I believe that there is no Christian theological reason to restrict women from serving in any leadership ministry, including preaching and pastoring churches.
I have felt it increasingly important to summarize my position about that in writing, and I think that I owe it to my female colleagues to argue for that position more openly.
I realize that it is a controversial topic in certain church circles in America where I am from and in the Turkish-speaking world where I work today. But in many places there just isn’t any controversy around it at all. I was recently at a dinner table with guests from Hong Kong, Brazil, and Nigeria, all of whom are serving actively in ministry. None of them was really aware of the level of controversy that this topic entails in other parts of the world, because in their own ministry contexts women preach regularly and without any opposition.
In one of the churches where I serve as a pastor, I lead the congregation together with a female pastor who is a gifted preacher and leader. I have learned from her and I depend on her wisdom and leadership in helping to guide the community. I imagine that her character must have something in common with Junia, whom Paul lists among the apostles (Romans 16:7).
I have close friends and colleagues who disagree with me about this topic and I am happy to call them faithful brothers and sisters, although I think they are wrong about an important question. We can seek unity and serve together with people who believe differently, especially if we are willing to listen with as much humility and flexibility as possible. And while I believe that this is an important topic, it isn’t a matter of primary doctrinal significance, so there is room for a diversity of perspectives.
I think that the restriction on women preaching and leading in pastoral ministry that exist in some church circles in places like the United States and in the Turkish speaking world is a piece of church sub-culture that needs to be challenged by the gospel.
I have always approached this topic as a hermeneutical question. I believe that the Bible is inspired by God and its teachings are authoritative for people of every generation. As I sought to apply a coherent view of interpretation to the Bible I came to the conclusion that it does not teach a position that restricts women from certain ministry roles. Instead, I think that an appropriate understanding of the teaching of the Bible supports women pursuing preaching and leadership roles in the church. Along the way I have been grateful for the careful thinking of teachers such as Gordon Fee, Craig Keener, Scot McKnight, Dallas Willard, N.T. Wright and F.F. Bruce who have been influential in shaping my views on these issues.
I won’t try to make a comprehensive case for any particular position, but I would like to outline some of the structure of the perspective that I have come to on this question. All of the subheadings that I will include below deserve a more detailed treatment, but I think they provide a framework for understanding why I am confident in defending the legitimacy of women in leadership ministry.
The Nature of the Bible
Understanding how to read the Bible on these topics begins with an understanding of the nature of the Bible. It is tempting to view the Bible as a mysterious rule book that needs to be decoded like a puzzle to be solved so that we can figure out what we are supposed to do or not do. But, I don’t think that is a good way to think about the Bible. It is more authentically the story of the gospel. It brings the life of the kingdom of God to every context because of the victory of Jesus over the forces of evil and the broken systems of the world. The Bible is not reducible to a list of rules. We could never produce a comprehensive set of timeless restrictions and obligations and from the Bible. We need discernment and the guidance of the Spirit to continually adapt and apply the life of the gospel to the world around us.
The Bible is the word of God, but it is very different from the way that the pharisees understood the Torah. We aren’t intended to dissect the New Testament as a complex source of legal material to produce lists of restrictions and obligations. The New Testament is the story of the gospel. It is the account the kingdom of God coming near, and the work of God begun in an unexpected way through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that opens the life of the kingdom to all the nations.
So, we shouldn’t be trying to reproduce the conditions of the first century for today. The gospel radically transformed the cultures of the first century and we have seen the way the gospel continues to plant seeds of transformation in our societies today. Slavery is a good example of this transformation. Slavery was an accepted social institution for centuries. The gospel challenged the ideas that perpetuated slavery and eventually the church came to see that it was wrong because it violated the basic gospel truth that people are created in the image of God, so all people are of equal value.
Polygamy is another good example of the gradual transformation that God’s work accomplishes in the world. In the cultures of the Old Testament polygamy was an accepted practice, and many of the patriarchs and examples of faithful living had more than one wife. But in the centuries between the Old and New Testaments a change was happening in the world so that by the first century AD the cultures around Jesus have changed so that Jesus seems to assume that his audience believes in monogamy. He doesn’t have to forbid polygamy because no one is arguing for it. Instead he makes reference to the example of Adam and Eve as the model for marriage. Today, we are right to see polygamy as wrong despite the fact that there is no prohibition about it in the Bible, because we can see that God’s plan was to gradually transform the culture and bring our attention to the benefit of monogamy.
