Searching the Scriptures

What are the crucial issues in the decision the church faces regarding ordination for women? This chapter will outline seven major issues emerging from the central question. In each case it will first distinguish the real issue from the false issues which often cloud our perceptions and keep us from dealing with the core of the matter. It will then set forth the questions lying at the heart of the issue, questions which will be addressed in subsequent chapters of our Searching the Scriptures.

1. Equality of Women and Men

What the Issue is Not: Equality of Being, Worth, or Status. The question of whether or not to ordain women as elders and pastors should not be confused with whether women and men are equal. Equality of being and worth (ontological equality) is a clear Biblical teaching, affirming that all human beings--male and female--have equal standing before God as created beings, as sinners in need of salvation through Christ, and as people called to the same destiny. The scriptural evidence for this equality is that (1) both "male and female" were created "in the image of God" (Gen 1:27; Matt 19:4; Mark 10:6); (2) both have been redeemed by Jesus Christ, so that "in Christ" there is neither "male nor female" (Gal 3:28); and (3) both are "joint heirs of the grace of life" (1 Pet 3:7 RSV).

Nowhere does the Bible relegate women to second-class status or make men superior and women inferior. To say otherwise is to misrepresent biblical teaching and affront the loving character of the God who created Eve to be Adam's "help meet for him," a partner "fitting" or "suitable" to him. Ellen White was unequivocal: "When God created Eve, He designed that she should possess neither inferiority nor superiority to the man, but that in all things she should be his equal" ( Testimonies for the Church , 3:484). Within this equality, just as gender differences between men and women indicate that they were created to complement one another, so also this complementary nature indicates a functional distinction between them.

The issue of women's ordination is, therefore, not a question of whether women and men are equal. The Bible, confirmed by the Spirit of Prophecy,

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has already settled that issue. Women and men are equal;neither is inferior to the other.

What the Issue Is. The real issue in the debate is whether the equality of male and female does away with functional differences. While maintaining equality of being, has the Bible assigned a headship/leadership role to the man and a supportive role to the woman? If so, were these complementary roles established before or after the fall? Are these roles applicable only to the home, or are they also valid in the church? What Bible principles govern the male-female relationship?

2. Women in Ministry

What the Issue is Not: God's Call for Women in Ministry. The issue of whether or not to ordain women as elders and pastors should not be confused with whether women can be in ministry. The Bible clearly teaches that women have been called to the work of ministry as surely as have men. In the Old Testament, women participated in the study and teaching of the law (Neh 8:2; Prov 1:8; Deut 13:6-11), in offering prayers and vows to God (1 Sam 1:10; Num 30:9; Gen 25:22; 30:6, 22; 2 Kings 4:9-10, 20-37), in ministering "at the entrance to the tent of meeting" (1 Sam 2:22), in singing at the worship of the temple service (Ezra 2:65), and in engaging in the prophetic ministry of exhortation and guidance (Ex 15:20; 2 Kings 22:14-20; 2 Chron 34:22-28; Judges 4:4-14). Of this latter group, especially prominent are Deborah, "a prophetess . . . [who] was judging [NIV "leading"] Israel at that time" (Judges 4:4), and Huldah, the prophetess to whom Josiah the king and Hilkiah the high priest looked for spiritual guidance (2 Kings 22). [1]

The New Testament portrays women fulfilling vital roles in ministry. Besides Mary and Martha, a number of other women, including Joanna and Susanna, supported Jesus with their own means (Luke 8:2-3). Tabitha ministered to the needy (Acts 9:36). Other women, including Lydia, Phoebe, Lois, and Eunice, distinguished themselves in fulfilling the mission of the church (Acts 16:14-15; 21:8-9; Rom 16:1-4, 12). Of these, many were Paul's co-workers in ministry. Priscilla apparently was well educated and an apt instructor in the new faith (Rom 16:3; Acts 18:26); Paul calls Phoebe "a servant of the church" and a "succourer of many, and of myself also" (Rom 16:1, 2); [2] Mary, Tryphena, Tryposa, and Persis all "worked very hard in the Lord" (Rom 16:6, 12); Euodia and Syntyche were women "who have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel" (Phil 4:3 RSV); and Junia, who suffered imprisonment with Paul, received commendation as someone "of note among the apostles" (Rom 16:7). [3]

Ellen White strongly encouraged women in ministry. "There are women who should labor in the gospel ministry. In many respects they would do more good than the ministers who neglect to visit the flock of God" ( Evangelism , p.

