Leading in Worship

Because of the corporate nature of public worship, its leadership is to be representative, namely, one person acts on behalf of all. Many aspects of worship, like singing and reading or reciting the confessions, are done by all. Other times, when the leader prays, he forms words for all. Who, then, is authorized to represent the congregation in corporate worship?

ROLES IN WORSHIP — I Timothy 2:8-15

One of the most serious crises facing the church today is the role of men and women in the life of the congregation. On the one hand, there are those who believe that women should have the right to read Scripture or lead in prayer in public worship—some even asserting that women should have the right to deliver exhortations in the public assembly—while, on the other hand, there are those who say that only the minister should lead in worship. In 1 Timothy 2:8-15, Paul gives clear instruction on this matter, as he discusses the role of men and women in corporate worship.

The Role of Men in Corporate Worship

The Requirement for Male Leadership (v. 8)
In verse 8, the apostle addresses the role of men in corporate worship: “Therefore I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and dissension.” We rightly infer from verse 1 of 1 Timothy 2 that the term prayer may refer to the work of the church in corporate worship. The context enforces this interpretation. In verses 1-7, he addresses the church with respect to her concern for the world. This concern will be expressed in corporate prayer. In verses 9-11, he deals with women, primarily in the context of corporate worship. (Compare his command in verse 11 with 1 Corinthians 14:33, 34.)
Moreover, his use of the phrase “every place” would suggest that he means in all the places where the church assembles for worship; when the church meets to offer prayers of entreaty, supplication, thanksgiving, praise, and adoration in corporate worship (See 1 Corinthians 4:17; 11:16; 14:33.).
He begins with an apostolic injunction, “I want.” This construction—that is, the verb want or will followed by an infinitive — in this case, the verb to pray — is used in Scripture to indicate an apostolic commandment. (See 1 Timothy 5:14; Philippians 1:12.) Therefore, in every place where the church gathers for worship, the men are to lead.
Is it, however, the work of all men? By implication, the answer is no. It is the work of a special group of men. First, they must be approved men. Otherwise, how else will it be determined whether they possess the character mentioned at the end of the verse: “lifting up holy hands, without wrath and dissension”?
By the first term “holy,” Paul refers to the character of the one who leads in worship. He uses hands as a figure of speech for character. Our hands often are the agents of good or evil. Therefore, the Bible uses hands to describe holiness. For example, the psalmist answers the question — “Who may ascend into the hill of the LORD? And who may stand in His Holy Place?”— with the description— “He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not lifted up his soul to falsehood, and has not sworn deceitfully” (Psalm 24:3, 4; cf. 26:6). The part is representative of the whole. Hence, the holy hands lifted in prayer is a figure of speech used to indicate the requirement that the man who leads the people of God in worship must be a man who is characterized by holiness. The psalmist emphasizes the importance of this injunction in Psalm 66:18: “If I regard wickedness in my heart, The Lord will not hear.” Therefore, if the ungodly are offering prayers on behalf of the congregation, their worship will be hindered.
Paul mentions two things pastorally about the man who leads in worship: he is to be “without wrath and dissension.” He must be a gentle man. The term “wrath” refers to unbridled anger. The man who leads must be gentle, a tender shepherd, who bears long with the congregation.
