I have not wanted to do this, and have steadfastly resisted it up until now. However, I am so tired of responding to the challenges about women in ministry, that I have decided to put this article on my site and then I can simply link to it, rather than going through the whole thing over and over again.
Let me begin by saying that my position starts with a high view of Scripture. I believe the Bible IS the Word of God (as opposed to merely containing the Word of God), and that as such it is absolutely true and absolutely authoritative. It is therefore also absolutely consistent. If it were not, it could not be either true or authoritative. Therefore, if at any point there appears to be either untruth or inconsistency in the Word, the problem lies not in Scripture but in our interpretation of it.
To interpret the Word properly, several things are necessary. Firstly, we must look at what the whole of Scripture says concerning the issue. We must distinguish between what are cultural practices that are merely reported in Scripture, and what are spiritual requirements that are mandated by Scripture. We need to discern what things were spoken to a specific person or people, at a specific time and in a specific place, and what are spoken to God’s people as a whole.
So, how do we see women represented in the Bible? Genesis 1:27 says, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.
(v.28) And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” From this we see several things. Firstly, God created man and woman equal – both in His image, and so equal that He sees them as one. Secondly, God gave to man and woman together the mandate to “fill the earth, subdue it and have dominion.” They were to stand together as His vice-regents on earth. There is absolutely no suggestion that the man was to rule over the woman.
Those who want to trace the dominion of man over woman to the creation have to go into Genesis 3 (after the fall) where verse 16 says, “Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” Even though the KJV uses the word “shall” here, the original says simply “will” – in other words, even after the fall God is not commanding man to rule over woman, but simply stating that is what will happen. In any case, the whole statement is part of the curse, and Jesus has borne the curse for us at the Cross, so that we do not have to live under it.
Of course, exactly what God had said would happen, did. Man began to dominate woman to the extent that most societies in the ancient world became totally patriarchal. It is amazing that women found a place in such a society at all, but there are still a few that did.
Miriam was Moses’ older sister. We meet her at the time of Moses’ adoption by Pharaoh’s daughter, and several times during Moses’ leadership of Israel. At one point she is rebuked for challenging Moses’ leadership. However, she is still listed with Moses and Aaron as one of the three leaders of the nation – “I brought you up out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery. I sent Moses to lead you, also Aaron and Miriam.” (Micah 6:4, NIV)
Judges 4 and 5 give us the story of Deborah, the remarkable woman whom God used to lead the Nation of Israel during the time of the Judges. Incredibly, some people in their effort to avoid this passage have suggested that she only led the women in Israel! That definitely does not line up with the Scriptural account, which shows General Barak not only obeying her orders to go to battle (along with his whole army), but insisting that she go with him as the leader. It is also obvious that her authority was spiritual and not merely temporal, because her response to this insistence is the prophetic declaration that because of this God will give the enemy to a woman.
The first 8 chapters or so of 1 Chronicles are a very long and boring genealogy, which very few people read. Tucked away in there, however, is just one verse about an incredible woman. Her name is Sheerah, the daughter of Beriah, and in 1 Chronicles 7:24 we are presented with the stark fact that she built three cities! What sort of authority must she have had, to be able to gather and supervise all the workers needed for such a task.
In 2 Kings 22, King Josiah was in the process of bringing about mighty reforms in the nation. As part of that, he had organized for the restoration of the temple. In the course of that work, the scroll of the Law was found and brought to the king. When he read it, he was devastated, realizing how far from observing its decrees his people were. He wanted to hear from God as to what he should do about this matter. Jeremiah and several other male prophets were in town at the time, but Josiah did not send for any of them. Instead, he sent for the prophetess Huldah, and when she responded he both accepted her words and submitted to them.
There may have been others whose stories are not recorded, but just these four show us that, even under the Old Covenant, God gave individual women authority to share the leadership of the nation, to lead the nation in her own right, to direct the building of 3 cities, and to give spiritual direction to the king and through him to the nation. How can anyone possibly believe that God wants to do less with women in the New Covenant than in the Old? Did Jesus die to bring men into liberty and women into bondage?
