Paul contends that the marital roles still pertain in the worship service and that the outward sign ought to be maintained. For a woman to discard the sign of her subordination to her husband is to dishonor him. It seems clear from the context in general and from verse 16 in particular, where Paul mentions the churches, that public worship is in view. Therefore it is commonly understood that Paul is dealing with the proper decorum for taking part in public worship. In I Corinthians 11:4,5 instructions are first given for the man and then for the woman. I Corinthians 11:4,5 states:
Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoreth his head. But every woman praying or prophesying with her head unveiled dishonoreth her head. (KJV).
The texts clearly presume that the women in view did pray and prophesy. Some have sought to argue that Paul argues ex concesso, conceding for the sake of argument the point at issue. Along this line Hodge comments that,
He is here speaking of the propriety of women speaking in public unveiled, and therefore he says nothing about the propriety of their speaking in public itself. When that subject comes up, he expressed his judgment in the clearest terms 14:24. In here disapproving of the one, says Calvin, he does not approve of the other.
However there is no indication in chapter 11 that this is Paul’s intent. He gives no hint at all that he disapproves of practice of women praying and prophesying, but rather gives detailed arguments concerning regulations during prayer and prophesying. It seems to be highly unlikely that Apostle Paul would give himself to instruction on the “right way to do a wrong thing.” Therefore Bengel’s comment seems to be to the point when he says, “Therefore men were not excluded from these duties.”
One further aspect relating to the role of women in the church has been suggested on the basis of this passage and in particular verse 10. In verse 10 we read, “For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels” (KJV).
The word exousia means “authority” or “power.” It has been suggested on the basis of this verse that women can function in the church under the authority of the husband or some male figure. How are we to understand this “authority” that the woman ought to have on her head? Is it her own authority? Is it her husband’s? To suggest that it is her own authority runs counter to the whole context of the passage; therefore the traditional understanding is that it refers to the husband’s authority. The passage naturally suggests that meaning Paul has in mind is the “sign or symbol” of power, namely the veil. Godet seems to give the best sense of the passage when he writes:
This term power has been understood in many ways; but they are not worth the trouble of enumeration, the meaning is so clear and simple. Power is put here for a sign of power, and of power not exercised, but submitted to. The woman ought to wear on her head the sign of the power under which she has been placed. It is a frequent way of speaking in all languages, to use the sign of a thing to denote the thing itself, for example the sword for war, the crown for sovereignty. But it is rarer to find, as here, the thing itself put for the sign; but examples are also found of this other form of metonymy; …
The meaning of “because of the angels” is difficult to ascertain and has received a variety of interpretations. Most frequently it is suggested that it refers to angels who observe earthly conduct. The phrase, “because of the angels” conveys a similar force as the phrase “for this cause” at beginning of verse 10 and provides a second reason why women ought to have the “sign of authority” on their heads. The general sense in terms of the context seems to be that a woman ought to exhibit by her deportment and dress that she is in subordination to her “head” or husband. That a woman might minister or teach under the headship of her husband does not seem to be what Paul has in view in this passage.
If we understand I Corinthians 11:4,5 as indicating that women had the right to participate in public worship with prayer and prophesying so long as they had proper decorum, then how are we to understand the injunction to “silence” in I Corinthians 14:34, 35? Here we read:
Let the woman keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but let them be in subjection, as also saith the law. And if they would learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for a woman to speak in the church (KJV).
How restrictive are we to understand “silence” and in what sense is it a “shame” for a woman to speak in the church? Is it improper for a woman to sing or pray in a public meeting where men are present? Is a female missionary who addresses a congregation or reports on her work in violation of this text? Is it improper for a woman to ask a question in a discussion time in a mixed adult Sunday School class? If we understand these words in an absolute sense, we would have to say yes!
In understanding the sense of these words, it should be pointed out that the general context of the passage has to do with the exercise of spiritual gifts and with correcting disorderly conduct in public worship. PauFs contention is that disruptive conduct is out of place because God is a God of order. He states in verse 33:
For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints (KJV).
There were apparently many annoying interruptions in the public worship services at Corinth.
The injunction to silence is included three times in this chapter using the same Greek word, “sigao.” This word can be rendered: keep silent or hold one’s tongue. In this chapter the word is used twice in reference to men and once in reference to women. In 14:28 we are told, “But if there is no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church” and again in verses 29 and 30 we are told, “Let the prophets speak two or three, and let the other judge. If anything be revealed to another that sitteth by, let the first hold his peace.” Both these injunctions are obviously temporal. Is the third injunction used in relationship to women also to be understood in a temporal sense? It seems to be. In I Corinthians 11 Paul did not forbid praying and prophesying but only improper decorum in public worship. In this passage in verse 31, he says: “For ye may all prophesy one by one, that all may learn, and all may be comforted” (KJV).