The word translated “dissension” may mean either doubting or disputatious, and both would be very appropriate here. James instructs us that we are not to pray doubting, wavering in unbelief (1:6). Paul, however, uses the term to mean disputatious, one who is always arguing. Perhaps he has in mind the false teachers (1:6; 6:4). There must be a bond of sympathy between the congregation and the one who leads them in worship. He cannot be a wrathful or a disputatious man, because there will be those in the congregation whom he has alienated by his pugnacious spirit. If he is quick to wrath, he will create a barrier between those for whom he speaks and himself. If he is constantly disputing, he loses the confidence of those whom he leads.
Again, this requirement reminds us why the one who leads in worship is to be ordained or, at least, approved by the session or presbytery. He must be a holy man. Paul will expand on the character of church leaders in the next chapter, but, obviously, the one who leads in worship must be examined with respect to his character. (See 1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9.)
Second, Paul implies that to lead in prayer is an act of authority. We infer the necessity of authority from Paul’s prohibition of women exercising authority in the church (2:12). Corporate worship, by its very nature, suggests authority. One is to frame prayers for the people of God in the special presence of God; therefore, the one who frames prayers for the congregation exercises authority. Because he prays for all, he must have theological discernment; he must be grounded in Scripture. William Perkins says that the responsibility to lead the congregation in prayer is part of the office of the minister. As a prophet speaks to the people on behalf of God, so he speaks to God on behalf of the people.
A third ground for this interpretation is the matter of gifts. Not all men have the gift of speaking in an edifying manner in public. Those with this gift are to be the ones that lead in public prayer. Hence, the prayers for the congregation are to be offered by one set aside for that task.
By further inference, Paul includes all aspects of the worship service which involve leadership. First, the term “prayer” is used for the corporate worship of the church. Hence, to lead in prayer is to lead in worship; all actions of leadership in worship are to be performed by men (prayer, reading of Scripture, leading in public confession of faith, etc.). Second, in verse 11, Paul instructs women to “quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness.” A third reason is that later Paul tells the minister through Timothy to read the Scriptures publicly and to preach (1 Timothy 4:13). Historically, the church’s position on this has been that one who is ordained or who is under trial for ordination should read the Word of God. “The reading of the Word is God’s direct address to His people. As such, it should be performed by someone who is specifically a leader in the Church—that is, by someone who has been ordained to the gospel ministry (including elders), or who has been licensed to preach, or who is, at least, an eligible candidate for ministry. The reading of the Word in public worship is an aspect of the pastoral ministry which should not be done by just anyone, even as preaching should not be (See I Tim. 4:13ff).”
What about Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 11:5: “But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head”? The reference to praying refers to participation in public worship. We will deal with the matter of prophesying in verse 11.
Therefore, the church should limit this role to ministers, elders, and those approved by the church in preparation for ministry. The Larger Catechism applies the same principle to the reading of Scripture: “Although all are not to be permitted to read the word publickly to the congregation” (L.C. 156). The Westminster Directory for the Publick Worship of God says, “Reading of the word in the congregation, being part of the publick worship of God . . . is to be performed by the pastors and teachers. Howbeit, such as intend the ministry, may occasionally both read the word, and exercise their gift in preaching in the congregation, if allowed by the presbytery thereunto.” Because ruling elders are ordained as pastors, they, too, have the authority to lead in prayer and read Scripture in the public assembly.
Paul, therefore, distinguishes between the role of men and women in public worship. Building on the Old Testament pattern of worship, public worship is to be led by men. It is an apostolic commandment.

