The Case for Women in Ministry
Kathy’s Struggle with Temptation
Kathy was one of the brightest students I ever had when I taught Theology at Bethel University. She asked insightful questions and often contributed to lively class discussions. The time and energy she put into her theology classes was motivated by more than just a desire to get a good grade. She clearly was passionately interested in the material.
Then something began to change. She grew more and more quiet and seemed to have the confidence sucked out of her. One day she stopped me in the cafeteria and explained why. She said that since the first week of my class she’d been “coming under a spiritual attack.” She said the devil was tempting her because she kept getting a mental picture of herself doing what I was doing — teaching theology. Other times, she reported, she actually got mental pictures of herself preaching in church. Worst of all, she said that she found herself wanting to engage in these activities. And then she asked me, “Why is God letting the devil torment me by giving me visions and longings I can never possibly fulfill?” When I asked her why she felt she could never become a teacher or a preacher, her response was, “Because I’m a girl!” It turned out the church Kathy was raised in was one that forbids women to teach or preach (at least if there were men in the audience). My heart broke.
The question I want to address in this essay is: Were the visions and longings that Kathy was experiencing from the devil, or from God? Can a woman serve in top leadership positions — including being a senior pastor, preacher and/or teacher — or are these roles to be reserved for men? In this essay I shall argue that, while there are intensely patriarchal contexts in which its not expedient to place women in top leadership roles, God’s ideal will is for people to exercise whatever gifting they have in the body of Christ and in society regardless of their gender.
I’ll first provide an brief overview of the main biblical passages cited when people argue against the idea that women can hold top leadership positions in the church (I). I’ll then begin refuting this case by showing that very few churches are consistent in the way they apply these verses (II). Following this, I’ll review the role of women in leadership ministries in the Old Testament (III), in the ministry of Jesus (IV), in the book of Acts (V) and in Paul’s writings (VI). I’ll then explore the broader issue of how we are to discern what is and is not culturally relative in the Bible (VII) and then end this essay by applying this discussion to the two passages most cited in the argument against women in leadership ministries, I Tim.2:11-15 (VIII) and I Cor. 14:35-35 (IX).
I. The Biblical Case Against Women In Ministry
The Bible is often cited as the basis for excluding women from positions of authority in the church. For example, God created Adam first, and Eve is called Adam’s “helper.” When Jesus called the disciples, he called twelve men and no women. And when Paul offered instructions about deacons, he specified that they should be the husband of one wife—he never says the wife of one husband. The Bible itself seems to have been written exclusively by men.
Beyond these general observations, two verses explicitly state that “women should be silent in the churches…for they are not permitted to speak, but should remain silent and subordinate” (1 Cor. 14:34), and “I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man; she is to keep silent” (1 Tim. 2:12).
These passages seem so clear, so unequivocal, so certain. What is there to discuss? Some would argue that any teacher who would question the applicability of these passages for the church today are “liberals” who are caving into societal pressures. Perhaps, but we need to be careful. We will do well to remember that Christians used proof-texts in the Bible that seemed just as clear, unequivocal, and certain to support the institution of slavery in America. In fact, many of these passages are in the same contexts as verses that are used to support the subordination of women (i.e. 1 Pet. 2:18: “Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.” 1 Peter 3:1 goes on to say, “Wives, in the same way, accept the authority of your husbands…”). There was a time when it was considered “liberal” to question the clarity of these verses as well, but—praise God!—we now recognize that the whole of Scripture proclaims the freedom and equality of all believers (Gal. 3:28). In the same way, verses that seem to prohibit women from teaching and preaching need to be understood in the context of the whole of Scripture.
II. What Would a Literal Application of These Verses Really Look Like?
1 Timothy 2:11. Let’s consider 1 Timothy 2:11 in its context, in which Paul says “I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.” Many churches interpret this passage as prohibiting women from serving in the office of senior pastor, but think that it’s still okay for women to be Sunday school teachers, youth workers, worship leaders, missionaries, etc.