And in the cases where the gospel is introduced to societies where polygamy is still practiced, mature Christian leaders don’t call for converts to divorce their wives. Rather, they teach a design for marriage from the Bible that includes one man and one woman in a permanent, committed relationship. And they recommend married believers not to take additional wives, but to care for their existing wives faithfully. In this way, monogamy eventually nudges out the previous practices. Understanding the depth and scope of the Bible’s story and applying it to real life situations requires nuance.
We discern the priorities of God and the contours of the story of the gospel and the coming kingdom and we seek God’s wisdom in bringing that story into our own contexts. As I have said, we don’t try to reproduce the cultural context of the first century or reduce the Bible to a list of rules.
Similarly, the gospel should be challenging a rigid understanding of gender roles and I think that eventually we will think about male dominance the way we now think about polygamy or slavery. I’ll talk more specifically about that in the next sections.
The Grand Story of the Bible
The Bible begins with creation, with men and women created together in God’s image. Man and woman are created equal with a relationship of mutual care and benefit (Genesis 1:26-27). The fall into sinfulness introduces enmity, competition, and an urge for dominance into the relationship between men and women (Genesis 3:14-19).
Throughout the Old Testament we see hints and pictures of a creation that will be eventually restored. God is bringing about a new creation in which his will is done perfectly without the corrupting influence of sin, without violence or dominance, and in which the social distinctions that divide us are erased (Isaiah 11:6-16; Joel 2:28-32). That picture of a new creation with new values includes beautiful descriptions of mutuality and equality instead of dominance. It is the church’s responsibility to model a transformed living that is moving toward new creation.
Codifying a principle of male dominance as a universal value makes permanent what is intended to be temporary, cementing us in a mentality that belongs to the fall. But, the gospel frees us to participate in a move toward new kinds of patterns and structures. The gospel should challenge the fallen structures of the world. And I think that a universal prohibition on women serving as church leaders or preachers is an example of fallenness that should be challenged by the gospel.
That is how Paul understood the gospel. He challenged existing institutions, bringing new covenant life to them and initiating radical cultural change. He saw the Spirit empowering drastic institutional transformation that many of the leaders around him just couldn’t accept. The existing structures with their old way of thinking about the way people relate to God were just not sufficient to accommodate the way that God was working in the world. That radical, unexpected, transformative work is still going on. And the Spirit is empowering women to preach and to serve in leadership roles.
The Role of Women in the Bible
Of course, there is already a powerful theme of women in leadership in the Bible. Miriam is the sister of Moses and Aaron and is a prophet. She leads God’s people in worship when they cross the Red Sea (Exodus 15:20).
Deborah was also a prophet and a judge, that is, a leader of God’s people during the period when then initially settled in the land of Israel (Judges 4). She was a married woman, but it was Deborah, not her husband, who was anointed to rule and lead her people into battle.
Of course Joel famously predicts that one result of the Spirit’s work in the world would be that women will prophesy (Joel 2:28). We see that prediction fulfilled in the prominent women in the New Testament where the Spirit is poured out equally on men and women to serve as teachers, prophets, and leaders.
In the New Testament Matthew makes a point of highlighting the role of women in the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:1-17). Throughout the gospels Jesus breaks the religious and cultural taboos regarding male and female roles. For example, Jesus is not afraid to sit alone with the Samaritan woman at the well even though she had a reputation for immorality (John 4) and Jesus wasn’t afraid or offended to be touched by a women while she was experiencing menstrual bleeding, even though Jewish laws considered her to be ritually unclean (Mark 5:25-34). And of course, after the resurrection, Jesus first appears to women even though legally and culturally their testimony wouldn’t have the same status as that of a man, and he appoints Mary Magdalene to proclaim the truth of the resurrection. (John 20:11-18).
After embracing his call from God to preach the gospel to the non-Jewish peoples of the world, Paul sets out on a life of ministry together with apostolic teams of people who have made similar commitments to serve in the cause of the gospel. In his letters, Paul goes to great lengths to name his female co-workers in ministry. He entrusts the delivery (and probably the explanation) of his letter to the Romans to the female deacon Phoebe (Romans 16:1). And Paul commends a woman named Junia as an outstanding apostle (Romans 16:7), although some of our translations obscure that more clear reading of the text.
As we consider the whole story of the Bible, we can’t use some passages to silence other passages because they preserve a traditional understanding that we would rather not disturb. There are difficult passages in Paul’s letters (1 Timothy 2 for example) that we have to think carefully about, but whatever is meant by those passages, it is clear that they cannot be teaching that there is a universal prohibition on female leadership since the Bible gives so many counterexamples of that position. So, we have to find a way to read those passages that will allow us to take the whole story of the Bible seriously.
