Revive Our Hearts Podcast

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Practical Questions on Submission

Leslie Basham: Dr. Bruce Ware has studied the New Testament and says that women aren’t called to fill the role of pastor or elder in the church, but does that mean women can’t fill any role?

Dr. Bruce Ware: Sometimes I think the church has not helped in this by being overly restrictive to what women can do in the church.

Leslie: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth, co-author of True Woman 101, for Wednesday, April 18, 2018.

God calls men and women to different roles in the home and church. Over the past few days, Dr. Bruce Ware has been explaining why. He’s a professor at Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Yesterday, he described the biblical qualifications of an elder. We’re about to address some practical questions on this topic.

What if your situation isn’t exactly spelled out in the New Testament? Nancy’s here to continue that conversation.

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth: So, Dr. Ware, as we think about practical applications of this principle, it’s the adult Sunday school class, the couple Sunday school class, we have to make decisions on these kinds of things. What helps inform and direct our thinking as to whether this is a role a woman can and should have?

Dr. Ware: Very good question, and it’s a hard one. We have so many ministry positions today that didn’t exist in the New Testament, so we don’t have Paul’s instruction. We certainly know about senior pastor; we know about elders, because he told us directly. But we don’t have worship leaders; we don’t have Sunday school teachers and so many other positions. So I think what is helpful is to ask this question of a contemporary non-New Testament position, ministry position: If it is sufficiently elder-like in what it does, in the nature of its function; if it’s sufficiently elder-like to justify, then bring elder principles to bear on that position.

Let me give you one example: I teach theology at a seminary. Now what I do for a living is teach pastors who then have the responsibility to teach the Word to their congregations. I teach them theology. I teach them the doctrines of the faith. I think my position is sufficiently elder-like to warrant bringing over elder principles and say, “The person who teaches this ought to be an elder-qualified person.” So I would be opposed, then, to a woman teaching theology in the seminary, for that very reason.

You can ask this question, and it’s not that you always get an easy answer, but you can ask this question of a worship leader or of a Sunday school teacher: Is it sufficiently elder-like in what it does, and, if the answer is “yes,” then I think it’s wise anyway to think in terms of a qualified male who would be an elder-qualified person to function in that capacity.

While we need to hold the line on the one hand, on things that are clear, we should have a humility about these other areas.

Nancy: Okay. Speaking about something that’s not totally clear, something that we get a lot of questions about (and I’m not sure why this one passage seems so prone to prompt questions), but people write us. You referenced this passage in an earlier program: 1 Corinthians chapter 11, women wearing head coverings. People write and say, “Are people supposed to wear head coverings today? If the Bible says they should, why do you not?” We’re talking about in the public assembly here.

Can you help walk us through that passage and what it is saying and what it isn’t saying? Again, if you’re following along in your Bible, let me encourage you to turn to 1 Corinthians chapter 11 (see vv. 1–16).

So, Dr. Ware, I’m going to toss that one to you.

Dr. Ware: All right, Nancy. Thanks. . .  a lot.

Nancy: You’re welcome.

Dr. Ware: Well, it is a very difficult passage. I have good friends, a New Testament scholar, he teaches with me at Southern, who probably knows more about this passage than any other living human being. His name is Tom Schriener, and he has studied this at length. Dr. Schreiner’s conclusion about head coverings here is: Honestly, we don’t know for sure what the head covering was. It may have been either a covering over the hair of the women, or it may have been her long hair itself. We’re not sure which it was.

What we do know is that the principle that Paul was enunciating here is that it isn’t a principle for all churches at all times. It is to understand and demonstrate their acknowledgment of male leadership in the church.

Pick up with me for example in verse 5,

Every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head, for she is one and the same as the woman whose head is shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head (vv. 5–6).

Again, Paul goes immediately back to the created order and establishes why this is the case.

