The Role of Women in Ministry – Part 1

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(September 1998 – Volume 4, Issue 8)

Someone has said that there are two views of the creation of women, one held by women, the other by men. Women say that God made man, looked at him, and said, “I can do better than that!” So He made woman. Men hold that after God made beasts and man, He rested, then He created woman, and neither beast, nor man, nor God has rested since.

All joking aside, few subjects are more controversial today than the role of women in society, ministry and the home. This is true even, maybe especially, among evangelical Christians. Views that were considered unquestionably true a few decades ago are now disputed. Even the interpretation of pertinent scriptural passages, long considered settled, is now being challenged.

It is our intention to develop a careful overview of this important and volatile subject. We will start with a historical examination of society’s attitude toward women; progress to the biblical picture as found in the Old Testament; then conclude with a study of the four New Testament passages upon which this whole matter hinges.

The Status of Women in Ancient Times

Greek Society

In most pagan societies of the past, women were treated poorly. In the more civilized cultures of the Greek, Roman and Jewish worlds that early Christianity would encounter, women were held in somewhat higher regard. The ancient Greeks, while a step or two above many around them, nevertheless placed their women on about the same level as their slaves. Women were under male control and authority not only traditionally, but legally as well. In general there were three classes of women in Greek society: Wives who lived out their days in the gynaikonite (a portion of the house reserved for domestic purposes) — from which they seldom emerged. Wives did not share the intellectual life of their husbands and were often considered little more than domestic slaves. Another class of women were the prostitutes, often associated with the pagan worship of the culture. Finally, there were the hetairai, women who served as companions to the more well-to-do Greek men. The hetairai were often intellectually equal to men, enjoyed considerable freedom in society, and served as mistresses, but were considered unmarriageable by respectable Greek men. One philosopher of the times summed things up this way, “Hetairai we keep for the sake of pleasure, concubines for the ordinary requirements of the body, wives to bear us legitimate children and to be faithful guardians of our households.” Aristotle said, “Society would be completely disorganized if women were on an equality with their husbands, just as it would be if slaves were on an equality with their masters.” Socrates asked fellow Athenians, “To whom do you talk less than to your wife?” Plato recommended that women be held in common by men and that their children be cared for by the state.

Roman Society

Roman women enjoyed more freedom than those in Greece. Legally, however, the wife was regarded as a piece of property completely under the control of the husband. By law the man could do as he pleased with his wife, even kill her — at least that was the theory. When Roman husbands attempted to apply the law a little too literally they were often met by slight domestic problems. Both in 331 BC and in 180 BC the women reacted to harsh husbands with mass poisoning of their men.

Jewish Society

The status of women among the Jews as Jesus came on the scene must be distinguished from teachings of the Old Testament. While the Jewish Scriptures clearly identified both roles and limitations for women, they also elevated women to heights not found in other societies. Proverbs 31 perhaps is the apex as the writer cried, “An excellent wife, who can find? For her worth is far above jewels.” For some reason during the intertestamental times the male-female relationship deteriorated. Women began to be seen in the same category as slaves and Gentiles. Rabbis would not speak to a woman in public, and thought it better to burn the Torah than to teach it to a woman. A Rabbi would not even teach the Scriptures to women, considering them incapable of grasping the contents due to their inferior minds. Everyday when a Pharisee got out of bed he thanked God that he was not a Gentile, a tax collector or a woman. Jesus would later break these man-made traditions, but not the Old Testament Law. He would minister to women (Matthew 13:31-35); instruct them in private (Luke 10:38-42); receive ministry from women, and would appear first to women following the resurrection. (See The Role of Women in the Church by Charles Ryrie and The Role of Women in the Church Today by Wayne House for more details.)

The Role of Women in the Old Testament

From the book of Genesis we learn that one of the consequences of the Fall was discord between a man and his wife. The Fall did not introduce different spheres of activity, it merely marred those activities. We find, for example, that in Genesis 3:16 Adam is not commanded to rule his wife, the Lord simply states that he will. Nevertheless Eve will “desire her husband.” This phrase has been the subject of many debates. The two most probable meanings are:

  • The women will desire, will have an ambition to control, manipulate, and possess her husband (see Genesis 4:7). The man will not only resist this “power grab” but will use his greater strength to rule her.
  • The other, more predominate view is that even though the Lord has just told women that they will face great pain in childbirth, nevertheless the Lord places in the heart of most women the great desire to have children. They will ignore the pain of having and raising children and continue to have sexual relations with their husbands because they desire children.