However, we must consider a couple things. First of all, the office of senior pastor does not exist in the New Testament, so that interpretation cannot be the true meaning of the text. Secondly, the distinction between the highest level of authority and other positions of authority is not present in the text. All teaching and authority over men is prohibited without qualification, so any attempt to limit the prohibition to the office of senior pastor is arbitrary, not biblical.
In the ancient world, boys over the age of thirteen were considered men. So if this passage is taken literally and applied today as it was applied in the first century, it would exclude women from serving as Sunday school teachers, youth leaders, worship leaders, or missionaries for boys over the age of thirteen. Paul doesn’t say that women shouldn’t have authority oven men in their own culture, he just says, “over a man.” That would mean that a woman under any circumstances, in any condition, in any culture, should not have authority over any man. But even the Catholic church throughout its history, and certainly the Protestant church, has permitted women to minister in the mission field. In other words, it’s okay to have authority over Chinese men, and over African men, and over Russian men, as long as women don’t have authority over men of their own culture.
Just before Paul forbids women from teaching or having authority over men, he also forbids them from braiding their hair, wearing jewelry, and wearing expensive clothes. Now I only know a few churches—including the church that I was saved in—that prohibit women from wearing jewelry, and even they don’t say that women can’t braid their hair or wear expensive clothing. I don’t know of any churches that consistently forbid women from all the things that Paul forbids them from doing in this passage. Instead we assume that something was going on in the culture of Paul’s time, at least at Ephesus, that made it wrong for Christian women in that context to braid their hair, for example. In fact, in that culture braided hair was considered seductive and was usually associated with prostitution.
Even if we aren’t exactly sure what the big deal is about jewelry or braided hair or expensive clothes, most of us intuitively know that verses that deal with them are culturally relative. But then all of a sudden when Paul says, “by the way, don’t let a woman teach or have authority,” why do so many Christians conclude that these verses must be teaching eternal truth?
1 Corinthians 14:34–35. Let’s take a look at 1 Corinthians 14:34–35. Paul says “a woman should remain silent in a church, it’s disgraceful for her to talk.” He even says that if women have questions during the service, they should ask their husbands afterward. So, if we’re going to interpret these verses literally and apply them consistently, not only should women not teach or have authority, they also should not be allowed to ask questions in church. But I don’t know of any church that would turn away a woman with a question and send her home to ask her husband. What about single women? Are they out of luck? Maybe something else is going on in this context that would make more sense out of this passage.
In chapter 11 of 1 Corinthians Paul says that when a woman prays or prophesies in church, she should have a veil on her head. But in order to pray or prophesy in church, a woman would have to be speaking. Apparently Paul was okay with women praying and prophesying in church as long as they are veiled. So what does it mean three chapters later when Paul says that it’s a disgrace for women to speak in church? From the context of his own letter, it’s clear that Paul’s apparent prohibition of women speaking in church is not a universal and unequivocal principle for all churches of all time periods in all cultures.
III. Old Testament Examples of Women Who Ministered as Spiritual and Political Leaders
There are many examples of women who served in leadership positions in the Old Testament. For example, Exodus 15:20 describes Miriam as a prophetess who served alongside her brothers Moses and Aaron during the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt (cf. Micah 6:4). Judges 4–5 tells the story of a remarkable woman named Deborah, who served as judge over all of Israel and rallied the army of Israel to victory over the Canaanites. During the Israelites’ exile, a Jewish woman named Esther became queen over Persia and rescued her people from Haman, an evil prime minister who threatened to exterminate the Jews.
In spite of the characteristic stigma against women in Ancient Near Eastern cultures, the Bible celebrates the examples of these women rather than censuring them. For example, due to her willingness to protect the Hebrew spies, Rahab and her friends and family were the only citizens of Jericho to survive its defeat by the Israelite army. She eventually married a Jewish man and is listed in Matthew 5:5 as an ancestor of Christ. She is praised in the New Testament both as an example of great faith (Hebrews 11:31) and good works (James 2:25).