Women in Corporate Worship (vv. 9, 10)
The requirement for approved men to lead in worship is reinforced by Paul’s discussion of the role of women. Paul mentions the role of men briefly, almost in a passing manner, but he concentrates on the role of women. With respect to male leadership in worship, he builds on the Old Testament, but he is constrained to deal in greater detail with women, since the New Testament emphasizes the equality of women in the congregation. Paul wants us to know that equality in Christ does not remove God’s ordained structure of authority. Moreover, other difficulties that had been brought into the church by Gentile converts needed to be addressed, namely, the matter of apparel and modesty. Because of the great confusion on this issue in the church today, I will expand.

Her Character
In verses 9 and 10, the apostle addresses character, what I call female piety: “Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments, but rather by means of good works, as is proper for women making a claim to godliness.” Paul begins with a comparison, “likewise” or “in like manner.” He often uses this term to make a comparison or a contrast. He will use this term in chapter 3 to distinguish deacons from elders, and wives from deacons. The term “likewise” connects what he is about to state with the apostolic injunction “I want.” “To adorn” is grammatically parallel to the word “to pray,” both are governed by the word “I want.” I want the men to pray, I want women to adorn themselves, and thus the contrast is very clear in the very structure of the text. With respect to men, he begins with their work and concludes with their character. With respect to women, he begins with their character and concludes with their work.
He begins by commanding women to dress appropriately: “adorn themselves with proper clothing.” The word translated “adorn” refers to her appearance. The verb can also mean “to decorate.” It is used in Revelation 21:2 to describe the church as the “bride adorned for her husband.” The phrase “proper clothing” translates two terms. The term “clothing” literally means deportment and refers to behavior, particularly expressed in one’s apparel. The apparel is to be that which is “proper,” respectable, or honorable. The root word of “proper” is cosmos, that which is orderly. It is the word translated “respectable” in 1 Timothy 3:2. Paul says there is apparel that is more appropriate for worship. In this day of informality, we need to be reminded that we are dressing to come into the presence of the King. Public worship takes place in the special presence of God (1 Corinthians 11:10; Psalm 100:4).
Paul expands on the concept of appropriate clothing both positively and negatively. Positively, Paul says she is to dress “modestly and discreetly.” The term “modest” means that which avoids shame and embarrassment. Paul instructs a woman to have a chaste demeanor that does not draw attention to herself in a wrong way. She is to avoid dressing or acting in a way that would bring shame and embarrassment. Is it not interesting that this was a problem in the first century, as it is today? A woman’s dress should be modest always, but particularly in public worship. A woman’s apparel ought not to draw attention to her body: short dresses, exposure of cleavage, bare backs, and exposed midriffs would all violate this principle. It is difficult to fathom why a father would let his daughter walk out of the house dressed in a way that draws attention to her body. I cannot understand a husband who lacks a proper sense of jealousy by allowing his wife to appear in public, let alone in the worshipping assembly, dressed immodestly. Yet, there is hardly a church that one can attend in which immodest dress is not a problem.
Paul joins “discreetly” with modesty. The term means with discernment or prudence (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 2:2, 5). Solomon says in Proverbs 11:22, “As a ring of gold in a swine’s snout, so is a beautiful woman who lacks discretion.” This combination of modesty with discernment is interesting because some women are quite naïve and do not understand that how they dress affects men. They often tempt a man to sin by their dress, or, at least, distract his attention in public worship.
Moreover, the term suggests that she is to adorn herself in good taste, with sound judgment and self-control, not chasing every fad of fashion, particularly those that are immodest.
