The first point is that the Bible is our supreme authority. If it states some truth that it claims is eternal, then we cannot just ignore it.
Secondly, each book of the Bible was in a particular historical and cultural context. When applying it to today, we must first find timeless principles to apply (for example, ‘Greet one another with a holy kiss’ – 1 Co 16:20b).
The Range of Views
Broadly speaking, there are three views on the issue of women in church leadership. Firstly, there are those who argue that women should not be allowed in any church leadership positions whatsoever. Secondly, some argue that women may be in leadership positions, but the overall leader in the church must be man. Thirdly, there are those who have no problem with women in any leadership positions, even as the overall leader.
The Burden of Proof
The first question must be where the burden proof lies. We submit that it lies with those arguing that women should not be leadership positions. The reason for this is that it simply makes sense, and seems arbitrary to rule out 50% (or more) of the population from being in leadership positions simply because of their sex. Women seem to be in leadership positions in most other walks of life – why not then in the church?
The question really is, if scripture were absolutely silent on the matter, would we be justified in allowing women to be in church leadership. Of course we would, as there would be no reasonable reason to reject it.
Now it may be that the Bible presents reasons why this shouldn’t be the case and we will examine these shortly. But before we have examined the evidence, the burden of proof would appear to be with those who argue against women in church leadership positions. The consequence of this is that the evidence against women in leadership must be greater than the evidence against it.
Argument Against Women in Leadership
We have seven arguments against women holding leadership positions in church, mainly based on the arguments presented in Wayne Gruden’s Systematic Theology book.
1. 1 Timothy 2:11-15
It is argued here that here Paul is presenting an eternal argument, rather than a cultural argument. The argument is based on creation – Adam was formed first – not a cultural situation, so the implication is therefore eternal.
The argument here is that it says women should be silent in church, as in all the congregations. Consequently, it was not just something for the people of Corinth at the time.
Both of these passages talk about elders and deacons in the churches, specifically giving Timothy and Titus instructions for how to appoint them. Both of these passages assume that elders are men. All the pronouns are male, and both state that elders should be “the husband of but one wife”.
4. Relationship between the family and the church
This argument says that there was distinction of male and female roles before the fall:
- Adam was created first.
- Eve was created as Adam’s helper.
- Adam, not Eve, represented humanity (1 Co 15:22 and Ro 5:15).
It then argues the Bible clearly teaches man headship in marriage:
- 1 Co 11:3,7-8 – ‘the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man’.
- Eph 5:22-23 – ‘the husband is the head of the wife’.
- 1 Pe 3:1-7 – ‘wives be submissive’.
Finally, it argues that the biblical church is an extension of the family, and so consequently, if male headship applies in marriage, male leadership in the church must result.
5. The Apostles were all men
Jesus only appointed men as apostles. He could have chosen women, as he made many other controversial decisions and statements, but he did not. Consequently it follows that he did not support women at least in senior leadership positions.
6. Male teaching and leadership throughout the bible
With very few exceptions, the Bible only shows examples of women in leadership or teaching positions. The roles of Deborah (Jud 4-5) and Huldah (2 Ki 22:14-20) are regarded as judges or prophets, not as leaders, and in both cases it was a man who subsequently acted on their prophecy.
7. Male leadership throughout church history
Throughout the vast majority of church history, all leadership and teaching positions have been held by men. The fathers of the early church all believed that women should not be in leadership, and it has only been recently that this position has been challenged. While history should not be the sole reason for favoring their position, it is important that most theologians over a long period of time have believed that women should not be in leadership.
Argument for Women in Church Leadership
1′. Genesis 1:27
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
Both men and women were created equal in God’s image. The first part of the Bible that deals with the creation of humans states clearly that men and women are equal.
2′. Acts 2:17-18
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
18 Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
This passage states that men and women both have equal access to the blessings of salvation.
3′. Genesis 3:16
“I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing;
with pain you will give birth to children.
Your desire will be for your husband,
and he will rule over you.”
