By Brandon Cox
Published October 23, 2019
The question of whether women are biblically permitted to teach and/or preach to a congregation of mixed adults, and the accompanying question of whether women may serve as elders / pastors / overseers is not merely a question of tradition or preference. So let me preface my position with this affirmation: I believe that the Bible is an authoritative revelation from God.
I do not believe any position on this issue can merely be based on conscience, on cultural norms, on political moments, or even on experiential evidence such as a man’s or woman’s testimony of having been “called” or gifted for preaching or pastoral roles. The Scriptures are our guide for faith and practice.
I come from a Baptist tradition. And while certain “pre-Baptists” such as Anabaptists and Waldensians may have believed that women were permitted to serve in any role men were permitted to serve in (in college, I wrote a paper on this for an early church history class, but did not save my research), in recent history, most Baptists believe that ordained leadership is reserved for men and that women should not be permitted to teach or serve as an elder over a congregation of both male and female adults.
Through all of the earliest years of my ministry education and background, I was taught this position, often referred to as complementarianism (though, there are a variety of positions along the complementarian-egalitarian spectrum of views). When I encountered churches or movements that permitted women to preach, teach, or lead adult men, I was conditioned to see those churches as having a less-than-orthodox view of and respect for Scripture. It was my belief that these churches simply chose to ignore certain passages which I will address later in this paper.
I’ve spent years debating this subject in my own mind, with friends, and with scholars whose viewpoints I’ve read along the way. I’ve come to a different place and want to articulate both the what and the why of my beliefs and practices on this subject.
I believe that there is liberty for both men and women, equally, to respond to God’s call, to cultivate their gifts, and to serve the body in ministries of preaching, teaching, and leadership as elders (which I view as synonymous with the words “pastors” and “bishops” or “overseers”). This does not mean that any and every man or woman who serves in these roles is definitely qualified to do so, but rather that gender alone is not a factor in whether or not a person is biblically qualified for a preaching, teaching, or pastoral leadership role.
I’ll deal, first, with the overall picture of the roles of women in the Bible. It must be noted that all of the women mentioned in both testaments lived in times when women’s rights were often severely restricted by their cultures. So any comparison of the numbers of men in leadership versus the number of women in leadership must take this limitation on women into account. In other words, it’s surprising that there are any examples of women in leadership roles in Scripture.
Even with limiting cultural surroundings, we read the stories of:
- Miriam led as part of Israel’s council of three, with Moses in the lead and Aaron at her side.
- Sarah is presented as the “mother of nations” in Genesis 17:15-16.
- Deborah, one of the Judges, is referred to as “prophet” (Judg 4:4, 6-7), “judge” (Judg 4:5) and “mother of Israel” (Judg 5:7).
- Huldah was consulted as a prophet by King Josiah and other leaders.
- While Esther held no official role in Israel, it was her speech to the Assyrian king that saved the nation of Israel from extermination.
The New Testament’s examples are more plentiful, and perhaps more relevant to our discussion of the roles women have played in the church.
Jesus was continually empowering women and involving them in his ministry and in the work of sharing the gospel. Mary of Bethany, Mary Magdalene, Martha, and Mary, his mother, all seemed to be part of his inner circle of friends and traveling companions. It was to several of these women that Jesus first made known the fact of his resurrection. God chose, in his divine wisdom, to use women to share the news of Jesus’ resurrection with the rest of the disciples.
According to Acts 1:12-14, the disciples and the women who ministered alongside them gathered for prayer after Jesus’ resurrection as they awaited the promised empowering work of the Holy Spirit.
On the Day of Pentecost, Peter stands up to explain the remarkable and miraculous events taking place. He quotes the prophecy of Joel in reference to the “last days” (which I believe refers to the entire New Testament era from Pentecost until the second coming of Christ) and indicates that this special moment is the fulfillment of God’s promise to pour out his spirit on both men and women for the purpose of receiving revelation from God and prophesying.
