Women in ministry

Both Jesus and Paul were radically counter-cultural when it came to women. Indeed, some have described their teaching as proto-feminist. Within Judaism women were considered spiritually second class and so not worth teaching or talking to on spiritual matters. Moreover, they were not considered reliable witnesses in law. Yet Jesus commended Mary for sitting at his feet as a disciple to her Rabbi and chose her to be the first witness to his resurrection. Paul also spoke of there being neither male or female in the kingdom of God, described women as his co-workers in the gospel, and challenged the prevailing oppression of wives by their husbands in teaching that husbands should love their wives as Christ loved the church.

These men were not therefore prone to accepting the status quo. Given that, it is surprising and noteworthy that, as we will see, Jesus did not choose any women to be apostolic witnesses of the resurrection and that Paul persistently reserved the role of authoritative leadership in the home and church for men. The question before us is whether this was a temporary necessity because of the situation then, or a more timeless principle to be upheld today. Some, however, sidestep these questions altogether. They assume that Jesus, Paul, and the writers of the Bible, were unable to see past the cultural presuppositions of the first century, and so cannot be relied upon in this matter at all.

Cultural conditioning?

It is true that we should ask whether scripture itself acknowledges a particular teaching is just for a particular culture. But it is quite another thing to suggest that what it portrays as applying to every age, was actually the wrong and even oppressive view of its day.

We must realize how serious this suggestion is. You see, if that was the case on the subject of women, how do we know that scripture is not in error on other subjects, such as the nature of God or the way of salvation? If Jesus cannot be trusted in his own teaching and in his affirmation of the Old Testament and apostles as Spirit-inspired and reliable, then Christianity really does implode, and our faith has no warrant at all. Moreover, these assertions implicitly question the integrity and power of God, for they suggest that having so affirmed the centrality of scripture and the apostolic teachings through Jesus, he has not ensured that they are reliable in what they assert. We must recognize that such a suggestion also removes any grounds for appealing to the Bible’s radical challenge to the inferiority and abuse of women in the first century too.

In truth, it is the scriptures that are intended to correct our cultural assumptions and preferred ideas, challenging those who “to suit their own desires,” will “gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear” (2 Tim 3v16-4v4). So it is, that we must honestly consider whether our current views on this question are justified from scripture or driven by the assertions of absolute equality and rights that mark contemporary society and that have inevitably shaped our instincts.

Here I would add that my own convictions are not held to out of a desire to assert myself as a man, nor because of feeling threatened by women in ministry, as some who write on the matter suggest is the case with men who hold what’s called a “complementarian” position. I am a creature of my culture just as we all are, and so would find the “egalitarian” approach a much more comfortable one personally. But I am just not convinced by it. And as a Christian, I am called to trust God by holding to his word, even when that may grate, just as Christians have always done.

Two views

As we begin, it is worth clarifying what these two positions on women and ministry are: The egalitarian view is that “there are no biblically mandated timeless distinctions between men and women in the church.” They stress “the equality of men and women, not merely for salvation or in essential personhood, but in opportunities to hold every office and play every role that exists in church life.” By contrast, the complementarian view favours “certain timeless restrictions on women’s roles in the church.” They stress that “in certain contexts there are relationships of authority and submission in which gender roles may not be reversed,” and within which the two genders compliment one-another.[1]

We should note as we come to assess these views, that neither denies that men and women are created equal or have an equal place in God’s family. So, the fact that Paul writes: “there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” does not settle the matter (Gal 3v28). His concern is with equality of status as God’s children (see v26), not the different roles different children of God might be given. All are members of the priesthood of all believers, but each are given different tasks. And in understanding this difference, three substantial arguments need consideration: those from the sweep of scripture, the model of Christ and the teaching of the apostles.

(1) The sweep of scripture

Throughout, scripture affirms a principle of what’s termed “male headship” (I prefer “male oversight”), in which a particular authority and responsibility is ascribed to men and applied both in the home and in the religious life of God’s people. I would suggest that the evidence for this really is undeniable. Consider just a selection:

1.        The structure of Genesis 2 as understood in Hebrew culture affirms the primacy of Adam by order of birth, by the naming of the animals and by the presentation of Eve to him.

2.        In particular, it is Adam that is tasked with working the garden and Eve created as his helper (Gen 2v15-18). The word for “helper” is used elsewhere for the LORD. But the context must govern the sense of it here, and it is one that portrays Adam as in some sense the lead in the couple’s God-given responsibilities, as they combine their gender-differences as a team of two, in filling and subduing the earth (Gen 1v26-28).

3.        This is confirmed by the fact that although Adam and Eve both sin, Adam is primarily held to be responsible (Gen 3v9-12, Rom 5v11-32). Indeed, many note his sin was one of abrogating his responsibility to lead by standing by silently while Eve ate the fruit (Gen 3v6).

4.        It is also confirmed by God consistently using the image of husband and wife, groom, and bride, to describe his leadership and care of his people (Isaiah 54v5). The image implies that he exercises a loving authority like that of the perfect husband.

5.        Throughout Israel’s history, a principle of primogeniture was also affirmed by God, in which inheritance would usually go to the firstborn male and they would hold the ultimate authority for the family (Deut 21v16-17).

6.        Furthermore, Israel’s history is marked by the principle of the household headed up by the father. We see this with Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the nation from that point on.

7.        Because the nation is a family of families, leadership develops from household heads. So, the heads of twelve tribes are Jacob’s twelve sons.

8.        For this reason, elders in Israel were only male as they were the more prominent household heads (Ex 18v25, Num 11v16).

9.        The Priesthood within Israel was also reserved for men only, and from one family and one tribe, despite the history of Israel showing that there were often more godly and gifted men and women in other families and tribes (Ex 28v1).

10.     Priests and those who served as elders in the synagogues of Jesus’ day were therefore men too.

11.     Commentators agree that the structure of the early churches was based on the synagogue with elders taking the equivalent role of the Jewish elders.

12.     Whatever its application might be today, the principle of the firstborn son being given authority is reaffirmed in the NT by speaking of Christ as the firstborn over creation (Col 1v15).

13.     The principle of headship is also reaffirmed in speaking of Christ as head of his bride and family, the church (John 3v29, Rev 21v2-4).

14.     The apostles therefore affirm the headship of husbands on the grounds of creation and the pattern of Christ’s relationship with the church. Both grounds transcend culture and so teach that the principle of headship does too. It is portrayed as bound up with God’s order of things (1 Corinthians 11v2-16, Ephesians 5v22-33, 1 Peter 3v1-7).

15.     As the church is also to a large extent a family of families meeting in family homes, it is natural for the principle of headship that applies to biological families to be reflected in the church (1 Tim 2v12-15, 3v1-5, 1 Cor 14v31-40).

We see here that there is a link between the idea of headship within the home and the role of elder or overseer as church leader. As Israel and the church comprise families and are considered “the household of God,” the one idea impacts both spheres. This means that texts teaching male headship in the home also give indirect support to the idea of male headship or leadership in the church – not forgetting that Jesus is the ultimate head.

Challenges to complementarianism.

A common counter is to say that male headship is a result of the fall, that the NT writers taught it simply because an equality of gender roles in marriage and church leadership would have had no traction in their day, and that the trajectory of the Bible is towards there being no distinction in role. However, the bullet points above enable us to say two key things by way of response.

First, the idea of headship is grounded in Genesis 2, before the fall, which is just where the NT goes to support its teaching on the issue – hard as these texts are to read in our day (Eph 5v31, 1 Tim 2v13, 1 Cor 11v8-9). However, the “desire” and “rule” of Genesis 3v16 is certainly negative and a result of the fall. In Genesis 4v7 the exact phrase is used to describe the controlling desire of sin and the firm rule necessary to suppress it. But such “desire” and “rule” is not a reflection on the idea of headship in marriage as it should be. The whole wider passage from Gen 3v14-19 is about the impact of sin on God’s good order in creation. So, verse 16 is a comment on how sin so often distorts headship – the very thing the NT seeks to counter by its assertion it should be modelled on Christ.

Second, to suggest the Bible writers were temporarily accommodating their teaching to their culture is not so straightforward in either Testament. Female gods and priestesses were quite common in the Ancient Near East of OT Israel (consider the goddess Asherah, 1 Kgs 15v13), and the Hellenistic world in which the NT was written (consider the goddess Artemis, Acts 19v27). And so, by revealing himself as Father, and requiring male priests, God was, in some senses at least, being counter-cultural in the time of Moses. Moreover, the principle of male-headship within the church that was inherited from Judaism and reasserted by Jesus and the apostles, was not so obviously an accommodation to culture when maintained in the Greco-Roman world. Indeed, the New Testament teaching on complementarity in marriage was itself radically counter-cultural. It was intended to counter the male abuse of women that was common in first century marriages, commanding Christian husbands to reflect Christ’s love for the church in a self-sacrificial “care” of their wives and “consideration” of their needs (Eph 5v25-33, 1 Pet 3v7).

A further argument often heard is that the idea of “head” is simply that of source. There is truth here. Christ is the source of gifts and life for his church, and this reminds us of the idea of headship should enable wives to flourish rather than in any sense oppress them. However, a closer consideration shows that this does not exclude ideas of authority. Husbands, fathers, and heirs throughout the OT held an authority that was to be willingly submitted to by adults and obeyed by children. This was also the case with priests and elders. Moreover, both Paul and Peter explicitly pick up ideas of authority and submission (1 Cor 11v2-16, Eph 5v22-33, 1 Pet 3v1-7). Most especially, Christ bears an authority as head of all things, and of his church as his body (Col 1v15-18). And as head, he dies for his body, and from heaven oversees all things for it’s good, so causing it to grow and flourish in him. In the same way, husbands are to sacrifice themselves for the good of their wives, overseeing all things in a way that causes them to flourish too (Eph 1v22-23 with 4v15-16 and 5v28-31).

Reasons for complementarianism.

All this highlights two reasons for God ordaining this dynamic for male-female relations, and for us to uphold rather than challenge it. In being rooted in creation, we see that (when rightly understood) it must reflect how he has designed men and women to best relate as the team they are to be in marriage. And in being patterned on Christ and the church, we see that it is especially important in picturing to us, our children, and others, the relationship the gospel brings us into with him.

To my mind, it is extremely difficult to dismiss this God-given order as portrayed throughout the sweep of scripture. At the very least it means that the onus is on those who would say that the idea of male headship (or oversight) has been abrogated, to prove their point with clear NT texts. But a closer consideration of the teaching of Christ and the apostles only affirms it.

(2) The model of Christ

Jesus does not teach explicitly on our subject because the point was assumed by those around him. But, given that he was so ready to challenge prevailing views in other areas, the fact that he doesn’t challenge this one, is a teaching point in itself. For example, he affirms Mary’s studiousness over Martha’s domesticity, making her equal to men in matters of discipleship and the use of her intellectual gifts – both of which would have shocked fellow Jews. Nevertheless, despite this, he does not commission any women as his apostles.[2] Moreover in Matthew 19v1-12 he grounds his sexual ethics in the narrative of Genesis 2 which he states is “the Creator” speaking. By doing so, he affirms the principle of headship bound up with that narrative that is stated above and was assumed by his hearers.

(3) The teaching of the apostles

It is Paul who tackles our subject when it does begin to be challenged. However, it is significant that the wider NT writings assume male leadership of the home and church, and they are absolutely free from any encouragement for women to take on these roles. Because of the high religious status Jesus gave women and the fact that there is evidence women were seeking to take a lead in churches (1 Timothy 2v11-15), once again, this assumption itself teaches something.

However, we need to consider Paul’s teaching in particular, and we can only do so on the grounds that he writes as an apostle and therefore as one of Christ’s inspired spokesmen to the church. It is beyond the realm of this paper to fully argue the case for trusting his writings to therefore be taken as God’s Word, however some reasons are given as an appendix together with a more in-depth treatment of how to understand these verses. For now, we’ll consider them in brief. Paul writes:

11) Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness.     

12) I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.[3]      

13) For Adam was formed first, then Eve;

14) and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.

15) Yet she will be saved through childbearing--if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control. (ESV)

Egalitarians argue that this prohibition was not intended for all times and cultures but just for a particular situation in Ephesus where Timothy ministered. Some say the problem there was with women considering themselves superior, or being domineering, uneducated, or heretical. Still others say Paul was just wanting the churches to operate according to the expected norms of the society. But this lack of consensus itself, shows that it just isn’t clear that Paul was addressing a localized issue. Moreover, if the problem was women being superior, domineering, uneducated, or heretical, we would expect Paul to state that, because in chapter 1 he is very ready state the problem with the false teachers he does want Timothy to confront (1 Tim 1v3-7), and he gives no sense at all that these were women. Indeed, when he does name those who have been a problem, they are men (1 Tim 1v20, cf. 2 Tim 2v17-18, 4v14), but this doesn’t lead him to keep all men from teaching or exercising authority. And so, we should also ask if there was a problem with some women, why he would prohibit all women from these roles rather than just those unfit to teach, and why he does not prohibit them from teaching women or children too.

The fact is that when Paul does give his reasoning in verse 13, he locates it in the order of creation, just as we’ve seen the wider Bible does with regard to male headship. The next two verses are harder to understand (and hard to stomach in our day). The point may be that just as Eve sought a role that wasn’t hers in desiring to be like God, so women should not seek to teach and exercise authority over men, but express their faith in accepting their particular role (if able) of childbearing.

As to the role they are not permitted to engage in: It’s link to remaining quiet implies it is the sort of teaching and authority that might challenge or correct others speaking in the congregation. 1 Cor 14v29-40 makes the same point when thinking about weighing prophecy. And as Paul immediately moves to a discussion of eldership, it is likely it is that sort of elder-like teaching and authority that he has in mind. Regular preaching in the church was certainly supposed to be authoritative too (Titus 2v15).

This is important to recognize, so that we don’t be overly limiting as some complementarian churches can be. Anna spoke to men and women about Christ in the temple (Lk 2v36-38), women prophesied to both, which involved speaking the gospel and its implications for the church (1 Cor 11v5, Eph 3v4-5), and Priscilla and her husband privately taught Apollos (Acts 18v26). This would suggest there is no problem with women co-leading mixed Bible studies with their husband, sharing insights from scripture in groups or gathered worship, or even occasionally taking a sermon slot where their insights are especially helpful. The issue is rather than that, whether in groups or gathered worship, the more authoritative leading and corrective teaching should be given by me and, because of this, only men should be elders.

We might well wonder why this is so necessary. And we are not told, other than that it is required by the order of creation. 1 Corinthians 11v2-6 adds that maintaining this order is especially important in gathered worship because of the presence of angels! We might also recognize that by upholding this dynamic in the church, husbands, wives, and children, are reminded of its importance for their families too, both in bringing a God-given harmony and picturing the gospel.

The issue of authority

Of course, many of us flinch at these sorts of teachings. In my experience we do so for three reasons. One is because they are so counter-cultural. We have cautioned against such instinctive reaction already. The second is because we think this implies women are inferior, and the third is because we are aware of how authority can be abused.

In response we must note that even within the trinity there is a difference of structure in the relations. The titles of Father and Son are framed to teach the primacy of the Father and the obedience of the Son. Moreover, as the Nicene Creed states, the Spirit proceeds from (i.e. is sent by) both Father and Son. Yet none of us would say that the Son and Spirit are inferior to the Father. They are absolutely equal in that they share the divine essence, but different (or ‘unequal’) when it comes to their particular roles. In the same way there is no sense of inferiority to say that men and women are equal in sharing human nature but different (or ‘unequal’) when it comes to the roles ascribed to each. Otherwise, we must say that the employee is inferior to their boss, for there is an inequality of authority there too. Discussion of issues of equality requires much more subtlety and nuance than is given by our government or media today.

We should note also that Jesus demonstrated how true authority is to be expressed. It is not an excuse for abuse, but rather a protection against it. It is only to take the lead in areas prescribed by God. So, it should not produce the equivalent of legalism where those led must adhere to the leader’s every whim. It is to lead with a concern to love and serve others. It does not therefore “Lord it over” them, but gives sacrificially for their good, encouraging them, helping them to flourish, and only ever being firm or confrontational when it is essential to protecting or promoting their good. This sort of authority is something to thank God for and encourage both in the church and the home. It would ideally be consultative, and rather than micro-managing, would then free church members (or wives) to get on with their own responsibilities and decision making, knowing they will do so in consistency with what they know of their elder’s (or husband’s) will.

The issue of calling

How then are we to view a woman who has a sense of being called to overall church leadership and seems to have gifts in leading and teaching? Any sense of calling is by its nature uncertain and subject to testing. In testing such a calling by scripture we must discern that it has to some extent been misunderstood. This is not to mean that the gifts have not been given; rather, that they are for expression elsewhere – perhaps by running some work within a church, leading and teaching in a less regular and non-authoritative manner, being a women’s minister or teacher, or other such thing. 1 Kings 12v31 has challenged me here. No doubt, there were gifted people throughout Israel who could have been better priests than the Levites. Nevertheless, one of Jeroboam’s sins was that he “appointed priests from among all the people, who were not of the Levites.” In other words, whatever the Lord’s reasons for reserving a particular role for a particular people, gifting is not an adequate reason to go against it.

The issue of fairness

This is a final objection. When all is done, many simply feel it is unfair for there to be a role that women are not allowed to engage in. In the parlance of modern society, we are told that this is discriminatory and to make women second class. So, the whole issue is said to be one of justice. However, this is still to think according to the world’s ideas of authority rather than Christ’s. It is to see the issue as one of greatness and superiority rather than of order and responsibility.

Moreover, the text we have looked at ends with an affirmation that there is actually a noble role for women that men are excluded from – that of childbearing. The meaning of verse 15 is much debated, but it is probably an affirmation that the particular role God has given women is this one, and that true faith will be shown in women embracing and devoting themselves to it. If we are to use the language, we must therefore say that here it is men who are unjustly discriminated against and made second class.

Of course, we do not say this, and the reason is that it is obvious that God has given men and women different roles with respect to childbearing. However, the principle of complimentarily is the same. Yet the sad fact is that suggesting this applies to the issue of church leadership immediately raises our heckles. But why? It may be because not all women are able to bear children. But neither are all men able by their gifts to be church leaders. Or we may be tempted to say that men have the better deal because childbearing is so hard. If so, we should pause to reflect on what a privilege childbearing is and on how church leadership should also mean constant sacrifice for one’s spiritual children - even martyrdom in some countries.


We have established then that God has ordered the creation so that there are particular roles for men and women. He created them equal but different, to complement rather than compete with one-another, and one aspect of this is that he has reserved the role of head or leader in the church and home for men.

It is significant that our culture’s recent assumption that both genders are essentially the same has already to some degree passed. Now there seems to be far more recognition of some degree of complimentarily. In an age when men are increasingly unsure of their role, gender is being blurred and marriages breaking down due to a lack of responsibility in husbands, in its wider sense this teaching could not be more relevant or important to uphold.


Appendix A: The authority of Paul

In John 14-16 Jesus promised the Holy Spirit would lead his apostles into “all truth.” But does this apply to Paul?

  1. There is no way of explaining Paul’s radical conversion and service of Christ to the point of death, other than that the risen Christ did appear to and commission him as an apostle. People will die for what they believe to be true but not for what they know to be false. And Paul claimed to have been personally made an apostle by the risen Jesus himself.
  2. The apostles commissioned during Jesus’ lifetime themselves affirmed Paul’s apostleship so that it was accepted throughout the early church (Gal 3:1-10).
  3. 2 Peter reflects an acceptance of Paul’s writings as “scripture” within the early church (2 Pet 3:15-16). This term categorizes them with the Jewish Scriptures which were held to be the unbreakable and so entirely trustworthy word of God (John 10v35).



