Does the Bible Forbid Women From Holding any Position in the Church?
If you talk with secular people who are upset with Christianity, one of the charges that’s frequently hurled against Christianity is that the Bible oppresses women! How can you believe in a book that denies the full equality of women and men? How can you in the 21st century believe in a book that says that women are not allowed to lead in the church or be ordained or preach to men? What a Neanderthal viewpoint! How backward can you be?
It would be a lot easier to deal with this anti-church objection except that many conservative Christians who love God and believe in the Bible also believe that the Bible forbids women from leading in the church, from being ordained as pastors or from preaching, at least to a mixed group of men and women. In this strange alliance – secular opponents of Christianity and many conservative Christians both agree that the God of the Bible created a hierarchy of men and women - denying full equality to women by creating a system that only allows men to preach and to lead in church.
A woman named Rita wrote to me and said that from the moment she came to Christ, she believed she was called to ministry. The day after she received Christ she led someone else to Jesus. She went to a seminary and was trained for pastoral ministry, but the church she joined would not permit women to be pastors. They strung her along for years allowing her to teach in youth ministry, to be an administrator, and to work with other women. They even gave her a ministry license, but they refused to give her the title of “pastor.” She was a “licensed minister of the gospel,” but not a pastor.
Rita wrote that the new pastor of her church says that he might permit women to have the title of “pastor,” but he is still deciding on that. She’s been waiting for the past year for him to make a decision. My heart breaks for women like Rita who are rejected from church leadership not because of any character defect or want of gifting or calling, but simply on the basis of gender.
The one problem text for those who would ordain women to senior leadership in the church is 1 Timothy 2. Many people who have read 1 Timothy 2 have concluded that the Apostle Paul is not just speaking to a local situation in Ephesus and giving particular temporary counsel to a church in crisis. Rather Paul is forbidding every church for all time whatever their culture from allowing women to preach or lead in the church. For many reasons, I believe 1 Timothy 2 should not and cannot be read as prohibiting women for all time from leading or teaching in the church.
First, if 1 Timothy 2 forbids women from teaching or leading men then it contradicts Old Testament examples. In other words, if God who inspired the entire Bible is offended by women leading and teaching men then we should find no example in the Old Testament of God giving leadership over men to a woman. After all, God doesn’t contradict himself. Here’s what we read:
4 I brought you up out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery. I sent Moses to lead you, also Aaron and Miriam.
Miriam was sent by God to lead Israel! And then there’s Deborah. She was one of the judges whom God raised up to lead all of Israel. Here’s what we read:
4 Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time. 5 She held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites went up to her to have their disputes decided.
I could list many other women who were prophetesses who led and instructed Israel through their prophetic gifting.
Here’s the second thing: If 1 Timothy 2 forbids women from teaching or leading men, then it contradicts Paul’s own apostolic practice.
The Apostle Paul was the author of 1 Timothy 2. If Paul thought that for all time in all situations women couldn’t preach or lead men in the church then he contradicted this teaching by his own practice. In other words, the Apostle Paul would be saying to the church, “Don’t do what I do, do what I teach.” Like the parent who has a cigarette in their mouth, telling their kids smoking is bad, Paul would be hypocritical if he forbade in teaching what he allowed in practice. Where does Paul approve of women teaching men or leading in the church?
In Romans 16:1 Paul commends: “Our sister Phoebe, who is a deacon of the church in Cenchreae.” Some translations call Phoebe a servant of the church, but every other use of the Greek term diákonos in the book of Romans refers to a leader in the church, a deacon.
And then there is Junia, a woman apostle in the New Testament. Here’s what we read:
7 Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and became Christians before I did.
John Chrysostom who is looked to by the Eastern Orthodox Church as the greatest of the early church fathers said this back in the 4th century:
“Even to be an apostle is great, but also to be prominent among them – consider how wonderful a song of honor that is. For they were prominent because of their works, because of their successes. Glory be! How great the wisdom of this woman that she was even deemed worthy of the apostle’s title.”
My own reading of church history suggests that whenever the Spirit of God is poured out in the church, women are liberated to be and do everything that God has called them to do. Whenever the activity of the Holy Spirit recedes and the church becomes more institutionalized, women are pushed into the background. The bottom line is this: nothing in the spiritual gifts passages that we read about in the New Testament – in 1 Corinthians 12, in Romans 12, in Ephesians 4, in 1 Peter 4 – ever restrict any spiritual gift, including gifts of teaching or leadership or apostleship or evangelism or prophet or pastor or teacher simply to men. The gifts of God and the call of God are not gender-based any more than they are race-based or age-based. The Bible permits women today to hold any position in the church!