Women in Ministry

In short, I think that complementarians who either restrict or deny women's spiritual rights as equals to ordination and/or ministry positions within the Church can only perpetuate such by misinterpreting and misapplying Scripture, ignoring not only the historical contexts of the only two passages they explicitly and consistently use against women in ministry; but also ignoring the leadership roles of women in both the Old and New Testaments, women called, anointed, and appointed by God to such positions. In essence, then, complementarians forbid the female vocation that God allows, anoints, and appoints by His Spirit.


Concerning that opening statement, with regard to the leadership roles to which God called women in both the Old and New Testaments, Dr. Scot McKnight, from his book The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible, boldly asks opponents: "When we consider [this], does it not strike you that, at the very least, women can sometimes teach and lead? In the Bible, women did lead and women did teach. Some today want to take back what women did, while others (I include myself here) want to expand what women can do today because we live in a different world. Those who are taking back the teaching and leading ministries of women are fighting the Bible, not embracing it."1 I think Dr. McKnight is spot on here. In light of the overwhelming evidence in the New Testament alone -- of women assuming leadership and teaching roles -- at the very least women should be encouraged to seek no less than did those early, first-century female Christians. But we will see that for ourselves from the New Testament in its place.

While some complementarians will argue that their beliefs are formed from proper hermeneutics and exegesis, I will argue the exact opposite, that complementarians have historically maintained an improper hermeneutic, which has caused them to not only an embarrassing misinterpretation of key passages of Scripture, but also a quenching of the Spirit who has both called and enabled (gifted) women to do His bidding among the saints. This latter truth is especially pertinent given that, statistically, more women attend churches than men. New Testament scholar Craig Keener writes: "As members of the body of Christ, we are all called to look out for one another's interests, and if certain ministries are denied to half (or over half) of God's people [i.e., women], then that should concern all of us, for the ministry of the entire body of Christ will surely suffer from this denial."2 The residual of patriarchy from some of the early Church fathers, as well as the Reformers, has crippled the Church in its neglect of promoting the insight, wisdom, creativity and female perspective with which women have been blessed by their Creator.

The time is long overdue for complementarians to reconsider their hermeneutical and exegetical errors, repent of their actions and attitudes toward women, and cease quenching the Holy Spirit -- the Spirit whom God promised in the last days He would "pour out" upon both men and women, and to proclaim (i.e., "prophesy") His message through both men and women (Acts 2:17-18). As the issue stands, complementarians are actually disobeying explicit passages of Scripture by hindering Spirit-enabled women to minister to His people. This is unacceptable.


In Genesis chapter one we discover God's creation of human beings: "Then God said, 'Let us make humankind [adam] in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion [rule] over … every thing' … So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them [ha 'adam]; male and female he created them." (Gen. 1:26-27 NRSV) God names humans adam, and originally gives both components of adam, the male and the female, dominion or rule over everything. What we find in God's original creation of human beings is a two-fold expression: male and female; and in this two-fold, unified expression is granted mutuality in ruling over everything. Neither component of humanity struggles to rule the other, but seeks, instead, to rule equally, mutually over creation. But the fall into sin changes their perspective entirely -- not their alleged "gender roles" but their perspective.

Because of the sin of the male and female, God, in part, replies (to the female): "yet your desire shall be for [teshuqah] your husband, and he shall rule over you." (Gen. 3:16) Note that God is here not granting a prescription of gender roles but prophesying one result of their fall: the female will teshuqah for her husband, a Hebrew word also used in the personification of sin, in attempting to rule over Cain at Genesis 4:7. What we do not find here is an implicit or explicit prescription: i.e., "yet you are to desire to rule your husband, but he is to rule over you." Those who insist on complementarian gender roles are advocating the motif of a fallen condition, and context, not a new creation model implemented by God through Christ.

Dr. Scot McKnight rightly highlights a disturbing trend among many authoritarians in churches historically and today (emphases author's original): "Sadly, the church has far too often perpetuated the fall as a permanent condition. Perpetuating the fall entails failing to restore creation conditions when it comes to male and female relationships. This is against both Jesus and Paul, who each read the Bible as a story that moves from creation (oneness) to new creation (oneness)."3 If some in the era of the Old Covenant perpetuates men ruling over women, they can almost be excused, given their incomplete understanding of all that God intended to accomplish in the new creation through Christ Jesus. (Granted, that is not what we find in the Old Testament, which will be examined below.) But New Covenant Christians have no excuse at all for attempting to undermine and hinder and silence the gifts the Holy Spirit has bestowed upon women in our (New Testament) age -- a point I will make throughout this piece, in light of many, many New Testament passages which so very blatantly contradict complementarianism.

Also remember that in God's original design both the man and the woman maintain dominion mutually (Gen. 1:26), while subsequent to the fall both man and woman are vying for control or domination, the one over the other. Selfishly desiring to rule others, then, is a result of the fall (cf. Matt. 20:25-26) and not a prescription of how God will have men and women work together in the home or in His church. (The same can be said even for alleged "servant leadership" of men over women: men ruling over women even in a supposed "servant" position is not a new creation motif.) If God is to correct this fallen desire, to rule over another, He will have to construct a way for spiritual renewal and re-creation. Since the fall, all of history is longing for the day of final redemption, the time when all that is broken will be mended. The broken relationship of God with His creation, as well as the broken relationships of people created in God's image with each other, will all find their ultimate healing in Christ Jesus.

Again, Dr. McKnight writes: "Permanence, love, oneness, and mutuality were God's intent in original creation. Jesus, then, appeals to Story, to the original creation, to show how God's people are supposed to live in the new creation."4 The apostle Paul informs us: "So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!" (2 Cor. 5:17) This re-creation is of God, who was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself (2 Cor. 5:19), mending our brokenness. In Christ there is no one ruling over the other, in a strict sense, but Christ is the Ruler: "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." (Gal. 3:28) The Greeks will not rule the Jews (and vice versa); the free will not rule the slave; the male will not rule the female (and vice versa). In Christ all are brought to oneness again, the brokenness mended, all rule and authority belonging to Christ alone forevermore.

Again, Dr. McKnight writes: "What we learn from Genesis 1-2, then, is that God originally made Adam and Eve as mutuals, that the fall distorted that relationship, and that the story of the Bible's plot leads us to redemption in Christ as new creation. Both Jesus and Paul see in Genesis 1-2 the original design for what Christ's redemption brings to men and women in this world. If there is any place in the world where this mutuality should be restored, it should be in the church. Ironically, it can be the least redemptive place of the week!"5 This need not be the case if we properly contextualize the New Testament.

God's original created order is a blessing of union and mutuality, not one of control and domination, the one over the other. Though sin through rebellion corrupts that mutuality, Christ restores it through His victory over sin, death and hell. God continues to gift and call women into full-time ministry, and those of us who read the Bible in its redemptive fullness celebrate, encourage and perpetuate this very New Covenant understanding of both the gifts and the calling of God for women as well as men. Those who oppose the same, with regard to women in ministry, are promoting and perpetuating the results of the fall from which Christ came to deliver and redeem. Complementarianism, then, carries us back under the yoke of sin, while egalitarianism brings us into the redemption purchased by Christ in His atoning death and victorious resurrection. The former resembles bondage and death, the latter redemption, release, and new life -- the former buried with Christ; the latter raised with Christ.


Complementarians who insist that women are neither called to nor gifted for leadership and/or teaching ministry in God's church maintain their beliefs due to a faulty, patriarchal hermeneutic, both a misinterpretation and a misapplication of two key passages of New Testament Scripture, and are thereby, sadly but inevitably, committed to ignoring all of the contrary evidence granted in both the Old and New Testaments. Odd, is it not, that women are in active leadership and teaching roles from at least the days of Moses until the ministry of Jesus Christ, but many within what is called "the Church age" insist that women are not called to such positions? That unfortunate circumstance makes one question exactly what Bible complementarians are reading. If women have been involved in such ministries for over four thousand years then why would they not also be involved in the same today?

One cultural aspect of the Old Testament era that most fascinates me is how some gifted and Spirit-enabled women flourish in prophetic, leadership, and teaching roles in their seemingly restrictive, oppressive, patriarchal societies. Women and slaves are thought of in terms of property in most patriarchal societies throughout the Old Testament era, and even those men who lack proper resources "put themselves up for collateral in order for their family to survive."6 In spite of such challenges, women like Moses' sister Miriam, Deborah, Esther, Huldah, Judith and many others are strong, prominent, and influential women of their time, enabled by God to accomplish the seemingly impossible at a time that did not always favor their voice.

Moses' sister Miriam is gifted and called by God to be a prophet, leading Israel to worship God with her inspired song of Exodus 15:1-18. Dr. Scot McKnight notes other women in Scripture singing inspired worship songs: Deborah (Judges 5:1-31); Hannah (1 Sam. 2:1-10); and Mary, the mother of Jesus (Luke 1:46-55), claiming, "Singing was connected to the gift of prophecy in the Bible (1 Chronicles 25:1-8)"; and that, when the prophet Micah refers to Israel's deliverers, he notes three leaders, the Spirit-enabled female prophet Miriam among them (Micah 6:4).7 God gifts and raises up the female prophet Deborah to be a judge -- a president/social and spiritual leader and adviser/military commander in chief -- of Israel (Judges 4:4).

Again, Dr. McKnight comments: "When the Bible says she was 'leading' Israel, it uses the term for the judge of Israel. She was to her generation what Moses was to his."8 Her position includes spiritual teaching, and advising, just as did Moses. We also have the female prophet Huldah. Dr. McKnight writes: "When King Josiah is informed of the discovery of the long-lost Torah in the temple, a certain Shaphan reads the text to Josiah. The king, who has "the most responsive royal heart since the hearing heart of Solomon," realizes the nation has failed to live according to God's covenant. He falls apart in godly repentance and needs discernment. What should he do? To which of God's prophets shall he send word to consult? Here are his options: he can consult Jeremiah, Zephaniah, Nahum, Habakkuk, or Huldah. The first four have books in Israel's collection of prophets. But he chooses the female prophet, Huldah, above the rest. Huldah is not chosen because no men were available; she is chosen because she is truly exceptional among the prophets."9 (emphasis added)

For all of the hue and cry among some complementarians that no book of the Bible is ever written by a woman, such an argument is gratuitous in light of the giftings bestowed upon many women throughout the Old Testament era. Not to mention that writing and recording is directly related to one's education, and many women are denied that education during their time -- the argument is a flat one at best. Had women been treated equally, as is God's original intent in the Garden (cf. Gen. 1:26), then some women could have written entire books of the Bible. Also, as noted above, we do have the inspired words of some women recorded in our Bibles. So women still play a large part in the make-up of Scripture, including but not limited to inspired words of Miriam, Deborah, Ruth, Hannah, Esther, Elizabeth and Mary.

