Women in Ministry

Over the years I’ve written a number of posts about women ministering: Church Ladies GroupsMentoring Women, Why Older Women Don’t Serve and Ways Older Women Can Serve. But I’ve skirted around the issue of women preachers and pastors. I think partly I just wasn’t ready to get into the controversy, and also I know some of my online friends are of a different opinion about this issue. But I think the time has come. I do think this is something we can disagree on and still be friends. I hope you feel the same way.

I do want to be very careful in my tone. I actually began this post in early January and amended it as I’ve thought and studied and prayed over it. Some of these thoughts have been incubating for years and I am just now putting them down, but I didn’t want this particular post to be “off the cuff.” I’ve seen harshness, scoffing, sarcasm, derision and false accusations about motives from both sides of this issue. I’m all for discussing differences of opinion, but I hope we can keep it gracious.

I believe a woman should not pastor or preach to men for the following reasons:

1. Explicit statements of Scripture

I Timothy 2:11-12 says, “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection.  But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.”

I Corinthians 14:34-35: Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law.  And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.

These passages are the main crux of the matter. I’ve never heard these verses adequately argued away. A former pastor once said that any interpretation of Scripture that leaves different passages in contradiction to each other is wrong: they’re to harmonize with each other. But usually what happens when there is a seeming contradiction is that people take one side or the other.

I’ve heard these statements brushed off as cultural. One women ventured that women had not been allowed in services before this time, and they were so excited and chatty that Paul had to tell them to be quiet. But Paul goes on to explain his reasoning in I Timothy 2:13-14, and it doesn’t have anything to do with the culture of the times. Even if it were a cultural issue, the Holy Spirit did not waste space in the Bible. Of all the things that could have been written, He chose what material to share. When a cultural issue is mentioned in the Bible that we don’t deal with today, like the matter of meat offered to idols, there are still principles we’re to draw from it. We don’t pass over any Scripture as worthy of being ignored because it was “just cultural.”

I don’t think these verses mean that a woman is not to open her mouth to say anything from the moment she steps into the church til the moment she leaves. I don’t know anyone who takes that extreme a view. I Corinthians 11:5 speaks of a woman not praying or prophesying at church without her head covered, so obviously women did speak in church sometimes. There were women prophets in the Bible. But the context of the of the I Cor. 14 passage above was both speaking in tongues and prophesying. Did women prophets prophesy away from church, or only to women? I don’t know. But it was evidently not considered the same as teaching and not viewed as usurping authority. And then you have the whole issue of whether prophecy, or at least a certain type of prophecy, is a spiritual gift that was exercised in the first century but which was done away once the full Bible came into being, but that’s a whole ‘nuther can of worms. But the fact that I Cor. 11 says the woman should have her head covered when she prophesies and I Cor. 14 that says she shouldn’t prophesy in the public assembly leads me to believe there were two different types of prophesy. I’m of the opinion that there was one kind of prophecy (which I Corinthians 14 does forbid women to engage in in church, along with speaking and interpreting tongues), but there is a general type of prophecy that’s just “forthtelling,” not new revelation, but something else. In I Chronicles 25:1, David separated certain men out to “prophesy with harps, with psalteries, and with cymbals.” I don’t think that means prophetic utterances were accompanied by music: I think that means music is one form of expressing God’s truth.

But whatever exactly prophecy is,  these passages makes it pretty clear that women aren’t meant to preach or teach Scriptural truth to men in an authoritative manner in a church setting.

2. Biblical example.

With the exception of the prophetesses, you don’t see women teaching, preaching, or being ordained in the Bible. You also don’t see any of the passages of instruction specifically to or about women mentioning them in this role.

Over the years I’ve seen a number of objections to the view that women can’t teach or preach, I’ll go over just a few of them.

Aren’t those passages just Paul’s opinions?” There are places Paul says that what he is sharing is his own personal opinion or application, but these aren’t among them, therefore we must take them as inspired by God.

If women aren’t allowed to preach, that makes them feel like second-class Christians.” It shouldn’t. This is one of the most erroneous assumptions. A person under authority is not inferior to a person in authority. Jesus was in submission to God the Father, yet they were equals. David was not a second-class citizen to Solomon when God chose Solomon to build the tabernacle and not David. The rest of Israel was not inferior to the Levites since the Levites were the only ones who could minister in the temple and tabernacle.  It’s a matter of function, responsibility, and God’s will and calling. And Biblical limitations aren’t in place to make us feel bad. Both men and women had various limitations set on them throughout the Bible. Elisabeth Elliot said limitations help define ministry.

