The question surrounding the role of women in positions of preaching and pastoral oversight isn’t new, but it remains one of the most ardently debated in the annals of Christian thought. This issue was in the spotlight during the 2023 Southern Baptist Convention as Rick Warren tried to defend the practice of ordaining women as pastors. This debate isn’t just an academic exercise; it impacts the day-to-day functioning of congregations, shaping the dynamics of worship and leadership. Furthermore, it should not be seen as a minor issue with no more impact on the church aside from the gender of the person behind the pulpit. The heart of the discussion revolves around how we interpret specific passages of the Bible concerning the roles and responsibilities of women within the church’s leadership.
The Importance of Scripture
For Christians, Scripture isn’t a mere historical record or a collection of moral tales; it’s the living Word of God, a beacon illuminating our path and shaping our beliefs. It is the standard of truth. Grounded in the bedrock principle of “Sola Scriptura,” we affirm that every belief, practice, and tradition must be tested against the weight of biblical authority. This principle stands tall, especially when addressing matters that may lead to divisions within the church. With the myriad of interpretations and cultural biases that can potentially cloud understanding, it’s crucial to approach Scripture with humility and diligence. One must allow clear and direct passages to guide our understanding of more complex or ambiguous texts, ensuring a holistic approach. In this manner, Scripture’s own voice serves as the interpreter, offering clarity and guidance.
This essay delves into the debated role of women in church leadership, specifically in positions of preaching or pastoral oversight.
- Whatever your position, you must have an answer to Paul in 1 Timothy 2:11-12 when he forbids “a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man.”
- Equality in dignity and standing before God is not the same as equality in roles.
- Any attempt to relegate Paul’s argument to the cultural context of the time runs afoul of his primary argument which is rooted in creation. It also goes along with the same as those who argue in favor of same-sex marriage.
- The history of the church is littered with the compromises often associated with allowing women to preach.
The Biblical Data
Whatever your view, you must account for this verse!
Central to the discourse on women in church leadership roles is the Apostle Paul’s instruction in his first letter to Timothy.
Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.1 Timothy 2:11-12 (ESV)
This passage is pivotal. It serves as a cornerstone for those who argue for a complementarian stance, and even for those who might disagree with such an interpretation, it remains a text that demands careful consideration. To engage in any meaningful discussion on the role of women in preaching or pastoral leadership without grappling with this Pauline directive would be incomplete at best.
One of the most frequent objections raised against a complementarian view is that the New Testament instructions regarding women’s roles were specific to a New Testament patriarchal society and are not universally binding. Critics argue that the Apostle Paul’s letters, written in a culture where women often had limited rights and were seldom in positions of public authority, reflect societal norms rather than eternal principles. While cultural context should undoubtedly be considered in biblical interpretation, it’s imperative to note that Paul grounds his argument in creation, not in culture. In 1 Timothy 2:13, he justifies his stance on women’s roles by referencing Adam and Eve, indicating a foundational, creational design rather than a mere cultural accommodation.
For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.1 Timothy 2:13-14 (ESV)
The primary emphasis in this passage should be on the creation order. God determined, according to His good pleasure, to create man first and this demonstrates a hierarchy that Paul is picking up on. It should not be assumed that Paul prohibits women to preach and exercise authority because they were uneducated and/or easily deceived. Rather, Satan understood the hierarchy established by God leading to his attack, not on the male headship, but on the female.
The Biblical Language – Preach
In the New Testament, three words are used to describe the activity of “preaching.” Euangelizomai occurs fifty-four times and means “bring good news”, “announce good news”, or “proclaim the gospel.” Katangellō occurs eighteen times and means to “proclaim” or “announce.” Finally, kēryssō occurs fifty-nine times (as a verb) and means to “announce”, “make known”, “proclaim aloud”, and “make proclamation as a herald.” Jonathan Griffiths explains that “Kēryssō is used quite consistently in the New Testament to refer to the public proclamation of God’s word (usually the gospel and its implications, broadly speaking) made by a person of authority.”1 It is not surprising that Paul couples both “teaching” and “exercising authority” in the passage above.
Griffiths also notes that the “preaching” signified by these three terms is not only carried out by figures of recognized authority but “there is typically record within the New Testament of a command or commissioning of some kind for them to do so.”2 In other words, there is no evidence in the New Testament that anyone was able to simply begin preaching of their own volition without being commanded or commissioned for the work.
One may object that the Great Commission enables all believers to engage in spreading the Gospel, therefore negating the above points. However, Griffiths points out “Where there are generalized instructions in the New Testament for believers to communicate God’s word, these instructions are expressed using other vocabulary.”2 The New Testament authors writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit understood (and communicated) the difference between general proclamation and preaching.
