The role of women in ministry is a major issue facing the Church today. I’m going to spare you the usual introduction, because I’m guessing you’re already pretty familiar with the “party lines” on both sides of this issue: conservative, “Bible-believing” Christians tend to be against women in ministry (at least teaching ministry, including the pastorate) because that’s what they read in the Bible (they’re referred to as complementarians); more progressive Christians view this as an outdated perspective and/or a misinterpretation of Scripture, and are in favor of women having full access to all areas of ministry, including the pastorate (they’re called mutualists).
With Cedarville University recently restricting all classes taught by a woman to only female students, this issue is once again at the forefront of discussions about church and theology.
For much of my life, I was in the former camp, viewing ministry—or at least teaching ministry, including the pastorate—as inappropriate for women. That is no longer the case.
Viewing Scripture as inspired and inerrant*—and I still do view it that way—I read passages like 1 Corinthians 14:34-36 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15, and the message seemed clear. These passages did not make use of metaphors and similes, but straight-forward prohibitive language, and even made appeals to Scripture and to creation. I could not see any possible other interpretation.
In approaching faith and theology, one of my primary guiding principles has always been about how I relate to Scripture. A simple question—though often not a simple one to answer—dictates my approach to theology: When my perspective and that of Scripture disagree, which one gives way? As a “Bible-believing Christian,” I believe that it is I, and not the Word of God, that must change my position when it contradicts that of Scripture. Thus, though I know many amazing and brilliant women of God—not the least of which is my own mother, a very intelligent person and a tremendously capable and effective missionary in her own right (not just a missionary wife), who happens to be opposed to female pastors—I have always submitted to the belief that women should not be pastors.
I have not changed in my belief that my own views must conform to those of Scripture. But I have discovered that my understanding of Scripture on this issue was incorrect. Or, perhaps more accurately, it was incomplete.
What changed my mind? I read an article on Seedbed by Craig Keener, Professor of New Testament at Asbury Seminary. It is by far the most comprehensive discussion of the Biblical perspective on women in ministry that I have ever seen, anywhere. In it, Dr. Keener does a number of things right that many others, on both sides of the issue, have failed to do.
First, Dr. Keener’s argument is an argument from Scripture, not from culture. He treats Scripture as inspired and authoritative, and not subject to the changing whims of culture. He does not attempt to argue that the seemingly pro-masculine, patriarchal principles we see in Scripture were “good for the male-dominated culture of that time, but no longer relevant in our modern context,” as many progressive Christians have—with the problem that such an argument undermines the universality of Scripture, reduces the Word of God to bland moralizing, portrays God as more concerned with practicality than principle and stability than virtue, and makes Scripture subject to our views about it, rather than vice versa. Most practically, an argument that undermines an inspired and inerrant view of Scripture will fall on deaf ears among those who hold such a view of Scripture, making it impossible for those whose minds mutualists are trying to change to even hear their argument. Dr. Keener does the opposite. His entire argument is based on and from Scripture, and it is clear from his approach that he is not trying to bend Scripture to fit his views, but that the contents of Scripture are what have shaped his views.
Second, Dr. Keener looks at the message of all of Scripture. Much of the debate has centered around the two passages in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2, with complementarians holding to a face-value interpretation of these passages and mutualists trying to re-interpret them or explain them away. In just a couple short paragraphs, Dr. Keener thoroughly and irrefutably demonstrates the reality that the rest of Scripture is not operating based on the principles we think we understand from these two passages:
When Josiah needed to hear the word of the Lord, he sent Hilkiah the priest and others to a person who was undoubtedly one of the most prominent prophetic figures of his day: Huldah (2 Kings 22:12-20). Deborah was not only a prophetess, but a judge (Judges 4:4). She held the place of greatest authority in Israel in her day. She is also one of the few judges of whom the Bible reports no failures (Judges 4, 5).
Although first-century Jewish women rarely, if ever, studied with teachers of the Law the way male disciples did, Jesus allowed women to join His ranks (Mark 15:40,41; Luke 8:1-3)—something the culture could have regarded as scandalous. As if this were not scandalous enough, He allowed a woman who wished to hear His teaching to “sit at his feet” (Luke 10:39)—taking a posture normally reserved for disciples. Other Jewish teachers did not allow women disciples; indeed, disciples were often teachers in training. To have sent women out on the preaching missions (e.g., Mark 6:7-13) might have proved too scandalous to be practical; nevertheless, the Gospels unanimously report that God chose women as the first witnesses of the Resurrection, even though first-century Jewish men often dismissed the testimony of women.
Joel explicitly emphasized that when God poured out His Spirit, women as well as men would prophesy (Joel 2:28, 29). Pentecost meant that all God’s people qualified for the gifts of His Spirit (Acts 2:17, 18), just as salvation meant that male or female would have the same relationship with God (Galatians 3:28).
Faced with these examples—which, by the way, are just an initial smattering of what we see in Scripture—I don’t see how one can continue to argue that a person’s gender should prevent them from spiritual leadership or teaching, as many women in Scripture did specifically those things—and were praised for them. If women should be prohibited from leadership and teaching as a matter of principle, then the context is irrelevant, meaning that that principle should have applied in each of the situations above. If that is the case, then God—who himself established Deborah as prophetess (a position higher than teacher or pastor) and judge (in the period before the kings, the highest office in the land, beneath only God himself, and chosen by God himself)—is guilty of violating his own principles, and so are Josiah, Joel, and Jesus himself (repeatedly).
For that matter, so is Paul. After reviewing just a few of the many examples of women in spiritual leadership in the Old Testament and the Gospels, Dr. Keener then looks at how Paul used, approved of, and affirmed women in ministry. The evidence from Paul’s practice is extensive—so much so that it is too long to quote here. In light of this, and the evidence from the rest of Scripture, Dr. Keener rightly concludes,
Paul’s writings clearly rank him among the more progressive, not the more chauvinistic, writers of his day. … Because Paul, in some cases, advocated women’s ministry, we cannot read his restrictions on women in ministry as universal prohibitions.
Indeed, compared to the rest of Scripture, which extensively, repeatedly, and constantly affirms the appropriateness and praiseworthiness of women in all forms of ministry, to an extent that far outpaced and would have been scandalous to the surrounding culture, the two passages seeming to explicitly prohibit women from teaching (or even speaking) publicly or serving as pastors represent a very small minority of Scriptural passages that could even be suggested to support this view.
When faced with an apparent contradiction in Scripture, Bible-believing Christians operate under the assumption that the contradiction does not in fact exist in Scripture itself, but in our inadequate or incorrect understanding of Scripture. In my own experience to date, that assumption has always proven true. Faced with the fact that a face-value reading of 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 seems to contradict all of the rest of Scripture, we must approach this topic with the same assumption. The task, then, is to discover where we have misinterpreted Scripture, and discover a proper understanding of all of the passages in Scripture relevant to women in ministry and leadership, in which we will find the unified Scriptural perspective on women in ministry.
This is the third thing that Dr. Keener does exceedingly well, and at which those on both sides of the argument have so often failed in the past. He looks at these two passages in context, to understand what was going on in the context of the original audience, and whether any of it can help us better understand what Paul meant and why he gave the instructions he did. This is something those on both sides of the argument have made various attempts at, but these attempts have been poor ones and do not hold up under scrutiny, as each one is an attempt to impose a theory that fits one’s own worldview on Scripture, rather than seeking a complete picture of the context that allows us to formulate a proper perspective from Scripture:
Knowing ancient Greek culture helps us understand the passage better. Not all explanations scholars have proposed have proved satisfying. Some hold that a later scribe accidentally inserted these lines into Paul’s writings, but the hard evidence for this interpretation seems slender. Some suggest that Paul here quoted a Corinthian position (1 Corinthians 14:34, 35), which he then refuted (verse 36); unfortunately, verse 36 does not read naturally as a refutation. Others think that churches, like synagogues, were segregated by gender, somehow making women’s talk disruptive. This view falters on two counts: First, gender segregation in synagogues may have begun centuries after Paul; and, second, the Corinthian Christians met in homes, whose architecture would have rendered such segregation impossible. Some also suggest that Paul addressed women who were abusing the gifts of the Spirit or a problem with judging prophecies. But while the context addresses these issues, ancient writers commonly used digressions, and the theme of church order is sufficient to unite the context.
Lest you think that Dr. Keener is only criticizing progressive attempts to find a context that explains away these verses, note his earlier treatment of the conservative attempt to deny that Junia was a female apostle, an argument that does not proceed from Scripture but that is instead based solely on the unwillingness of traditionalists to recognize the possibility of a female apostle, the highest office in the Church according to Paul:
Paul also listed two fellow apostles, Andronicus and Junia (Romans 16:7). Although Junia is clearly a feminine name, writers opposed to the possibility that Paul could have referred to a female apostle, suggest that Junia is a contraction for the masculine Junianus. This contraction, however, never occurs, and more recently has been shown to be grammatically impossible for a Latin name like Junia. This suggestion rests not on the text itself, but entirely on the presupposition that a woman could not be an apostle.
As Dr. Keener explains, however, progressive attempts to contextually disqualify these two verses are unnecessary, as a proper understanding of their context explains them sufficiently and brings them into harmony with the rest of Scripture. He starts with the 1 Corinthians 14 passage:
Since Paul only addressed a specific kind of speech, we should note that the only kind of speech he directly addressed in 14:34-36 was wives asking questions.
Already, this removes this passage from the discussion on women in ministry, since it relates to how a woman learns, not to whether she should teach. But Dr. Keener goes on to explain how the Greek model of education works, which applies directly to this passage:
In ancient Greek and Jewish lecture settings, advanced students or educated people frequently interrupted public speakers with reasonable questions. … Ancient culture also considered it rude for uneducated persons to slow down lectures with questions that betrayed their lack of training.
Dr. Keener explains that because the culture (not God) had deprived the vast majority of women of the opportunity to be educated, the women of the congregation were novice students. It was offensive for them to speak up and ask questions—but no more so than for a young man who was new to the faith!
