Women in Ministry
Two new books make the case for egalitarianism
A well-regarded California megachurch was recently expelled from its evangelical denomination because it ordained women as pastors.
“The issue of women serving in the pastorate is an issue of fundamental biblical authority,” one minister said in defense of the expulsion (emphasis added).
The authors of two new books read the same Bible but reach the opposite conclusion.
In Tell Her Story, Nijay K. Gupta writes, “There is ample evidence inside and outside the New Testament that women were actively involved in ministry, at the frontier of the gospel mission, as respected leaders in the church, and even as primary leaders of household congregations.”
And in The Bible vs. Biblical Womanhood, Philip B. Payne argues that “men and women are equal not only before God but also in practice in the body of Christ — namely, in church life.”
Gupta and Payne are New Testament scholars. Early on, both were complementarians, believing only men could serve as church leaders. But closer study of the Bible in its original languages convinced them the New Testament Church’s practice of ministry was egalitarian.
Although both authors paint an egalitarian picture, they focus on different aspects of it. Gupta examines what he calls “hidden Christian figures” in the New Testament’s background. Payne concentrates on controverted texts typically in the foreground of debates about women in ministry.
Each approach adds value to the discussion, so it is a good idea to read both books.
Although both authors paint an egalitarian picture, they focus on different aspects of it.
Gupta says many erroneously believe the ancient world was “neatly constructed into leaders (men) and followers (women).” The ancient world was indeed patriarchal, but there were opportunities for women to exercise leadership roles, especially if they belonged to higher classes.
Tell Her Story debunks three myths about Greco-Roman women: that they were always under their husbands’ authority, couldn’t own property, and remained confined to their homes.
This warrants a second look at women in the New Testament. Like their Greco-Roman contemporaries, these women were actively involved in public life. More to the point, they were actively involved in ministry.
Gupta demonstrates this by surveying all the women Paul names in his letters, especially Romans 16, where 10 of the 26 named individuals are female. He comments, “What Paul saw in this group was not the virtues of a particular trait, like sex or skin color, but grit and ambition, the will to labor and suffer for the sake of the gospel.”
Gupta devotes a chapter each to Phoebe (Romans 16:1–2), Priscilla (16:3; cf. 1 Corinthians 16:19; 2 Timothy 4:19; Acts 18:1–4,18–27), and Junia (Romans 16:7). Paul calls Phoebe a “deacon” and Junia an “apostle,” while Priscilla seems to have gained renown as a teacher.
Biblical descriptions of women actively involved in ministry lead Gupta to draw this conclusion: “Where men have sometimes said, ‘Women can’t,’ the Old and New Testaments testify: they did.”
The crucial text for many is 1 Timothy 2:8–15, especially verse 12: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man.” Complementarians interpret this as an absolute, universal prohibition of female church leaders. Gupta interprets it contextually: “Because of a local ‘battle of the sexes’ in Ephesus, bold restrictions were necessary to extinguish the false teaching and to help restore healthy relationships.”
Payne similarly interprets that passage as a time-bound, local restriction. He goes on to consider other texts complementarians interpret as limiting the ministries of women, including 1 Corinthians 11:2–16; 14:34–35; 1 Timothy 3:1–13; and Titus 1:6–9.
Payne notes that 1 Corinthians 11 permits women to prophesy alongside men. The key issue was doing this in a socially responsible manner. As for the meaning of “head” (Greek, kephalē), Payne argues the word connotes “source” rather than “superior rank.” In other words, the passage does not imply male leadership over females.
Regarding qualifications for church leaders in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, Payne says the grammar in both texts is “inclusive and gender-neutral.” So the KJV translation of 1 Timothy 3:1 (“If a man desires”) should be replaced by the more accurate “Whoever aspires” (NIV) or “If anyone aspires” (ESV). Anyone includes women.
The longest — and most controversial — chapter of Payne’s book concerns 1 Corinthians 14:34–35, which begins, “Women should remain silent in the churches.” Taken literally, this contradicts 11:2–16, which permits women to prophesy in the church. Many commentators thus soften the prohibition, saying it applies only to disruptive question-asking during worship (14:35).
Like Gordon Fee, Payne argues these verses are later, scribal additions to the text. He offers two reasons for this conclusion. First, verses 34–35 appear in two different places in the manuscript tradition: after verse 33 and after verse 40. Second, Codex Vaticanus, a fourth-century Greek Bible, marks these verses as a scribal emendation. Only time, and more evidence from textual criticism, will tell whether this argument gains acceptance.
Payne also considers passages related to male-female relationships in the home, including Ephesians 5:21–33 and 1 Peter 3:1–7. He argues both passages teach “mutual submission” rather than male leadership.
Payne and Gupta arrive at an egalitarian destination not only by different routes, but also with different tones. Payne adamantly insists New Testament Christianity was egalitarian from the get-go, at church and in the home. Gupta acknowledges patriarchal attitudes persisted within Christian households, but says Paul’s teaching set the Church on a trajectory toward “equal marriage.”
Regardless of these differences, both books make a valuable contribution to our understanding of what the Bible teaches about male-female relationships. If we accept biblical authority, we will welcome the ministry of women alongside men.
Nijay K. Gupta, Tell Her Story: How Women Led, Taught, and Ministered in the Early Church (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2023).Philip B. Payne, The Bible vs. Biblical Womanhood: How God’s Word Consistently Affirms Gender Equality (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2023).