Why is this final point important? Because many have argued (including Rick Warren) that the Bible could not possibly prohibit women from preaching because women were the first to proclaim the risen Christ. This line of thinking fails to rightly understand the difference between a general proclamation of the truth of Christ which we are all required to give and the preaching of God’s Word as performed by an elder in the Church. They are not the same thing.
Equality versus Role
Equality in Bearing the Image of God
The foundation of Christian anthropology is found in the earliest chapters of Genesis, where both man and woman are crafted in the Imago Dei, the Image of God. In Genesis 1:27, it is written, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” This passage affirms an essential theological truth: both genders bear the divine image equally. It means that men and women share inherent worth, dignity, and value in the eyes of their Creator. This ontological equality isn’t merely an abstract concept but should deeply influence how we view, treat, and think about one another in all spheres of life, including within the church.
Equality in Standing Before God With Respect to Salvation
When it comes to the realm of redemption and salvation, the New Testament is abundantly clear: there is no gender-based hierarchy. The Apostle Paul, in Galatians 3:28, proclaims, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” In the context of salvation, gender distinctions don’t offer advantages or impose limitations. Before the cross, all stand equal, and by grace, all have equal access to the saving power of Jesus Christ. This soteriological equality reinforces that men and women have the same spiritual value and potential in God’s redemptive plan.
Difference in Role Does Not Equate to Difference in Dignity
Recognizing equality in essence and salvation doesn’t negate the possibility of distinct roles within the church and the household. The Apostle Paul, who affirmed the spiritual equality of men and women, also delineated specific roles in his letters, especially when addressing church leadership and family dynamics.
Remember at the outset that the clear passages of Scripture should inform and help us interpret the more ambiguous or more general passages. Yes, men and women are equal before God as Paul points out in Galatians 3:28. He is speaking in terms of our standing before God, not concerning the specifics of how the Church should be led.
But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.Galatians 3:25-29 (ESV) (emphasis mine)
Many want to read the rest of Scripture in light of this passage, making men and women equal. This would result in an abrogation of Paul’s clear teaching in 1 Timothy and also opens up orthodoxy to attack by the LGBTQ+
community activists. Thomas Schreiner explains:
What if I were to say, “Galatians 3:28 is Paul’s fundamental statement on what it means to be male and female. Any verse written elsewhere on the matter must be read in light of Galatians 3:28. Therefore, those verses in Paul’s letters that proscribe homosexuality are to be read in light of Galatians 3:28. Paul says that whether one is a male or female is of no significance to God. Therefore, whether one marries a male or female is irrelevant.” Evangelicals would rightly protest that such an exegesis reads modern notions of sexual relations into the text. My point is that precisely the same kind of question-begging exegesis is being employed in egalitarian interpretations of Galatians 3:28. Women have equal access to salvation, and there are social consequences to this truth, to be sure, but we need to read Paul and the rest of the Scriptures to determine what these implications are.Thomas R. Schreiner, Two Views on Women in Ministry. Counterpoints: Bible and Theology. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), p. 426. (emphasis mine)3
Examples of Women in Leadership Throughout the Bible
Throughout Biblical history, women have been actively engaged in various ministries. It’s evident in both the Old and New Testaments that women served in diverse capacities, from prophets like Miriam, Deborah, and Huldah in the OT, to roles resembling OT prophets like Anna in the NT. The question then arises: does their active participation in such roles mean they can serve in pastoral offices?
The role of prophecy, particularly as it pertains to women, must be clearly defined. Some equate prophecy with preaching, but this becomes misleading when considering the difference between prophetic declarations and the regular teaching of scriptures. The NT illustrates prophecy as spontaneous revelations from God, distinct from pre-prepared teachings, as demonstrated by Agabus in the Acts of the Apostles. It’s important to note that prophecy differs from teaching; the former being new revelation and the latter, an explanation of already transmitted tradition.
Certain scholars, known as egalitarians, believe women did have leadership roles in the early church. They highlight examples such as Junia, referred to as an apostle in Romans 16:7, and the reference to a “chosen lady” in 2 John, among others. However, upon close examination, these claims remain inconclusive. The term “apostle” can be broad, not necessarily pointing to a formal leadership role, as seen in its usage in other contexts. Furthermore, the mere act of hosting church gatherings, as in the case of Priscilla or Lydia, doesn’t equate to a leadership role.
Paul, in his epistles, commends the significant contributions of women in ministry, listing them as “fellow workers” in spreading the gospel. However, it’s essential to distinguish between general ministry and leadership roles. Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, seemed to maintain a clear distinction, barring women from pastoral roles but affirming and encouraging their participation in ministries such as missionary work. Throughout church history, many women missionaries, while actively spreading the gospel, have adhered to the complementarian view, believing in distinct roles for men and women in church leadership.
* This whole section is basically a summary of Thomas Schreiner’s argument.3
Ability to perform a task does not necessarily equate to the lawfulness or right of someone to perform that task.
A common argument posits that since many women possess the skills, knowledge, and passion to preach effectively, they should be allowed to do so. While the church has been and continues to be enriched by countless spiritually mature, knowledgeable, and eloquent women, the discussion hinges on divine prescription, not capability. Just because someone has the ability to do something doesn’t automatically mean they should. The question remains: What has God, in His wisdom and design, ordained for His church?
Women sing in church and are not silent contrary to 1 Corinthians 14:34-35.
The directive for women to be “silent” in churches, as stated in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, is another debated passage. Critics argue that since women sing and pray aloud in church, this silence isn’t all-encompassing. To understand this, one must explore the context of the passage. The Corinthian church was notorious for its disorderly worship practices. Paul could not be arguing for a universal silence in this passage, because elsewhere he affirms that some women have the gift of prophecy and operate as such (see 1 Corinthians 11:5). That would require speaking.
Stay Away from Churches that Teach Egalitarianism
Compromise / Liberal Drift
Churches that embrace an egalitarian view of women in leadership roles can often be seen as symptomatic of a broader trend: a drift away from traditional orthodoxy and a willingness to compromise on foundational biblical teachings. This liberal drift isn’t just about the role of women; it often indicates a willingness to reinterpret, or even disregard, clear biblical directives in favor of contemporary cultural norms or societal pressures. A church that adjusts its doctrine based on societal trends, rather than grounding itself in the consistent teaching of Scripture, risks drifting away from the core truths of the Christian faith.
De-emphasizes Scripture and God’s Authority
Central to the debate on women in pastoral roles is the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. Churches that advocate for an egalitarian position take their cues from the godless culture and have more in common with LGBTQ+ hermeneutics than with faithful Bible teaching and preaching. The danger here is twofold: not only is there a potential for misinterpreting specific passages, but there’s also a risk of undermining the overarching authority of the Bible. Once the authority of Scripture is de-emphasized or made subjective, it becomes a slippery slope, with multiple essential doctrines potentially coming under scrutiny or reinterpretation.
Same-Sex Attraction / Same-Sex Marriage
Churches that advocate for egalitarian views on women in leadership tend to support same-sex relationships or marriages. It’s evident that the liberal interpretation of Scripture used to justify women in pastoral roles is the very same one that endorses same-sex relationships. Any church that takes this loose approach to Scripture is setting the foundation for endorsing same-sex marriages.
Charismatic Churches Often Support Women in Ministry
Many charismatic churches, known for their emphasis on spiritual gifts, signs, and wonders, also tend to be more open to women in preaching or pastoral roles. While a bulk of these churches may be against the LGBTQ+ agenda and be more in favor of conservative values and politics, the concern is that such churches might be prioritizing personal revelations or experiences over the clear teaching of Scripture.
If personal revelations or “words from the Lord” are given precedence or are considered on par with Scripture, there’s a risk of diluting the authority and consistency of the biblical message. This approach tends to be more feelings-driven, allowing cultural or personal biases to inform doctrine, rather than grounding beliefs solidly in God’s Word.
The role of women in church leadership is an issue of profound significance, much more intricate and consequential than other theological debates such as the differences in eschatology, like postmillennialism, amillennialism, and chart-toting premillennialism. And yes, I know there’s a difference between historic premillennialism and the modern Left-Behind Dispensationalists who have far more than 88 reasons by now. I would assert that this debate is even more important than the distinctions between paedobaptists and credobaptists.
This discussion is central to the essence and operations of the Church, the body of Christ. The Bible, God’s infallible Word, explicitly states that women are not to preach or exercise authority within the church. Overlooking or intentionally ignoring this directive, especially due to pressures from modern societal concerns, is tantamount to undermining Christ’s sovereignty and authority over His Church.
Staying loyal to a Church that not only permits but actively supports women to preach, is to align oneself with a form of teaching that leads believers and their families astray. Such teaching culminates in a weakened, diluted faith that lacks a solid foundation in God’s Word. Instead of being firmly grounded in Scripture, adherents will inevitably find themselves caught in a whirlwind of emotionalism and a misleading doctrine that prioritizes niceness above truth and the inerrancy of Scripture.
- Griffiths, Jonathan. Preaching in the New Testament: An Exegetical and Biblical-Theological Study. New Studies in Biblical Theology 42. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017, p55.
- Griffiths, Jonathan. Preaching in the New Testament: An Exegetical and Biblical-Theological Study. New Studies in Biblical Theology 42. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017, p51.
- Thomas R. Schreiner, Two Views on Women in Ministry. Counterpoints: Bible and Theology. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), p. 426.