Women in Ministry

Twenty years ago, Enrichment Journal (from the Assemblies of God) invited me to write an article in support of women in ministry. The article was available both in print and online. Because that website is not currently online, however, I make that article available here, with the permission of Enrichment Journal. (What follows is my twenty-year-old pre-edited draft; but I also include the edited PDF.) At the very least, I hope that those who insist that women’s ministry is unbiblical will understand why those who find it biblical hold the view that we do, and will recognize that, contrary to what some of our detractors say, many of us do support women in ministry because we believe that it is biblical.


            Was Paul for or against Women’s Ministry?

            The question of women’s ministry is a pressing concern for today’s church. It is paramount first because of our need for the gifts of all members God has called to serve the Church; now the concern, however, has extended beyond the Church itself. Increasingly secular thinkers today attack Christianity as “against women” and thus irrelevant to the modern world.

            Yet the Assemblies of God and other denominations birthed in the Holiness and Pentecostal revivals affirmed women’s ministry long before the role of women became a secular or liberal agenda.[1] Likewise, in the historic missionary expansion of the nineteenth century, two-thirds of all missionaries were women. The nineteenth century women’s movement that fought for women’s right to vote originally grew from the same revival movement led by Charles Finney and others that advocated the abolition of slavery. By contrast, those who identified everything in the Bible’s culture with the Bible’s message were obligated to both accept slavery and reject women’s ministry.[2]

            For Bible-believing Christians, however, mere precedent from church history cannot settle a question; we must establish our case from Scripture. Because the current debate focuses especially around the teaching of Paul, we focus on his writing, after we have briefly summarized other biblical teachings on the subject.

Women’s Ministry in the Rest of the Bible

            Because Paul accepted as God’s word both the Hebrew Bible and Jesus’ teachings, we must briefly survey women’s ministry in these sources. The ancient Near Eastern world of which Israel was a part was definitely a “man’s world.” But because God spoke to Israel in a particular culture does not suggest that the culture itself was holy; the culture included polygamy, divorce, slavery, and a variety of other practices we now recognize as unholy.

            Despite the prominence of men in ancient Israelite society, however, God still sometimes called women as leaders. When Josiah needed to hear the word of the Lord, he sent to a person who was undoubtedly one of the most prominent prophetic figures of his day, namely Huldah (2 Kings 22:12-20). Deborah was not only a prophetess but a judge (Judg 4:4)–that is, 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 (Judg 4–5).

            Although first-century Jewish women rarely if ever studied with teachers of the law the way male disciples did,[3] Jesus allowed women to join his ranks (Mk 15:40-41; Lk 8:1-3)–something the culture could regard as scandalous.[4] As if this were not scandalous enough, he allowed a woman who wished to hear his teaching to “sit at his feet” (Lk 10:39)–taking a posture normally reserved for disciples. And disciples were teachers in training![5] To have sent women out on the preaching missions (e.g., Mk 6:7-13) might have proved too scandalous to be practical, but the Gospels nevertheless 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.[6]

            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 gifts of God’s Spirit (Acts 2:17-18), just as salvation meant that male or female would have the same relationship with God (Gal 3:28). Subsequent outpourings of the Spirit have often led to the same effect. 

Passages where Paul Affirms Women’s Ministry

            Paul often affirms the ministry of women despite the gender prejudices of his culture. With a few exceptions (some women philosophers), advanced education was a male domain. Because most people in Mediterranean antiquity were functionally illiterate, those who could read and speak well generally assumed teaching roles, and with rare exceptions, these were men.[7] In the first centuries of our era, most Jewish men, like Philo, Josephus, and many later rabbis, reflected the prejudice of much of the broader Greco-Roman culture.[8]

            Women’s roles varied from one region to another, but Paul’s writings clearly rank him among the more progressive, not the more chauvinistic, writers of his day. Many of Paul’s colaborers in the gospel were women.

