Why We Should Reconsider What the Bible Really Says about Women in Ministry



Two short sections of Scripture have been used for thousands of years to say that women should be silent in the church, and women should not be allowed to teach men.

Claiming that there are numerous passages conflicting with this interpretation, many evangelical denominations, as well as mainline denominations, have interpreted these verses differently. Others insist on what they call a “literal” interpretation, which requires women to keep quiet.

This topic just won’t go away.

In 2019, prominent reformed Baptist minister John MacArthur told Beth Moore, a Southern Baptist, to “go home,” criticizing her ministry which sometimes reaches men.

And headlines were made recently in Wylie, Texas when Mayor Eric Rogue, also a pastor, requested that only men be allowed to pray at a city council meeting.

Rogue didn’t say why he was applying these verses to women speaking outside the church, but he did cite the two oft-quoted sections from the New Testament:

“Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says.  If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.” 1 Corinthians 14:34-35

And,

“A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” 1 Timothy 2:11-12

Should these verses prevent women from speaking, teaching, and leading in the church?

Loren Cunningham, founder of WYAM ministries, said, “We must never judge a verse in isolation. Instead, we must look at the entire Bible to make decisions on individual issues.” [1] In other words, if another section of Scripture contradicts a particular interpretation, that calls into question the legitimacy of that interpretation.

Is silencing women in the general assembly and not allowing them to instruct or lead mixed groups consistent with the whole teaching of Scripture?

Let’s examine how women minister in the Bible to find out.

Do women speak, instruct, and lead in the Old Testament?

How do women minister in the Old Testament? Let’s look at three.

1. Consider Miriam:

The first female leader we see in Scripture is Moses’ sister, Miriam. God said to the prophet Micah,

“I sent Moses to lead you, also Aaron and Miriam.” (Micah 6:4)

Miriam was chosen by God to go before His people. It is critical to note that one-third of Israel’s first leadership team was female. [2] This woman, identified in Scripture as a prophetess, conducts the entire nation in worship after the parting of the Red Sea. (Exodus 15:20-21)

Some have argued that the words attributed to Miriam in Scripture were first uttered by Moses, and therefore, she only repeated what a man said. And she repeated it just for the women.

But in Scripture, God calls Miriam a leader without specifying who she led. And God calls Miriam a prophetess. A prophetess does not repeat man’s words to the people. A prophetess repeats God’s words to the people.

Miriam was not a silent woman. Her role as a leader and prophet in early Israel was ordained by God.

2. Consider Deborah:

The next prominent female leader we see in ancient Israel was Deborah. Her credentials are hard to overlook and deserve some close scrutiny.

Deborah is identified as a judge and a prophetess, which are positions of leadership in both the government and the church (Judges 4:4-5). It important to note that she maintained these positions of high-ranking leadership over the entire nation of Israel for over 40 years (Judges 4:3, 5:31).

Because her leadership directly contradicts a universal application of 1 Timothy 2:11-12, many arguments have been formulated to dismiss Deborah’s contributions.

Here are several:

  • The “No Available Men” Argument against Deborah:

Whenever Deborah is mentioned by those who believe that the New Testament silences women, the “no available men” argument is applied. Jewish scholars insist that the only reason this righteous judge and prophet rose to prominence was “because there were no men who were available, willing, or suitable to take the job.”

Nowhere does Scripture say this. In fact, the Bible says the opposite: "Whenever the Lord raised up judges for them, the Lord was with the judge, and He saved them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge" (Judges 2:18).

The Biblical account is clear—Israel was “saved from the hands of their enemies all the days” of Deborah. So according to Scripture, God raised up this female judge because under her reign as Israel’s highest-ranking leader, the nation was victorious and “the land had peace forty years” (Judges 5:31).

By all accounts, Israel flourished under Deborah’s rein. Only one judge, Ehud, served longer than Deborah, and only two, Gideon and Othniel, served equal terms. That is pretty good company. Every other judge and prophet in Israel had far shorter and more tumultuous reigns.

The argument that there were no willing or suitable men in a nation with tens of millions of men—for four decades—is specious at best, preposterous at worst.

  • The “Reluctant Leader” Argument against Deborah:

Some say that Deborah was a reluctant leader of Israel because after the nation’s mighty victory over the evil King Sisera, she sings:

"When the princes in Israel take the lead, when the people willingly offer themselves—praise the Lord!” (Judges 5:2)

It is true that in her song, Deborah praises the men in Israel who fought and chastises the men who didn’t. Both Deborah and Barak, Israel’s military commander, identify four tribes that refused to fight. They rail against those men who refused to “take the lead” and liberate Israel from her enemies (Judges 5:15-17).

It is also true that Deborah was a reluctant military leader. When she commands Barak to lead his men in battle, he refuses to go without her. So Deborah goes with great reticence (Judges 4:8). Still, Israel is victorious with Deborah at the helm.