Just before we leave the Old Testament, let’s look at that paragon of virtue, the Proverbs 31 woman. Many Christians including – in fact, especially – those who oppose women in ministry, hold this woman up as the epitome of womanhood to which all Christian women should aspire. Verse 26 says, “She openeth her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness.” The word “law” is “Torah” – the law of the Old Covenant. This woman, whom those who oppose women in ministry uphold as the ideal, is in fact presented as a teacher of the Law!
Let’s move on to the Gospels. Jesus’ attitude to and treatment of women was quite different from that of the religious authorities of the day. He included women among His followers – something that was quite unheard of. In that culture there was only one reason for someone to be taught, and that was for that person to become a teacher of others. That’s why the rabbis did not teach women – they did not expect women to become teachers. Jesus did teach them, with the obvious implication that He intended them to in turn teach others.
We all know the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42). Martha was busy around the house, whilst Mary sat at Jesus’ feet to learn. Martha demanded that Jesus tell her sister to help her. There was actually much more to this than Martha just not wanting to do all the work on her own. Working in the kitchen was a “woman’s place”, but sitting at the feet of a Rabbi to learn was a “man’s place.” Martha was effectively telling Jesus to stop Mary from choosing a man’s place. What was His response? He told her that Mary had chosen the better part, and implied that she (Martha) would have been better to choose likewise.
Much has been made of the fact that Jesus did not include any women in the twelve, and some have insisted that because the original twelve apostles were all male, all leadership in the Church should be male. Some have also said that leadership in the Church should be male because all the priests of the Old Testament were male. All twelve original apostles were also Jews, and the priests of the Old Testament were not only Jews, but Levites – but we don’t hear anyone insisting on that as a qualification for Christian ministry! The reason Jesus chose twelve men as the original apostles was very simple: they were to be witnesses of His resurrection. Witnesses, that is, not just in the general sense of having seen it, but in the legal sense of being able to testify to its veracity. In the culture of that day, only men could fulfil the legal requirement to be witnesses.
However, Jesus did use women as witnesses of the resurrection in the broader sense. In fact they were the first ones there, and He personally commissioned Mary Magdalene to go and tell the rest of the disciples (John 20:17). (Let’ see – witness of the resurrection, personally commissioned and sent by the risen Christ – my goodness, that adds up to the qualifications of an apostle!)
He also used a woman as the first person to take the Gospel beyond the Jews – the Samaritan at the well. (John 4). That He even engaged in conversation with this woman was totally contrary to the cultural standards. That He engaged in a theological discussion with her was unthinkable. She was, incidentally, the first person – and one of the very few – to whom He openly said, “I am the Christ.” And whilst He did not specifically tell her to go back and preach the Gospel to her townspeople, He most certainly did not forbid her from doing so.
Into the book of Acts, and Jesus told His disciples that, at the outpouring of the Spirit after His ascension to heaven, they would receive power to be His witnesses. In other words, the coming of the Spirit was not for them to just have a nice spiritual party, but to equip them for ministry. We are specifically told that the women were among the group gathered in the upper room who received that outpouring. Why would God give the outpouring of the Spirit to equip people for ministry, and include women in the group, if He did not intend women to minister? Likewise, none of the “gift lists” (Ephesians 4, 1 Corinthians 12 or Romans 12) give any indication that these gifts are given only to men.
The epistles list a number of women whom Paul commends as women in ministry. There was Priscilla, who with her husband Aquila taught Apollos more accurately about the things of God. (Acts 18:26). These two Paul refers to as “my helpers in Christ.” (Romans 16:3). Note that he does not say, “Aquila, my helper in Christ, and his wife Priscilla.” In fact, he puts Priscilla’s name first – something quite unheard of in that culture.
Then there is Junia (Romans 16:7). Even Matthew Henry acknowledges this as a female name, as did the early church fathers. She is “of note among the apostles”, and the original wording suggests that she is not just well-known to the apostles but recognized as one of them.
Tryphena, Tryphosa and Persis are all commended as having worked hard in the Lord (Romans 16:12) – hardly an expression you would expect if all they did was make the cups of tea!
Phoebe (Romans 16:1) is named as a deacon (interestingly, not a deaconess) of the church and one who has helped many, Paul included. The word used here clearly refers to leadership help, not waiting on tables. (Incidentally, one of the requirements for deacons was that they be “the husband of one wife.” Since Phoebe was called a deacon, this requirement obviously referred to marital faithfulness, not to male gender. And if it does not refer to male gender in relation to deacons, then it cannot be taken as referring to male gender in relation to any other ministry.)
So, we have a number of women in leadership who are commended by Paul who, supposedly, did not allow women in leadership. Either Scripture is inconsistent (which it is not) or our interpretation of Paul’s teaching is wrong.
There are only two passages which appear to say that women cannot minister. Before we move on to look at them, we need to look at another passage from Paul. In Galatians 3:26-28, Paul writes, “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, (v27) for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. (v28) There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” The first thing we see here is that he refers to all believers as “sons” – not “sons and daughters.” In the culture of his day daughters had a very much lower place than sons. Paul makes it very clear that such discrimination does not exist in the kingdom of God. We are all equal. Then he looks at the three great dividers – race, socio-economic status and gender – and declares that in Christ all are invalid. There are many today who say “Oh, yes, well women are equal to men, but they have a different function.” That is baloney, and we see just how much baloney it is when we apply the same thinking to the two other dividers mentioned here. How would we react if someone were to say to a black man, “Oh, yes, you are equal to a white man, but you have a different function. Leadership is the function of white men, the function of black men is to be silent and submit”? What if someone said to a poor man, “Yes, you are equal to a rich man, but you have a different function. The rich lead, the poor can only function as followers”? In either case we would very quickly see that the “equality” being touted by the speaker was most unequal, and in fact a total sham. So why is it that people think they can say to a woman who has the gifts, the training and the calling to lead, that this is not her function because she is not male? If God in His Word says there is neither male nor female, then He frees women to function in whatever role He has called and equipped them for.
Another important aspect in looking at this verse is for us to understand the source of authority. The three dividers Paul mentions are all natural things – race and gender are physical, and socio-economic standing is social. Spiritual authority can never derive from physical or social qualities, but only from the spiritual quality of our union with Christ. To suggest that spiritual authority can derive from the physical attribute of gender is as ridiculous as suggesting that spiritual authority can derive from the physical attribute of red hair.
So let’s look at the two contentious passages. The first is 1 Corinthians 14:33-35. “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace. As in all the congregations of the saints, (v34) women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says.
(v35) If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.” In context, this is part of a passage dealing with order during a church service. Previously, those who speak in tongues have been told to keep silent if there is no interpretation (v28), and those who are prophesying are told to stop if a revelation comes to someone else (v 30).
Note that the words “preach” or “teach” are nowhere to be found in these verses. They are not talking about women teaching or preaching, but about them speaking. If these verses were to be taken as they appear at the surface level, a woman should not open her mouth from the time she enters an assembly till the time she leaves. Yet even those who oppose women preaching have no difficulty with the idea of women praying, giving testimony or singing. In fact, just a couple of chapters earlier (11:5), Paul has given instructions for a woman praying or prophesying in church. Clearly the prayer referred to is not silent prayer, and prophecy certainly involves speaking. Therefore, we cannot take these verses as saying a woman is not to open her mouth, or we would be saying that Scripture is inconsistent at this point. These verses must refer to something else.
What they are referring to is actually made very clear in the passage itself: ” If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home.” This is very simply a prohibition against women calling out questions to their husbands, who in the tradition of their culture would be seated on the other side of the room. In keeping with the context of the rest of the passage, it is all about maintaining order in the meetings.
The second passage is 1 Timothy 2:11-15, “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection.
(v12) But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.
(v13) For Adam was first formed, then Eve. (v14) And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression. (v15) Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety.”
The one thing that some people want to pull out of this is, “I do not allow a woman to teach.” Was it, however, true that in any and every situation Paul did not allow a woman to teach? Obviously not. We have already seen that in other circumstances he commended women teachers. Again, we must choose between saying that Scripture is inconsistent or saying that our interpretation of this passage is wrong.
What about the argument that Paul brings? Firstly, he says that Adam was formed first, then Eve. Many say that this is the reason that man is to be over woman: he was created first. Like so many of the arguments put forward on this issue, this fails to follow through to its logical conclusion. If man is over woman because he was created before her, then the animals are over man because they were created before him.
