Skirts In the Pulpit: Women in Ministry

Can Women Preach?

The idea of women in ministry has been, and will continue to be, a hot-button topic in the Christian church. There is no unified, monolithic Christian voice deciding on the issue. People even leave churches over disputes regarding the ordination of women. Some believe that it is the God-given right of “the call” for women to be involved in ministry and receive ordination. Many denominations still see the issue contrary to God’s creative work.

I know the mere topic will send some readers into a rage. I know that one blog post among millions will really not convince people out of their deeply held convictions. Still, I wanted to explain why I think the church should recognize the spiritual authority of women in ministry.

God’s original intent was that male and female are partners in life and purpose. In the creation narrative, Eve is created to be the one thing that can fulfill what Adam is missing. She is separate, yet not created lower. The Old Testament creation narrative does not place any importance on primacy of creation. Genesis 1:27 reads:

“So God created man in His own image; He created him in the image of God; He created them male and female.”

The second creation narrative similarly places NO hierarchical value on created order (Genesis 2:18-24).

The created order has no significance on primacy. Adam’s solitary nature is the only “not good” in the Creation narrative. Woman is created equally with man as a companion. It is only after the fall that hierarchical structures enter the scene in Genesis 3:16:

“He said to the woman…’your desire will be for your husband, yet he will dominate you.’”

At the fall, the connection that man and woman had prior to eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil is severed. While they were created in equality, now the relationship takes on a hierarchical nature. This is a complete reversal from the created nature of male/female relationships, where man is incomplete without woman.

In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul uses the creative order to support his argument that men should have their heads uncovered and women should have their heads covered. In 1 Timothy 2:13, Paul uses the creative order to support his argument that women should learn in quiet submission and not be allowed to teach or have authority over men. In the former passage, Paul finishes his argument by stating that nature itself teaches that long hair is disgraceful on men but glorious on women and that church customs do not support any other position. Paul is using the creation story to combat specific people and specific circumstances—he is not teaching any universal doctrine. His sole purpose is to control the behavior of Christian men and women and prevent them from acting shamefully.

Logically, it stands to reason that Paul uses the creative order in a similar manner in the Timothy passage. That is to say, the argument is not “gospel truth” but is a typical rabbinical method of using Scripture to support cultural positions. If one is to say that Paul is simply reflecting his culture regarding hair coverings, one is compelled to say the same regarding his silencing of women. Ann Miller notes that, if created order was significant for hierarchical standing, every created thing would be above humanity. It seems clear that Paul is not making theological statements but rather is trying to prevent Christians from embarrassing the church with “inappropriate behavior.” As culture changes and notions of appropriate behavior change, Paul’s arguments no longer become binding. The higher principle is still at work: do not act shamefully and thus bring scorn on the faith and on Christ. How that works out practically changes from culture to culture and from age to age.

Admittedly, 1 Timothy 2 gives people pause when discussing women in ministry when Paul commands women to learn in silence and submission. The entire context of the epistles to Timothy and Titus show that Paul’s commands are given in an attempt to combat false and destructive teaching in the church. The false teaching leads Christians astray and the “wild women” bring shame upon the church that struggles for social acceptance. Thus, the command is not a general order for all women for all eternity.

Another passage frequently used to support a hierarchical perspective of gender is Ephesians 5:22-32, wherein Paul calls for submission from the wives to their husbands. But the passage does not stand alone—it contextually fits into a broader passage in which Paul is discussing what it means to live out a Christian life. Paul calls people to walk wisely, “submitting to one another in the fear of Christ.” Paul then goes on to illustrate submission from three perspectives: 1) wife to husband, 2) children to parents, and 3) slaves to masters. Each one of the perspectives represents a socially inferior to a socially superior point of view. Women, children, and slaves were all viewed as inferior to their respective counterparts. Paul is giving practical advice on how to behave, even if one is in a socially inferior position. His directives are not theological arguments supporting social hierarchy. If they were, then one would be compelled to say that Paul advocates slavery, a concept that is radically foreign to Christian faith. Rather, Paul is trying to work within the social structure as it exists.

The New Testament does reaffirm the idea of gender equality. Matthew 23:8-10, Acts 10:34, and James 2:1 all highlight humanity’s equal standing before God. Additionally, Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians highlights the fact that every Christian is called to be a minister. Each role in Paul’s list in Ephesians 4 carries a similar function to the other roles—they all involve some aspect of speaking on God’s behalf with the purpose of preparing the church for service and to build up the body. Admittedly, though Paul’s epistle does differentiate between different ministry roles, i.e. pastors, apostles, evangelists, etc., Paul nowhere mentions that any of these roles have gender prerequisites.

