Women Leaders in the Church

The issue of women in ministry has been a thorny one. Most Christian churches and denominations do not allow women to occupy the highest echelons of church leadership. The issues are complex and I would not do justice to it by failing to admit that. One of the strongest reasons the proponents of this view have against women occupying prime leadership/ministerial roles is the Bible itself. This is of cause a powerful reason as long as the Bible is indeed saying that.

There are many women who say if the Bible indeed says this, it’s sexist male propaganda and they will have no part in it. A lot of women embrace the popular interpretations of the text because they see it as a standard against certain ungodly strains of feminism.

I am not an expert on feminism but as a postmodern movement it seems to challenge the narrative that being male means you have the right to power and influence whilst being female means you must be subjugated. The fact on the ground is that women and children consistently remain the most vulnerable in society. I am in support of changing this horrible situation and as modern labels go I don’t mind me, or anyone else for that matter, being called a feminist. The problem with a lot of the feminist movement is that they take a thoroughly Biblical idea, the equality of both men and women, to disregard the Bible, its God, and also the women it wants to protect. These issues, however, are not the point of this particular discussion. How we interpret and understand what the Bible has to say about women in ministry is the point.

Others are better qualified to give a more thorough exegesis of the notorious proof texts that seem to prohibit certain kinds of female leadership. These texts are 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15. What I can say as an interested observer is that recent scholarship provides powerful alternatives to how we read these texts. When you look at the alternatives they do not tell us women cannot occupy leadership roles in ministry. So if these specific points are not prohibitory what about the Bible overall?

First of all, the Holy Scriptures are not culturally bland. The Biblical text is vividly coloured by the society of its time. There are ideals which the Bible presents, things which are God’s design and intention from the beginning, but it also faithfully represents the situation on the ground. Sometimes these two mirror each other but a lot of the time they don’t. When Jesus spoke about divorce he emphatically said it was not the will of God but in the Law of Moses it was present because of human stubbornness. Slavery is an example of something the Bible clearly does not approve but combating it is not a central issue in the Bible.

Somethings which are not right before God have been woven into the matrix of human society and it takes great care and tact to remove these elements. The great abolitionists like Granville Sharpe were spurred on by their Christian beliefs. They however did not resort to violent means to rescue people. They worked through a corrupt system to deliver it from its own decay in a similar fashion to how God became man to save us from our own corrupt humanity.

Women in the ancient world were often thought of as inferior to men. The opening segments of Genesis presents a radical view where humanity is made up of man and woman and not man then woman. Womankind is payed the greatest ever compliment being described as made in God’s image. No other worldview gives women this status in the imago Dei. In the opening pages of Scripture we see that women are endowed with leadership abilities.

Equality between men and women in the Bible by no means implies that men and women are the same. Men and women are seen as the two complimentary components of the human race each with their own role and function. This is particularly important in the family which is central to the Biblical narrative. For humanity to flourish there has to be masculinity and femininity. Male and female are a very important binaries in God’s creation which we cannot go into detail here. Anything that erodes or objectifies this distinction is against the will of God.

You do not just happen to have or not have a Y chromosome. Figuring out what the role of men and women in society should be, however, is much trickier. Tradition is always a sensitive part of culture. When we read a portion of the Bible we should not be quick to say what we are seeing is bad for women. Navigating your way through cultural ideologies is hard enough as it is now. What about societies in the ancient past! Somethings we may find shocking or offensive might just be perfectly justifiable in their cultural context.

One such example is how infants are treated in levitical rituals. Females tend to have the twice the ritual requirements of their male counterparts. A mother who give births to a girl will be ceremonially unclean for twice as long than if she had a boy (Leviticus 12.) I used to think of this as inconvenient and unfair to the women. When I found out recently that in the Ancient Near East one represented man and two represented woman these passages took on a whole new possible meaning. (Plus I am all for the risk of minimising neonatal infections. Many visitors to a new born can pose a health risk  since infants lack certain kinds of immunity.)

In the Bible being male or female represented something much bigger than the kind of anatomy you have. Male leadership in the family represents the fatherhood of God to the whole human race. The reason Jesus’ chose 12 male apostles was an overt reference to the 12 patriarchs of the Israel. Being male had an important symbolic value. When we look at roles reserved for males in the Scriptures we must take in to consideration any possible symbolic or figural role there might be.

There are times where the Bible is disruptive, deliberately counter-cultural as we saw in Genesis 1 and 2. Pharaoh’s midwives who defied him, Deborah the prophetess, Queen Esther are obvious examples of where the women are the heroes of the story. There are other examples which are not so obvious to the 21st century reader.

