The Biblical Basis for Women in Church Leadership and Pastoral Ministry:

A Brief Study

Prepared by the Brethren in Christ Council for Women in Ministry and Leadership

A careful examination of the Bible will yield an understanding of God’s intent for women and men to be full and equal partners to serve and worship Him. This brief treatment of the subject of women in ministry and leadership provides a quick summary of the major biblical points.

Biblical Women Leaders: Perhaps the easiest point to make and understand is that there are many biblical examples of women leaders. The following women were divinely called to lead, were affirmed by their religious communities, and were specifically recorded in scripture as part of God’s revealed truth. A few examples:

  • Miriam – prophet; played major role in Exodus; led worship singing and dancing.
  • Deborah – prophet; judge; led Israeli troops into battle with Barak
  • Hulda - prophet
  • Anna – prophet who pronounced Jesus to be the redemption of Israel
  • Lydia – business woman who became a central leader in the Philippian Church
  • Priscilla – helped Paul establish churches at Corinth and Ephesus; corrected Apollo’s preaching
  • Junias – an Apostle
  • Phoebe – deacon; commended by Paul for her service to the church

If by design God created women not to be leaders, then he would be going against his own order and intent to place women in leadership; but God does not violate His own design.

Creation’s Intent: In the beginning humans were created male and female in equality and partnership reflecting the image of God both individually and together as a plural unit. The sequence of creation does not signify importance or superiority. Adam is not superior because he is first; Eve is not the new and improved model. Instead, Eve is called Adam’s helper. The word helper, however, is not used as an indication of rank as in “a boss and an assistant.” The Hebrew word is ‘ezer and is also used to describe God by Moses in Exodus 18:4 when he says, “My father’s God was my helper: he saved me from the sword of Pharaoh.” Since God is called a helper also, we need to maintain the original elevated biblical definition of this word, and not submit to a culturally lowered interpretation in our understanding of God’s creation design.

Repercussions of the Fall: Adam and Eve are both punished for disobeying God. One of the consequences of Eve’s sin was a distorted relationship with Adam. However, God in his mercy promised a reversal of the fall and restored divine and human relations through Jesus Christ.

Restoration in Salvation: Salvation through Christ reverses or removes the punishment of judgment. Individuals are restored to a relationship with God. While we live in a world where the effects of sin are still playing out, believers are now members of the Kingdom of God where equality in him is restored. But even before Christ, faithful women were already filling places of leadership indicating that one’s relationship with God has an impact that brings about a change on the judgment meted out at the fall.

Breaking Cultural Norms: Throughout his ministry Jesus elevated the role of women from the prevailing cultural norm of being property to people worthy of respect and fair treatment. In the case of Mary, Lazarus’ and Martha’s sister, Jesus not only allows but commends Mary specifically for choosing to learn about God over domestically and culturally defined roles. Women were also among the disciples following Jesus, learning from Him, serving Him, and supporting Him. Women were at the cross, at the tomb, the first to see and speak to the risen Christ, and the first to proclaim His resurrection. Paul also elevated the role of women from the cultural norm. As Saul, he persecuted them equally with men; and as an evangelist preached to them equally. He worked along side of women such as Lydia and Priscilla commending their ministries and leadership.

“Silence” and Authority: While a full discussion is not feasible here, it is understood that even Paul’s writings about women learning in “silence” and not having authority over men actually point to women’s abilities and roles to actively learn, minister, and lead. Understood within the context of the culturally accepted norms of the time, the specific concerns of the congregation, and linguistic interpretations and usage of words, these passages emerge not as limiting women, but rather as the beginnings of release from the prevailing cultural restrictions and the restoration to full equality for women to minister and lead in the church. It is important to note that when these passages are difficult to interpret, we should do so in light of the Gospel that Paul preaches rather than a tradition that opposes that Gospel. For a full explanation, please see the list of recommended readings below.

No Prohibitions: There are no explicit New Testament prohibitions against women serving in leadership.

Spiritual Gifts: In the New Testament listings of spiritual gifts, the fact that there are no gender qualifiers indicates that the gifts are given to both women and men including pastoral, prophetic, and preaching gifts.

The Long View: Since the fall, God has been working through history to reveal his truth and bring about his purposes. From our vantage point in time with both the Old and New Testaments to study, we look back to both the pre-fall ideal and to God’s unfolding truth as revealed over time in scripture. We look to Jesus’ teachings as authoritative and a fuller understanding of God’s law and will. As we do so, we see God using women in positions of leadership and ministry to fulfill Hhs purposes. This is the biblical truth we strive to proclaim and model.

Recommended reading:

Beyond Sex Roles, by Gilbert Bilezikian

What Paul Really Said About Women, by John Templeton Bristow

Paul, Women and Wives: Marriage and Women's Ministry in the Letters of Paul, by Craig S. Keener

This study was prepared and approved by the Leadership Team of the Brethren in Christ for Women in Ministry and Leadership, and was also reviewed by others. The Council thanks all of those who provided input into the preparation of this document. The BIC Council for Women in Ministry and Leadership is an affinity group of the Brethren in Christ Church.

June 2006