How I came to (officially) support women in ministry

In early 1999, my church had a major crisis, as there was a group of people who left the church and others were threatening to leave over the issue of a woman preaching on the occasional Sunday morning. It was nominally a Conservative Baptist church, albeit one that was planted to minister to Gen-X, and was still predominately made up of singles and those under 30.  It was, as my t-shirt proclaimed, “The Flock that Rocks.”  But still conservative in many ways.  I had friends on each side of the arguments, and so rather than just pick a side, I decided to use my Wheaton training and study the issue in more depth on my own.

As I’ve been going through some old folders, I ran across one that had a bunch of writing from my pre-computer days, when I used a Canon StarWriter 80. That word processor got me through college and and through the year before seminary.  It wasn’t fancy, but neither was I. I’ve never had enough money to be fancy.

It was a good tool (and had a better built-in thesaurus than Word does now) but sadly the file types were proprietary. Apparently at some point I exported them all as text files, then left them unedited with all sorts of strange markup. My “position” paper on women in ministry was in that electronic pile. In light of current conversations, I thought it was interesting to read when I became committed to a position and why.  So, I cleaned it up and thought it worth postingg.

Here’s what I wrote in the summer of 1999 (slightly edited for clarity):

With all of the controversy and conflict which has arisen concerning the topic of women serving within the church I have decided to spend a little time researching and drawing some conclusions.  I want to have a clear idea in my head on what I believe to be the “right” answer, as well as provide myself with a bit of writing practice before a grade is dependent on my now rusty talents.  I come to this topic with, to be honest, no prior issues or opinions. My thoughts have been content to remain vague and undefined.

To be honest, it has not occurred to me to find anything wrong with a woman teaching within a church setting.  I have been taught by women throughout my life, to my benefit. However, some people have found this to be a considerable issue indeed, even to the point of separating themselves from their local community.  With this in mind I have decided to more formally interact with the subject of what a woman’s place in the church can be extended to.

My goal in this brief treatise is to examine the arguments supporting and refusing a woman to speak in a church setting.  I will examine the challenging texts, explore their possible interpretations, as well as offer some thoughts which are not directly related to the texts.  I am seeking a clarity of thought, as well as hoping to add some minor contribution to the arguments.

The primary texts for withholding this office from a woman can be found in I Timothy 2:11-12, and I Corinthians 14:33-35.  Let me quote these passages: “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission.  I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.” (I Tm 2:11-12)”As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches.  They are not to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says.  If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in church.”  (I Co 14:33-35)

The position that holds a woman’s prerogative to speak or to hold any office of authority is not allowed has a simple argument:  the Pauline passages are clear and directly stated, with no underlying, or qualifying aspects which permit their being watered down for our own convenience.  Paul states that a woman should not teach, speak, or hold any authority over men.  Thus, a woman should not teach, speak, or hold any authority over men.

It can be said that those who hold this view can be considered literalist interpreters of Scripture.  The Bible says it, so it’s true then, now, and forever.  There is no place for developing revelation, in which God allows for change within the structures of the Church during different ages.  This is a clearly stated, easily argued position.

The popular arguments which dispute this established view depend on translation and cultural questions.  These state that Paul is not talking universally (though his “as in all the congregations of the saints” sounds universal), but rather he is addressing specific church issues in the location to which he is writing.  In each passage, his main objective is to exhort the church, and its leaders, to orderly worship.  Women were causing distractions, and should be quiet in order for the service to be found reverent and of worth.

What Paul is saying is not a general statement but rather an exhortation to honor God through propriety in worship, however each culture interprets propriety.  Supporting this is the more popular neglecting of Paul’s injunction for women to always cover their heads, and a man to never do so, found in the earlier verses of I Corinthians 11.  This exhortation in now commonly ignored without controversy with the excuse that head covering was a cultural expression of respect.

As Christians we must show an attitude of respect toward God, remembering our place and position when worshipping.  In a culture where women were socially, and oftentimes intellectually, inferior it was out of line to allow them a place of authority or influence.  It would be considered the same as having a child speak and hold a leadership position in our modern church.  But women aren’t considered children in our culture, so the situation is different.

Those are the basic positions. Which view someone takes on this issue, following these arguments, is usually more dependent on each person’s particular view of Scripture and interpretation, rather than any weight carried by each argument.  The discussion thus degrades into a hermeneutical disagreement which does not settle anything, and produces, as Tertullian states, “no other effect than help to upset either the stomach or the brain.”

It is not enough to simply rely on the cultural situation to water down Paul’s intended meaning simply because it does not feel right to us.  In order to make any progress, one must show that Paul’s statements should be qualified, not because of any modern disagreement, but in order to allow them to fit within the rest of his writings and ministry.  Paul did not hand down a systematic treatise on church doctrine (imagine how easy, and less interesting, church life could have been if he had).

Because of this, then, we must look at all of his works as a whole, with the book of Acts as a secondary resource, in order to gain a stronger insight into his beliefs and thoughts.  I shall now, briefly, do so.

Nowhere in any ancient culture do women find such a prominent role as in early Christianity.  Jesus had women in notable roles from the very start of his ministry.  He broke societal customs to include them, and we have stories passed down about his using them as examples for both words and deeds for all Christians (see Luke 7:36ff., 10:38ff, 21:1-4, 24:1-12, and others).

