Women in Ministry in the New Testament
What does it mean to be a woman in God’s church today? How does one’s gender affect their relationship to God, to society, and importantly, to the community of believers?
More broadly speaking, what does it mean when a person in the church holds an office or title of authority? How do we understand, delegate or recognize God’s calling of individuals to roles of leadership in ministry, and how do are those leaders set apart from others within the community of faith? What do those distinctions actually mean, and is there a Biblical and historical justification for the way these are implemented and practiced in the church today?
These questions have been debated at great length in our church over the past decade. It is, no doubt, one of the hottest issues discussed right now. I hardly believe a short article can even scratch the surface of the issues, much less add anything meaningful against the volumes of scholarly literature already available. Yet we can no longer ignore these questions or relegate them to the halls of academia. Each and every one of us as church members, and especially as leaders, must study to have a consistent and Biblical understanding of these issues. How we answer these questions ultimately determines our answers to questions such as:
- What role do human leaders play within God’s church?
- What are the limits of human leadership within our personal spiritual journey?
- How do we understand church organization?
- How do we relate to the human authority within the church?
- Who or what determines when individuals have received a call from God to become leaders in God’s work?
- How do we understand “equality” between men and women?
- How do we understand the unique and special gifts God has given to women and to men?
- Do these unique gifts translate into distinct roles based on gender, and if so are there ever exceptions to such roles?
- How do we understand the roles of men and women in marriage and in the family?
- What is godly leadership?
- Could unhealthy attitudes and beliefs be contributing to the continuation of abuse within Christian families?
The titles we use in the Adventist church to refer to the various offices of leadership don’t necessarily align directly with the titles used in the New Testament. In fact, the titles we find in the Bible tend to be a bit more fluid, and serve to describe the job or calling of an individual, rather than denoting a position of authority or rank. Truly, if we want to be Biblical, I think we should go back to this emphasis on duty and cooperation and not be too concerned with titles in the sense of “rank” or hierarchy. The idea of a hierarchy of clergy and a distinction between clergy and laity is one of the false teachings that crept into the church during the middle ages.
Many arguments against women holding ministry and leadership roles in the church, stem from a misapplication of the Old Testament priesthood to the New Testament era. In the Old Testament, priests were required to be male descendants of the sons of Aaron, of the tribe of Levi. All others were disqualified from serving as priests. Was this because woman were unable to serve in the things of God? Obviously not, as there are examples of women leaders and ever prophetesses in the Old Testament. There is a great deal of symbolism in the Old Testament sanctuary service, and the qualifications for priesthood all point forward to the coming Messiah. But the New Testament church is not an extension of the Old Testament priesthood. The church is a universal communion of believers under Christ–a priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:9, Revelation 5:10). It was not until the apostasy and falling away that the Christian church attempted to build a hierarchical “priesthood” and used ordination to create a distinction between clergy and laity.
Going back to the Bible, we find a simple and somewhat fluid definition of leadership within the model of the priesthood of all believers. The term “elder” (“presbuteros”) in the New Testament is used to refer to people who are older in years, to whom we must give respect. It is used for both men and women (e.g. 1 Timothy 5:2). It also can refer to members of the council, both Jewish councils and the council of the Christian leaders and apostles.
Other titles for church leaders in the New Testament include the Greek word “diakonos” (translated as “servant” or “minister,” and sometimes transliterated as “deacon”), as well as the Greek word “episkopos” translated as “bishop” or “overseer.” There is only one passage in the Bible in which a specific person is named with a title (position) in the local church: Romans 16. This series of greetings from Paul in his epistle gives us some insight in how men and women worked together in the early church:
I commend to you Phoebe our sister, who is a servant of the church in Cenchrea, 2 that you may receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and assist her in whatever business she has need of you; for indeed she has been a helper of many and of myself also. 3 Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, 4 who risked their own necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles. 5 Likewise greet the church that is in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who is the firstfruits of Achaia to Christ.Romans 16:1-5
At least three women are mentioned in this passage. First is Phebe, who is a “servant” (diakonos) of the church at Cenchrea. While we don’t know exactly what her role consisted of, it’s clear she was a woman of distinction in the church and one to whom Paul entrusted the delivery of his important epistle on God’s grace. Priscilla was the wife of Aquila, leaders of the church in Corinth. Their story is told in Acts 18, how they became close friends and companions in Paul’s ministry in the area. It is clear that both the husband and wife were church leaders. It is telling that not once, but twice in scripture (here and in Acts 18:18) Priscilla’s name is mentioned first. Did Priscilla only minister to the women in the church? Acts 18:24-26 tells the story of Apollos, a man “mighty in the Scriptures” who came to Ephesus. But he knew only about John the Baptist—not the story of Jesus. Then this husband-and-wife team stepped in: “When Aquila and Priscilla heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately.” Priscilla was right there with her husband helping to tell Apollos about Jesus!
From this passage, among others we could cite, it’s clear that women played an important role in the early Christian church. They were not second-class citizens, but worked together, side by side with the men, both as members and as leaders in the church. While not among the 12 apostles, there were many women who were close followers and friends of Jesus, including Mary and Martha. These women were the first to see Jesus after His resurrection, and bore the message to the other disciples. Jesus went out of his way to minister to women. He gave some of His most important teachings to the Samaritan woman at the well, and then entrusted her to go into the town and bear the first tidings of the Messiah to Samaria. All of this took place in a culture that was dominated by men in leadership.
Paul famously wrote in Galatians 3:28 “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” Not as though he were doing away with all distinctions between men and women, but in telling us that both men and women are equal in Christ, co-heirs of His grace. While it is clear that God does give different roles and callings to men and women in life, He has not ordained for one to dominate the other and hold the other in subjection.
It was not God, but human society that had created a hierarchy between men and women, just as society had created a hierarchy between masters and slaves. Because God’s kingdom is “not of this world,” the gospel doesn’t always confront these social norms (such as slavery), but that doesn’t mean that God condones or supports them. Case in point: Paul wrote an entire epistle to Philemon, the owner of a runaway slave — and sent it to him in the hand of his runaway slave who had now become a friend of Paul and a believer in Christ. In this epistle, Paul presents the truth that we are all brothers in Christ–yet he does not overtly oppose the social institution of slavery or try to help Onesimus escape. Does Paul condone slavery? No, but he uses the higher truth of the gospel to undermine it, rather than directly opposing it. I believe Galatians 3:28 teaches a clear gospel principle: that in Christ all humankind are equal. The teachings of Jesus and the apostles reflect this.
Some people will bring up two passages in Paul’s writings that seem to support the idea that women should not be permitted to lead or speak in church.
“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
In like manner also, that the women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with propriety and moderation, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly clothing, 10 but, which is proper for women professing godliness, with good works. 11 Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. 12 And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression. 15 Nevertheless she will be saved in childbearing if they continue in faith, love, and holiness, with self-control.1 Timothy 2:9-15
If we take these passages by themselves, it would seem that Paul is forbidding women from leading, speaking, or even asking questions at church. A woman’s job is to stay home and have children, and always keep her head covered and be in submission to the men at church. But as we’ve already seen, this is obviously not how Paul treated women in the church, much less Jesus Himself! Jesus encouraged woman and children to come to Him, and he entrusted women with some of the most important gospel truths ever to be given!
When we read Paul’s epistles, we have to remember that Paul is writing to specific churches, in a specific context, to address specific situations that they were going through. We don’t always know what those situations were, but we can deduce a fair bit from reading Paul’s counsel.
In First Corinthians, Paul is dealing with a lot of issues happening in the church. There’s immorality that is causing shame in the church, and a lack of order. Paul is addressing these issues in his counsel. That same counsel applies to us, today, but there are some things that are challenging for us to understand, given that we are nearly 2,000 years removed from the situation Paul is dealing with. (Case in point: the discussion of men and women, hair, and head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11.) This same disorder in the church had made a disgrace of the communion service, and Paul gives helpful instruction in the same passage about celebrating the communion together.
Paul appeals to the Corinthian believers to be united in the body of Christ, allowing the Holy Spirit to exhibit His gifts to the church by giving different gifts to each person. He deals extensively on two gifts: speaking in tongues and the gift of prophecy, and shows how the gift of prophecy is the gift more to be desired. Apparently, even the spiritual gifts were being abused to the point of bringing disorder into the church. Paul says “God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints.” (1 Corinthians 14:33). The very next passage is the passage on women keeping silent in the churches (quoted above). So, is Paul making a categorical command that women should never speak in church? I believe the context indicates otherwise. Just a bit earlier Paul refers to women praying and prophesying in the church (1 Corinthians 11:5). Paul is arguing that there needs to be gospel order. It may not even be an issue about gender, so much as it is about keeping the spirit of reverence and worship, peace and order in the church. Perhaps there was a group of women who were using their gifts in a disruptive manner. Paul says “your women,” indicating a specific group. It could just as well have been a group of men, and in that case Paul would have said “let your men keep silence in the churches,” and the believers in Corinth would have known exactly what Paul was speaking about.
