Women in Ministry Leadership

The Whole of Scripture
I believe that when the whole of scripture is taken into account, together with an understanding of the culture and the people to whom it was written, the Bible supports the unrestricted ministry of women today (other than the restrictions that would be applied equally to men) and, therefore, I believe women should be allowed to be pastors and worship leaders and even elders.

Hermeneutical Maneuvers
Klyne Snodgrass, in his article A Case For The Unrestricted Ministry of Women (http://www.covchurch.org/resources), points out the importance of understanding there are a variety of positions on this issue, including “that women should not speak at all, not teach men and boys, not teach from behind a pulpit, not teach authoritatively, not teach except under emergency conditions (as on the mission field or when no qualified male is present), not teach except under the authority of a male senior pastor. Apart from the first two, none of these positions fits a literal reading of 1 Corinthians 14:33-38 and 1 Timothy 2:9-15. Everyone is making hermeneutical moves to deal with these texts, even if they do not admit it.”

Here is a summary of some of the scriptural support for my position:

Jesus’ Perspective
Since he did not speak directly to the issue of women’s roles in church leadership, I think it’s important to remember Jesus’ own attitude toward women as a foundation for approaching this issue. Jesus was extremely empowering toward women and consistently elevated them well beyond the restraints of the surrounding culture. I think it is particularly significant and telling that God chose women to be the first people to encounter the empty tomb and entrusted them to carry the news to the other disciples.

But if Jesus was so empowering to women, and if he believed they ought to have unlimited authority within the church, why didn’t he include a woman among his 12 disciples? If he had, there would certainly be no debate today about whether women could be pastors or elders. Some might say that Jesus’ exclusion of women from his innermost circle of 12 ought to indicate that women should not have leadership roles within the church today, but by that logic, we should also exclude Gentiles from any leadership in the church. The issue of Gentile believers being included in the church (Acts 15) was settled by the clear presence of the Holy Spirit within the Gentile’s lives. The Holy Spirit does not distinguish by race, nor gender, and it is the Holy Spirit who empowers any and all ministry.

The Guidance and Correction of the Holy Spirit
The early church was repeatedly challenged in their understanding of what was permissible within the church and who would serve in certain roles, and it is the Holy Spirit who corrected them, guided them, and introduced new understanding by His presence. (Peter’s vision of the “unclean” animals in Acts 10; the inclusion of uncircumcised Gentiles into the church in Acts 15; the appointment of Matthias as an apostle to replace Judas in Acts 1; the appointment of seven men “known to be full of the Holy Spirit” to care for the Hellenistic widows in Acts 6) Shouldn’t we also look for the presence of the Holy Spirit for guidance in these type of concerns, rather than simply rely on tradition? Of course, when relying on the Holy Spirit, we must also confirm by analysis of the written word of God:

The Non-Universality of the 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy passages
In regard to the two most difficult passages on this issue of women’s roles in ministry, 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 and 1 Timothy 2: 9-15, it would take several pages to address completely, but I will state simply that I do not believe these passages were intended to be universal and timeless prohibitions. Few people would argue that Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 11:7-16, for men to never cover their heads or have long hair, and for women to cover their heads and have long hair, is a universal principle. And in 1 Timothy, right at the beginning of the book in chapter 1 verses 3-7 Paul says “stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer.” This seems to clearly indicate that the reason Paul is writing the letter and leaving Timothy behind in Ephesus is to address certain false teachings of “certain people” in that church, not for the purpose of laying out universal timeless truths and principles for every church in every time and culture.

Certainly, the book of 1 Timothy contains truths that can and should be applied universally, but I believe it would be a mistake to say that every instruction or principle in the book was intended to be universal. Therefore, care must be taken to interpret the context of each principle and the context for these verses certainly raises questions. “Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing (vs. 14-15).” A simple interpretation of these verses without consideration of Paul’s other writings and the broader context of scripture seems to pretty clearly indicate that Adam did not sin and that a woman who did not bear children could not be saved. But we know that this contradicts Paul’s own views and the rest of scripture when we take into consideration his other writings. So why did he write these words? Was it intended to be a universal truth or was it something that he felt the particular people in that specific city and time needed to hear? I believe it was specific to the Ephesian audience at that time, as indicated at the very beginning of the letter.