            Thus Paul commends the ministry of a woman who brings his letter to the Roman Christians (Rom 16:1-2). Phoebe is “servant” of the church at Cenchrea. “Servant” may refer to a “deacon,” a term sometimes designating administrative responsibility in the early Church; in his epistles, however, Paul most frequently applies the term to any minister of God’s word, including himself (e.g., 1 Cor 3:5; 2 Cor 3:6; 6:4; Eph 3:7; 6:21). He also calls Phoebe a “succourer” or “helper” of many (16:2); this term technically designates her as the church’s “patron” or sponsor, most likely the owner of the home in which the church at Cenchrea was meeting. This entitled her to a position of honor in the church.[9]

            Nor is she the only influential woman in the church. Whereas Paul greets about twice as many men as women in Romans 16, he commends the ministries of about twice as many women as men in that list! (Some use the predominance of male ministers in the Bible against women’s ministry, but that argument could work against men’s ministry in this passage!) These commendations may indicate his sensitivity to the opposition women undoubtedly frequently faced for their ministry, and are remarkable given the prejudice against women’s ministry that existed in Paul’s culture.

            If Paul follows ancient custom when he praises Prisca, he may mention her before her husband Aquila because of her higher status (Rom. 16:3-4). Elsewhere we learn that she and her husband taught Scripture to another minister (Acts 18:26). Paul also lists two fellow-apostles,[10] Andronicus and Junia. 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.” But this contraction is very rare compared to the common feminine name, and does not even occur in extant inscriptions from Rome; this suggestion rests not on the text itself but entirely on the presupposition that a woman could not be an apostle.

            Elsewhere, Paul refers to the ministry of two women in Philippi, who, like his many male fellow-ministers, shared in his work for the gospel there (Phil. 4:2-3). Because women typically achieved more prominent religious roles in Macedonia than in most parts of the Roman world,[11] Paul’s women colleagues in this region may have moved more quickly into prominent offices in the church (cf. also Acts 16:14-15).

            Although Paul ranks prophets second only to apostles (1 Cor. 12:28), he acknowledges the ministry of prophetesses (1 Cor. 11:5), following the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Exod. 15:20; Judg. 4:4; 2 Kings 22:13-14) and early Christian practice (Acts 2:17-18, 21:9). Thus those who complain that Paul does not specifically mention “women pastors” by name miss the point. Paul rarely mentions any “men pastors” by name, either; he most often simply mentions his traveling companions in ministry, who were naturally men. Given the culture he addressed, it was natural that fewer women could exercise the social independence necessary to achieve positions of ministry. Where they did so, however, Paul commends them, and includes commendations to women apostles and prophets, the offices of the highest authority in the church!

            While passages such as these establish Paul among the more progressive writers of his era, the primary controversy today rages around other passages in which Paul seems to oppose women’s ministry. Before turning there, we must examine one passage where Paul clearly addresses a local cultural situation.

Paul on Head Coverings

            Although Paul often advocated the mutuality of gender roles,[12] he also worked within the boundaries of his culture where necessary for the sake of the gospel. We begin with his teaching on head coverings because, although it is not directly related to women’s ministry, it will help us understand his passages concerning women’s ministry. Most Christians today agree that women do not need to cover their heads in church, but many do not recognize that Paul used the same kinds of arguments for women covering their heads as for women refraining from congregational speech. In both cases, Paul uses some general principles but addresses a specific cultural situation.

            When Paul urged women in the Corinthian churches to cover their heads (the only place where the Bible teaches about a woman’s “covering”), he follows a custom prominent in many Eastern cultures of his day.[13] Although women and men alike covered their heads for various reasons,[14] married women specifically covered their heads to prevent men other than their husbands from lusting after their hair.[15] A married woman who went out with her head uncovered was considered promiscuous, and was to be divorced as an adulteress.[16] Because of what head coverings symbolized in that culture, Paul asks the more liberated women to cover their heads so as not to scandalize the others. Among his arguments for head coverings are the fact that God created Adam first; in the particular culture he addresses, this argument would make sense as an argument for women wearing head coverings.[17]

Passages where Paul may restrict Women’s Ministry

            Because Paul in some cases advocated women’s ministry, we cannot read his restrictions on women’s ministry as universal prohibitions. Rather, as in the case of head coverings in Corinth above, Paul is addressing a specific cultural situation. This is not to say that Paul here or anywhere else wrote Scripture that was not for all time. It is merely to say that he did not write it for all circumstances, and that we must take into account the circumstances he addressed so we can understand how he would have applied his principles in very different sitations. (For instance, few readers today would advocate us going to Troas to pick up Paul’s cloak; we recognize that Paul addressed these words specifically to Timothy–2 Tim 4:13.)