Jesus did not have only 12 disciples. The Twelve were his core but they were not his only followers. The women disciples are singled out as the ones who supported his itinerant ministry. A more nuanced example of women occupying traditionally male roles is in the popular story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42.) There were various rabbis in Jesus’ day and they only took male disciples. The story of Martha and Mary shows us the women in Jesus’ ministry were not just tag along sponsors but bona fide students.

The episode of Jesus visiting the sisters is not about being distracted or the benefits of listening to a sermon or any of the other traditional interpretations. Luke says Mary was seated at Jesus’ feet. This is not a mere reference to her posture but an indicator of a teacher-student relationship. Paul for example in Acts 22:3 said he was “brought up at the feet of Gamaliel” which means the great Gamaliel was his Rabbi. Martha was in the female section of the house serving whilst Mary was in the male section studying. When Jesus’ was asked about the awkward social situation he rather encouraged it. It is no wonder that when Mary (if it is the same person) saw the resurrected Lord she called him “Rabboni,” that is, My Teacher (Luke 20:16.) If Jesus’ not only permitted but encourages women to occupy a traditionally male role in worship what do we have to say about the rest?

Prisca, along with her husband Aquila, were a teaching power couple well known in the Church and commended by no less than the apostle Paul himself (Romans 16:3.) She is a woman whom the entire Church is indebted to.

Another prominent woman is the “deacon” Phoebe. The scholarship on letters in the Ancient Greco-Roman world is quite fascinating. The research of Dr Peter Head of Tyndale House, Cambridge in particular on letter carriers, shows the important role Phoebe had. As the carrier of the Letter to the Romans Paul entrusted her with a solemn responsibility. Not only did she deliver the letter but she was the apostle’s trusted representative and authoritative interpreter of the text. (Many scholars say letter carriers were also the readers but there is no evidence of this.) Though she might not have been the lector she was a qualified and well recognised authority figure in the Church. When you consider the immense theological importance of Romans to the Church this is huge. The ground for women not being in ministry in scripture is quickly shrinking.

Now all these arguments may seem a bit conjectural. If only there was one woman in the New Testament who has a named, easily recognisable position? As God himself would have it, we do. In Romans 16:7 Junia, a woman, is recognised by Paul as an apostle. The current consensus in scholarship says so. In the past she was thought to be Junias, a man, or perhaps just someone the apostles knew but this is firmly not the case. If women were apostles then what stops them from being fully integrated at every level of ministry?

To qualify to be an apostle you had to be a witness to the resurrected the Lord. It’s a well-known fact in the ancient world of the Bible that the testimony of women was not valued. The fact the Lord chose to appear to women speaks to the integrity and authenticity of the scriptures. By the criterion of embarrassment it would have been counter intuitive for them to lie about the resurrection if they were willing to admit embarrassing details about the event. If the first people to carry the good news of his resurrection were women it is no surprise at all there were women apostles or leaders of any kind for that matter.

The entire grain of Scripture is pro-women. It would be surprising that such a good Creator would be against his own creation in any way at all. It is interesting to note that when you read the New Testament we do not find the same level of controversy. Without exaggeration or overstatement women were simply in ministry. If the generally flow of the Scriptures is not against women leadership we need to take a careful look at those passages that seem to say otherwise.

An important note for those who like me advocate for women in all aspects ministry is not to use un-scriptural reasons to push the cause. N.T. Wright, in his caption for the article he wrote for the Times about women bishops, rightly said,

It’s about the Bible, and not fake ideas of progress.

Stating its 2015 should not be the prime reason why we should have women pastors, elders, bishops etc. However, these issues are often difficult to navigate. Churches and denominations should not be coerced into these positions by political correctness.

One way I believe we can tell if gender should be factored in a role in the church is to determine if the role is gender specific or dependent to begin with. I am not calling for a societal riot where mothers deny there maternal instincts to prove a point. Gender is essential to the fabric of human society but not all aspects of society depend on gender. If the person is qualified and capable that should be enough for us. The Church needs every individual, male and female, to contribute to its mission and its edification.

Women like Kathryn Khulman and Heidi Baker are wonderful examples of women who are strong capable leaders at the cutting edge of evangelism. Like Ms. Khulman, “Mama” Heidi has been used by God in a credible international ministry of signs and wonder. Women should not be shackled to a quaint auxiliary “Preacher’s Wife”, or in my local dialect “Ͻsɔfo Maame”, role. Historically and Biblically women have shown themselves to be exemplary leaders.

Finally, it is curious the language we use to discuss these issues. Men being in leadership and women serving. Jesus taught his disciples in the new order they were doing power the other way round. He is the prime example offering his life for ours. If the leaders are the servants then by that reasoning women must be in leadership in the Church.


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