Tuesday, September 05, 2006
Biblical Support for Women in Ministry
Over at the eBay Atheist discussion boards I've been in a discussion about whether or not the Bible supports the idea of female leadership within the church. Interestingly, a few of the atheists at the site claim that it does not, siding with more traditionalist interpretations of scripture. (I've actually found that many atheists prefer to believe that the fundamentalist and evangelical versions of Christianity are the most accurate ones; and get frustrated when I suggest that a more progressive, "new" kind of Christianity is possible.) At any rate, I posted a lengthy reply over there, bascially giving all the biblical examples of female leadership that I could think of off the top of my head. I thought I'd post it over here as well:

David S said:

My claim wasn't that many churches haven't socially evolved recently to accept women more equally (for whatever reasons). Many have, that's clear, and I think that's a good thing. My point was that I agreed with another poster on here that I don't see biblical support for it and I still don't.

Very well, if it's "biblical support" for gender equality that you are looking for, then I can easily provide it. In fact, I preached on exactly this topic yesterday morning, so it's all pretty fresh in my mind. If you want the full argument check out the book Good News for Women: A Biblical Picture of Gender Equality by Rebecca Groothius, but I'll give a brief summary of some of the relevant passages here.

First, let's keep in mind that the argument for restricting women's roles in church is literally based only on two passages - the two that you quoted above: 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15. And that's it. And, as I've already argued above, I believe those passages are often mistranslated and taken out of their historical and scriptural context.

And, as I told my church this past Sunday, we should be try to avoid interpreting the writings of the early church in a way that contradicts the actual practice of the early church. If those two passages seem (to us) to say that women shouldn't teach or have authority in the church, but then elsewhere Paul and others repeatedly affirm women who did in fact teach and have authority in the church, then that seems to be a pretty strong clue that we've misunderstood the meaning of those two passages.

So lets start with the New Testament. Check out these passages:

Acts 2:17-18
17 'In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
18 Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.

To prophesy is to speak with authority in the church. (The idea of prophecy as simply fortelling the future is a common misconception.) Prophecy is when someone stands up in church and says "God told me to say this to you...".

In 1 Corinthians 11:5 Paul explicitly expects women to pray and prophesy in church... which is a clue right there that his later words in chapter 14 can't possibly mean that he expects all women to be silent in church all the time. And later in the book of Acts (21:8-9) we're told about the four daughters of Philip who all prophesied.

Also check out Acts 18:24-26 which mentions Priscilla thusly:

Meanwhile a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus... He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.

Priscilla is mentioned as a teacher of Apollos, who later became an influential leader in the early church. Later, in Romans 16:3, Paul also accords Priscilla the title of diakonoi (or "deacon" - another position of authority within the church). And the fact that Priscilla's name is mentioned before her husbands is a clue that she was the more prominent and influential of the two.

Indeed, Ruth Hoppin presents a compelling (though not conclusive) argument that Priscilla may have even been the author of the biblical book of Hebrews in her own book, Priscilla's Letter: Finding the Author of the Epistle to the Hebrews.

Paul also mentions another woman, Phoebe, as a deacon of the church in Cenchreae in Romans 16:1, and in Philippians 4:2-3 he mentions two women, Euodia and Syntyche, as "co-workers" along with him for the gospel - a term which elsewhere is also used to describe other church leaders such as Timothy, Titus, Mark, Luke, Clement, Priscilla and Aquila, and even Paul himself.

In Romans 16:7 Paul even mentions a female Apostle, Junia - a position of teaching and leadership in the church that would have put her on the same level of authority as other Apostles like Peter, James, John, and even Paul himself.

In Titus 2:3 Paul refers to "female elders". Conservative translations render it "older women", but the Greek word used, presbutis, is the same as the word presbyter, which is used earlier in Titus as a title of authority in the church (cf. Titus 1:5-9).

Several specific women are also mentioned in the New Testament as hosting churches in their homes, which in the first century context would have put them in the position of "overseer" (aka episkopos or "bishop") of that church. These include Chloe (1 Corinthians 1:11), Lydia (Acts 16:40), and Nympha (Colossians 4:15).

We might also look to Jesus' own elevation of women in the gospel accounts. For instance, women were the first witnesses and preachers of the gospel, i.e. that Christ had risen from the dead (cf. Luke 24:1-10); Christ chose the Samaritan woman in John 4 to preach to her town about his arrival as the Messiah; and in Luke 10:38-42 (the text I preached on this weekend) Mary of Bethany is affirmed in her desire to sit and learn at Jesus' feet (keeping in mind that this role as a Rabbi's disciple that Mary claimed was previously forbidden to women, and that the primary purpose of becoming a Rabbi's disciple was to become a Rabbi oneself... and Jesus affirms her in this calling!)

If we look further back to the Old Testament we find examples of female prophets and leaders of Israel, such as Moses' sister Miriam (cf. Exodus 15:20 & Micah 6:4), Deborah (Judges 4-5), Huldah (2 Kings 22:14-20 & 2 Chronicles 34:11-33), Noadiah (Nehemiah 6:14), and the wife of Isaiah (Isaiah 8:3).

And if we go back to the very beginning we find in Genesis 1:27 the declaration that:

God created human beings in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

Men and women equally reflect the image of God. Later, when the man and woman rebel against God they are cursed to conflict and enmity. In Genesis 3:16 it says “Your desire will be for your husband but he will rule over you.” This is not a statement of how God wants things to be, but a warning about the divisive results a sinful heart. Indeed, the rest of the Bible can be seen as the story of God working to counteract the effects and consequences of our own sin. In other words, the hierarchy of men over women is a result of sin and is to be resisted and overcome if we seek to follow Jesus who sets us free from sin. As Paul says in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

In other words, the struggle against gender inequality, and the affirmation of women’s roles in the mission of God, is not merely a recent feminist issue that has been reluctantly absorbed into more progressive churches. It is an integral part of the whole theme of the Bible right from the very beginning and continuing up through the time of the early church and beyond. And (IMHO) it’s an integral part of what it means to be a follower of Christ trying to bring about God’s kingdom of justice, love and compassion in this world – not an optional add-on.


posted by Mike Clawson at 3:31 PM | Permalink |


At 1/18/2009 04:09:00 AM, Blogger Play in Rain

Thanks for writing this. As a woman (unordained) in the church who feels called to ministry, it means a lot when "brothers" support us and bear witness on our behalf.


At 1/20/2009 01:15:00 PM, Blogger Chris

Thank you so much for posting this. I've bookmarked it and will be back again and again. This affirms to me what I believe God showed me many years ago, and since in many ways, and that I have recently asked Him to confirm yet again in the face of strong opposition to this truth, particularly from evangelicals who, though sincere in their desire to serve Jesus, are nevertheless misguided in this. I pray that God will use this witness to teach others and, as we have worked to overcome other results of sin, such as racism, we may join together to also overcome this division in the church caused by a misunderstanding of God's will for all his people, male and female alike. Thank you.