Tiny Arguments: Women in Ministry

Tiny Arguments is an idea I’ve had for a while now.  My aim is to create a repository of tiny arguments, expressing a view in as few words as possible, so that instead of establishing the same common ground in multiple venues, I (and hopefully others) can point others here and five minutes later continue the conversation in more interesting and profitable ways.  I will begin with my tiny argument for women in in ministry. I believe that God calls women to all roles within the church and equips women to both pastor to and teach all members of the church.   Why? Scriptural argument:

  1. Scripture shows a general trajectory from women as subservient objects to women as equal participants with men in Christ. The interpretation of any particular passage needs to accord with this trajectory.
  2. Many passages of scripture come directly from women. Inasmuch as scripture is authoritative over all believers, these are clear examples of God using women to preside over and educate men and women alike.
  3. The Old Testament records many examples of God using women to lead men and women alike, particularly in the power of the Holy Spirit. Where we see the spirit moving today, we should not doubt that God will do the same.
  4. The New Testament records several women occupying roles that some churches today would reserve for men: Paul gives equal stature to Priscilla and her husband Aquila in their teaching ministry; Phoebe was a deaconess, Andonicus and Junia are referred to as prominent apostles (the term itself appears in the feminine) and Paul refers to Euodia and Syntyche as “coworkers,” implying they are equal in leadership with Clement and other men mentioned.
  5. In several places Paul discusses gifts of the spirit and ministry roles and never associates gifts like pastoring, teaching or evangelizing with a specific gender or implies that there are any such restrictions, but says that the Spirit “allots gifts to each one individually as the Spirit chooses.”

Supporting arguments

  1. The ministry of women has bubbled over in the church from time to time.  Often at the beginning of a reform movement women are active in leading and establishing the church in new places and new ways.  Then, as the church is institutionalized and seeks more public approval, women are moved to more socially acceptable roles. This is the case for the church movement where I find myself, the Church of God Reform movement (Anderson, IN, 1890s).  Likewise, in the early Catholic church women occupied positions of leadership over men and women alike, especially in the role of anchoresses who ruled abbeys but also functioned as bishops over church land and (male) priests in their dioceses.  This demonstrates that the church is not bowing to cultural pressure in the ordaining of women ministers, but rather the opposite.
  2. Experience has shown that many women who are beyond doubt Christians, who exhibit the fruit of the Spirit, do feel called to pastoral ministry.  In their calling, they show themselves to be equipped for leadership and ministry.  As such, they call patriarchal readings of scripture into question, as the same Spirit who inspired scripture empowers ministry today.

Responding to objections Several passages attributed to Paul seem to clearly prohibit women from teaching or holding authority over men.  In fact, applied literally these passages prevent women from speaking within the congregation, and I’ve known churches that enforce this rule.  Surely those churches that don’t enforce the silence rule or rules against gold jewelry or braided hair (which come from neighboring sentences to the submission rules) will grant that in principle some of Paul’s admonitions are culturally bound.  What makes it clear that Paul’s statements against women speaking are in this category is the list of women Paul approves for doing just that. Now with those ideas in mind we can exegete individual passages.

  1. 1 Cor 14: Paul here says women must remain silent.  But earlier in the same letter he taught that women could pray or prophesy, so long as they had their heads covered (and of course there are varying positions on what Paul meant by head-coverings as well).  So clearly Paul’s statement about silence isn’t universal, but conditional and selective.  In particular, the passage “If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home” provides a clue. In synagogues in Corinth, the custom was for men and women to sit on separate sides of the aisle. It would be very disruptive for women to ask their husbands about the teaching during the service. That’s a good short-term solution; the long-term solution is to allow women to learn; then they can not only speak, but teach, as Prisca and other leaders in the New Testament did.
  2. In 1 Timothy, Paul restricts leadership offices (overseers, deacons, etc) to men, and tells Timothy he doesn’t permit women to have authority over men.  Again this is at odds with the practice of churches Paul approves, so let’s dig a little deeper. There are obvious cultural reasons why Timothy, in Ephesus, should want to discourage women as leaders in the church.  Ephesus was the home of the cult of Diana, which was a priestess-centered religion. But Paul doesn’t mention Diana; he mentions Adam and Eve, saying that “Adam was formed first, then Eve” and saying “Adam was not deceived, but the woman was.”  This is odd logic to apply across the board, as animals were created first, and then humans, yet we do not give animals authority over humans.  And elsewhere (Rom 5), Paul places the entire responsibility not on Eve, but on Adam.  This puzzle is elegantly solved, however, if we read Genesis the way Paul and other rabbis of his time did.  In the rabbinic understanding, Eve was deceived because Adam did not instruct her fully on God’s instructions for living in the garden.  Again, the short-term solution is not to allow uneducated women to teach in the church; the long-term solution is to educate women so that they are in a position to teach.

So that leaves us with a groundwork for discussion.  What do you think?

3 responses to “Tiny Arguments: Women in Ministry

  1. You might like my post about Jesus and the woman at the well.

    God Bless,


  2. Pingback: The Importance of Perennial Debates | Theopolitical

  3. This discussion makes the most sense of any I have read on this subject. Thank you.

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