Should the Ministry of Eldership Exclude Women?

I’ve gotten great feedback on my posts so far. I hope my readers have been as challenged and encouraged as I have. I anticipate that this post will generate more push-back than the others. For some reason, many have made one’s adherence to certain social guidelines for gender the measure for holiness and biblical living. Anyone who would step out of the lines of these gender roles is viewed as one who rejects God’s Word or, worse – liberal(!).

However, as I will argue here, it is possible to hold to sola scriptura and come to a different conclusion.

Since this series concerns the practices of the church, I will only deal with the “limiting passages” which address women in the gathering. Perhaps another time we can discuss gender roles in the home.

Andronicus, Athanasius, and Junia

Two main passages are used to limit the woman’s ability to take part in leading the gathering: 1 Cor 14:33-40 and 1 Tm 2:9-15. We will deal with each in turn. First, however, I want to point out a few of the passages in which women are stepping outside of their “roles.”

Judges 4-5 – Deborah leads the nation of Israel as its highest human authority.

2 Kings 22 – Huldah, a prophetess, is chosen by Israel’s King, Josiah (one who did right in the eyes of the Lord) to interpret Scripture. She was chosen over her male contemporaries (Jeremiah, Zephaniah, Nahum, and Habakkuk).

Esther broke all of the rules and saved the Israelites

Rom 16:1-2 – Paul commends Phoebe the deacon (the feminine form, “deaconess,” doesn’t exist in Greek). The word diakonos is not merely used for “deacons” as we currently understand them. The word simply means servant or minister. It is the exact same word Jesus uses to describe the leaders of God’s Kingdom (Mt 20:25-26; Lk 22:25-26)! It is also used to refer to Timothy, Tychicus, and other male leaders.

Rom 16:7 – Junia is listed as an outstanding apostle. Chrysostom (344 AD) said of her,

“To be an apostle is something great. But to be outstanding among the apostles–just think of what a wonderful song of praise that is! . . . Indeed, how great the wisdom of this woman must have been that she was even deemed worthy of the title of apostle.”

Acts 18:18-28 – Priscilla and Aquila teach Apollos (note: Priscilla is listed first, which is immensely important in the Greek language). A church met in their house (Rom 16:3-5). Rachel Held Evans put it best, “It would be hard to imagine that Priscilla, a gifted teacher, would have been prevented from speaking in her own home!” This is especially true when we consider the open-participatory nature of the early church gatherings.

Speaking of which, note these passages which direct all the church to participate in teaching, singing, prophesying, speaking in tongues, interpreting, admonishing, encouraging, and disciplining without gender discrimination: Matt 18; 1 Cor 12-14; Eph 4:11-16; Col 3:16; Heb 10:24-25, etc.

There’s more where that came from. In light of this, I find it interesting that we have so much evidence for female leadership and only two passages which seem to deny them leadership and no one wants to question whether the limiting interpretation might be wrong. Would it really hurt to consider?

I don’t think so. Let’s consider together. . .

1 Cor 14:33-40

1 Corinthians, especially chapter 14, deals with order in the gathering. Verses 33-40 state that women should keep silent and not speak at all. Those who use this passage to limit the participation of women express that their view comes from a “plain reading” of the text. However, it should be noted that such a reading necessarily makes Paul out to be a liar. Merely three chapters earlier, Paul, breaking from the social roles for women in his culture, allows women both to pray and prophecy in the gathering. Prophets are among those in Ephesians 4 whom Paul lists as those who “equip the saints for the work of ministry…” a work which many attribute primarily to elders. Here, women are given that same leadership opportunity.

So, which is it? Can women participate vocally and publicly or must they keep silent and not speak? As with all Scripture, context dictates how we should interpret this passage. Several interpretations exist for this passage.

The first, and unfortunately most widely accepted, is to take this statement in isolation from everything else Paul says and not permit women to do even the things Paul himself allows (i.e. prayer and prophecy).

The second view holds that Paul is reprimanding the Corinthians for thinking that they can create or follow rules contrary to the Law of Grace. It is said that in v 34-35 Paul is quoting and correcting a teaching in the area. This view is entirely plausible. The structure of the passage might be that Paul is quoting pharisaical Jews and then refuting the quote. The “or” which comes directly after the statement against women’s participation can be used as an introduction to the refutation. It might then be paraphrased thusly,

“God is not a God of confusion, but of peace. (Here is an example of the confusion that is going around) —‘The woman should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church’ — WHAT?! Do you think that the Word of God came from you?! Did God give you some special revelation that he failed to give the rest of us?! If anyone thinks he’s a prophet or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are commandments from the Lord–not these pharisaical teachings!”

This interpretation might very well be correct in light of Paul’s very clear allowance of the participation of women in leading the gathering. As well, the “or” clause is a very good indicator that Paul is refuting the statement, not promoting it.

The third view, to which I find myself most drawn, asks the right question: what kind of speech is Paul restricting from women? The “plain reading” simply doesn’t work. Paul doesn’t really want women to be completely silent. He must then be speaking of a specific issue. Paul’s letters are occasional–meaning, they address specific occasions and should be understood in that light. His letters to the church in Corinth are answers to questions the church previously asked. Since we don’t have their questions, we are listening to one side of a personal conversation. We cannot isolate this text from Paul’s main point. When we do this we make the Bible say something it never meant to say. So, these letters should be interpreted with great care and attention to what contextual information we have.

In this passage we can deduce that the women were asking questions, interrupting and creating disorder in the gathering. This is by no means stretching the text. It is widely known that women were largely uneducated and viewed as second-class citizens. Social custom allowed women minimal exposure to the outside world. Even then, they were not to speak with men who were not their husbands. Ancient writings, even outside Christian and Jewish sources, shows that strange women were to be avoided like a disease. Women were essentially a necessary evil.

Christ changed all of that. In the Kingdom of God women are equal. There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free. There is no “male and female.” However, there was still a major barrier between men and women; namely, education. When someone taught in the assembly the men could keep up because they grew up learning the Law and Prophets. The uneducated women would have to stop the teaching to ask questions because they didn’t even know the basics. Paul then proposes a solution. They should listen in the gathering. The emphasis is not on their silence, but on their learning. When they get home they can ask their educated husband to fill in the details until they are caught up. Ancient sources also tell us that it is inappropriate for a student who is a novice to ask his teacher questions during lecture. Only advanced students earned that right. This is because the novice needed to be silent and learn first. Paul is simply using social classroom etiquette to address a problem in the church gathering.

The second or third options are much more plausible than the first when looking at Paul’s overall message.

1 Tm 2:9-15

This is another passage in which women are told to be silent. As we discussed above, Paul doesn’t want women to be silent. He wants them, at the very least, to pray and prophesy. Most translations make Paul say, “I do not permit a woman to teach…” I believe that the same issues of education are in play here. The tense of the verb translated “I do not permit,” is present, active. Ben Witherington III explains that this is very important for interpretation. It isn’t an ongoing instruction. It is a current and temporary one, literally translated, “I am not permitting…” Witherington states, “[this verb] doesn’t ever, in any Greek text that I know of, mean ‘I would never permit…'” Once again, the emphasis is not on her quietness, but on her learning. Just as with all novice students, both male and female. They need to be quiet until they learn enough to engage in the discussion.

But, what about Paul’s denial of the woman’s authority over men?

Actually, the text does not say, “I do not allow a woman to…have (Greek: echein) authority (Greek: exousia) over a man…” Instead, Paul says, “I do not allow a woman to domineer (Greek: authentein) a man.

Some background might help us understand this text. Ephesus, the city in which Timothy worked, was the home of the Artemis cult (see Acts 19:11-41). It was a girls-only club of sorts. The priests of Artemis were all women. Since this religion was dominant, the women of the area were as well. There is no question, then, why Paul puts a temporary restriction on female teachers. The prominent women of the area were domineering, false teachers! Note the fact that almost all of this letter to Timothy is instructions on how to deal with false teachers. No doubt, these false teachers included the priestesses of Artemis. Paul’s solution is to educate the women in the truth before they teach so that the church can be safe from the false teachers of the area.

The ruins of the temple of Artemis–one of the 7 Wonders of the World–attests to the influence of the cult in Ephesus.

What is this appeal that Paul makes to the sin of Adam and Eve? Prominent New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright, notes that it is a very simple example which strengthens Paul’s call for the education of women. Adam sinned deliberately; Eve was deceived. He is not saying that all women are prone to deception and, therefore, must not be allowed to teach. Rather, he is giving an example of a deceived woman leading a man into sin. The women of Ephesus were deceived by the Artemis cult and should not have the chance to lead their brothers by these false teachings. After all, they did not have a Bible in order to compare and test the teachings.

As for the statement on salvation through childbirth, Artemis was worshiped as the protector of women in childbirth. Thus, Paul’s statement is an appeal for women to trust in God for their protection rather than Artemis.

To some, my conclusions will seem to stretch the text. I’m sure I will be accused of overlooking the “clear teaching” of Scripture in order to promote my own “agenda.” But, I could retort with the same. To use these two passages in isolation from the context and vast evidence we have of women leading in Israel and the church is to overlook the “clear teaching” of Scripture on the freedom women have in Christ and the need we, as the church, have of their wisdom.

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11 responses to “Should the Ministry of Eldership Exclude Women?

  1. This topic has always been extremely confusing for me. I grew up in the Southern US, and it was just always assumed that pastors were men. I had never even considered the idea of a woman being a pastor until I was much older. I stuck with the traditional, men-only view because it felt safer; it’s what I grew up with and I knew people who believed it.
    Now, being an adult and living in a country where female elders are more common (Germany), I am interacting with people that I have grown to respect and trust, and I read articles like this that are written graciously and intelligently, that call the male-only view into question. It’s made me far more relaxed about the issue, and I am open to the idea that it’s okay for women to be elders/teachers. Our current pastor is male, though, so I haven’t really seen it in action. Regardless, I like wrestling with difficult topics, and I appreciate this article. Thanks.

    • Thanks for the encouragement! I’ve lived in the Southern US my whole life, so I totally understand what you mean. In my childhood denomination, it wasn’t even a question we were allowed to consider. Once I finally looked into it for myself, it almost immediately made sense to me.

      Side note: I’m jealous that you live in Germany. I’m trying to learn German right now!

      • Well that’s pretty cool 🙂 German is killing me, lol. It’s so much harder than the Latin languages. If you find some magical method let me know 😉
        Being a Christian in Europe has completely changed my view of Christianity, and what it means to follow Christ. It absolutely rocks and changes your spiritual world. It’s been good, but not easy. Especially because your view of spirituality is no longer overshadowed by American politics and the culture-defined, polarizing extremes. The controversial topics are really different here, and as a Christians your voice is part of a teeny, tiny minority.

  2. You ask all those tough Christian questions. You’re gaze is so soft yet serious. Your eyeballs are brimming with faith.

  3. Hi Tyler, got here from your link on the Relevant article about the Newsweek post. Enjoyed it and will pass it along.

    To this post, my thought would be that it’s VERY difficult to comment on biblical gender roles without pointing back to the Creation Order, since that’s what virtually all NT writers do, either directly or indirectly. I understand you can’t cover everything in one post, BUT, to say that some people read certain verses from 1 Cor. 14 and 1 Tim. 2 out of context of the rest of the letter, which is true, is similar to reading these letters out of the context of the entire Bible. I think the Bible in its entirety is pretty consistent about establishing complementary roles for men/women. Are the applications made by modern, conservative Christians at times a bit dogmatic and 50s Americana “Leave it to Beaver-ish”? Yes. But that really doesn’t compromise a consistent biblical teaching.

    Some of the argument you raise could be used to overturn any single doctrine in the Bible. E.g. the “2nd view” under 1 Cor. 14. You said that Paul could be quoting and correcting a previous writing of the Corinthians. While I suppose it’s possible, that too would be violating a basic principle of biblical interpretation – that we must read something at face value unless the text indicates we should interpret it differently. That would be “out-thinking” the Bible. Unless we KNOW that Paul is quoting the Corinthians, we have no right to inject that interpretation. We have to accept it at face value or anyone can make the Bible say anything they want. There is no overwhelming evidence that suggests he’s quoting/correcting here, and to suggest that would seemingly be the very definition of “adding to” what is written.

    Additionally, the presence of female leaders throughout the Bible, while it does destroy any sexist concept that women lack spiritual gifts, is NOT an advocacy for female leadership. Rather, it’s seemingly an admonishment towards weak male leadership – which even the Gen. 3 fall seems to support. For instance, in Judg. 4:8-9 Deborah seems to acknowledge that it was something of an embarrassment both for Israel’s enemies AND Israel that Israel would win with a female at the position of leadership.

    So…totally get your point that female spiritual gifts are often overlooked and even sinfully disregarded and this can be a major problem, but I still don’t see anything to overturn the “traditional” understandings of 1 Tim. 2 & 1 Cor. 14.

    • I love the first article and the reply. Many good thoughts are shared, and quality and careful caring aspects of the dialogue are well presented.

      I’m afraid I don’t share the abilities of clarity that have been presented, but I want to humbly and vulnerably attempt to present a couple points below. I ask for your grace in hearing me.