A contemporary of Deborah, a woman named Jael, was considered a national hero for her bravery during one of Israel's battles. The commanding officer of Israel's enemy, Sisera, had drifted away quietly from the battle into the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite. She gave him some milk to drink, and agreed to keep watch for anyone searching for him. When he laid down to rest, he fell asleep. Jael then "took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple, until it went down into the ground … and he died." (Judges 4:21) Scripture reads: "So on that day God subdued King Jabin of Canaan before the Israelites." (Judges 4:23) Because of the leadership of Deborah, and the brave actions of the brave woman Jael, God subdued Israel's enemies.

There is a similar story in the great narrative of Judith, a bold woman who agrees to be a spy for Israel's foreign enemy, the commander in chief Holofernes. While he sleeps, Judith takes down the sword that lay by the bedside of Holofernes, "came close to his bed, took hold of the hair of his head, and said, 'Give me strength today, O Lord God of Israel!' Then she struck his neck twice with all her might, and cut off his head." (Judith 13:6-8) Through her heroism Israel is vindicated. She lifts up a song before the God of Israel: "Begin a song to my God with tambourines, sing to my Lord with cymbals. Raise to him a new psalm; exalt him, and call upon his name. For the Lord is a God who crushes wars; he sets up his camp among his people; he delivered me from the hands of my pursuers." (Judith 16:1-2)

We must remember, with regard to Deborah, Jael, and Judith that their acts were committed during a time of war, and war is messy, violent, and unpleasant to our twenty-first century sensibilities. What we learn from those acts, however, is that complementarianism can only inconsistently maintain their views in light of the history presented to us in Scripture. Space and time will not permit us to delve into the stories of prominent women mentioned in Scripture who were mighty in deed and word, women like Jochebed, Zipporah, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Rahab, Ruth, Esther, Hannah, Abigail, the Queen of Sheba, the notable Shulamite woman, and Suzanna, whose story is found in the apocryphal account which bears her name (not to mention daring, zealous rebel women like Potiphar's wife, Jezebel and Delilah). The idea of a quiet, submissive wife who obeys her husband's demands, much as would a slave his master, is an entirely foreign one from the perspective of biblical history; one, no doubt, constructed by men corrupted by the idea of repressive, oppressive patriarchy.

God both calls and gifts women in the Old Testament to carry out His will in matters of state and religion. To suggest that women are created for the service and pleasure of men is to relegate them to the place of objects. That is not God's original intent, but is an unfortunate product of the fall, that was redeemed in and through Christ. In Christ the oneness and mutuality of men and women, as originally blessed by God, is completely restored. We will see this restoration in the following section with regard to women ministering in the New Testament.


Even during the era in which Jesus walked the earth, women are viewed as second-class citizens, their social witness not even counted as a valid representation; which makes one wonder why God arranges the events of His Son's resurrection being witnessed first by women (cf. Matt. 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-10; John 20:1-2). Women, unduly marginalized and counted as property, without a proper "voice" in their society, are the first to discover the most significant aspect to the life and ministry of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, not to mention the crowning element of the salvation and justification of humanity. These are among the same women, mind you, that contributed financially to Jesus during His pre-resurrection ministry (Luke 8:1-3) -- the women Scripture declares as those "who had followed him from Galilee" (cf. Luke 23:49), the Greek word "followed," sunakolouthousai, often referring to following Jesus as His disciple (besides His main Twelve, Jesus had many other disciples, cf. Luke 10:1; John 4:1-2; 6:66).

Before the birth of Jesus, Israel's Messiah, there is a female prophet who "never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day." (Luke 2:37) She is present at the temple when Joseph and Mary bring Jesus "to do for him what was customary under the law." (Luke 2:27) Do not gloss over the fact that there resides in Israel during this time at least one (doubtful she was the only one) female prophet who daily worships at the temple. Her ministry and presence at the customary rites of the Messiah are recorded in Scripture for a reason -- at least, the record is significant enough for the Spirit to prompt the inclusion of her brief story within the pages of Scripture.

Who do we suppose teaches Jesus and His half-brothers the lessons of life, godliness, and true spirituality if not their mother Mary? The fact remains that the majority of mothers maintain the most influence over their children, since she, typically, spends the most time with them, teaching them. But Mary's influence is much wider than just teaching her children, including Jesus. Dr. Scot McKnight writes: "We believe in the Bible, and it reveals that Mary was a woman of influence, and some of that influence, if you weigh the verses carefully, had to be at the level of teaching."10 He underscores some facts regarding Mary: 1) she is the mother of Jesus, the Son of God, Messiah, so her shaping the spiritual formation of Jesus is no small matter; 2) she is also the mother of Jesus' half-brothers, including James, who writes a letter included in our Bible that bears his name; and 3) she is "critical in the formation of the Gospels."11

Aside from Mary's Spirit-inspired Magnificat, recorded in Scripture (Luke 1:46-55), she most likely contributes to much of the acquired information and details of many stories of Jesus' life and ministry, as noted in chapters 1 and 2 of Luke. Dr. McKnight offers other possible resources for the information, but Mary is by far the most likely. He writes: "However you look at it, the first two chapters of our gospel of Luke derive somehow from Mary."12

