Women in ministry

Cultural conditioning?

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.

Of course some still claim that they and the wider scriptures were too influenced to see past cultural presuppositions and so cannot be relied upon on this matter. Now we must always 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 (2 Timothy 3v16-4v5). 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 it is worth clarifying that neither of the two positions on women’s ministry denies that men and women are created equal in personhood, though they do differ in their understanding of gender roles: 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 complimentarian 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.”[1]

In assessing these views, three substantial arguments need consideration: 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 male headship 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. 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.      This is confirmed by the fact that although Adam and Eve both sin, Adam is primarily held to be responsible (Romans 5v11-32).
3.      It is also confirmed by God consistently using the image of groom and bride to describe his leadership and care of his people. The image implies that he exercises a loving authority like that of the perfect husband.
4.      Throughout Israel’s history, a principle of primogeniture was also affirmed by which inheritance would usually go to the firstborn male and they would hold the ultimate authority for the family.
5.      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.
6.      For this reason, elders in Israel were only male as they were the more prominent household heads.
7.      The Priesthood within Israel was also reserved for men only.
8.      Priests and those who served as elders in the synagogues of Jesus’ day were therefore men too.
9.      Commentators agree that the structure of the early churches was based on the synagogue with elders taking the equivalent role of the Jewish elders.
10.   Whatever its application might be today, the principle of the firstborn son being given authority is reaffirmed in the NT by scripture speaking of Christ as the firstborn over creation.
11.   The principle of headship is also reaffirmed in speaking of Christ as head of his bride and family, the church
12.  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).

We see here that there is a link between the idea of headship within the home and the role of elder 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.

Some suggest the idea of “head” is simply that of source. There is truth here. Christ is the source of gifts and life for his church. However a closer look shows that this does not exclude ideas of authority. It is not hard to see that husbands, fathers and heirs throughout the Old Testament 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 in the three passages noted under point 12.

It is difficult indeed to dismiss this abundant testimony. At the very least it means that the onus is on those who would say that this idea of male headship has been abrogated to prove their point with clear texts from the New Testament. But rather than see this, we actually see both Jesus and the apostles affirm and appeal to the idea.

(2) The model of Christ

Jesus does not teach explicitly on our subject because the point was assumed by those around him. Given the fact 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. We must also note that despite the radically high spiritual status he ascribes women he chose not to commission any 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 in appendix A. In the light of them, let’s consider the primary text: 1 Timothy 2v11-15:
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)

Does the prohibition still apply?
Given Paul’s apostleship and so inspiration, the argument given against the application of these verses to the church today is that Paul was writing just for the particular situation in Ephesus where Timothy was ministering. To consider these arguments more fully, see appendix B. For now we need just note that Paul actually gives a reason for his prohibition in verse 13. And he does not cite any local issue, but the transcultural truth of man’s primacy (though not superiority) over woman in creation. Paul assumes his point to be self-evident, although it is less so to non-Jewish minds. The concept is that of primogeniture, where authority over a household would pass to the firstborn.

Verse 14 may also give a second transcultural reason. The exact meaning of the verse is unclear. Paul would never suggest that only Eve was guilty of the first sin (see Romans 5v12-21). 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 as he doesn't prohibit women from teaching other women or children, and those teaching falsehood in the churches seem to have been men (2 Timothy 3v8). 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 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, see also Luke 2v36-38). Moreover, the Bible commends women who manage large households (as in Proverbs 31), which would have inevitably entailed some exercising of authority over male servants, or other men when churches were hosted in their homes.

The context suggests that what is actually being prohibited is the exercising of elder-like authority, ie. 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 has this sort of corrective 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 Timothy 3v1-7), and later describes their role as ruling and teaching (1 Timothy 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 Timothy 3v8-15, noting verse 11 is best translated not “wives” but “deaconesses” – see the NIV footnote).

Now in the modern day asking questions is not generally considered the province of church leaders nor an exercising of authority as it was in Paul’s day. So we might accept that when Paul prohibits this (1 Corinthians 14v34-35), this does not necessarily apply in the same way today. However, the role of elder (and its equivalent of pastor, vicar or church leader) is always to be an authoritative one in the ways described above (1 Timothy 5v17, Hebrews 13v17). For this reason we must conclude that it is reserved for men, as must be any role where a minister is called to oversee a number of ministers or churches in a region, such as the anglican “bishop.”

The issue of authority

Of course many of us flinch at these sort 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. There is something rather arrogant in just presuming our culture understands things correctly. The second reason is that we assume these teachings imply 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 authority. 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 (ie. 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. 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. Rather 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.

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 in testing such a calling by the teachings of the Bible outlined above, 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 or teaching in a less regular and non-authoritative manner, being a women’s minister or other such thing.

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 1 Timothy 2v15 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 are we 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. Indeed, Paul shows just how highly he views motherhood by using the image of the breastfeeding mother to illustrate the sort of commitment Church leadership involves (1 Thess 2v7).


A key lesson to be learnt in all this is that it is God, not us, who has the ultimate right to determine our role in life, just as he determined that only men from one particular clan of one particular tribe could be priests in Israel. No doubt many others longed to be. But for his own reasons, God had not permitted it. In a similar vein, we have established 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 complimentarity in some quarters, and a total blurring of gender in others. In an age when men are increasingly unsure of their role, marriages break down due to a lack of responsibility in husbands, the dignity and self-sacrifice of motherhood is often belittled, and children are confused about what it is to be male or female, this teaching and its wider implications 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: Is the prohibition of 1 Timothy 2v11-15 simply concerned with a local issue in Paul's day?

Five reasons are given to suggest that 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]
(5) 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 (2 Tim 3:13).

(3) In terms of uneducated or heretical teaching, Paul has already charged Timothy to stop the teaching of “different doctrine” (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 different 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, although 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.

[1]           These definitions are taken from Beck, James R and Blomberg, Craig L.Introductionin 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 beoutstanding amongst the apostlesin Romans 16v7, this should not be taken as meaning she was one of the founding leaders of the church. The greekapostolosmeanssent oneand 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 forwomanandmancan refer towifeandhusband,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 Pauls train of thought (v8-9).
[4] Belville,Women in ministryin Two views on women in ministry, (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2001), p.128
[5] Ibid, p.126
[6] Keener, Craig L.Women in ministryin 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