The Bible incontrovertibly mentions prophetesses in the Old and New Testaments, e.g. Deborah and Philip’s daughters. Romans 16:6-8 indicates that Paul considered Junia and possibly Mary among the apostles, a role that contained a teaching and proclamation aspect. Aquila was a teacher of Apollos. Paul knew of and approved of women who ran (pastored?) house churches. He refers to female leaders of the early churches as deacons and apostles, titles normally reserved for men, and titles that imply both service and proclamation of the gospel message.

In 1 Corinthians 12:28 Paul lists roles and offices within the church. Paul never advocates one role above or below another. They all function towards the same purpose—glorifying God and building up the body. There is no restriction on who may fill what role. Biblical evidence seems to stack up in favor of women in all ministry positions, even pastoring and teaching.

There is no indication of a technical ordination in the New Testament or by the early church fathers. What does exist is a list of qualifications for people who are to be appointed elders over the local churches. For lack of a better phrase, this list provides the biblical requirements for ordination. Between the epistles to Timothy and Titus, Paul’s qualifications are that the elders must 1) be the husbands of one wife, 2) rule well their own houses, 3) not be novices, 4) have a good report from those outside the church, 5) practice good behavior, 6) be given to hospitality, 7) be apt to teach, 8) not be given to wine or strong drink, 9) not be brawlers, 10) not be greedy, 11) be lovers of good men, 12) give good advice, 13) be holy, and 14) be temperate.

Of these qualifications, only the first directly addresses gender issues, where the elder must be the husband of one wife. If one were to take Paul’s words absolutely at face value, then no single men, whether men who have never married, men who are divorced, or men who are widowed, could ever be elders. Paul’s comment seems not to be referring to the fact that elders must be men, but that the elders must not be involved in multiple marriage relationships. It is not gender exclusive. It could be reworded in a contemporary setting to say that married elders must be part of a monogamous marriage. With this common misunderstanding cleared up, all of the other requirements could equally apply to women in ministry.

Though a select few passages in the Bible have an issue with particular women involved in a preaching/teaching ministry, the Old and New Testaments seem to have no problems with women being the mouthpieces of God.

From the time of the early, post-New Testament church, men have taken the biggest role in church leadership. This has typically been based on society’s view of gender roles, which downplays the role and value of women. These views were then read into Scripture, with biblical scholars eisegeting texts like 1 Timothy 2 rather than working a proper exegesis. In the post-Constantinian era, male dominance became the norm within the church.

Yet as early as the 1800s, Freewill Baptists and American Baptists were ordaining female preachers. Charismatic denominations like the Assemblies of God or the Foursquare Church allow and ordain female clergy. Yet, even though female ordination occurs, one is hard-pressed to find many female pastors leading churches. There is a verbal endorsement of ordination but a functional disapproval—it simply doesn’t happen very much.

Personal experience is not the standard for coming to any conclusion regarding faith. God’s Word is the standard by which our actions, thoughts, and faith are judged. It is nice, though, when Scripture supports opinions gained from personal experience. In my case, three women in my life illustrate that God calls women to preach the gospel as much as he calls any man.

First, my wife is an incredible minister in her own right. She has participated in numerous mission trips around the world, engaging in street preaching and evangelism. Her heart and calling for ministry are evident to all. Who am I to tell her that she cannot share the Gospel with others in public simply because she is a woman?

Second, my mother is ordained to preach with the Assemblies of God. She is a PhD and a college professor. Her ability to preach the Word to an audience is far better than many men I have heard in the pulpit. As a child, my parents were pastors. When my father was away for any reason, my mother would fill the pulpit for him. Her sermons edify the body and teach truth—Paul’s requirements for biblical elders.

Third, and finally, one of my Bible college professors was one of the best preachers I have ever heard. She is clearly inspired and called to preach, and that calling is evident and her sermons are proof of the calling.

When all is said and done, Scripture, church history, and personal experience lead me to believe that God may call men and women to the task of preaching the Word and being involved in ministry. The Church sometimes loses sight of Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Contextually, Paul here speaks about salvation. Salvation is not limited to anyone. By extension, however, one could say that the God whose grace that extends freely to all is the God who extends the call to ministry to all. When the church truly lives according to Scripture, the church will see that God chooses whom he will.

God is sovereign, not people. If God wants to speak to Balaam through a donkey, it’s his prerogative. If God wants to speak to the Gentile world through a Christian-persecuting Pharisee like Paul, it’s his call to make. If God wants to speak to his Church through women, so be it.

Suggested Reading

  • Author unknown. “Women’s Ordination in Baptist Churches.” Christian Century 123 (2006).
  • Aleaz, Bonita. “Empowered by God: Women Breaking Boundaries.” Asia Journal of Theology 22 (2008).
  • Behr-Sigel, Elisabeth. “The Ordination of Women: A Point of Contention in Ecumenical Dialogue.” St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 48 (2004).
  • Bilezikian, Gilbert. Beyond Sex Roles.
  • Blevins, Carolyn DeArmond. “Diverse Baptist Attitudes Toward Women in Ministry.” Baptist History and Heritage 37 (2002).
  • Ferrara, Jennifer and Sarah Hinlicky Wilson. “Ordaining Women: Two Views.” First Things 132 (2003).
  • Grenz, Stanley J. “Anticipating God’s New Community: Theological Foundations for Women in Ministry.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 38 (1995).
  • Grudem, Wayne A. “The Meaning of Kephale (“head”): An Evaluation of New Evidence, Real and Alleged.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 44 (2001).
  • Grudem, Wayne A. “Prophecy – Yes, But Teaching – No: Paul’s Consistent Advocacy of Women’s Participation Without Governing Authority.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 30 (1987).
  • Heidebrecht, Doug. “Reading 1 Timothy 2:9-15 in its Literary Context.” Direction 33 (2004).
  • Johnson, Charles F. “God’s Women.” Review & Expositor 103 (2006).
  • Liefield, Walter L. “The Nature of Authority in the New Testament.” pages 255-271 in Discovering Biblical Equality: Complimentarity Without Hierarchy. Edited by Ronald W. Pierce and Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005.
  • Lind, Christopher. “What Makes Good Ministry God? Women in Ministry.” Theology & Sexuality 11 (2005).
  • McDougall, Joy Ann. “Weaving Garments of Grace: En-gendering a Theology of the Call to Ordained Ministry for Women Today.” Theological Education 39 (2003).
  • Merkle, Benjamin L. “Paul’s Arguments From Creation in 1 Corinthians 11:8-9 and 1 Timothy 2:13-14: An Apparent Inconsistency Answered.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 49 (2006).
  • Miller, Ann. “The Ordination of Women Among Texas Baptists.” Perspectives in Religious Studies 29 (2002).
  • Moon, Hellena. “Womenpriests: Radical Change or More of the Same?” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 24 (2008).
  • Mow, Anna B. “Gee! Women in the Ministry!” Brethren Life and Thought 50 (2005).
  • Romarate-Knipel, Carla Gay A. « Angelina B. Buensucesco: Harbinger of Baptist Ordination of Women in the Philippines.” Baptist History and Heritage 41 (2006).
  • Schmitt, Frank J. A Practical Introduction to Church Administration. Lynchburg: Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary, 1991.
  • Zagano, Phyllis. “The Question of Governance and Ministry for Women.” Theological Studies 68 (2007).

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Chaplain Chris Linzey
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Comments 5
  1. The use of Balaam’s donkey is a wonderful bit of scripture. I use it myself when people say dragons should not preach. After all, if one animal said something to one man in the scriptures, why shouldn’t all animals be permitted to speak behind the pulpit?

  2. I admit, I approached this article with trepidation. I usually find myself on the defensive side (which is never a good way to start when interacting with God’s people). Thank you. I am making my way through another one of Grenz’s books and have read many, many others on this topic. So it’s quite frustrating to be dismissed so often as simply “not reading my Bible” or I would agree with the other side. It’s gratifying to see men tackle the same Scriptures and speak out on what they see. True, the debate will continue. But when people are willing to grapple with what the Bible really says, and means in context, there is dialog at least. Not sure how gratified I am to be compared to a donkey . . . but perhaps we all need that from time to time.

  3. Chris,
    You make a great point. It is also interesting that the most successful women’s ministry programs are coming out of Lifeway a Southern Baptist publishing company. In our argument over who can speak from the pulpit we miss the part that older women are to train younger women and older men are train younger men. Lady Wisdom in Proverbs 9 makes this point that her maids will help her in helping men leave their simple ways to live and walk the path of understanding. The young maids need to be trained to do this. Who trains them?

    1. I have also noticed that about Lifeway publications, Scott. I think one reason may be that these women are not caught up in the fight for equality. They have settled their minds on a complementarian perspective and have moved on to minister to the best of their ability in the capacity that they feel they can. The unfortunate thing about that is that some of the best biblical studies I have been involved in have been through these types of materials. They are not at all specific to women’s issues and yet men are not benefitting from them. Regarding your comment about older women training younger women. I think there is a point and a place for that and in most cases, it is still regularly taking place. Most churches provide room for that to occur through men’s ministries and women’s ministries settings and of course, it continues to take place in personal one-on-one relationships. However, for this particular verse, I think we have to consider the cultural context. “Maids” are no longer restricted to only receive instruction from older women. During that period, they would have had to rely completely on older women to instruct them. Also, we need to consider the literary context….”Lady wisdom” is a literary device. The point is that women can and should offer wisdom to men and or humankind only if they have first opened themselves up to wisdom, themselves.

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