Much has been said and written concerning gender and church leadership in Baptist circles long before us. Most of the conversation puts those in favor of gender equality (egalitarianism) on the defensive, always hermeneutically revisiting the same texts which appear prohibitive of female leadership over and over, placing the burden of proof on those who do not exclude women from positions of teaching and other responsibilities in the church.
Our beloved brothers and sisters who believe in complementarianism have set the agenda of how the issue is discussed, leaving others in the discussion at a decided disadvantage. It is our perspective that the burden of proof should rest on the one who proposes a doctrine that excludes over half of the Body of Christ from teaching and leadership.
What we hope to do in this post is to work both sides, the traditional texts which appear to cast a negative light on female leadership and those which seem to assert the active role of women in those endeavors. We are not intimidated by the task of working with the traditional texts that are often cited in support of subjugation of women, for we believe that when rightly understood our position is strengthened. However, we want to take the time to elaborate on the positive side of scripture which strongly supports egalitarianism. When the negative texts are understood and then added to the truly revolutionary teachings of the Bible, the result is a strong case for egalitarianism.
The “usual suspects” of texts that are often cited as discussion stoppers are 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, 1 Timothy 2:11-14, 1 Timothy 3:2, and 1 Timothy 3:8-12. The texts we believe point us in the affirming and positive direction our faith wants to take us are Joel 2:28-29, Acts 2:17-21, Galatians 3:28, and Acts 21:8-9.
First, let us begin where we always are forced to begin, and that is by working from the negative.
To understand Paul’s teachings on gender roles in church life we must first consider three important contexts: the social context of the churches to which Paul was writing, the context of Paul’s own life and ministry, and the location of those teachings in the context of Paul’s letters. All of these will prove vital in accurately assessing Paul’s views on gender and church leadership.
Since they affect the entirety of the Pauline corpus, let’s look at the social context in which the churches were located and Paul’s own social situation. In looking at the contexts surrounding the Pauline churches, the most obvious detail that should strike any student of the first century is the extremely low status of females in Hellenistic culture (Harnack, 1908; Chadwick, 1967; Stark, 1996). This led to a multiplicity of problems, including female infanticide. In fact, out of six hundred Delphi families reconstructed by Lindsay (1968), only six had raised more than one daughter (see Stark, 1996). The result was an extreme imbalance in sex ratios (approximately 140 males to 100 females). It is virtually impossible to obtain a sex ratio over 106/100 without serious tampering. In fact, Dio Cassius, the senator and historian of the late third century, suggested that the population decline experienced by the Empire was due to its historic shortage of females (The Roman History).
As females were of such low value even within Hellenistic families, they were certainly not privileged with investments such as education or even basic literacy. This was particularly true among slaves and non-citizens. This was true even among Jewish families, as was suggested by one second century Rabbi, it was preferable for the teachings of the Torah to be burned than for them to be given to a woman (Numbers Rabbah 9:48; see Keener, 1992). These inequities will play a major role in determining the roles with which women in the first century church were entrusted. We’ll get back to this…
Before we do, let’s examine the status of women in the context of Paul’s own life and ministry. In practice, did Paul really exclude women from leadership or other positions of responsibility? That is a difficult case to make when we see who he placed in those positions. The presentation of his most determinative letter in the life of the church (Romans) was entrusted to Phoebe—not only a woman, but a deaconess in Cenchrea, the eastern seaport on the Corinthian isthmus. Within this same letter Paul sends greetings to Junia (always a feminine name in Greek) and her partner, Andronicus (we have no evidence about any marital connection between them). Paul commends them as being “outstanding among the apostles.” There have been those who have attempted to exclude Junia from apostleship by suggesting that Paul really meant that this pair was simply well known among the apostles, but that is an extremely weak grammatical stretch.
Let’s begin our exploration with 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, which is often quoted to exclude women from teaching/preaching in the church. In fact, I remember this argument being put forward when I (David) was a young college student to suggest that one of our female Biblical Studies professors should not be allowed to teach at a Christian College. In this passage, Paul states that
The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church.
On the surface, Paul’s language in this passage appears to limit the participation of women to a greater extent than is seen in the vast majority of evangelical churches today. However, there are those who infer from Paul’s statement that women should not be allowed to teach/preach in the context of the church.
It is easy to arrive at this conclusion when interpreting a passage for all that it could possibly mean, but this is a pretty weak interpretive strategy (Keener, 1992). We would do better to focus on the evidence concerning what Paul meant (meaning) before we arrive at a conclusion of what it might mean for us in a modern context (application). In fact, even as written, Paul is not saying that women should not teach or engage in church leadership.
If we want to apply the scripture as written, the women in the church would not be allowed to speak at all in any capacity. In fact, to apply it strictly, we may not allow women in Bible study at all since the appropriate place for them to learn is at home from their own husbands. Thus, even those among us who would be the most restrictive of female participation in leadership are applying some form of softening interpretation when attempting to adapt this teaching in a modern context. Let’s explore some contextual issues which, if we are intellectually honest, will affect this interpretation.
Let’s begin with the most obvious. If Paul is prohibiting women from speaking, teaching, or preaching in 1 Cor. 14, then he must have altered his opinion since writing the following imperatives in three chapters earlier in 11:4-5:
Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying disgraces his head. But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head, for she is one and the same as the woman whose head is shaved.
While it is tempting to launch into a discussion on the cultural significance of head coverings here, the point that is relevant to our topic is that Paul gives these instructions under the assumption that some women will be praying or preaching in the church setting at Corinth. With this in mind, we look at the location of Paul’s instructions within the context of the letter. These imperatives are placed in the context of Paul’s emphasis on maintaining order and discipline in the ritual life of the church. Having already discussed the disruption caused by the inappropriate use of spiritual gifts, Paul turns his attention to the problems caused by women in Corinth disrupting the teaching and worship life of the community by asking questions that could easily be answered by their husbands at home.
In a sense, Paul is not restricting the teaching offered by learned women as much as he is instructing unlearned women to learn in a manner that is less disruptive to the proceedings. It also implies that men, who would have had greater access to the Torah (in Jewish homes) and the philosophers, to assist their wives in understanding. Paul is suggesting that if the women cannot learn in a way that is less disruptive, then they are to stay quiet and ask their husbands for assistance when they get home.
Another common question about this instruction is whether Paul is writing as a missionary to assist the Corinthian churches, or as a theologian writing a paraenesis (general moral teaching) for all the churches for all time. This question almost answers itself. In this letter, Paul clearly shows a familiarity with the Corinthian situation that there is very little doubt that he is writing specifically to them.
The next question concerns the issue that, while writing specifically to the Corinthian churches, does Paul intend this to be universal teaching for all churches in all contexts. Of all his letters, Paul only writes this to Corinth (and possibly Ephesus if you read 1 Timothy 2:11-14 in a similar fashion, yet none of the other churches in the Pauline circuit receive these instructions. We would ask if it is responsible to universally apply this to all churches in all contexts when Paul did not give these instructions to any other churches in his own time. This is especially applicable when many modern readers use it to exclude over half of the body of Christ from leadership and other positions of responsibility.
Now we move to 1 Timothy 2:11-14
A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression.
Even though this is not what he says, if we are to interpret Paul’s instructions as a universal prohibition on women speaking in the church context, then Paul again must have changed his position since writing 1 Corinthians 11, where he clearly assumes women will be praying and prophecying (preaching) within the worship life of the community. At the time, the number of women capable of teaching/preaching would have been relatively small. As we stated earlier, women were far more likely to be novices (not able to teach) because of their common lack of education and knowledge in their oppressive misogynist culture. This would certainly not apply to all women (e.g., Priscilla, Phoebe, Junia), but it would have surely applied to most females in the churches of the first century.
Paul continues with one of the most misunderstood, yet most often quoted, passages in the modern church. “But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet” is often cited as the evidence that slams to the door on all discussion of female leadership within the church. Upon a more informed look, that door certainly does not slam as loudly as some might think. Paul’s use of the present-indicative οὐκ ἐπιτρέπω suggests that Paul is not teaching this as a command/imperative. Perhaps a more natural thought for thought paraphrase in modern English would be “I am not allowing a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man.” While Paul is not necessarily implying that this is strictly a temporary practice, he is not commanding it as a universal prohibition either.
When we combine this with the presence of female leadership in the Pauline Circle (Euodia and Syntyche, Junia, Pheobe, Priscilla, Lydia), we certainly cannot interpret this statement as a general prohibition of female teaching. Paul is clearly, in the present tense, prohibiting some women from teaching or usurping authority. The question remains, knowing that Paul has already placed women in authority, is why these particular women whom he writes about to Timothy are disallowed (Wall and Steele, 2012). The fact remains, the females Paul prohibits from teaching are excluded because they are unlearned (novices), not strictly because they are females. More light falls on this when we look at Paul’s illustration of the Genesis account when he says Ἀδὰμ γὰρ πρῶτος ἐπλάσθη, εἶτα Εὕα· καὶ Ἀδὰμ οὐκ ἠπατήθη, ἡ δὲ γυνὴ ἐξαπατηθεῖσα ἐν παραβάσει γέγονεν (For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression.) Paul suggests that Eve was deceived as a result of her place in the order of creation. In the Genesis account, Adam was created first. Created later, Eve was not present when Adam received his instruction from God regarding which fruit in the garden may be eaten. Adam did not adequately fulfill his responsibility bringing Eve to the same level of understanding, so in her ignorance she was easily deceived. With her inclusion in his argument, Paul is suggesting that the life situation of first century women was analogous to that of Eve. They were less literate and learned, and therefore, much more likely to be taken in by false teachers—not because they were female, but because they were novices.
