Can A Woman Be A Pastor?

QUESTION: I was talking with an AC3er and we were looking at the question: Can a woman be a pastor or preacher?  We came upon the answer from this site and I was hoping you could comment on it:

My friend was under the impression that female pastors would be acceptable since Paul was only saying women should not preach due to the lack of reverence that the people would assign to them, and men would be held in higher regard. But the gotquestions video seems to go against this idea. Especially with the bible verse, 1 Timothy 2:13-14 seemingly bashing women for Eve’s mistake.

ANSWER:Gotquestions” is a good site.  And in regards to this subject, they have correctly laid out two things at the outset – one, this is not an issue about chauvinism or discrimination.  This is an issue of interpretation.  If the Bible is to be our guide, the main question is simply what does it teach, when understood in its total context (historic, linguistic, cultural setting etc), and in light of its progressive revelation?  Based on those factors, and not on cultural pressure, we at AC3 would simply align differently on this issue than the good people on this site.

But second, they acknowledge the legit controversy in the church over this issue.  And, in spite our strong feelings about women in leadership, we do hold this issue with an open hand and do not break fellowship with churches that do not allow women to be pastors or hold positions of authority in the Church.

The main scripture they draw from to justify their stance is 1 Tim 2:11-15.  While they try to address many potential objections to their view, I think they did not address the most important objection which I’ll get to below.  But first, they seem to minimize the many references in Scripture to women in leadership roles overall.  If there were no examples of godly women in leadership in the Bible we might be forced to agree that the view restricting women from leadership was a slam dunk (given the 1 Timothy passage).  But beginning far back in the Old Testament we see many women in leadership.

For example, Huldah and Miriam are prophetesses, and Deborah is a military, judicial and spiritual leader in Judges 4.  Gotquestions mentions these examples, but their only response to these amazing examples (amazing given the context of entrenched ancient patriarchy!) is to say that in the Church, God has set up new rules and Old Testament examples of women in spiritual leadership are therefore irrelevant for the Church.

But surely it’s too simple just to pass these examples off as irrelevant!  These women were honored and appointed by God and they were clearly not “silent” in their roles. The inference is that God was moving the Church away from any vocal female spiritual leadership, even though he blessed it before.  Which would put forward the notion that under the Gospel, God was retracting former, divinely granted and sanctioned freedoms for women.

Is this the true trajectory of the gospel?

I want to be careful here, to not make too much of a “trajectory” argument.  It could be used to justify all manner of culturally faddish liberation movements, under the rubric “gospel liberation”.  Still, it’s significant that before Jesus came, godly women clearly were called by God, used by God and affirmed by God in leadership.  Would Jesus’ Kingdom emphasis on “freeing captives and liberating the oppressed” lead to less of this kind of godly feminine leadership or more?

What adds to the argument based on gospel trajectory is simply the overwhelming anecdotal evidence of how the New Testament community embraced female ministry and leadership in a myriad of roles after the Holy Spirit came; beginning definitively on the very first day the Holy Spirit descended!  As a sign of God’s favor on women teaching and leading publicly, his Spirit fell on them just as He did on the men on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13) to proclaim the Kingdom.

That the disciples spoke in other languages was considered scandalous (Acts 2:13), but additionally the fact that it was women speaking aloud God’s mysteries was a further scandal.  It needed justification.  So Peter quotes the Prophet Joel and his great prophesy about the Day of the Lord when Scripture predicts the Spirit would fall on every Kingdom person, not just men but women also, and not just freeborn but slaves also!

Was there a lower status person than a female slave?  Yet Peter declares that God had long ago decreed even this person would be anointed by God himself for ministry in the Messianic Kingdom!

Now, it’s utterly shocking (again given the Jewish and the Roman context) how quickly after this that women show up in all aspects of ministry, in the Apostolic church, including in leadership.  Examples are to be found everywhere.  Women are affirmed as intercessors (Acts 1:14), as helpers (Acts 9:36, Mark 15:40,41), as deacons (Rom. 16:1,2), as prophetess’ (Acts 21:9), as teachers (Acts 18:26), as apostles (Rom. 16:7), as messengers of good news (John 20:17, 18), as evangelists (Phil. 4:2,3) and as leaders of house churches (Col. 4:15).

