Women in Ministry and the Millennial Church

There are problems within the contemporary Church. While there have always been problems in the Church, as people are known for their fallibility, today people are leaving the Church in waves exponentially greater than those of previous generations. Most surprising of this news is that women, long considered the base of Church membership, have begun to leave in unprecedented numbers seen in the likes of their counterparts. Often they cite objections such as wanting more opportunity to fulfill their spiritual gifts and a constant addressing of their “inferiority” and “subordination” before men, but not before God. With women leaving at the rate of their counterparts, and giving ample reasoning for doing so, it is distressing that Church officials still espouse the patriarchic model that has been challenged in recent years. If the Millennial Church, that of the twenty-first century, wants to survive it must return to the model of the Early Church and that includes women leaders.  Scriptural support for and Early Church evidence of women in leadership roles are abundant, but their continual misuse and the misunderstanding of have kept women out of areas of leadership for nearly two millennia.

Critique of the Traditionalist View

The Creation and Fall

The core of the Traditionalist view originates in the Creation account and the Fall in Genesis 1-3. Though all agree that male and female were created in the “image of God” (Gen. 1:27), Traditionalists ascertain that the creation account created a hierarchy within the sexes. As Adam was created first, with the privilege of naming all of the animals and the first to whom God declared could have dominion over the Earth, he is considered to have primacy over Eve, who was taken out of him. They argue that since Adam was first given this duty and responsibility, he is thus in the leadership role. Additionally, because he named Eve, supposedly paralleling how he named the animals, he is thus dominant over her as well.

These points are in direct conflict with the fundamental equality that comes from being made in the image of God and declared so in a partnership. The reason that woman was made, was so that man would have a partner. This was found insufficient in all the animals, and thus why it is natural to claim dominance over them, so God created a partner out of his flesh mimicking what will become during the marriage relationship. “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gen. 2:23) does not necessarily equate to dominance because he was first, but means that now they are one flesh, married (Gen. 2:24). Man was incomplete without woman, necessitating her existence. If male is incomplete, and thus inferior, without her, it would seem impossible for her to be subordinate to him since she is the reason he has reached completion. Likewise, woman would be incomplete without man; they share an equal partnership.[1]

Others have said that because she was created as a “helper,” then she must be subordinate. Traditionalists argue that by creating a “helper” for another creates a leadership responsibility within the man. Through this “functional subordination” women are declared submissive to the man so that he may accomplish what he needs done. This carries on into the view of how the man is to be in the marriage relationship as well.[2]This is foundational misreading of the text. Though she is called “helper” (‘ēzer), this does not necessitate a clearly subordinate role. This is the same word that is used to describe God’s help for man (Psalms 33:40; 115:9, 10, 11).[3] In this context, “helper” means someone who provides assistance that fills a great need.[4]

Finally, Traditionalists claim that since Eve was deceived while Adam wasn’t, a view utilized by Paul in 1 Timothy 2, women are subordinate as they are easily misled. However, God punishes them both equally. Traditionalists hold that they are punished equally because though woman was the first to sin, it was man who had responsibility to make sure that she did not. He was the one to whom the proclamation was given not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and thus was responsible for making sure Eve did not eat of it either. However, this view seems to ignore the point that Adam ate of the tree, with full knowledge of what it was. Despite this, they are still punished equally. From the Traditionalist view it would seem that Adam failed God both times, in failing to keep Eve from eating of the Tree and by eating of it himself, yet he is given an equal punishment. This would seem to mean that though woman was deceived, it was of her own volition and she shares equally in the punishment.[5]

The Early Church

            While Traditionalists do not disagree that there were women in the Early Church, they believe that women were neither allowed authority nor formality in leadership. They focus on the verses that speak specifically to the male dominance over females, but neglect the verses that provide context to specific situations. For example, 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 commands women to be veiled while prophesying because it shames her “head” to not be veiled. The reasoning is that the man is the head of the woman, as Christ is the head of man.[6] However, this fails to recognize the cultural situation of the time. A woman in public without a veil meant that she was a prostitute. She was shaming her husband because people would think she was a prostitute, and thus would think that he was married to an immoral woman.[7] Likewise, it would be just as shameful for Christ to be married to an immoral Church. This does not necessarily mean that she was subordinate, just that she should try not to bring shame to herself or her husband.

However, Traditionalists take to mean that the veil is a symbol for today, meaning this “headship,” thus a woman is welcome to prophesy in Church so long as she is under man’s authority.[8] This causes a perplexing problem, though. Prophet is described as one of the loftiest positions in the Bible, and “was entrusted with spreading the deep secrets of God.”[9] Since this is an ordination by God, it carries the authority of God which is above the man’s.[10] Thus, it would seem that these two aspects are in conflict. However, if one reads the context in which these verses are written, it would be obvious that Paul is attempting to regulate men and women in the aspects of remaining holy in appearance before the Lord. What they are speaking of is not the “headship” of the man, but the need for both sexes to be modest in appearance while in Church or evangelizing.

Thus, Traditionalists utilize these views to come to the conclusion that women should not be allowed to lead in Church. They are subordinate to men, due to the Creation narrative, and thus have no authority, and what ministry they do have is done either in private or under male supervision. This type of argument has very destructive consequences. While women are permitted to prophesy, as is obvious by 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, there is a fundamental difference between prophecy and preaching. “Preaching and teaching…are found on an intelligible exposition of the Word of God, whereas prophecy is based on [revelation].”[11] Though this is a clear differentiation between the two, it neglects to explain why if God deems a woman authoritative enough to give testimony to His “deepest secrets” that she may not preach what those secrets mean. If God deems her authoritative, then the Church should be obligated to as well.[12]

Equality before the Lord: The Egalitarian Perspective

            While the Traditionalist model hinges on the creation narrative, the egalitarian model focuses more on examples within Scripture and proper context to achieve its positions. Traditionalists seek to maintain their dominance rather than focus on the foundations of one’s faith, specifically Jesus. They are unlikely to find any assertion in the gospels that maintains the superiority-inferiority dynamic that they espouse in the gospels. There are no fewer examples of Jesus challenging gender authority roles than any other superiority-inferiority role. The essential point is that neither male nor female is granted superiority over the other, but are only subordinate to the Lord.

Equal before God

            While both male and female were created in the image of God, this was marred by the Fall. With Jesus’ return, the Kingdom was righted again. Paul espouses this belief in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This was a profoundly counter-cultural argument to be making. The typical morning prayer for a Jewish male was to thank God that he was not “a Gentile, a slave or a woman.”[13] Traditionalists hold to the idea that this cannot be true of the Church in the Egalitarian view because it contradicts other verses, meaning that Paul misunderstood his own inspiration.[14] However, this is to pervert the Egalitarian view of both the Creation account and Galatians 3:28. They are not misunderstandings, Galatians is a text that is assigned to the universal Church, which 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 11, 14 are directed at specific situations. The Galatians were being infiltrated by those who said that one needed to do something more to be saved, rather than relying purely on faith, a theological discussion. The situation in Corinth and Ephesus regarded false teachers who were preying upon women and thus the women were propagating false testimony as well. This is a prescriptive method for a specific situation that just happened to be involving women.

Ministry of Jesus

Furthermore, this universality is more in line with Jesus’ teachings in the gospels. The gospel writers included an amazing amount of parables and teachings that involved Jesus, which must mean that they were both important to His ministry and numerous. The first person to declare that Jesus was Lord was a woman: Elizabeth, and her unborn son John.[15] Likewise, when he was in the Temple, Anna, who is described as a “prophetess,” and Simeon proclaim him Lord and evangelize for him immediately. Continually, Jesus is recognized equally in Scripture by both sexes.[16] Similarly in the parables, there are parallels between the sexes. Jairus asks him to heal his daughter and then Mary and Martha ask him to heal their brother, the blind man and the woman with the blood disease are healed, the paralyzed man and the adulterous woman are granted salvation though neither ask, Jesus corrected the lawyer and Martha, and Jesus personally taught Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman at the well.[17]

Additionally, it was counter-cultural for Jesus to even have face-to-face conversations with women, yet He invites them to follow Him and teaches them like any other disciple. The fact that women were permitted to follow a teacher or rabbi was “an unprecedented happening in history of that time.”[18] Women were not allowed to hear a rabbi teach, were unable to testify in court, were not counted in the numbers of a synagogue, were subordinate religiously to their husbands, and were unable to obtain any public presentation of their own. However, in the ministry of Jesus, “the women” were constantly moving among his disciples and were likely supporting them financially.[19] Mary the mother of Jesus and “the women” were also among the 120 empowered by the Spirit to witness in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and beyond (Acts 1:7-8, 14-15, 2:1-4).[20]

Still, some Traditionalists claim that Jesus never intended women to speak with authority. Their main assertion is that, if Jesus was as interested in gender equality, why did he not include women in the Twelve.[21] However, by this logic, it would seem that only Galilean Jews would be permitted to lead. “Jesus did not include anyone who was not a wealthy Judean from Galilee, but these differences do not receive the same level of scrutiny as women.[22]

Fundamental Reorientation

This understanding of both the equality and ability of women in the ministry of Jesus should be the lens by which we view Paul’s writings. The three most contentious verses are 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, and 1Timothy 2:11-15. 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 has already been discussed, but it should be noted that even Traditionalists consider the veil a cultural custom that has little bearing on the contemporary believer. It was both Roman law and Jewish custom for the woman to be veiled as a way to maintain honor and modesty. The passage preceding these verses dealt specifically with how the Corinthians had been taking advantage of their freedom in Christ.[23] Thus it would seem that Christian women, in the freedom that they were experiencing did not see the need to wear their veils anymore, and were being mistaken for prostitutes.[24] Additionally, a woman’s hair was considered her pride. When a woman was caught as an adulteress, her hair was cut or shaved and she was thrown out of her house.[25] It is likely that some of these women found their way to a church member who took care of them. The allowance of those who have lost their veil to again wear it amounted to a forgiveness of their past sins.[26]

Further, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 also shows a cultural component not taken into consideration by the Traditionalists. Women are ordered to “keep silent in churches,” yet are allowed to prophesy (1 Cor. 11).  This appears to be a contradiction if only looking at this without investigation. “It is important to recognize Paul’s use of the verb Mein, “speak,” in 1 Corinthians 14:34. It should be translated inspired speech or argumentative and distracting debate or questioning.[27] It is not the fact that the women are speaking that is being objected to, it is that they are being disruptive and argumentative. It appears that a heretical teaching had been propagated within Corinth that fed on the women’s past history with the Greek cults.[28]

What is often missed by Traditionalists is that they were being disruptive because they were learning. Women did not attend school past puberty, and were not permitted to be taught in the synagogue, so within the Church was their first experience with education.[29] When one was first learning, it was expected that they keep silent during corporate learning for fear of appearing foolish and rude. More experienced students were permitted to ask educated questions. Since women were new to education, they were expected to be silent and learn rather than ask disruptive questions and argue heretical teachings.[30] When they attempted to argue their case for the heretical teaching, which seems to have been common, they were outmatched by the far more educated men. When a woman asked rude and argumentative questions, the husband was looked to with shame because he appeared to not have taught his wife proper decorum. It was not because held authority over her, it was because they were one flesh and his knowledge of the situation should have avoided this disruption.[31]

            Finally, 1 Timothy 2:11-15 is possibly the most contentious verse if not viewed through the gospel message. “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.”[32] This is another area where the setting provides context to the theological lesson. This was expected to be a corrective teaching. The Church in Ephesus was falling apart. False teachers needed removal (1:3-7, 18-20; 4:1-8; 5:20-22; 6:3-10, 20-21), elders were sinning and not being removed while others had been expelled (1:21), women were dressing inappropriately (11:9), men were angry (2:8), and women were learning disruptively (11:11-12).[33] The false teachers had apparently gained a following among the women, who in a sort of women’s liberation movement, were attempting to assert dominance over the men. As Christians were being persecuted, it was very dangerous to have women misbehaving in synagogues and home churches.[34]

Paul argues this point by readdressing the Fall, ascertaining that “it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner,” rather than Adam. While this is an odd interpretation of the Fall, it makes sense in the context of the situation. False teachers were most convincing among women, those who were less educated and easier to fool, and thus Paul wanted to show that women should not teach, as they were easily deceived.[35] However, this is not a universal declaration though it is given a common explanation. This is a prescriptive issue for a specific problem with false teachers.  Some Traditionalists assert that there can be no difference between theological declarations and specific prescriptions as it implies that one has more authority than the other.[36] There is no misunderstanding between these points, when a specific problem exists, such as the false teachers, then this is the universal solution. However, when there is no problem, there should be no prescriptive preemptory reaction when it is not needed.

Early Church Examples

There is of no doubt that there were women in the Early Church. Women are described as  apostles (Rom. 16:7, prophetesses (Acts 21:9; 1 Cor. 11:5), evangelists (Phil. 4:2-3), patrons of churches (Rom. 16:2), teachers (Acts 18:24-26; Tit. 2:3-5), deacons (Rom. 16:1; 1 Tim. 3:11), prayer leaders (1 Cor. 11:5), overseers of home churches (Acts 12:12, 16:14-15; Col. 4:15), “prayer warriors” (1 Tim. 5:5), and known for “mercy and hospitality” (1 Tim. 5:10).[37] If one includes the apocrypha and traditional beliefs, every position that was held by men in the Early Church also had a woman performing the same duty.[38] The first European convert was a woman, Lydia. Since Paul could find no synagogue in the Greek city, he evangelized to a group of women washing in the river (Acts 16).[39] In Thessalonica, many of the wealthy women in the city were attracted to Paul’s teachings and were the basis for financial support of the church.[40]

Of the most important sections where the roles of women are made clear is Romans 16. As the concluding book of Romans, Paul is addressing those for whom he hopes can speak for him. One third of those addressed in this chapter are women. Paul was effectively writing to those whom he knew, such as Priscilla and Aquila, who could testify on his behalf that it was really him, to lend him authority. Given that a third of those whom he addresses are female means that some women must have held some sway in the governance of the home churches in Rome.[41]

Of the women he names, some are more prominent than others. Priscilla is afforded “an equal place among other such workers as Timothy (Rom. 16:21), Titus (2 Cor. 8:23), Luke (Phil. 24), Paul (1 Cor. 3:9), and others.”[42] Junia, as well as her companion Andronicus, are called “apostles.”[43] Since their names are paired, it was likely that they were either married or brother and sister. Nonetheless, many Traditionalists hold that Junia could not have been a woman. Their stance is that the name is really Junias, which has no precedence as a male’s name for two centuries.[44] Though Paul’s definition of apostle is merely one who was a witness to the resurrection (1 Cor. 9:1; Acts 1:22), Traditionalists still contend that there could be no woman apostle.[45]

Perhaps the most debated commendation of a woman is that which Paul gives Phoebe, the carrier of the letter. He calls her a deacon of the church in Cenchrae, the port city near Corinth (Rom. 16:1). She was likely an independent business woman, with the freedom to travel without being thought of as scandalous. Carrying his letter to Rome, a church he had never met before, testifies to the level of esteem that Phoebe would have held. It is likely that she held considerable leadership in her home church, and Paul expected the Church in Rome to respect her as well.[46] However, many refute her station as deacon, though there is no difference between the word used for her and other instances in Paul’s writings.[47] If it is accepted that she was a deacon, some Traditionalists still refute the claim of leadership by women by dismissing her leadership as non-existent or by saying that “an isolated case of one female deacon is hardly a strong argument for the ordination of women as elders and deacons in the church of either the first century or the present day.”[48]

Despite the evidence for women as leaders in the New Testament, no matter their role, Traditionalists continue to defend their position through whatever circular logic necessary. “Nothing in Paul justifies the conclusion that these women worked in ways that differed either in kind or in quality from the ways in which men worked,” yet the view still persists.[49] Likewise, with the issue of authority, it is impossible for the Traditionalists to reconcile their subordinate position of women and the authority given to women by God. They call it a special circumstance rather than accepting that if a woman is authoritative enough for the Holy Spirit, then she should be authoritative enough for the Church.

The Necessities of the Millennial Church

            Very little of the twenty-first century Church resembles that from the first century. Culturally, women are allowed the same opportunities in the secular world. They are educated as well or better than men. They have the freedom to marry whomever they want, and most maintain a somewhat egalitarian relationship. The only thing that has not changed is the view of women in the Church despite numerous examples of women leaders, contextualization and closer reading of the Scriptures, and a far less patriarchal view of society. Given that the objections in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 11 are in regards to the education of women, the prescriptive measures keeping women from places of authority are no longer warranted. Since Traditionalists easily brush off the requirement, a direct command similar to “I do not permit a woman to teach” (1 Timothy 2:12), then there should be no reason to continue to follow a cultural prescription as seen in 1 Timothy 2:11-16, 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 or 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. Furthermore, women are authority by the Spirit, yet the Church still denies the ability to pursue these God-given gifts because they are not seen as “authoritative.” Every Sunday pastors walk to their pulpit to reclaim freedom in Christ from our sin, caused by the Fall which we have been saved from by Christ. If He may look past our previous transgressions, and accept us as a new creation in Him (2 Cor. 5:17), the Church should be able to as well.

[1] Beck, James R. and Stanley N. Gundry, ed. Two Views on Women in Ministry. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001: 26-27

[2] Yarbrough, Robert W. “Women and Ministry: Fidelity to Scripture in the Unity of the Faith.” Presbyterion 35, no. 2 (2009): 73

[3] Alexander, James. “Against Feminism and Beyond Silence: the Biblical View of Female Ministry.” Brethren Life and Thought 30, no. 4 (1985): 232

[4] Beck 27

[5] ibid 32

[6] Alexander 235

[7] The Oxford Bible Commentary. Edited by John Barton and John Muddiman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001: 1125

[8] Alexander 235

[9] ibid 233

[10] Grenz, Stanley J. “Anticipating God’s New Community: Theological Foundations for Women in Ministry.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 38, no. 4 (December 1995): 604

[11] House, H. Wayne. “Should a Woman Prophesy or Preach before Men?” Bibliotheca Sacra 145, no. 578 (1988): 151

[12] Grenz 604

[13] Pearson, Sharon Clark. “Women in Ministry: A Biblical Vision” Wesleyan Theological Journal 31, no. 1 (1996):  165

[14] House, H. Wayne. “Paul, Women, and Contemporary Evangelical Feminism.” Bibliotheca Sacra 136, no. 541 (1979):  45

[15] Tkacz, Catherine Brown. “Women and the Church in the New Millennium.” St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 52, no. 3-4 (2008): 251

[16] ibid 252

[17] ibid 252-253

[18] Pearson 146

[19] ibid 147

[20] Beck 54

[21] The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought: Intellectual, Spiritual and Moral Horizons of Christianity. Edited by Adrian Hastings, Alistair Mason and Hugh Pyper. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

[22] Beck 45

[23] House prophesy 143

[24] Clarke, Adam. Clarke’s Commentary: Volume 5 Romans-Revelation. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1967: 250

[25] ibid 251

[26] Oxford 1125

[27] Pearson 153

[28] Beck 72

[29] ibid 73

[30] Gundry, Robert H. Commentary on the New Testament. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010: 679

[31] Clarke 279

[32] 1 Timothy 11-12

[33] Beck 79

[34] Oxford 1224

[35] Gundry 837

[36] House evangelical 45

[37] Belleville 36

[38] Tkacz 258-259.

[39] House, H. Wayne. “The Ministry of Women in the Apostolic and Postapostolic Periods.” Bibliotheca Sacra 145, no 580 (1988): 387.

[40] Ibid 338.

[41] The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes. Ed. Keck, Leander E. vol 10. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996: 761.

[42] Pearson 149.

[43] New Interpreter’s 762.

[44] Oxford 1107.

[45] New Interprerter’s 763

[46] ibid 761-2

[47] Beck 60

[48] Gangel, Kenneth O. “Biblical Feminism and Church Leadership.” Bibliotheca Sacra 140, no 557 (1983): 61

[49] Oxford 1107


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