I’ve always felt some kind of calling into church ministry of some kind. I actually thought it would be as a worship leader until I was 18 and I first heard the words- “God’s called you to preach”. I’ll admit the words caught me by surprise, not because I knew at the time that this was a debate within the church, but simply because I had never thought about it before that moment. From then on I accepted that word in my heart and never questioned it again. God, in his kindness, even confirmed this calling over and over again through various sources and methods. For me personally to question this in my life would have almost seemed like questioning whether the sky was blue.
I grew up in Los Angeles. I’m so grateful that I can personally never remember a time when I was told by my family or anyone else that I couldn’t be something or do something because I was a girl. I do understand though that for many Christian women this has sadly not been the case. As a women who has never had any baggage around this issue, it hurts my heart to think of all the amazing leaders God has called that are under utilized and have no idea just how much God wants to use them to build His Kingdom. It wasn’t until I moved to New York that I actually understood that this is a real issue among many denominations and movements. Some leaders, (even some with pure hearts), have made naive statements such as “I take the Bible literally and do whatever it says”. To those, I would ask why they allow their women to speak to each other in church at all or have braided hair or wear jewelry. Please don’t misunderstand me, I believe in the full authority of the Bible as The Word of God… but only when translated correctly. When taken out of context the Bible can be used to justify all types of things that God never intended.
When I first moved to New York I found people wanting to debate over coffee or people asking me what “my stance” was on women in leadership, particularly on a preaching platform. At first it felt to me like when someone says something that you think is a joke… but then you realize that they’re serious and you immediately adjust to respond in kind. As time went on I realized the importance of having a formal theology on this issue, not only for my own sake but for the sake of all the women who have internally struggled with their calling or told they weren’t allowed to do what was in their heart simply because of their gender.
At this stage I’ve throughly read and studied the various formal positions that are held and the theological arguments that back up each one. For the sake of time I won’t get into too much outside of stating what I believe and why, but I will recommend some great resources at the end for those of you who are like me and enjoy understanding all sides of an issue.
To truly understand what the Bible says about a topic takes much more than the ability to read word for word. It requires:
–Understanding of historical context (who it was written to and why, location, recipients, what the author meant to the people to whom it was addressed etc)
–Understanding of the original language of the text (this can be especially difficult since the syntax can be very different and some of these ancient languages can have up to 12 words for 1 single word in English.)
–Genre of the text (the Bible has several different types of books which have to be interpreted differently including narrative, prophecy, letters, poetry etc)
–Personal relationship with the Holy Spirit
While the first few things on the list are important the last one is absolutely essential! Any biblical interpreter who wants a chance at being accurate must know the Holy Spirit in a personal way. For example, if I read a text message from my husband concerning our two year old that said “Make sure you teach Sparrow a lesson today, she’s been falling behind on the alphabet”… I would know, because I know my husband, that he’s not referring to beating her up because she doesn’t know the alphabet! He is asking me to make sure I take her through her alphabet lesson today so she can grow in her knowledge. Without knowing the author and their intentions we could debate all day about what they mean and likely we are to choose whichever explanation best fits our purposes.
The Bible is a relational book. It’s contents are meant to be discovered and explored in relationship with the One who inspired it.
Biblical interpretation must be approached with a level of humility, because it can be a very difficult job. No matter how much we try to be objective or personally removed in our attempts to interpret, we can never fully separate ourselves from our own subjectivity (or perspective). I’ll admit that as a women called to church leadership I have obvious subjectivity, however, I did my best to truly evaluate the biblical text, all things considered. I want to give some perspective to this issue and specifically address the main three passages that are typically used by those who justify oppressing half of the church.
Here’s some background on the three locations that the Apostle Paul seems to restrict women: Colossae (Col 3:18), Ephesus (Ephesians 5:21-27, 1 Tim 2:11-15) and Corinth (1 Cor 11:2-16, 14:33-35). Paul was writing to address disorder in those specific church locations, not to create a set of principles for all churches everywhere to follow. We need to remember that at this time in history a church would likely only see the letters written directly to them as the biblical canon was not yet compiled. So each individual church didn’t have access to the full Bible as we know it today. Every other church outside of these locations would have never even seen these words during this time period. Also it’s important to consider that when we are reading a letter we only have half of the story. We can only do our best to put it together based on what we have access to. These churches in particular were in Greek locations firmly rooted in a polytheistic culture with female goddesses prevailing over their cities (example Acts 19:28). It was not uncommon for women to be deified and seen as dominate within certain circles of culture, especially religion. Now imagine that it’s in this setting that Paul is trying to establish a brand new way of living, establish truth, dispel heresy and teach people a new way of interacting within community. It would have been no small task.
1 Tim 2:11-15 NLT
11 Women should learn quietly and submissively. 12 I do not let women teach men or have authority over them. Let them listen quietly. 13 For God made Adam first, and afterward he made Eve. 14 And it was not Adam who was deceived by Satan. The woman was deceived, and sin was the result. 15 But women will be saved through childbearing, [or will be saved by the birth of the Child] assuming they continue to live in faith, love, holiness, and modesty.
This book is a letter written by the Apostle Paul between 62-67AD to Timothy who was leading the church at Ephesus. Keep in mind the dominate nature of women within religion, Now imagine a bunch of women get saved and then come into a church with an apostolic male leadership and a male pastor and these brand new Christians are trying to run the show with no understanding of authority. Remember this church was made up of people who had been almost completely pagan prior to conversion.
In verses 11 and 12 Paul is commanding the women specifically to learn submission and to stop trying to usurp. In verse 12 when Paul writes “I do not let women teach men or have authority over them” the verb for “have authority over” is Authenteo which means- one who acts out of their own authority, one who kills another, to exercise dominion. So a way to understand this passage could read “I do not permit a women to teach or operate outside of authority, dominating over a man”. The most common word for authority in the bible is Exousia (used 108 times in the NT), meaning- the right or freedom to act. It seems that Paul choose this unique word for authority intentionally in this verse, which is not used elsewhere. Also in verse 12 when Paul restricts a women from “teaching” he uses the word Diadasko,which means- to instill doctrine. This was a young church and Paul, as an Apostle, was charged with the responsibility to protect the integrity of the early beliefs and doctrines of the church. There was enough heresy to combat coming from outside the church from groups like the Judizers and the Gnostics. The last thing he needed was people within the church to be instilling heresy into the church in it’s infancy.
This passage is not referring to prophecy, as women prophesied in the church clearly elsewhere. Nor is Paul directing women to literally not speak in church, but is referring to maintaining order, reverence and an overall humility to learn.
In verses 13-15 Paul seems to be correcting a common external heresy that has made it’s way into the church. In the cultural context of the goddess Artemis there was a common heresy that Eve was created first and then gave birth to Adam, also that the man was deceived in the garden. In the region of Ephesus the goddess Artemis was responsible for protecting women and their children in childbirth. Many people would travel to Ephesus to have their children, believing she would keep them from dying. Paul is clearly not saying that the salvation of women depends on having children, he is addressing idolatry and saying to the women that they are protected through Jesus, not Artemis.
1 Cor 11:2-16 NLT
2 I am so glad that you always keep me in your thoughts, and that you are following the teachings I passed on to you. 3 But there is one thing I want you to know: The head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. 4 A man dishonors his head if he covers his head while praying or prophesying. 5 But a woman dishonors her head if she prays or prophesies without a covering on her head, for this is the same as shaving her head. 6 Yes, if she refuses to wear a head covering, she should cut off all her hair! But since it is shameful for a woman to have her hair cut or her head shaved, she should wear a covering. 7 A man should not wear anything on his head when worshiping, for man is made in God’s image and reflects God’s glory. And woman reflects man’s glory. 8 For the first man didn’t come from woman, but the first woman came from man. 9 And man was not made for woman, but woman was made for man. 10 For this reason, and because the angels are watching, a woman should wear a covering on her head to show she is under authority. 11 But among the Lord’s people, women are not independent of men, and men are not independent of women. 12 For although the first woman came from man, every other man was born from a woman, and everything comes from God.
The book of 1 Corinthians was written by the Apostle Paul to the members of Corinthian church between 53-57 AD. Through this entire passage the words often translated as husband (Aner) and wife (Gune) are also translated to mean “man” and “women”. So this is not necessary referring to all men being the head of all women but is rather a statement of mutual submission and honor. The statement that Christ submits to God doesn’t infer that Christ is less important, nor does the statement that a wife submits to her husband infer that a women is less valuable.
Paul is addressing an authority issue in the church when he is referring to head coverings. The type of head covering Paul is referring to, we have no idea as this is the only church he directs to do such a thing. He is likely addressing women who have been operating out of authority and is placing guidelines around the women within the church to show outwardly that they are operating within godly authority. The temple prostitutes of the goddess Aphrodite in Corinth would shave their heads as a symbol of their place in the temple, which could be why Paul tells the women in the church to present themselves in an opposite way demonstrating their submission to God. In verses 8-12 we also see Paul seeming to correct a similar theological heresy to the one he corrected in 1 Timothy 2.
1 Cor 14:26-40 NLT
26 Well, my brothers and sisters, let’s summarize. When you meet together, one will sing, another will teach, another will tell some special revelation God has given, one will speak in tongues, and another will interpret what is said. But everything that is done must strengthen all of you. 27 No more than two or three should speak in tongues. They must speak one at a time, and someone must interpret what they say. 28 But if no one is present who can interpret, they must be silent in your church meeting and speak in tongues to God privately. 29 Let two or three people prophesy, and let the others evaluate what is said. 30 But if someone is prophesying and another person receives a revelation from the Lord, the one who is speaking must stop. 31 In this way, all who prophesy will have a turn to speak, one after the other, so that everyone will learn and be encouraged. 32 Remember that people who prophesy are in control of their spirit and can take turns. 33 For God is not a God of disorder but of peace, as in all the meetings of God’s holy people. 34 Women should be silent during the church meetings. It is not proper for them to speak. They should be submissive, just as the law says. 35 If they have any questions, they should ask their husbands at home, for it is improper for women to speak in church meetings. 36 Or do you think God’s word originated with you Corinthians? Are you the only ones to whom it was given? 37 If you claim to be a prophet or think you are spiritual, you should recognize that what I am saying is a command from the Lord himself. 38 But if you do not recognize this, you yourself will not be recognized. 39 So, my dear brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and don’t forbid speaking in tongues. 40 But be sure that everything is done properly and in order.
This second letter to the Corinthians is in response to a letter they have written to him. Paul is speaking to both men and women and lays out the order of general worship gatherings…one sings, one teaches, one prophesies etc. He is not restrictive in these instructions based on gender. Many scholars believe that verses 34-35 Paul is citing a quotation from a letter the Corinthians wrote to him. Then he writes his seemingly appalled response in verse 36. Firstly, the way verses 34-35 are accented in the greek signals a quotation to the reader since greek did not have quotation marks. Secondly, the statement that women should not speak “just as the law says” shows the Corinthian ignorance to the law, since there is no such Old Testament law. The people in this church did not even know the law and were probably under the influence of false teaching when they inquired about this to Paul in their letter. Lastly, these two verses completely contradict everything Paul says in the surrounding verses, even directly following where he specifically addresses men and women for the second time telling them to be eager to prophesy…which is speaking.
I believe that Jesus and the Gospel are great equalizers that came to bring freedom and not law. God’s original design and intentions of men and women reigning together has been restored in the New Covenant. Galatians 3:28 declares that there is “no male or female in Christ” meaning, we have distinct parts to play, yet are equal in value. Each gender brings unique and necessary strengths to leadership in the church. It’s also good to note that nowhere in scripture, OT or NT, are men generally given authority over women by God, only husbands over their wives as a part of the curse in Genesis 3:16. Neither are all women called into submission to all men. Only in the context of a marriage relationship are women called to “submit to their own husband” (Ephesians 5:22, Col 3:18) along with the command to “submit to one another” (Ephesians 5:21) followed by instructions to the husband to “lay down his life for his wife” (Ephesians 5:25).
Even though it can be hard to understand through our modern worldview, in the context of ancient Judaism Jesus and the Apostle Paul radically liberated and honored women: When Jesus teaches Mary (Luke 10:39), Jesus honors a prostitute who pours perfume on his feet (Luke 7:36-50), Jesus speaks to the women at the well (John 4:7-30), Jesus first appears to Mary after resurrection giving her testimony validation, while culturally women were not seen as valid enough to even testify in court. (John 20:16-18), Paul calls Priscilla one of his “fellow workers in the Lord” (Romans 16:3) and names her first before her husband, indicating her level of authority. Priscilla is noted as correcting and “teaching Apollos the word of God more accurately” (Acts 18:26)- many scholars believe that she held the office of teacher in the early church. Paul lists a women named Junia “among the apostles” (Romans 16:7)(some later translators changed this to a male name under the assumption that Paul could not have been referring to a women). Paul mentions Phoebe as a deacon and minister from the church at Cenchreae, which met in her home (Romans 16:1-2), he also most likely trusted her to deliver the Roman epistle to the church on his behalf. Paul lists several women among the church leadership in Rome- Priscilla, Mary, Junia, Tryphena, Thryphosa and Persis (Romans 16:3-12). The first church in Europe, the church at Philippi, was started with mostly, if not only, women since women are the only ones named at the start, with Lydia being the first European convert and the first Philippian with a church in her home (Acts 16:9-15).
It’s my prayer that you are truly set free by the truth. To all the girls out there who have felt the call of God as an Apostle, Prophet, Evangelist, Pastor, Teacher, Elder, leader or preacher… you didn’t make it up or mis-hear the Holy Spirit. God can use you and I would encourage you to find an empowering home church or Bible College where you can be trained and equipped for the calling God has placed on your life!
Why Not Women by Loren Cunningham & David Joel Hamilton
How I Changed My Mind about Women in Leadership by Alan F. Johnson
Women in Ministry: Four Views by Robert Culver, Susan T. Foh, Walter L. Liefeld & Alvera Mickelsen
Fashioned to Reign by Kris Vallotton