But while Scripture does affirm that Deborah was a reluctant general, nowhere does Scripture suggest that she was a reluctant prophet or judge.

Rather, the Bible shows Deborah to be esteemed, enthusiastic, and confident in these roles. And after securing Israel’s victory in battle, Deborah returns to her position as the nation’s chief prophet and judge for another four decades, without any reluctance.

  • The “God’s Judgement” Argument against Deborah:

Others say that Deborah ruled during a time when Israel was under God’s judgment due to rebellion and idolatry. But the people rebelled during the reigns of many other judges and prophets as well. During Samuel’s reign, the people rejected God’s clear direction and demanded a king (1 Samuel 8:19).

Does this mean that Samuel was not called by God?

Clearly he was.

If we validate the calling of a judge or prophet based on the condition of the people, most of them would be disqualified.

The arguments used to disqualify Deborah are problematic both logically and theologically. But more importantly, what do these arguments say about God? How can He bless and deliver a nation operating under an ungodly form of leadership?

Cunningham addresses this very dilemma,

“Others say that sometimes God allows a woman to lead because a man refused to obey Him. But that would mean that on those occasions God acts unrighteously, setting aside His own laws. This cannot be!” [3]

To be clear, there was no law forbidding women to instruct or exercise authority in the Old Testament. And the only place in the New Testament that suggests this prohibition is 1 Timothy 2:11-12. But if it was God’s principle for only men to lead and instruct, then He set that principle aside with Deborah and the other women mentioned in this article.

3. Consider Huldah:

Another venerable leader mentioned in the Old Testament is Huldah. During King Josiah’s reign, the long-forgotten Book of the Law was found by Hilkiah, the priest, and was brought to Josiah causing him to tear his robes.

“Go inquire of the Lord for me and for the remnant in Israel and Judah about what is written in this book that has been found,” the King insisted. (2 Chronicles 34:21)

One wonders why Hilkiah wasn’t up to the task himself. In all of Israel, who heard the voice of God more clearly than the high priest? Who was more qualified to be God’s mouthpiece to the king?

Answer:

A woman—the prophetess Huldah, who delivered God’s word to Josiah.

She prophesied disaster on the nation for forsaking God, but she prophesied a reign of peace over Josiah for heeding the Word of the Lord. The king, in turn, made a covenant with God and “then he had everyone in Jerusalem and Benjamin pledge themselves to it.” (2 Chronicles 34:32)

“Such was the effect of one godly woman's fearless prophecy.” Her words changed the course of the nation.

Do women speak, instruct, and lead in the New Testament?

In the New Testament, we see many examples that are problematic with the idea that women are not to speak in church or minister in the general assembly.

Consider Pentecost:

Fifty days after Passover, the entire church was gathered. Suddenly,

“All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” (Acts. 2:4)

Of this dramatic, gender-inclusive event, Loren Cunningham says,

The Holy Spirit didn’t just fall on the remaining eleven apostles. He fell on all 120 men and women disciples, and each onlooker in the crowd found someone preaching—in his or her own language. Peter had to get up and quickly explain. After all… many women were preaching, declaring the wonders of God! This just wasn’t done. So Peter reminded them the words of the prophet Joel: ‘And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy… Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days’” [4] (Joel 2:28-29).

Why would the Holy Spirit cause women to pray and prophesy at this early gathering of the church if women weren’t supposed to minister in the mixed assembly, if they weren’t even supposed to speak?

The Holy Spirit cannot cause someone to do what God forbids them to do.

Consider Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 11:

Three chapters before Paul says, “it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church,” he gives women clear instructions on how to pray and prophesy in the church. In the context of worship, Paul instructs:

“Every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head.” (1 Corinthians 11:5)

Biblical scholar David J. Hamilton points out the obvious:

 “Paul told both men and women what to wear while ministering in public because he expected both men and women to minister in public.” [5]

And to be clear, when Paul taught women how to pray and prophesy in the church, “He wasn’t talking about something done on the sidelines of church activity. ‘To pray and to prophesy’ summarized the full scope of the Jewish concept of priestly ministry. To pray is to speak to God on behalf of God’s people. To prophesy is to speak to God’s people on behalf of God.” [6]

Keep in mind, the New Testament church was a very different gathering than our western non-denominational fellowship or mainline denomination today. There were no Sunday schools, men's, women's, or children's ministries. There were no worship teams, missions departments, administrative offices, or parking attendants. There were no thirty-eight-minute sermons with a PowerPoint containing five bullet points followed by an alter call.

"Praying and prophesying" were at the center of church ministry in the New Testament. Unlike now, “praying and prophesying” happened in every gathering of the church. It does not make sense that Paul would tell women how to pray and prophesy in the church if he expected them to remain silent, or to only prophesy to women.

