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Women in Ministry:
An Introduction to the Questions

Author's note: In this article I have tried to introduce the questions, not answer them. I give my opinions on the strength of various arguments, and I criticize both egalitarian and complementarian views. I have tried to be neutral in my presentation. One preliminary reviewer thought I leaned one way, another reviewer thought I leaned the other way.

Scripture is the foundation

Most large Protestant denominations accept the ordination of women as elders. Many relatively conservative churches accept female preachers and elders. Some who believe the Bible to be infallible and inerrant believe that it allows for the ordination of women. Others do not. Some take a middle road by accepting women as elders, but not as senior pastors. It is helpful for us to understand the reasons behind the different positions.

Some people accept the ordination of women elders by denying the authority of Scripture, or by denying the authenticity of a few specific verses. Some accept it because they believe that Paul did not mean for those verses to be taken out of their historical context.

We take the position that Scripture is our authority for faith and practice. We accept the Bible as canonical and authoritative for church practice today. This includes the verses that are at the center of this controversy. Our task is to understand what Paul meant, and whether his comments were meant as universal and timeless guidance for the church, or as temporary guidance for specific congregations. To do that, we look not only at the specific verses, but also at what all of Scripture says about the subject.

In this study, we do not want to raise any false hopes or raise any unwarranted fears about women in leadership. We do not want to be either conservative or liberal. Rather, our hope is that we better understand how to apply the Scriptures to our situation today.

Now let us take a more detailed look at some of the arguments concerning women in leadership. I will share with you some of my thoughts along the way. In some cases I believe that the evidence favors the ordination of women elders, and in other cases it does not. In almost all cases, somebody is likely to disagree with my assessment. But I share these thoughts to further the discussion and stimulate future studies.

Genesis 1

Although the controversy often focuses on two passages in the New Testament, the story begins in the Garden of Eden. The main concern here is whether female subordination was God’s intent from the beginning, or whether it was a result of sin. It seems generally agreed that if female subordination was only a result of sin, then the church should not enforce it. Since in Christ we are all forgiven, we should strive to eliminate sin and its results.

Genesis 1:26-27: "Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them."

Note that singular and plural are mixed in this passage. Not only does God talk about "our" image, the passage also refers to "his" image. Not only does God talk about humans as "them," the passage also refers to "him." The image of God has complexity within it. Just as there are distinctions within the Godhead, there are distinctions in humanity. Despite differences in appearance, all humans (both as individuals and as a group) are made in the image of God. Both men and women were created in the image of God.

In this passage, humans are called "man." Does this mean that males are the divine representatives for all humanity? Some people seem to think so, but I doubt it. It is more likely a limitation of the Hebrew language. We cannot assume that God was speaking Hebrew in heaven and that we have the exact words he spoke. What we have is a translation into Hebrew, and there may not have been a neuter-gender word for humanity. The word "man," meaning "humanity," may tell us more about the Hebrew language than it does God’s intent.

Note that both male and female rule over creation. "Let them rule," God said. Verse 28 tells us more: "God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’" These commands were given to both male and female. So far, Genesis treats men and women equally—it is egalitarian.

Genesis 2

In Genesis 2, however, we see gender distinctions in the story. The male was created before the female. Is this significant? I would not want to build an argument on it, except for the fact that the apostle Paul uses it: "Adam was formed first, then Eve" (1 Tim. 2:13). We will discuss this verse more below.

Genesis 2:15-17 tells us: "The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.’" These commands were given to Adam; the text does not say how Eve learned of them.

"The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him’" (Gen. 2:18). The word "helper" may imply subordination to some people, but the Hebrew word does not imply subordination—the word is most often used for God as a helper of humans. Being a helper does not imply any subordination—nor does it imply equality. In Eve’s case, she was someone who was "meet" or "appropriate" or "suitable" for Adam. It was not good for him to be alone, and Eve was the divinely supplied solution to the problem. The word "suitable" does not imply subordination, either.

However, Eve was made for Adam. Is this significant? Paul seems to think so: "Man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man" (1 Cor. 11:8-9). However, Paul immediately reduces the significance by noting, "as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman" (v. 12). The result, Paul says, is that "in the Lord...woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman" (v. 11). This mutual dependence suggests equality, but it does not rule out the possibility of differing responsibilities toward one another.

"Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds of the air and all the beasts of the field. But for Adam no suitable helper was found" (Gen. 2:19-20).

This job was given to Adam but not to Eve. Many scholars seem to think that Adam’s duty of giving names to animals was an exercise in ruling over the animals—the right to assign names indicates an authority. This becomes significant because Adam also named his wife:

"The Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. The man said, ‘This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called "woman," for she was taken out of man’" (Gen. 2:22-23). Adam recognizes the woman as being on the same level as he is, made out of the same stuff. Unlike the animals, she is the same species as Adam. The text seems to emphasize the woman’s similarity to the man rather than differences in function.

Adam names her—does this imply that he had authority over her? Egalitarians say "no"— Adam is simply recognizing that the woman is the same species. Egalitarians say that Adam did not name his wife in an exercise-of-authority way until after sin and the curse of dominion: "Adam named his wife Eve" (Gen. 3:20).

It is true that Adam named the woman Eve after the curse. However, this was an individual name; it was not the sort of name Adam had been giving the animals. Adam was not naming individual animals—he was naming categories. Similarly, he gave a category name to the woman in 2:23. So, if naming is an exercise of authority, then Gen. 2:23 may imply some sort of authority of Adam over Eve before sin entered the picture. However, this might apply only to Adam, and not to all males thereafter.

But perhaps it had nothing to do with authority. The parade of animals and the sequence of naming was simply to increase Adam’s appreciation of his wife, not to give him domination. The text is not directly addressing the question we are asking, and if we try to read implications from the text, we run the risk of reading things into the text.

"For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh" (Gen. 2:24). This verse makes gender distinctions. It states that the man will leave his family to be joined to his wife. (It does not say what the woman does. It seems to assume that she will also leave her family to join her husband.) However, it also says that the man and wife become a unity, which implies that the mother is as important as the father. This verse gives us God’s original intent for marriage (Matt. 19:4-5)—it includes equality and implies a distinction in roles.

Genesis 3

Then sin entered the picture. The serpent deceived Eve. Is it significant that the serpent spoke to Eve first, not to Adam? Genesis does not stress it. It says nothing about Eve being away from her husband. Although Eve knew that she should not eat the forbidden fruit, she ate it. She was deceived and she sinned.

1 Tim. 2:14 says that Adam was not deceived—but that may be a Semitic figure of speech, a matter of emphasis rather than an actual negation. (Similar figures of speech are seen in Deut. 5:3; Jer. 7:22, Hos. 6:6; John 12:47). All sin involves deception. The point being made is that Eve was deceived first. Both Eve and Adam were deceived in some way. They were both guilty, and they responded equally to the sin:

"The eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden" (Gen. 3:7-8).

But gender distinctions are again made: "The Lord God called to the man, ‘Where are you?" He answered, "I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid" (3:10-11). Why did God speak to the man first? Why did he not speak to the man and woman equally? The text does not say. Perhaps it is for literary reasons: God speaks to the man, then the woman, then the serpent, then the woman, and finally the man, forming a chiasm (vv. 9-19).

Why does Paul say in Rom. 5:12-14 that sin entered the world through one man? This suggests that God held Adam in greater responsibility than he did Eve. He made gender distinctions that implied different roles. However, Paul used the word anthropos, which means person in general rather than specifically a male. Sin entered the world through a person.

God then told Eve that, because of her sin, she would have pain in childbirth, would desire her husband, and would be ruled by her husband (v. 16). Childbirth was part of God’s original intent, but now it would be accompanied by pain. A desire for companionship was also part of God’s original intent, but it would also be negatively affected by sin.

Is it a curse to be ruled? Not in itself. Rule, such as Adam’s rule over the animals, was part of God’s original intent for creation. Rule becomes a curse only if it is selfishly administered. Male leadership, which in this age is tainted by selfishness, became negative as a consequence of sin.

Adam was punished not only for eating the forbidden fruit, but also for listening to (i.e., obeying) his wife (v. 17). Why was that mentioned? Would it have been wrong to obey his wife if she had suggested something good? Was this a leadership problem?

Adam’s curse, like Eve’s, involved an alteration of God’s original intent. In Adam’s case, the original intent was for Adam to take care of the garden. After sin entered, he had to struggle against the plants of the field. Eve was cursed in her family life, and Adam was cursed in his occupational life. This implies that these were the primary responsibilities God had assigned to each. Although they had an equality, they also had different roles. Biology and anatomy suggest different roles, as well.

Part 2: The flow of Scripture

Part 3: 1 Corinthians

Part 4: 1 Timothy 

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