Acts 21 mentions the four, unmarried daughters of Philip, who prophesied to the early church. While there is some debate about whether prophesying was preaching, it should be noted that both terms are somewhat loose in their definitions. To prophesy was to share with the gathered church what God had revealed. To preach is to share the gospel. And in the early church, there were no church buildings. Church gatherings happened in homes, in the courts of the Temple, in synagogues, civic centers, riverside gathering places, and other public spaces. The picture I see is of a plurality of churches in which both men and women spoke to gathered congregations of various sizes about the message of Jesus and whatever else God might have revealed to them.
Romans chapter 16 gives us several interesting notes about the women of Paul’s era. Phoebe is called a deacon. (To translate this instance of the word as servant to avoid having a women designated as a deacon would necessitate us translating the same word in the same way elsewhere.) It was likely Phoebe who was delivering the letter to the Romans, and would possibly have been the one to stand and read it to the gathered congregation of believers in Rome.
In the same chapter, Paul mentions Priscilla and Aquila, the couple who discipled a young-in-the-faith orator named Apollos. It’s noteworthy that Priscilla’s name is always mentioned first, suggesting that she was the leader between them. In any respect, she was directly involved in teaching the faith to a well-known early preacher. This couple also hosted a church in their home.
And then there is Junia. She was essentially wiped out of history for a time by various translators who decided to turn her into “Junias”, which would be the male version of her name. Why? Because of the phrase that describes her as “noteworthy among the apostles.” While some translators today argue that the language here indicates merely that the apostles respected her, I find that difficult to embrace since ancient preservers of the text were so troubled by the phrase that they felt the need to turn her into a man to mesh with their church practice of males only as priests and pastors. Scot McKnight wrote an excellent, short book on this subject available on Kindle called Junia is Not Alone.
I see all of this New Testament evidence as quite counter-cultural. These documents were written in an age where, in many places women were not regarded as having an authoritative voice on much of anything and often had no say in public affairs or religious leadership. Women were, on the whole, far less educated in this highly patriarchal society (both Jewish and Greco-Roman societies were highly patriarchal).
There are passages in the New Testament that treat the subject of women in ministry leadership somewhat directly, but only a few, and I’ll address them here, starting with the first Corinthian letter…
1 Corinthians 14:34-35 NIV
Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 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.
With 1 Corinthians, you have to start reading in chapter 11, where Paul says in verse 5, “every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head…” Paul likely expected women to cover their heads to distinguish themselves from the pagan worshippers of Corinth. But what’s important is that he’s speaking of praying or prophesying publicly. So he expects them to be doing so.
By the time you get to chapter 14, Paul is dealing with issues very specific to Corinth. They were wild. Weird. Out of control, even, and it was confusing to lost people. So Paul gives limitations for their particular congregation. First, don’t speak in tongues without an interpreter. Second, don’t prophesy without people who can weigh it out and only allow two or three to be prophesying rather than everyone. And third, let the women be silent altogether.
I don’t know if Paul meant that for a season or for an indefinite future for the Corinthian congregation, but I don’t believe he was giving the entire church a prohibition for all time against women speaking up. I believe he was addressing those who were “out of control” or “out of order.”
The other passage often quoted is from Paul’s first letter to Timothy…
1 Timothy 2:11-12 NIV
A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.
The issue here is quite similar to that in Corinth, culturally speaking. Timothy served the church of Ephesus, home to the Temple of the ancient goddess, Diana. Had women been permitted to teach the Ephesian church, publicly gathered, or to have served as elders, one of two problems would have likely arisen. First, skeptics would write off what they had to say as ignorance because so few women were permitted to pursue a formal education.
And second, people likely would have come to worship for wrong, idolatrous reasons since the city was infatuated with its female goddess, whose temple was staffed with numerous prostitutes offering their “services” to potential worshippers.
