John MacArthur is at it again. In a recent conference, MacArthur reiterated his view that the New Testament is clear that women should not serve as pastors or in any leadership roles above men. (You can listen to his comments here.) But is it so clear? Actually, I believe it is clear, but in favor of women in church leadership.
I am going to give a quick fly-over of the pertinent passages that speak to women in ministry, but first let me make what I think is a crucial observation. All too often in making a case for or against this or that issue in looking at the Bible, we can narrowly focus on one or two passages of Scripture that seem to settle the question. The problem with such an approach is two-fold: first, it fails to understand those passages in their larger canonical context, in this case the canon of the whole New Testament. Second, and related to the first, is that when the passages in question are seen in light of the larger canonical context, a different understanding of particular Scriptures can emerge. In the case of women in leadership, the three passages often used to deny a place for women in ministry are 1 Corinthians 11:1-16, 1 Corinthians 14:33-40, and 1 Timothy 2:8-15. I will deal with these Scriptures in due course. Before that, I want to do a quick fly-over of the relevant New Testament passages that give us the larger picture of the question at hand.
Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42)– in the well-known story of Martha running around the kitchen practicing hospitality for Jesus and her other guests, she complains that Mary is not helping but rather sitting at Jesus’ feet listening to his teaching. When the focus of this text is on Martha’s complaint, what can be lost is that Rabbi Jesus is allowing and even commending Mary’s posture as a disciple. Only disciples of the rabbi were permitted to sit at his feet, and that honor was reserved for men alone. It is reasonable to assume that if Mary was permitted to be a disciple, she was expected at some point to carry on his teaching to those around her. What Jesus is doing here is a radical reorientation of social convention.
The Samaritan Women (John 4:1-42)– The first surprise of the story is that Jesus addresses a women and a Samaritan, something that no Jewish male in the first-century with any self-respect would do. The Samaritan woman herself is shocked that Jesus would even initiate conversation. After this encounter, the woman (I wish she had been named) returns to her villages and tell of her conversation with Jesus. John tells us “many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony…” (v. 39). Many from her village became disciples because of her preaching.
The Women at the Tomb (Matthew 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-12)– I am excluding John’s resurrection account because I want to deal with Mary Magdalene separately. All four Gospels are in agreement that female followers of Jesus were the first to hear of the resurrection of Jesus and the first to proclaim it to Jesus’ male disciples. If one were trying to invent a fable of the resurrection of Jesus in first-century Judaism, having women as the first witnesses to resurrection would not be the way to tell the story. In first-century Judaism, women were generally considered to be unreliable witnesses, and this was especially true in Roman culture (cf. Luke 24:11). So, why do all four Gospels tells us women were the first witnesses? Because that’s the way it actually happened. With the differences in the resurrection accounts, this is the one detail on which all four agree.
It is important to note that when Paul offers the nutshell of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, the women are conspicuously absent.
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me (vv. 3-8).
I do not believe that Paul purposely omits this detail, as he says at the outset, “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received.” But what seems to have happened in the two-plus decades after the event of Easter is that the women attested to in all four Gospels have dropped out of the basic proclamation– perhaps for evangelistic reasons in contexts, both Jewish and especially Gentile, where the testimony of women was not respected. This is only conjecture, but it does make sense of the omission.
Now back to the task before us.
The central claim of the Gospel is that Jesus was raised from the dead. If the tomb was not empty, if Jesus’ bones are still somewhere on the outskirts of Jerusalem waiting to be found, then Christianity is indeed nothing more than a hopeful fable unmoored from reality. It is the critical and essential claim of the Gospel– and God entrusted that initial proclamation to women. They were the first preachers of the resurrection of Jesus.
Mary Magdalene (John 20:1-18)– Two things of note in the story of Mary Magdalene at the tomb: First, when she recognizes the risen Jesus, her exclamation is “Rabbouni,” “rabbi” or “teacher.” This was a title of respect from a disciple, a student to one’s teacher. Second, Jesus tells Mary to go and tell the men– his male disciples– of her encounter. Once again, we see the role of women as the first preachers of the resurrection. (It is interesting to ask why the risen Jesus did not appear to Peter and the beloved disciple when they were at the tomb.)
The Book of Acts:
The Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14-21)– With the coming of the Holy Spirit comes the fulfillment of the words of the Prophet Joel– “You’re sons and daughters will prophesy” (v. 17). The Greek word “prophesy” (προφητεύσουσιν; prophēteusousin) means proclaim or preach. In the Didache (100-120 A.D.), an early manual of church discipline and order, the traveling evangelists are referred to as prophets. In Revelation 11:3 the two witnesses “prophecy or “preach” wearing sackcloth. One cannot miss the echos of the Old Testament prophets. In these last days, daughters as well as well as sons will preach the gospel. To exclude our daughters from the call to preach is to reject the work of the Holy Spirit in these last days.
