Gender Equality in Ministry

by Rev. Jefferson Vann

The Bible is somewhat unique compared with the sacred books of other religions in how it honors the women who have served the Lord throughout history. It commends the service of these faithful female saints who took upon themselves roles normally expected of men: roles like that of prophet,[1] judge,[2] warrior,[3] worship leader,[4] and missionary.[5]

The recent theological doctrine known as complementarianism insists that God has prescribed certain functions in the New Testament church that cannot be rightly performed by women.

  • The Bible teaches in Christ there is “neither male nor female.”[6] But complementarians insist that those words are not a general axiom – that they only apply to salvation. One wonders if these same exegetes would have a problem seeing full ethnic equality (no Jew nor Greek), or full social equality (no slave nor free) from the same verse. These are universally recognized axiomatic statements. A person claiming that people of all races are equal in Christ when it comes to salvation, but that the races have different roles in the church would be rightly branded a bigot and racist. The recognition that slaves and free are equal in Christ was the beginning of a revolution that has led to the almost universal abolition of slavery. This happened because the church recognized that Paul’s words were a challenge to the ideological basis of slavery. In other words, his words applied to more than the mere fact that Christ can save a slave’s soul.
  • The Bible teaches that God shows no partiality.[7] Complementarians teach that God reserves certain tasks for males only. It is granted that throughout history, most of society’s leading and teaching roles have been performed by males. But complementarianism goes beyond that assertion. It insists that God’s purpose is thwarted when a female takes on a teaching and leading role, particularly in the church. In the complementarian system of doctrine, God has a design to show humanity, a design where he is at the top, and under him are males, and under them are females. They insist that the husband’s headship of the wife in Scripture[8] implies that male ministers must be the head of the church. But it is this same text that tells us there is only one head of the Christian church: Christ himself.
  • The Bible warns Christians against preferring one person over another.[9] Complementarians teach that God endorses prejudice against women when it comes to teaching and leadership in the church. While James was speaking specifically of a preference toward the rich, and against the poor, the context was exactly the same context that we are dealing with in the egalitarian/ complementarian debate: local church influence. The principle is stated as an axiom in James 2:1 “My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism.”[10] Therefore, the principle applies to other kinds of favoritism and prejudice as well as the tendency to honor the rich and ignore the poor. James teaches that God’s wisdom is impartial.[11] Paul expressed the same principle when he commanded Timothy not to take sides or show favoritism to anyone.[12] To suggest (as the complementarians do) that men and women are equal but must perform different roles is simply a theological endorsement of widespread cultural favoritism toward male leadership. It has less to do with what the Bible prescribes and more to do with what the modern evangelical church in many cultures (including U.S. culture) is comfortable with.
  • The Bible predicted that under the new covenant, women would take on more prominent ministry roles. The prophet Joel predicted the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and specifically that it would result in the daughters of Israel engaging in prophecy.[13] The apostle Peter acknowledged that the miracle of Pentecost accomplished exactly that.[14] Later in the book of Acts we find evidence of women with prophetic roles,[15] which shows that Pentecost was just the beginning of this age in which the prophetic role was not generally limited to males. Paul spoke of this same prophetic gift as part of the equipping ministry of the church.[16] Yet complementarians insist that this role and other equipping ministry functions must be performed by men only. They also dare to suggest that their position is the only one that can be argued from Scripture. That is hardly the case.

I concede that Paul in the first century temporarily limited the leadership in two or three of his newly established churches to men only.[17] What I do not concede is that he did so out of some pre-understanding of the complementarian theological position. He never joined The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. He never sat under the teachings of John MacArthur, John Piper or Mark Driscoll. These advocates of complementarianism merely presume that all the New Testament apostles limited the leadership of all the churches to men because of the theological understanding by which they endorse limiting leadership roles to men. This is doing theology backwards. Correct theologizing understands statements of Scripture in their context and then devises theological understanding from that exegesis.

No one believes that all the commands of Scripture are binding for all generations and cultures. Most of the commands concerning worship under the Mosaic covenant, for example, cannot be observed under the new covenant. This is not merely because there is no tabernacle or temple, but these commands themselves were only meant for a certain people at a certain time in history. When exegetes look at any command in Scripture, they must ask if that command is still binding, and in what way is it binding. These questions cannot be answered simply by presuming that all New Testament commands are binding, and all Old Testament commands are not. Jesus endorsed many of the Old Testament commands by repeating them in his gospel message.[18] But also, some of the commands that the apostles gave were based not on a moral principle, but a strategic one.