Negatively, he addresses the matter of ostentatious and extravagant dress: “not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments.” The Bible is not at all opposed to a woman being well dressed and as attractive as she can be, as we know from other passages of Scripture (Genesis 24:47, 53; Proverbs 31:22). Paul, in fact, begins this section by speaking of her adorning herself. We know that God loves beauty. He has ornamented the entire world and there is nothing wrong with beauty. There is nothing wrong with female beauty as long as the woman is not seeking to draw attention to herself in such a way as to make her enticing in the eyes of men other than her husband. What Paul is warning against is ostentatious and extravagant dress. When he joins together braided hair with gold or pearls, he seems to be alluding to the custom of the wealthy, who would elaborately braid their hair with costly jewels, gold, and pearls as a way of proclaiming their wealth. When joined with extravagant clothing, it was ostentatious. Paul is not forbidding dressing in style or having quality clothing, but dressing in a way that unduly draws attention to oneself and one’s wealth. Particularly in public worship, one ought not to dress in a way that makes a poor person ashamed of his or her best dress.
Before we leave this section, it is important to note that we might have a biblical principle to aid in interpreting Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:1-15 on head covering. Is Paul laying down a universal rule that all women in public worship ought to cover their hair? One must interpret the principle Paul lays down in 1 Corinthians 11 with what he says here. If a woman’s head were always covered, the church would not know if she had her hair braided with gold and pearls. Obviously, Paul is anticipating occasions when a woman’s head is not covered by a veil in corporate worship. I think that what he means in 1 Corinthians 11:1-15 is that if her hair is not a sufficient covering to proclaim modesty and submission, then she should cover her head (1 Corinthians 11:15).
Although Paul begins by addressing the external aspects of appropriate deportment, he continues by discussing issues of the heart: “but rather by means of good works, as is proper for women making a claim to godliness” (v. 10). He makes a contrast. Although outward dress is important, the internal adornment of godliness is more important. Paul reminds them that there is a manner of life that is appropriate for the woman professing godliness. The phrase “making a claim” means “profession.” A profession of Christ is a profession of godliness. The word “godliness” means “reverence for God” or “piety.” All who are communicant members of the church are to have a profession of godliness.
This piety expresses itself in a gentle and quiet spirit (1 Peter 3:4). Moreover, they “are to be reverent in their behavior, not malicious gossips, nor enslaved to much wine, teaching what is good, so that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be sensible, pure, workers at home, kind, being subject to their own husbands” (Titus 2:3-5; 2 Timothy 1:5; 3:15).
Furthermore, this piety expresses itself in the ministry of good works. Dorcas is a good example of what Paul intends. Her good works are described in terms of ministry to the needs of others: “this woman was abounding with deeds of kindness and charity, which she continually did (Acts 9:36, cf. 39).
Please note that in these passages there is an emphasis on what I call domestic piety: a woman’s godliness is displayed in her domestic responsibilities. We recognize that in God’s wisdom a few women do not marry, but Paul deals with the general pattern. A woman who does not marry should still abound in the good works detailed by Paul and Luke.
From these injunctions, we may also determine a woman’s role in the church; it is basically the same as her role in the home. She contributes to the beauty of the congregation by demonstrating gentleness, compassion, and sympathy. She is to keep the church attractive, as she keeps her home. She is to teach children and other women. She is to serve tables and minister to the widows, the poor, and the destitute. A woman who devotes herself to these things would not have time to involve herself in teaching men or exercising authority.