This passage, then, reveals two key things about Paul and his view of the role of women in the early church. First, as Dr. Keener points out, Paul is doing the exact opposite of what conservative, complementarian Christians see in this passage. Complementarians focus on Paul’s insistence that women be silent; the emphasis should instead be on the fact that, unlike the surrounding culture, Paul provides instructions that enable women to learn! As Dr. Keener says, “Far from repressing these women, by ancient standards Paul was liberating them.”
Second—and this is a point that Dr. Keener doesn’t make, that I would add to his analysis—the fact that Paul needed to address this situation tells us something very important about the role of women in the early church. Keep in mind that the apostles were not simply sitting in some cloistered monastery writing up whatever popped into their heads. “Oh, that sounds good, let’s write that. Oh, and here’s something important, let me not forget it!” No. The apostles generally wrote in response to what was going on in the churches. Paul and his companions had traveled and founded churches, sometimes staying at these churches for a couple years before continuing on. Later, he wrote letters back to the churches to admonish them to be true to the gospel that they had received from the apostles, and to instruct them in how and why they had gone astray.
Therefore, the fact that Paul feels the need to instruct women not to ask questions clearly indicates that that is precisely what they were doing. He would have no need to instruct them not to do something that they already were not doing! This tells us something about the early Christian communities. Women were prevented from learning in society, and certainly from asking questions. As Dr. Keener points out, “Most ancient husbands doubted their wives’ intellectual potential.” For them to be not only learning but asking questions in the church assemblies demonstrates a radically different perspective on the role of women in the Church and their capacity for equal theological activity, in direct contrast to the views and prescriptions of the surrounding culture.
This leaves the 1 Timothy 2 passage. Again, Dr. Keener uses the rest of Scripture to make clear that this passage cannot be seen to articulate a universal prohibition: “In any case, here Paul also forbade women to ‘teach,’ something he apparently allowed elsewhere (Romans 16; Philippians 4:2, 3). Thus he presumably addressed the specific situation in this community.”
The context of this passage is one in which false teachers were specifically “targeting and working through women.” To prevent this, and the scandal it would bring on the Church, Paul gave instructions to this specific church, intended for this specific context. Dr. Keener explains (emphasis mine):
Women were the most susceptible to false teaching only because they had been granted the least education. This behavior was bound to bring reproach on the church from a hostile society that was already convinced Christians subverted the traditional roles of women and slaves. So Paul provided a short-range solution: “Do not teach” (under the present circumstances); and a long-range solution: “Let them learn” (1 Timothy 2:11).
A lack of education across the board for women is no longer a problem in our society. Our society does not frown upon novice learners asking questions in public, as the original culture did (we wouldn’t want that during the sermon, but we don’t mind it in Sunday school or Bible study)—and even if it did, many women are equally capable of asking intelligent questions that don’t disrupt the teaching. Due to equality of education across the board, women are no more likely than to be susceptible to false teaching—or to state the converse, men are no less likely than women to fall prey to it.
Meanwhile, the whole of Scripture affirms and provides countless examples of women teaching and serving in leadership roles, as affirmed and even ordained by God the Father, Jesus, and the Apostle Paul, and as empowered by the Holy Spirit, whom the Prophets foretold would fall on all equally.
I no longer oppose the ordination of women as pastors, or their role in any other form of ministry. This is not because I have abandoned a biblical perspective on the matter, but rather precisely because I have come to understand the correct and comprehensive biblical perspective, and all that Scripture teaches, from Genesis to Revelation, which affirms their role in ministry.
If you care at all about the issue of the role of women in Church ministry; if you plan to comment on it at any point, or have done so in the past; or if you believe it is important to have a correct biblical perspective on the issue, then you must read this article by Dr. Craig Keener. That’s not a suggestion or a recommendation; it’s a necessity.
If you can put aside your preconceptions and let a correct understanding of the text inform your views on the matter, as any Bible-believing Christian should, then I think that like me, you’ll come to support, rather than opposing, women in ministry.
*Inerrancy is not the same thing as a completely literal view of Scripture. While I do generally believe that what the Bible says happened did indeed happen, I also recognize that the human authors of Scripture used metaphor, simile, rhetoric, imagery, and even hyperbole to deliver their message. When I say that I believe in the inerrancy of Scripture, I do not mean that I interpret every single last passage of Scripture literally—to do so with prophetic or Apocalyptic literature, or even the Psalms, to mention just a couple examples, would be silly. What I mean is that I believe that the message of Scripture is reliable and true, inspired and timeless, applicable and relevant—and no less so today than the day they were written. We don’t get to simply disqualify certain passages because they don’t mesh with our “evolved and enlightened sense of morality”. However, before we can hold to the truth in any passage, we must first determine what that passage was intended to communicate. That means interpreting metaphors, similes, imagery, and understanding the message that they are meant to convey. That message, not a literal interpretation of even those things that are clearly not meant to be taken literal, is where we find the truth and inerrancy of Scripture. Our task is to do so faithfully and honestly, conforming ourselves to the message of the text rather than the text to our own sensibilities.