Appendix B:

Understanding and applying 1 Timothy 2v11-15

Does the prohibition still apply?

Given Paul’s apostleship and so inspiration, the argument given against the application of these verses today is that Paul was writing just for the particular situation in Ephesus where Timothy was ministering. Five reasons are given as to why we should read these verses in this way:


  1. Under the influence of the Ephesian cult of Artemis, women were considering themselves superior to men.[4]
  2. They were teaching in a domineering manner.[5]
  3. They were simply uneducated.[6]

4.      They were influenced by the heretical teachers Paul mentions in the letter.[7]

  1. Women were not permitted to teach or exercise authority over men in the Greco-Roman culture, and so Paul temporarily limited the freedom of women in order for there to be no barrier to the gospel.[8]

This lack of consensus should make us cautious of assuming that there was an obvious local problem. There are actually substantial reasons for holding that Paul is here voicing a more general prohibition.

1.      The idea that the source of the problem lay in the cult of Artemis is one of pure speculation. We must ask if this was so, why Paul nowhere even mentions it, why he addresses issues of authority and submission rather than superiority and inferiority, and why he doesn’t stress that there is no superiority either way with men or women, as he does elsewhere (1 Cor 11:11-12, Gal 3:27-29)?

2.      Contrary to what some claim, the Greek word translated “exercise authority” has “no inherent negative sense of grasping or usurping authority or of exercising it in a harsh or authoritative way.”[9] This is confirmed by the fact that if the problem were domineering, uneducated or heretical women, we must ask why Paul prohibits all women from teaching or exercising authority, and why just with respect to men? We know for a fact that Priscilla was in the church, and she is well proved to be godly, educated and sound (2 Tim 4:19 cf. Acts 18:26). Yet even if she had succumbed to authoritarianism or error, to essentially say that these things matter in the teaching of men but not in teaching other women or children in no way fits Paul’s concern that the true faith is passed onto both. And why is there no prohibition for domineering, uneducated or heretical men? There would undoubtedly have been some present, as there are in every church. Indeed, the letter itself testifies that the false teachers were probably men not women (1 Tim 1v3-7, 20, cf. 2 Tim 2v17-18, 4v14), yet he does not prohibit all men from teaching.

3.      In terms of uneducated or heretical teaching, Paul has already charged Timothy to stop the teaching of “false doctrines” (1 Tim 1:3). So, if error in whatever form was his concern, it would have been covered in this instruction anyway, making the prohibition of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 unnecessary. Furthermore, if he had wanted to, Paul could have said “I do not permit a woman to teach false doctrines” (cf. 1 Tim 6:3), but instead simply uses the positive “teach” – a word he always qualifies in context if he intends it to be read as erroneous teaching.

4.      We have already seen that some form of submission of women to men is affirmed throughout scripture as an abiding principle, not as something temporarily instituted to rectify local problems or facilitate evangelism.

5.      In 1 Timothy 2:13, Paul actually gives a reason for his prohibition. And he does not cite any of the suggested reasons tackled above, but the transcultural truth of man’s primacy (though not superiority) over woman in creation. Paul assumes his point to be self-evident here, though it is less so to minds not so absorbed in the Jewish mindset. The concept is that of primogeniture mentioned above.[10]

6.      Verse 14 may give a second transcultural reason behind the prohibition. The exactly meaning of the verse is unclear. Paul would never suggest that only Eve was guilty of the first sin, he is simply stating that there is something about her deception that justifies women being kept from teaching and exercising authority. It cannot be one of gullibility for the reasons outlined under point 2 above. Most likely Paul’s point is that just as Eve was deceived into grasping after the role of being “like God” in Genesis 3, so the women in this church should not be deceived into seeking after another role that is not by nature theirs.