Consider the Ministry of These New Testament Women:

Anna was a prophetess who “never left the temple but stayed there day and night” (Luke 2:36). Clearly, she prophesied at the Temple. She met Jesus and “talked about the child to everyone who had been waiting expectantly for God to rescue Jerusalem.” (vs. 38) She was one of the first evangelists who testified the Good News about Jesus in the church.

Priscilla was commended by Paul alongside her husband, Aquila, seven times in Scripture. But contrary to the Roman custom of naming the man first, five times Pricilla’s name came first. 

Paul “does not do this without a reason,” said John Chrysostom, a fourth-century church father. “He seems… to acknowledge a greater godliness for her than for her husband. What I said is not guess-work… [Priscilla] took Apollos… and she instructed him in the way of the Lord and made him a teacher brought to completion" [7] (Acts 18:24-26).

Chloe is mentioned as the leader of one of the Corinthian house churches. (1 Corinthians 1:11)

Phoebe is commended by Paul, who called her a deacon and entrusted her to carry his letter to the Roman church. (Romans 16:1)

Junia, acclaimed by Paul as an outstanding apostle, is “commonly acknowledged by contemporary New Testament scholars” to be a woman. (Romans 16:7)

So what do these two passages mean in light of all the passages that seem to conflict?

Volumes have been written on this topic.

For example, Dr. John Temple Bristow contends that in 1 Corinthians 14, Paul was telling women to stop chattering during what had become very unruly services. The original Greek verb choices as well as the context of order, which is the clear theme of the entire chapter, support this interpretation. [8]

And why does Paul tell Timothy that he does not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over men?

Bristow says, “Teachers, at first, had to be men, for only men were educated in the faith. And Jewish custom strictly forbade women from conversing with men other than their husbands. Moreover, the Jewish sages declared that any man who spends too much time talking with women ‘will inherit Gehenna’ (hell).” [9]

It would be hard to receive a teaching from someone if you believed communicating with that person would send you to hell.

These possible meanings merely scratch the surface. The interpretations of these two passages deserve its own in-depth analysis to consider the original Greek language and cultural context. Only then can we arrive at an interpretation that is consistent with the portrayal of women throughout Scripture.

Whatever the meaning might be, the afore-mentioned discrepancies should compel us to ask questions. These contradictions in Scripture about women must not be glossed over or ignored.

Where does this leave women when it comes to ministry in the church?

Women who speak in church, women who lead, prophesy, or teach are often accused of violating the “literal” interpretation of Scripture when they minister.

Which verses are they violating? The verses that tell them how to pray and prophesy, or the ones that don’t. Should they follow the many verses that clearly show women leading and instructing, or the two that differ?

Women are conflicted. We have gifts that are often silenced with interpretations that elevate two passages while ignoring so many others.

“Make no mistake; this issue is really about proper biblical interpretation not about biblical authority.” [10]

We agree that Scripture is authoritative. But what does Scripture authoritatively say?

Dr. Sandra Richter, Professor of Biblical Studies at Westmont College, summarizes the ministry of women throughout Scripture beautifully saying:

“Deborah was not a mistake. Huldah was Prophet. Junia was not a man. Romans 16 is not an anomaly. Priscilla was a preacher. And the women prophesying in 1 Corinthians 11 were exercising the most treasured and authoritative gift of their known covenant… If [a woman] is called and gifted, Church, it is your job to recognize that gift, develop that gift, and deploy that gift. This isn’t your Kingdom, it is His.”

Amen.

Sources:

1. Loren Cunningham and David Joel Hamilton, Why Not Women?, YWAM Publishing, 2000, pg. 39
2. L. Cunningham, pg. 53.
3. L. Cunningham, pg. 52.
4. L. Cunningham, pgs. 58-59.
5. D. J. Hamilton, pg. 178.

6. D. J. Hamilton, pg. 178.
7. John Chrysostom, “First Homily on the Greeting to Priscilla and Aquila,” trans. By Catherine Clark Kroeger, Priscilla Papers 5.3 (Summer 1991) 18.
8. John Temple Bristow, What Paul Really Said About Women: An Apostle’s Liberating Views on Equality in Marriage, Leadership, and Love. Harper Collins, 1991, pg 63.
9. J. T. Bristow, pg. 71.
10. John H Armstrong, How I Changed My Mind About Women in Leadership: Compelling Stories from Prominent Evangelicals. “Lessons My Mother Taught Me Without Trying.” Zondervan, 2010, pg. 25.

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Avosb


Catherine Segars is an award-winning actress and playwright—turned stay-at-home-mom—turned author, speaker, blogger, and motherhood apologist. She is matron of the Mere Mother website, which delves into critical cultural issues that affect families and marginalize mothers. This homeschooling mama of five is dedicated to helping mothers see their worth in a season when they often feel overwhelmed and irrelevant. You can find Catherine’s blog, dramatic blogcast, and other writings at www.catherinesegars.com and connect with her on Facebook.

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