A man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and the glory of God; but the woman is the glory of the man. For man does not originate from the woman, but woman from the man; for indeed man was not created for the woman's sake, but the woman for the man's sake. Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head because of the angels (vv. 7–10.)

That last little phrase, "because of the angels" if fascinating. The angels are watching. There's a theater on planet earth, a play that is being enacted, and they are watching. They want to see if the church is following the leading of their Master and Lord. One of the ways in which we follow that is by following the regulations that are given for leadership in the church.

So the principle is clear that women should acknowledge the male authority in the church and show that in some visible ways—some way in which your church manifests they acknowledge the authority of these male elders in the church.

I think a contemporary equivalent of that could be as simple as listing the elders names on the church bulletin and perhaps highlighting their ministries in certain ways to your people so you know that these are qualified men who are serving as leaders and elders in your church.

The head covering, most commentators have come to the conclusion, is itself a culturally specific way of expressing it. As I said earlier, we're not even quite sure if it is just their long hair or if it’s a covering over their head. But nonetheless, the principle of acknowledging male leadership needs to be instantiated, expressed in all of our churches.

Why in all of our churches? Because Paul said that it goes back to the created order. God created things this way to manifest His design of male leadership.

Nancy: Could he be talking here also, and certainly we’re expressing male leadership, but could he also be talking about recognizing differences between men and women? Just basic femininity, whatever that looks like in a culture, that we’re acknowledging that there are differences between men and women, and women not acting or being like men and men not acting or being like women? The preservation of those differences—could that be part of what he has in view here?

Dr. Ware: Yes, absolutely. There is a fundamental difference of men and women as well as a recognition of the leadership in the church as well as the recognition of the qualified leadership in the church being only men who fit those qualifications.

Nancy: Okay, I’ve got to ask you about one other passage.

Dr. Ware: All right.

Nancy: I’m just so happy to have you on the program so that you can explain these things, and I get off the hook just by sitting here and listening to you and learning from you.

A few chapters later, 1 Corinthians chapter 14, a highly controversial and often confusing passage at the end of 1 Corinthians 14 that addresses, again, the function of women in the church. Can you help us with that one?

Dr. Ware: Yes. At verse 34 of 1 Corinthians 14, Paul says, “The women are to keep silent in the churches”—notice plural there, by the way. He has in mind not just this particular local church, but this is a universal principle.

Women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church. Was it from you that the word of God first went forth? Or has it come to you only? (vv. 34–36).

In other words, that last rhetorical question is: Do you think you know the truth and the truth hasn’t come to you? So accept what truth is given to you rather than thinking you know it all.

Well, it seems, on the surface, to be saying something different than Paul said a few chapters earlier. Of course, liberal commentators point this out and just say, “Paul contradicted himself.” Well goodness, we don’t even do that with one another with things we say so close in proximity to each other. We look for a way to harmonize those two statements.

Nancy: Yes.

Dr. Ware: In chapter 11 Paul had just said that every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying . . .

Nancy: So she is speaking.

Dr. Ware: She is speaking, absolutely. She’s speaking in the church. So when he says in 14:34 that women are to keep silent in the churches, it strikes me highly, highly unlikely that he means that as a strict prohibition of any speaking at all. She’s praying; she’s prophesying; she’s speaking in some sense. So what does he mean here? What kind of speaking would this be referring to?

Most commentators, Nancy—this is a tough one; it really is. It baffles a lot of people. The prohibition relates specifically to what Paul had been referring to in the previous verses about evaluating the prophets who speak in the church that they need to be evaluated before they speak. Well, who would be the people appropriate to do this evaluation? It would be the qualified male leadership in the church, and the women should keep quiet during that time, as the prophets are being evaluated.

Of course, it’s another question altogether—I hope you don’t ask me now of whether or not that gift of prophesy continues. That’s another issue for another time.

Nancy: We’ll do that on another program.

Dr. Ware: Okay, but certainly it was a gift that was exercised here. Regardless of what you say in terms of its continuity in today’s church, it was exercised here. So when people came forward with a prophesy, it needed to be evaluated, and Paul says this is the role of qualified men in the church to do it, and so women should keep silent in that regard.

Nancy: So this is an elder-like function that is given. It’s an authority role to evaluate and monitor and, if necessary, control the exercise of that gift, and he’s saying that belongs to the men and not to the women.

Dr. Ware: Yes. That’s right. That interpretation, what commends it is both the immediate context as you look at the previous verses leading up to verse 34, but it also then harmonizes it with chapter 11 where women clearly are speaking.

So Paul is saying, “You can speak,” he said so in chapter 11. “But in this regard, in this function, you cannot speak,” he says to women.

Nancy: Okay. We just hit on a number of very controversial and difficult passages to interpret and apply. When you hear these passages: Women should be silent in the church; women should not teach or exercise authority over a man, 1 Timothy chapter 2 (v. 12),  there are those who would say, “Christianity belittles or demeans women.”

I think we can understand why some might look at these passages, out of context, and might draw the conclusion that the Christian faith belittles or puts women down and doesn’t allow them to really exercise the fullness of who they are as women.

Dr. Ware: Yes, Nancy, I can see how people would come to that conclusion, and no doubt women would feel that more directly then men even who might come to that same conclusion because it’s a very personal matter for a number of them. A couple of thoughts come to my mind here:

Number one: If this really is God’s design, then it is best; it can’t be improved on. If we think we know better than God, we’re fooling ourselves. We will only do ourselves harm by trying to go a different route than the route God has said.

Another thought that I have, that I think is just very important, is that: Sometimes I think the church has not helped in this by being overly restrictive to what women can do in the church. It’s one thing to acknowledge the principle of Scripture of male leadership in the church, and that’s a very important thing and very good, but it’s another thing to go beyond that and just write all these rules that are not biblically based in terms of what women can and cannot do in the church. I think that contributes to a frustration on the part of women.

There are churches out there where women can’t usher; they can’t take the offering; they can’t pray in church. Of course, on that one, I can understand how some would take 1 Corinthians 14 to have said that, but I don’t believe that’s what it says, and 1 Corinthians 11 says they do pray. So forbidding them to pray, forbidding them to read Scripture, forbidding them to be involved in different sorts of functions in the assembly, I think, sends the message to them that they’re really not needed, and, of course, this is exactly wrong.

God intends women and men to exercise the gifts they have in the body of Christ for the benefit of all. We all know that He gives women particular gifts that are enormously beneficial that men simply don’t have. It’s a wonderful thing if we free up women to function in all the ways that they rightfully can.

Nancy: It is so like human nature, sinful fallen human nature, to want to have the one thing God says you can’t have, and that takes us back to Genesis chapter 2 where God says, “All these trees, they’re for you. You can eat the fruit from all of them except that one” (see vv. 16–17). It’s so perverse in a sense, I think, for us to focus on whatever is the one prohibition God has given and to make that our obsession and focus and saying, “Lord, I have to have that one thing that God has said 'I have given to someone else.'”

You know, Dr. Ware, I think some of the things we’ve been talking about in this series are, well, one we’ve acknowledged is they’re radically counter-cultural. Even within the evangelical world, these are things that are not widely accepted today. We’ve seen a concerted movement within the last couple of decades away from what you and I would believe the Scripture teaches about the role of women in the home and in the church.

We saw that years ago in the liberal churches that did not affirm the authority of Scripture, but now we’re seeing it in our evangelical churches that say, “We do affirm the authority of Scripture, but that’s not what Scripture means,” and have gone a very different direction in what we have called the Egalitarian pathway.

We said to each other before coming up to the mics here today in the studio, in a sense, this is a lost battle it seems. This is a very minority position, and I have to ask myself sometimes where we’re trying to promote this complementarian teaching through the ministry of Revive Our Hearts, but is it a battle really worth fighting? Does it matter? How much does it matter? And why does it really matter?

