What does the Bible say about women in church leadership? The egalitarian case.
Alright here goes, the theological issue that has single-handedly kept me awake at night more than any other: Women in church leadership (Can women be pastors, elders, etc.?). Maybe it’s cut and dry for you; it used to be for me as well. Maybe by the end of reading what I’m about to write, you’ll be awake at night too! And maybe not. Whatever the case, please read both of my articles on this topic. I am publishing them simultaneously with the express purpose of helping one side see the merit in the other and to help address some of the many misunderstandings out there. The two posts are:
The Accusation from Complementarians: Egalitarians are not Biblical.
The reason the topic of women in ministry leadership has deprived me of so much sleep is because of my love for hermeneutics and because of my deep conviction that the Bible is God’s word. If you throw out any of it, how can you trust any of it? Hermeneutics refers to how we interpret the Bible, taking into account the cultural context, the author, the audience etc. and figuring out how to apply the timeless truth of a passage to today, a very different context from when it was written (i.e. Romans 16:16 Greet one another with a holy kiss.). Some passages of Scripture require no hermeneutics at all. 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 and Galatians 1:6-9 are some homeruns in this category–so clean, so clear, so refreshing. If only all texts were this way. In all honesty, as I’ve thoroughly studied the Bible’s women in church leadership texts, I often feel exasperated that both views seem unbiblical! And then I can’t sleep…
Some quick vocab:
Egalitarian – The belief that women and men are equal when it comes to church leadership. That women can be senior / lead pastors or elders in the same way that men can.
Complementarian – The belief that women and men are different in function, but complement one another when it comes to church leadership. Only men can be elders / lead pastors.
There is a relatively wide spectrum within each camp, but this gives you a basic framework so you can follow along.
While there is a related debate about men and women’s household roles, I will be focusing on church leadership roles. Onward:
The Accusation from Complementarians: Egalitarians are not Biblical.
I will attempt to show that the egalitarian view is indeed a valid, biblical hermeneutic.
The Apostle Paul’s words restricting women’s roles in the church are understood as contextual to the day and locations to which he wrote, as is consistent with his other commands within the same paragraphs of Scripture. If we are to use these texts to apply his specific commands banning women from leadership (saying that only men can be pastors, elders, etc.), to be consistent we would also need to ban women from making any noises at all in church (1 Tim. 2:11, 12), from having short hair and non-covered hair (1 Cor. 11:5-6, 15), from braiding their hair (1 Tim. 2:9), from wearing jewelry (1 Tim. 2:9), and from expensive clothes (1 Tim. 2:9). We would also need to ban men from having long hair (1 Cor. 11:14), from wearing hats while praying or teaching the Word (1 Cor. 11:4, 7), and ban them from praying without having their hands lifted up (1 Tim. 2:8).
The egalitarian view is an argument for consistency. In all of these texts, we apply the eternal authoritative meaning that Paul wrote, without applying the specific 1st-century context to which he wrote within. This is the only way to consistently apply any of Scripture’s meaning without having to fully change a 21st-century American culture into a 1st-century Judeo-Roman culture in all facets (e.g. ride on donkeys, only use 1st century technology, etc., let alone the absence of game-changing female breakthroughs like birth control and feminine hygiene products which allowed women to fully enter the education and workplace realms…I certainly hope there aren’t complementarians saying feminine hygiene products are unbiblical!). Egalitarians are saying we cannot pick and choose to apply the women in leadership texts one way (i.e. “literally”), but apply the neighboring phrases about jewelry and hair-braiding another (i.e. “contextually”); we must be fully consistent in how we apply Scripture as God’s authoritative Word. The hermeneutical interpretation of the ‘women in leadership’ texts used by egalitarians is that Paul is forbidding unqualified persons from these leadership positions, not all women for all time.
- (from The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible by Scot McKnight) 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. Egalitarians interpret that Paul is silencing women in regards to asking questions because they were not yet educated theologically or biblically as well as the men were, as the Jewish schooling system of Torah was for men only. When these women heard what was being taught, they had questions, which Paul instructed should be asked elsewhere, likely because it was interrupting the worship service. His silencing of these women was temporary. Once the women with questions had been educated, they would be permitted then to ask questions in the gatherings of Christians. An implication of Paul’s statements is the responsibility of Christian men to educate women, which would have stood out in the ancient world as a progressive ideal. In a nutshell, Paul supports learning before speaking.
- (from The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible by Scot McKnight) 1 Timothy 2:8-15. Paul is writing to the church at Ephesus, which was a Roman city. In this time period, there were what historians of the day referred to as the “new Roman women,” who in the Church’s case, threatened the reputation of the gospel. The new Roman women were making claims that women were superior to men, that the original creation was women first then men, they avoided marriage, they terminated their pregnancies, dressed provocatively, and even snatched away the podium during public addresses by men.* Paul’s point is again not to “keep the women silent,” but is to “teach the women.” His principle was learning before teaching. When Paul silences women in 1 Timothy 2, he is almost certainly silencing the widows we find a few chapters later in 1 Timothy 5:13-14, who have developed a promiscuous sexual lifestyle, were idling and busybodying, and were thus abandoning the faith. Paul’s concern was with what they were saying and teaching. His words in 2:13-15 are meant to correct the false teaching of the Roman women, not to present a gender hierarchy for all-time. By addressing and correcting their false teaching in this context, it proved that they were currently unfit for leadership. Paul was presenting a “qualified vs. unqualified” hierarchy for leading and teaching. In the Ephesus context that hierarchy was synonymous with “educated-males vs. uneducated-females.”
*Juvenal, Satires translation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1961), 434-56. 7
- 1 Timothy 3:1-11 & Titus 1:1-9. If the commands of 1 Timothy 2:8-15 referring to women being unqualified for leadership are really saying that unqualified persons are not to be in leadership, this means that “woman” is to be read as “unqualified person” and that “man” is to be read “qualified person” throughout the rest of the book as it relates to this subject. As this is the case in chapter 2, it would also be the case in chapter 3:1-11 when Paul is continuing his commands on the same subject without interruption. This means that “husband” (3:2), “he”, “his”, etc. that we find in chapter 3 should not be read as a male husband needing to be faithful to his female wife, mandating male elders for all time, but rather should be read consistently with chapter 2, that any qualified spouse must be faithful to their spouse.
- There are lots of examples of women who were leading and/or teaching men in the Bible which would contradict Paul if his message to us was one of women being disallowed to teach or lead men at all times in all contexts: Acts 2:16-18 (women in general); Exodus 15:20 & Numbers 12 (Miriam); Judges 4-5 (Deborah); Esther (book of Esther); Ruth (book of Ruth); Huldah (2 Kings 22:14; 2 Chronicles 34:22); King Lemuel’s mother (Proverbs 31); Junia (Romans 16:7); Mary (Luke 1:46-55); Priscilla (Acts 18:2, 18-26; Romans 16:3; 1 Cor. 16:19; 2 Tim. 4:19); Phoebe (Romans 16:1)
- In addition to all this is the redemptive-movement hermeneutic that William Webb lays out in his book Slaves, Women and Homosexuals. Webb shows that as Scripture moves forward, God gives commands for his people that bring redemption to the culture-of-the-day’s norms about women. (My words here…) As an illustration, if culture is at a 1 (out of 10) when it comes to treating women justly in the Old Testament, God gives commands for treating women justly at the level of 4. This 3-step (from 1 to 4) increment was very liberating to women and very counter-cultural within the Old Testament ancient near-eastern culture. If culture was the level of 4 in the New Testament, God gives commands for treating women justly at the level of 7 (so another 3-step jump, this time from 4 to 7, again very counter-cultural within 1st century Palestinian culture). So there is redemptive-movement of God throughout the chronology of Scripture toward moving his people to treat women justly at the ideal level of 10…though that 10 was meant to happen after the Bible was finished being penned. For those that would disagree with God’s ability to do this, Webb uses the topic of slavery as a parallel illustration. You can follow my same 1 to 4 to 7 to 10 illustration and apply it to what God says about slavery in the Bible, with the “10” finally being reached in the late 1700’s with William Wilberforce in England and in the mid-to-late 1800’s in the United States, with the timeless truths of the Bible being used as primary arguments against slavery in both cases, though the Bible never specifically commanded its abolition within its pages (with slaves still existing in the 1st century and earlier while the Bible was being written).
- For those wondering about Webb’s provocative book title, he shows how homosexuality does not follow the redemptive-movement hermeneutic throughout the Bible. Reason being, the Bible (both OT and NT) consistently speaks counter-culturally against homosexual behavior, restricting it in comparison to what was normal in the culture of the day. Whereas with both women and slavery, the Bible is consistently speaking counter-culturally for more rights and freedoms for women and slaves, giving both much more liberation than what was normal in the culture of the day.
- What to do with the crux passage, 1 Timothy 2:13-14: For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.
- The hardest text for egalitarians to address is 1 Timothy 2:13-14. Often you’ll read an egalitarian argument that includes all of which has been stated in this article, but neglects the key reason complementarians are complementarian: That Paul goes back to the Garden of Eden, before sin had entered the world, to make his point about men’s and women’s roles in the church. Complementarians essentially can rest their entire argument on this verse, because Paul is referring to a time before sin messed things up. An argument is given by William Webb and other egalitarians that Genesis 1-2 shouldn’t be used as quite the authoritative blueprint complementarians use it as (from the Slaves, Women and Homosexuals book, pages 123-127). Outside of this, the way Webb (pages 134-145, 236-241) explains the egalitarian interpretation of this verse is primogeniture. This is the fancy word for the firstborn male being the one who inherited the vast majority of the father’s property. In a monarchy, the firstborn son was the heir to the throne. This type of primogeniture would have been the same for non-royalty when it came to a father’s estate, land, house, etc. and also had the cultural connotation of carrying on the family name and reputation in a much deeper way than we can comprehend today. So the point Webb and egalitarians are making is that Paul wrote 1 Timothy 2:13-14 with primogeniture in mind since Paul was writing during a time period of primogeniture. We no longer practice primogeniture today. Egalitarians argue that to be consistent, for us to apply a primogeniture hierarchy into 1 Timothy 2:13-14 (where it would still matter than Adam was born first), we would have to apply an entire primogeniture society to our Christian lives, which obviously no one is calling for.
Okay, did you catch all of that? My purpose to spelling all of this out is not to convince complementarians they need to become egalitarians. My point is that complementarians need to pause before dismissing egalitarians of being unbiblical with one fell swoop. I believe you have to at least respect this as a valid biblical interpretation. And more than simply respecting it, this understanding of Scripture needs to change the way you view and disciple women in your church, even if your elder and pastor offices can only be held by men. In order to be consistent with Scripture, especially from one phrase to the next in the same section of verses, here are some key biblical applications that complementarians should apply from this biblical argument:
- Even if men make the final decision, are women at the table in the decision-making process? Is a female perspective represented? Approximately half of a congregation is female. Without female perspectives in the decision-making process, conclusions are bound to have significant blind spots and subsequently neglect some of the congregation’s needs.
- Are women being intentionally discipled?
- Are women being effectively shepherded? If often takes a woman shepherd to effectively shepherd women! Are women being taught, trained and raised-up to do and be this?
- Are women being taught how to make disciples? This includes theology, doctrine and ability to teach. How else is a woman to make disciples if not to teach others about the gospel and to knowledgeably defend the gospel? And how can they do this if they haven’t been fully taught it themselves?
- Once taught how to make disciples, are there opportunities in your church for women to teach and make disciples? This needs to go beyond kids’ ministry! I would argue that a woman can preach from the Sunday morning pulpit in a complementarian church, so long as they aren’t the ‘lead pastor.’ I’d also argue that a woman could hold the ‘pastor’ title in a complementarian church on a pastoral team, so long as they weren’t the ‘lead pastor’ or an elder (if your churches uses the ‘pastor’ title as synonymous with the biblical elder / overseer, than a different title such as ‘minister’ could be given). Or some sort of leadership office for women could exist where qualified women get to give input and advice to male elder team decisions. Let’s acknowledge there’s a spectrum here. Even if you don’t go this far as a complementarian (Some complementarians would even say this is enough to make me not a complementarian), which is fine, there still needs to be opportunities in your church for women to lead others and teach adults in some context or another. There is absolutely no way Jesus’ command in the Great Commission to make disciples was only to men.
“Making disciples” includes evangelism and discipleship, both of which include the need to be able to teach. A lack of women disciple-makers isn’t what we saw modeled in the New Testament, nor is what should be modeled in any church today. Whether that’s disciple-making in a private conversation, in a workshop to 40 people, or on a Sunday morning from the stage, the education needs to be given and then the platform provided in some way that is contextually appropriate, even in a complementarian church.
*side note: The church I founded and where I co-pastor has a long way to go in all of these areas! Don’t beat yourself up if you’re in that same boat (and by all means, don’t be defensive…). Just pray and get this on your radar and start taking intentional steps. It won’t happen overnight, and that’s okay. But do be diligent about submitting to Scripture and making this happen as the Spirit leads, even if it’s outside of your comfort zone.
Why all these concessions to the complementarian position? As a complementarian myself, I see only one biblical argument that the egalitarian position can’t reconcile, which I write about in my parallel article. Outside of this, all of the above egalitarian arguments hold enough water in their own right (with the primogeniture argument being the weakest) that they need to applied at some level if a complementarian desires to be consistent with Scripture, which I know we do! By “consistent with Scripture,” I mean we can’t arbitrarily throw out a phrase about braided hair and wearing jewelry being cultural, but keep the ones about women being silent in church. Culture has definitely changed for women over the past 2000 years, which we need to celebrate as well as synthesize into our biblical hermeneutic.
Now, are there egalitarians who are unbiblical? Yes. Those who are egalitarian because it seems best to them or because it matches our progressive culture, but who cannot articulate the biblical hermeneutic laid out here, are unbiblical.
So if there’s a sound biblical hermeneutic for women being pastors and elders, does this mean complementarians are sexist and oppressors for only allowing men to be lead pastors and elders? Please read my parallel article to find out: The Accusation from Egalitarians: Complementarians are Sexist & Oppressors.
My parallel article also addresses how I can respect and articulate the egalitarian view, but why I remain a complementarian.