Let Women Keep Silent (1 Cor 14:34-36)

            Two passages in Paul’s writings at first seem to contradict the “progressive” ones. We should keep in mind that these are the only two passages in the Bible that could remotely be construed as contradicting Paul’s endorsement of women’s ministry elsewhere.

            First, Paul instructs women to be silent and save their questions about the service for their husbands at home (1 Cor 14:34-36). Yet Paul cannot mean silence under all circumstances, because earlier in the same letter he acknowledged that women could pray and prophesy in church (1 Cor 11:5), and prophecy ranked even higher than teaching (12:28).

            Here 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.[18] Some suggest that Paul here quotes a Corinthian position (1 Cor. 14:34-35), which he then refutes (1 Cor. 14:36); unfortunately 14:36 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 begin centuries after Paul, and second, the Corinthian Christians met in homes, whose architecture would have rendered such segregation impossible. Some also suggest that Paul addresses women abusing the gifts of the Spirit, or a problem with judging prophecies. But while the context does address these issues, ancient writers commonly used digressions, and the theme of church order is sufficient to unite the context.

            Another explanation seems more likely. Paul elsewhere affirms women’s role in prayer and prophecy (11:5), and the only kind of speech he directly addresses in 14:34-36 is wives asking questions.[19] In ancient Greek and Jewish lecture settings advanced students or educated people frequently interrupted public speakers with reasonable questions. Yet the culture had deprived most women of education, and considered it rude for uneducated persons to slow down lectures with questions that betrayed their lack of training.[20] So Paul provides a long-range solution: the husbands should take a personal interest in their wives’ learning and catch them up privately. Most ancient husbands doubted their wives’ intellectual potential, but Paul was among the most progressive of ancient writers on the subject.[21] By ancient standards, far from repressing these women, Paul was liberating them![22]

            This text cannot prohibit women announcing the word of the Lord (1 Cor. 11:4-5), and nothing in the context here suggests that Paul specifically prohibits women from Bible teaching. The only passage in the entire Bible that one could directly cite against women teaching the Bible is 1 Tim. 2:11-15.

In Quietness and Submission (1 Tim 2:11-15)

            In this passage Paul forbids women to teach or exercise authority over men. Most supporters of women’s ministry think that the latter expression means “usurp authority,”[23] something Paul would not want men to do any more than women, but the matter is disputed.[24] In any case, Paul also forbids women here to “teach,” something he apparently allowed elsewhere (Rom 16; Phil 4:2-3). Thus he presumably addresses the specific situation in this community; because both Paul and his readers knew their situation and could take it for granted, the situation which elicited Paul’s response is thus assumed in his intended meaning.

            Paul’s letters to Timothy in Ephesus provide us a glimpse of the situation: false teachers (1 Tim 1:6-7, 19-20; 6:3-5; 2 Tim. 2:17) were misleading the women (5:13;[25] 2 Tim 3:6-7), who 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 already convinced that Christians subverted the traditional roles of women and slaves.[26] So again Paul provides a short-range solution: “Do not teach” (under the present circumstances); and a long-range solution: “Let them learn” (1 Tim 2:11).

            Today we read “learn in silence” and think the emphasis lies on “silence.” That these women are to learn “quietly and submissively” may reflect their witness within society (these were characteristics normally expected of women). But ancient culture expected all beginning students (unlike advanced students) to learn silently; for that matter, the same word for “silence” here is applied to all Christians in the context (2:2). Paul specifically addresses this matter to women for the same reason he addresses the admonition to stop disputing to the men (2:8): they are the groups involved in the Ephesian churches. Again it appears that Paul’s long-range plan is to liberate, not subordinate, women’s ministry. The issue is not gender, but learning God’s Word.

            What particularly causes many fine scholars to question this otherwise logical case is Paul’s following argument, where he bases his case on the roles of Adam and Eve (1 Tim. 2:13-14). Paul’s argument from the creation order here, however, is one of the very arguments he earlier used to contend that women should wear head coverings (1 Cor 11:7-9). In other words, Paul sometimes cited Scripture to make an ad hoc case for particular circumstances that he would not apply to all circumstances. His argument from Eve’s deception is even more likely to fit this category. If Eve’s deception prohibits all women from teaching, Paul would be claiming that all women, like Eve, are more easily deceived than all men. If, however, the deception does not apply to all women, neither does his prohibition of their teaching. Paul probably uses Eve to illustrate the situation of the unlearned women he addresses in Ephesus; but he elsewhere uses Eve for anyone who is deceived, not just women (2 Cor. 11:3).[27]

            Because we do not believe that Paul would have contradicted himself, Paul’s approval of women’s ministry in God’s word elsewhere confirms that 1 Timothy 2:9-15 cannot prohibit women’s ministry in all situations, but addresses a particular situation.

