The Bible and Women in Ministry

by Rev. Kevin Daugherty

Three women at the tomb of Jesus.

Through my life as a Christian and my activities as a minister, I have found myself in many churches whose views were far more conservative than my own. One of the issues that often comes up when I visit more conservative churches is the issue of women’s ordination. This issue also comes up frequently on the Internet. So common is this debate to the church that is was a problem as far back as the second century. The Montanists allowed for female elders and bishops at the time.

For some people today, this issue seems incredibly foolish. Men and women deserve equal opportunities, as do all people. Right? Well, if you take the Bible and church tradition with reverence, there is a problem. For the Roman Catholic Church, the issue is easily settled due to their reliance upon sacred tradition. The roles of men and women are settled, and have been for a very long time. In our church (the UCCA) and all other churches coming from the Protestant Reformation, we believe in cutting through tradition to the Bible. However, there are even many Protestant churches that still affirm that ministry (especially pastoral ministry) is reserved for men. It is this point that I think needs to be addressed. I have no place to argue sacred tradition with a Roman Catholic, but I can argue the Bible with other Protestants.

In Protestant churches, the issue of women’s ordination has been one of the most divisive, right after LGBT marriage and ordination. Consider, for example, my native Presbyterianism. One of the biggest differences between the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Presbyterian Church in America is the issue of ordaining women.

There are a few Bible passages that are relevant to this issue, and it is because of these passages that my conservative brothers and sisters are convinced that we simply cannot ordain women to ministry. Because of how often this issue comes up in Christian circles, I wanted to have a somewhat thorough response to these passages.

Before I get into some of the relevant Biblical passages, I wanted to bring one point up. When it comes to reading the Bible, context is extremely important. First, there is the literary context. Sometimes we think the Bible says one thing, but when we consult the literary genre or surrounding passages, the message changes. “Curse God and die” (Job 2:9) is not something we are supposed to follow. Second, the context of culture is extremely important. There is a reason why the Biblical teachings about slavery don’t correspond to the American slave trade. When it comes to the Biblical (New Testament specifically) teachings about women, we have to remember to look at the surrounding literary and cultural context so that we can discover the correct meaning.

There are some churches where women cannot serve in any role, especially if it would end up with them having even a little bit of authority over a man. For example, several months ago, I heard about a woman who was a supposed to lead a choir for her church, but at the last minute, the ruling elders of her church replaced her with a teenage boy who was not prepared for that role. In their eyes, a teenage boy technically qualified as a man, so he was better suited for the position. They made this change because there would be men serving in that choir, and a woman could not possibly lead them.

This level of gender discrimination is absolutely wrong, and does not have firm Biblical ground to stand on. Even many conservative denominations recognize that women can serve in some ministerial roles, just not in pastoral or episcopal ministry. This is easily justifiable within the Bible.

In Matthew 28:8, Mark 16:9, Luke 24:9, and John 20:1 the resurrected Jesus makes himself known first to women, who then spread the news of the resurrection. Our Lord chose women to be his first evangelists. Not only that, but they evangelized the other disciples, even Peter!

In Romans 16:1 we have a clear mention of female deacons. In addition, in 1 Timothy 3:11, on Paul’s teaching about deacons, we read this:

Even so must their wives be grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things.

The term translated as “wives” here literally means “women”. It could be talking about the wives of male deacons, female deacons, or deaconesses. All are possible translations. Considering the evidence from Romans 16, I am inclined to think that Paul is talking about female deacons.

In 1 Corinthians 11:5, Paul also talks about female prophets and preachers in the church. The Old Testament also provides some great examples of female prophets, such as Miriam (Exodus 15:20), Deborah (Judges 4:4), Huldah (2 Kings 22:14; 2 Chronicles 34:22), Noadiah (Nehemiah 6:14), and “the prophetess” (Isaiah 8:3).

Having mentioned 1 Corinthians 11, we need to address 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. Paul says:

Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.

This passage is one of the most commonly cited for why women cannot be preachers or teachers in the church. At first glance, it seems pretty clear, until we consider the evidence.