Jesus rebuked the arrogant and disbelieving religious leaders of his day with the examples of Old Testament women such as the impoverished widow at Zarephath who cared for the prophet Elijah (Luke 4:24–26; cf. 1 Kings 17:8–16), and the wealthy Queen of Sheba who traveled to Israel to hear the wisdom of Solomon (Matt. 12:42; Luke 11:31; cf. 1 Kings 10:1–10; 2 Chron. 9:1–9).
IV. Jesus’ Counter-Cultural Affirmation of Women in Ministry
Perhaps the most persuasive argument in support of women serving in leadership positions within the church is Jesus’ counter-cultural affirmation and empowerment of women. In describing the group that accompanied Jesus throughout his ministry, Luke 8:1–3 lists women, including Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and “many others,” along with the twelve disciples. Matthew also includes Salome, the mother of the sons of Zebedee (27:55–56) and Mark includes Mary, the mother of James and Joseph as part of this group of women (15:40–41).
Jesus used the example of the sacrificial giving of an impoverished widow to rebuke self-righteous religious leaders at the temple (Luke 21:1–4; Mark 12:41–44). Jesus defended Mary against her sister Martha when Mary assumed the position of a disciple and sat at Jesus’ feet rather than serving in the kitchen (Luke 10:38–42). When a “sinful woman” entered a Pharisee’s home where Jesus was eating and anointed Jesus’ feet with oil, the disciples condemned her actions. But Jesus allowed her to remain and her act of devotion won higher praise from Jesus than any other act in the gospels (Matt. 26:6–13; Mark 14:3–9; Luke 7:36–50; John 12:1–8).
Jesus included women as characters in his parables, such as the parables of the woman and the lost coin (Luke 15:8–10), the widow and the unjust judge (Luke 18:1–8), and the ten bridesmaids (Matt. 25:1–13). Jesus affirmed women who were untouchable by society’s standards, including a woman who was ceremonially unclean because of chronic bleeding (Luke 8:43–48; cf. Lev. 15:25–30), a heretical Samaritan woman of dubious character (John 4:7–42; cf. 2 Kings 17:24–34), a woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8:1–11), and a Gentile woman with a demon possessed daughter (Matt. 15:21–28; Mark 7:24–30).
When the political and religious leaders plotted to execute Christ after his arrest, Pilate’s wife was the only person who came to his defense (Matt. 27:19). When the disciples fled during Jesus’ trial and crucifixion, the women remained with him (Matt. 27:55–56; Mark 15:40–41; Luke 23:49, 55). John records that Jesus’ mother, his aunt, Mary “the wife of Clopas,” and Mary Magdalene stood near the cross at his crucifixion. After his resurrection, Jesus appeared first to the women who came to mourn at his tomb (Matt. 28:1–10; Mark 16:1–11; Luke 24:1–10; John 20:1–18).
V. Women in Ministry in the Book of Acts
There are plenty of examples of women who spoke, prayed, and prophesied in church settings without being chastised for it—many are even commended. Acts 1:12–14 notes that women were among the disciples gathered in the upper room before Pentecost. In Acts 2:17–18, Peter quotes the Old Testament prophet Joel and says that when the Holy Spirit is poured out, men and women will prophesy. This was a radical thing the first century.
Acts 16:1 mentions Timothy for the first time, and identifies him as the son of a Jewish woman and a Greek man. 1 Timothy 1:5 reveals that Timothy’s mother Eunice and his grandmother Lois passed their faith on to him. There was probably some teaching and authority going on here, and I doubt it suddenly stopped after Timothy turned thirteen.
While Timothy eventually became the leader of the Ephesian church, Acts 16:11–15 describes one of his earliest experiences with Paul and Silas: the establishment of the first European church in a Roman colony called Philippi. Interestingly, they began this church by going down to the river every Sabbath and speaking to “the women who had gathered there,” particularly a merchant named Lydia. After Lydia and her household were baptized, the Philippian church met in her home. Having the church meet in one’s home was one of the primary responsibilities of a pastor or an elder in the early church. Even after Paul moved on, the Philippians continued to faithfully support his ministry.
