Monday, August 9, 2010

Does God really call women to Ministry?

There are many contentious issues about which Christians debate and argue with one another. Should Christians drink? Can the divorced be remarried? What about sexuality?

One issue that has been a constant source of tension is the role of women in ministry. Does God call women to minister? Rarely, if ever, will you hear of a group that does not allow women to minister in some aspect. I have yet to visit a church where women were not the majority of Sunday school teachers. But that is the problem. The debate is not over whether women can minister, but in what capacity. It seems that it is ok for women to minister in a setting with children, but not with adults. And the justifications for this are based on the Bible and tradition.

There are numerous passages we could turn to which would help us determine how we should understand the role of women in the church. Two of the most well-known are 1 Cor 14:33-36 and 1Tim 2:11-15. Both of these passages command that women be silent in church and that they not be allowed to teach or have authority over men. These are often used to support the excluding of women from the pastorate since they cannot preach to a congregation of men nor tell a man what to do as pastor. Some read these passages as allowing for “women’s ministry,” meaning a lady could preach to other women, but not to men. As an aside, I always wondered what that means for young boys in Sunday school. At what point can a woman no longer teach a boy and tell him what to do? You should see some of the hermeneutical contortions used to make sure the church education program will keep running when men don’t want to be teaching 8 year old boys.

There has been a lot of ink spilled over these two passages. There are those who take them literally and want to apply them today with stringency. On the other side I have witnessed some equally interesting gymnastics by those who want to interpret these passages in a way that makes them say something other than what they do. Or, they argue for such a unique historical setting that the passage could only apply to a first century Ephesian setting.

I will tip my hand here. First, I think that if Paul’s statements in 1 Cor 14 are original (and I think this is a big “if”) than I read them as him repeating a Corinthian slogan rather than setting down a command. If Paul did write these words, than he is quoting them back to them with a rhetorical slap that says “Did the word of God originate with you”?

Second, I really do think that 1 Tim 2 seeks to restrict women from teaching and positions of authority. I am not sure we can get around that conclusion in a responsible way. I know others will disagree with me here, but this seems to be the most natural, plain meaning of the passage. Yet, I support the role of women in ministry. Two of the best sermons I have ever heard were delivered by a Lady Vicar at an Anglican church in Cambridge England. But I do think the author of 1Timothy was setting down commands that reflected his culture and he was using the Bible to do it. Does this sound familiar to anyone?

I think the issue here is hermeneutical. I acknowledge that in the first century women were restricted in their roles. It was the world in which they lived. But I am not sure that those attitudes, although encased in the Bible, should transfer to a 21st century setting. Just because it was that way, yes even commanded at times, does not mean it should be that way today.

The problem we face as biblical interpreters is how to apply texts from an ancient culture to a modern one. This is a tricky question. How do we decide what is culturally time bound and what is valuable for all ages? I am not sure that there is a foolproof formula. I think every generation will have to address and struggle with these questions anew.

I think one example of this type of problem is slavery. I have written quite a bit about slavery in the Bible and conclude that there is nothing in the Bible that condemns slavery. In fact, it accepts it, supports it and at times strengthens the chains on those who are bound. But modern society has realized the inhumane nature of slavery and rejected it. This is a problem, though, since the Bible does not condemn it and many of the metaphors of salvation use slavery language. But we have begun to read the Bible in new ways to help us understand the plight of the oppressed and use passages about slavery to free the oppressed rather than keep them bound. Similarly, many modern scholars examine passages on women in the Bible and use them to help free women and promote their place within the church and society.

The Bible should not be viewed as anti-women. There are many examples of great women doing things as important, if not more than, men. If all we do is read the commands about women, we fail to take into account the wider witness of the Bible. Lurking under the pages of scripture is strong evidence that women can and should have an equal role in ministry and society.

With that in mind I would like to highlight two things.

First, The Table, a quarterly publication of Ashland Theological Seminary, has just published an issue on women in ministry. It contains several articles that address the subject of women in ministry.

Second, starting Wednesday, I will begin a three part series on Women in the Life of the Apostle Paul. I will look at Romans 16 to see what we can learn about women in the life of the early church. I will post a new installment each Wednesday until we are through. I think looking at a passage like Romans 16 will open us up to new ways of thinking about this topic.


  1. John, thanks for this meaty and very helpful discussion on the topic. And I thought the Vicar of Dibley image was great! Nice! If you don't mind, I'd like to put this up on my blog...I just posted about this topic the other day...

  2. Thanks for these thoughtful reflections, John. The only thing I would want to add also has to do with the hermeneutical question. Texts like the two you examine also need to be viewed within the full range of the biblical witness. They must be read alongside Gal. 3:28 or Rom. 16, for example, in which we are offered a very robust portrait of women in ministry (Rom.) and a radical vision of gender equality (similar to issues of slave and free). In view of the resurgence of prohibitive attitudes today, I feel compelled to become a strong, pro-active advocate of women in ministry and in all aspects of the life of the church. Thanks for your witness, as well; I look forward to the sequence of posts to follow.

  3. John,

    you might like to take a look at my blog post on misogynist alterations of Paul's texts here. Also, there has been some interesting recent research on Rom 16:15. See here and follow the links.

    I'll subscribe to your blog.

  4. Richard, many thanks for these. I have added your blog to my reader feed as well.

  5. Do also take a look at Chris Hutson's piece on women in Rom 16 here: