Ministry Without Walls
Biblical evidence for women in leadership
The Western Wall in Jerusalem is a sacred gathering place not only for prayer, but also for Jewish ceremonies, such as bar mitzvahs. But some have to watch from afar, because a partition keeps men and women on separate sides. To see the family bar mitzvah, women must stand on chairs and peer over that wall.
This reminds me of a sad reality here at home, in the Christian Church: Some have built walls that hold women at a distance from the work of God.
The Assemblies of God affirms that God calls women and gives them gifts for ministry. We find support for this view in Scripture, where women serve in a wide variety of leadership roles.
This is not the conclusion of all Christians, however. In recent years, a number of influential evangelicals have voiced strong objections to women leading, preaching and teaching. They claim the Scriptures require women to live in submission to men in all realms of life.
So, how do you respond when someone says women should not teach adult men, serve on your staff, or qualify for credentials? How do you answer those who ask why we believe the call of God is for both men and women?
Honest questions are not threatening to God, and we shouldn’t be afraid of them either. Such questions call for sound interpretation of Scripture, which is God’s story of redemption.
With a redemptive view in focus, there are three other lenses that help frame the discussion regarding women in ministry: creation, Jesus, and Paul.
In Genesis 1, God created the natural world and saw that it was good. But in Genesis 2, something was “not good” (verse 18). Adam was alone. So, God created a “helper suitable for him.”
In Hebrew, those words are ezer kenegdo. Ezer means “strong help.” This word is used in the Old Testament many times, usually of God. Psalm 121:2 is one example: “My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.” Clearly, this is not referring to help from a lesser being or a person who is subordinate to the one receiving help.
The other word here, kenegdo, means “corresponding to,” or “face-to-face.” It suggests one who is like the other. These words tell us God designed women and men as equal partners. Partnership is what God intended.
But then sin entered the picture. The curse of sin includes brokenness in our relationship with God, one another, and even nature itself. Genesis 3 is where we see, in the curse, the equal partnership between men and women broken. This is a result of sin.
Jesus redeems, restores and reconciles our brokenness, including our broken relationships. Rules that had developed to prop up fractured structures and relationships did not stop His mission. Jesus healed on the Sabbath, ministered to lepers, touched the dead, and ate with tax collectors.
His interactions with women were among His most countercultural. Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well in John 4 would have been shocking to the original readers. Jesus discussed theology with a woman, who was also a Samaritan, and who was further marginalized by the fact that she had been married five times and was living with someone outside of marriage. Yet it was to this outcast woman whom Jesus first identified himself as “I am,” revealing He is the God of Moses (verse 26).
Jesus also had a significant theological discussion with Martha, the sister of Mary and Lazarus, even though such discourse normally happened only between men (John 11:21–27, 39–40). The Gospels record many more instances in which Jesus interacted with women in ways that contradicted the culture’s typical valuation of, and limitations upon, women.
Perhaps the clearest demonstration of Jesus’ perspective on women’s roles in His mission is that He commissioned a woman to be the first to tell people about the most important event in human history: His resurrection. Women at that time were not allowed to act as witnesses, because they were considered unreliable. But the risen Jesus appeared first to Mary Magdalene and entrusted her to witness to His male disciples that He had just defeated death itself (John 20:11–18).
If we are to be Jesus-centered and follow Him, we must take note that Jesus commissioned women, telling them to speak in the assembly of His followers and proclaim the good news.
Many people think of Paul as the biblical author who barred women from ministry. But in Galatians 3:28, Paul made a sweeping statement that defined a whole new worldview for followers of Jesus: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
As Paul saw it, the Cross had changed everything. In Genesis 3, the curse disrupted the equal partnership between men and women and fractured human relationships. But Jesus broke the curse.
Of course, this does not mean we no longer acknowledge any differences. But it does mean race, status and womanhood do not disqualify us from being full heirs with Christ. Paul’s broad theological foundation for God’s people should inform our interpretation of other New Testament passages that relate to women.
Despite the compelling biblical evidence for women in ministry, there are four common objections that create walls for many female followers of Jesus.
Objection No. 1: “There are no examples of women leading or preaching in the Bible.” This is false. Beginning with the Old Testament, the list of female leaders includes, among others, Miriam, a prophet who led the Israelites along with Moses and Aaron (Exodus 15:20; Micah 6:4); Deborah, a prophet, judge and military leader who served as commanding officer to Barak (Judges 4:4–10); Huldah, a prophet who proclaimed God’s message to the priest and other leaders (2 Kings 22:14–20); and Esther, who saved the Jewish people (Esther 8).
In the New Testament, Anna is called a prophet (Luke 2:36). And while some note that Jesus’ disciples were men, Mark 15:40–41 names women among those who followed Jesus and supported His ministry. Indeed, the Twelve were men, but they were also Jewish. So if the template for leadership was based on the identities of the Twelve, all Gentiles would be excluded as well.
Priscilla taught theology to apostles along with her husband, Aquilla. When they are mentioned in their teaching function, Priscilla’s name appears first. In Greek, name placement signifies the order of emphasis. It is likely, then, that Priscilla was the primary teacher.
In Romans 16:7, Paul greets another pair, Andronicus and Junia, and says they are “outstanding among the apostles,” thus naming a woman (Junia) as an apostle.
Objection No. 2: “Paul did not allow women to preach or speak in church.” Except that he did.
Consider Phoebe the deacon. Romans 16:1–2 reveals she was the courier for Paul’s letter. Several scholars have noted that couriers had the responsibility not only of delivering letters, but also of reading them aloud, explaining them, and answering questions. In other words, Phoebe was the first to preach, teach and exegete this important text.
Paul also expected women to pray and prophesy in the church. In 1 Corinthians 11:5, he wrote that “every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head.” Paul’s concern was not that women were verbally participating in the gathering, but that they were doing so without their heads covered — a cultural issue unique to that time and place.
Objection No. 3: “Paul told women to be silent in church.” First Corinthians 14 is a familiar passage for Pentecostals because of its instructions on maintaining order in services while exercising spiritual gifts. Within this context, verses 34–35 address a problem of some women speaking in the church service.
Some cite this as evidence that Paul intended to silence women in all places, at all times, limiting their service in the church to nonpublic roles. However, this could not have been Paul’s meaning. After all, three chapters earlier, Paul assumed women were praying and prophesying aloud in church and did not tell them to stop.
Many scholars believe Paul was referring in Chapter 14 to Corinthian women asking questions in a disruptive way. They point to the lack of education for women in antiquity, which may have led to comprehension gaps in church gatherings. Talking and asking their husbands questions during the service would have been disruptive. Since the context of this passage is orderly worship, and given Paul’s statements elsewhere, this interpretation makes sense.
If the Spirit is giving gifts, who are we to say some people do
not get to use them?
Objection No. 4: “Paul did not allow women to lead men.” Some have interpreted a few of Paul’s statements as blanket prohibitions against women leading men. The implications of this view — which would disqualify half the Church from using their gifts in leadership — call for careful, honest evaluation.
In 1 Corinthians 11:2–16, Paul instructed men not to cover their heads when they prayed or prophesied, and women to do the opposite when they prayed or prophesied. Again, Paul assumed and expected that women would be verbal participants in the worship gathering.
Verse 3 says, “The head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.” Interpretations of this passage that conclude women should not lead men rely on the phrase, “the head of the woman is man.” The Greek word translated “head” here is kephale. This word does not normally mean “authority” or “boss” but rather “source.”
Paul mentions three relationships: Christ and man, man and woman, and God and Christ. If kephale means “authority,” the definition must apply to all three examples. It makes sense to say Christ has authority over men. But if we apply this meaning to God and Christ, we have a problem.
Historically, orthodox Christianity has held that all three Persons of the Trinity are equal; there is no hierarchy of authority. If kephale means “leader” or “authority” in verse 3, Trinitarian theology needs revision.
However, if it means “source,” the verse makes sense, and orthodox Trinitarianism remains intact. In this case, the passage means Christ is the source of man; man is the source of woman (since God formed Eve from Adam’s rib); and God is the source of Christ (not as a created being, but as One who came to the world from the Father, as John 1:14 states).
There is also another clue in the context. Paul appealed to creation, the chronological order of which was man first, then woman (verses 8–9). This is not a prominence argument, but merely a chronological argument — which also points to the likelihood that Paul was using kephale to mean “source,” not “leader.”
All of this is really beside the point, though. This passage is not about leadership but head coverings. Anyone who believes this passage prohibits women from leadership for all times and in all places needs to take literally, for all times and in all places, the instructions about head coverings. Of course, verse 13 leaves the conclusion on this culturally specific matter to readers, inviting them to “judge” for themselves whether it is “proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered.”
Ephesians 5:22–6:9 is another text people often use to argue for female submission. Despite what the section title placement suggests in some English versions, the passage includes verse 21: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” The instruction to submit applies to all, as mutual submission.