Not only that, Peter quotes Joel that even the lowest of those on the first-century social status totem pole will receive the Holy Spirit and preach– “Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy” (v. 18). Throughout the book of Acts we see that the coming of the Spirit results in proclamation and the gift of the Spirit is no respecter of social status or gender roles.
Romans (16:1-16)– There can be no mistaking that the Roman Church had women in ministry working alongside the men, but let me mention three in particular.
First, in verse 1 Paul mentions Phoebe who is a “minister” or a “deacon” (διάκονον; diakonon). It is not clear if at this point in the history of the early church whether a deacon is a formal church office, but Phoebe participates in the list of leaders Paul mentions; and she is mentioned first and singled out as a diakonon. It is also highly significant that in 15:8, the Apostle refers to Jesus as a diakonon. Moreover, it is obvious that Phoebe is the bearer of this letter to the Roman Church. If Romans is a draft of Paul’s defense of his gospel before the leaders of the church in Jerusalem, as Richard Hays suggests, then Paul has entrusted this singularly important epistle to someone who has to be a trusted leader.
Second, in 16:3-4 Paul writes, “Greet Prisca and Aquila, who work with me in Christ Jesus, and who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles” It is important that Prisca is mentioned first. In that world, the names of persons are listed in order of significance as in the Gospels when the writers often list in order Peter, James, and John (e.g. Matthew 17:1-2). In the Book of Acts, Peter emerges as the leader of the Apostles. Moreover, in Acts 18:18, Prisca (here Priscilla) is also mentioned before Aquila. Has Priscilla taken the lead in the couple’s ministry? It is true that in 18:1-2 Aquila is given priority and mentioned first “with his wife Priscilla.” Traditional gender roles are not completely rejected in the New Testament, but women in leadership in Roman Church does not conform to traditional conventions.
Third, and perhaps most important is Junia. “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was” (16:7). Notice that Paul refers to Junia (a female name) as “among the apostles” (ἀποστόλοις; apostolois). Apostolic ministry eventually expanded beyond the original Twelve. Moreover, Junia was in prison with Paul. Can it be doubted that she was there for the same reason Paul was– proclaiming Christ crucified and risen? From the witness of the New Testament, it was church leaders who were arrested and subjected to punishment, which makes strategic sense. To stop an undesirable movement, cut off the head and the rest of the body will die.
Those who argue that Junia was a man– Junias– do not have the manuscript evidence on their side. The first reference to Junia’s gender outside the New Testament comes from Origen (c. 185-254) who confirms she was a woman, possibly because there were those in his day uncomfortable with that truth and sought to obscure it. In other words, there would have been no debate over Junia(s) gender a century or two later if she had been a he.
Galatians (3:28)– “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” While this passage does not directly address leadership roles, it is another affirmation that in Christ, such stations in life should not be the basis for a church hierarchy. The main issue in Galatians is that there are some Jewish Christians who want to force Gentile converts to practice “the works of the law,” that is, those identifying practices that marked out Jews as God’s people from everyone else– circumcision, kosher laws, Sabbath and holy day observance. For Paul, this relegates the Gentiles to second class status within the new covenant in Christ. So Galatians 3:28 is an affirmation of the irrelevance of these distinctions as a hierarchy within the church. To say that there is no “male and female,” (and note that it is and not or) is to say that gender is not a determinative of equality and therefore hierarchy within the church. If there is to be no second class status based on these distinctions, it is reasonable to assume that such distinctions are of no account in the leadership of the church as well.
Philippians (4:2-3)– Euodia and Syntyche (feminine names) are not getting along and that is causing enough of a rift in the church that Paul feels the need to briefly suggest they work things out. Paul refers to them as co-workers and “have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel.” They are also mentioned with Clement, a man who is a co-worker as well.
Colossians (4:15)– Paul says very little about Nympha other than there is a church that meets in her house. Whether her husband was an unbeliever or she was widowed we do not know. But hosting a congregation in her household would have made her “the house church leader and patroness.”
We now come to three passages often used to exclude women from leadership.
1 Corinthians (11:1-16)– It certainly appears that Paul affirms traditional gender roles here, but we should not expect it to be any different. Nevertheless, nowhere does the Apostle exclude women from leadership. Indeed, in verse 10 Paul states that a woman’s veil in prayer is “a symbol of authority on her head.” Moreover, there is also an equal kind of reciprocity that Paul affirms between men and women. “Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman. For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God” (vv. 11-12). This reciprocity is “in the Lord,” as believers in their roles relate to fellow believers. Could it be that the maintaining of traditional family roles was for the sake of evangelism to unbelieving Jews and Gentiles, who had a particular understanding of household management, rather akin to Paul’s concern for Christians not behaving in ways that cause others to stumble (1 Corinthians 10:23-33)?