Dr. Ware: Well, Nancy, it matters much. Let me just share a few ideas here.

One is: I don’t think this is the most important doctrine that we hold as Christian people. Goodness, doctrines of the Trinity, the substitutionary atonement of Christ, justification by faith. I mean, all of these—and many others we could name—trump this in terms of its theological importance, the importance to the centrality of our faith. But in the culture we live in, the Trinity is really not a topic of conversation out there in the culture. Substitutionary atonement isn’t. But gender roles, my goodness, that is right at the heart of what this culture is interested in dealing with.

If the church is unfaithful in this place where the culture is putting its greatest pressure on us, we will have to give an account before God of failure to uphold the truth and to concede to the culture things that we should never have done. And, of course, if we give in here, where else will we give in?

That question becomes enormously relevant when you think of the mainline churches who, two to three decades ago, changed their view on this issue. That is, they began supporting the ordination of women. Well, now those same churches you see where they are today. They are now in the throes of a huge debate over whether or not they should accept homosexuality as a legitimate way of sexual expression and homosexuals as ordained ministers.

Well, there is a connection between these two things. Because we caved in to cultural pressure back there on that issue, it sets us up for caving in yet to other cultural pressures that come. Pretty soon the church is no longer the church. It is simply a sort of worldly organization with Christian names attached to it.

Nancy: We’ve seen this even in some of our Bible translations how the view of gender roles has affected and even produced some different translations.

Dr. Ware: Yes. That’s right. Again, the whole drive and desire to try to overcome the insensitivity of the Bible, speaking about women in ways that are viewed by our culture to be inappropriate. It has even now come to how the Bible is translated. In some cases, even the identities of individuals are not given to us because we don’t want to know it’s a man, so it’s just a person. Some in the mainline churches are arguing for gender inclusive God language, who are offended by the fact that God is called Father, the Son is the Son, so we change this to God the Parent, and a child instead.

We are really toying with what Donald Bloesch, years ago, wrote in a book entitled The Battle for the Trinity. In that book he announced that he believed this was charting a course to a different religion, back to a kind of paganism rather than faithfully following the God of the Bible.

Nancy: I think about the implications, Dr. Ware, just in terms of how we present the Word of God, the character of God, and the gospel of Jesus Christ. The passage that comes to mind is one we haven’t addressed in this series, but in Titus chapter 2, where we’re reading about roles of men and roles of women. The apostle Paul puts that in the context of “women are to be this way—the older women are to teach the younger women these things.” Why? “So that the Word of God may not be reviled” (v. 5).

Then when he goes and speaks to younger men and to those who are employees about how they ought to function in their roles, he says, “So that in everything we may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (v. 10).

  • There’s more at stake here, it seems to me, than just what job can I have in the context of the local church.
  • There’s more at stake here than whether we fit into the cultural mold or the biblical mold on this as a secondary thing.
  • It has to do with the privilege God has given to us as women and as men to reflect to the world the beauty of God’s gospel, to adorn it, to make it attractive as we function in the way that God has designed for us as men and women in the context of the home and the church.

Dr. Ware: Yes. Absolutely. I think you would agree with this, Nancy, that even if God didn’t give us any reason, the fact that He’s God, and He told us this is the way we ought to do it, then we ought to do it. But the fact is, He gave us reasons. He indicated, “Look at My own nature. I am a God who, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, exhibits this equality of My own being among the persons of the Godhead. And yet, We, the triune being of God, We exhibit authority and submission in our relationships with each other. I created you human beings to reflect that reality to a watching world.”

Then you have Christ and the Church. He devises and designs marriage to be a reflection of that great glorious reality of the Husband, the Groom, Christ and His Bride, the Church. What a privilege it is to live out this expression, yes, of the gospel and of the God of the gospel and of the fruit of that gospel, the Church of Jesus Christ. What a privilege and what a glory.

Is it no wonder, then, that the evil one wants so badly to mess this up? He doesn’t like what it represents. So he would like, more than anything else, to see this distorted and marred because he knows as well as anyone does the intended reason for this design in manhood and womanhood that God has made.

Nancy: So, as I said, there’s a lot at stake.

Dr. Ware: Amen.

Nancy: We have a high and holy calling, and it really is a privilege to live out here on earth for the watching angels, for the watching world, and for God whose glory is at stake in this, to live out what He has given to us as men and women to reflect His character and wonder of the gospel.

Dr. Ware: Amen.

Leslie: Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth has been talking with Dr. Bruce Ware about the different roles God calls men and women to based on the New Testament. They’ll be right back.

The reason we are talking about this is to promote God’s glory. I think you heard that coming through from our guests today.

The radio version of this interview needed to be trimmed, but as a podcast listener, you’ve heard the complete interview. The reason we’re able to continue bringing you the podcast is thanks to listeners who support the ministry financially. When you donate any amount this week, we’d like to say thanks by sending you a gift.

It’s a Bible study booklet called "A 30-Day Journey Through the True Woman Manifesto." Each day in the study you’ll consider a statement from the Manifesto, read a number of Scriptures that reflect on that statement and record your observations.

When you donate any amount to Revive Our Hearts, ask for the thirty-day booklet. We’ll also send you the complete Manifesto in a pamphlet. The number is 1–800–569–5959, or you can donate online at

Nancy’s been teaching through the True Woman Manifesto in multiple series on Revive Our Hearts. She’ll pick the teaching back up tomorrow. Find out why four words could transform your relationships. The words are: affirm, encourage, honor, and support. We’ll explore those on the next Revive Our Hearts. Now Nancy’s back with our guest, Bruce Ware. 

Nancy: Dr. Ware, thank you so much for your commitment to the Word of God, to the gospel of Christ, and for the role God has given you in teaching and instructing God’s people and opening the Scripture to us here on Revive Our Hearts this week. I appreciate it so much.

Dr. Ware: You’re very welcome, Nancy. I’ve loved being with you. I’m so grateful for you and the ministry the Lord has given you and pray regularly the Lord will continue prospering you.

Nancy: Well, thank you, and speaking of prayer, I wonder if you would be so kind as to close our time in prayer, praying a covering and a protection over our hearts as women, and that God will use us to the fullest of what He has in mind and to give us wisdom in knowing how to live out His plan for our lives as women.

Dr. Ware: Amen.

Lord, we do just pray exactly that. We pray, Lord, that You would grant to Christian women who hear this program a renewed longing to understand with greater clarity and live out with greater consistency the design that You have made for them as women. Help them, Lord, to realize that Your design for them is in fact the best thing for them and the relationships they have with their husbands, with men in the work place, with their children, and in every respect, Lord, to reflect Your glory through this.

Thank You, Lord, for Nancy DeMoss and the ministry of Revive Our Hearts, and we pray for Your continued rich blessing on this ministry. May You use it to help women understand Your Word and to live it out with greater confidence and may You use it to bring glory to Your name.

We pray in the name of our Savior Jesus. Amen.

Nancy: Amen.

Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth wants to help you live out God's calling on your life. It's an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

All Scripture is taken from the NASB unless otherwise noted.

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About the Teacher

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth has touched the lives of millions of women through Revive Our Hearts and the True Woman movement, calling them to heart revival and biblical womanhood. Her love for Christ and His Word is infectious, and permeates her online outreaches, conference messages, books, and two daily nationally syndicated radio programs—Revive Our Hearts and Seeking Him.

She has authored twenty-two books, including Lies Women Believe and the Truth That Sets Them Free, Seeking Him (coauthored), Adorned: Living Out the Beauty of the Gospel Together, and You Can Trust God to Write Your Story (coauthored with her husband). Her books have sold more than five million copies and are reaching the hearts of women around the world. Nancy and her husband, Robert, live in Michigan.