In spite of the cultural stigma against women in positions of authority, there are more examples of female prophets than male prophets in the New Testament. For example, Acts 21:8–9 mentions that the four daughters of Philip the evangelist were known for their gifts of prophecy. Early Christians considered prophecy one of the highest—some argue that it was the highest—positions in the church. They did not make a clear distinction between prophets and preachers because both were responsible for speaking the word of God under the Holy Spirit’s anointing (cf. 1 Cor. 14:1–5; 24–25). Philip’s daughters are examples of women in the early church who were recognized as prophets.
VI. Women in Ministry Commended by Paul
The book of Romans mentions several examples of women in leadership positions, including a deacon, a teacher, and an apostle. In 16:1–2, Paul refers to a woman named Phoebe as a deacon and describes her as a fellow laborer for the gospel. Paul uses that term three other times in the New Testament, always referring to fellow evangelists. Although some people interpret 1 Timothy 3 as saying that only men can be deacons, Paul’s approval of Phoebe as a servant of the church (deacon) and an evangelist suggest otherwise.
In verse 3 Paul greets Priscilla as another fellow laborer in the gospel. In addition to working as tentmakers, Priscilla and her husband Aquilla oversaw a congregation that met in their home. Although some people interpret 1 Timothy 2 as forbidding women from teaching or having authority over men in any circumstances, Acts 18:26 says that Priscilla and Aquilla instructed Apollos, an apostle in need of further training.
In Romans 16:7, Paul mentions that a woman named Junia was imprisoned along with him for the sake of the gospel and he describes her as “outstanding among all the apostles.” The word apostle usually means “sent one” in the New Testament. It refers to a person who is called and empowered by God to speak the gospel with authority. According to Paul, Junia was one of those people.
The two passages in scripture that initially seem to prohibit women in ministry don’t seem nearly as clear or unequivocal in light of the many counter-examples throughout the Bible. If women are, by divine ordination and design, forbidden to speak in church, teach, or have authority over men in any capacity or under any circumstances, why are there so many examples of women who served in positions of authority in the Bible?
At the same time, we have to seriously wrestle with the New Testament passages that seem to prohibit women exercising spiritual authority over men. This leads us to the important hermeneutical issue of how to distinguish between the transcultural teachings of the Bible on one hand, and the cultural application of those teachings on the other.
VII. Discerning Between Transcultural Teachings and their Cultural Application
On some level everybody intuitively knows there are some things in the Bible that aren’t meant to be applicable to all people at all times. For example, Romans 16:16 says “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” How many of us kiss each other when we walk into church on Sunday morning? If any of us took that verse literally and tried to practice it consistently, we’d probably get sued for sexual harassment.
The transcultural teaching behind Romans 16:16 is that we should greet each other warmly when we meet together on Sunday morning. In the first century you did that with a kiss, but the customary way of doing that in this culture is to shake hands or maybe hug. Even if a church did take this verse literally and kiss everyone because “the Bible said so,” they still wouldn’t be following the Bible literally because it would be done out of compulsion rather than love. They would be disobeying the spirit of the text that says to “greet one another warmly,” even though they’d be obeying the letter of the law. This isn’t some kind of liberal interpretation, it’s just a common sense way of applying the Bible.
Very few churches make women wear veils in church, but in 1 Corinthians 11:1–16 Paul clearly commands that, especially when they are praying or prophesying. Why? In the first century, it was considered very radical, especially among Jews, for women to take off their veils when they prayed. Some Corinthian women got the message that they were free in Christ, which is true, so they disregarded the cultural custom of wearing a veil. But people were offended and confused by this practice so Paul said, “Cool it!” Here’s the transcultural teaching: act decently in church. In the first century that meant women should be veiled when they prayed or prophesied. What would the application be in our culture? Maybe something along the lines of “don’t come to church in a swimsuit.”