Her Behavior in Public Worship (v. 11)
Paul goes on to discuss her behavior in the public assembly in verse 11: “A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness.” Paul repeats briefly what he said in greater detail in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35: “The 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.”
We note that Paul has in mind chiefly the public assembly, because he calls her to the general role of submission to the leadership of the church. In Ephesians 5:22, he commands women to be in submission to their husbands, but here in 1 Corinthians, it is to the men who lead in worship and, by implication, who rule in the church. With these commandments, the apostle gives further instruction for ordering the life of the congregation, namely, those who bear authority in the church are to be men. The injunction to women does not rule out the fact that the Bible directs all members to be in submission to the officers (1 Thessalonians 5:12, 13; Hebrews 13:17), but the submission of women is to manifest itself in silence. As we see in 1 Corinthians 14:34, 35, she is not to speak, except corporately along with the rest of the congregation, nor may she attempt to get around this injunction by using a question to get across her view or to instruct. If she has a genuine question, she is to ask her husband. If she is not married, she should ask her elder.
Therefore, she is not to engage in public speaking. Apart from those acts of worship that are done corporately (unison reading, common prayer, congregational singing, etc.), she is to remain silent. Therefore, women are not to read Scripture or lead in prayer in the public worship of the church.

Her Role in the Ruling and Teaching of the Church (vv. 12-15)
The Prohibition (v. 12)
In verse 12, the apostle expands his teaching on the role of women in the church: “But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet.” Some interpret this prohibition as one commandment — “I do not allow a woman to teach authoritatively” — to avoid the prohibition against exercising authority or to say that she may teach in the public assembly as long as it is under the authority of the officer bearers and not in her own authority. Such interpretations are grammatically indefensible. The text clearly makes the term “man” the object of both prohibitions.
Hence, the first prohibition is “I do not allow a woman to teach [a man].” In the context, he is talking about the public assembly. She is not to exercise any public teaching role in public worship. “[She is] to remain quiet.”
How do we reconcile this with 1 Corinthians 11:5 which states: “But 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”? Let us note first that if her prophecy were delivered in the public assembly (there is no record of such in the New Testament), she was not teaching or exercising authority. She was a mouthpiece for the Lord. Second, in the Pastoral Epistles, the Apostle Paul is laying down the instruction for the church in the era between the time of the Apostles and the return of Christ. Paul, assuming the cessation of the special revelatory gift of prophecy, commands women to be silent.
Although he lays down this commandment in the context of public worship, he is, by implication, talking about any formal teaching of men. In other words, in any gathering of the church for instruction, she is not to teach men. The term “teach” is broader in scope than the term “preach.” All preaching must teach, but not all teaching is preaching. Thus, whether in a Sunday School class or a Bible study in which men are present, she is not to teach. As noted earlier, she may teach other women and children. But she is not formally to teach men.
I use the word formally because of the example of Priscilla and Aquila in Acts 18:26, “But when Priscilla and Aquila heard him [Apollos], they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately.” In the fellowship of the body of Christ, men and women learn from one another. In the home, husbands and wives may instruct informally. But publicly, women are to be silent. This prohibition includes Bible conferences and seminars as well.
As noted above, Paul gives a second prohibition: not to exercise authority over men. This prohibition indicates that acts that form part of the leading of worship are authoritative and, hence, must be performed by those to whom Christ has given this authority. This commandment, however, goes beyond the formal, structured times of public worship and encompasses the broader life of the church. The Authorized Version (King James) translates the word “to usurp authority,” but there is no idea of usurpation in this word at all. It means “to exercise” or “to have authority.” Obviously, if she takes authority not given to her, she is usurping it. Women are not to exercise rule or authority in the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. Christ has ordained men to be elders and deacons.

The Basis (vv. 13, 14)
Some respond to this prohibition by saying that Paul is dealing with a cultural phenomenon of his day or a situation peculiar to the Ephesian congregation. He anticipates this type of objection by demonstrating clearly that his commandment is rooted in the creation account: “For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression.”
In 1 Corinthians 14:34 he grounds his instruction in the law, “just as the Law also says.” In 1 Timothy, he derives two arguments from the law. By the term “law,” he is referring to the Genesis account of creation and the fall.
The first argument is woman’s place in creation; she was created second: “For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve.” He refers to the creation of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2:7, 18-25. Paul’s language reflects the creation account. The word translated “created” is literally “formed.” The Greek translation (the Septuagint) of Genesis 2:7 uses this word: “Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground.” In other words, God created man first. Afterwards, he “fashioned,” literally built, Eve out of the body of Adam (Genesis 2:22). Paul infers from the order of creation the headship of husbands and male leadership in the church. He spells this principle out in greater detail in I Corinthians 11:8-9, “For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man; for indeed man was not created for woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake.”
Paul says it was God’s intention from the beginning to place women under male headship. In no way is he implying that women are inferior or less valuable than men; they are created equally in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) and they are equal in Christ (Galatians 3:28). But God has ordained this authority structure. It is important to note as well that this order is a pre-fall order and not a post-fall reality. God has ordained male leadership for the well-being of the home and the church.
Paul develops his second argument from the fall, namely, a woman’s susceptibility to deception: “And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression” (v. 14). Please note that Paul is referring to Eve’s confession, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate” (Genesis 3:13). You see how the argument runs: she removed herself from her husband’s authority and Satan deceived her.
Paul is saying that she is not to teach men or exercise authority because of her susceptibility to deception. Such teaching is not popular today, but we are ignoring an important biblical principle if we neglect to follow Paul on this point. A woman’s strength lies in her gentleness, compassion, and intuition. The family and the church need these things very much. But in her strengths, lie her vulnerability. God has not made her to exercise the kind of hard, judgmental discernment that is necessary in theological and Scriptural issues. By nature, a woman will more likely fall prey to the subtleties of mental and theological error.
It seems that the church should give broader application to Paul’s argument than just to the matter of a woman’s not teaching men or exercising authority. If she is more susceptible to deception, then, when she teaches other women and children in the church, she should use materials approved by the elders. What about women writing books or curriculum materials for use in the church? A book has the function of being a private teacher. Reading a book is like having a conversation; the reader may have dialogue with the material being read, and either accept or reject it. When the church uses material written by a woman, it needs to be approved by the elders.

