What is your view on Women in Ministry?
Believe it or not, I actually get this question quite often. Or, I get the same question framed as a Bible question: “How do you sort out 1st Corinthians 14:34?” or a similar complicated passage about women speaking.
I realize that some of you are thinking: “Are we seriously still having this conversation? Are we still living in the eighteen hundreds?” And others of you, (usually men, from a Reform tradition), are thinking: “Simmer down now. We’re just having an intellectual conversation about a few complicated Bible texts.”
So let me to cut to the chase: I do believe that women can preach. I do believe that women can pastor men. But I also believe the Bible teaches us inconvenient things about marriage and sexuality that go contrary to our culture. And furthermore, we need to wrestle with the Bible’s take on these topics instead of simply making up our own.
In the scriptures, we see women play a lot of leadership roles: They led armies of over 10,000 men (see Deborah in Judges 4). We see women like Nympha who hosted churches in their homes (Col. 4:15). We see churches co-led by husband-wife duos like Pricilla and Aquila (Romans 16:3-5). We even see women like Junia who are called “apostles” (Romans 16:7) or, Philip’s daughters who were prophetesses (Acts 21:9). So in my opinion, there’s lots of Biblical precedent to celebrate women in leadership roles.
But what about the complicated passages?
The majority of debates seem to come down to a few main Bible passages – specifically 1 Corinthians 14; 1 Timothy 2; and Ephesians 5. And at the bottom of this essay, I post links where I unpack each of these passages.
But first, I want to introduce you to the basic ideas behind this debate. Specifically: What does the Bible teach about women in ministry? What was the historical view of women when these Bible commands were spoken? And what do these Bible texts mean to us today?
So let’s start with the historical context of gender roles during the time in which Paul’s letters were written.
How Women were Viewed in the Times of the New Testament
Most scholars agree that Christ was not leading a women’s liberation movement; however, the early church clearly gave women a massive upgrade in both opportunities and social status. Indeed, it was Christians who led the fight in stopping infanticide of girls and establishing a minimum marrying age for them (over 13). And Christian churches were clearly seen as somewhat radical in celebrating women early on compared to culture in general.
Many historians like Rodney Stark have proven that the early church had an unusual number of women leaders. Indeed, that’s a huge part of the reason why the early church grew. It offered freedoms that the general culture did not. But, before I explain this, it’s critical to understand how the typical unbelieving Roman would have thought about women. And I’m going to warn you ladies: the following quotations are rather offensive!
Socrates, the “great Greek Thinker”, said:
“to be a woman is a divine punishment since a woman is half-man, half-animal.”
And all the ladies are thinking: “Wait a second? History seriously considers this dude to be a great thinker?” Yet this was considered a common fact. Indeed, most Athenian men saw women exclusively as objects of pleasure.
Aristotle taught that “the courage of a man was shown in commanding a woman.” This was not taught as a sarcastic or ironic maxim — although it could be! Rather, it was literally one of the “virtues” that was explicitly taught to young men.
Pericles taught that “women should be so far retired from men’s business that ‘her name would never be mentioned among men.’” And remember, these values were commonly taught to the men of those times. So the fact that the Bible even listed women as Christ followers was scandalous in most parts of Greek culture. You can bet that Bible authors intentionally listed them, knowing it was pushing the boundaries in those times.
In many places, women were forbidden to do anything with men. It was a totally segregated state. (And in many parts of the Middle East this is still true). So, it’s important for my western readers to understand, the changing roles of women is still a relatively modern movement. In fact, the ideal Greek woman was quiet and un-educated.
As you’ll read in my essay on 1 Timothy 2, I talk about how it was extremely rare for Roman and Hellenistic families to raise more than one daughter. As shocking as it sounds, if a family had a second daughter, they would generally put them to death. Indeed, infanticide (the practice of abandoning babies to die) was not only common if a woman had a second daughter; but, it was expected!
Indeed, if you had a single daughter, a typical Roman wouldn’t become too attached to her. It was quite common to marry off your daughter by the age of 8! And they would not have considered this pedofilia. Indeed, Christians and Jews would often get a lot of flack for “waiting until a girl was 13!” That’s how low the cultural view of women was. And not surprisingly, Hellenistic women tended to flock to Christianity because of how it spoke out against both infanticide and pedofilia.
Keep in mind, there were certain cities in Bible times, like Ephesus, where the social status of women was climbing. But, overall, education was often thought of as a liability when it came to finding a wife. So, when Jesus allowed women disciples to travel with Him (and learn from him), this was a rather stunning gesture.
In his book, Women in the Ministry of Jesus, Ben Witherington wrote:
“We know women were allowed to hear the word of God in the synagogue but they were never disciples of a rabbi unless their husband or master was a rabbi willing to teach them. Though a woman might be taught certain negative precepts of the Law out of necessity, this did not mean they would be taught rabbinic explanations of Torah. For a Jewish woman to leave home and travel with a rabbi was not only unheard of, it was scandalous. Even more scandalous was the fact that women, both respectable and not, were among Jesus’ traveling companions” (p. 117).
So, in the cultural context, Christianity seemed to be a clear elevation of women.
However, despite these advances, there were definitely limitations on women in scripture. For example, in Luke chapter six, when Jesus selected the 12 Apostles, not one was a woman. And this probably wasn’t accidental. In Acts 1:21 (when they were replacing Judas), they specifically limited the position to a man. And throughout most of the Bible, spiritual leadership undeniably gravitated towards men.
But, here’s the million dollar question: “Why did God gravitate towards men as leaders?”
Did God do this because He “designed men from the beginning” to be leaders? Or was God just working through the cultural realities of those times? I.e., Was Jesus simply choosing his battles in order to win a greater war for our souls?
Some people argue that the male leadership of the Bible speaks to the eternal plan of God for men and women. I.e., God designed women to be “equal in value” yet “subservient in role.” But, other people argue that, sometimes, God accommodates culture. I.e., God never intended hierarchical oppression. Indeed, it only exists as a temporary consequence of the Fall of mankind (see Gen.3:18).
Now, these two approaches form the two main positions on women in ministry: The Complementarian Position states that men and women are “equal in value; yet different in role.” I.e., Women are valuable but, were never meant to teach doctrine or be spiritual leaders. The Egalitarian Position states that men and women are different in gender, but similar in their roles before God.
So with this in mind, let’s take a look at one of the texts at the base of this debate, 1 Corinthians 14:33. I want to show you how the two main positions might interpret this verse in different ways. And finally, I’ll explain why I’ve taken the position I have. (Keep in mind, this is only one of many verses; hence, I wrote separate articles on some of the other complicated passages, like 1 Timothy 2:12, and Ephesians 5:22)
HOW THE TWO POSITIONS MIGHT INTERPRET 1 CORINTHIANS 14
In the context, the Corinthians were a church filled with disorder. There was a lot of fighting. Numerous people were fighting for the opportunity to speak. Visitors are starting to leave. So, throughout the letter, Paul is systematically rebuking the behavior of numerous groups. And after thirteen chapters, he finally he gets to the Corinthian women:
“As in all the congregations of the saints, 34 women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. 35 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.”
1 Corinthians 14:33
Now the main question that scholars ask of this text is this: Is this a universal command to address all women throughout history; or, was this advice for a specific situation?
Complementarians might argue: “The text says, ‘As in ALL the congregations of the saints. It doesn’t say “SOME of the congregations.” And it refers to the law of the Old Testament. Thus, this wasn’t a temporary command.
But Egalitarians might refute: “But, this verse isn’t necessarily a universal command… after all, Paul may say: ‘it’s disgraceful for a woman to speak’… But we have to weigh this with the fact that, two chapters earlier, he’s telling women how to prophesy in church – how to publicly declare the oracles of God; so, he’s obviously not saying that women universally can’t speak! After all, if Paul can happily work with female prophetesses in the book of Acts, and if Pricilla can teach Apollos (in Acts 18:26), then surely Paul could not mean what Complementarians interpret him to be saying.”