This last passage is a very simple, short greeting but very informative.  We can assume Nympha (Col. 4:15) was a functional elder since most scholars would argue that the first churches did in fact meet in the homes of elders.  This assumption could also be argued from the fact that Nympha’s name was often changed to a masculine form in several copies of this verse down through the centuries, as some scribes wanted to avoid the clear implication of a church meeting in the home of a woman: Paul had appointed a woman as a leader of a church!

Taken all together these examples mean women were functioning in any role in which they were gifted in the young churches.  And Paul never felt the need to tell churches when discussing gifts that some spiritual gifts could never be given to women, such as the gift of teaching or leadership or apostleship or evangelism (1 Cor 12).

Of course, all these wonderful examples had their foundation in Jesus ministry as he brought women into his extended band of disciples (Luke 8:1-4), teaching them with his other disciples (Luke 10:38-42) and accepting them and talking to them in public (John 4).  The disciples attitude in John 4:27 reveals the cultural context and just how radical a shift Jesus was setting for female value and freedoms in His Kingdom.

Now, against these awesome descriptors of women’s diverse service in the early church, we have the passage in question, 1 Tim 2:11-15.  There’s just no question that Paul is limiting women’s teaching and authority role in the Ephesian church.  There is, however, a question as to whether this restriction is a binding principle for all churches at all times, or is it a special case based on special circumstances?

So along with all the anecdotal evidence of women in leadership and teaching roles I’ve just listed, we have, in 1 Cor 11:5, the explicit permission for women to prophesy in the public worship environment.  Now, gotquestions affirms this freedom, but distinguishes it from a teaching role over men under discussion in 1 Timothy.  But is there a real distinction to be made?

How was the prophetic gift, which female disciples clearly had, exercised?  In Paul’s own instructions about the gift, prophecy is giving public instruction from the Lord.  1 Cor 14:3-5 says, “the person who prophesies speaks to people for edification, encouragement, and consolation.”  If there are men in the audience, as there certainly were, this means that female disciples gifted with prophesy were publicly speaking to men for their edification, encouragement and consolation.  IE, they were spiritually teaching men!

This directly refutes the gotquestions claim that Paul was opposed to women ever “preaching to men, teaching men publicly, and exercising spiritual authority over men”.

What if we approach the 1 Tim passage (which was written after 1 Corinthians) with this backdrop of women regularly edifying believers (male and female) in Christian worship services?  What it would suggest is that there must be some special context for Paul to restrict what he himself allows in all the other churches (and he does explicitly say this is what “ALL” the churches do – 1 Cor 11:16).

We get many clues that this is, in fact, a special case.

Consider the contrasts:  Paul says women should prophesy to the Corinthian church but in 1 Tim he says, “women should learn in silence”.  To single women in Corinth he says, “Stay single if you can, to enhance your devotion to the Lord” (1 Cor 7).  To single women in Ephesus, he says, “get married, have kids” (1 Tim 5:14).  Same Apostle, totally different teaching to women.  These are our first two clues that maybe the restriction banning women from teaching or authority in that church wasn’t meant for all churches.

If you research the letters to Timothy, in fact we do find a crisis in that church that gives insight into why his instruction here is so different.  First, there were renegade elders in Ephesus that needed to be rebuked (1 Tim 1:18-20).  But most importantly for this discussion, was their association with trouble making young widows.  This is a repeated theme in both letters.  Young widows were going from house to house teaching things they shouldn’t teach (5:13).  These young, single women were being sexually promiscuous (5:11, 2 Tim 3:6) – probably with the renegade elders.  These young widows were selfishly living off the church’s benevolence (5:11).  These young widows were being taught the gospel, but never getting it (2 Tim 3:7).

So in light of this clear crisis with corrupt elders and women in that church, Paul tells Timothy that the women can’t teach or have (probably, “usurp”) authority over a man.  Clearly this is a restriction, but what is often missed is that this is actually a retraction.  That is, a withholding of a previously granted freedom.  We not only infer this because the Corinthian women were obviously not “silent” and were teaching publicly in their worship services, but also because in the Roman context women simply didn’t teach at all!

