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

A Review of Women in Leadership in the First-Century Church and the Apostle Paul on Women in Ministry

by Janet M. Peifer, DMin

Part II of this series highlighted the importance of the Creation and the Fall narratives in this discussion. A review of several Old Testament women in leadership was followed by an inside look at Jesus' interactions with women in his culture which one writer describes as nothing less than revolutionary. Part III will focus on women leaders in the New Testament churches and will then look at the statements of the Apostle Paul to determine how they fit into the larger picture.

When writing and studying the topic of women in church leadership within the New Testament, I work from the following two premises:

The New Testament foundation for utilizing the gifts of every believer must rest squarely on Jesus (the accounts of his interaction with people in the Gospels), on Pentecost, and on the founding of the first century church (the accounts in the Acts of the Apostles).  The Epistles must, therefore, be interpreted through the light of the gospels and Acts, and not vice versa. 
We will be greatly aided in our contemporary culture if we come to believe that Jesus set the precedent, that is, set the direction in which people were to follow in their relationship to women and the utilization of their gifts for leadership.  The first century church leaders then worked at specific applications to the teaching and modeling of Jesus to give direction to new believers and to get wanderers back on track with Christ's teaching and example.  One is on shaky ground to build doctrine for the 21st century church on the applications and guidelines of a newly formed and often floundering first century group of believers.  Doctrine and practices regarding women in ministry must be built on the foundation of God's redemptive plan for humankind as fleshed out in the life, teachings and ministry of Jesus Christ. 

Pentecost: The Crowning Act for Christians--Both Women and Men in Leadership
Women and men were present at Pentecost which marked the coming of the Holy Spirit. Peter declared that what they were experiencing was the fulfillment of Joel's prophecy in Joel 2:28,29.

In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophecy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my spirit; and they shall prophecy (Acts 2:17,18 NRSV).

Until this time, a few select people were given the Spirit of God for a limited time to carry out a special task. What Joel prophesied was an abundant out-pouring of God's spirit on all people--not on Jewish people only, but on Gentiles as well; not on men only, but on women as well; not on socially free and advantaged people only, but on the poor and oppressed as well. Pentecost was the stamp of approval on what Christ had accomplished in his life, death, and resurrection. The reversal of the Fall was in full swing.

There was no shortage of women leaders in the First Century church. Likely, many more ministered than are mentioned in our biblical text. Romans 16:1-16 clearly indicates the importance of the ministries in which women were involved. Don Williams in his book, The Apostle Paul and Women in the Church, (Regal Books, 1977, 41-47), makes the following observations about the women leaders mentioned in this passage.

Phoebe is officially recommended and endorsed in the position of "deacon" or "minister" (v.1,2). The word used is in the masculine form and is the same word used in 1 Cor. 3:5 when the Apostle Paul speaks of himself and of Apollos, and in 1 Tim. 4:6 of Timothy. There are no grounds then to distinguish between her and the male ministers. She was a minister in the church of Cenchreae. Paul asked the Christians at Rome to welcome her as a minister which indicates that her ministry extended beyond her own congregation. She is described as being a help to many, therefore, her ministry was fruitful. Paul states that she was of great assistance to him. It is likely that she was carrying Paul's letter to the Romans. Williams asserts that "there is no reason to suppose that Phoebe does not hold a ministerial office. She undoubtedly performs ministerial functions which are equally shared by Paul and others. Thus no sexual qualifications are made here for such ministry" (Williams, 43).

Prisca or Priscilla (16:3-5) was in ministry along with her husband Aquila. They are called fellow-workers, a term of equality elsewhere used of Paul and Apollos (1Cor. 3:9). When the couple is mentioned in writing, Priscilla's name is listed first, indicating that she may have been the leader of the two.

In Romans 16:7, Paul mentions two persons who labored faithfully with him--Andronicus and Junias (or in other translations, Junia, the feminine form of the name). The phrase "they are men of note," literally reads "they are of note." "Men" is absent in the Greek text, and is inserted by the translators. It is possible that this was a Jewish husband-wife team who were among the first believers to witness the risen Christ, for Paul states of them, "they are of note among the apostles." Williams believes that "only an extra-Biblical assumption that a woman could not be an apostle keeps most commentators from reading Junias as Junia" (Williams, 45).

Other women mentioned in Romans 16 who served as co-laborers in Paul's ministry were Mary, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, the mother of Rufus, Persis, Julia, and the sister of Nereus. The Acts of the Apostles records the ministries of Dorcas, Lydia, and the four daughters of Phillip who prophesied or preached. The Apostle Paul clearly utilized women's God-given leadership skills and gifts for ministry. Alvin John Schmidt in Veiled and Silenced states that "the apostolic church was very relevant to the women in that it gave them unparalleled freedom and released them from centuries of cultural oppression. That is why women were so extensively and intensively involved in the life of the apostolic church" (Schmidt, 219).
With the examples of women who served with Paul in leading the developing churches, why would he say that he did not permit women to teach or have authority over men in 1 Timothy 2? Or, how could the same person who wrote words of gratitude to eight or nine women in his Roman's letter, say so emphatically in the letter to the Corinthian church that women were to be silent in the churches and were not allowed to speak (1 Cor. 14:34)? Either Paul was the victim of a personality disorder or there is more than meets the eye in these several short verses of biblical text.

1 Timothy 2:11,12   

Paul's seemingly prohibitive statement about women in public ministry is likely a response or plan of action to deal with women who were new Christians, talented, and endowed with spiritual gifts of leadership, but not yet trained and seasoned for leadership in the congregation. These new Christian women likely were also mixing pagan practices and Christian doctrine. One must keep in mind that prior to this time, only the men had the privilege of learning through formal study. Paul's assertion in verse 11 that "women should learn" was indeed a new day for the believing woman.

Responding to the women's lack of training and maturity, Paul therefore declares, "I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man, she is to keep silent (2:12 NRSV). The literal translation from the Greek is, "I am not presently permitting a woman to teach or to have authority over men...." The verb used is present active indicative. It was never intended to be a prohibitive statement or a prescription for all times, places, and cultures. If it had been written for that purpose, there are Greek verbs and tenses which would have been used to clarify the intention.

1 Corinthians 14:33b-35

These biblical verses have been similarly used to prohibit women from public preaching and pastoral leadership as have the two verses of 1 Timothy 2. The immediate context (14:26-36) is found amidst the long instructions on how to have order in worship so that everyone--men and women--could have an opportunity to use their gifts. This passage is part of the prior three chapters, and therefore, the verses 14:34-35 which have been interpreted to prohibit women's leadership in the church cannot co-exist with chapter 11 where Paul outlines how women are to appear when thy preach and pray in public services. The Corinthian Church was long on zeal (spirit) and short on truth. The Apostle Paul addressed their over-zealous practices and sought to direct them toward a godly balance.

Gilbert Bilezikian believes that 14:33b-35 are the words of the Apostle Paul's Judaizing opponents (Beyond Sex Roles: A Guide for the Study of Female Roles in the Bible, 144-153). Verse 36 then becomes Paul's response to the Judaizer's opposition statement. If one were to lift out 33b-36, it becomes clear that the thought pattern of 33a connects well with verse 37. Bilezikian points out that quoting words of the opposition is not unusual in this letter for it was done in numerous other places. While they can be hard to discern because the original did not have punctuation marks, they are discernible by context and content because they are in juxtaposition to Paul's other teachings.

During my academic studies, I researched this passage (14:26-36) and translated it following a careful look at each phrase. Two biblical Greek scholars have affirmed the following translation of verses 33b-36 as being true to the original text:

This matter of order brings to the fore the practice in all the churches of the saints where a woman is not permitted to speak or where the rule is, "let a woman not be permitted to speak but let all women subordinate themselves even as the oral law dictates." And further, you appeal to the oral law which says that if a woman wants to learn (has an unquenchable desire to learn) let her ask her own husband at home, but refrain from speaking of any kind in the assembly, because it is commonly held that it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. Nonsense! Do you think the word of God (his will for the church) emanated from you, or that you men alone are the ones whom his word has reached? (Peifer, "Problem at First Church in Corinth: Worship as Spirited Zeal Without Ordered Truth," research paper submitted at Messiah College, 1988; and Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1991).

So rather than rebuking the women for their desire to learn and participate in leadership in the worship services, Paul takes on the men for their eagerness to squash his teaching to liberate woman. The Judaizer's wanted to see things return to the religious and cultural norm where women were silenced in public. The very fact that these verses (33b-35) highlight the importance of "the oral law" which was part of the old system, makes it highly improbable that they were the teaching of the Apostle Paul.

There are numerous other verses in the epistles which are worthy of careful study and translation so that one might arrive at a better understanding of the challenges the New Testament church leaders faced when they endeavored to carry on what Jesus of Nazareth had taught and modeled with respect to women's roles in leadership. Joanne Krupp offers a helpful word of caution when addressing such controversial biblical passages:

One can not take an isolated social issue, use a few proof texts and make them say what one wants them to say, disregarding all previous principles and moral imperatives that have already been laid down. Psalm 119:160 declares, "The sum of Thy word is truth." As it relates to our issue, all biblical teaching in the Old Testament, the Gospels, and the Acts of the Apostles tell of woman's place before and after the Fall. They show how God accepted, released, and anointed women, thereby reaffirming His plan for equality. To isolate and interpret Paul's writings for what they appear to be saying would negate all that the Scriptures have taught previously which we simply do not have the liberty to do (Krupp, Woman: God's Plan not Man's Tradition, 47, 48).

Part I: Introduction | Part II: From Genesis to the Gospels | Part IV: The State of the Brethren in Christ Church on Women in Ministry: Then and Now