From teaching we move on to 1 Timothy 3, perhaps one of the favorite passages among those who seek to exclude women from service and responsibility. While among the most abused contexts, this discussion of the qualifications of deacons is also among the easiest to clarify if read with some intellectual discipline.
It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do. 2 An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money. 4 He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity 5 (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?), 6 and not a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil. 7 And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he will not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.
8 Deacons likewise must be men of dignity, not double-tongued, or addicted to much wine or fond of sordid gain, 9 but holding to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. 10 These men must also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons if they are beyond reproach. 11 Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things. 12 Deacons must be husbands of only one wife, and good managers of their children and their own households. 13 For those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a high standing and great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.
Of all the passages we have discussed, this discussion of overseers and deacons is the one we hear cited more than any other. To clarify this, we must first understand that this chapter constitutes a discussion of the qualifications of overseers and deacons. Within this context, the first interpretive issue is Paul’s use of the masculine forms he sometimes uses within the passage. For example, Paul’s statement Πιστὸς ὁ λόγος· εἴ τις ἐπισκοπῆς ὀρέγεται, καλοῦ ἔργου ἐπιθυμεῖ (This word is faithful: If anyone aspires to oversight, it is a good thing he desires to do.). While τις (anyone) is neuter, Paul does use the masculine form ἐπιθυμεῖ (he desires) as he does with most of the verbs related to both overseers and deacons. We have heard this used often among those who aren’t paying close attention to the Greek to demonstrate that Paul intends for only males to perform either of those duties. Yet, in first century Greek, masculine forms are used in describing any group that might contain even one male (even if it includes one hundred females). This is not unlike the practice among modern English speakers who might say, “if one wants to be a physician, he should go to medical school.” This does not indicate that only males can be a physician, but the masculine is used as an all-inclusive form.
The second interpretive difficulty is that Paul asserts that overseers and deacons must be μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἄνδρα (husband of one wife). Countless times has this been used to demonstrate that overseers and deacons must be men, but this is not even what Paul says. Paul asserts that leaders such as overseers and deacons must be “husbands,” not mere men. If were are to take this in the literal sense as many do in theologically conservative evangelical churches, then Paul, Timothy, and many of the apostles would not qualify as for these responsibilities. Paul’s assertion is that these leaders must be monogamous (and a Hellenistic woman would not have had multiple husbands), not men.
While our arguments will not convince everyone, our goal is to show that those who do not accept suppression of women are not, as we are constantly accused of, throwing the Scriptures out the window. Far from it. We value highly the teachings of the Bible and come to our conclusions because we believe it is what the Bible teaches and not simply based on modern cultural norms.
We promised a proactive treatment as well, and to set that discussion let us think about the general progression of the biblical material. One does not have to work too hard to see in the Bible a move from an emphasis on kingdoms and empire that use power and might toward the liberty of the individual. In broad sweeping schemes we see the blessing of God moving from kings, priests, and prophets toward the personal and liberating relationship of the individual. Jesus informs Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). This simple statement informs us that Jesus rejects the power structures of this world. Those power structures include kings, emperors, armies, slave masters, and gender bias. The Messiah proved this to be true when he built his church after his resurrection because he bypassed the need for priests, kings, and prophets. Something new happened and that was a relationship with the individual.
This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. It is exactly what Joel said would happen. The Hebrew prophet was stuck in a world where men and priests held all the spiritual cards, yet he glimpsed a future when it would not be so.
And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit. (Joe 2:28-29)
There are many shocking elements to this prophecy. One is that the Spirit of the Lord is promised to all flesh, meaning all human beings. It is a universal promise that transcends the de facto xenophobia practiced by the Hebrews in antiquity. That the Lord God would allow gentiles to access spiritual enlightenment, without any conditions or ceremony is beyond imagination. It is a divine glimpse.
The second shocker here is the double emphasis on both men and women engaging in spiritual activity. If all Joel said was the last line, “Even on the male and female servants . . . I will pour out my Spirit” then one could argue he is saying that they can be spiritual without making a statement regarding total equality. But Joel doesn’t just say that. Instead, he says both sons and daughters shall “prophesy.”
The third shocking revelation in this prophesy is that ageism is obliterated. It would be a false technique, in our view, to parse some kind of nuanced difference between dreams and visions in this passage as Hebrew parallelism is likely at play. The point is not the difference between what the young and the old are doing but instead that both young and old are doing it. We moderns might read that passage and say that the norm is for the young to dream and have visions and the prophetic anomaly here is that the old are allowed to tag along on the vision quest. This is backward from the likely way the Hebrews understood it. Old age was revered, and the wisdom of time that the priest or prophet gave gravitas to the dreams. For Joel, the anomaly is that he young will tap into these dreams and it will transcend the generations. Perhaps one can hear the echo of Paul encouraging Timothy. Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young.
All barriers are crushed.
If this passage only existed in Joel, that would be enough to cause a serious discussion about the ability for men and women to both prophesy—to lead, teach, preach, and speak in the community of faith. Yet, this is not all we have. One of the most fascinating parts of studying the Hebrew Bible is examining how the first Christ-followers interpreted the texts. Thus, Peter quotes Joel in the very first sermon of the new covenant age. Peter felt the rush of the wind, saw the tongues of fire, heard the miracles of hearing and he knew exactly what was going on. It was the fulfillment of Joel.
But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: ‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream drams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.(Acts 2:16-18)
There is enough here for us to discuss for a long, long time. Pentecost was many things, but it was not simple. However, the major emphasis we have in bringing this text is the male and female aspect. That Peter quotes the text so authoritatively could tell us something important. That important fact is that men and women were both gathered in the upper room praying (c/f Acts 1:13-14) and when the Spirit manifests himself it is both men and women who run down the streets and begin to preach.
There was complete gender equality on the day the church was born.
Another favorite passage is Galatians 3:28, where Paul states that
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
One wonders if Paul was thinking of Joel when he wrote these words, for they echo the destruction of barriers between ethnicity and gender. Paul lived in a world filled with the obscenity of slavery, and he could see the arch of faith bending away from such an economic arrangement. This passage, more than any other, spells out that in the church there can be no barriers or classes. There is no ethnic superiority, there is no economic superiority, there is no gender superiority. A poor gentile woman is on equal footing in every way as a rich Jewish man.
One final passage, we think, might help pull the curtains. We have already alluded to, in our early defensive stand, the role of such women in the early church as Phoebe, Junia, and Priscilla. Our contention is that these women were not alone. Who else could have led the early Philippian church other than Lydia (Acts 16:11-15). Paul and Silas were there for such a short period of time, who could have discipled the jailor and his family in that same city? When one eliminates the gender bias of generations, it becomes apparent that both men and women were involved in every aspect of ministry. This is apparent, we think, from Acts 21:8-9.
On the next day we departed and came to Caesarea, and we entered the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven, and stayed with him. He had four unmarried daughters, who prophesied.
Paul and his traveling companions (including Luke) were on their way to Jerusalem. They stayed with the famous evangelist on their way. Philip was one of the original seven of the Jerusalem church. Now we can imagine him older in years, and he seems to have raised his daughters to lead with spiritual gifts as the Bible says they all four prophesied. This probably means they were teachers in the context of the church.
The Scriptures gives us no further information, but it is startling.
From these texts we believe a case can be made, a strong case, that women were as involved, if not more involved, in the leadership ministries of the early church. It is the conservative, biblical, fundamental view of the Bible that comes to this conclusion. Those who hold to a view that women are not qualified for certain ministries in the church simply because of their gender must be forced to deal with these passages, for in our view they are clearer, much clearer than the texts use to support subjugation. Taken en masse, it is apparent that the Bible, and the early church in specific, pushes us toward egalitarian equality.
**Very special thanks to our longtime friend and mentor, Robert W. Wall, for his advice on the verbal aspect of the 1 Timothy passages. Thanks Rob, for the past twenty years of friendship and support.
Chadwick, Henry. The Early Church, Penguin Publishing, 1993.
Dio Cassius. The Roman History: The Reign of Augustus. Penguin Classics, 1987.
Harnack, Adolf von. The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries, University of Michigan, 1908.
Keener, Craig. Paul, Women, and Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul. Hendrickson Publishers, 1992.
Lindsay, Jack. The Ancient World: Manners and Morals. G. P. Putnam and Sons, 1968.
Stark, Rodney. The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History. Princeton University Press, 1996.
Wall, Robert and Richard B. Steele, 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus. In The Two Horizons New Testament Commentary, Eerdmans Publishing, 2012.