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Women in Ministry: An Introduction to the Questions
part 2

The flow of Scripture

We now move from an analysis of details in Genesis 1-3, to a broader view of Scripture as a whole. The Old Testament usually reflects a male-dominated society. Most of the laws are written from a male perspective. Nevertheless, there are some interesting hints of the spiritual equality of women. Bruce Waltke writes this:

"In the first place, revelation came to women and proceeded from them as in the case of the Matriarch Rebekah (Gen 25:23), Manoah’s wife (Judges 13:3) and the prophetesses Miriam (Exod 15:20f, Num 12:2), Deborah (Judges 4:4), Huldah (2 Kings 22:14-20) and the anonymous prophetess (Isa 8:3). Most amazing is God’s revelation to Hagar. Nowhere else in ancient Near Eastern literature is it recorded that deity called a woman by name, yet the angel of the Lord does just that twice in the case of Hagar (Gen 16:8; 21:17).

"The conversation between the angel of the Lord and Hagar is just as startling in its cultural milieu as the conversation of Jesus with the Samaritan woman in his day. In both instances God invests a woman with full dignity by solicitously caring for her and by giving her revelations even though both of them come from outside the pure race and are sinners" (Bruce Waltke, "The Relationship of the Sexes in the Bible," Crux, Sept. 1983, p. 13-14).

I find the example of Deborah to be particularly challenging to the traditional view. She was judging Israel just as other judges had done. The word of the Lord came to her on a regular basis, it seems, with no hint of impropriety. She spoke the word and commands of the Lord, and I cannot imagine any higher authority than that. God wanted her words to be obeyed. Was she restricted to civil and military roles? No—she sang a song of praise to God, which has become part of Scripture. This was a public act of worship. Civil and religious functions were intertwined in ancient Israel.

God can raise up stones to do his work. Surely he could raise up a man if maleness was necessary. But he did not. So I conclude from the example of Deborah that, even if Genesis teaches male leadership, this does not preclude the possibility that women can, at least in some situations, exercise spiritual leadership over men.

Waltke writes, "Second, women pray to the Lord for children and thereby influence the shape of sacred history as in the case of the matriarchs Rebekah (Gen 25:22), Rachel (Gen 30:6, 22) and Leah (Gen 30:17).... 

"Third, women in their own right offered sacrifices after purification from childbirth (Lev 12:6) and bodily discharges (Lev 15:29).

"Fourth, women as well as men could become Nazirites (Num 6:2).... 

"Fifth, a woman who felt wronged by her husband could appeal to the Lord for justice. Sarah...when wronged by Hagar and not protected by Abraham, said to him: "May the Lord judge between you and me."...

"Sixth...the laws for the woman’s ceremonial cleansing after bodily discharges are essentially the same as those for men (Lev 15:32)" (Waltke, p. 14).

The book of Proverbs is also relevant. Women are used to symbolize wisdom (the Hebrew word for "wisdom" is feminine), and are also used to symbolize folly and sin. The Proverbs 31 woman shows that Hebrew society praised highly competent women who were able to teach—but the context is in the family, not in the religious assembly.

Again, Waltke writes: "Finally, the mother stands on equal footing with the father before the children. Children are commanded to honour and fear both mother and father (Exod 20:12; Lev 19:3), the death penalty is exacted against the child that curses either one (Exod 21:15, 17; Deut 21:18-21), both parents are instructed in the Law (Deut 31:12) and teach the children (Prov 1:8; 31:26) and both name the children."

The New Testament

The example of Jesus is also relevant to our discussion. "There is not one hint anywhere in the teaching of Jesus that he ever suggested the idea that women are to be dependent on men, or to be in submission to men" (W. Ward Gasque, "The Role of Women in the Church, in Society, and in the Home." Crux, Sept. 83, p. 4). However, of Jesus’ 12 closest disciples, whom he chose to lead his church, all 12 were men. Egalitarians answer that the Twelve were all Jewish, too, and that we cannot logically deny ordination to women any more than we can deny ordination to gentiles. The church should overcome both kinds of social barriers.

However, the Jewishness of the disciples is consistent with the fact that Jesus was sent only to the Jews (Matt. 15:24), and the apostles were to represent the 12 tribes of Israel. But Jesus was willing to teach women not only in crowds, but also in private. He ministered to women, and women were among his larger group of disciples, but not among the closest 12. There is good reason not to have gentiles among the 12, but why not any women? Some egalitarians answer that Jesus was limited by his culture, but this seems weak. Jesus was not afraid of breaking social conventions for righteousness’ sake.

