On International Women’s Day, I wanted to share the biblical basis for women serving in all areas of church leadership based on the Scriptures.
I have served in several churches who value the Scriptures and value women in leadership.
We see limitations placed on women based more on the cultural lens through which some interpret the Scriptures rather than as a result of interpreting and applying the Scriptures according to the actual meaning of the passages that mention women in ministry positions.
As we let the Scriptures interpret the Scriptures, we discover the Bible and the early followers of Jesus liberated women to serve and lead freely. In Christ, there is no difference between Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free people, men and women (Gal. 3:28). There is also no distinction between men and women when it comes to receiving spiritual gifts (Romans 12:6-8, 1 Corinthians 12-14, Ephesians 4:11-13, 1 Peter 4:9-11).
An often-misunderstood verse mentions that “women should learn in quietness and submissiveness” (1 Timothy 2:11). We have a hard time getting past the “quietness and submissiveness” part to see that Paul was advocating that women should learn in a culture and in a time when women were oppressed and seen as property. There are still some places in our world that do not allow girls to go to school, but those are not nations influenced by Christianity. Another way to see this verse would be more like: “be sure to teach women, but make sure they keep their freedom quiet and orderly so that the patriarchal world does not shut us down.”
Another verse that seems to limit leadership opportunities for women includes 1 Corinthians 14:33b-36 which includes the following: “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says.” This passage can be understood in its context. Just a few chapters earlier Paul references guidelines for when women are praying and prophesying (considered by Paul to be the most important spiritual gift) even while remaining culturally appropriate by wearing head coverings, a common practice for women in that time and place (1 Corinthians 11:5-6) Therefore, it appears that 1 Corinthians 14 should be considered more as a reminder to women to serve freely in the church but to remain under the protection and blessing of their husband. Just as any man should not serve in ministry without a supportive wife, the same would be true of a husband being supportive of his wife. The verse is about wives being submissive to their husbands, not that all women are to be submissive to all men.
When it comes to the role of elder, Paul’s letters 1 Timothy and Titus indicate the qualifications of an elder using masculine pronouns. Even still, “Paul mentions women elders (using the feminine of presbyteroi) in his first letter sent to Timothy in Ephesus. Priscilla seems to have been a leader in the house church she hosted with her husband in Ephesus and, later, in her house church in Rome” according to (1 Cor. 16:19-20, 2 Tim. 1:2; 4:19, and Rom. 16:3-5).
Historically, it appears women were serving in all areas of leadership in the church in the first three centuries after Christ. Once Christianity became more enculturated with the Roman Empire, limitations began to be placed on women leading as is seen in the Council of Laodicea in around A.D. 360. It reads: “It is not allowed for those women who are called ‘elders/ presbyters/ priests’ (presbytides) or ‘women presidents’ (prokathēmenai) to be ordained (kathistasthai) in the churches. – Canon 11 of the Council of Laodicea
Here are two very helpful interviews with N.T. Wright: