The Role of Women in Ministry

 

Errol Hale

Should women be in ministry? What kinds of ministry? Should they be ordained as deacons, elders and pastors? Or should they be barred from ministry, "learning in silence with all submission"?

There is a tendency concerning issues that divide the church, to err by adopting an extreme position, one based on culture and preference instead of on God’s will as revealed in the pages of the Bible. In this paper, we will attempt to find the biblical high ground, while avoiding the extremes.

Defining three positions:

One extreme position, popular in our modern day, is that every office of ministry and leadership in the church is equally open to women and men. We believe this position is based on a cultural egalitarianism.1

A second extreme position insists that women are to be subservient to men, if not in general, at least in the ministry of the church. We believe that this position is based on a selective hermeneutic and is a form of male exclusivism.

The third position is a biblically balanced position that recognizes the biblical limits regarding leadership roles for women while allowing them to use their gifts in the ministry of the church. We believe this position is correct.

Extreme #1: Egalitarianism

The proponents of this position receive their ideas from modern culture and defend it with a dubious hermeneutic. A position received from human culture must be carefully scrutinized since human culture is nearly always at odds with the Word of God. The world hates Christ (John 15:18-19). Christians are commanded not to love the world (1 John 2:15); we are reminded that the things that come from and are received by the world, are not likely to be from the Spirit of God (1 John 4:1-6). Sexual egalitarianism is a child of the worldly sexual revolution and women’s liberation movements of the twentieth century which have arguably done more damage to Western society than any other movement in that hundred-year span. These philosophies are clearly at odds with the Word of God.

The egalitarian position begins with a worldly philosophy and then seeks to defend itself using scripture. To accomplish this, scripture must beculturalized.  Passages that clearly limit or forbid female involvement in certain aspects of ministry are dismissed as pertaining only to the first century church, having no bearing on the church today. It is certainly true that the culture of the first century was different from our own. However, to say that holy scripture contains cultural messages that do not apply beyond the scope of its first recipients is to purge the Bible of much of its content and declare it to be less than timeless. What do we do with these "cultural" messages? We must recognize the cultural application for the first-century readers and then make application that spans time and culture. An example of this is Paul’s insistence, in 1 Corinthians 11, that women wear head coverings. The popular religion of Corinth involved female temple prostitution. The prostitutes had a particular look based on head coverings and hair style. Paul was reminding the Christian women that while they had liberty in Christ, they were not to exercise their liberty if it meant looking like the temple prostitutes. Egalitarians argue that since head coverings and temple prostitution are not relevant issues in our day and in our culture, much of this passage is irrelevant to today.

While it is true that we do not distinguish proper women from prostitutes based on head coverings today, there is a timeless principle that we still must apply. That principle is that Christians must not exercise our Christian liberties as an occasion to be worldly, seeking to look like worldly people–especially in church. Rather than dismissing ancient cultural teachings, we must apply the principles to our own day and culture.

A second argument in favor of egalitarianism is based on correct teaching from the Bible–misapplied. Egalitarians often quote passages like Galatians 3:28 which says: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." This passage, and the others like it, provide wonderful instruction about God’s lack of partiality regarding the subject of salvation. They do not, however, have anything whatsoever to do with qualifications for ministry. To use these passages to argue for women in ministry is to ignore the context.

The egalitarian position regarding women in ministry is founded on a worldly cultural agenda and is defended by dismissing some passages based on a culturalized hermeneutic and by emphasizing others passages that have been lifted from their context. Theirs is not a solid position.

Extreme #2: Male Exclusivism

Proponents of this position embrace it for one of two reasons. The first is a reaction to the egalitarian position. To wave the banner of male exclusivism because of one’s opposition to egalitarianism (or feminism) is still a failure to formulate one’s position based solely on the sure word of scripture.

The second reason to embrace the male exclusivist position is born out of noble intentions and an earnest desire to glorify God. Some sincere Christians honestly understand scripture to bar women from virtually all official ministry. Other eminent scholars (e.g., John Calvin and Charles Hodge) concede that scripture is not easily understood regarding this subject. These believe that if we are to err, we are better to err on the side of prohibiting women from ministry rather than allowing women to occupy positions of ministry from which God might restrict them. Both those who believe that the Bible clearly prohibits women from ministry and those who admit the complexity of the issue and opt to be safe rather than sorry do so for laudable reasons.

The proponents of the male exclusivist position are not following the popular worldly cultural mandate. Regarding culture, they strengthen their position by correctly noting that their position is contrary to popular culture. Opposing popular culture, however, is not a guarantee that one has no cultural bias. No position is sanctified because it is contrary to popular culture. If the position is not thoroughly biblical, it is still based on a cultural perspective, even if that perspective comes from a small sub- or counter-culture. To restrict women from ministries regarding which God’s Word places no restriction is no better than encouraging women to be in ministries that God’s Word does prohibit. Once again, we must not receive our cues from unbiblical culture–any culture.

The exclusivists argue much more convincingly from scripture than the egalitarians, but they too, may be guilty of forcing their position on the scriptures rather than allowing the whole of scripture to speak for itself. For example, 1 Corinthians 11 provides instruction about the roles of men and women.

3 But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God…8For man is not from woman, but woman from man. 9 Nor was man created for the woman, but woman for the man. 10 For this reason the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. – 1 Corinthians 11:3, 8-10

This passage seems to indicate that women are to be subservient to men, and that they are not to occupy positions of ministry in the church. The exclusivist readers curiously miss verse 5, which gives instruction to women about how they are to behave when they publicly pray or prophesy.

Later in the book of 1 Corinthians Paul clearly states the following:

34 Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. 35 And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church. – 1 Corinthians 14:34-35

Does this passage teach that all women in all churches at all times are to be seen and not heard? Context helps provide an answer. Remember that back in chapter eleven Paul gave instructions to women about how they were to pray or prophesy in public. Because the Bible does not contradict itself, 1 Corinthians 14 cannot be a blanket prohibition of women speaking in the church when in 1 Corinthians 11 Paul wrote about how women are to pray or prophesy in church. (For a more in-depth analysis of the 1 Corinthians 14 passage, please refer to the attached Appendix.)

An example of selective Bible reading or lifting a passage from the context of the whole Bible may be found in 1 Timothy 2:8-15. This passage is often cited by exclusivists to bar women from ministry. But, does the text support that position? Does the exclusivist interpretation find support or opposition when placed into the context of the whole Bible?

8 Therefore I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and dissension. 9 Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments, 10 but rather by means of good works, as is proper for women making a claim to godliness. 11 A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. 12But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. 13 For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. 14 And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression. 15 But women will be preserved through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self-restraint. (1 Timothy 2:8-15)

Verses 11 and 12 call for women to learn in silence and submission. Paul disallowed women to teach or to have authority over men, but to be in silence. From this passage, the exclusivist argues that women are not to speak at all. How can that interpretation be reconciled with Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 11:5 about how a woman is to pray or prophesy publicly? While this passage may present the strongest argument against women in ministry, it loses much of its punch when it is placed back into the context of what the whole Bible says on the subject. This kind of selective Bible reading may sound very conservative and fundamental. But it may also cause us to miss the message of the whole Bible in a given subject.

More importantly than restricting women from speaking or ministering in church, the point of the passage is spiritual authority. The passage does bar women from exercising spiritual authority over men, but not from ministry in general.

The exclusivist position is more easily defended from scripture than the egalitarian position, but it has contextual holes in it, not only because it tends to miss the point of the passages from which it gets its fire, but also because it ignores other entire passages that give sense and balance to the issue. This will be further demonstrated in the following section.

A Biblically Balanced Position

The biblically balanced position is assailed by egalitarians for being too exclusivist and by the exclusivist as being too egalitarian. The following is a defense of this position of what we believe is a biblically balanced position regarding the role of women in ministry. This position seeks to be neither egalitarian nor exclusivist. It seeks to be free from cultural bias, relying solely on scripture.

1. Christ is the head over the Church, both male and female members. (Colossians 1:18) As Head over the Church, He has revealed His will in His authoritative and inerrant Word, the Bible. Man is the head of woman in the home and in the church. (1 Corinthians 11:3) Every member must be in submission to the spiritual authorities described in scripture (husbands and fathers as heads of homes and elders as human leaders in the church) in order to be in submission to Christ as Head of the church.

2. Male and female are absolutely equal (Galatians 3:28), yet different (Genesis 1:26-27), having differing gifts and callings (1 Corinthians 11:3-15). God is no respecter of gender, giving no preference to male or female regarding salvation (Galatians 3:28). God has called men and women alike into many ministries in common, yet God is also free to call, and has called, men and women into different ministries, restricting women from certain leadership roles in family and church (1 Corinthians 11:3, Ephesians 5:22-34, 1 Timothy 2:8-15)2

3. Women are not called to be subject to men in general. There are two areas in which women are to be subject to male leadership. The first is in the home. Women are to be subject to their own husbands (1 Peter 3:5, Ephesians 5:22-34). The second area in which women (along with the entire congregation) are to be subject to male leadership is in the church. Caution is needed here. Men (in general) are not to lead women (in general) in church. Qualified males are to be the spiritual leaders of both men and women in the church. Men and women in the church are to submit themselves to the male leaders of the church (1Peter 5:6).

4. Women are restricted from occupying positions of spiritual authority over men (1Timothy 2:12). While women are not to have spiritual authority over men, an exception is the spiritual authority of women over their male children (Exodus 20:12). Similarly, young men, while not under spiritual authority of women, ought to exercise respect for women who are older, especially those who are more mature in the Lord (Romans 13:7, 1 Timothy 5:1-3, 1 Peter 5:5). There are other places in which a woman might have authority over a man that is not spiritual in nature. A man working for a company owned by a female is under her authority, but not spiritually. A female police officer has authority over a male citizen, although not spiritually.

5. Because women are restricted from holding positions of spiritual authority over men, women may not be elders. (Pastors are elders.) The office of elder is a position of spiritual authority (Titus 1:5, 1 Peter 5:2-4). Elders are the only official positions of spiritual authority in the church and therefore women must not be elders.

6. Women are restricted from teaching authoritatively over men (1 Timothy 2:12). Women are not restricted from speaking to or even teaching men as long as they are not doing so in an authoritative manner or from a position of authority they are not permitted to hold (1 Corinthians 11:5)3.  Women who might pray or speak in public should do so under the spiritual authority and leadership of the eldership of the church (1 Corinthians 11:5-13). When speaking of the New Covenant, the prophet Joel said that "And it shall come to pass afterward that I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh; Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy…" (Joel 2:28,emphasis added). The Apostle Peter quoted Joel 2:28 when explaining the movement of God’s Spirit on Pentecost (Acts 2:16-21). Males and females ("your sons and your daughters") will prophesy, or speak the word of God. Phillip the deacon had four daughters who were identified in Acts 21:9 as women "who prophesied." There is no mention that the daughters of this man of God were out of order.

7. In 1 Timothy 2:8-14, after prohibiting women from positions of authority, Paul explains why. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he argues that God created Adam before Eve and that Eve was spiritually deceived. The reasoning behind this seems to be that since God created Adam before Eve, God’s spiritual instructions were given first to Adam. Because Eve was spiritually deceived (and apparently Adam was not deceived, having sinned willfully) females are, or may be more subject to spiritual deception than males. This may sound rather stereotypical, but generally speaking, it is true. The reason is that women are naturally more emotive than men and may therefore be more easily swayed by their emotions to embrace spiritual deception than their generally more skeptical male counterparts.4

8. Women are not restricted from the office of deacon since it is not an authoritative position. The word deacon means servant. There is no biblical prohibition of women serving men. Romans 16:1 speaks of Phoebe "who is a "diakonos," [or deacon, translated: servant’] of the church in Cenchrea," providing us with an apostolically recognized female deacon–in a church.

9. Women are not prohibited from praying, speaking the Word of God, leading worship or engaging in any other type of ministry as long as they are not doing so authoritatively, and so long as they are subject to the elders of the church (1 Corinthians 11:5, Philippians 4:3, 1 Peter 5:5).

10. While experience is not the arbiter for doctrine or practice in the church, if women were restricted from ministry (other than biblically restricted from the office of eldership), the church of Jesus Christ would be motionless since the vast majority of the work that makes a church function has historically been done, and likely will continue to be done by God’s faithful women (Matthew 27:55, Acts 1:14, Philippians 4:3).

In Conclusion:

Cultural agendas, selective Bible reading and lifting passages of the Bible from their context are the culprits for a great many of the problems with which the church wrestles. The answer, as always, is to force culture to kneel before the Bible and to search the scriptures in their immediate context and within the context of the whole Bible.

The Elders of Grace Bible Church, July 1999

Appendix

1 Corinthians 12-14 deals primarily with the use and abuse of spiritual gifts, especially in the public worship services of the church. It seems that the worship services in the Corinthian church had become circus-like with numerous people speaking out in the services either in tongues or with prophetic utterances. In addition to instructing the people about the proper use of spiritual gifts, Paul was correcting them for the chaotic disrespectful atmosphere of the worship services. Paul has given instruction about the use of tongues and prophecy and in chapter 14, verse 26 through 35, he will speak forcefully about the importance of edification and order. Why is the issue of women brought into this discussion? It seems evident that the women in the church were among the chief culprits responsible for the confusion in the Corinthians worship services. The following is a brief commentary on 1 Corinthians 14:26-35.

26 Paul challenges the notion that so many in the congregation felt the need to speak in the service. The worship services were to edify the church. Because so many were speaking out, there was more confusion than edification.

