A little while ago I wrote a post about women in leadership that was viewed more than 7,000 times, still one of my most popular posts. Of those views, only 200 people clicked through to the N.T. Wright article that presented the biblical arguments upon which my post depended.
I know that many that viewed the post were those that already shared my opinion and had researched the topic. But many that I interacted with via social media complained that my article wasn’t biblical. Well here you go.
I’m going to briefly show that the Bible insists on women at all levels of leadership in the next three posts.
I don’t consider anything that I am writing to be my own work. I am just surveying the well-worn biblical arguments that have been presented by so many other Bible scholars. I would suggest that we have now reached a point where a majority of non-Catholic/Orthodox Ph.D.-trained theologians and Bible scholars insist that the Bible is supportive of women at all levels of leadership.
In this post I will survey the verses that are straight-forward affirmations of women’s leadership. In the second post I will show how the various relevant sections of I Corinthians are supportive of women’s leadership. In the final post I will show that the book of I Timothy is also supportive of women’s leadership.
Let me be clear that I will at no point argue that the Bible is just irrelevant on this matter because it was written in a different culture and so on. Some have argued that Paul’s statements on women were an affirmation of the patriarchy that was around him. Usually this is accompanied by an argument that Paul’s instruction are therefore irrelevant for our culture because it is so different. I think those arguments are largely misguided. Rather, I will argue that when we consider the culture in which the Bible was written, we see that Jesus, Paul, and other early Christian leaders were elevating women’s leadership at every point (for more on Jesus’ view of women see Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes). In fact, many of the problems with how persons have interpreted the Bible on this issue are due to bad principles of interpretation. Paul wasn’t affirming the patriarchy of his time. He was overturning it.
The Bible was not written for 21st Century audiences. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t apply to the 21st Century Church and world. But it was not written to them. It was written by inspired men (and women?) to persons in their culture. But God’s inspiration of their writing means that it is authoritative for the entire Church, past and present. (Take a look at this article for a helpful notion of biblical authority.)
Because the culture in which the New Testament was written was undeniably patriarchal (legally and culturally), it’s remarkable that the Bible is so overwhelmingly positive of women’s leadership.
Among the most convincing cases in the New Testament is that of Priscilla (Paul often refers to her by the more formal and honorific, Prisca). The normal ordering for naming a husband and wife pair was to name the husband first, which the authors’ of the New Testament normally do. Priscilla and her husband, Aquila, are named this way when they are introduced by Luke (Acts 18:2) and when they send greetings (I Cor. 16:19). But every other time that Luke or Paul refer to them (Acts 18:18 and 26, Rom. 16:3, II Tim. 4:19), Priscilla is mentioned first, especially in cases where their ministry is the point of discussion. In the list of greetings in Romans 16, Paul refers to them (Priscilla first) as “co-workers in Christ Jesus.” The most important thing that we know about Priscilla and Aquila’s ministry is that they (together) instructed Apollos, himself a well-respected teacher, in the way of the Gospel (Acts 18:24-26). Though we don’t know a lot about their ministry, we know enough to say with confidence that Priscilla and Aquila were respected teachers and that Priscilla was considered the primary person in their ministry partnership. There was also a church that met in their home, undoubtedly they also taught and led this church (I Cor. 16:19). (See more in Belleville 121-23.)
Another clear-cut case is that of the deacon Phoebe. Phoebe had been tasked to carry Paul’s letter to the Roman church. In doing so he provides the Roman church a commendation of her ministry as a way of citing her authority (cf. II Cor. 8:16-24, Eph. 6:21-22, Phil. 2:25-30, Col. 4:7-9); she is a deacon in the church in Cenchrea. He then tells the church to “receive her in the Lord” and to “give her any help she may need from you.” This was typical for how Paul encouraged other communities to receive itinerant missionaries (I Cor. 16:10-11, II Cor. 7:15). We also should not overlook the description in which she is identified as a “benefactor” in many English translations. The Greek “prostatis” is a technical term that refers to official leadership authority, sometimes of a legal protector (which cannot be the case for Paul who was a free Roman citizen), but always an official leadership designation (Payne 62-63). Even Paul considers her to have this kind of authority for him (his commendation of her in the letter assumes that he was the one considered to have more authority by the Roman church that received her).
Though we know little about her ministry, we also know that Paul considered Junia to be an apostle, along with her husband. Unlike the case of Priscilla, here Paul lists Junia’s husband first. But both of them are considered apostles. If one takes the ordering of Ephesians 4:11 to be a ranked ordering (I’m not convinced that this is helpful), then apostles are considered to be the highest level of authority. There is no evidence whatsoever that Junias was a male name, as has sometimes been argued. This is a complete fabrication by those that could not accept the possibility of a female apostle.
There is also lots of evidence of female prophets throughout the New Testament (Luke 2:36-38, Acts 21:9, I Cor. 11:5, Acts 2:17-18). Paul refers to many of the women in Romans 16 as those who “worked hard in the Lord.” We don’t know exactly what this means, but given the way that Paul is speaking of women’s ministry in other places, it is very likely that he is talking about ministry leadership here, too. Extensive work has been done to suggest that Galatians 3:28 is also an affirmation of women’s leadership in the new Christian order. If it were not for so many other evidences I would not find this argument convincing, so I will not repeat those arguments here.
I suspect that critics of this position would not find the following arguments conclusive. But if a reader wants to do some investigative work it is easy to see that Jesus and the authors of the Gospel also intended to show that women had exceptionally large roles in the proclamation of the Gospel. Mary Magdalene was the first apostle of the resurrection (Mark 16:9-10). Mary is encouraged to “sit at the feet” of Jesus, a clear indication that she is being encouraged to learn from the Rabbi, which was prohibited in much of Second Temple Judaism (Luke 10:38-42). The first apostle to the Samaritans is also a woman (John 4). An outline for further investigation can be found in Spencer (126-41), Bilezikian (59-87) or on the Wikipedia article on the subject.
The texts in this first post are relatively short and not descriptive. But they have the great virtue of being straight-forward in their affirmation of women’s leadership at many levels of the early church’s burgeoning leadership structure.
Some of the texts that I will take up in the second and third parts of this post can seem to subordinate women’s leadership if they are read as if the 21st Century reader is the primary audience. I will show that this is a misreading and that actually St. Paul is arguing for the leadership of women and not against it. The texts that I have surveyed in this post do not require any “scholarly” expertise to interpret well, however. Even reading these texts on the surface reveal the biblical evidence that the inspired authors of the Bible affirmed the leadership of women. The much longer discussions of women and women’s ministry that I take up in the later posts will give more definition to how these women are regarded in their leadership.
Related Post: 4 Reasons Why Ordaining Women Is No Longer An Option
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- Belleville, Linda B. “Women Leaders in the Bible” in Discovering Biblical Equality. Intervarsity Press, 2005.
- Bilezikian, Gilbert. Beyond Sex Roles. Baker, 2006.
- Payne, Philip B. Man and Woman, One in Christ. Zondervan, 2009.
- Spencer, Aida B. “Jesus’ Treatment of Women in Gospels” in Discovering Biblical Equality. Intervarsity Press, 2005.