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women in ministry

Some Thoughts on Women in Ministry

Throughout the testimony of Scripture, we have examples of God tolerating many things that are far from ideal in order to gradually transform the world in the direction he intends for us. For example, God’s ideal from the beginning was monogamy. But throughout most of history God has tolerated and worked within polygamous cultures in order to eventually transform them (e.g. Gen 29). Similarly, God’s ideal has always been freedom for all people made in his image. Yet for centuries God tolerated and worked within systems of slavery in order to eventually overthrow them (e.g. Eph 6:5-9).

I believe that the subservient role of women to men, especially concerning their prohibition from serving as spiritual leaders, is another aspect of fallen culture that God wants to overthrow. God tolerated and worked within the patriarchal cultures of both the Old and the New Testaments. But his ideal —and thus the ideal the Church should be striving for—is for leadership to be gift-based, not gender-based.

While I do not dispute that there are verses that teach that women are to submit to men and that expressly forbid women to exercise spiritual authority over men (e.g. 2 Tim. 2:11-14), I do challenge the conclusion that these passages express God’s will for all time. If this constituted part of the created order and God’s ideal, we would not find counter-examples of it. As matters stand, however, the Bible contains many examples of women exercising spiritual authority over men. I offer ten such examples.

  1. God incorporated the songs and statements of a number of women into his inspired authoritative Scripture (e.g., Ex 15:21; Judges 5; Luke 1:42-46; etc.). Inasmuch as the whole Word of God has authority over believers, these passages constitute examples of women having spiritual authority over all who read them (including men).
  2. Women were given the same command to “rule” over creation as were men. “So God created humankind in his image … male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it …” (Gen 1:27-28, emphasis added).
  3. God commanded Abraham to obey his wife Sarah (Gen. 21:12). If female submission was part of God’s creational design, this command would constitute a violation of nature!
  4. Miriam is mentioned as a leader of Israel alongside Moses and Aaron (Micah 6:4; cf. Ps 68:11). Miriam was also a noted worship leader (Ex. 15:20-21).
  5. Deborah served as an admirable judge and leader over all Israel (Judges 4-5). This example alone is enough to show that it is acceptable for a woman who is so gifted to exercise strong leadership over men and women alike.
  6. Throughout Scripture we find female prophets. Huldah was a prophetess that both men and women consulted (II Kgs 22:14). Noadiah and Anna are also depicted as prophetesses who could teach (Neh 6:14; Lk 2:36-38). Indeed, a portion of Anna’s teaching about Christ is found in Scripture (hence has authority over all who read it). More generally, evidence of the out-pouring of the Spirit in the New Testament was that “both sons and … daughters [would] prophesy…. Even … slaves, both men and women … shall prophesy” (Acts 2:16-18). Hence we are not surprised to find that each of Philip’s four daughters possessed the “gift of prophecy” (Acts 21:8-9). Nor are we surprised to find that Paul allowed women to prophesy in church, so long as they kept their head covered (I Cor. 11:4-5).
  7. God used women as the first Christian evangelists, proclaiming (to the male apostles!) the truth that Jesus was risen from the tomb (Jn 20:16-18).
  8. Both Priscilla and Aquila were said to teach the man Apollos (Acts 18:26). This presupposes that women can in principle teach men.
  9. In Romans 16:1-12, Paul lists a number of women involved in Christian service. Phoebe is called a “deacon” (vss. 1-2); Priscilla is given equal status to her husband Aquila in their Kingdom work (vss. 3-4); Mary is described as a hard worker among believers (vs. 6); Andronicus and Junia are said to be “prominent among the apostles” (vs. 7); and Tryphosa and Persis are described as “workers” in the Lord (vs. 12).
  10. Euodia and Syntyche are referred to as “co-workers” by Paul—as much as Clement or any man (Philippians 4:2-3).

If it was part of God’s creational ideal that women never exercise spiritual authority over men, we should not have counter-examples such as these throughout Scripture. The fact that we have a wealth of such examples is enough to prove that the prohibition against women being spiritual leaders is cultural, not timeless.

While God’s willingness to temporarily accommodate himself to fallen cultures is expressed in the prohibition passages, I propose that God’s ideal will is expressed in passages such as Galatians 3:28. Here Paul writes: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Whatever other implications we derive from this passage, it seems evident that restricting roles on the basis of gender is no more justified in the body of Christ than restricting roles on the basis of race or class. There are cultural situations—the first century, for example—where such restrictions must in fact be tolerated. But they must always be what the Church works against as it strives to realize God’s ideal in the world.

Related to this, whenever Paul or anyone else discusses ministry in the Church, they speak of gift-based roles, not gender roles. Indeed, never once in any of the “gift-lists” of the New Testament is there any hint that certain gifts are inextricably connected to a person’s gender, including the gift of pastor, teacher, and evangelist (e.g., Eph 4:11; I Cor 12:4-31). This absence of gender specification is hardly what we would expect if indeed the leadership gifts were restricted to men, for we know that the issue of women in leadership was certainly present in New Testament churches (e.g., I Cor. 11:1-16; 2 Tim. 2:11-14). Instead we find the straight-forward declaration that “there are varieties of gifts … varieties of services … varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone’ (I Cor. 12:4-6, emphasis added). Again, the Spirit “allots [gifts] to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.” (I Cor. 12:11). There’s no hint that gender has anything to do with the Spirits’ choosing.

While fallen cultures have consistently pigeonholed people according to gender, race or class, the Spirit of God is about freeing people from these arbitrary restrictions and liberating people to exercise their God-given gifts. As Peter declared so powerfully on the day of Pentecost, the Spirit is now being poured out on “all flesh,” with the result that surprising people are going to be used by God in surprising ways. Both women and men will be used to authoritatively and prophetically declare the wonders of God (Acts 2:16-18).

We are guilty of idolizing fallen culture and of quenching the Spirit if we canonize first century restrictions against woman and construe them as part of God’s ideal for all time. It is no different than when certain Christians in past generations tried to use the Bible’s acceptance of slavery as a justification for its on-going practice.

For more on this topic, check out this sermon.

Photo credit: Ferran. via Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-ND

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