Further, the word translated “authority” in this verse is not the word normally translated as such elsewhere in the New Testament. This word, authenteō, signified an abuse of position. The word, used only here in the New Testament, referred to an autocratic, self-serving approach to leadership. Women were not to dominate men.
I do not believe those two passages prohibit women from speaking, teaching, or leading within the global church forever. Both were spoken concerning specific situations in particular churches in a particular time. The words are absolutely inspired. But we interpret Scripture by asking about the intent of the author, and I don’t believe Paul intended to prohibit women from those roles forever or everywhere.
If we are merely to approach the New Testament’s language and grammar to derive our doctrine, we might do well to prohibit women from teaching and serving in leadership on the basis of these passages. But as evangelicals and inerrantists (and I am absolutely an inerrantist), we interpret the Bible through a historical-grammatical hermeneutic. That is, we consider both the history and the language and grammar employed. The history and cultural setting of a given passage reveals something to us about the intent of the author.
To put it another way, it’s not enough to simply say, “The Bible says women shouldn’t teach or have authority, so we shouldn’t let them.” One would have to conclude instead, “The Bible says women shouldn’t teach or exercise any abusive kind of authority in a cultural setting where her doing so would present a significant roadblock to the gospel being received by outsiders.” And while our present, western culture certainly still bears many signs of patriarchy, our witness and position of trust is actually strengthened, not weakened, in the eyes of a watching world when we empower women and recognize the equality of men and women in their fitness and giftings for leadership.
One more thought is important here. Preaching is simply presenting the good news. We’re ALL encouraged to do that – to give witness to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus to the world around us, and to celebrate it continually in the life of the church.
As I stated earlier, for hundreds of years the church didn’t meet in buildings with rows of pews and a “pulpit” on stage at the front. They met in homes. Synagogues. Civic centers. Riverside gathering areas. And I picture gifted and called men and women contributing in various ways to the growth of the body.
My bottom line is that when women are gifted and express a calling, it is harmful to deny them room to serve with their gifts by building a male-only case on shaky interpretive grounds. I would even say that, in doing so, we’ve created an unbalanced leadership atmosphere that has potentially lent to an unhealthy culture of male abuses of women and children, often left unchecked.
As one who believes in the authority and inspiration of the Bible as God’s Word to all people of all ages, and as one who employs a fully historical-grammatical hermeneutic in my approach to Scripture, I believe that the New Testament highlights and celebrates the various leadership roles women have taken among God’s people throughout the ages and in no way permanently or universally prohibits anyone from speaking, teaching, preaching or leading as a pastor, elder, or overseer on the basis of gender alone.
Am I an egalitarian or a complementarian? I believe those two words are both inadequate and really represent a spectrum of beliefs rather than a simple either/or scenario. I choose to think of myself as embracing the complementarian nature of men and women while also embracing their mutuality and partnership in leading within society, the home, and the church.
A Final Thought
Even if you disagree with my interpretation, please hear this… Satan is angry. He is actively at work blinding the minds of unbelievers to the truth of the gospel. There is an all-out satanic attack on truth and literally billions of people are in spiritual bondage and darkness, desperately in need of the saving and redemptive hope of Jesus.
We. Need. Everyone!
We need men, women, boys, and girls showing the love of Jesus and sharing the truth of the gospel in every corner of the world with as much freedom and passion as possible. We need all hands on deck!
- Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy, by Ronald W. Pierce (Editor), Rebecca Merrill Groothuis (Editor), Gordon D. Fee (Editor).
- Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women, by Carolyn Curtis James
- Junia is Not Alone, by Scot McKnight
- How I Changed My Mind about Women in Leadership: Compelling Stories from Prominent Evangelicals, by Alan F. Johnson (Editor).
- Let Her Lead, by Brady Boyd
If you’d like to offer feedback, feel free. Please know that I simply don’t have the time to debate at length about the fine points and particulars. There are many good books written on all sides of this issue. Nonetheless, if you have feedback or a question, feel free to email me.