Her Role in the Life of the Congregation (v. 15)
Paul concludes this section by stating the general principle that governs a woman’s role in the church: “But women will be preserved [saved] through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self-restraint.” Up to this point, Paul has been dealing with woman, in the singular, the woman in the church, but now he lays down a general principle for all women.
He continues to use the Genesis account. In Genesis 3:15, when God curses the snake, He says that the seed of the woman shall destroy the serpent (the devil), “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel.” God promises to deliver His people from Satan and sin by a miraculously provided Savior. Biologically and biblically, the seed comes from the man, but here He promises that the deliverer will come from a woman. In this promise, we have an intimation of the virgin conception and birth. In Genesis 3:16, God highlights a woman’s role in child-bearing: “To the woman He said, ‘I will greatly multiply your pain in childbirth, in pain you will bring forth children.’” Although He accentuates ease of conception and pain in birth, because of her sin, He positively promises that she shall bear children. In the children of a righteous woman, God will bring forth His righteous seed. From that seed, He will bring the Savior. He will, however, continue to use her after the coming of the Savior to bring a righteous seed into the church. For this reason, Adam names her “Eve, because she was the mother of all the living” (Genesis 3:20).
And so, her salvation being through the bearing of children is a direct reference to Genesis 3:15, 16. The primary role of women in the kingdom of God is domestic. She shall bear children and rear them to serve God. Regardless of the numbers of people saved from the world, the greatest number of saved men and women shall come through the Christian home, for those whom God saves from the world and brings into the church will establish Christian homes through which God will build up the church (Psalm 128:5, 6). Women contribute to the kingdom by the bearing and rearing of covenant children. What a glorious privilege! It is true that the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.
We recognize that most women are to be married and to have children. In God’s providence, there are exceptions, but this is God’s norm for women. Those who do not marry or do not have children are as important, and they, too, will assist the church and the families in covenant formation.
Paul, however, does not divorce a woman’s role from her character. He qualifies his statement: “If they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self-restraint.” It is faith in Christ Jesus that saves and enables us to love God and our neighbor. The love through which faith expresses itself is the love that is shaped by the law of God. Women who persevere in this faith and love will be holy — that is, they will be growing in sanctification, dying to sin and become more Christ like. Such a woman will govern wisely. The word translated “self-restraint” is the term used in verse 9 “discreetly.” By concluding with this word, Paul brings the discussion back to modesty and chastity. She will be profitable as she remains in submission, accepting her role in the life of the congregation.


  1. John John
    April 28, 2017    

    A courageous and faithful exposition of difficult yet key passages.

  2. Liz Ward Liz Ward
    April 30, 2017    

    Fantastic eisegesis, well done.

    • Chewy Chewy
      May 1, 2017    

      Ms. Ward, is that sarcasm or a typo?

  3. Jim Jim
    May 3, 2017    

    Well done!

  4. Hilary Hilary
    May 25, 2017    

    I always feel a little uncomfortable in mixed prayer meetings, should I pray aloud (which really does mean leading) or keep silent.? I think I know the answer. I do still wonder if a woman can share a mission or ministry with a church (obviously not in a worship service) if she is careful not to instruct but simply to inform…or is that best not done?

    • May 25, 2017    

      Hilary, thank you for the questions. They both are important. I consider the church’s prayer meeting to be like family worship. I think it is appropriate for women and children to pray. I also think sharing a ministry report in a non-worship setting to be legitimate.

  5. Sandy Sandy
    July 14, 2018    

    Should a women have the title “pastor” ?

    • March 10, 2019    

      No. The title refers to men called by Christ to shepherd God’s people.

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