The Old Testament teachings broke with the surrounding cultures, in which women were considered property, and treated women as persons of worth, made in the image of God. Women were allowed to minister in many capacities under the old covenant. Some examples:

  • God made His covenant with women as well as men (Deuteronomy 29:1-11).
  • Women were required to hear God’s Word read aloud (Deuteronomy 31:12 and Nehemiah 8:2).
  • Women ministered at the tabernacle door (Exodus 33:8 and I Samuel 2:22).
  • They offered their own sacrifices (Leviticus 1:15).
  • They prayed directly to God (Genesis 16:7-13 and I Samuel 1:9-18).
  • God spoke directly to them (Genesis 16:7-13 and I Samuel 1:9-18).
  • Women were prophetesses (Exodus 15:20,21 and II Kings 22:14), and wise women (I Samuel 25:3 and II Samuel 14:2).
  • Wives could not be sold, even if captured in war (Deuteronomy 21:14).

(see Women in Ministry, Four Views, p.76)

On the other hand, in the Old Testament there were some definite limitations placed on women in ministry:

  • Women could not be priests, in contrast to the surrounding cultures.
  • No books of Scripture were written by women.
  • Jesus would choose only male apostles.
  • Women were not to rule the nation of Israel; a female ruler was a sign of a curse (Isaiah 3:12).

The Role of Women in The New Testament

As we move into the New Testament era we once again find wonderful ministries and opportunities for women, but limitations as well:

  • Women followed and served Jesus.
  • Women were among the disciples in the upper room (Acts 1:14), were baptized by the Holy Spirit, and spoke in tongues at Pentecost (Acts 2:17-18).
  • Women believed in Jesus and were personally baptized and persecuted for their faith (Acts 5:14; 8:12; 9:2; 17:4,12).
  • Women ministered to the poor in practical ways (Tabitha — Acts 9:36).
  • Women instructed others from the Word (Titus 2:3-5; also see Priscilla in Acts 18:26).
  • Women prophesied (Acts 21:8).
  • Women may have been deaconesses (Romans 16:2 and I Timothy 3:11).

Limitations included:

  • Jesus chose men as apostles; at the Transfiguration, the Last Supper, and Gethsemane, only men were present. He never put women in the position of directing men.
  • There is no record of any woman preaching or teaching men publicly in Acts.
  • Not being allowed to be elders or to teach or have authority over men in the church, as we will see later.
  • When the need arose to supervise distribution of food, surprisingly seven men were chosen.
  • Early missionary teams were made up of a minimum of two men.
  • The first doctrinal dispute was settled by men.
  • The New Testament was written by men.

The History of Women’s Roles in Ministry

During the early years of the church we find many of the church Fathers speaking favorably of women, but not all. Tertullian (AD 145-220), for example, said of women, “Thou art the devil’s door” (The Role of Women in Ministry Today, p.91).

Despite Tertullian’s view, those within the mainstream of orthodoxy allowed service roles for women, but did not allow women to teach and exercise authority over men. This was not always true among the heretical sects however. As a matter of fact most of these sects (e.g. Montanists, Gnostics, Marcionites, and Carpocratians) had women co-founders or helpers. They allowed women to hold offices of bishops, elders and deacons, appealing to Galatians 3:28 as support.

The History of Scriptural Interpretation Concerning the Role of Women in Ministry

How one views the role of women in ministry hinges on how one interprets the writings of the apostle Paul on the subject. Until comparatively recent times there have only been three possible attitudes to adopt about Paul’s teachings concerning women:

  • He was wrong then and now.
  • He was right then but wrong now. That is, he was culturally conditioned.
  • He was right then and now. The underlying principle is that the gender difference at the beginning of creation remains as a feature of the redeemed community.

More recently two new views have been offered:

  • The teachings concerning women were not Paul’s original message, but were added later by others.
  • Paul did not mean what we have traditionally thought that he meant (see Leadership is Male, pp.71-75).

Modern Views:

Three Primary Positions are Discernable

Among Evangelical Christians:

1) Equalitarian (or egalitarian) — Men and women are equal in essence and function. No role distinctions can be made between them.

Those who hold to this view often believe that Paul either contradicted himself or at least was confused. Some believe that his views arose more from rabbinical teachers of his day than from Divine inspiration. Their key verse is Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” which they believe teaches that any and all order or authority structure in the church should be eliminated because all are one in Christ (House, p.21).

An organization known as “Christians for Biblical Equality” composed of evangelical egalitarians issued a statement supporting their position entitled, “Statement on Men, Women, and Biblical Equality.” Some endorsers you might recognize: Stanley N. Gundry (former professor at Moody Bible Institute), Carl E. Armerding, Myron S. Augsburger, F.F. Bruce, Anthony Campolo, Robert Clouse, Jim Conway, Gordon Fee, Vernon Grounds, Richard Halverson, David Hubbard, Bill Hybels, Kenneth Kantzer, David McKenna, Richard Mouw, Grant Osborne, Ronald Sider, Lewis Smedes, Paul Smith, Howard Snyder. This is virtually a who’s who of evangelical movers and shakers, and demonstrates how well accepted this view is today in evangelical circles.

This group would argue that women have been “called” to the pastorate and other traditionally male leadership positions, and to deny them this ministry is an offense against God who has called them. The reasoning of the egalitarians is well represented by Walter Liefeld and Alvera Mickelsen in the book Women in Ministry, Four Views. Liefeld, for example, believes that Paul was conforming to custom norms for the sake of the gospel (page 141). In his opinion the restrictive texts apply to no one today, having been merely temporary restrictions due to the incompletion of the canon. Once the New Testament was complete, it and not the teacher is the authority, thus releasing women (or men) from the position of authority (pages 150-151).

Liefeld would maintain that the word for “authority” in I Timothy 2:12 (which is found only one time in the New Testament) is the word for domination (page 148). Paul was only commanding that the women not domineer, or run over the men in the church, not that they could not lead them, even in doctrine.

2) Restricted — Women are restricted from virtually all leadership roles in the church. The women’s role is that of silence to such a degree that they may have no role in the church at all. Or if any role exists it would be only with other women and children.

3) Male Leadership — Women have freedom to minister in most roles except elder or teacher of men. That is, they are equal in essence but have a different function. Prominent supporters include Wayne Grudem, D.A. Carson and John MacArthur.

In our next paper we will attempt an examination of the key Scriptures on this important subject.


Books on the subject that are worth inspecting include:

Leadership Is Male, by David Pawson
Just as the title implies this is a straight to the point, no-holds-barred discussion of the issue. This is not a scholarly work, and as such does not address the biblical text very thoroughly. Pawson is also charismatic, and that bias shows up occasionally.

The Role of Women in the Church, by Charles Ryrie
An old standby (1958) by a solid theologian. Great historical information, but not a careful study of the texts. Ryrie draws some unfortunate conclusions in my opinion.

God’s High Calling for Women, by John MacArthur
A part of MacArthur’s Bible study series. This booklet is somewhat helpful as an overview of the conservative position. It does not however, due to the nature of the booklet, give detailed support for positions held.

Women in the Ministry, Four Views, edited by Bonnedell and Robert Clouse
This volume would be a good beginning point for comprehensive study. Four views, ranging from traditional to egalitarian are presented by four separate authors. Each position is challenged by the other three writers. This is a great way to get into the issues and avoid superficial solutions. I would mention that the most conservative author, Robert Culver, did not do a particularly good job defending his position.

The Role of Women in Ministry Today, by H. Wayne House
House writes by far the best defense of the conservative position that I have read. He deals with all of the biblical texts in detail, he has wonderful notes — he simply does an excellent job. My only criticism is that he dodges the “head covering” issue.

The Inclusive Language Debate, A Plea for Realism, by D. A. Carson
For someone interested in the gender related translation debate, here is your book. Carson is a sane, solid theologian.

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