In other words, an Egalitarian might argue that when Paul writes ‘as in ALL the congregations,’ he really means, ‘When women are acting crazy like you…like I would do in any congregation, I’d make you shut-up!'” Or, he’s referring to a regional problem such as: ‘As in ALL the congregations of the saints [in places like Corinth]…’ Or, ‘As I would do in any situation [where women are likely to act offensively.]’
Thus, with this passage, I illustrated a 2 different interpretations of the same text: Complementarians approach texts like these with the assumption that verses like these are the evidence of a universal design of God that he thought up before we were created. On the other hand, Egalitarians approach texts like these with the assumption that “it’s just specific advice for a specific situation as scriptures clearly show female leaders in a positive light.”
And frankly, this is the problem in just about every proof text on this issue: Most of the texts are enculturated enough that it’s tough to discern whether we’re reading a universally transcendent command vs. specific advice. And, for the most part, our interpretations seem to reveal our preconceived biases more so than they reveal Paul’s original intent. So, to be intellectually honest, allow me to show you just how tricky these types of debates can be.
Paul writes to Timothy in 1 Tim. 5:23 “23 Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses.” Was this meant to be a universal command to heal all people who have frequent illnesses… or was this advice for a specific situation? And how do you know? Then, 1 Timothy 2:12 (the other classic passage on women) “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.” Once again, was this meant to be a universal command… or was this advice for a specific situation?
I mean, how do we know with certainty if Paul is trying to say: “Timothy, in your situation, I do not permit…” After all, remember the implications of this interpretation are huge. We’re talking about benching roughly 68% of the body of Christ from preaching publicly. This would naturally have a massive effect on the spread of the Gospel. So we better be sure!
As another example from the Corinthian context: 1 Cor. 11:5 teaches
that any women who prays or prophesies should have her head covered. And vs. 15 says that women should have long hair… it’s a disgrace for women to have short hair. It also says that long-hair on guys is a disgrace… a verse that was actually quoted to me when I first became a youth pastor – with really long hair. (See pic). You can decide for yourself if I was a disgrace haha.
So, once again, are these verses for today? Or, was Paul just addressing a specific cultural issue that was causing problems in their churches? i.e., Was this a universal command for hair styling that existed in the mind of God before creation? Or, was this advice for a specific situation? Some Egalitarians charge Complementarians of being selective about their literal interpretations. After all, if you’re going to advocate that “silencing women is a universal command,” then, three chapters earlier, you better advocate that women having long hair is equally true and universal in God’s mind.
Ironically, many of the people who say “women can’t speak in church” also say, “tongues and prophecy aren’t for today.” Paul literally says: “Eagerly desire the spiritual gifts especially the gift of prophecy” (1 Cor. 14:1). Yet, a huge number of Complementarian churches actually forbid tongues and prophecy in their churches saying, “it’s not for today.” But suddenly, the parts about “women being silent” are “for today?” But on what basis do they arbitrarily make these claims?
To be fair, ALL of us have to make tough interpretations. And only presumptive and arrogant Christians will pretend this is a simple issue.
But, with all of this said, I would like to humbly suggest an interpretation that, to me, makes more sense in light of the Corinthian context.
In Chapter 14, Paul starts with rebuking the tongue-talkers. Apparently, they were speaking in their unknown tongues and in Vs. 23, it was clearly freaking visitors out. So, Paul basically says, under these circumstances: “Be silent!”
Then, Paul takes on the prophets. They weren’t prophesying in turn, nor were they carefully weighing what each other were saying so, once again, he restricts them. In other words, under these circumstances, when too many prophetic people are sharing, you must limit it to “two or three” (vs.29).
Thus, we can see a clear pattern emerging here. He says: “You tongue talkers, under these circumstances, be silent! You prophets, under these circumstances, be silent.” And finally Paul gets to the ladies and says, “Under these circumstances, be silent!”
You see, none of Paul’s previous restrictions were “universal designs of God creating subservience before the creation of the world” – a fact that would contradict the very existence of female prophetesses and his other instructions in which women are the exact opposite of “silent.” And I’m just getting started in listing the contradictory evidence.
For example, if a person is going to argue that 1 Cor. 14:33 forbids women from being in ministry, then, that same person better be willing to do exactly what the verse says and make sure that women remain entirely silent in the church at all times. After all, the verse demands “silence” – which means, no singing; no greeting; no announcements. Technically, we could argue that women cannot make noises of any kind. Yet, do many Complementarians argue this? Of course not. And why? Because it’s ridiculous. And strangely, when I press them on why they allow women to do anything that requires talking, they defend their position using the exact same kinds of cultural arguments that egalitarians do: “Well, the ‘total silence’ part isn’t a universal command; rather, he was only telling the Corinthian women that silence was a necessity.” And they usually invent some justification for their female job descriptions that go beyond the actual biblical text.
In other words, Complementarians love to use the expression, “equal in value; but subservient in role.” But when you press them about “where did you specifically get your churches’ guidelines on female roles?” Almost all of them make up an arbitrary list of female roles that go beyond scripture.
This is probably why the top advocate of Complementarianism wrote about “83 things that women should not do in churches.” In his 800+ page treatise, he concluded that, “Women should not be greeters… Should not give announcements… edit the church newsletter…or sing a solo on Sunday morning…They should not teach the Bible to a Junior High Sunday School class… [and] they should not pray publically” to quote a few.
What?!!! [Deeply confused look]
Lastly, if a person is going to argue that women are universally designed to be subservient to men, they better be willing to fight this battle outside of the church in the secular workplace as well. After all, it seems a bit awkward to have a female boss when you believe they are “out of God’s will” by playing that role. Ethically, Complementarians should be resisting female leadership in all forms lest they be complicit to this sin. I.e., Never work for companies that allow female leadership.
Now, I do believe that God created differences between man and woman: Indeed, science teaches us that there are over 2000 biological distinctives. So, when modern culture tells us that we can “choose” to be non-binary, I think there are over 2000 reasons to believe otherwise. And we are kidding ourselves if we think we can ignore thousands of features that are uniquely built into our bodies. So, I don’t fully subscribe to the idea that men and women are precisely the same either.
THE PRACTICAL IMPLICATIONS:
But here’s what troubles me most about this debate: A lot of Christians tend to approach this debate from a purely philosophical standpoint and miss the scary implications of this. Studies estimate that over 68% of the global body of Christ is female. So, if we truly benched women from the public preaching of scripture, it creates a rather fascinating ethical dilemma.
For example, when we proclaim God’s word, it changes lives. The Word of God heals people. It stops wars. It causes drug dealers, mob bosses, sex traffickers, and rapists to repent. In many ways, it’s the single greatest thing we can do to stop pain.
So, it’s rather hard to say we believe in the power of God’s word when we’re willing to reduce the public preaching of scripture by 68% due to a small number of proof texts that could easily be interpreted in a different way. A lack of women preachers can be measured in blood and tears. And I realize that sounds mellow-dramatic; but, it’s nonetheless true.
For example, imagine if you had a building that started on fire and it was filled with people. You only have minutes to rescue hundreds of people. So you frantically run outside and shout “help!” – after all, you need all the help you can get. Suddenly, 7 adult women and 3 men show up. Are you seriously going to forbid the women from rescuing people? Of course not. Are you going to simply “trust God” that the few men will rescue everyone that God ordained to be rescued?
Yet, this is the scenario that many Complementarians expect us to embrace.
Obviously, I do not agree with Complementarianism. Of course, I also do not whole-heartedly sign off on Egalitarianism either. I never force anyone in my church to agree with me. And I’ve never felt the need to separate myself from churches that preach this. After all, with the sad state of the American church being what it is, we need all hands on deck.