Some women are gifted to teach.” Yes, they are. I’ve been blessed to read and listen to many of them. But that doesn’t mean they’re meant to teach men.

If I desire to be a pastor or Bible teacher, doesn’t that mean God is leading me to do so?” Desires can be indicators of the Lord’s will, but they’re not fool-proof. David desired to build a temple, but it was not God’s will for him. Moses desired to go to the promised land, but God said no. Paul desired to be healed of his thorn in the flesh, but God said no.

What about women teaching men in college classes or being supervisors over men at work?” The passages in question are talking about spiritual authority in the assembly of believers. I don’t see a problem with a woman teaching men math or English or being a man’s supervisor on a secular job.

Mary was given a message to give to Peter and the disciples after the resurrection.” Yes, but that was hardly a sermon or a teaching situation, nor even an authority issue.

What if a woman teaches in a book or online and a man sees it? Or what if she’s speaking and there is a male overseeing the sound system?” If her intended audience is not adult men, I don’t think she has to worry about whether one overhears or happens upon what she says. God recorded Mary’s Magnificat and men have learned from it and preached from it, but as far as she knew she was only speaking to God and Elisabeth at the time. God also recorded Hannah’s prayer in I Samuel 2, but as far as we know she was only speaking to Him. Lemuel’s mother’s instruction was preserved in Proverbs 31, but it seems she had given it directly to him. These passages are not saying that a man can never learn or benefit from a woman’s words, just that she is not to express them in a position of authority over him or as if she were teaching him.

What about Priscilla and Aquilla, who took Apollos in and ‘and expounded unto him the way of God more perfectly’?” Priscilla wasn’t acting independently of her husband, and talking over the kitchen table or in the living room (which is how I picture this scenario) is a different thing than leading a Bible study or preaching in church.

What about single women on the mission field?” That’s a thorny issue I don’t have all the answers to. The single female missionaries I’ve known have ceded authority to the national males as soon as possible.

What about Deborah?” Deborah’s judgeship occurred before this was clearly written in the NT, and she was not in a NT church. Though a judge is a position of authority, it’s different from teaching and preaching. It’s clear that the main authority structure was male.

“Galatians 3:28 teaches that ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus,’ so there are no distinctions.” Obviously this verse doesn’t remove every difference between any of these groups, because Paul writes in other places specifically to men, women, Jews, slaves, masters, etc. about their unique roles. The context shows that this is speaking of our standing before Christ. We all come to Him the same way (v. 26) and are one body.

Sometimes I wonder if, like Eve, who could have eaten from any tree of the garden of Eden but fixated on the one she was not supposed to have, some women are discontent with the multitude of things women can do and fixate on the one thing they’re not supposed to. Someone shared with me a statistic that 80% of the world’s population is women and children. I haven’t been able to find that online, but it does seem to me we have an ample mission field and more than enough to do.

Here are some of the ways we see New Testament women ministering:

“And certain women, which had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary called Magdalene, out of whom went seven devils,  And Joanna the wife of Chuza Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, which ministered unto him of their substance” (Luke 8:2-3).

“And I intreat thee also, true yokefellow, help those women which laboured with me in the gospel, with Clement also, and with other my fellowlabourers, whose names are in the book of life” (Philippians 2:3) (Some have claimed this as a passage one promoting women pastors/teachers, but “laboring in the gospel” is not confined to those offices.)

“Now there was at Joppa a certain disciple named Tabitha, which by interpretation is called Dorcas: this woman was full of good works and almsdeeds which she did…Then Peter arose and went with them. When he was come, they brought him into the upper chamber: and all the widows stood by him weeping, and shewing the coats and garments which Dorcas made, while she was with them” (Acts 9: 36,39).

“The aged women likewise, that they be in behaviour as becometh holiness, not false accusers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things;  That they may teach the young women to be sober, to love their husbands, to love their children,  To be discreet, chaste, keepers at home, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God be not blasphemed” (Titus 2:3-5).

“And he began to speak boldly in the synagogue: whom when Aquila and Priscilla had heard, they took him unto them, and expounded unto him the way of God more perfectly” (Acts 18:26).

“I commend unto you Phebe our sister, which is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea:  That ye receive her in the Lord, as becometh saints, and that ye assist her in whatsoever business she hath need of you: for she hath been a succourer of many, and of myself also” Romans 16:1-2).