We can usually discern what is transcultural and what is culturally relative by asking this simple question: Is the issue in this passage uniformly addressed throughout Scripture? If it is, we can be confident that the teaching is probably transcultural. But where the Bible itself offers different teachings on a particular issue depending on the context, that is an indication that we’re dealing with an issue that is culturally conditioned.
For example, I came to a point in my Christian walk when I had to decide of whether or not I would drink wine, so I went to the Bible to see what it had to say about this. In Psalm 104:15, David thanks God for wine because it makes the heart glad. Jesus’ first miracle was turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana. Paul encourages Timothy to take a little wine to sooth his stomach problems. On the other hand, some people who took religious vows, such as Nazarites like Samson, Samuel, and John the Baptist, were forbidden from drinking alcohol. And, from beginning to end, the Bible consistently teaches against drunkenness. So I concluded that in some situations, such as ministering to people who abuse alcohol, it’s appropriate for Christians to abstain from drinking alcohol. In other situations it’s okay, but it’s never appropriate for a Christian to get drunk.
We need to use similar discernment with the issue of women in ministry. Given the many biblical examples of women who are commended for their ministry—including Timothy’s grandmother and mother—Paul’s prohibition against women teaching or having authority over men in 1 Timothy 2:11–15 is probably not a mandate to all churches in all cultures at all times. Epistles are sometimes called “occasional” writings, which simply means that they speak to specific occasions and are addressed to specific churches or individuals. This doesn’t mean that they’re not relevant for us, but we should understand what they originally meant before we try to apply them in our cultural context.
VIII. Discerning what is Cultural and Transcultural in 1 Timothy 2:11–15
Some of the cultural circumstances we should take into consideration when we interpret this passage include:
1) A first century person reading Paul’s letter to Timothy would find it radical for very different reasons than we do. When Paul says that women should learn in submission, we get hung up on the submission part, but a first century person would get hung up on the learning part because women were not allowed to be educated in that culture. They believed that women weren’t capable of learning and it was dangerous to try and teach them.
2) When we consider the cultural and religious state of Ephesus in the first century, it becomes clear why Paul would make this point in this context. The Ephesian temple built in honor of the pagan goddess Artemis was considered one of the seven wonders of the world. Many women were involved in the worship ceremonies that surrounded this goddess and the cult was associated with all sorts of sensuality and bizarre teaching, such as fertility worship. A person in Ephesus would probably associate a female leader with that kind of pagan worship.
3) Paul was just getting the Ephesian church off the ground and it faced a lot of challenges including persecution and false teaching. Uneducated female converts brought all sorts of weird ideas in from their culture when they came to the church. So Paul told Timothy to put a lid on this.
Perhaps the most convincing argument that 1 Timothy 2:11–15 is a universal principle for all churches in all times is the fact that Paul appeals to the creation order in verses 13 and 14. But from the context of the letter it seems more likely that he refers to this in order to refute some of the false teaching that was going on in the Ephesian church. In 1 Corinthians 11:7–10 Paul also appeals to creation order to argue why it was important for women to be veiled when they prophesied, but today the church almost universally understands that practice to be culturally relative.
One further thing to note about 1 Timothy 2:11–15 is that the word that is usually translated “to have authority over” in verse 12 (authentein) does not occur anywhere else in the New Testament and is not the usual Greek word for “authority.” In classical Greek literature it had all kinds of different meanings, including “to dominate,” “to act independently,” and even “to commit murder.” It’s never a good idea to base transcultural church doctrines on words that only occur once in the New Testament, especially when they seem to contradict the clear teaching of Scripture in other contexts.
When Paul forbade a woman to teach or have authority over a man, he meant at that point in time, under those circumstances, in that culture, because it threatened the Ephesian church’s early development as well as its outreach to the community. The principle we can apply to our own church context is this: when you’re starting a new church, be careful about who your leaders are. Make sure they get the training they need, and until they do, they should not be given too much authority.