Bringing Some Nuance to Theological Principles
Of course, there are are a handful of New Testament passages, particularly from the letters of Paul, that are used to defend a “complementarian” or “male headship” view that restricts women from serving in church leadership. The verses in 1 Timothy 2, and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 in particular, are often introduced in the context of this discussion.
Paul develops some important theological principles in the broader context of those writings that can help us to interpret them consistently. Paul thinks that submission to one another, rather than asserting authority, is a a mark of obedience to Jesus. So, when he is giving advice to Timothy about how to deal with people who think he is too young, he says “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example…”(I Timothy 4:12). Paul’s point is for Timothy to change the view of the church about the giftedness of young people through the faithful example of young people in ministry. He advises slaves to obey masters and wives to obey husbands, not because they are inferior or because of a permanent hierarchy, but because he sees the example of the incarnation and the servant life of Jesus as a model for us to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Ephesians 5:21).
There is a helpful parallel on the question of meat sacrificed to idols. In Acts 15 Paul advises the believers to avoid meat sacrificed to idols. But, we know from his other writings that he doesn’t intend this as a universal or permanent prohibition. Rather, it is a temporary instruction that is limited to the particular situation of those new believers.
From his more detailed explanations in Romans 14 and in 1 Corinthians 8 and 10, we know that Paul thinks that believers are free to eat meat sacrificed to idols without raising a question of conscience (1 Corinthians 10:25). Yet, he instructs believers to submit their freedoms in this area if another believer is going to be offended by the exercise of that freedom. Paul thinks that this is a question of maturity. He describes believers who are unable to eat meat sacrificed to idols as “weaker” and believers who are able to eat the meat as “stronger.” Eventually, the weaker brothers are intended to become stronger so that they too can see that eating meat sacrificed to idols isn’t actually an evil in itself.
Similarly, I think the Bible teaches, and Paul agrees, that men and women have the same spiritual capacities. But, in the culture where he is serving, there are good cultural reasons to sometimes ask women to surrender that freedom instead of asserting it at the expense of unity. We don’t know exactly what the situation in Corinth or Ephesus was, although we have some good historical hints.
Roman religious beliefs sometimes attributed women with intrinsic magical powers, and the description of the women’s dress and behavior in 1 Timothy 2 match the earliest descriptions of the worshippers of the goddess Artemis who was an important figure in Ephesus where Timothy was serving. Gary Hoag in his book Wealth in Ancient Ephesus and the First Letter to Timothy has made a very convincing case for reading these verses not as a universal prohibition on women in leadership ministry, but rather as a rebuke of women in the congregation who were bringing those beliefs and practices related to Artemis worship into the church.
It is also important to consider the educational options that would have been available to women at the time. Despite the limited opportunities for women to study traditionally, Paul encourages the women in Ephesus to learn (1 Timothy 2:11). And in the centuries that have passed since the writing of that letter, educational opportunities for women have thankfully expanded so that there is no reason to forbid women from applying what they have learned in the context of church leadership, which seems to be just what Paul might have envisioned.
Considering Paul’s other teachings about equality and spiritual gifts and his encouragement of women serving in leadership at every level, it is awkward to read these verses as universal and permanent prohibitions on women serving in leadership. Since we know that Paul doesn’t believe that women should universally remain silent in church, we also conclude that cannot be what he is arguing in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 where he writes that “women should remain silent in the churches.” As in the case of meat sacrificed to idols, a more coherent reading of the teaching of the New Testament recognizes that those passages that restrict the role of women are specific to the situation they address, and that those restrictions are not permanent.
Applying the Principles
We shouldn’t conclude that women are obligated to teach or that every church must have women teachers. And there might even be situations or contexts in which it is better for women not to serve as teachers or leaders. But, we should think of those situations as limited and temporary. We should remain open to the transforming work of the Spirit to empower the women in our communities to serve in any capacity as the example of the Bible shows. And we should be willing to let the gospel challenge our existing institutions even in ways that shake our traditional structures.
We should encourage women to learn and serve. We should create ministry opportunities for women. We should prayerfully discern if there are women in our communities whose gifts for teaching or leading should be encouraged. For some churches that may mean thinking of women teachers or prophets or leaders, even in the Biblical examples, as “exceptions” to the more standard pattern or ideal. Those church leaders should still be able to look for the “exceptions” in their own congregations and help open doors of ministry leadership and teaching for them.
And we should be willing to publicly champion the women around us who are already serving in leadership or who express a desire to serve in these ways. We should be willing to keep opening the discussion and making a case for women in leadership with humility and persistence.