      1. I appreciate the comments about greater context of the Bible, the history of God and his interactions with Humanity. God’s intended design at the first creation should drive our idea of what pastors/teachers/apostles are attempting to build in his re-creation. if you are going to give diligence to Paul’s statements, then the primary argument to address is the created order. This is Paul’s paradigm that he is speaking from, there is a created order; not as a result of sin, but as “Good”. So our mission includes restoring as best we can the good, intended original design. Briefly, a place where creation lives in it’s designed-ness, in the presence of God (the garden) with the mission of expanding that place so as to include the rest of creation (outside the garden where chaos ruled). this was complicated by Adam’s decision to go outside of the garden and attempt to live as he saw best, with his own resources (a problem that reoccurs in many forms today). Our job as congregational leaders is to redeem the world through our congregations (N.T. Wrights “life after life after death), offering a “garden”, family, oikos or place in which a person can enter and re-learn what life is intended to be. This is the people of God, like a child entering and learning the culture of a family.
      2. Paul’s paradigm of what a congregation looks like is shaped by family, every Jew is family (for more: Paul’s Idea of Community, by Robert Banks). Usually Paul’s statements on the women in leadership issue are taken out of Paul’s paradigm and forced into our own paradigm of the larger consumer driven church model with centralized teaching. (This does not address the benefits of gathered families into a corporate organization, Israel).

      Reflections I’m pursuing:
      A. Into what context we are attempting to apply all of his words (especially about women), the same small congregational context that he enjoyed, or a new one, our own context when we read the text?
      B. Thinking of “church” as a small congregation or as an extended family context where ascribed authority is given and received (the intended creation), how do we read his words as intended, and how do they shape our thinking in our new contexts of how we do “church” as large organizations.

      Thanks for laboring through this, if you’ve made it this far.

      Michael

    • I did address the creation order in one of the last paragraphs of the post and even linked to an essay by N.T. Wright on it. The way people in the First Century used the OT violates every rule for biblical interpretation that you and I recognize. They had almost no regard for context. (There are many examples of this inside and outside of the Bible.) So, when Paul mentions the Creation order, he’s just grabbing an example to make the simple point that women should be educated. To read anything else into it is eisegesis. As I said in the post, “Adam sinned deliberately; Eve was deceived. [Paul] is not saying that all women are prone to deception and, therefore, must not be allowed to teach. Rather, he is giving an example of a deceived woman leading a man into sin.”

      In order to say that the Bible is “consistent” on its prohibition of women in leadership, one must ignore all of the numerous times when it supports women in leadership (i.e. they are expected to prophesy [preach]; Priscilla teaches a man; Junia is an apostle, which is a higher role than a teacher; etc). You even acknowledge in the end of your comment that there are female leaders in the Bible; you just choose to view them as illegitimate. There are far more passages with female leaders than there are passages that prohibit their leadership, which should cause us to rethink those passages. Instead of reinterpreting the numerous passages with women leaders through the lens of the two limiting passages (which forces us to ignore what the text actually says), we should reinterpret the limiting passages through the lens of all of the women who are praised for their leadership.

      Concerning 1 Cor 14 and the idea that Paul is quoting someone, I explain that I don’t hold that view. However, I do think it is entirely plausible. You say, “we must read something at face value unless the text indicates we should interpret it differently.” For the sake of the argument, let’s suppose I agree with that statement. The text gives us at least two reasons why we should interpret it differently: 1) The “or” clause in Greek can be a rhetorical device used in an argument against the statement Paul is discussing. 2) If we take this passage at face value, then Paul is denying what he said a mere three chapters earlier where he expects women to take part in leading the service (through prayer and prophecy, at the very least).

      It does not work to make a blanket statement and apply it to the entire Bible. You cannot claim that every female leader in the Bible is illegitimately leading due to weak male leadership. The Bible doesn’t say that. We know this is false in the case of Huldah, whom Josiah called instead of her male contemporaries (Jeremiah, Zephaniah, Nahum, and Habakkuk), or Junia, who is called an “outstanding” apostle, or Phoebe the servant (the same word Jesus uses to describe the leaders of the Kingdom, etc. Also, suggesting that every female leader in the Bible is an “admonishment towards weak male leadership” is extremely offensive and misogynistic. Female leadership is not an embarrassment, nor is it the result of weak men. It is the result of the gifting of the Holy Spirit.

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  6. This was enjoyable to say the least, especially the 1 Timothy Hermeneutic Discussion.

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