On The Matter of Women in Ministry

In Christian RealTalk by Antwuan Malone

Uh oh. This could get a little… cray-cray, as they say.

Look, the issue of the place for women in ministry has been passionately debated and thoroughly, researched. For those following, we know how testy, and even contradictory, the conversation can become.

So what does the Bible really have to say about women in ministry? Is God appalled by the idea of a female holding offices in the church… of teacher, deacon, minister, pastor, or elder? Let’s see.

Article A: Silence (Shut It!)

Yep. There it is. Some of you are already angry, and all I had to write was two words in parentheses. I’d written an entirely different subtitle for this section which had come off even more insensitive and infuriating, but decided “Shut It!” held just the right amount of insensitivity for the tolerant America we now live in. Let the record state that the sting of the two-word imperative is entirely intentional, just maybe not for the reasons you think.

The usual passages used to support the argument against female leadership (really, of any kind) are:

  • 1 Corinthians 14:34 “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto to speak; but they are commanded under obedience, as also says the law.
  • 1 Timothy 2: 12  “But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence”

At first glance, both of these passages seem straightforward. Women, according to the face value interpretation of the passages, should not only resign from any aspiration of leadership (said here indirectly) but they should refrain from speaking at all. In fact, Paul appears quite forceful and direct. However, if we look at the context of the passage, we’ll find that Paul is pretty ticked about the Corinthians and their “unruly” services in general. In fact, if we dance up the text a few verses to 14:28 we’ll even find him telling the fellas to “Shut it!” as well.

The scene and topic at hand does not center around who has what authority. Paul is trying to reign in the chaotic indulgences present in the Corinthian church services due to their  infatuation with speaking in tongues (whoa, sounds way too familiar. But that’s another article). The Corinthian church members, men and women, had so abused their freedom of “inspiration” (being filled with the Spirit) that the service was no longer “edifying.” To coin a phrase, the services had been so “heavenly minded that they were no earthly good.” Paul is admonishing the spiritual chaos evident in the Corinthian church in this section of the letter, of which he ends by saying, in 14:33, that “God is not the author of confusion.”

So it stands to reason that the prohibition placed on women here may well be Paul setting up a baseline for order of service, and thus any restriction on women (or men for that matter) is meant to bring them back to an orderly way to congregate. After all, Paul had just mentioned earlier in this letter (in 11:5) that women are not only allowed to speak, but they were allowed to pray and prophesy.

The Timothy passage is a bit more hairy, and thus much harder to address in this short blog. Contextually, we know Timothy is in Ephesus (so reading Ephesians may help us understand the situation Paul may be addressing). This is the strongest case against female ministers in the Bible in my view. Paul does not seem to be speaking to a particular situation like in the letter to the Corinthians. Instead, Paul seems to laying down a universal view of how leadership is to be chosen. In fact, the submission chain he presents in 2:11-15 flows well with marital submission he presents in Ephesians 5:20-33.

Article B:  New Creatures (Not so fast!)

Now consider the following:

  • Galatians 3:28  “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female,for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
  • 1 Peter 2:9  “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”

The book of Galatians is of special interest for this conversation because of Paul’s repeated references to “Brothers and Sisters” (1:2, 1:11, 3:15; 4:12, 28, 31; 5:11, 13; 6:1, 18). It is unique in this way, as most other books simply refer to humanity by “men.” It’s an important note. Paul was not waxing poetic when he came to write the lines in verse 3:28. He was intentional about speaking to both genders about many things, among them being that the human lines we draw hold no place in who we are in Christ. That we belong to Christ regardless of ethnicity, social class, or gender.

In essence, we are new creatures identified in Jesus alone. I’d say that almost make this conversation a moot point.

Interesting, especially in light of the other verses we’ve read. Has Paul flipped and changed his mind? I don’t think so.

My Verdict (Uh oh!)

Context is huge when studying the Bible. And by context I mean something more than time and place. We need to investigate the biblical echoes of the ideas in scripture, which goes beyond simply reading before and after the verses. We should check the other writings of the book’s author, and the other authors in the testament the book is found in; and that, in light of the whole Bible and meta-story it tells.

This is by no means an exhaustive look at the subject. I’ve merely tried to present a couple sides of the argument. I will, however, end this by stating where I stand.

I don’t believe women should be silent in the church. In fact, I believe women can and should proclaim the power of the gospel when God calls them to do so, in whatever capacity He’s availed them. And while I am admittedly torn about whether the Timothy passage is culturally contextual (for that time and in that culture) or universally contextual (for any time in any culture), I am quickened by the idea that God seems to speak through Paul against women in position of ultimate authority. That is, a women at the highest point in the church hierarchy. Thus I reconcile these passages by allowing  women pastors, teachers, writers, and other such leading offices, as long as there is someone they report to.

But let it also state that I have the issue with a man at the top of a church hierarchy structure as well. The best biblical picture seems to be a shared leadership at the top level that may include both men and women serving as God leads in the church — an ideal that can surely take many forms.

There is so much more to be said, but we’ll stop here to hear what you have to say in this matter. Comment away.

Do you think women should hold any sort of authoritative position in the Church?

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Antwuan Malone is a Ministry Director at ELEVATE Young Adult Ministry (elevateministry.net) where empowers young adults toward Christian leadership. He is passionate about seeing young adults take their place in church history by drawing near enough to God to hear his call on their life, and courageously living in obedience to that call.