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472). "The Lord has a work for women as well as for men. . . . The Saviour will reflect upon these self-sacrificing women the light of His countenance, and will give them a power that exceeds that of men. They can do in families a work that men cannot do, a work that reaches the inner life. They can come close to the hearts of those whom men cannot reach. Their labor is needed" (ibid., pp. 464-465, emphasis added). Seventh-day Adventist history and current practice illustrate the biblical truth that indeed women have a role in ministry.

The issue of women's ordination is, therefore, not a question of whether women can labor in the ministry. The Bible, confirmed by the Spirit of prophecy, has already settled that issue: women may labor in the gospel ministry.

What the Issue Is. The real issue in the debate is whether Scripture permits women in ministry to perform the oversight/leadership roles which ordained elders and pastors are called upon to exercise. Does the Bible teach that women in ministry may be ordained as elders and pastors?

3. Women as Elders but Not Pastors?

What the Issue is Not: Difference of Office. The issue of women's ordination to the gospel ministry should not be confused with whether women may function as ordained elders but not as pastors. It is clear from the Bible that (1) those who are permitted to perform the oversight/leadership functions of the ministerial office are elders or pastors; and that (2) the New Testament makes no essential distinction between the two offices.

The Greek terms for elder/presbyter (presbuteros) and overseer/bishop (episkopos) are used interchangeably in the New Testament (Acts 20:17, 28; Titus 1:5-7; 1 Pet 5:1-3). The same qualifications are required of both of these offices (1 Tim 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9). Both perform the same work of shepherding the flock (Acts 20: 17, 28; 1 Pet 5:1-4; 1 Thess 5:12). Thus we may conclude with Lyman Coleman that "if presbyters [elders] and bishops [overseers] are known by the same names--if they are required to possess the same qualifications, and if they do actually discharge the same duties, then what higher evidence can we expect or desire of their equality and identity?" [4] Even though today we divide some of the responsibilities between elders and pastors (overseers), they are essentially the same office. [5]

What the Issue Is. Since the Bible makes no distinction between the offices of elder and pastor, it is scripturally inconsistent to ordain women as elders but not as pastors. Ordaining women as elders and pastors is either biblical or unbiblical. The key issue, therefore, is whether the Bible anywhere permits women to exercise the leadership or headship roles of elders and pastors.

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4. The Holy Spirit's Leading

What the Issue Is Not: Spiritual Gifts. The question of women's ordination should not be confused with whether the Holy Spirit can call and empower women with gifts for ministry. The Old Testament predicted an outpouring of the Spirit on both "your sons and your daughters" (Joel 2:28). The New Testament teaches that the Holy Spirit calls and empowers both men and women with various spiritual gifts (1 Cor 12; Rom 12:3-8; Eph 4:7-13). While God Himself directly chose and commissioned prophets, He has instructed that the commissioning or ordination of elders and pastors is to be carried out by the church (Rom 10:14-15; Titus 1:5; Acts 14:23). [6]

Spiritual gifts are given by the Holy Spirit, but they are also regulated by the Holy Scriptures. [7]The same Holy Spirit who calls and empowers men and women with gifts for ministry also apportions gifts to each "as he wills" (1 Cor 12:11; Heb 2:4). This same Holy Spirit inspired the apostle Paul to give instructions regarding the qualifications for elders and pastors. In addition to the two critera emphasized in 2 Timothy 2:2--faithfulness and ability to teach--the inspired Word also teaches that those aspiring to the leadership role of elder or pastor must possess the qualities listed in 1 Timothy 3:1-6 and Titus 1:5-9. One of these is that the elder or pastor should be "the husband of one wife" (1 Tim 3:2, Titus 1:6). The Greek word translated "husband" is aner/andros, a specific word always used for a human male as distinguished from a female. [8] If we believe that the apostle Paul was inspired when he twice wrote that an elder or pastor should be a male (1 Tim 3:2; Titus 1:6), this particular qualification for the office raises some crucial questions.