Three chapters earlier in this letter, Paul clearly mentions women preaching and prophesying in the church, so this section seems to have a problem right from the start. We have a clear contradiction with Paul’s statement just a bit earlier in this letter. In addition to this, in some manuscripts, these two verses move around. Some put them at the end of the chapter, others omit them. These two pieces of evidence suggest to many scholars that these words are not authentic. A later scribe added this in.

Personally, I disagree. I think these words are authentic to the letter, but I also do not think Paul authored them. Something that is worth remembering when reading the Bible is that they did not have quotation marks. There are places where we are not entirely sure who said what. We see that often in John 3:15-21, where we aren’t entirely sure what words are attributed to Jesus. In 1 Corinthians 10:23, Paul quotes the Corinthian church and offers a response:

“All things are lawful for me”, but all things are not expedient: “all things are lawful for me”, but all things edify not.

He cites this same statement several other times in the letter, and also quotes the Corinthians in 7:1. We often forget about this, but Paul’s letters are only half the story. The churches he was writing to were also writing back. It is possible that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 are a quotation from the Corinthian church, but it can be difficult to know since quotation marks are a recent invention. However, look at the next verse:

What? came the word of God out from you? or came it unto you only? (1 Cor. 14:36)

Some interpreters suggest that this is a rebuke of the preceding verses. Paul first quotes the Corinthian letter which says that women should keep silent. This disagrees with Paul’s teaching about female prophets and preachers, which leads to Paul rebuking them in verse 36.

When one considers these things, I think the passage from 1 Corinthians 14 makes a lot more sense. Paul is not telling women to keep silent, but quoting the Corinthian church and rebuking them for it.

There is one important ministerial role that I have yet to talk about: elders/bishops/pastors. There are no mentions of female elders/pastors in the New Testament. In fact, the New Testament seems to be very clear on this point:

Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression. Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety. (1 Timothy 2:12-15)

This is a true saying, if a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach (1 Timothy 3:1-2, cf. Titus 1:6)

These passages seem pretty damning. However, there are some important pieces of information that usually get lost in translation. In the first passage, we read something that seems extremely offensive, “she shall be saved in childbearing”. You don’t often see it in English, but this passage could also be translated as “she shall be saved in the childbearing” (RV, cf. ASV). This means that through the birth of Christ (the Child), women are saved from the curse of Eve. This fits very well with Paul’s theology. “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22), says Paul. For Paul, Adam starts the decay of humanity, and Christ, as a new Adam, brings us back. Some interpreters hold that Paul is doing the same thing in this passage from 1 Timothy. In Eve all women have inherited a fallen nature, but in the Childbearing (Christ, through Mary) women have achieved salvation (see The Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary, pages 1460-1461). 

Another thing worth noting is how 1 Timothy could have been written for an Ephesian audience. Given that context, the teachings for women to dress modestly and not to hold pastoral office could suggest a contextual teaching specifically for Ephesus. That city housed the temple of Artemis, where priestesses would dress extravagantly and engage in temple prostitution. Paul may have wanted to avoid confusion or association with these priestesses. This interpretation (like all interpretations really) is disputed, but it is one possibility.

In addition, women were far less educated than men in the ancient world, and this continued to be the case until relatively recently. One possible reason that women could not serve as pastors according to the New Testament is due to this cultural concern. The men would have been familiar with the Scriptures. They would have been able to faithfully lead a congregation. However, women would not have had that opportunity. It is unfortunate, but it was the reality of the day. This could explain 1 Cor. 14:35, “And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.” Women needed the guidance of the more educated men in their lives, especially concerning the Scriptures. 

Women could speak under the influence of the Holy Ghost, or under the guidance of the men in their lives, but they could not speak on their own. This could very likely be a culturally-specific teaching. Today, when women have the same opportunities as men to understand the word of God, there is no reason that women could not serve in pastoral roles. As Paul said, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Christians should not limit ourselves by culture. We should be focused upon the Kingdom of God, in which there is neither male nor female.

I hope this explanation was edifying, and I hope that it will provide a reasonable defense of women’s ordination and inclusion in the life of the church. In addition, I suggest watching this sermon by Greg Boyd on the subject: