by Grace Outlaw
What did you want to be when you grew up? Honestly, I changed my mind a lot. I wanted to be a paleontologist one day, and a vet the next. I went through phases where I was determined to be a surgeon, an artist, a pilot, or even the president (no lie, I made a bet with my high school economics teacher that I would be the first female president – until I realized I hated politics). I grew up being told – and believing – I could be anything I wanted to be. Anything that is, except a pastor.
As a child, I was so frustrated. Why would a loving God make me a girl if he loved boys more? I couldn't help how I was born, but He could. Why was I - and half the world's population - to suffer for something Eve had done? Wasn't the fall of humanity enough?
March is Women's History Month. The world has come such a long way toward gender equality, and yet the American Church struggles to keep up.
Whoa whoa whoa, Grace! I can hear you saying. The Bible is the same yesterday, today, and forever! It is heresy to try and change scripture to match our culture today!
Get comfy, because we're about to take a look at what roles women played in Jesus' ministry and in the early church, as well as the two of the most often misunderstood passages (1 Timothy 12 and 1 Corinthians 14) that are frequently used to leverage a patriarchal power disparity within the church.
Roles in Ministry & the Early Church
It is a modern fallacy that women in leadership is a new accommodation to today's secular feminism. We are about to launch into a new sermon series on the book of Acts; the best book in which to understand the early church. What we see is a church that looks very different from American churches today.
During the first two centuries following Jesus' resurrection, churches met in homes and women were often leaders of these gatherings. In Greek and Roman society, leadership positions were delegated based on the strength of a person's experience as a household manager. This meant that women, (who had administrative, economic, and disciplinary experience) particularly women who were relatively wealthy or had a higher social status, would become the patron of the group. (1)
It wasn't until the church institutionalized in the third and fourth centuries that women's roles began to be challenged. The church began to transform from a private entity to a public one – an entity with quite a bit of political power. Society at the time valued men for their honor and power, and women for their purity. As soon as there was power and honor to be had, women were sidelined.
Examples of Women in Leadership
There are several women mentioned in the New Testament who serve as leaders in the early church, and although they are mentioned briefly, they serve as very valid Biblical precedents that challenge the widespread belief that church leaders can only be men.
He gave some apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers. His purpose was to equip God’s people for the work of serving and building up the body of Christ. Ephesians 4:11-12
In this passage, Paul lists several kinds of church leaders that Jesus has given the church and we can find a Biblical precedent for a woman filling each of these roles!
Paul begins his list with 'apostles', and he also gives us the Biblical example of Junia in Romans. Apostles typically were sent by Jesus at first, and later by the early church to spread the gospel. Both Junia and her believed-to-be husband, Andronicus, were imprisoned with Paul for their faith and Paul describes them both as outstanding among the apostles. (2)
Second on the list are prophets who speak for God, including guidance, instruction, or even comfort. Not only do we have a New Testament example found in Philip's four daughters (3), but we even have several Old Testament examples as well including Abigail who prophesied for David, (4) the mother of King Lemuel, (5) and Huldah who prophesied for an all-male delegation of King Josiah (6). Deborah was not only a prophetess, but the only female judge mentioned in the Bible. Not only did these prophetesses instruct men at the time, but their words are recorded in the Bible where they continue to teach both men and women today.
Third are evangelists who preach the gospel of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Paul once again gives us examples of women in ministry: both Euodia and Syntyche of Philippi are described as coworkers by Paul and he says they struggled with him in the ministry of the gospel (7) which is similar to the way he describes Thomas in the same letter. Another respected female minister was Phoebe who not only travelled with Paul to Rome (8) but seemed to be known far and wide in the region for proclaiming the gospel (9).
Finally in our list of ministerial leadership roles is that of pastor-teachers. Perhaps the most well known female example would be Priscilla, who was another close friend and coworker of Paul's. Together she and her husband, Aquila, taught theology to the already well-learned Apollos, who was himself a teacher. (10) They both hosted a church in their home at Ephesus (11) and later in Rome (12) where together they ministered as pastor-teachers.
But Priscilla isn't the only woman mentioned in this role. Surprisingly we have more examples of women in this role than we do for the others! Mark's mother hosted a house church (13) as did Lydia in Philippi (14) and Nympha in Colossians (15). Finally, in 2 John we see him address a “chosen lady” and her congregation. This woman was serving as a house church leader and pastor. (16)
“You ain't the boss of me” - Paul?
Okay, we've looked at some examples of women in leadership, but the Bible says they shouldn't be leading... right? Let's take a look at the two passages that seem to be hang ups for non-egalitarians.
“In the same way, I want women to enhance their appearance with clothing that is modest and sensible, not with elaborate hairstyles, gold, pearls, or expensive clothes. They should make themselves attractive by doing good, which is appropriate for women who claim to honor God. A woman should learn quietly with complete submission. I do not allow a woman to teach or to control a man.* Instead, she should be a quiet listener. Adam was formed first, and then Eve. Adam wasn’t deceived, but rather his wife became the one who stepped over the line because she was completely deceived. But women will be brought safely through childbirth, if they both continue in faith, love, and holiness, together with self-control.” 1 Timothy 2:9-17
Non-egalitarians have leveraged this verse as a universal, one-size-fits-all rule to apply to all women for all time. But we just looked at several examples of women with Biblical authority, so surely something else must be going on here, right?
Paul wrote this letter to Timothy (hence the name of the book) who was the head of the church at Ephesus. Ephesus was the capital of the province of Asia and known for its devotion to the goddess, Artemis. People came from all over the world to learn about her and worship her in her temple (a temple that was several times larger than the Parthenon, and one of the seven ancient wonders of the world)!
This cult of Artemis worship was led entirely by women. These women adorned themselves in gold, pearls, and other valuables to flaunt their wealth, wearing their hair in styles to imitate Artemis. They claimed Artemis was the originator of mankind, and thus men came from women. Artemis was the goddess of childbirth, and if your devotion to her wavered, your consequence was to die during childbirth. (17)
When we understand this historical context, as well as the intended audience, it becomes clear that Paul is addressing a particular problem in this passage, not forbidding all women from leading for all time. This is especially important when considering the final verse – without the context for Artemis worship, this verse doesn't make sense at all.
*The Greek word authenteo is implying the meaning: to usurp authority. The women worshiping Artemis were claiming superiority over men. Paul was setting them straight and correcting their misinformation that Artemis is the originator of life.
“Shut it, ladies” - also probably not Paul
Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.
1 Corinthians 14:34-35
Yikes. Silent? Disgraceful? That sounds pretty harsh. I think we can all agree it's ridiculous to expect women to quite literally not speak in a church. So if this doesn't apply, what is Paul trying to say?
Back in the day men and women worshiped separately in the synagogue. Women were almost considered property, either to their fathers or husbands, and were not educated as men were. So this early form of church – a house church – in which men and women worshiped together was a completely new concept.
Have you ever had a work meeting where the new hire kept interrupting to ask the most basic questions? Were you frustrated? Was it a waste of your (and the other seasoned employees') time? This is the problem I believe Paul was trying to address with this passage. Women who were new to worshiping and learning in this culture did not realize that interrupting meetings with their basic questions was considered culturally inappropriate and even shameful. (18)
In fact, Paul directly contradicts that women should be completely silent in an earlier chapter of Corinthians when he teaches them how to pray and prophesy correctly. (19) Once again, the cultural and historical context of these letters is crucial to understanding their intent.
America vs the World
It's easy as an American to talk about the church in the context of western society, and the American church in general. We envision a large building that hosts a one-hour Sunday service with a few worship songs and a message from a male pastor. But do you know where one of the fastest growing churches in the world is? Iran. Despite the church in Iran suffering persecution at every turn, the heart of this house church movement is being led by teenage girls. Can you imagine Jesus watching what they are doing and seeing people turn to him as a result of their efforts, but shaking his head in disapproval? I sure can't!
Jesus: A Feminist?
The crazy thing about Jesus was that he was always elevating people on the fringes of society. He routinely called out those in power, or with spiritual authority, and closed the gap between them and everyone else. He showed us time and time again that we all have the same inherent inconceivable value to him.
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. John 13:34–35
Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Matthew 12:29–31
In Jesus “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, … [we] are all one in Christ Jesus” (20)
The Samaritan woman at the well was a great example of Jesus empowering someone who should not have been trusted or respected to tell others about him. He revealed his true nature to her while resting at a well and sent her into town to go tell everyone that the Messiah had come. Because of her – because of her preaching – an entire town came to know Jesus. Not only was she a woman, but she was a prostitute. Can you think of anyone less likely to share the story of Jesus?
He also gave explicit instructions to Mary when her appeared to her first, after the resurrection. Think about it – at this time, a woman was considered so untrustworthy that their testimonies were not allowed in court. Jesus had come to change the world, and after the biggest miracle he had ever performed – the thing on which our entire faith hangs – he chose a woman to go tell the world about it. That was powerful, intentional choice. If I were wanting to change the world by sharing a miraculous, impossible truth, I would want the most credible sources telling the world about it. But Jesus chose the first Christian, the first person to preach the gospel to be a woman.
When we look at Jesus, the kind of ministry he led, and the kind of upside down thinking he taught, I can't reconcile that Jesus with one who would have elevated one group of people over another – with a Jesus who would have chosen division over unification. When we look at the gospel as a whole, it seems clear to me that these two passages have been taken out of their cultural context and used for a purpose contrary to what we know Jesus to be. The gospel radically altered the position of women and placed them on a level playing field that was unparalleled for that time. I wish this was a conversation we weren't still having to have today.
1 Torjesen KJ. When Women Were Priests. 1993
2 Romans 16:7 NIV Translation
3 Acts 21:9
4 1 Samuel 25
6 2 Chronicles 34:19-33
7 Philippians 4:2-3
8 Romans 16:1-2
9 Theodoret of Cyrrhus (393-460 AD) wrote: “[Paul] opened the world to her and in every land and sea she is celebrated. For not only do the Romans and Greeks know her, but even all the barbarians …” This implies Phoebe travelled widely and proclaimed the gospel in foreign lands an evangelist.Ordained Women in the Early Church (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2005).
10 Acts 18:24-26
11 1 Corinthians 16:19
12 Romans 16:3-5
13 Acts 12:12
14 Acts 16:14-15; 40
15 Colossians 4:15
16 2 John 1:1, 4, 13 cf. 3 John 1:4
17 G. Hoag Wealth in Ancient Ephesus and the First Letter to Timothy (Fresh Insights from Ephesiaca by Xenophon of Ephesus) 2015
18 Craig S. Keener 2001:50
19 1 Corinthians 11:5
20 Galatians 3:28