What the Issue Is. When the apostle Paul restricted the office of elder or pastor to males, was he influenced by his culture, or was he guided by the Spirit? Assuming the latter, one may ask, "Since it was the Spirit of God that inspired the Bible, [and since] it is impossible that the teaching of the Spirit should ever be contrary to that of the Word" ( The Great Controversy , p. vii), can the Spirit call a woman to the leadership role of elder or pastor which He has apparently instructed through His written Word can only be filled by males? In other words, can the Holy Spirit contradict Himself by calling a female to an office from which she is excluded by the same Spirit's instruction in the written Word? Furthermore, can the church legitimately commission women to perform tasks which the Holy Spirit does not authorize? Should the church remain within the bounds set by the Holy Spirit in the written Word or should the church, according to its own wisdom and discretion, legislate for itself policies which contradict Scripture?

5. Women's "Silence" and "Teaching"

What the Issue is Not: Muzzling Women. The issue of whether to ordain women as elders and pastors should not be confused with whether or not they
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are permitted to speak in church. When the Bible urges women to "keep silence" in church (1 Cor 14:34), it does not mean that women cannot pray, prophesy, preach, evangelize or teach in the church. In the same letter to the Corinthians in which Paul told women to keep silence in the church, he indicated that women may pray and prophesy, provided they are dressed appropriately (1 Cor 11:2-16). And he said that the one who prophesies speaks "edification, and exhortation, and comfort" (14:3). Also, just like the command in the same chapter that those who speak in tongues should "keep silence in the church" if no interpreter was present (1 Cor 14:28), the instruction that women should "keep silence in the churches" suggests that Paul wants women to exercise their gift to speak within certain appropriate guidelines. Further, the same Paul who urged women "to learn in silence" (1 Tim 2:11) and who did not permit women to "teach or to have authority over men" (1 Tim 2:12 RSV) apparently approved the "teaching" ministry of Priscilla and Aquila in their instruction of Apollos (Acts 18:26). Paul also required women to do a certain kind of teaching: "Bid the older women . . . to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children" (Titus 2:3-5 RSV).

These texts should alert the Bible student that the prohibition of women "to teach or to have authority over men" does not forbid to women every form of teaching. Unlike other terms used in the New Testament to communicate the idea of teaching, the Greek word didasko used in this passage carries the force of authoritative teaching entrusted to a person--particularly someone in the leadership rle in the church (cf. 1 Tim 3:2; 4:11; 6:2; 2 Tim 2:2). [9] In light of the wider context of Paul's pastoral epistles to Timothy and Titus, as well as the immediate context which links this form of teaching with exercising "authority over men," we may conclude that Paul is here prohibiting women from the kind of teaching done in the capacity of a leader of the church. [10] In other words, the apostle Paul is not forbidding all teaching to women, but only the kind of "teaching" in the church which gives women a position of authority over men.

What the Issue Is. Since the Bible indicates that women in ministry may engage in some forms of teaching, including teaching other women (Titus 2:3-5) and even men (Acts 18:26; cf. Col 3:16), the real issue is not whether women may speak or teach (e.g., preaching, public evangelism, teaching Sabbath school, etc.). The issue is, May women legitimately carry out the kind of teaching in the church which places them in a position of authority over men--as is the case with the authoritative teaching entrusted to the elder/pastor (1 Tim 3:2; Titus 1:9, 10)?

6. Qualification or Capability of Women

What the Issue is Not: Ability, Education, or Skill. The question of whether to ordain women as elders and pastors should not be confused with whether women are professionally capable or qualified to teach or hold leadership/

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headship positions. The apostle Paul did not cite a lack of education, formal training, or teaching skills as the reason why women should not "teach or have authority over men" (1 Tim 2:12 RSV). The very fact that he prohibited women from a certain kind of teaching implies that some women already possessed the ability to teach. For example, Paul instructed older women to "teach what is good. Then they can train the younger women" (Titus 2:3, 4 NIV). He also commended the teaching that Eunice and Lois provided for Timothy (2 Tim 1:5; 3:14, 15). Evidently Priscilla was well-educated and a capable teacher, since she "expounded to" Apollos, an "eloquent man" who was already "instructed in the way of the Lord" (Acts 18:24-26).

Significantly, Paul's epistle to Timothy (the very epistle which prohibits women to "teach or to have authority over men," and which restricts the pastoral role of overseer to men) was addressed to the church at Ephesus (1 Tim 1:3), the home church of Priscilla and Aquila. Prior to writing this epistle, Paul had already stayed at the home of Priscilla and Aquila in Corinth for eighteen months (Acts 18:2, 11). They later accompanied Paul to Ephesus (Acts 18:18-21). When Paul stayed in Ephesus for another three years, "teaching the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27, 31; cf. 1 Cor 16:19), likely Priscilla was among those who received instruction from him. The Bible also mentions the upscale businesswoman Lydia (Acts 16:14-15, 40), evidently someone whose abilities in commerce and administration selling costly goods put her in touch with nobility and royalty. Yet not even well-educated Priscilla, nor successful, professional Lydia, nor any other accomplished woman, was permitted to "teach or to have authority over men."

The reason why women were forbidden to "teach or to have authority over men" was not inadequate education or a lack of ability to teach. Paul instead pointed to the creation order, stating that "Adam was formed first, then Eve" (1 Tim 2:13). Adam carried the special right and responsibility of leadership which belonged to the "firstborn" in a family (cf. Col 1:15-18). [11]

What the Issue Is. The issue of women's ordination is not whether qualified, capable women can teach or be leaders, but whether women in the church are willing to exercise their teaching and leadership gifts within the biblical structure, under the headship of men called upon to exercise the official teaching authority of elder or pastor. Ultimately, the issue boils down to whether Christians will accept Paul's instruction and its theological foundation (the creation order) as worthy of trust.

7. Biblical Headship

What the Issue is Not: Male Supremacy/Power. The biblical headship role of the male elder or pastor should not be confused with "patriarchalism" or male supremacy, control, or domination. Neither should the submissive role of women be viewed as an imposition of "power over" women or as a "put-down" of women.

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The Bible teaches that within the partnership of male and female equality, male headship charges the man to exercise a Christlike spiritual leadership in both the home and church families, while female submission calls upon the woman to lovingly support/assist the man in his leadership function.

The Bible describes the nature of male headship not as domination, control, or the wielding of "power," but rather as leadership in self-giving love (Eph 5:25); leadership in sacrificial service (1 Pet 3:7; cf. Mark 10:42-44); leadership in sound management or governorship (1 Tim 3: 4, 5); leadership in ensuring the well-being of the home; leadership that provides for the family (1 Tim 5:8); and leadership in discipline and instruction (Deut 6:7; Eph 6:4)--that is, leadership as "lawmaker and priest" ( The Adventist Home , p. 212). [12] This kind of male headship, which is best exemplified by Christ (Eph 5), can only be demonstrated by those who are "in the Lord" (1 Cor 11:11).

The supporting role of the female does not mean that the woman must yield her individuality or conscience to the man, or that she is to maintain a blind devotion to him. The woman is to understand that "there is One who stands higher than the husband to the wife; it is her Redeemer, and her submission to her husband is to be rendered as God directed--'as it is fit in the Lord'" ( The Adventist Home , p. 116). The woman practices true biblical submission by showing a loving respect (Eph 5:33; cf. Titus 2:4) and by lovingly accepting her divinely ordained role as helper corresponding to the husband (Gen 2:18; Eph 5:21-33; Col 3:18; 1 Pet 3:1-7). This role is not servile but is one requiring intelligent, willing cooperation toward the objective of a strong family--home or church--which glorifies God. Of this submission, Jesus provides a model for women, just as He does for men (Phil 2:5-11; Eph 5:23-25; 1 Cor 11:3). Only the converted, that is, those who are "in the Lord," can truly reflect this spirit of submission (1 Cor 11:11).

What the Issue Is. Since biblical headship is the loving exercise of male leadership within the partnership of male and female equality in the family (home and church), the real issue in the women's ordination debate is whether or not the Bible permits women to perform the biblical headship functions of the ordained elder or pastor. In other words, does the "neither male nor female" principle (Gal 3:28) of equality before God nullify the headship principle, which affirms role distinctions between the sexes?

Conclusion. For each of the major issues confronting the church regarding ordination for women, we must seek the answers by searching the Scriptures. The next chapter will briefly discuss how to approach the Bible in a way that will resolve the issues and bring unity and harmony to the church.


[1] Under the Old Testament theocracy, Israel was a nation governed by God and His law. In this system, the chosen leaders were prophets, priests, and judges/kings. Unlike the
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New Testament office of elder/pastor, the Old Testament leadership role of prophet (likewisejudge) was not an elected office. God Himself chose and commissioned prophets (and judges) as His most authoritative mouthpiece; they were not elected by the people. Thus, in the Old Testament, kings (and judges) and priests were all subject to the authority of prophets. The leadership roles of Deborah and Huldah as prophets should not be confused with that of elders or pastors, who occupy the elected leadership office in the church. While prophets in both the Old and New Testaments were chosen and ordained by God Himself, elders and pastors are chosen and ordained by church members within the guidelines set by Scripture and are subject to the leadership authority of God's chosen prophets.

In Seventh-day Adventist history, the closest parallel to the leadership of Deborah is Ellen G. White. Though she never claimed to be a leader of the church ( Testimonies for the Church , 8:236-237) and was never ordained by the denomination, she did exercise leadership authority by virtue of her role as a messenger of the Lord. A number of women who worked for the church during the late 1800s and early 1900s were issued ministerial licenses. Ellen White was the only woman to be granted the credentials of an ordained minister (sometimes with the word "ordained" neatly struck out), though she was never ordained and did not perform the functions of an ordained minister. (See William Fagal's discussion of the question, "Was Ellen White Ordained?" in his "Ellen White and the Role of Women in the Church," available from the Ellen G. White Estate.)

[2] Paul commends Phoebe as "our sister, which is a servant [diakonos] of the church which is at Cenchrea," and he urges the church to "assist her in whatsoever business she hath need of you: for she hath been a succourer of many, and of myself also." Although the term diakonos can refer to the office of a "deacon" (1 Tim 3:8-13), the description of Phoebe as a "servant" (KJV) or "deaconess" (RSV) of the church should not be confused with the office of "deacon." In the New Testament the term diakonos, like the related terms diakonia and diakoneo, has both a broad and a narrow meaning. In its broad sense it conveys the idea of "ministry" or "service" carried out on behalf of the church; in this usage, anything a person does to advance the work of the church is a ministry, and the one who labors in this manner is a "minister" or "servant" (diakonos) of the Lord (Matt 20:26; 23:11; Mark 9:35; 10:43; John 12:26; Rom 13:4; 15:8; 1 Cor 3:5; 2 Cor 3:6; 6:4; 11:23; Gal 2:17; Eph 3:7; 6:21; Col 1:7, 23, 25; 4:7; 1 Tim 4:6). In its narrow usage, however, diakonos refers to the office of a "deacon," which among other things can only be occupied by one who is a "husband of one wife" (1 Tim 3:8-13; Phil 1:1). Because Phoebe was a "sister" (Rom 16:1), she could not have served in the male office of a "deacon." Thus, when Paul described her as "a servant [diakonos] of the church," he was speaking of Phoebe's valuable ministry to members of the church as well as to himself.

[3] Paul described Andronicus and Junia as "my kinsmen, and my fellow prisoners, who are of note among the apostles, and who also were in Christ before me" (Rom 16:7). Although there is an ambiguity in the Greek construction "who are of note among the apostles" (KJV), or as the NIV has it, "They are outstanding among the apostles," no New Testament evidence supports the idea that the woman Junia mentioned here was an apostle, nor is there any New Testament evidence that the man Andronicus mentioned in the same text was an apostle. The most plausible and bblically consistent understanding is that both Andronicus and Junia were well known and appreciated by the apostles as Christian converts prior to Paul's own conversion. (See the answer to question #38 in John Piper and Wayne Grudem, "An Overview of Central Concerns: Questions and Answers," inRecovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem [Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1991], pp. 79-81).

[4] Lyman Coleman, The Apostolic and Primitive Church (Boston: Gould Kendall & Lincoln, 1844), p. 196.