From the prominent influence of Mary we move to a female apostle named Junia, a spiritual teacher named Priscilla, and a deacon of the Church named Phoebe. A female apostle? Did you read that correctly? Have you never learned of the female apostle Junia? Well, granted that some Bible translators attempt to transform the feminine Junia into the masculine Junias, I am not surprised. Dr. McKnight notes: "Junia and her husband-apostle Andronicus were relatives of Paul, they came to faith in Christ prior to Paul's own conversion, and they were imprisoned with Paul (no doubt because they were believers and leaders among the Christians)."13 Paul himself states: "Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles." (Rom. 16:7) Again, Dr. McKnight explains that "the evidence in the early church is that everyone translated this expression as 'prominent apostles' among the first generation of Christians."14

Complementarians are sometimes quick to point to the apostle Paul's alleged proscription of women teachers (1 Tim. 2:12), but are obliged to ignore women teachers like Priscilla (Acts 18:2, 3, 26). She and her husband are mutual partners for the gospel; "instead of fighting for power with one another (cf. Genesis 3:16), [these two] worked together for the gospel."15 Dr. McKnight underscores the fact that Priscilla is "almost always named before her husband, leading many to think she was the leading light when it came to this ministry." (cf. Acts 18:18, 19, 26; Rom. 16:3; 2 Tim. 4:19)16 Priscilla knows well her theology, her history and her Bible, and she teaches the male preacher Apollos God's ways. (Acts 18:26)

The single female deacon of the Church, Phoebe, is commended by the apostle Paul to those in Rome (Rom. 16:1-2). The Greek word for deacon, diakonon, is the same one used at 1 Timothy 3:8, an office which complementarians insist belongs to males only. If so, then we have found an overt, explicit contradiction in Scripture. Many scholars are convinced that the office of deacon describes a ministry of God's word. Note one of Paul's qualifications for the deacon: "they must hold fast to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience." (1 Tim. 3:9) Dr. McKnight concludes: "At some level Phoebe was a 'minister.' She was also significant. When Paul asks the church at Rome to 'receive her,' he surely has in mind that they are to roll out a red carpet of hospitality -- the way they do for 'saints.'"17 Most think that Phoebe is a courier for this letter to the believers at Rome; and since the couriers are responsible for reading and explaining the letter to the churches, she most likely performed this task -- a task which includes her teaching men.

In light of the preceding, no doubt some will ask about two primary passages that seem to suggest that women are not to be in teaching ministry to men (1 Cor. 14:34-35; 1 Tim. 2:12), and two secondary passages regarding wives being submissive to their husbands (Eph. 5:22-24; 1 Pet. 3:5-6). These passages will be addressed below. They will also be addressed more fully in the upcoming series. I will make this anticipatory conclusion, however, with regard to those passages: If we interpret them in the same manner as do complementarians, then we have a prime example of biblical contradiction. Yet if the prophecy is true -- that both men and women will prophesy in the last days, prophesying being the proclamation (expounding, teaching) of the word and gospel of Jesus (Acts 2:17-18), and all of New Testament Scripture agrees together -- then complementarianism is in error, and complementarians misinterpret and misapply those passages in question. This is the charge we lay at the feet of all complementarians.


The advocacy of complementarians to silence women in the church, and to deny them the exercising of their spiritual gifts, is based solely on two primary passages in the New Testament, both of which are written by the apostle Paul, the same apostle who entrusts the female deacon Phoebe with his letter to the Christians at Rome (Rom. 16:1) -- whose ministry includes both the reading of and expounding upon, hence teaching, Paul's letter to the congregants, which include men; informs us of women both praying and prophesying in the church (1 Cor. 11:5); and radically instructs women to be educated in spiritual matters (1 Tim. 2:11). Immediately, one should ask, Can complementarianism be adhered to without admitting an overt contradiction in Scripture? The answer is no.

I remember the first time I read through the New Testament. I had trusted in the Lord, May of 1995, and bought my very own New International Version Study Bible. I had then become interested in Pentecostalism, given that many members of the Southern Baptist church in which I grew up had converted to the movement. As I was reading through Paul's letter to the Corinthians, I first learned that women both pray and prophesy in the church (1 Cor. 11:5), the latter being a spiritual gift given by the Spirit of God to certain believers (1 Cor. 12:10, 11). I remember my reading through the book of Acts of Philip's four virgin daughters who had the gift of prophecy (Acts 21:9); and I remember from Peter's sermon that in the last days the Holy Spirit would minister to people through both men and women using the gift of prophesying (Acts 2:17). So, by the end of 1 Corinthians chapter 14, when I read that "women should be silent in the churches" (1 Cor. 14:34), I knew then -- even as a new believer without seminary training -- that the intent of Paul's message had an interpretation other than its prima facie reading. Otherwise the Bible contains at least one error and contradiction.

Commenting on the mannerisms of a spirit- and self-controlled prophet (whether male or female), Paul states that the "spirits of prophets are subject to the prophets, for God is a God not of disorder but of peace." (1 Cor. 14:32-33) The Greek word for "disorder," akatastasia, refers to disturbance, upheaval, instability, that which generates confusion. He then states: "(As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church …)." (1 Cor. 14:33-35) The entire quotation is noted within parentheses.

Any translation worth its salt will contain a footnote somewhere between verses 33 and 36. The New Revised Standard Version footnote states: "Other ancient authorities put verses 34-35 after verse 40." Though some maintain that this is an additional statement -- a marginalized note introduced and included within these passages of Scripture, perhaps inserted by an early scribe (and there are valid reasons for subscribing to such a view) -- we must admit that all of our copies of the New Testament contain these verses. However, we must also admit that such an alleged interpolation could have been generated very early, thus resulting in a very early copy tradition. Dr. Scot McKnight notes New Testament scholar Gordon Fee's conclusion that Paul "did not write these verses, that someone added them to a margin of an early manuscript, and that from there they found their way into 1 Corinthians in two different locations."18 Dr. Fee is not alone in that conclusion, either (cf. Wayne Meeks, Robin Scroggs, F.F. Bruce19).

But even if the verses are original with Paul, interpreting them with other passages which affirm women speaking in churches is not difficult, in my opinion, and the opinion of the majority of Christian scholars. The key to a correct interpretation is placed center stage in the passages: "If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home." (1 Cor. 14:35)

Some understand from history that men and women do not sit together in the worship setting in the first century: women sit on one side of the meeting place while men sit on the other. So, while a prophetic message is being delivered (1 Cor. 14:1, 3, 4, 5, 22, 24, 29, 30, 31, 32 -- the context of the alleged proscription of women speaking in the churches), some of the women are disrupting the service by asking questions. The word "disrupting" is most appropriate here, given the Greek word akatastasia, referring at 1 Corinthians 14:33 to disruption and causing confusion. This has been contested, however, and one should probably not rely too heavily on this proposition. While early temple motifs do not allow women in the court, the segregation of women from men happens during a later period in Church history. However, a general principle of disruption does apply in the text, I think.

The "silence" referred to in the text is not unique here but is also commanded at 1 Corinthians 14:28-29: "But if there is no one to interpret [the message spoken in another language], let them be silent in church and speak to themselves and to God. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said." The apostle is not proscribing the use of speaking in tongues or the gift of prophecy in the churches, obviously, but, rather, setting proper guidelines for their befitting practice. The boundaries of "silence" granted by the apostle have as their goal keeping the worship in a proper, even liturgical, order. (cf. 1 Cor. 14:33) Dr. Craig Keener notes: "The context need not mean that Paul is demanding women's silence only with regard to spiritual gifts; Paul may be commenting on another kind of silence equally necessary to preserve order in the congregation … [I]t is unlikely that he is restricting women's participation in spiritual gifts at all [an argument made by some], given the fact that he permits the activity [at 1 Corinthians 11:4-5]. What is clear from the context is just that restricting one's own speech is sometimes necessary to preserve congregational order."20

This issue of women remaining silent will be revisited at 1 Timothy 2:11, and will be addressed when interpreting 1 Timothy 2:12, in which much of what is addressed here will be repeated there. A fuller treatment will be granted in the upcoming series on women in ministry. I will argue, forcibly so, that if the complementarian interpretation of forbidding women for ordination and pulpit (and other) ministry is correct, then complementarians cannot consistently argue for the inerrancy of Scripture; for within Paul's own lifetime, he both affirms and admits to women prophesying in the churches and then (allegedly) forbids women from prophesying in the churches -- a blatant contradiction that no amount of exegetical abracadabra can make agree.

Q. What problem with the Corinthian women is the apostle Paul addressing in chapter 14 of his letter?
A. The problem of women in the congregation disrupting the service by asking questions about prophetic utterances.

That conclusion is contextual, historical, and agrees with the tenor of both Old and New Testament Scripture regarding women in leadership roles. The only conclusion to make with regard to these Corinthian verses is that complementarians abuse these passages in an effort to keep men as sole authoritarians, thus denying women their Spirit-enabled gifting. If complementarianism is correct, then Scripture is in error (e.g. Luke 2:37; Acts 2:17; 18:2, 3, 26; 21:9; Rom. 16:1-2, 7; 1 Cor. 11:4-5).


Some scholars argue that the apostle Paul did not write some of the letters attributed to him, both from Church tradition, as well as from an admission within the letters themselves. What this is supposed to prove escapes me, however. If the author of 1 Timothy is not the apostle Paul,21 this truth does not in the least render the letter useless or non-canonical. Inspiration belongs to the writings, not to the writer; the author is not inspired, but what he or she writes is God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16 NIV) -- the latter reference belonging to all graphē, writings, not all authors. Whether or not Paul actually writes the material found within the passages of 1 Timothy is moot: it does not affect the truths maintaining a personal charge to the young pastor Timothy (chapter one), Christian conduct (chapters two and three), false teaching (chapter four) and church discipline (chapter five). The Church has recognized the letter as having the marks of being canonical, and we are left with the task of properly understanding and interpreting its content.

Assuming Pauline authorship, I will refer to the apostle Paul throughout this brief commentary. The primary reason for writing this letter to the young pastor named Timothy is in confronting and combating false teaching, thus restoring stability and order in the churches.22 The false teachers originate within the churches themselves, and not from outside sources (cf. 1 Tim. 1:3; 6:2; 2 Tim. 2:14; 4:2; Titus 1:13; 3:10). The letter is believed to have been written between 62-67 CE, during the closing years of Paul's ministry (and life).

The apostle Paul addresses Timothy as his "loyal child in the faith" (1 Tim. 1:2), and then immediately urges him to remain in Ephesus "so that you may instruct certain people not to teach any different doctrine, and not to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies that promote speculations rather than the divine training that is known by faith." (1 Tim. 1:3-4) This young believer, now elder of a church in Ephesus, is of a sensitive nature (2 Tim. 1:4), who maintains a sincere faith in Christ (2 Tim. 1:5), being taught not by the men of his family -- there are no men of his family mentioned in the texts -- but by the women: his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice (2 Tim. 1:5). These women are responsible for teaching him the spiritual truths found in the pages of God-breathed Scripture (2 Tim. 3:16 NIV), as are most mothers and grandmothers of the faith. Young men learn spiritual truths from women before they do men.

This fact may seem insignificant until one reads our text in focus: "I permit no [lit. 'I am not allowing,' epitrepō is a present active indicative] woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent." (1 Tim. 2:12 NRSV) Prior to this statement, the apostle commands women to learn spiritual truths (1 Tim. 2:11), a very radical command in the first century. With reference to the gifts which God has given women since the time of prophet Miriam (Moses' sister), and Israel's spiritual and national leader and judge Deborah (as well as Esther, Hannah, Huldah, Jael, Jochebed, Zipporah, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Rahab, Ruth, Abigail, the Queen of Sheba, the notable Shulamite woman, and Suzanna and Judith from the Apocrypha), to the female teaching deacon Phoebe (Rom. 16:1-2), the spiritual teacher Priscilla (Acts 18:2, 3, 26), the apostle Junia (Rom. 16:7) and New Testament female prophets (Acts 2:17; 21:9; 1 Cor. 11:4-5), this verse appears to be a conundrum (and contradiction) when taken at face value. We have two viable options when interpreting this verse: 1) take it prima facie and admit to contradiction and error in Scripture; or 2) commence the hard work of historical investigation in an effort to harmonize this passage with other passages that affirm and encourage women in ministry.

I think we must admit an uncomfortable truth first, however: complementarians who deny women's Spirit-enabled gifting in leadership ministry conveniently pick and choose which sections of Scripture they will obey. For example, in this section of 1 Timothy alone, the majority of male complementarians do not "lift up holy hands" during prayer (1 Tim. 2:8), and the women in complementarian churches are not always held accountable to modest and inexpensive dress and hairstyles, nor held to the proscription of wearing jewelry (1 Tim. 2:9-9). Nor are most women commanded to wear head coverings (cf. 1 Cor. 11:5). But complementarian men are quick to deny women a teaching position in their churches. Why this hypocrisy and double standard? Why only obey some of the text and not all of it? Yes, I believe that complementarians are abusing and misinterpreting this text, and I find their double standards and hypocrisy intolerable. Women have too long been denied their Spirit-gifted roles by abuse of the text, and women need to know the truth, so that they can accomplish for the Lord all that He has called them to.

There has been much study of the culture and age of Ephesus, many scholars discovering what is now referred to as the "New Women of Rome." This New Women movement was an empowering force in the community, the goal of which was for wealthy, prominent women to dominate the men, as they chose to break free from the social standards of women being property and treated as second class citizens. Their dress is "immodest, sexually provocative, and extravagant."23 In the public square, these women are "noted for snatching the podium [from men] for public address and teaching," and pay great tribute to Artemis, the goddess of fertility.24 The apostle Paul addresses this issue head on, so that the Ephesian women in the churches -- even those among the wealthy, prominent class -- are not to model their lives and ministries after the ideas and practices of the New Roman women.

Note that Paul forbids Christian women to "have authority over" a man (1 Tim. 2:12) -- cf. "assume authority over a man." (NIV) (The subject of submission and authority will be addressed below.) This notion corresponds well with the new creation model in Christ, in which we each submit ourselves to Christ, and never vie for lording authority over one another (Gen. 1:26-27; Matt. 20:25-26; Gal. 3:28), an unfortunate result of the fall (Gen. 3:16), but we submit ourselves to one another as well (Eph. 5:21). However, this is not how some women, young widows in particular, are behaving in the Ephesian churches. Dr. Scot McKnight concludes: "We are thus led to the conclusion that when Paul asks women to be silent [in 1 Timothy 2:12], he is not talking about ordinary Christian women; rather, he has a specific group of women in mind [most notably those who have adopted the New Roman women motif]. His concern is with some untrained, morally loose, young widows [cf. 1 Tim. 5:9-13], who, because they are theologically unformed [cf. 1 Tim. 2:11], are teaching unorthodox ideas. Paul does not advocate, then, that women should not teach but that they should learn sound theology before they teach."25

There are two primary commands in the 1 Timothy 2:11-12 passage worthy of note with regard to women: 1) they are to learn (a radical idea in the first-century) in silence; and 2) they are not to teach (presumably until they have been trained theologically) or to assume authority over men (because we are to submit ourselves mutually to one another, cf. Eph. 5:21). Concerning women learning "in silence," Dr. Craig Keener argues: "Silence was an appropriate way to learn except when one had a thorough knowledge of the subject. Some teachers purportedly even required long periods of silence from their pupils, probably as a form of moral discipline. When Paul admonished the women to be silent in 1 Corinthians 14:34, he used a stronger term than he uses here, but the same principle may apply to both: they were to learn, but not by disrupting the whole assembly with unlearned questions. An admonition to learn in silence could also be an admonition to stop talking and pay attention to what was being said (cf. Acts 15:12; 21:40; 22:2), and need not mean that the person was forever to remain quiet (1 Cor. 14:28, 30). This presumably relates to the specific situation in Ephesus suggested in 1 Timothy 5:13 -- many younger women were making the rounds with foolish talk, trying to teach but not knowing what they were talking about."26

