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What Does the Bible Say About Women in Ministry?

Frequently Asked Questions

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 22:10-12).

The New Testament

Jesus' Example

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).

Bible Prohibitions

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 2:11-12)

Related verses: 1 Corinthians 11:3, Ephesians 5:22-23.

As with much of the Bible, some background information is helpful for interpreting these passages:

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)

Conclusions

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.

Related article: What does the Bible say about women's rights?

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