For example, the apostles and elders at the Jerusalem Council commanded that the church avoid contact with strangled animals and blood.[19] Although that command was appropriate and legitimate, it was apparently not based on some eternal theological principle, but was strategic. The apostles wanted to keep the door of communication open in the church between Jews and Gentiles. So, they commanded the church seeking to evangelize Gentiles not to engage in behavior that would unnecessarily offend the Jews. The principle that guided these commands was that evangelism was the first priority. So, although the apostles conceded that this kind of contact does not actually defile a person spiritually,[20] they nevertheless encouraged people to keep that prohibition against things strangled and blood in order the reach the most people with the gospel.

The Pauline rules about male leadership were precisely the same thing. His goal was to reach the most people with the gospel message. The new churches that he planted in Ephesus and Crete were in cultures where only males were literate, educated, and leaders in the communities. His instructions to Timothy and Titus made perfect sense in those contexts. He would not allow women to lead, not for theological reasons (because of a God-designed gender role), but because none of the women were qualified at the time. They were not able to teach, because they had not been taught. Paul made a strategic rule based on the priority of the gospel.

Would Paul make the same rule in a modern-day church plant? He would if he believed that ministry roles are gender-specific. But he would not if his goal is to reach the most people with the gospel. Today’s church has an army of females who are not only literate, they have advanced theological educations, knowing their way around the Bible, and understanding the culture that they are called to reach with its gospel message. In most – but not all – contexts today,[21] women can fully function in teaching, planning, counseling and other leadership roles in the church, if we will only allow them to do so.

Limiting these godly women to non-leadership roles in today’s church is not something we should blame the apostle Paul for. After all, his was the pen that, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, wrote in Christ there is no male and female. He took every opportunity to praise the Lord for and commend his female coworkers.[22] And even while he was commanding the illiterate new believing women of Ephesus to learn peacefully in the church worship services to avoid distracting their husbands, what he actually told them to do was to be discipled quietly and submissively.[23] Jesus commanded the apostles to disciple all nations. It is understood that every disciple is to become a discipler. This included those untrained women. Paul wanted them to be trained so that they, too, would share the gospel with their unsaved neighbors. The ultimate goal that Paul was after was not submission, but training. Neither untrained women nor untrained men should speak in church. There is no complementarian theology here. It is simply the ministry of the gospel at work. This is the gospel that Paul said he was set apart for.[24] He had previously been a Pharisee, set apart for the commands and traditions of men. Now he had pledged himself to be a steward from God of making his Word fully known.[25] That was Paul’s motivation, and the reasons for his commands. Paul’s temporary sanctions against women in teaching and leading roles were designed to allow them time to learn so that they could eventually exercise the gifts that the Holy Spirit would give them for the building up of the body of Christ.

It is sometimes argued that Paul must have commanded silence of the Ephesian wives on the basis of principle, not strategy, because he states “For God made Adam first, and afterward he made Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived. His wife was deceived, and sin was the result.”[26] The assumption is that this statement removes Paul’s command from its contemporary context and asserts it as a universal and timeless truth, revealed at creation – before any cultures or ages existed. The complementarian is arguing that Eve usurped her God-given role as a woman by instructing her husband, and Adam sinned by following her instructions.

Genesis does say “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.”[27] And Adam was judged partly because he “listened to the voice of ” his wife. But the only sin identified here, and later explained by Paul,[28] is the actual eating of the forbidden fruit. That transgression was what warranted their banishment from Eden.  The complementarian reads into the text a prohibition that was never announced by God. God did not prohibit Eve from speaking to her husband, and he did not prohibit Adam from listening to his wife.

There is another way of looking at Paul’s use of Genesis in 1 Timothy  2:13-14. He does not go back to creation so that he can prove that Adam was more spiritually equipped to lead than Eve. When God created all things, he said it was very good. In fact, there was only one thing about creation that God said was not good. He said it was not good that man should be alone. Adam was great, but he needed Eve. Satan knew that if he wanted to convince Adam, he would have to convince Eve first. This does not mean that Eve was spiritually weaker. It simply means that Adam (like most husbands) was more inclined to believe his wife. If that serpent had approached Adam first, he probably would have failed his mission – not because Adam was spiritually superior, but because Adam had been given the prohibition against the fruit from God himself. So, Paul could be arguing that the husbands in Ephesus are vulnerable to be misled by their wives simply because they are their wives. He cautions the wives not to jump to the opportunity to prove their equality to their husbands. Instead, they should take their time, learn the gospel and the truths from Scripture, and then they will be able to lead others to Christ as well.

This is one of the things that bothers me about this whole women in ministry debate. Scripture does not blatantly say that men are naturally better qualified than women to preach or teach. The point of grace is that nobody is naturally qualified. That is why I think the issue of spiritual leadership should be more based on spiritual gifts than fleshly gender. In fact, the Pauline qualification lists were mostly about moral and spiritual excellence. These leadership qualities are not innate natural talents, built into people’s DNA. They are developed by time and experience.

Most of us live in a culture and an age that is radically different than first century Ephesus. I think Paul’s strategic advice to 21st century believers would be quite different than what he told 1st century Ephesus. The theological principles of equality and the Lordship of Christ, and the priority of preaching the gospel would remain the same. But he would look at our churches filled with highly educated, Spirit filled, and otherwise qualified believers who happen to be women, and he would ask us why we so frequently fail to utilize them and their Holy Spirit-given gifts.

If we look beyond those particular temporary prohibitions against female leaders in Ephesus and Crete, we see evidence of women in leadership in the New Testament Church in Thyatira,[29] Pontus,[30] Caesarea,[31] Cenchrea,[32] and Rome.[33] Since the complementarians have already stated their theological position against female leadership, they must now argue against each of these as evidence for gender equality in ministry. Some of their arguments may be valid. For example, while Lydia organized the first church in Philippi at her home, perhaps she did surrender the leadership of that church to Luke, or the Philippian jailer, once he came to Christ. Also, none of these ladies exercised their gifts apart from the leadership of the other apostles, who were male. But what could the biblical authors have meant to tell us by providing these statements if not the fact that women also served as leaders in the New Testament churches?

In her excellent book, “Women in the Maze,”[34] church historian Ruth Tucker shows not only that the early New Testament had many capable women in ministry, but in some cases, after severe persecution women in ministry was all some churches had left. She also outlines the role of the church fathers, like Tertullian, who taught Christian women that they are “the devil’s gateway,” John Chrysostom, who taught, “Better is a man’s wickedness than a woman’s goodness.”[35] This kind of teaching brings shame upon Christ and the church, and has led the church to descend to the level of the patriarchal societies it has been called to reach.

Obviously, the theological position of complementarianism does not go that far. It is a careful, reasoned attempt to deal with Scriptures that appear to limit women’s role in church ministry. But the doctrine is not necessary. Each of the passages cited by complementarian teaching is within its own historical context. Most of them are in the epistles, which make them examples of occasional writing. That means that each is a description of a problem faced by a New Testament church and had to be addressed by the apostles who founded or were responsible for that church.  The rules that the apostles made were strategic, and they were made so that the church could continue to proclaim the gospel and not be sidetracked by its problems.

The development of complementarianism as a theological system is a wrong-headed and dangerous approach to such passages. It turns those commands by the apostles into some sort of new universal law, that must be now be accepted as an addition to the gospel and its truth. So, now believers are left proclaiming “Christ has set you free from the law” on one side of their mouths, and “you are still under the law of male leadership” on the other side of their mouths.  Naturally, the unbelievers listen to that kind of talk and declare it as what it is – double-speak. So, the very restrictions that some New Testament churches had as a means of reaching their culture are now used to prevent us from reaching ours!

Finally, I would like to appeal to my brothers and sisters to examine what the Bible says about our future as individuals. The New Testament tells us that there is an “age to come,”[36] and we need to consider it because it helps us to understand the way things are now and what we should be aiming at. When Jesus’ enemies challenged him to answer a question about marriage and the future, he told them that their question was wrong because they did not understand the Scriptures nor did they comprehend God’s power.[37] Instead, Jesus told them that those who are raised to eternal life will not marry but will be like the angels who now reside in heaven.

So, God is going to powerfully change those who are raised to new life at the return of Christ. One of the differences that will exist in that new age is that there will be no marriage. If there is no marriage, there is no complementarian system to define the roles of male and female. If the eternal kingdom, then, requires no gender roles, why does the church need them set in stone today? Why not allow the mission to determine who the missionaries are? Why not allow the act of service to determine who is best to serve? Why not allow the need to know to determine who is qualified to preach or teach?

Complementarianism as a theological system has hijacked certain Scriptures and is twisting them so as to force the church of Jesus Christ to act unchristian. It forces well-meaning believers to unwittingly show favoritism, to resist the Holy Spirit’s outpouring on women enabling them to prophesy, and to set up a false hierarchy in a church that the LORD determined to manifest equality in race, social status and gender. For that reason, brothers and sisters, I ask you not to endorse complementarianism as a standard for your churches. I ask you to seek qualified ministry leaders based on moral and spiritual attributes, not natural and physical ones.

[1] Exodus 15:20; Judges 4:4; 2 Kings 22:14; 2 Chronicles 34:22; Isaiah 8:3; Luke 2:36.

[2] Judges 4:4.

[3] Judges 4:18-23.

[4] Exodus 15:20.

[5] Acts 18:2, 18, 26; Romans 16:3; 1 Corinthians 16:19; 2 Timothy 4:19.

[6] Galatians 3:28.

[7] Acts 10:34.

[8] Ephesians 5:23. The principle of submitting to one another (5:21) was to be fleshed out by wives submitting to their husbands’ headship (5:22-24), by husbands sacrificially loving and nourishing and cherishing their wives equally – as their own bodies, because both are equal members of the body of Christ (5:25-33), by children obeying not just their fathers, but both parents equally (6:1-3), and by fathers not provoking their children to anger, but bringing them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (6:4), by slaves obeying their masters because they are serving Christ (6:5-8), and masters treating their slaves fairly because God is not partial to the masters, but sees them both equally. The passage as a whole is not an argument for treating anyone differently because of status. It argues for equality, fairness and mutual love.

[9] James 2:1-13.

[10] NIV.

[11] James 3:17.

[12] 1 Timothy 5:21.

[13] Joel 2:28.

[14] Acts 2:17.

[15] Acts 21:9.

[16] Ephesians 4:11-12.

[17] This is clear from Paul’s qualification lists for overseers and deacons in Ephesus and Crete (1 Timothy 3:1-13; 2 Timothy 2:15-26; Titus 1:5-11). A similar but slightly different treatment is found in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, where Paul appears to temporarily restrict women on the basis of a local law (νομος) against their speaking in public. There is no scriptural law with this restriction. For the complementarians to use this passage to argue against women in leadership is to turn a pagan law into a scriptural principle! It is also unclear how Paul can teach that women cannot speak in church in 1 Corinthians 14, when he has already conceded that they are praying and prophesying in church in 1 Corinthians 11:5. This has led one scholar on 1 Corinthians (Fee) to suggest that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 might be a non-Pauline addition to the text.

[18] Mark 10:17-19; 12:28-31.

[19] Acts 15:20, 29; 21:25.

[20] Matthew 15:11, 20; Acts 10:14-15; Romans 14:14.

[21] There are still some cultures today where women are forbidden education and denied leadership in society because of perceived inferiority.

[22] Romans 16:1-15; 2 Timothy 4:19-21.

[23]  εν ήσυχια  μανθανετω  εν  παση ύποταγη. Note that the noun mathétés (disciple) is listed as having derived from this verb manthanō (See Bauer, Liddell Scott, Thayer and Friberg lexicons).

[24] Romans 1:1.

[25] Colossians 1:25.

[26] 1 Timothy 2:13-14.

[27] Genesis 3:6 ESV.

[28] Romans 5:12-14.

[29] Lydia (Acts 16:11-15).

[30] Priscilla (Acts 18:18, 26; Romans 16:3; 2 Timothy 4:9) who helped Apollos by explaining the way of God to him more accurately.

[31] The seven daughters of Philip (Acts 21:8-9) who were prophetesses.

[32] Phoebe (Romans 16:1) whom Paul specifically identified as a deacon.

[33] Junia (Romans 16:7) whom Paul lists as “of note among the apostles” (missionaries).

[34] Ruth A Tucker, Women in the Maze. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992).

[35] Tucker, 148-149.

[36] Matthew 12:32; Mark 10:30; Luke 18:30; Hebrews 6:5.

[37] Matthew 22:29.

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