Why would Paul feel the need to keep female teaching from happening unless it were, in fact, happening?  Yet, if it were happening, why was it happening?  Was it because they were importing “liberated” Roman cultural values which were super-accepting of women in leadership roles?  Hardly!!  In Roman culture, women were chattel and unless of some wealth or royal birth, they were completely uneducated.  So the cultural context lends credence to the idea that the normal operation in the Ephesian church, as in others, had been the counter cultural, radical practice of women teaching in public ways.  Why else does Paul have to tell them not to do it?  They took this freedom from the gospel, as other women in other churches did.  Now, it’s true, they might have taken the freedom from a misunderstanding of the gospel.  They had clearly misunderstood other parts, which is why Paul is now banning them from public roles.  But that Ephesian women were teaching directly because they were Christian women I think is indisputable.  And the fact that so many other women were not silent with Paul’s full blessing infers that the restrictions of 1 Tim 1:12 are not normative.

Here’s another amazing thing, again given the context:  Paul does not give such a strict retraction without first telling the women they must learn (2:11)!  Now, that seems demeaning at first, especially with the modifying, “in silence and submission”.  But remember, women didn’t learn in those days.  Most Roman women didn’t even know how to read!  But here is Paul commanding them to go to school on the Gospel and learn!  His frustration with them is not that they learned and started teaching, it’s that they didn’t learn (2 Tim 3:7), but started teaching anyhow (1 Tim 5:13)!  Learning precedes teaching, but it seems that some Ephesian women had put the cart before the horse.

Now, the moral laxity of this group of women also helps explain that baffling phrase about “being saved through childbirth” (2:15).  We know how often Paul says Christians are saved by grace!  So most likely that entire verse is Paul’s way of saying, “if these immature women, will settle down, stop talking and start learning the gospel, and repent of their sensuality and prove it by marrying and having kids – they’ll be saved.  But of course, they have to have the prerequisite of faith expressing itself in love etc.”  He’s not really saying that a woman’s salvation is secured through the work of having children… it’s just in this situation, childbirth would be a key sign of true repentance, which would indicate faith, through which they are saved (15b).

Also, it should be noted that the pronouns are odd in this verse.  In Greek it literally reads, “woman (singular) will be saved through childbearing if they (plural) continue in faith, love…”  This would suggest Paul may be talking about Eve and the Ephesian women separately – indicating Eve is the one saved by childbirth, because her Seed crushes the Serpent, but the Ephesian women are saved by faith.  Either way, Paul is clearly calling women here and elsewhere in these two letters into marriage and family, exactly opposite his advice elsewhere.

Another clue to the crisis: the false male teachers were teaching that marriage itself was a sin (4:3).  Paul’s concerns for this faction were justified because an antinomian Gnostic cult developed in early Christendom that basically relaxed all sexual propriety.  So the instruction about child bearing would also counter the “marriage is evil and sexual relationships should be open”, idea that was developing there.  So again, it’s very revealing that Paul would give this advice to widows and singles in Ephesus, when in 1 Corinthians he specifically tells widows and singles to stay single if they can (1 Cor 7:8).

If we don’t acknowledge the context of the two letters, we have no answer to why the Apostle would change his advice so radically to the singles in this church (1 Tim 5:14) and we’re left with a real contradiction.  But it makes perfect sense if there is a unique crisis in Ephesus – which lends a lot of weight to the idea that Paul’s restriction on women should also be seen as unique and bound to that church and for that crisis.

It was a bad situation.  A frat party had broken out in Ephesus, heresy tied directly to sexual promiscuity.  So here’s Paul writing to settle it all down, not just the problems with women, but also with men:

“ok, Timothy, let’s get this thing under control.  Fire these male leaders (1 Tim 1:20), pull the young women back (2:12), they’re abusing the freedoms the gospel has given them (5:13), but don’t abandon them, tell them to go back to basics and learn (2:11), call them to settle down (5:14) and have kids (2:15) to demonstrate their faith in Christ and repentance from acts that lead to death… and the men that do lead must be thoroughly checked out (3:1-13) and not appointed quickly (5:22).  It’s time to clean house, Timothy.”

Read 1 and 2 Tim in one sitting and the crisis with young widows and renegade elders will pop out at you.

We have written a position paper on this topic for AC3 that we make available if you’re interested in going into more detail on these and other Scriptures.  Read it with your Bible open and you’ll have a great study of the issues involved in this key question!