The passage in 1 Timothy 2 is similar. Paul is giving specific instructions to Timothy in dealing with specific issues in the church of Ephesus. He urges everyone to pray, and describes the attitude of prayer that believers should maintain. This is the context for the instruction on modesty: particularly instructing the women to maintain an attitude of modesty and submission. Here we have the prohibition against women teaching or “usurping” authority over a man. Like all the epistles, it is up to us as the reader to “rightly divide” the Word.
Paul goes on in 1 Timothy 3 to give the qualifications for the “episkopos” (the “bishop” or overseer). This would be perhaps the nearest equivalent to today’s office of church “elder” or “pastor.” However, like I mentioned before, the New Testament terms aren’t always directly equivalent to our modern usage—and it wasn’t until later in church history, as the church began to apostatize, that you see a clear hierarchy developing.
By taking careful note of Paul’s qualifications for the “episkopos” we will see the error of making a naively literal interpretation of Paul’s commands here and elsewhere in 1 Timothy. Notice, the overseer must be “the husband of one wife” and “having his children in subjection.” (v. 2, 4). The deacons also have the same qualifications (v. 12). A strictly literal interpretation would mean that “episkopos” and “diakonos” must be male, married, and have two or more children who are old enough to confess the gospel. So if Phoebe was the “diakonos” of the church in Cenchrea (Romans 16:1) her appointment violated Paul’s counsel here.
Paul himself was not married, and in 1 Corinthians 7 he even counsels the unmarried not to seek to be married. For that matter Jesus himself was never married, and certainly didn’t have children. So a strictly literal interpretation of 1 Timothy 3 would disqualify both Paul and Jesus from being church overseers! Clearly, we must understand Paul to mean that “episkopos” and “diakonos” must be living a moral lifestyle, faithful to their spouse (if married) and having a respectable family. We can apply the same generous understanding to 1 Timothy 2, to understand that Paul is giving specific instruction regarding the situation in Ephesus, allowing women to “learn” in the churches alongside men while giving due respect to those in authority. (See references at the end for an interesting perspective on this passage)
So, I believe that the Bible is clear. From Deborah the prophetess and judge of Israel, to Miriam the sister of Moses, to Rahab, to queen Esther, to Phoebe, to Priscilla, to the four daughters of Philip who prophesied, the Bible is full of examples of women whom God called to leadership among His people.
A beautiful prophecy is given in Joel 2:28-19:
And it shall come to pass afterwardJoel 2:28-19
That I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh;
Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
Your old men shall dream dreams,
Your young men shall see visions.
And also on My menservants and on My maidservants
I will pour out My Spirit in those days.
God does not appoint only men to receive the most special gifts of His spirit. Paul urges Christians to covet the gift of prophecy above other spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 14). And in the history of the Seventh-day Adventist church, we recognize the expression of this special gift of the Holy Spirit through the work and ministry of Ellen G. White. She is considered one of the founders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and her writings have blessed countless individuals for more than a century. Within her lifetime, her prophetic gift was recognized within the church. She did the work of a minister: teaching, encouraging and often rebuking men and women within the church at all levels of church leadership. She, like women of our day, faced a great deal of opposition to her ministry because she was a woman, but this did not cause her to forsake God’s calling on her life. The early leaders of our church denomination had to wrestle with the same Scripture passages we’ve looked at here, and they came to the conclusion that yes, a woman such as Ellen G. White could be called by God to the most highly esteemed type of ministry: a prophetic ministry. The promise of Joel 2 looks forward to the last days, when men and women will work together in God’s cause just as they did in the days of the apostles.
With all this in mind, I personally don’t see a theological or biblical issue with a woman who is otherwise qualified and called of God, to be appointed to a leadership position in the church. As we have seen, the selection of leaders in the New Testament is not tied to tribe or race as it was in the Old Testament priesthood, nor were leaders restricted to only men. It is time that we, as the last-day successors of these early-church believers, do any differently?
I realize that there are many in the church who understand these scriptures differently than I have interpreted them here. There are many who do have a biblical issue with women in one or another leadership or ministry role within the church. In fact, this very issue has been at the center of one of the most heated debates within our world church! The subject of ordination of women to the gospel ministry, particularly in the context of the Adventist church, would require far more space than this short article permits to adequately address. I hope to study and write more on this subject at some point in the future.
We must all use wisdom, so as not to cause an occasion of offense to be given against the gospel. Paul writes “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful … Let no one seek his own, but each one the other’s well-being” (1 Corinthians 10:23-24). It may come as a surprise to some that our small church in Stearns recently elected my wife, Kristina, to serve as a local church elder. It was also a surprise to us, yet as we study the scripture we believe the evidence is clear.
I don’t claim to have all the answers to this question. But I believe that time is short, and God is calling all men and women whose hearts are committed to Him, to be actively involved in His work of spreading the message of His love to a world in need!
Resources and References