What exactly is prohibited?

It seems that Paul therefore sees his prohibition as something that should apply in some way to all churches for all time. We must ask next what exactly the prohibition entailed. Much could be said here. Many see it as prohibiting women from exercising all forms of authority or teaching with respect to men in the church. I am not convinced by this because elsewhere women are commended for teaching in some sense (Luke 2v36-38, Acts 18v26) and encouraged to prophesy, which was to declare a revelation from God with authority, and included the very truths the church was founded on (Ephesians 2v20, 4v11). Moreover, women’s role in managing larger households (as in Proverbs 31) would have inevitably entailed some exercising of authority over men when churches were hosted in their homes.

The context suggests that what is actually being prohibited is the exercising of elder-like authority, i.e. that of church leaders who were called to oversee the churches, challenge or correct wrong teaching or living, and in their own teaching, teach with authority in affirming truth and rebuking error (Titus 2v15, 2 Timothy 4v1-5). This is confirmed firstly by the rare Greek word translated “exercise authority.” It is one that has particular force. This reading is also confirmed by the fact that Paul immediately moves to the subject of elders or overseers, assuming they are men and “able to teach” (1 Tim 3v1-7), and later describes their role as ruling and teaching (1 Tim 5v17 ESV) which parallels “teach and have authority over.” Moreover, when he deals with deacons whose role does not entail teaching or exercising this sort of authority, he takes no issue with there being deaconesses (1 Tim 3v8-15, noting verse 11 is best translated not “wives” but “deaconesses” – see the NIV footnote).

How should the prohibition apply today?

We can now ponder the applicability of the prohibition today. Yet as we do, we must keep one final question in mind: To what extent are teaching and eldership still to be authoritative?[11]

In Paul’s day women were commonly forbidden from teaching in public meetings, which would probably mean that their teaching men in church would have automatically been seen as a usurping of male headship. Yet this would only be the case today if teaching was still to be regarded as an exercising of authority. If it was not, there would be no reason for women to be prohibited in this way in order to uphold the order of creation.

As we proceed then, we must consider the extent to which the first century application of the submission principle to teaching and exercising authority is trans-cultural.

(1) We have seen that the role of the elder in every age is intended to be one of “ruling” over the entire congregation and, where necessary, authoritatively challenging and correcting false belief and behaviour corporately and individually. This suggests quite clearly that elders (or their equivalent) must still be male.[12]

(2) We should note that the word “leadership” may have fewer connotations of authority today than in the first century where even the servant leadership commanded by Christ was intrinsically tied to governing (Rom 12:8). It would not therefore seem inappropriate for a woman to exercise some form of church leadership over men in less authoritative ways, as long as the manner in which this is done respects the order of creation and the woman is accountable to male eldership. As with the wife of noble character managing her household or the house-church host wife taking a role in organisation, she might therefore lead in the church by coordinating a team in some ministry, setting an example in modelling to others how something could be done, or leading worship. Moreover, as with Deborah judging Israel, she might take on all manner of roles in society. It is only the authoritative leadership of the elder in governing and teaching the church that women are clearly prohibited from exercising here, and so it would be wrong to extrapolate this to other areas.

(3) The first century house-church is probably more akin to a large homegroup than a medium to large sized church today. It must therefore be asked whether it is wise to have a faithful man or even elder in overall charge of any mixed homegroup, who would be seen as the group’s primary authority and teacher, and who could question or challenge wrong belief or behaviour in men - if it necessitated doing in the homegroup rather than being referred to the eldership. However, because Priscilla and Aquila instructed Apollos, there would seem no reason why a woman could not co-lead a Bible study with a man – ideally her husband. Certainly, women should not refrain from sharing insights in the context of Bible study.