In distinguishing between gender roles, Paul is affirming that women are in the church, in the covenant as women, on their own status (not as under the old covenant where women were included by virtue of the men because of circumcision). As it has been noted, “In worship they are to be their true selves; this also means… that women were not to copy men but to be women in their public ministries.”
(14:26-36)– Women should be silent in worship, but why and when? The context of chapter fourteen is about order in worship. In reading up to chapter 14, we know that women in Corinth are participating in worship, which also means speaking publicly. Here Paul’s admonition of silence concerns the fact that in this context women, who were not granted the kind of education enjoyed by men, were apparently disrupting worship by asking their husbands to explain what they did not understand (perhaps during the sermon). They are not scolded for wanting to learn. They are reminded that there is a time and place appropriate for learning.
1 Timothy (2:8-15)– Three things: First, while in other places Paul seems to reinforce traditional gender roles, here he does the opposite. Men do not have to be stoic tough guys in worship. They can and should lift “up holy hands without anger or argument.” It’s OK to worship and get caught up in the Spirit. In insisting that women dress modestly, Paul is not concerned with the women of the congregation turning on the men by dressing provocatively. To the contrary, women do not have to settle for being (to use modern phraseology) “trophy wives,” whose purpose is only to be beautiful to look at in worship. They have more significant roles to play in the church.
Second, women are to “learn in silence with full submission.” While this admonishment grates against our twenty-first sensibilities, it must not be missed that the women are permitted to learn, just like Mary sitting at the feet of Rabbi Jesus. This does go against conventional roles for women. Women are to learn silently so they might at some point be able to teach when ready. The verb translated “permit” is in the present tense and should be rendered “I currently do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man.” This prohibition is temporary. Moreover, Paul may be trying to keep the church from going down the road of a female-run pagan cult. Tom Wright states,
There are some signs in the letter that it was originally sent to Timothy while he was in Ephesus. And one of the main things we know about religion in Ephesus is that the main religion – the biggest Temple, the most famous shrine– was a female-only cult. The Temple of Artemis (that’s her Greek name; the Romans called her Diana) was a massive structure which dominated the area; and, as befitted worshippers of a female deity, the priests were all women. They ruled the show and kept the men in their place.
Now if you were writing a letter to someone in a small, new religious movement with a base in Ephesus, and wanted to say that because of the gospel of Jesus the old ways of organising male and female roles had to be rethought from top to bottom, with one feature of that being that the women were to be encouraged to study and learn and take a leadership role, you might well want to avoid giving the wrong impression. Was the apostle saying, people might wonder, that women should be trained up so that Christianity would gradually become a cult like that of Artemis, where women did the leading and kept the men in line? That, it seems to me, is what verse 12 is denying. The word I’ve translated ‘try to dictate to them’ is unusual, but seems to have the overtones of ‘being bossy’ or ‘seizing control’. Paul is saying, like Jesus in Luke 10, that women must have the space and leisure to study and learn in their own way, not in order that they may muscle in and take over the leadership as in the Artemis-cult, but so that men and women alike can develop whatever gifts of learning, teaching and leadership God is giving them.
Third and finally, Paul writes in 2:15, “Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.” The reference here is to Genesis 3:16:
To the woman God said,
“I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children,
yet your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.”
Are Paul’s words based upon the curse or upon the undoing of the curse? Some have read this in the first way– that the task of women is primarily to bear children and be subordinate to their husbands as a result of the fall. But it can also be read, and I think better, as Paul’s belief that the curse of pain in delivering a child and being ruled over by her husband are being undone in Jesus. For Christians, we do not live under the curse and all that comes with it. We have been freed from it. So, I think Paul’s words are conceptually more akin to, “Women will be kept safe in their childbearing (the curse notwithstanding) and must remain in faith and love and holiness, with modesty (not conforming to men’s images of them).
Even though Jesus has undone the curse of sin, we still live with its effects. I think this is why we see the tension in the New Testament between affirming traditional gender roles and yet moving beyond them. How do believers live as citizens of the Age to Come when This Age is still very much alive and well? It is not always easy to know.
I am not suggesting there are no difficulties with these last three passages that need to be untangled, but when viewed in the context of the New Testament canon, it is obvious they must be seen in light of what is affirmed throughout– women had an important place in the first decades of the church and participated in its leadership as apostles, disciples, teachers, and evangelists.
In thirty-five years of pastoral ministry, I have become a better pastor because of my female colleagues in ministry; and I rejoice to be a co-worker with them.
Junia is not alone. Thanks be to God!
*The main title of this post Junia Is Not Alone is taken from the title of an ebook written by Scot McKnight.