The question came up again, and I suppose I need to rehash it one more time.
We cannot resurrect the Old Testament social order. We are not aping the Hebrew culture; we are trying to understand the moral reasoning for things they did in their context — that people, that place, that time in history. Then we take what God has given us and do our best to please Him in our own context.
In the first Hebrew churches, you would not see women in formal leadership roles. In Gentile churches, it varied with the local cultures.
There were some things Paul told, for example, the Corinthians that they should avoid. Women speaking loudly in Corinth was a bad thing. That’s because Corinth was a notorious place for low morals, and lots of visiting sailors from foreign places. The vast majority of the time, a sailor passing a house of worship where the women were chattering in esoteric tongues would figure this was a place to find temple prostitutes. That was a common feature in pagan cults of that time and place. Corinth was an unusual place.
In Philippi, women were leading the synagogue that met by the river because there apparently were no men in the group. That was pretty common in Gentile lands, since converting to Judaism meant circumcision for men and it’s pretty tough on adult males, not to mention a big ritual rigmarole costing a good bit of money.
In other places we find passing mention of females in various roles that seem to imply leadership. Do you have an idea how many different cultures were touched by Paul’s missionary journeys in what is to today Turkey and Greece?
There is only one hard and fast rule: Women could not be priests, or fulfill priestly roles. This is what we normally translate into English as “pastor.” At the same time, we know that, despite all the silly semantic wrangling, there were deaconesses, along with prophetesses and some other women who led in one sense or another.
On top of this, we have good reason to believe that the senior elder in any given church was the “head of household.” His was the final organizational authority in the covenant fellowship body. We should assume most churches had a male elder eventually, but at any given time, a substantial number of churches that arose from a previous synagogues may well have been all female. Given what we know of the social history of those lands, we suspect that the gospel message that didn’t require circumcision would draw a lot of men who previously held back from joining.
An elder was always organic to the body — the head of household. First Century churches were feudal because the whole society was; it was assumed in law and custom. Most of the time, your covenant household grew out from some standard household that held some social importance in the local area. The household would simply take up an allegiance to Christ as their feudal lord and others in community would join by sharing that allegiance. It was the Covenant of Christ. There was no secular angle to this because that simply did not exist in that part of the world. So whoever had the means to sponsor a covenant body operating in their home was the de facto elder unless they passed the buck. It was their decision.
And it could have been a wealthy woman. But that would have been legally risky in some places, so she would be looking for some guy to take up that role as soon as it was fitting and possible. God designed us to have dads around and it’s not a matter of superiority. Paul added a clarification in 1 Timothy 2, reminding us that, in the Garden at the Fall, Eve was honestly confused about the situation, but Adam was not. It was his job to protect Eve from moral deception. It’s a role, not a super power; God didn’t equip Eve to form rules of discipline and moral theology. But if there’s no man able to lead, a godly woman is the best we have.
Whomever is elder makes the policy for such things. While that elder is in charge, he/she is required to make certain policy decisions that apply to his/her service as elder. If you want to take advantage of what their domain includes, you have to play along. If you cannot persuade them to make adjustments, leave their domain. If your elder sucks, join yourself to another household of faith. That’s certainly allowed. You’ll notice above that level, it’s really up to God. Okay, so maybe you have an apostolic figure involved who leads multiple churches; you’ll have to play along with that person’s policies, too.
But if God calls you to do something they don’t like, go forth and start your own work. You have no claim on their resources and dominion, and they have no claim over your call from God. There is no one hard and fast rule on women leading in other roles aside from priestly offices. But I can tell you this: Where there is bitter contention, somebody is not right with God. It’s not for me to decide who that might be, but male or female, you know it’s the one who provokes and agitates to get their way over everyone else. Taking offense too easily is just another form of hatred.
Paul made it clear where he stood personally, but he was careful to distinguish between his own preferences versus a command from God. If you want to see a well-researched background, check out one of my favorite sources: The Christian Thinktank on women. Glen offers a link to a PDF on that page, which includes the entire 368 pages of detailed discussion on the place of women in Scripture and related sources. You can take it with a grain of salt, but it’s not my place to nail it down for you beyond that one hard and fast rule I’ve mentioned already.