What Does the Bible Say About Women in Ministry?
Frequently Asked Questions
- What does the Bible say about women ministers, pastors or priests?
- What role should women play in the church?
- Are women not allowed to speak in church?
The question of women ministers, pastors, priests, etc., is controversial within
Christianity. Many of the larger Christian denominations -- Anglican, Episcopal,
Evangelical Lutheran, United Methodist, Presbyterian (USA), United Church of Christ,
etc. -- do ordain women. The Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches do not. There
are a number of ordained Baptist women, but the Southern Baptist Convention now
opposes ordination of women.
Old Testament Example
Women were mostly in a subservient role, but a number of women are mentioned as
leaders and prophets of Israel, including Miriam (Exodus 15:20), Deborah (Judges
4:4-5), Esther (Esther 4:15-17), Huldah (2 Kings 22:14) and Athaliah (2 Chronicles
The New Testament
Jesus chose only men as His twelve apostles (Mark 3:13-19), and that is sometimes
cited as a reason that only men should be appointed to church leadership roles.
However, Jesus sent His apostles out to spread the gospel to the world, seeking
food and shelter where they could find it, facing great danger and ultimately martyrdom.
This would not have been considered an appropriate role for a woman in Biblical
times, just as it would not be considered appropriated today.
Jesus did have a number of women among His larger circle of disciples (Matthew
27:55-56, Mark 15:40-41, Luke 8:1-3, 23:49, John 20:14-18).
The Early Church
A number of women held important positions in the early Christian churches (Acts
1:12-14, 18:24-26, 21:7-9, Romans 16:1-16).
Much of the opposition to women in ministry is based on these two passages:
As in all the congregations of the saints, 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.
(NIV, 1 Corinthians 14:33-35)
A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a
woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. (NIV, 1 Timothy
Related verses: 1 Corinthians 11:3, Ephesians 5:22-23.
As with much of the Bible, some background information is helpful for interpreting
- Biblical-era society was very much male-dominated. The status of women was
much like that of children today -- totally subservient to the male head-of-household.
It would have been considered scandalous for a woman to take a leadership role
with authority over men.
- Biblical-era women were not educated and were mostly confined to domestic
duties. A woman would not have had the education needed to take a teaching role.
- The young Christian communities in the Mediterranean area were already looked
upon as hotbeds of dangerous heretics by the pagan majorities. The apostle Paul
and other church leaders were very concerned about avoiding any appearance of
scandal that would make a bad impression on the people they wanted to convert
to Christianity (Titus 2:3-8, 1 Corinthians 14:22-24), or worse, that could
be used to justify persecution of Christians.
- Humility is an important theme throughout the New Testament. Virtue comes
from obedience to God, not from rebelling against society's norms (1 Peter 2:13-17).
Thus, slaves should accept freedom if offered, but, if not, should be obedient
to their masters in all things (1 Corinthians 7:20-24, Colossians 3:22-24, 1 Peter
2:18-21). Similarly, women should not rebel against their lot in life
(1 Peter 3:1-6).
Paul's Proclamation of Equality
Although he accepted that people may have different roles in society, the apostle
Paul proclaimed that all believers are equal in God's sight:
You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who
were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither
Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ
Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according
to the promise. (NIV, Galatians 3:26-29)
The "No" Conclusion: Women Cannot Be Ministers or Priests
Many people interpret the fact that Jesus appointed only male apostles, and the
New Testament passages cited above as an absolute prohibition of a ministerial
role for women. It is the natural order, decreed by God, that women should forever
be subservient to men. Based on inerrancy of the Bible, these passages must be taken
at face value, and women must forever be barred from roles in ministry.
The "Yes" Conclusion: Women Can Be Ministers and Priests
Many others view the New Testament prohibitions simply as practical advice to preserve
the sanctity and tranquility of the church and to avoid scandal. Although the New
Testament writers passively accepted slavery, few people would argue that we should
return to the horrors of slavery. In the same way, although the New Testament writers
passively accepted the oppression of women, it does not imply that a leadership
role for a woman would be wrong in today's very different society. Some of the great
leaders and prophets of Israel were women, so God could not have intended to exclude
women from spiritual and political leadership. Paul's proclamation of equality and
Jesus' willingness to defy convention and accept women into his larger circle of
disciples should be the guiding principles rather than the customs of the Roman
Empire in the first century. Women took as large a role in the early Church leadership
as was allowed by the conventions of that society, so women today should be able
to serve the Church in whatever positions they are qualified to fill.
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