Further, this long Greek sentence begins in verse 18, tying all of the actions (singing psalms and hymns, giving thanks to God, submitting to one another, and wives submitting to husbands) to being filled with the Spirit. Daily living in the fullness of the Holy Spirit looks like this, Paul seems to suggest.
Verse 22 does begin a familiar literary form from the ancient world: a household code. Outside of the New Testament, household codes outlined the responsibilities of each member of the household to the head of the household, who was typically male. (It is worth noting that not all men were in positions of power, and women often exercised authority over men, including male household servants.)
Paul would have surprised readers with his version of the household code, which addressed responsibilities not just for those who were subordinate within that system, but also for those in power. Paul also defined “submission” as “respect” in verse 33, which was a new way of understanding submission.
Paul wrote in a cultural context quite different from our own. But the spiritual principle of this passage still applies — that is, living in step with the Spirit should result in loving, respectful treatment of one another.
Finally, there is 1 Timothy 2:8–15. Paul called on men to stop arguing and start praying, and implored women to avoid flaunting their economic status. Then, in verses 11–12, he wrote: “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.”
On the surface, this appears to be an unequivocal prohibition against women speaking in the church and teaching or leading men. However, Paul did permit women to teach and have authority. He allowed and commissioned Phoebe to carry his letter to the Romans, which would have included reading it (aloud) and explaining it (preaching) to the whole group, including men. Paul praised the teaching ministry of Priscilla and her husband, Aquilla. Paul recognized women as apostles and deacons, including Junia and Phoebe.
In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul assumed women would pray and prophesy in church. And, in Galatians 3:28, he declared women equal to men through Christ. Did Paul contradict himself?
“Authority” here is translated from the Greek authentao, which is uncommon in any ancient source. This is the only use of the word in Scripture. The scarcity of its use complicates the task of determining Paul’s meaning.
Outside of Scripture, authentao usually meant to usurp authority or assume a role, but it could also signify authority by legitimate means. When Paul wrote elsewhere about authority in any hierarchical context, he used the word exousia. Paul’s choice of a different, uncommon word here suggests he had a different kind of authority in mind.
The setting of Timothy’s work in Ephesus offers some insight. Theological problems had surfaced in the church there, and Paul was guiding Timothy in the work of responding to heresy. Paul returned to the problem of false doctrine several times in both his letters to Timothy. The women in the church were particularly vulnerable to false teaching, as Paul indicated in 2 Timothy 3:6. There was a problem with false teachers convincing uneducated women their heresies were true.
The difficulty of this passage — the lack of clarity regarding word meanings, the contradiction to clear statements the author made elsewhere, and a mysterious statement about childbirth — suggests the context is the key to understanding it. If indeed women accepted false teaching and then attempted to teach others in the church, that would have been devastating to Paul’s mission. It had to be stopped. Those women needed to be silent and learn, and not take upon themselves the authority to teach.
Paul’s clear support of women in leadership and ministry in other passages tells us this unclear passage is an exception. This instruction is situation-specific. The principle here is to stop disputing and arguing, and to seek training and understanding before teaching others.
Within the redemptive story of God — His intention in creation, His character as revealed in Jesus, and the meaning of the Cross — these passages are exceptions to general principles stated elsewhere. The exceptions address specific situations, and are not binding on all of God’s people in all places and times.
Some may feel this is irrelevant. It is not the core of the gospel, they may argue. But if Jesus has broken the curse of sin and redeemed us, and if He reconciles us to himself and one another, the Church should reflect that reality. The redemptive work of God should be on full display in our lives, relationships and ministries.
As Pentecostals, we believe the Holy Spirit gives spiritual gifts to all. If the Spirit is giving gifts, who are we to say some people do not get to use them? Gifts such as teaching and leadership are not biblically limited to one sex. Women who are gifted teachers should teach. Women who are gifted leaders should lead. The Bible does not say women who are gifted should teach and lead only children and other women.
What would happen if the body of Christ exemplified Galatians 3:28, including redeemed relationships between men and women? What impact would that have on the world?
What if the generation of women coming after us finds no walls to climb? If they do not have to scale a wall, where else in the Kingdom could they spend their time and energy and gifts? What eternal difference might that make?
God gives the Spirit without limit (John 3:34). So, let’s live without walls.
This article has been adapted from a message Debbie Lamm Bray delivered at an event for women in the Oregon Ministry Network. It appears in the Summer 2021 edition of Influence magazine.
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