But, at the end of the day, I need to make a practical decision on this in order to run my church. And it suffices to say that I believe that women can be perfectly great leaders in the body of Christ. Some of the most brilliant Bible teachers I’ve ever met are women. Heck. Just listen to my wife. She clearly commands the scriptures far better than most male preachers.
Even more, all throughout the Bible, we read of women prophets, even women military leaders (see Judges 4). I mean, how can a woman be a “prophet-judge” leading 10,000 men into battle yet suddenly can’t even teach a 7th grade boy’s Bible study according to theologian Wayne Grudem? To me, I simply don’t see how the Bible teaches that. And I’ve yet to read a Complementarian who adequately addresses any of these passages without requiring mental gymnastics.
Of course, I have not engaged passages like 1 Tim.2:11 or Eph. 5 here as I don’t want to lose everyone in the details. (Of course, if you’re curious, at the end of this essay, I DO take a little time to exegetically walk through them.)
In the meantime, Ladies, don’t desecrate God’s Word by leaving it on the shelf for men to teach – just because someone tells you “it’s not God’s role for you.” It’s foolish to leave your wounded neighbor in a ditch when God has given you the Scriptures that can save them.
To me, this issue is similar to the debate in the times of Christ regarding “healing on the Sabbath.” Pharisees took the sabbath command and added over 100 applications of it. Thus, when Jesus prioritized lost people, they couldn’t see him as legitimate. They saw him as “compromised” because of their interpretations.
And I do not want to stand before God and hear him say: “Let me get this straight: You allowed hundreds of millions of people miss the gospel because of what?”
Conversely, I realize that this position can be a slippery creek bank into all sorts of silliness. Christians could use a similar argument to justify any number of dangerous positions on sexuality and gender. And unfortunately, there are Christians who deconstruct virtually every counter-cultural concept taught in the Bible.
Thus, I fully understand the complicated nature of my position. And, I also would caution my readers to be careful to avoid “conforming to the patterns of this world” rather than Christ (see Romans 12:1-2; Col. 2:8).
Yet, at the same time, I do believe that there’s a moderate position here — where we acknowledge the gifts and callings of women — yet simultaneously acknowledge that God has intentionally created gender for a reason and gave us no choice in the matter (Psm 139:13).
I realize that, in this essay, I haven’t fully outlined what this could look like. But, my goal here was far more foundational: For those of you ladies who grew up in churches where, you felt “hindered from doing good” merely because of your gender: I want you to see that there are alternate ways of interpreting these complicated passages of Paul.
Indeed, I put a new spin on Paul’s classic charge to Timothy: “Do not let anyone look down on you because you are young.” I say, don’t let anyone look down on you because you are female. “But set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity.” 1 Tim.4:12
- Why did Paul say, “I do not permit a woman to teach” and why does Paul say: “Women will be saved through childbearing?”
- What does Paul mean when he says, “For the husband is the head of a wife.” (Ephesians 5:23)?
Peter Haas is the Lead Pastor of Substance Church – an international multisite church based in Minneapolis. Peter is also a dj-turntablist who produces & tours with Substance Variant. He writes comedy books on spirituality: “Pharisectomy: How to Remove Your Inner Pharisee and Other Religiously Transmitted Diseases” (2012) and Broken Escalators (2015). See www.SubstanceChurch.com – @peterhaas1 (twitter & instagram)
 For a robust treatment of this horrifying practice, see Rodney Stark’s book “Triumph of Christianity” – particularly chapter seven: Appeals to Women pp. 126-133.
 See Wayne Grudem’s book, Evangelical Feminism & Biblical Truth (2004) Multnomah.
 The Complementary position essentially argues that there are some “good works” (like preaching the Bible) that are intrinsically sinful if they are ever done by a particular gender.
 For a robust treatment of this horrifying practice, see Rodney Stark’s book “Triumph of Christianity” – particularly chapter seven: Appeals to Women pp. 126-133.