            Some have protested that women should not hold authority over men because men are the “head” of women. Aside from the many debates about the meaning of the Greek term “head” (for instance, some translate it as “source” instead of “authority over”),[28] Paul speaks only of the husband as head of his wife, not of the male gender as head of the female gender. Further, we Pentecostals and charismatics affirm that the minister’s authority is inherent in the minister’s calling and ministry of the Word, not the minister’s person. In this case, gender should be irrelevant as a consideration for ministry–for us as it was for Paul.


            Today we should affirm those whom God calls, whether male or female, and encourage them in faithfully learning God’s Word. We need to affirm all potential laborers, both men and women, for the abundant harvest fields.

[1]See e.g., V. Synan, The Holiness-Pentecostal Movement in the United States (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 188-89.

[2]See S. Grenz and D. Muir Kjesbo, Women in the Church (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1995), 42-62; N. Hardesty, Women Called to Witness (Nashville: Abingdon, 1984); G. Usry and C. Keener, Black Man’s Religion (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1996), 90-94, 98-109.

[3]L. Swidler, Women in Judaism (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1976), 97-111; C. Keener, Paul, Women & Wives (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1992), 83-84. The one exception apart from Jesus’ disciples is Beruriah (second-century), who confronted prejudice from most male rabbis.

[4]See G. Stanton, The Gospels and Jesus (Oxford: Oxford, 1989), 202; J. Stambaugh and D. Balch, The New Testament in Its Social Environment (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986), 104; W. Liefeld, “The Wandering Preacher As a Social Figure in the Roman Empire” (Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University, 1967), 240. Critics often maligned movements supported by women (E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus [New York: Penguin, 1993], 109).

[5]To “sit before” a teacher’s feet was to take the posture of a disciple (Acts 22:3; m. Ab. 1:4; ARN 6, 38 A; ARN 11, §28 B; b. Pes. 3b; p. Sanh. 10:1, §8). On women in Jesus’ ministry, see especially B. Witherington, III, Women in the Ministry of Jesus, SNTSM 51 (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1984).

[6]Jesus’ contemporaries generally held little esteem for the testimony of women (Jos. Ant. 4.219; m. Yeb. 15:1, 8-10; 16:7; Ket. 1:6-9; tos. Yeb. 14:10; Sifra VDDeho. pq.; cf. Lk 24:11); in Roman law see similarly J. Gardner, Women in Roman Law & Society [Bloomington: Indiana University, 1986], 165).

[7]Although inscriptions demonstrate that women filled a prominent role in some synagogues (see B. Brooten, Women Leaders in the Ancient Synagogue: Inscriptional Evidence and Background Issues [Chico, CA: Scholars, 1982]), they also reveal that this practice was the exception rather than the norm.

[8]E.g., Philo Prob. 117; see further Safrai, “Education,” JPFC 955; R. Baer, Philo’s Use of the Categories Male and Female, AZLGHJ 3 (Leiden: Brill, 1970).

[9]See further Keener, Women, 237-40.

[10]Because Paul nowhere else appeals to commendations from “the apostles,” “notable apostles” remains the most natural way to construe this phrase (see e.g., A. Spencer, Beyond the Curse: Women Called to Ministry [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1989], 102).

[11]See V. Abrahamsen, “The Rock Reliefs and the Cult of Diana at Philippi” (Th. D. dissertation, Harvard Divinity School, 1986).

[12]See, e.g., comments in C. Keener, “Man and Woman,” pp. 583-92 in Dictionary of Paul and his Letters (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1993), 584-85.

[13]Jewish people were among the cultures that required married women to cover their hair (e.g., m. B.K. 8:6; ARN 3, 17A; Sifre Num. 11.2.2; 3 Macc 4:6). Elsewhere in the East, cf. e.g., R. MacMullen, “Women in Public in the Roman Empire,” Historia 29 (1980): 209-10.

[14]Sometimes men (Plut. R.Q. 14, Mor. 267A; Char. Chaer. 3.3.14) and women (Plut. R.Q. 26, Mor. 270D; Char. Chaer. 1.11.2; 8.1.7; ARN 1A) covered their heads for mourning. Similarly, both men (m. Sot. 9:15; Epict. Disc. 1.11.27) and women (ARN 9, §25B) covered their heads for shame. Roman women normally covered their heads for worship (e.g., Varro 5.29.130; Plut. R.Q. 10, Mor. 266C), in contrast to Greek women who uncovered their heads (SIG 3d ed., 3.999). But in contrast to the custom Paul addresses, none of these specific practices differentiates men from women.

[15]Hair was the primary object of male desire (Apul. Metam. 2.8-9; Char. Chaer. 1.13.11; 1.14.1; ARN 14, §35B; Sifre Num. 11.2.1; p. Sanh. 6:4, §1). This was why many peoples required married women to cover their hair, but allowed unmarried girls to go uncovered (e.g., Charillus 2 in Plut. Sayings of Spartans, Mor. 232C; Philo Spec. Leg. 3.56).

[16]E.g., m. Ket. 7:6; b. Sot. 9a; R. Meir in Num. Rab. 9:12. For a similar custom and reasoning today in traditional Islamic societies, see C. Delaney, “Seeds of Honor, Fields of Shame,” pp. 35-48 in Honor and Shame and the Unity of the Mediterranean, ed. D. Gilmore, AAA 22 (Washington, D.C.: American Anthropological Association, 1987), 42, 67; cf. D. Eickelman, The Middle East: An Anthropological Approach, 2d ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1989), 165.

[17]On Paul’s various arguments here, see more fully Keener, Women, 31-46; or more briefly, in “Man and Woman,” 585-86. For a similar background for 1 Tim 2:9-10, see D. Scholer, “Women’s Adornment: Some Historical and Hermeneutical Observations on the New Testament Passages,” Daughters of Sarah 6 (1980) 3-6; Keener, Women, 103-7.

[18]G. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 699-705. Fee may be right that the entire western tradition displaces this passage, but this might happen easily enough with a digression (common enough in ancient writing), and even in these texts the passage is moved, not missing.

[19]E.g., K. Giles, Created Woman: A Fresh Study of the Biblical Teaching (Canberra: Acorn, 1985), 56.

[20]See e.g., Plut. On Lectures 4, 11, 13, 18, Mor. 39CD, 43BC, 45D, 48AB; compare tos. Sanh. 7:10.

[21]One of the most progressive alternatives was Plut. Advice to Bride and Groom48, Mor. 145BC, who nevertheless ended up accusing women of folly if left to themselves (48, Mor. 145DE).

[22]For more detailed documentation, see Keener, Women, 70-100; similarly, B. Witherington, III, Women in the Earliest Churches, SNTSM 59 (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1988), 90-104.

[23]See further discussion in Keener, Women, pp. 108-9.

[24]For recent and noteworthy arguments in favor of “exercise authority,” see the articles by Baldwin, Köstenberger, and Schreiner in Women in the Church: A Fresh Analysis of 1 Timothy 2:9-15 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995).

[25]The Greek expression for the women’s activities here probably refers to spreading false teaching; see G. Fee, 1&2 Timothy, Titus, NIBC (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1988), 122.

[26]Given Roman society’s perception of Christians as a subversive cult, false teaching that undermined Paul’s strategies for the church’s public witness (see Keener, Women, 139-56) could not be permitted (cf. 1 Tim. 3:2, 7, 10, 5:7, 10, 14, 6:1; Tit. 1:6, 2:1-5, 8, 10; cf. A. Padgett, “The Pauline Rationale for Submission: Biblical Feminism and the hina Clauses of Titus 2:1-10,” EQ 59 (1987) 52; D. Verner, The Household of God: The Social World of the Pastoral Epistles, SBLDS 71 [Chico, CA: Scholars, 1983]).

[27]1 Tim 2:15 may also qualify the preceding verses; see Keener, Women, pp. 118-20.

[28]Catherine Clark Kroeger and others believe it implies “source,” Wayne Grudem and others that it implies “authority over.” With Gordon Fee, I suspect that ancient literature allows both views, but that Paul uses an image relevant in his day (see further Keener, Women, 32-36, 168).

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