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[5] The New Testament uses the English term "pastor" only once, in Ephesians 4:11. The same Greek word is translated "shepherd" elsewhere in the New Testament. As a shepherd, the pastor has the care and oversight of the flock. For the convenience of using our contemporary terms, in this study we have frequently used "pastor" as a substitute for "bishop" or "overseer."

The book of 1 Peter brings all the terms together: pastor (shepherd), elder (presbyter), and bishop (overseer). "For ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd (poimen,= pastor) and Bishop (episkopos, overseer) of your souls" (1 Pet 2:25). "The elders (presbuteros) which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder . . . : Feed (poimano, to tend as a shepherd) the flock of God, taking the oversight (episkopeo) thereof. . . . And when the chief Shepherd (archipoimen) shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away" (1 Pet 5:1-4). The elders are commissioned to stand as overseers, functioning as pastors/shepherds to the flock. Though we may divide some of the responsibilities today, these functions belong basically to one office.

[6] See note 1 above.

[7] For example, in 1 Corinthians 14:28-30, people with the gift of tongues were told not to use it in public when there was no one to interpret, and prophets were told to stop prophesying when others had a revelation. We conclude that if women have gifts of teaching, administration, or evangelism, God wants them to exercise these gifts within the guidelines given in Scripture.

[8] The Greek phrase, mias gunaikos andra, literally means a "man [male] of one woman," or "one-woman-man [male]." When used of the marriage relation it may be translated "husband of one wife" (KJV) or "husband of but one wife" (NIV). Thus, the phrase is calling for "monogamous fidelity." An elder must be "faithful to his one wife" (NEB). For a helpful grammatical analysis of this text, see Kenneth S. Wuest, The Pastoral Epistles in the Greek New Testament for the English Reader (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1952), p. 53.

[9] The New Testament uses different terms to communicate the idea of teaching: (1) katecheo,from which we get "catechize," means "to tell about something" (Acts 21:21, 24) or "to give instruction about the faith" (Gal 6:6; 1 Cor 14:19; Acts 18:25; cf. Luke 1:4); (2) ektithemi means to explain something to another (Acts 18:26; 28:23; 11:4); (3) dianoigo literally means to "open," used for the explanation or interpretation of Bible truth (Luke 24:32; Acts 17:3); and (4) didasko, used by Paul in 1 Tim 2:12 in his prohibition of women to "teach." Unlike the other terms, didasko is a special word used for authoritative teaching. For example, it refers to the kind of teaching carried out by Christ (Matt 7:28-29; Mark 1:22; 6:2), the Holy Spirit (John 14:26; 1 John 2:27), John the Baptist (Luke 3:12), the apostles or prophets (2 Thess 2:15; Acts 5:25; 28:31; Eph 4:21; Col 2:7; Mark 6:3), elders/pastors (Eph 4:11), those who were called "teachers" (Luke 2:46; Acts 13:1; 1 Cor 12:28-29; Eph 4:11; James 3:1; cf. Heb 5:12), and (negatively) those who carried out unauthorized teaching (Titus 1:11; Acts 15:1; Rom 2:21; cf. Acts 18:24-26). The meaning of didasko as authoritative teaching sheds some light on the nature of the "teaching" called forth in the gospel commission (Matt 28:20; cf. Col 3:16).

[10] For a detailed discussion of this issue, see Robert L. Saucy, "Women's Prohibition to each Men: An Investigation into Its Meaning and Contemporary Application," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 37/1 (March 1994):79-97.

[11] Paul's description of Christ in Colossians 1:15-18 RSV as "the first-born of all creation," "the head of the body, the church" suggests His pre-eminent authority. His headship and authority are tied in with His being the "first-born." Paul's use of "first-born" language to express the headship and authority of Christ suggests that he attached the same meaning

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to Adam's being "first formed." If this is the case, it indicates that Paul saw in the priority of Adam's creation the establishment of his right and responsibility as the head of the first home, the first church. This may explain why Adam is presented as the one who brought death into the world, and Christ, the second Adam, as the One who brought life (Rom 5:12-21).

[12] See Samuele Bacchiocchi, The Marriage Covenant (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Biblical Perspectives, 1991), pp. 120-161.

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