“Well reported of for good works; if she have brought up children, if she have lodged strangers, if she have washed the saints’ feet, if she have relieved the afflicted, if she have diligently followed every good work” (I Timothy 5:10).

“And she [Anna] was a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day. And she coming in that instant gave thanks likewise unto the Lord, and spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem” (Luke 2:37-38).

“These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren” (Acts 1:14).

“In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array;  But (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works” (I Timothy 2:9-10).

There may be other ways I am not thinking of right now, and things like “good works” can be expanded on beyond some of the specific mentions here (for instance, many churches have ladies who coordinate meals for those who are sick, or have some kind of women’s missionary group, or send care packages to college students, etc.). But even if one were to quibble about the meaning of the verses discussing women teachers, it’s clear from Biblical example that by and large, women ministered in various other ways and that their teaching was primarily to women.

I did hear that one preacher taught that women should only teach even women the things mentioned in Titus 2:3-5 and not doctrine, but I have not heard of anyone else who takes that view. All of those traits are based on doctrine. Teaching a woman to be chaste, for example, is based on God’s holiness and our reflection of Him.

One of the things that concerns me most in this debate is the tone on both sides. I think, I hope, anyway, that we can concede that those on both sides of the issue truly want to seek God’s will in the matter even if we come out with different conclusions. Those who feel women aren’t to preach or exercise spiritual authority over men are primarily motivated by the verses mentioned at the beginning and a desire to make sure everything we do is in accord with Scripture, not by a desire to put women down. I’ve seen some awful accusations that are just unfounded but are expressed with sarcasm and condescension. If this is a limitation God has put in place, then we need to take it as from Him and serve Him in the ways He wants us to.

I welcome your comments but I do ask you to keep them gracious and respectful, not only to me, but also to other commenters.

16 thoughts on “Women in Ministry

  1. Barbara, You have one the best blogs around! You are well-written, thoughtful, godly, kind, always interesting, helpful and a great example of a Christian wife and mom. God bless you and I thank you! Kaycee Mancas

  2. As I proceed through my current woman’s bible study (acts of the apostles…acts, corinthians, etc.)…I see this coming along the pike…and I’m about 100% sure that the teaching leader will not be holding these views above. Thank you for equipping me with some good scriptures and well thought out, gracious words. I find that believers often do not understand how to disagree and women specifically. Thank you for boldly sharing what is often left unsaid.

  3. Well covered, Barbara!

    One thing I might add is that there are no prophetesses in the Bible after elderly Anna, the one who rejoiced over seeing the baby Savior. After Jesus’ birth, we don’t see any prophetesses. So, in the Bible’s teaching about women in the church, this exception isn’t even addressed–because it didn’t need to be. The Messiah had come!

    Thank you for such a clear and thoughtful post.

  4. I so enjoy reading your blog–and this posting is a good example of “why”–your heart comes through in how you express yourself! Thank you for a Biblical perspective–I agree with your position.

  5. I appreciate the way you’ve laid out your position and especially the “why” behind each point. I also see your heart for unity. I wish everyone who discusses this issue could do so in this way.

    I’m currently aching because of a new “rule” (for lack of a better word) that I heard for our church as of last night. We’ve had a Wednesday night auditorium class for two months now, and in it, all are asked to participate in commenting and in prayer, male and female.

    But because two people have written letters to our elders saying they believe it’s wrong for a woman to pray in front of a man, our elders have decided to put a “freeze” on women reading scriptures, making comments, or voicing prayers for now.

    What disappoints me the most is that our elders (and the vast majority of our church) do not believe it is scripturally wrong for women to do those things in that setting. So instead of spending time going through the appropriate scriptures with the two letter-writers, they’ve quieting the voices of half the church for reasons they don’t even believe in. Sigh. These are hard issues to be sure, and we all need grace as we wrestle with finding the Truth in them.

    • I’m so sorry, Lisa. I can only imagine how frustrating and discouraging that is.

      It’s a tough job for church leaders to know when to take a stand on an issue and when to “bend” for those who aren’t ready for it. It does seem that in this situation it would have been better to go over the Scriptures with the letter writers. I do pray for wisdom for them and for you all in this.

  6. You’ve done an excellent job of thoroughly discussing a thorny topic with grace, Barbara! I agree with you 100% (I hope there’s no surprise there!). You constantly amaze me with the depth of your study and the clarity with which you express yourself!

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