Paul goes on to say that Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived. Ah! There it is! Woman is prone to deception therefore cannot be trusted to teach. But hold on – is that true? We have only to compare the number of cults and false religions started and led by men to those started and led by women, to see that the suggestion that women are more prone to deception than men is not only untrue but utterly ridiculous. Scripture is true in every part. If at any place, as here, it appears to be saying something that is not true, then it is our interpretation that is the problem, not the Word.
What’s more, if Adam was not deceived but Eve was, then that means that she sinned in ignorance, but he sinned deliberately and willfully. Why would God punish one who sinned in ignorance more harshly than one who sinned blatantly? Why would the blatant sinner be more equipped to lead than the ignorant sinner?
In fact, to interpret this passage in the traditional way produces something that is inconsistent with the rest of the New Testament, illogical, untrue and unjust.
So what is Paul saying? Let’s start where he starts: “Let the woman learn.” We have already seen that in the culture of the day, learning was always intended to lead to teaching. However, while she is learning, (and only while she is learning) “I do not permit a woman to teach.” Why not? Because “Adam was formed first”, and should have taught his wife properly about the requirements God had set concerning the trees in the garden. He failed to do so (probably because he was too busy ogling his new mate), and as a result, because she had not been taught properly, “the woman was deceived.” Therefore, “let the woman learn”, so that she will not be deceived, and will be properly equipped to take her place in the Body of Christ (which will not involve usurping the position of anyone else, man or woman, because God will have called her to her own unique role.) Verse 15 is believed to address a teaching in the church of the day that women could only be saved if they remained single and did not have children.
(A different aspect on this passage is given by Jim Reiher in his excellent book, “Women, Leadership & the Church.” Quoting from Kroeger and Kroeger (“I Suffer Not a Woman”), he explains that the women in this particular case may have been newly converted out of a Gnostic sect that was prevalent at the time. This sect taught that (1) Eve was created first, not Adam; (2) Eve did the right thing in seeking knowledge through eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, whereas Adam’s reluctance to do so was the first sin; and (3) that to be saved one had to remain single and celebate, and certainly could not have children. Since these are the three issues specifically addressed in the passage, this is (to my thinking at least) a very plausible explanation. If the women concerned had come out of this cult, Paul most certainly would have wanted to get their doctrine straightened out before unleashing them on the Church.
Finally, there are several very inconsistent arguments made by those who hold that women should not teach, preach or lead. One follows on from the teaching that the husband is the head of the wife, and projects that to meaning that every man is the head of every woman, therefore women cannot be in leadership over men. There are two aspects of this. Firstly, when it comes to the Church, it is Christ Who is the Husband, not the men in the Church; and it is the whole Church – men and women included – that is the bride, not merely the women. It is the bride – the whole church – that is subject to her Husband, not one part of the bride (the women) that is subject to the other part (the men.) Secondly, if every woman is to be subject to every man, then a 70 year old saint who has served God her whole lifetime, read the Bible cover to cover countless times, and prayed consistently for over 50 years, is subject to a newly born-again 12 year old who has never opened the Word and has no idea how to pray, just because she is female and he is male. That is utterly ridiculous, but if you follow this teaching to its logical conclusion that is where it leads. What does the Bible say about it? At 12 years of age, Jesus stayed behind at the temple to talk to the teachers of the Law. When His parents finally returned and found Him, He told them that He must be about His Father’s business, but then He went back with them and “was subject to them.” (Luke 2:51) Note that it does not say that He was just subject to Joseph, but “to them.” Obviously, He had no problems being under the legitimate authority of a woman.
Another inconsistency we see from those who forbid women to teach or preach is that most of them do so only on home soil. They are quite happy for women to go off to the mission field (where the men don’t want to go) and teach and preach to whomever they may find there.
For two thousand years the devil has managed to deceive a large part of the Body of Christ into believing that half the Body should not be actively engaged in the ministry of the Kingdom. Just who do you think benefits from that? Not the Church. Not the unsaved. Oh, yes, that would be the devil, who has only had to deal with half the army he should have been facing.
Wake up, Church! God has set us ALL free in Christ, He has given us ALL His Holy Spirit and He has called us ALL to go into every nation and preach the Gospel to all people. When you get to heaven and encounter those who have been saved under the ministry of a woman, are you going to insist that God send them to hell because she had no right to preach to them?