IX. Discerning what is cultural and transcultural in 1 Corinthians 14:34–35
Let’s take a quick look at the cultural context of 1 Corinthians 14. Writings from first century rabbis confirm that when uneducated women came to a synagogue they often had a hard time understanding what was going on. So women would ask their husbands in the middle of the sermon when the rabbi was up there trying to talk. It was distracting because women and men were segregated, so they would shout their questions to someone across the room. So the rabbis made a rule that there couldn’t be any questions in church; you had to wait until afterward. The transcultural principle here is this: don’t cause disruptions during the service. The application in the first century meant that women had to wait until they got home to ask their husbands questions. In the twentieth century, the application is very different.
I believe that the few verses which restrict women from teaching and preaching no longer apply because the circumstances which required them (especially lack of education) no longer exist. Whatever suspicions and criticisms people may have about women pastors today, their objections probably don’t have anything to do with fertility cults. And when people today argue that women should be silent in church, it’s not because women are disrupting the service because they don’t understand what’s going on.
We need to distinguish between the heart of the gospel and the cultural application of the gospel. Throughout the Bible, God has an ideal for his people but he is also realistic. So God graciously works with us to bring about the next best thing even when we fail to accomplish his ideal. For example, in his letter to Philemon, Paul addresses a Christian whose slave Onesimus had escaped and joined Paul’s ministry. Ideally Philemon would have released Onesimus altogether, but perhaps that expectation was too radical in the first century context where masters had the right to execute escaped slaves. Even though slavery is not God’s ideal, in this context, Paul urges Philemon to allow his former slave to return without prosecuting him. God is willing to work with us to come up with a plan B when a plan A is no longer possible. God desires the ideal but loves us enough to deal with us in the midst of what is real.
First century women were considered to be just above the level of slaves. They didn’t have any rights and they weren’t allowed to be educated. Their status was not something that could be overturned overnight. God’s ideal is expressed in Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Jesus demonstrated this ideal by affirming women in spite of the cultural stigma against them. It is illustrated in Acts 2 when God pours his Spirit out on men and women equally at Pentecost. It is present at creation before the fall when men and women experienced the unity that we ought to strive for today.
God wants to eliminate all the external distinctions of class, race, gender and wealth as ways of judging a person’s ability to minister effectively. The real question is not one of gender, but of calling. In the three passages where Paul talks about spiritual gifts, he never says that some are for men only. Not only does Paul fail to mention that some gifts are for men only in Romans 12:3–8, but he goes on to warmly greet a female deacon, teacher, and apostle, as well as several other women who ministered in the church at Rome. You’d think that given his advice to Timothy that women should not teach or have authority over men, he’d at least mention this when he writes to Timothy’s church in Ephesus about spiritual gifts (Eph. 4:11–13). And in 1 Corinthians, even though Paul seems to forbid women from speaking in church, he doesn’t disqualify them from any of the spiritual gifts, including prophecy, as long as they are veiled. Instead, Paul commands all believers to strive for the greater gifts (1 Cor. 12:31).
A literal interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:11–15 and 1 Corinthians 14 without understanding them in their original contexts requires a radical reinterpretation of scripture’s clear teaching on spiritual gifts, the work of the Holy Spirit in every believer’s life, and the equality of every believer in Christ. Examples of female prophets, teachers, evangelists, and apostles must somehow be explained away. Examples of women who have had powerful and effective ministries throughout history—in spite of the cultural bias against them—must be considered false or historical flukes.
Jesus tells us that the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few, but instead of empowering as many workers as we can, many churches arbitrarily disqualify over half of them. This doesn’t just cripple the church, it also alienates and undermines the value of individual Christian women. It makes women like Kathy question God’s calling and confuse it with a temptation from the devil.
I believe it is time for the church to stand behind Christian women and to unequivocally affirm them whether God calls them to minister through giving, helping, encouraging, teaching or prophesying. And I’m happy to report that, after studying the matter in some depth, Kathy came to the conclusion that the prohibition on women in ministry in the Bible was on the same level as the permission for slavery in the Bible, which freed her to pursue her passion to preach and to teach. I’m confident the Kingdom of God is benefited by having Kathy freed up in this way.
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