It can be said, however, that while women had an important, and increased, role in Christianity they did not have positions of authority.  Jesus could have easily included one of his woman followers as one of his Twelve Disciples. If he had, there would be no issue or discussion at this point.  Because he did not we can conclude that he had a place for women which did not include positions of authority.

Of course, using this argument we can also conclude that Jesus did not allow gentiles of either gender in influential positions.  All pastors and teachers of our day should be Jewish men just like the disciples of Jesus.  Including Gentiles at all was in fact a real issue of the early church which was hotly debated (see Acts 15).

What eventually settled the issue, at least for those wanting a clear answer, was the fact that the Holy Spirit was working within Gentiles whether or not those in leadership accepted them (even though Jesus clearly stated in Mt 15:24 that he “was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel”).  God chooses who he will to do what he will despite our preconceived notions about propriety.

Let us now look at the works and life of Paul himself.  He states that women should not teach or be in authority over men, yet over and over again he brings up women who have positions of influence.  In Romans 16:2 Paul begins his personal greetings by specifically commending Phoebe, a deaconess of the church in Cenchrea (although the Greek word diakonon is translated “servant” in the NIV).  He continues by asking that “you receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a great help to many people, including me.”

The role of a deacon at that point included both ministerial and administrative duties (see Acts 6-7; 8:5-8, 26-40). The position of deacon can be loosely correlated to a staff pastor of today’s church.  In verse 3 he highlights the work of Priscilla and Aquilla (it should be noted that by listing Priscilla’s name first Paul is most probably giving her prominence).  We hear of the work of these two throughout the New Testament, as church leaders and teachers (Acts 18:18ff, I Co 16:19, II Ti 4:19).

In verse 7 we read of Andronicus and Junias as being “outstanding among the apostles.”  What is often not clear to modern readers is that Junias is a feminine name.  No office in the early church was considered more respected than an apostle, which makes it striking that a woman should be allowed this title.

Throughout the rest of this chapter Paul commends other women, whose specific roles are unknown to us, yet were highly valued by Paul for their service.

Another interesting passage worth consideration is I Corinthians 11:5. This verse states that “every woman who prays or prophesies with her head covered dishonors her head.”  What is worth noting is not the injunction for a woman to cover her head, but that Paul assumes that there will be women in the church who are speaking prayers or prophesy.

There is another reference to women in this role in Acts 21:9, where Phillip’s four daughters are called prophetesses.  In Acts 2:17, Peter quotes the prophet Joel when he says that in the last days God will “pour out my Spirit on all people.  Your sons and daughters will prophesy.”  Women were acknowledged to be able to speak words through the Spirit for the edification of the body (see I Co 14 for a discussion on the importance of prophesy in the church).

While praying is a concept easy to understand, what does, or did, it mean to prophesy?  Our word prophesy comes itself from the Greek as used in Paul’s writings.  It did not signify a mere telling of the future (thought it may at times had a message of foretelling in it).  Rather, in Paul’s use the word “has a predominantly ethical and hortatory character.  It denotes teaching, admonishing, and comforting, I Co. 14:3, 31.”  It is the “inspired speech of charismatic preachers through whom God’s plan of salvation for the world and the community and His will for the life of individual Christians are made known.”

One who prophesies “admonishes the indolent and weary and consoles and encourages those under assault.”  In this role the prophet “speaks with a sense of God-given authority, gives authoritative instruction, though is not above criticism.”  Thus, one endowed with a prophetic gifts speaks to the community with words of wisdom from God, edifying through their words the body of believers (see I Co. 14).

With these thoughts in mind the conclusion must be reached that Paul did not forbade woman from ever speaking whenever the community met.  In his commendations and references we hear him speak of women who almost assuredly had a role of influence in the early Church.

Because of this, his statements in Timothy and I Corinthians must be looked at as having a particular issue or situation in mind, rather than being blanket statements for general practice.  The specific references can be inferred, but we do not really know the details behind his thoughts.  We do know that Paul adapted his basic message of Christ for different situations and localities (e.g. Timothy’s circumcision, his message to the Areopagus, etc.).

Paul was a preacher of Christ, and Him crucified, seeing this and the work of the Spirit as his guiding factor in all he said and did.  If the Spirit was working, even in an unusual circumstance, Paul accepted the work. I would be naïve to think that a narrow selection of verses would be conclusive for the issue at hand, even when they seem straightforward, when there is a wider testimony of discussion throughout the OT and NT.

Traditions and interpretations are too strong to be simply argued over. It’s important we look at the full tradition that goes back to the beginning and includes the wider understanding of church life and the Spirit’s work.  This is especially true when there is a confusion and misinterpretations which I believe underlie the issue of women speaking in the Church.

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One Response to How I came to (officially) support women in ministry

  1. marie says:

    A thoughtful piece, full of interesting insights. I love that Jesus urged women to serve. I love a “wider understanding of church life and the Spirit’s working.” And, if Jesus loved and accepted women as leaders in His Kingdom, and He most certainly did, then I say, wonderful!

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