The example of Jesus shows that in certain situations it is not a sin to discriminate on the basis of gender when choosing church leaders. He may have done this because of his situation, or it may have been done for a more permanent reason, but either way, it seems to be what he did. Egalitarians often assume that equality must include equal access to all social roles. This does not seem to be a valid assumption.

In the book of Acts, when the eleven chose a replacement for Judas, one requirement was that the person be a man (Acts 1:21). Throughout the book of Acts, only men preach in public. The grammatical subjects of the verbs "preach" and "evangelize" are always men. This is understandable in Judea, but less so in other geographic regions. Luke often alternates stories about men with stories about women, but he never does this for preaching, even though he mentions prominent women.

Paul appointed elders in the churches, but the elders, as far as we can tell, were all male. (None are named.) There was a Greek word for older women, but it is not used to indicate a position of leadership in the church. Women were an important part of the early church, but the text stops short of saying that they were preachers and elders.

Let’s note the roles that women had in the early church. Lydia provided a meeting place for the church and would have therefore had some informal authority. However, nothing is said about leadership (Acts 16:12-15, 40). Is it safe to assume either one way or the other? No.

Nympha also provided a house, but nothing is said about leadership (Col. 4:15). Prominent women were converted in Europe, but they were not influential enough to be mentioned by name (Acts 17:1-4, 12).

Priscilla was prominent, and Paul even mentioned her name first sometimes. Many people conclude from this that she was more influential than her husband. Countering this is the fact that Aquila is sometimes listed first. I would hate to base an argument on an inference like that.

Paul said that Phoebe was a diakonos servant of the church in Cenchrea (Rom. 16:1). Paul’s other uses of diakonos are all for noteworthy men. If a man’s name had been mentioned here, we would conclude that Paul was talking about a deacon, a church leader. Phoebe was apparently an important woman, a deacon. Paul says, "She has been a great help to many people, including me" (v. 2).

The Greek word translated "a great help" or "helper" or "benefactor" (NRSV) is prostasis, which is not found anywhere else in the New Testament. It is related to the word proistemi, which means manage, lead or rule. Some egalitarians therefore claim that prostasis should be translated "leader"—she has been a leader of many people. However, this would make Phoebe a leader of Paul, too. Paul always argued that Jesus Christ was the only one who had authority over Paul. It is not likely that Paul would say that Phoebe was his leader or ruler. We should not force the meaning of proistemi onto prostasis.

Next, Paul said that Mary, Tryphena, Tryphosa and Persis were "women who work hard in the Lord" (Rom. 16:6, 12). Some egalitarians claim that the Greek word translated "work hard" means church leadership. Again, I think that this is pushing the evidence further than is safe. Although the Greek word can be used for the labor of preaching (John 4:38; 1 Cor. 15:10; Gal. 4:11; Phil. 2:16; Col. 1:29), it is often used for manual labor (e.g., Luke 5:5; Acts 20:35; 1 Cor. 4:12; Eph. 4:28). Although "in the Lord" might indicate some ecclesiastical function, it is not clear what role these women had in the church. All service should be done in the Lord. I would hate to build a case on inferences and possibilities like this.

One last controversy from Romans 16: Junia(s) may have also been a notable woman (v. 7). The form of the word that Paul used may have come from Junias (a man’s name) or Junia (a woman’s name). Neither name was common. It cannot be proven whether the person was male or female. And it is not essential for our discussion, anyway. If this person was an apostle, he/she may have been an apostle in the sense of messenger or ambassador. A woman can be an apostle in this sense, just as Phoebe was probably the person who carried Paul’s epistle to Rome. So the verse does not prove anything about church leadership, since other interpretations of "apostle" are likely. Since Andronicus disappears from church history, it is likely that he was an apostle in the sense of messenger, not an authoritative leader.

As you can see, the arguments go back and forth, with claim and counterclaim, often with neither side making any conclusive points. This can make the discussion tedious. My hope in this article is not to bore you with details, but to give some perspective on arguments you might run across in the literature.

Part 3: 1 Corinthians

Part 4: 1 Timothy