(4) We must also conclude that, as long as it is done without asserting elder-like authority, it is appropriate for women to instruct men publicly in other contexts, that are equivalent to that of first century prophecy, such as in a worship service or prayer meeting. Furthermore, Anna’s example (Luke 2v36-38) suggests that there is no reason why women might not occasionally teach in a more extended way if that would be particularly useful, and is done in a manner of instruction, encouragement, and admonition rather than a more assertive, correcting, rebuking and commanding. Having said this, we have been reminded that the primary teaching in the church should be authoritative (even though it often isn’t today), and so given by the elders. It would therefore seem that preaching should normally be given by men who can teach in this way. Otherwise, the church will lack the weight and direct challenge of false belief and behaviour that it requires in what it is to hear.[13]

(5) Some would argue that the principles we have examined prohibit women from leading church services or presiding at the Lord’s Supper. Now there is something symbolic about those doing so being the ultimate overseers of the church, just as the head of the household would have led the family worship and the Passover meal (although women apparently played their part in this too). Nevertheless, it is difficult to see grounds for concluding that a mature female Christian must never do these things. The Lord’s Supper especially, is to be linked to the preaching of the word. But we have already established that women can teach on occasion. The only exception to such presidency might be where excommunication is used as a form of church discipline and could require a man to be refused bread and wine. In such instances it would seem important that a male elder presides, both for the sake of church order and the exercising of authority.

(6) Finally, our study engages the recent issue within Anglicanism of women bishops. As bishops are first presbyters (elders), as they inherently hold an authority that male pastors under them vow to submit to, and as they have a responsibility to exercise that authority primarily in ensuring correct belief and behaviour in those pastors and their churches, one cannot see how women bishops can ever be consistent with the teaching of scripture.

[1] These definitions are taken from Beck, James R and Blomberg, Craig L. “Introduction” in Two views on women in ministry, (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2001), p.16-17. If you want to read further on these issues, this is a good place to start.

[2] When Junia is said to be “outstanding amongst the apostles” in Romans 16v7, this should not be assumed to mean she was one of the founding leaders of the church. The Greek “apostolos” means “sent one” and could describe a simple emissary or missionary. Alternatively, it could be meant that Junia had a high reputation amongst the apostles.

[3] Although the Greek for “woman” and “man” can refer to “wife” and “husband,” as Bible translations show, there is general agreement that they do not in this context, as women and men more generally are in mind in Paul’s train of thought (v8-9).

[4] Belville, “Women in ministry” in Two views on women in ministry, (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2001), p.128

[5] Ibid, p.126

[6] Keener, Craig L. “Women in ministry” in Two views on women in ministry, (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2001), p.55

[7] Fee, Gordon D. New International Biblical Commentary: 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, (Peabody, Hendrickson, 1984), p.73

[8] Another possibility suggested by Keener, Op Cit, p.57

[9] Knight, George W. The New International Greek Testament Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, (Carlisle, Paternoster, 1999), p.141

[10] Gen 19:30ff, 27:1ff, 29:26f, 35:23, 36:15, 43:33, 48:14f, 49:3, Ex 4:22, 13:2, Jer 31:9, Rom 8:29, Col 1:15, 18, Heb 1:6, Rev 1:5

[11] This question is key, for although we have established that the submission principle is transcultural, we might still wonder whether the prohibition itself is too. Or are the actions of “teaching” and “exercising authority” akin to “lifting holy hands” (1 Tim 2v8) and not wearing “braided hair” or “costly attire” (v9) – applications of the principle to first century ideas of what this should mean, just as these examples apply the principles of prayerfulness and modesty to first century ideas about how they should be expressed? Stott, J. The Bible speaks today: The message of 1 Timothy and Titus, (Leicester, IVP, 1996), p.78-79

[12] Yet we must add that we would not be pedantic about terms if a female elder was appointed on a team headed up by a man and sought only to exercise “ruling” authority over women and children. This would however be unwise, as she would inevitably be regarded as a normal elder. To save confusion it would be better to give her another title.

[13] It might be pointed out that preaching today isn’t so authoritative, and so women should not be kept from it. I agree that this is so in many churches. Nevertheless, because scripture suggests that preaching should be authoritative, we should encourage our pastors/elders to preach in this way. This would by consequence entail women preaching less because this is the very preaching they are prohibited from engaging in.