What does the Bible say about women in ministry?

A common reason for opposing women in ministry is that the Bible forbids it, but what does the Scripture really say?

By Terry Maples

God created males and females as equals. Adam and Eve enjoyed a partnership of equals until the fall. Male domination evolved and led to broken relationships between men and women. So, I believe we can surmise that male domination is not God’s ideal but a direct result of sin and disobedience.

Broken male-female relationships often result in mandated roles for the sexes. Surely, this is a problem, not a goal. Domination of human beings violates God’s good creation and makes ineffectual Jesus’ command to love neighbor. We know love is action.

The Old Testament underscored Israel’s patriarchy. Women were barred from participating in much of religious life. There are examples, however, of nontraditional roles for women: Deborah was a prophet and judge (Judges 4:4); Huldah was a prophet during the reign of Josiah (2 Kings 22:14); and the woman of noble character is lifted up (Proverbs 31). Despite restricted roles in the Old Testament, we find women leading, preaching and running businesses. We certainly don’t get the idea from these Old Testament examples that women are in any way inferior to men. 

Jesus came to make us one and on the cross broke down the walls of hostility dividing people, including gender roles found in the Old Covenant. As a result, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

Of course, race, class and gender remain human realities, but those categories simply don’t matter to God. The significant involvement of women in Jesus’ ministry is indisputable. The extent to which women participated in and supported Jesus’ ministry is remarkable given the social context.

Elsewhere in the New Testament, women were often portrayed as the more exemplary disciples of Jesus (widow’s mite, Mary’s anointing of Jesus, women who stayed with Jesus during the crucifixion, etc.). It is also notable that Jesus appeared first to the women after his resurrection and trusted them to tell others.

Women were very active in the missionary enterprise of the early church: Priscilla was a teacher (Acts 18:26); Phoebe was a deacon (Romans 16:1); Euodia and Syntyche were church workers who worked beside Paul telling the Good News (Philippians 4:2-3); Junia was an apostle (Romans 16:7); and other women were prophets (1 Corinthians 11:5).

Finally, we must address commonly cited passages often used to exclude women from ministry. In 1 Corinthians 14:33-34, Paul offered this instruction: “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak.”

This instruction comes within the context of a discourse about tongues and orderliness in worship. Apparently, some women were disrupting worship with their noisy discussion about tongues. Paul told them to remain silent. To read this as a command for the church for all time ignores the context for Paul’s instruction and is inconsistent with overt examples of women in leadership roles.

In 1 Timothy 2:12, Paul wrote, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must remain silent.” Taken literally as an authoritative command this passage would keep women from significant leadership roles in the church, but that doesn’t jibe with other New Testament passages that clearly evidence women leading and proclaiming.

Again, understanding the context is imperative. This section includes Paul’s instruction about worship. Certainly, there were cultural expectations regarding women exercising self-restraint lest they be criticized for calling attention to themselves in worship (note instructions about adornments in the same passage). Some scholars believe Paul was simply prohibiting teaching by women who were not properly instructed or trained.

As a result of my study and subsequent hands-on practical experience, I now believe scriptures historically used to keep women from clergy leadership were instructions to specific congregations and were not intended to forever define who can and cannot serve the church.

To understand these passages literally severely limits the gifts God’s Spirit entrusts to the church. We say “no” to God’s gracious outpouring of gifts to women. More importantly, we limit the church’s impact in the world!

However, when we look at these “restrictive passages” in proper context and put them in conversation with the whole of biblical witness, I believe we must advocate for women in ministry.

Some Baptists over the past 30 years have made significant progress in calling out and embracing the gifts of women. This is coming, but we have a long way to go. Many Baptist congregations continue to exclude women from serving as deacons or staff ministers.

How Baptists address the issue of women in ministry will greatly impact our future, and I believe it will likely, for some, determine our relevance. I call on my sisters and brothers to engage your congregations in conversation.

Without sound theological education, I fear our churches will remain stuck with important practices unexamined. More importantly, decision-making will be driven by cultural expectations of women’s roles instead of thoughtful, informed theology.

Previous related commentary:

Why I advocate for women in ministry

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