the shape of leadership

What Paul Really Says About Women in Ministry, Part 1

Scripture itself provides the best argument for an egalitarian interpretation

George P Wood on January 31, 2017


What is the proper role of women in ministry? Bible-believing Christians divide into two camps in answer to this question. The first camp is complementarianism, also known as "biblical manhood and womanhood." It teaches that God created men and women equal in dignity but distinct in roles, both at home and in church. Thus, while it affirms that all Christian women have ministries of some kind, it denies that they can teach or lead the church as a whole. Only men can perform certain roles of teaching and leadership.

The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood is a representative complementarian institution; and "The Danvers Statement" and Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood are representative publications of the complementarian position.

The second camp is egalitarianism, also known as "biblical equality." It teaches that God created men and women equal in all things. Thus, while it affirms that men and women are distinct from one another, it denies that these distinctions warrant exclusively male leadership in the church. God can call and empower any person, regardless of gender, to fill these roles.

Christians for Biblical Equality is a representative egalitarian institution; and "Men, Women, and Biblical Equality" and Discovering Biblical Equality are representative publications of the egalitarian position.

Though both camps appeal to the entire Bible for support of their position, their debate centers on a handful of passages in Paul's letters that expressly limit women's ministries in some way: 1 Corinthians 11:2-16; 14:34,35; and 1 Timothy 2:11-15.

However, a closer look at these key Pauline passages reveals that egalitarian interpretations make better sense of Paul's instructions. Historically and presently, the Assemblies of God official position on women in ministry supports the egalitarian interpretation. In fact, Scripture itself provides the best argument against complementarian interpretations.

According to complementarians, women may perform public ministries in the church as long as they minister under the "headship" of male leaders. The proof text of this position is 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, which states, "the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God" (verse 3).

For example, complementarian Thomas R. Schreiner writes: "The fundamental principle is that the sexes, although equal, are also different. God has ordained that men have the responsibility to lead, while women have a complementary and supportive role. More specifically, if women pray and prophesy in church, they should do so under the authority of male headship."

Schreiner further says, "The women in Corinth, by prophesying without a head covering, were sending a signal that they were no longer submitting to male authority. Paul sees this problem as severe because the arrogation of male leadership roles by women ultimately dissolves the distinction between men and women."

First Corinthians 11:2-16 contains numerous words that scholars continue to debate, not only in commentaries but also in contradictory translations. For example, the New International Version (NIV, 2011) consistently translates the Greek words anēr and gynē as "man" and "woman," respectively. The English Standard Version (ESV), on the other hand, variously translates them as "man"/"husband" and "woman"/"wife." Paul uses the word "head" (kephalē) both literally and metaphorically in this passage, but scholars debate whether the metaphor means "source" or "authority."

The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) speaks in terms of women veiling and unveiling, but the NIV and ESV speak more abstractly of covering and uncovering, which may refer to women pinning up their hair or to veiling their heads. Even the one explicit use of the word authority (exousian) in verse 10 translates variously: "a woman ought to have authority over her [own] head" (NIV) or "a wife ought to have [a symbol of] authority on her head" (ESV). (The brackets here isolate those words translators added to the underlying Greek.)

How should we work our way through this welter of conflicting interpretations and translations? There are four important points to consider.

1. The issue for Paul is how women ought to pray and prophesy, which are public ministries, not whether they should do so. The fact that Paul validates the prophetic ministry of women is important. Paul rates prophecy highly, placing it after "apostles" but before "teachers" in his list of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12:27-31. In 1 Corinthians 14:1, he writes, "eagerly desire gifts of the spirit, especially prophecy" (emphasis added). And in 1 Corinthians 14:29, he says, "Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said."

Surely it is possible both to maintain sexual distinction and promote sexual equality.

Regarding this last verse, we should assume that Paul means spiritually gifted women both prophesy and evaluate the prophecies of others, including male prophets. From all three verses, we learn that women can exercise public speaking ministries in church, just as men can.

2. Throughout this passage, Paul uses the terminology of honor and shame. Just as there is an honorable way for men to perform the ministries of prayer and prophecy (verse 4), there is an honorable way for women to perform them (verse 5). The honorable way for women is to "cover" their literal heads lest they shame their metaphorical head. Paul gives no hint that women must do more than this, however. For instance, he doesn't say they should ask their husbands for permission or get their male pastor's prior authorization to speak.

Thus, with Schreiner, we believe that Paul wants the Corinthians to dress in ways that demonstrate the differences between men and women, thus showing respect to the opposite sex. However, unlike Schreiner, we do not believe that men's authority over women is part of this text or a necessary component of masculinity. Surely it is possible both to maintain sexual distinction and promote sexual equality!

3. Even if kephalē elsewhere has the metaphorical meaning of "authority," its most likely metaphorical meaning in verses 3-5 is "source." What Paul does in verse 3 is offer a Christological reading of the creation narratives of Genesis 1 and 2. Cyril of Alexandria, a fifth-century church father, offered this kind of reading in his comments on verse 3: "Thus we can say that ‘the head of every man is Christ.' For he was made by [dia] him ... as God; ‘but the head of the woman is the man,' because she was taken out of his flesh ... Likewise ‘the head of Christ is God,' because he is of him [ex autou] by nature."

Interpreting kephalē as "source" in verses 3-5 is consistent with verses 7-9, where Paul alludes to Genesis 2 when he writes: "For man did not come from woman, but woman from man" (verse 8). On the other hand, interpreting kephalē as "authority" is inconsistent with verses 11 and 12, where Paul writes: "Nevertheless, in the Lord [i.e., in Jesus Christ] woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God."

After all, if authority is based on creation order, what happens to the authority when the order is reversed?

4. The only explicit connection of kephalē with authority in this passage is Paul's use of exousian in verse 10. But as Gordon D. Fee points out, the normal way to read this Greek verbal construction is that "the subject has the authority ‘over' the object of the preposition." In other words, the woman has authority over her head. The complementarian translation — "a sign of authority over her head" — both adds words not present in the text and transforms a woman's "authority" over her own head into "submission" to another person.

The issue in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is proper social decorum, not male permission. Paul wants men and women to present themselves publicly in ways that are culturally appropriate to their gender. In short, men should look like men and women like women. Their gender determines how they appear when they minister, not whether they minister in certain ways.

This is the first installment of a three-part series on women in ministry. Check back for Parts 2 and 3. This article originally appeared in Enrichment Journal and has been used with permission.

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