Did this “all” only apply to men? The prophecy of Joel, cited in Acts 2:17,18, and the practice of the church seem to indicate that it applied to both men and women. Therefore, the temporal sense of the passage would then be that women are to “keep silent” and not to speak out or interrupt while others are speaking. The word Paul uses when he says that women are not to “speak” is a unique one. Paul uses the word lalein, here translated “to speak.” It differs from two other frequently used words, eipein (to speak) and legein (to say) in that it can have a much broader meaning. It’s wide divergence of use includes such things as: the chattering of monkeys, the chirping of birds, the prattle of children, the voices and thunders of the Apocalypse, and idle words. Some suggest its primary meaning is “to babble or chatter.” This broad sense of the word seems to be in keeping with the thrust of the passage.
It is helpful to the modern reader to understand that men and men were separated in the synagogue. It is likely that Paul’s churches, which first met in synagogues, followed this pattern of separation. It would oe difficult therefore for a woman to speak or ask questions of her husband during the service itself. To do so would have caused a great deal of commotion and disturbance. This disruptive kind of conduct is shameful and shows a lack of subordination. The solution is to ask questions at home and to refrain from disruption of the service. It might be added that the commandments and precepts of the Old Testament did not require silence, but subordination. In verse 31 we are told that the reason for prophesying was so that all may learn. Therefore we ought understand the “learn” of verse 35 as meaning to learn in “addition” to what is being publicly said. It seems, therefore, that it ought to be concluded that the injunction to silence has nothing to do with praying or prophesying, but with speaking out of turn. Otherwise the phrase, “If they will learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home” is meaningless. Praying and prophesying do not have to do with learning what one does not know, but with communicating what one does know.
Another intrepretation of this passage which understands the injunction to silence for women in a temporal sense is set forth as follows:
We would propose that the entire section from v. 29-39 is a discussion of prophecy and its handling in the assembly. Each of the segments of the section is to be interpreted within such a frame. Verse 29 outlines principles which should govern the exercise of the prophetic gift. They parallel those which govern the exercise of tongues (v. 27). Two or three prophets are to speak and the others are to pass judgment. Verses 30-33a elaborate upon the first portion of verse 29, regulating the speech of the prophets: they are to maintain order and be silent if another is giving a message. Verses 33b-35 elaborate upon the last half of verse 29, prohibiting women from joining in the examination of the prophets. It would appear that for women to join in the judging of the prophets would be for them to enter into the judgment of men, which role was forbidden by Paul. It is clear from chapter 11 that Paul did not consider prayer and prophecy by women to be violations of created authority structures.
No matter which of the above interpretations of I Corinthians 14:34,35 one adopts, the conclusion is still the same. The “silence” of women in this passage is limited in scope and does not prohibit women from vocal participation in the worship services of the church as long as the manner of their involvement does not violate the principle of subordination.
The one other passage that is very crucial to this discussion is I Timothy 2:8-11:
I desire therefore that men pray in every place, lifting up holy hands without wrath and doubting. In like manner that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly raiment; but (which becometh women professing godliness) through good works. Let the women learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. (KJV)
This passage has generally been considered to be the strongest and most decisive passage for the silence of women in the church. Commentators generally agree that the force of boulomai (I will) appearing at the beginning of verse 8 is carried over into verse 9. We would then understand verse to read, “I will that women….” That raises the question, what is it that the Apostle wills that women do? The phrase in like manner also” is very suggestive. It points to a parallel thought or a similar action. What is the intended parallel thought or similar action? Some would suggest that it is for the men to pray and for the women to be silent. Others understand it to mean that the men are to lift up holy hands and that the women are to adorn themselves in modest apparel. However, neither of these suggestions is really parallel or similar. Therefore, Alford states that,
The force of the passage would then be: “I will that men pray…. In like manner, I will that women pray….” The parallel thought is then quite evident. In both instances the apostle is instructing on the “holy” manner in prayer, instructing first the men and then the women. The phrase “everywhere” in verse 8 suggests that public prayer is intended.
In verse 11 the word, “hesuthia,” silence, can also be rendered: rest or quietness. The sense of the verse is brought forth well in the ASV translation, “Let a woman quietly receive instruction with entire submission.” This “quietness” is not incongruous with her participation in “praying” or “prophesying” in public worship. It does relate to her manner of deportment in the public worship. The silence mentioned in verse 12 should also be understood in the same sense. In verse 12, Paul states that a woman is not permitted to teach or usurp authority over the man. The word authentein, translated “usurp authority” in the KJV translation, means “to exercise authority over” or to “domineer over.” Paul is again stating a basic biblical precept of the ordination of women to men. This concept is taught consistently throughout the Scriptures and is not based on local cultural considerations, but on (1) the order of creation (v. 13). “For Adam was first formed, then Eve.” (cf. I Corinthians 11) and (2) the nature of the fall (v. 14) “And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.” (cf. Genesis 3:16). Paul adds a further ground in Ephesians 5:22,23 when he bases the wife’s submission to her husband on the basis of the redemptive pattern as seen existing between Christ and the church; “Wives submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and He is the Saviour of the body.”
Therefore, it seems evident from this passage that a woman could not serve in any authoritative or ruling office in the church where she would exercise authority over men. This is in harmony with the biblical texts that deal with “elders” or “overseers.”
This leaves the question of how we are to understand the prohibition against a woman teaching. That this prohibition is not to be understood in an absolute sense is clear from the instruction that Paul gives to the older women to teach the younger women. Should it be understood in an absolute sense in regard to teaching men? That is, are women to refrain from teaching menunder all circumstances? It does not seem so, nor has the church historically applied it in this manner. The force of the phrase, “not to exercise authority over a man” would certainly preclude any kind of authoritative or “official” teaching position in the church, such as a “ruling elder” who is “apt to teach” or the office of “pastor-teacher.” Yet, what about the non-authoritative kind of teaching that is not a part of exercising authority in the church? Is that kind of teaching forbidden to women? Perhaps not, since there doesn’t seem to be anything of a negative nature at all in the Scriptures relating to the fact that Priscilla was involved in teaching Apollos. She was not exercising authority over him nor assuming the pastoral office, but instructing him “in the way of God more perfectly.”
This understanding of the force of these passages is in essence what has been practiced in the Bible Fellowship Church. We have allowed women to teach in our Bible School, at such places as the Sunday School Convention, training sessions, etc. without any apparent sense of having violated the Scriptures. We have at the same time taken a position that disqualified women from holding the office of elder and from the office of pastor-teacher.
It seems to be significant to us that although there is overwhelming evidence in the gospel records of the privileged place that Jesus gave to women during His earthly ministry. He did not choose a woman among the Apostles. It also seems significant that although the New Testament gives ample evidence of the varied role that women played in the expansion and outreach of the early church, there is not one clear text that shows a woman to have had an “authoritative” or “ruling office” in the church. The evidence from the history of the New Testament is in harmony with the didactic portions.
The one text that is often cited in support of the absolute equality of women in the church seems to us to be beside the point. In Galatians 3:28 we read, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are one in Christ.” (KJV)
The general context of Galatians revolved around the tension between Judaistic legalism and Pauline salvation by grace. The central issue at stake in chapters 3 and 4 is the role of the law in relationship to faith. Secondarily, there is a presentation of the basis upon which both Jews and Gentiles may come before God. Verse 26 states, “For ye are all children of God by faith in Christ Jesus.” (KJV)
In the light of the general context of the book of Galatians and the particular context of chapter 3, it seems clear that Paul is teaching in verse 28 that there is no distinction in the way that people come to Christ and further that there is a oneness and equality in the body through union with Christ that transcends earthly distinctions. This passage is not teaching that earthly distinctives pass away when a person comes to Christ. Ridderbos comments on this verse,
This is not to maintain that the natural and social distinction is in no respect relevant any more (cf., e.g., Eph. 6:5; I Tim. 6:1; Titus 2:9; I Peter 2:18; I Cor. ll:3ff; 14:34ff; and I Tim. 2:llff.)
When a Jew comes to Christ his nationality does not change. When a slave comes to Christ, he does not automatically become free. When a woman comes to Christ she does not cease to be a woman. It is true that the eternal inheritance of the saints of God in the “new age” will cause all earthly distinctions to pass away and “all things will become new.” In that day they will “neither marry nor give in marriage.” But that day is not yet here. Galatians 3:28 ought not to be considered a primary text in considering the distinctive role of women within the church.
The one abiding principle that seems to govern the life of the church in regard to the role of women is the principle of “subordination.” This is not based upon cultural considerations, but upon theological precepts. Although the Scriptures teach that there is creative equality and dignity of man and woman in terms of having been created in the image of God, it is also clear from the Scriptures that there is a divinely ordained order in terms of authority and function. When we speak of the principle of subordination we are speaking of that aspect of revealed truth that shows that God has established a divine order in the relationships that exist between male and female. While the word “submission” speaks of that which ought to exist on the part of women in relationship to the role God has ordained for them, the word “subordination” speaks of what does exist by Divine decree.
The application of the principle from culture to culture will vary in some of the particulars, but the principle is still the same. It does not grow out of “women’s inferiority or lack of worth,” but from God’s design.
The framework of this principle excludes the role of women in the church from those positions and offices that are “authoritative” and “ruling” in nature. The application of this principle extends the possibilities of the role of women in the church to all other areas of involvement and ministry that fall outside of “authoritative rule.”
Perhaps one of the most difficult areas in which to apply the principle is in the area of teaching. That women are disallowed from those areas of teaching that are considered authoritative is clear from Scripture, but we also recognize that there is a non-authoritative kind of teaching from which they are not excluded.
In seeking to apply the biblical principle to actual situations within the church it is helpful to keep in mind that: (1) the work of an elder belongs to men, and (2) the Scriptures know only two specific classes with respect to ecclesiastical authority – elders and non-elders. That is, all members of the church fall into one of two categories: elders and non-elders. Women have the same possibilities to function in the life of the church in those areas that are allowable to non-elder men.
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