Similarly, we should not assume that every instruction in the book of 1 Corinthians was intended as a universal principle. I don’t know of any Bible scholar who holds Paul’s instruction in chapter 11 that women must always wear head coverings to be a universal principle. I believe the context of 1 Corinthians and specifically chapter 14 were not intended to be universal principles to apply to every church. If they were, then every church ought to be observing spoken prophecy from within the congregation during each service as indicated in the verses immediately preceding those in question here, 14:29-33.

Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 that “women should remain silent in the church” and that “it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church” seem to contradict himself and other scriptures. In Chapter 11 (vs. 5) Paul has a specific prohibition that women should not prophesy with their head uncovered. It certainly seems strange to specifically prohibit one way of prophesying if you forbid all types. One wouldn’t say “I prohibit women from driving Ford Mustangs” if the intent is to prohibit them from driving any automobile. Furthermore, throughout scripture there are at least 10 women identified and supported as prophets, and many more who prophesied (though they did not hold the title of “prophet”) in a way that is honored rather than being prohibited.

The Distribution of Gifts by the Holy Spirit
In scripture, the gifts of the Spirit are distributed to both men and women without distinction. It is only in these two culturally specific passages in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy that there is any restriction placed on a spiritual gift based on gender.

Spiritual Qualifications, Not Genetic Qualifications
In regards to Paul’s usage of the word “husband” (more accurately translated ”one-woman-man”) in Titus 1:6, I think it’s clear that the purpose of the passage is to list the spiritual qualifications of an elder, not the genetic qualifications, and I believe that to draw such an implication from one word within the passage is not appropriate. Especially considering that the same word is used also of deacons in 3:12 even though the existence and implied approval of women deacons is indicated in 3:11.

Submission to the Husband
I do not believe that the emphasis on the responsibility of the husband over his wife in the marriage relationship (1 Cor. 11:3, Eph. 5:22) can simply be implied to carry over to women’s role in the church, especially when the preceding verses in Ephesians 5:21-22 indicate that Paul’s broader and overarching call is for mutual submission between husband and wife. The church is not the husband of the woman, it is the bride of Christ.

The Value of Prophecy vs. Teaching
Even though the Bible clearly indicates women prophets (Acts 21:9, 1 Cor. 11:5) and women being allowed to prophesy in the church, some argue that prophesying is inferior to teaching, but I do not see evidence for that in the New Testament. In fact, every list of spiritual gifts which includes both prophecy and teaching lists prophecy first and seems to indicate that at the very least the two gifts are equal in importance or possibly that prophecy is considered the greater gift.

The Title of Pastor or Elder
Matthew 23:8-12 addresses the issue of titles and authority when he says “you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” To elevate the role of “teacher” to the highest position in a hierarchy of authority and one that is attainable to men but not women seems to go against this passage.

The Mouthpiece of God vs. the Interpreter/Teacher
Those who would restrict women from teaching in a church would surely declare the authority of Biblical passages that were spoken by women (e.g, Miriam’s prophecy – Num. 12, Deborah’s song – Judges 5:2-31, Hannah’s song – 1 Sam. 2:1-10, Mary’s Magnificat – Luke 1:46-55), but take issue with a woman teaching on these passages. If God saw women fit to be used as his mouthpiece for scripture should we restrict them from teaching on scripture because of their gender? Is it not a higher and more restricted calling to speak as God’s very mouthpiece than to teach?

Freedom in Christ
I humbly acknowledge that my interpretation may not be completely accurate. I welcome the opportunity to study it further and I look forward to a better understanding of it in Heaven. I hope others agree that all humans will come short of interpreting and understanding the Word of God completely. But in regards to this complex and complicated issue, I choose to err on the side of permission rather than prohibition, and freedom in Christ rather than restriction. I would rather allow a Spirit-filled individual to use the gifts they have been given than to restrict the use of their gifts based on gender – a differentiation that the Spirit never seems to make.

For additional resources, click here to visit Fuller Theological Seminary’s “Women in Ministry” page, or here to read their institutional commitment article. And click here for the Evangelical Covenant Church’s website on this topic.

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