Women, Ministry & Authority:
Cultural Perspectives vs. God’s Design
(Before we segue into the introduction of this topic, let us preface this blog with a forewarning: Not only is this topic weighty, but it is also lengthy and the style varies greatly from other blogs. We contemplated splitting this into two separate blogs but felt we needed to bring this topic to a resolution in which all facets harmoniously remain in context.)
“‘What is a woman’s place in this modern world?’ Jasnah Kholin's words read. I rebel against this
question, though so many of my peers ask it. The inherent bias in the inquiry seems invisible to so many of them. They ignore the greater assumption—that a ‘place’ for women must be defined and set forth to begin with. Half of the population must somehow be reduced to the role arrived at by a single conversation. No matter how broad that role is, it will be—by nature—a reduction from the infinite variety that is womanhood. I say that there is no role for women—there is, instead, a role for each woman, and she must make it for herself. For some, it will be the role of scholar; for others, it will be the role of wife. For others, it will be both. For yet others, it will be neither. Do not mistake me in assuming I value one woman’s role above another. My point is not to stratify our society—we have done that far to well already—my point is to diversify our discourse. A woman’s strength should not be in her role, whatever she chooses it to be, but in the power to choose that role. It is amazing to me that I even have to make this point, as I see it as the very foundation of our conversation.”
“The woman was made of a rib out of the side of Adam; not made out of his head to rule over him, nor out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected, and near his heart to be beloved.”
“What do you fear, lady?” [Aragorn] asked.
“A cage,” [Éowyn] said. “To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King
The topic of gender roles and the question of whether women can serve in leadership is a matter of significant debate within the Christian community. For the most part, I try to avoid stepping into the fray of social arguments, which are grounded in opinion and not the truth of God’s Word. However, I am a woman, wife, and mother to two daughters. I have always tried to teach them the value of who they are and to not try to be something they are not. They are not men, and I do not want them to try to be either. I want them to authentically be who God created them to be: Proud, beautiful, wonderful in their womanhood, and fulfilling the call God uniquely created them for. Therefore, I believe a response on this issue is merited, from a woman, but more importantly, a response grounded in Scripture and not a matter of opinion. Opinions are at best a subjective assertion and not an argument—just because I feel something, does not make that true and what triumphs over arguments is biblical fidelity. While I do believe that women can do anything they set their minds to, and have encouraged my daughters in the same, we must ground this belief in Biblical values and the will of God as chasing after anything else is an exercise in futility. Biblical fidelity is not about traditional cultures and values and while culture moves and is changeable, Biblical values do not. Moreover, Biblical fidelity in no way implies stagnation. We do not say “Way to stagnate” as a couple reaches the milestone of 50 years of marriage. Instead, we congratulate them on their constancy and steady commitment to remaining true. In the same way, we hold onto Biblical values and flourish as our faith grows alive and active in our Creator. So let us delve into the weighty topic, with a focus on what the Bible has to say.
Women in Leadership
The topic of women in positions of leadership and their roles within religious contexts has sparked various debates and interpretations throughout history. Before we explore specific examples and verses, it is essential to recognize that different denominations and scholars have varying understandings of certain passages, leading to diverse interpretations. However, to search for understanding in Scripture, we do not look to opinions and arguments about possible meaning. Instead, we use Scripture to interpret Scripture; the process of careful study of biblical passages (exegesis) in interpreting those passages, and use that as the solid foundation upon which we build our theology. Most of the arguments in favor of women as elders or pastors (positions of authority) focus on examples such as Deborah (Judges 4-5), Phoebe (Romans 16:1-2), and Priscilla (Acts 18:26).
Judges 4:4 identifies Deborah as a prophet, wife, and as judging Israel. The Hebrew word translated as “judge” is ַפט שָׁ (shâphaṭ) and means to pronounce a sentence (for or against); by implication, to vindicate or punish; by extension, to govern; passively, to litigate (literally or figuratively). When we examine other Scriptures for the same Hebrew word, we find the word is translated “judge” as in to act as a law-giver or to decide controversy, or to execute judgment. Therefore, according to the weight of Scripture, judging does not place Deborah in a position of authority as elder over men but rather that she listens to matters brought before her, judges, and applies the existing law to cases. The first time we see a collective group of leaders called elders is in Exodus 3:16 where Moses appeals to elders for support before he went to Pharaoh. In Numbers 11 we read of God’s specific call for a body of leaders: “Bring me seventy of Israel’s elders who are known to you as leaders and officials among the people. Have them come to the tent of meeting, that they may stand there with you” (verse 16). The word “elders” comes from the Hebrew word ָז ֵקן (zâqên) and means old, or those having authority. Thus, the passages together confirm that although women can serve as judges, and they do in our judicial system, being an elder or pastor (those in leadership) is not comparable to being a judge in ancient Israel. At the time of Deborah’s story, there were judges and elders, separate and distinct. Some scholars suggest that Deborah’s position as judge was a repudiation of the weak leadership in Israel at the time. Judges 4:8 would substantiate this claim as God called Barak to lead Israel in the traditional role of judge; those who served as military leaders in times of crisis before the Israelite monarchy. However, Barak’s response to God’s call was to reply to Deborah saying, “If you will go with me, I will go, but if you will not go with me, I will not go.” Deborah agrees to accompany Barak but also prophesies that the honor for the victory would belong to a woman (Judges 4:9). Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, received the honor, being called the “most blessed of women” in Judges 5:24 for killing Sisera and shows that God will call and use ordinary people to do extraordinary things.
In Romans 16:1-2, Paul speaks of Phoebe and calls her a servant of the church, and a patron of many. The word servant is from the Greek word διάκονος (diákonos) and means; one who executes the commands of another, a servant, attendant, a deacon, one who cares for the poor and has charge of and distributes the money collected for their use. The word patron is from the Greek word προστάτις (prostátis), which means; a female guardian or benefactor, someone caring for the affairs of others and aiding them with her resources. In none of the usage and understanding of the words Paul uses is the implication of eldership or authority over men. Therefore, at best, we could argue that Phoebe is a deacon; one who executes the commands of another. According to 1 Timothy 3 the character of deacons matters, but the significant difference between deacons and elders is that elders are to be skillful in teaching, while there is no such requirement for deacons. Added together, we find no support for Phoebe as holding the office of an elder/pastor.
Priscilla appears in the New Testament in Acts 18, 1 Corinthians 16, and Romans 16. Acts 18 says that Paul stayed with Aquila and his wife Priscilla, who had moved to Corinth because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome (verse 2). Verse 18 mentions that Priscilla and Aquila traveled with Paul and verses 24-26 recount the story of Apollos, who came to Ephesus, and “taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John.” Verse 26 says that “when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately.” 1 Corinthians 16:19 speaks about the greetings from the churches of Asia, including Aquila and Priscilla, together with the church in their house. In Romans 16:3, Paul sends greetings to Priscilla and Aquila, as his fellow workers in Jesus, and also the church in their house. In no way do any of these Scriptures assign or support Priscilla in the position of an elder, nor is preference given over the other because who is mentioned first is interchangeable and bears no weight of importance. Rather, both are mentioned, which support partnership and working as a team.
Contextual and Cultural Considerations
The Scriptures where we do see Paul address women are found in 1 Timothy 2:12 where Paul writes, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet,” and 1 Corinthians 11:3, “Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.” Having established no Biblical precedent for women in authority as elders or pastors, people often argue that we need to consider the specific cultural context in which Paul was writing. The argument then goes something like this: Paul held traditional Jewish perspectives on the role of women. The prevailing social norms of ancient Jewish culture limited the role of women in public and religious leadership positions. Thus Paul’s prohibition in 1 Timothy 2:12 aligns with his views on the order and structure of the church, as well as his concern for maintaining unity and avoiding the appearance of impropriety within the community. While some maintain the verse reflects a universal, timeless principle, it is vital to consider the specific context in which it was written and understand that cultural norms of the Bible do not necessarily equate to our current context and modern culture. However, rejecting differences between men and men, and arguing that the Biblical culture should not hold bearing because of today’s prevailing cultural and societal pressures is a fallacy. Let us, therefore, delve into the context Paul addressed, and perspectives on women’s roles and authority.
Unlike ancient Jewish and Greek customs, Roman women enjoyed greater freedom and legal rights. According to Maup van de Kerkhof, “Women were permitted to own land, run businesses, and inherit riches under Roman law.” Andrew Messing also noted that “Classical Greek culture was heavily influenced by the masculine ethos as sung in the Homeric epics, depicted in the parades-turned-dramas, and lacked the more practical, agrarian perspective we find in Roman thought and depicted in various archaeological remains...we do find an increase in women who were educated and women with political power (think of Cicero’s untimely demise).” Although both Corinth and Ephesus were originally Greek cities, Corinth became the administrative capital of the Roman province of Achaea, while Ephesus was the provincial seat of Roman government in Asia. Thus, we know that 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 11 were both written into a Roman cultural context. Both the Ephesian and Corinthian churches certainly appeared to be dealing with various issues, including divisions, disorderly worship practices, questions about appropriate attire, and some heretical teachings and practices specifically involving women. Considering Roman society provided more opportunities for women in public involvement, and as there was increasing confusion and disunity regarding what God intended, Paul aimed to bring order and establish principles that aligned with God’s design for His church.
God’s Design for Order
Paul explains God’s order and spiritual headship in the marriage relationship: God is the head of Christ, Christ is the head of every man, and man is the head of woman as an expression of Christ’s headship over the church (1 Corinthians 11:3, Ephesians 5:23). Granted, for some, this statement may be perceived as misogynistic and that Paul views women as inferior to men, but that is not what Paul is saying. When Paul uses the term “head”, it carries the connotation of authority, leadership, and order but does not imply a hierarchy of worth or competence or an order synonymous with dominance or superiority. Paul contends that male and female are interdependent (1 Corinthians 11:11, Romans 16:1- 16) and equal (Galatians 3:28, cf 1 Peter 3:7), just as the Father and the Son are equal and united. The emphasis of Galatians 3:28, “there is neither male nor female,” is that believers are one in Christ irrespective of gender, status, or race. The passage neither alters nor removes distinctions between men and women, rather, once we are saved, our differences do not define us as much as we are now defined by our position in Christ. All people are saved through faith in Christ and have the same rights and privileges as members of God’s family. As an expression of God’s order, a wife is to respond to the headship of her husband just as the church is to respond to Christ (Ephesians 5:24), and both are to treat each other in such a way as to reflect the picture God intended (Ephesians 5:33). Moreover, nowhere in the Bible passage does it teach that woman should be submissive to every man as our unity in Christ removes all discrimination and inequality in the church.
As part of Paul explaining God’s order in 1 Timothy 2:12-14, Paul speaks about Adam being formed first and then Eve, and about Eve being deceived and not Adam. Considering Paul mentioned Adam and Eve, let us look at Genesis 2 and 3 for context. In Genesis 2:16-17, God instructs Adam not to eat “from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” Then God said in verse 18, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” Helper is from the Hebrew word ֵע ֶזר (ʻêzer) and means succor; one who helps. The passage goes on to detail how God formed every beast and bird, as well as Adam, out of the ground. But God had formed Eve “out of” Adam, more specifically from his rib. In Genesis 3, Satan, in the form of a serpent, asks Eve whether God instructed them about what fruit they could not eat. Eve responds that God said, “You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die,” (Genesis 3:1-5). We can already see the disconnect between the two accounts: Adam knew because God had directly told him and he was likely responsible to communicate what God had said to Eve. Eve knew about what God told Adam, she did not have direct knowledge hence why Satan targeted Eve. 1 Timothy 2:12-14 simply says that women are not to teach men or have spiritual authority over men because Eve was deceived. God chose to give men the primary teaching authority in the church and one could argue that the responsibility and the burden of leadership were built into men from creation.
God is the ultimate authority and source for all believers, regardless of gender. The emphasis is on the need for men to submit themselves to Christ’s leadership and example, and for women to submit to their husbands, as to the Lord (Ephesians 5:22-33). The word submission is translated from the Greek word ὑποτάσσω (hupŏtassō) and is a military word that means to arrange under, to subordinate. Submission starts with acknowledging that all authority comes from God and we are commanded to submit to Him (James 4:7). Even Jesus acknowledged God’s authority and submitted to it by confirming that His focus and intent is on fulfilling and accomplishing the Father’s work (John 4:34), that He could do nothing of His own accord (John 5:19), to fulfill the will of the Father (John 5:30), and culminating in the greatest submission in Luke 22:42 saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” Ultimately, we submit not based on position or whether someone deserves that deference, we submit “to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21) and are willing to count others as being more significant (Philippians 2:3). Thus, the real issue is the heart attitude of obedience to God’s authority and submission to His established order. Under submission to God, the husband’s leadership should not be dictatorial, condescending, or patronizing towards his wife, but should be in accordance with the example of Christ leading the church. “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,” (Ephesians 5:25).
Women in Ministry
In 1 Timothy 2:12, “to exercise authority over a man,” Paul uses the Greek word αὐθεντέω (authentéō); which means to act of oneself, i.e. (figuratively) dominate or usurp authority over. But in no way does this imply no opportunity to minister, teach, or even preach. Paul referred to several women as fellow workers in Christ Jesus (Romans 16:3), and more specifically in Philippians 4:3 of women “who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers.” Moreover, in Titus 2:3-5 Paul writes instructions about older women being reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to alcohol, but to teach what is good, and train the young women. Paul also impressed upon Timothy the importance of the spiritual influence of his grandmother and mother and spoke about the sincere faith “that dwelt first in your grandmother,” and the sacred writings he was acquainted with from childhood (2 Timothy 1:5, cf 2 Timothy 3:14–15). One could argue that without Lois and Eunice, Timothy would not be the man he became. Thus, women are not restricted from exercising the gifts of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12) or from public prayer or prophesying (1 Corinthians 11:5). Moreover, women have a myriad of opportunities to demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit, to minister to others, teach, proclaim the gospel, make disciples, and to use their God-ordained gifts to help build the Kingdom of God (Matthew 28:18–20; Acts 1:8; Galatians 5:22–23;1 Peter 3:15), and being in submission does not preclude any of the aforementioned opportunities. Therefore, it is clear that Paul had no issue with women teaching as much as a specific mention of holding authority over men. Consequently, the issue is about reflecting a divinely established order within the family and the church as women partner with men and function in the call of God.
A friend of mine, a gifted teacher, occasionally has the opportunity to preach in the church her husband leads. She explains that when God stirs something in her heart, she submits it to her husband. If he and the eldership believe it is applicable, in season and time, he will ask her to share it with the church. She says what she loves most about being in submission is when the arrows come, she gets to duck, and her husband takes all the hits. While this may be a humorous example, there is truth in her statement. By way of example, this blog may be written by me, but I submit it to my husband for review and we submit it to the eldership for their review and correction before it is uploaded to the website. Thus the authority and responsibility reside with my husband and the eldership to bring direction, doctrine, and discipline.
God’s design and order for churches and families remain consistent irrespective of cultural and societal expectations. The responsible exegetical position on the subject of women pastors is the recognition that the New Testament does not provide an example of women in authority over men. The Bible upholds the equal worth and value of both men and women, emphasizing unity and mutual submission within the body of Christ. Rather than focusing on cultural and societal norms, let us consider the entirety of Scripture to understand God’s design for His church and the roles of men and women within it. Women, settle it, embrace it, walk in God’s way, and find freedom and fulfillment in running your race and completing your call while being in submission to your husband, if married, and to the elders, if single.