The remainder of our 1 Timothy passage, concerning Adam being formed first and then Eve (1 Tim. 2:13-14), will be addressed below regarding wives being "submissive" to their husbands (and not women being submissive to men). I think we are obliged to conclude that contextual and historical evidence throughout 1 Timothy demonstrates agreement with the tenor of both Old and New Testament Scripture regarding women in ministry and leadership roles. The only viable conclusion to make with regard to the 1 Timothy 2:12 passage, as mentioned above, is that complementarians abuse this text in an effort to keep men as sole authoritarians, thus denying women their Spirit-enabled gifting. If complementarianism is correct, then Scripture is, clearly, in error (e.g. Luke 2:37; Acts 2:17; 18:2, 3, 26; 21:9; Rom. 16:1-2, 7; 1 Cor. 11:4-5).


We in the West live in an egalitarian culture where women, as well as minorities, are treated as equals with men (in some contexts, the "white" man). Had the Bible been written in our culture in our time, it would appear very different in many respects, not least of which the issue of women in ministry and their roles in the home and society. But the Bible is written in a patriarchal society where men "rule" and subordinate women are assumed to obey them. In God's economy, however, women are granted leadership roles, thought of in terms of equal standing in Christ, in a New Testament understanding, responsible, and maintain mutual authority, as in the Garden (cf. Gen. 1:26-27). Men vying to rule women, and women vying to rule men, is a tragic result of the fall (cf. Gen. 3:16); and this grasping for authority (to rule over others) has been perpetuated ever since.

That New Testament believers in an egalitarian society would perpetuate the draconian motif of the subordination of women is ghastly at best, especially in light of passages in our New Testament which demonstrate that women and men are to be equally submissive to one another out of reference for the one and only Lord, Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:28; Eph. 5:21), as we seek always to consider others as better than ourselves (Phil. 2:3). But the contrary, erroneous view of women has historically been maintained due to a faulty hermeneutic, and an inevitable subsequent interpretation has followed suit.

The apostle Paul writes: "Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent" (1 Tim. 2:11-12); "Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head [see footnote 6] of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior." (Eph. 5:22-23) The issue of women learning and teaching has been addressed above. What follows is designed to address the notion of women or wives submitting themselves to men or husbands.

Though Paul has elsewhere insisted that all in Christ are equal, "regardless of race, social status, or gender (Eph. 2:11-22; 4:4-6; cf. Gal. 3:28; 1 Cor. 12:13),"27 he, nonetheless, calls for submission in several areas: believers to God (Heb. 12:9; James 4:7: as was Jesus unto His Father, cf. Heb. 5:7; as are all things to Christ, cf. Phil. 3:21; 1 Pet. 3:22); believers to governing authorities (Titus 3:1); the Church to Christ (Eph. 5:24); believers to their leaders (Heb. 11:17); a child to a parent (1 Tim. 3:4); a slave to a master (Titus 2:9); a wife to her husband (Eph. 5:22; Col. 3:18; 1 Tim. 2:11; Titus 2:5); and each believer to any other believer (Eph. 5:21), which, by logical necessity includes each husband to his wife. For example, a husband's body does not belong to him but to his wife (1 Cor. 7:4), and vice versa. One could easily argue that, in view of all the "submission texts" listed here, given the same argument that most are still intact to this day, then wives are to be subject to their husbands, while their husbands are the spiritual leaders of the home and church. Therefore, women are to take their guidance from their husbands, are to keep quiet and always reverent, and submit to him in all things. I think this argument fails biblically, historically, and contextually.

First, as has been painfully obvious, from a biblical perspective women have maintained leadership roles, both politically, militarily and spiritually. Both Old and New Testament examples render many women of God anything but quiet and reverent, submissive, and weak. Second, even within the context of the submission passages, an historical, patriarchal aspect must be taken into consideration when attempting proper hermeneutics and interpretation. One cannot merely read a given text and then assume that the manners and customs of the first century (or any preceding century) is mandated for our contemporary culture. Otherwise slavery would still be advocated today. We need discernment in properly interpreting what is useful for our day and what hinders gospel representation. Third, the context of both the 1 Timothy and Ephesian passages grant a woman to learn (1 Tim. 2:11) and that submission is to be mutual and not one-sided (Eph. 5:21). Dr. Craig Keener comments: "To call on wives to submit themselves to their husbands would not have been a radical statement in Paul's day. To "submit oneself" could mean to "give in" or "cooperate," and need not mean "obey"; the closest thing Paul gives to a definition of the term in this context, in fact, is the word "respect" [at Ephesians 5:33], where he plainly summarizes his whole exhortation to wives. This alone makes Paul's exhortation quite weak by ancient standards. But the context in which Paul places his exhortation qualifies it much more: it is an expression of the kind of submission all Christians render to one another, the kind that Christian husbands would thus also need to render to their wives."28

But the purpose of Paul's exhortation is, in itself, a culturally clever one -- one that protects both the gospel of Christ and the new Christians: "If wives submit to their husbands, Roman moralists and others could not claim that Christianity subverted pagan morals. But if the husband also submits, and husband and wife act as equals before God, Paul is demanding something more than Roman moralists typically demanded, not less.""29 The whole cultural matter of submission is summed up nicely: "Paul is responding to a specific cultural issue for the sake of the gospel, and his words should not be taken at face value in all cultures."30 Dr. Keener's final point is a proverbial slap in the face to any notion of complementarianism, given that complementarians do not even consistently hold to the exhortations of the passages from which they quote in an effort to subjugate women/wives.

For example, most complementarian men do not enforce their wives to wear head coverings (1 Cor. 11:5), keep their own hair at a short length (1 Cor. 11:14) -- who decides what is short and what is long? -- nor do they govern their wives in enforcing they keep their hair long (1 Cor. 11:15). Why not? As mentioned above: Most complementarian men do not lift their hands during prayer, as they are instructed (1 Tim. 2:8), nor do they enforce their wives to dress modestly with inexpensive clothing, and forbid them to wear jewelry, again, as they are commanded (1 Tim. 2:9; 1 Pet. 3:3). Why not? Complementarians do not (or at least I have never heard nor read of any) enforce their wives to call them "lord" (1 Pet. 3:6). Why not? Why are complementarians permitted to pick and choose which commands they will obey and which they will discard as too antiquated, while they themselves enforce other parts of Scripture that are equally as antiquated? Why the hypocrisy and double standards?

The Bible is a story -- God's story -- not an owner's manual. When we treat Scripture as an instruction booklet we get ourselves into deep trouble, as we ignore social and historical contexts, trying to implement many of them into our culture and our day. We Christians, mostly, do not observe the Sabbath even though the Sabbath was to be an everlasting covenant between God and His people (Exodus 31:16). Most Christian women do not wear head coverings (1 Cor. 11:5); many Christian men wear long hair and women short hair, contrary to explicit commands in Scripture (1 Cor. 11:14-15); we do not sing Greek or Latin chant during worship, wear robes and sandals for clothing, sell all our possessions (Mark 10:21; Acts 2:45), tear off our limbs in an effort to avoid sinning (Matt. 5:29-30), avoid making vows (Matt. 5:34-37), avoid inflating our savings accounts (Matt. 5:19), nor bow before and pay homage to an emperor.

Dr. Scot McKnight rightly concludes: "The church of every age is summoned by God to the Bible to listen so we can discern a pattern for living the gospel that is appropriate for our age."31 Like it or not, there are practices and ideas and commands that were part of a particular culture during the age of the author(s) of Scripture that, simply, do not apply today. Denying women their Spirit-giftedness in full-time ministry and attempting to keep women submissive,32 quiet, and marginalized is merely one more aspect of a by-gone era that should not be imitated in our age; and, I think, was never intended by God to be imitated by us.


1 Scot McKnight, The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 204.

2 Craig S. Keener, Paul, Women and Wives: Marriage and Women's Ministry in the Letters of Paul (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 1-2. Keener argues that the apostle Paul would have been especially offended "to find out that his words were being used to advance such [a demeaning] agenda [to hinder females from ministry, as tenaciously held and practiced by complementarians]." (233) Hence the very apostle to whom complementarians appeal would sorely disagree with their hermeneutic, interpretation, and application of key passages that he was inspired to write.

3 McKnight, 165.

4 Ibid., 166.

5 Ibid.

6 Sean McDowell and Jonathan Morrow, Is God Just a Human Invention? And Seventeen Other Questions Raised by the New Atheists (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2010), 151.

7 McKnight, 167.

8 Ibid., 169.

9 Ibid., 174.

10 Ibid., 177.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid., 179.

13 Ibid., 180.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid., 181.

16 Ibid., 182.

17 Ibid., 183.

18 Ibid., 224-25.

19 Keener, 74.

20 Ibid., 72.

21 See an excellent engagement of the debate in Philip H. Towner, 1-2 Timothy and Titus: The IVP New Testament Commentary Series, ed. Grant R. Osborne (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1994), 30-35.

22 Ibid., 22-26.

23 McKnight, 198.

24 Ibid., 199.

25 Ibid., 202.

26 Keener, 107-08.

27 Ibid., 155.

28 Ibid., 168-69.

29 Ibid., 169.

30 Ibid., 170.

31 McKnight, 129.

32 Such would include the ancient, patriarchal notion of male headship in the home, I think. If the husband and wife are to maintain mutual authority and submission, or cooperation, then the husband cannot be thought of in terms of making all the decisions while the wife quietly submits to his every demand. Such betrays the new creation model inaugurated by Christ Himself. This antiquated, patriarchal motif of household codes belongs to history, not to our egalitarian culture. Such an implementation would be tantamount to demanding modern-day slaves to obey their masters. Try applying that notion to a modern employer-employee motif, but doing so only ignores the historical context and reality of the practice of slavery in both the Old and New Testaments. Dr. Philip Towner is right, I think, to conclude: "The New Testament household codes give some evidence of social awareness and cultural sensitivity, but they never advocate conformity for conformity's sake, and when we are reading them, we need to distinguish between categories of relationships as we do in Galatians 3:28." See Philip H. Towner, 1-2 Timothy and Titus: The IVP New Testament Commentary Series, ed. Grant R. Osborne (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1994), 74.


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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.