27 There should be a limited number (two or at most three) in the service who speak out in a tongue. Those who speak out must do so in turn rather than all at once. There must be an interpreter.

28 If there is no interpreter the tongue should not be uttered out loud since without interpretation the body will not be edified. This verse contains the first of three instances of Paul’s usage of the phrase "let –––– keep silent." If there is no interpretation of a tongue, let the person with the gift keep silent or pray quietly.

29 Likewise, there should only be a few (two or three) who speak prophetically. When one speaks prophetically, the message is to be judged, or scrutinized to discern if it was truly of the Lord. Those who would be sought to judge the prophecies would presumably be people in positions of spiritual authority.

30 If those who judge the prophecy discern that it was not a valid prophecy or that the Lord had something different to communicate, the first one (the one who uttered the prophecy that was being judged) "must keep silent" (the second of Paul’s admonitions to "keep silent").

31 Paul; affirms that every member of the congregation may indeed have something edifying to share, but not all at once, and according to verse 29, only two or three in a given service. That Paul affirms that every member of the congregation may indeed have something encouraging to share, again confirms that women are not strictly excluded based on gender.

32 This verse corrects the false notion that some have promoted that the Holy Spirit puts people in a trance-like state, rendering them unable to control themselves or to contain their utterances.

33 Because God is not the author of confusion but of peace, Christian worship is not to be chaotic. The phrase, "as in all the churches of the saints" has been variously understood to apply either to verse 33 or to verse 33 and 34. It seems certain that it applies to verse 33. Christian worship is not to be chaotic in any of the churches of the saints. But does it apply to verse 34?

34 Is the sentence, "Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says" a blanket statement that all women are to be silent at all times in every church for all of time? The answer is No, for two clear reasons. First, because 1 Corinthians 11:5 speaks of how women are to pray and prophesy. Second, because 1 Corinthians 14:31 says all can prophesy to encourage the church as long as it is not out of order.

It has been suggested by Hurley that the instruction that the women are to keep silent refers to the act of judging prophecy as directed in verse 29-30. The reason being that as women they would not be permitted to hold positions of spiritual authority (e.g., eldership).

Does the last phrase of verse 33 apply also to verse 34? Verse 34 does say women are to "keep silent in thechurches," and the word "churches" is plural. This lends credibility to the idea that the last part of verse 33 does apply to 34.

In the last phrase of verse 34, Paul appeals to the Old Testament law as precedent that women are to remain silent in the church. This may be a reference to Genesis 3:16 in which the Lord told Eve that the husband was to rule over the wife. Paul’s reference seems to be an appeal to the fact that men were called to be spiritual leaders from the beginning.

35 This seems to be a call for wives not to be disruptive in the service asking questions, but rather to wait until they can inquire of their husbands when they are home. Why would Paul say that it is shameful for a woman to speak in church? Because she should honor the spiritual leadership of her husband, asking him to instruct her at home rather than speaking out in the church service. By speaking out, she dishonors or is a shame to him. This is consistent with 1 Corinthians 11:5-10 which says that a woman may only speak in the church service if she is "covered" by her spiritual "head," having her husband’s permission to speak and blessing his on her ministry.

What can we say on the subject of women in ministry based on this passage? First, it is not crystal clear as evidenced by the fact that in whole, or in part, this passage is used by both egalitarians and male exclusivists to bolster their positions. Second, because the primary issue which the passage addresses is order in the church services, we must understand the prohibitions regarding women to be related to a lack of order to which the women were contributing. Third, women are to be in submission (a) to the spiritual leadership of their husbands (v. 35) and (b) the spiritual leadership of the elders who are to judge the prophets and maintain order in the church. Fourth, the principles given in this passage transcend time and culture.

Endnotes:

1. Egalitarianism is a philosophy of absolute equality. Egalitarians insist that the playing field of life be level for all in every area of life. This ignores the fact that God did not bless all people with exactly the same gifts and callings. The parable of the talents demonstrates that God sovereignly gives each of His servants varying degrees of blessing and giftedness. Stewardship is judged by God based on our faithfulness with what we were entrusted, not on whether we all did equally since we did not all start off equally. Egalitarianism is an accusation that God did not distribute blessings and gifts correctly (i.e., equally).

2. We would assume that God has restricted women from certain leadership roles in government as well, but that is not within the scope of this paper.

3. Speaking authoritatively might include dogmatic doctrinal teaching or rebuking the congregation. A woman may speak to the congregation with a gentle spirit and humble attitude.

4. The fact that men are more skeptical also explains the fact that generally men are less open to the gospel than women seem to be.