The fall brought a distortion in the roles that God had planned for men and women.
4′. 1 Peter 2:9-10
Peter here declares that both men and women are now the royal priesthood. The priesthood is no longer limited to male descendants of Aaron, as it was in the Old Testament. Under the new covenant, both men and women are priests of God, equally, without distinction.
5′. Galations 3:26-29
This passage clearly declares that men and women are equal in Christ. Men are not special, neither are Jews, Greeks, slave, nor free – all have equal access to Christ and are Abraham’s heirs.
6′. Acts 18:24-26
The interesting thing here is that both Priscilla (female) and Aquila (male) taught Apollos, who was possibly the author of Hebrews. While Apollos was not an apostle, he was definately a major figure in the early church, yet was taught by a woman.
7′. Romans 16:1
The word used for servant here is the same word used for deacon in other parts of the New Testament. It was historically translated as servant as the translators couldn’t believe that a woman was a deacon in the church. But surely that is a horrible way to approach scripture – start with your prejudices and then translate accordingly. That’s the same approach used by the Jesus Seminar and look where it takes them!
8′. Progressive Revelation
This argues that God’s revelation over time is progressive, and a prime example of this is slavery. There is nothing in the Bible that explicitly rules out slavery, and Jesus definately could have argued against it if he chose to. However, a long time later, slavery was abolished, and looking at the Bible now, we can definately see hints of this, even though it is not stated explicitly.
The role of women in the church is similar.
- The role of women in the New Testament is greatly increased over their role in the Old Testament.
- The symbol of the new covenant, baptism, is available to men and women equally. The symbol of the old covenent, circumcision, was only available to men.
- 1 Co 7:4 – the idea of mutual ruling over each other’s bodies is unparalleled in previous Jewish thinking. It is a clear step forward.
Weighing the Arguments
So there are a number of arguments on both sides, so let’s now examine how strong they really are.
Against Women in Church Leadership
In summary, the arguments against women in church leadership were:
2) Women must keep silent in church as in all the congregations (1 Co 14:33b-35).
3) Elders are assumed to be men (1 Ti 3:1-7 and Tit 1:5-9).
4) Relationship between family and the church.
5) The apostles were all men.
6) Male teaching and leadership throughout the bible.
7) Male leadership throughout church history.
Let’s go through these arguments in reverse order.
(7) is not convincing unless there is a good reason for it. It may point to a good reason, but is not convincing on its own. Consequently, it is not too relevant when considering the arguments here.
(6) is almost true, but there are exceptions. In addition to the exceptions of Deborach and Huldah, there is Priscilla (6′), and Phoebe (7′). Furthermore, (8′), that argues for progressive revelation can easily explain that there are few examples of women leadership in the bible. As there are counter-examples here, it is not convincing on its own, without further evidence.
(5) can be explained by the simple fact that if Jesus appointed some women as apostles, it would have distracted from the purpose of his ministry. The women apostles would not have been able to function effectively, as the Jewish people simply would not have been prepared to listen to them. This argument can also be answered by the idea of progressive revelation (8′).
(4) argues that that the Bible claims male headship in marriage, and since the church is the extended family, this must apply there as well. Assuming for the moment that the bible does teach male headship in marriage, we think the argument that therefore this implies male leadership in the church is very weak. Leadership in the family and the church are not identical, there is no biblical passage that implies that they are, so we think this argument falls over.
The two passages in (3) talk about the qualifications for elders, and both seem to assume men. This of course is very different to it stating that they must be men, and so we don’t think this argument stands. When Paul was stating the elders must be “the husband of but one wife”, we don’t think he specifically meant that they must be married, and must be men. He is contrasting “the husband of but one wife” with being the husband of many wives!
Argument (2) is claiming that the passage in Corinthians where women were meant to keep quiet in church applies to “all the congregations”, and so therefore, women shouldn’t be in leadership positions. However, there are two problems here. Firstly, there is no indication that this is a timeless command rather than culturally bound. Secondly, the reason for this can be easily explained by the situation at Corinth at the time. Their church services were rather chaotic. At that time, the men and women were seated separately – often the women were seated upstairs. Imagine the chaos when the women were shouting things to their husbands, and the husbands were responding! Of course Paul was going to put in place a rule that they should discuss it afterwards, but that is very much a rule for that particular situation, not a timeless principle.
So we are left solely with (1). we do not think that any of the other arguments against women in church leadership bear much weight. Let’s see how the arguments for women in church leadership stand up, and weigh them against (1).
For Women in Church Leadership
In summary, the arguments for women in church leadership were as follows:
2′) Equal access to the blessings of salvation (Ac 2:17-18).
3′) The fall brought a distortion of the roles (Ge 3:16).
4′) Both men and women are now the royal priesthood (1 Pe 2:9-10).
5′) Equality in Christ (Ga 3:26-29).
6′) Priscilla and Aquila taught Apollos (Ac 18:24-26).
7′) Phoebe was a deacon of the church in Cenchrea (Ro 16:1).
8′) Progressive revelation.
The argument against (1′) through (5′) is fundamentally the same. Those who claim women shouldn’t be in church leadership will agree absolutely that men and women are created equally and have equal access to the blessings of salvation. However, it is claimed that their roles are different, and they were different from creation. Sure the fall brought a distortion in the roles, but they were fundamentally different from the start.
(6′) and (7′) are not considered to be particularly persuasive for two reasons. Firstly, the bible does record things that it doesn’t approve of (the principle being that narrative passages are interpreted in the light of didactic passages), and secondly, these two examples are explained away as not teaching (in the sense that Paul ruled out), and the translation of ‘deacon’ being incorrect.
Finally (8′) is not considered to be evidence that women should be in church leadership. The bible definitely improves the role of women over time, but if Paul’s statement that women should not teach or be in authority over a man is a timeless principle, then progressive revelation is not enough to overcome it.
So it all boils down to an interpretation of 1 Ti 2:11-15. Let me make a few observations here. First of all, the NIV translates ?????? (isychia for those without Greek fonts) in verse 12 as silent. However exactly the same word is used in verse 11, and actually means quiet. Secondly, there is no direct reference to church leadership here – it is purely teaching and authority. While church leadership may be implied from this, it is by no means stated. Thirdly, Paul clearly states here that “I do not allow…” rather than “Women are not allowed…”. Could that indicate that he was expressing his personal views at the time, rather than stating a timeless principle of God?
Honestly, we are not sure here. Unlike most biblical principles, this one is stated clearly as Paul’s position – it is not made clear whether it is an eternal principle or not. However, we do have biblical examples of women teaching men, and being in authority over men. We do have clear passages saying that men and women are equal, and both part of the royal priesthood. It is difficult to see how equality can be understood plainly when men must be in authority over women, and the teaching gifts of women cannot be used. It is interesting to note that those who claim women should not be in church leadership generally do not have a problem with women in some teaching roles, however, we would suggest that this is an inconsistent position to hold. If you believe that this verse is an eternal principle, then it would appear to rule out the possibility of women teaching men at all.
An important principle of biblical interpretation is that the main things are the plain things. That means that important biblical principles are taught clearly and in multiple places in the biblical. Conversely a interpretation principle says not to base doctrine on obscure passages of scripture.
But barring women from church leadership on the basis of one interpretation of 1 Ti 2:11-15 would appear to do just that. we do not think that the timeless principle behind this passage is clear. There are many clear passages supporting equality for men and women – there is one unclear passage that may argue women should not be in church leadership.
We argued at the beginning that the burden of proof must lie with those arguing women should not be in church leadership.
The case has not been made convincingly. It requires a doctrine to be built on a single biblical passage whose meaning is disputed. The effect of this doctrine is very serious, as it automatically rules out 50% of the population from leadership roles.
Consequently we cannot support it. Based on the evidence presented, we can see no justification for preventing women from church leadership positions.