Women in Church Leadership, Part 3

Monday, April 14, 2008

This is the third post in a three-part series on women in church leadership.  In my first post, I discussed general issues related to understanding and applying the Bible.  In my second post, I examined a few passages of Scripture that have been used to prohibit women from participating in official church leadership.  In this post, I want to look at passages of Scripture that weigh in favor of women participating in church leadership and then make some conclusions.

As I mentioned in my last post, when asking a question of Scripture, it is important to weigh the evidence for and against as on a scale.  In this case, there is surprisingly scant biblical evidence that absolutely, categorically prohibits women from being leaders in the church.  And yet, there is surprisingly substantial biblical evidence that supports women in church leadership.  To be honest, there is no place in Scripture where it says, “Women should be able to become ordained ministers,” mostly, as I have mentioned before, because our contemporary model of ministry has become overly professionalized and is often far from the grass-roots, Spirit-blown movement of the early Christians.  Let’s take a look at what the Bible says:

  1. Then Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women went out after her with tambourines and dancing.” (Exodus 15:20 ESV)  The Old Testament sometimes goes out of its way to endorse the authority of the prophets of God (e.g., 2 Kings 2:13-14 where Elisha inherits the mantle of Elijah, signifying God’s approval on his new prophet).  Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, are all lifted up as prophets of God, endowed with the authority to speak his message and act in his power.  With that in mind, it is astonishing that the Bible calls five different women a “prophetess.”  In Exodus 15:20, Miriam, Moses’ sister, is referred to as a prophetess who leads the Israelite women in praising the Lord for their deliverance from the Egyptians.
  2. Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time.” (Judges 4:4 ESV)  Deborah is the second woman in Scripture to be called a “prophetess.”  Judges 4 indicates that Deborah was actually one of the judges who led Israel before the monarchy was instituted, meaning that she was a political leader, a military leader, and a judge in the judicial sense.
  3. So Hilkiah the priest, Ahikam, Achbor, Shaphan, and Asaiah went to Huldah the prophetess, the wife of Shallum the son of Tikvah, the son of Harhas, keeper of the wardrobe (now she lived in Jerusalem in the Second Quarter); and they spoke to her.” (2 Kings 22:14 NASB)  The account of Josiah’s men discovering the Book of the Law in the long-neglected Temple of the Lord is an inspiring story of Israel’s “reformation.”  After hearing the words the book, the king commands his officials to take it to the prophetess Huldah–a woman–so she might inquire of the Lord on their behalf.  When they arrive, Huldah uses the prophetic formula: “She said to them, ‘Thus says the LORD God of Israel….”  And they listened!  Remarkable.
  4. Then I [Isaiah] went to the prophetess, and she conceived and gave birth to a son.” (Isaiah 8:3a NIV)  This is the fourth mention of a prophetess(of the Lord).  Although it is not clear exactly who this woman is, she is nonetheless labeled “prophetess,” just like her sisters before her.
  5. There was also a prophetess, Anna, a daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher…She did not leave the temple complex, serving God night and day with fastings and prayers.  At that very moment, she came up and began to thank God and to speak about Him to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. (Luke 2:36, 27b-38 HCSB)  Anna is the fifth woman called a “prophetess” in Scripture and one of two people (Simeon being the other) to greet the infant Messiah when he was presented in the Temple.
  6. Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.” (John 4:39a ESV)  While traveling through Samaria with his disciples, Jesus approached a woman of ill-repute and struck up a conversation with her.  In the course of their discussion, Jesus revealed his identity to her (John 4:26).  She was transformed by her encounter with him, and she began to testify to her neighbors about him.  And this from a woman who had had five husbands and lived with a sixth out of wedlock!  It is shocking that Jesus sent such a humble earthen vessel to be his witness; perhaps it was to show that the extraordinary power was from God, and not from her (2 Corinthians 4:7).  John’s Gospel lifts up this woman as a pattern for faithful women of all times and places.
  7. Jesus told Mary Magdalene, “But go to My brothers and tell them that I am ascending to My Father and your Father–to My God and your God.  Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord!’  And she told them what He had said to her.” ( John 20:17b-18 HCSB)  Three of our Gospels record that the women–specifically Mary Magdalene–were the first to announce the good news that Jesus had been raised (Matthew 28:8-10; Luke 24:9-11; John 20:17-18; In Mark the women are told by the angel that Jesus has risen, but the Gospel ends before there is any announcement).  That Jesus, the crucified and resurrected One, would entrust such an important duty to women indicates theirgeneral fitness for proclaiming the gospel message.
  8. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him [Apollos], they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.” (Acts 18:18-28 NIV)  Priscilla (also called Prisca) and Aquila were a married couple who were leaders in the early church and co-workers with the apostle Paul.  First Corinthians 16:19 tells us that they hosted a congregation in their home, which would have indicated that they were both influential (and probably well-to-do) leaders of that house church.  Interestingly, Priscilla–the woman in the preaching pair–is always mentioned first (e.g., Romans 16:3; 2 Timothy 4:19).  In Acts 18, the author tells us that the two of them together took aside a zealous young preacher named Apollos and instructed him in the finer points of “the Way.”  
  9. He [Philip the evangelist, one of the seven] had four unmarried daughters, who prophesied.” (Acts 21:9 ESV)  This is a passing background detail mentioned by the author (Luke) that offers us another example of women speaking God’s word.  (See #12 below for more discussion on “prophesying.”)
  10. I commend to you Phoebe our sister, who is a servant of the church in Cenchrea.” (Romans 16:1 NKJV)  The epistles give us tantalizing glimpses into the inner workings of the early Christian movement.  In this verse, Paul commends a Christian leader, a woman named Phoebe, who is thought to be the letter bearer from Paul to the Christians in Rome.  The most tantalizing part of this verse is the word that Paul uses to describe her official capacity with the church in the city of Cenchrea.  That Koine Greek word (diakonos) is variously translated in the New Testament as “servant” (so this verse in the NKJV), “deacon/ess” (see Philippians 1:1; actually deacon/ess is a transliteration of diakonos), or “minister” (see 2 Corinthians 3:6; Ephesians 3:7; Colossians 1:23 for examples when Paul applies this word to himself).  Whether we think of Phoebe as simply a “servant” (and Paul’s commendation would seem to elevate her higher than that), a “deaconess,” or a “minister,” there is no disputing that she was an important leader in the early church.
  11. Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow countrymen and fellow prisoners.  They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were also in Christ before me.” (Romans 16:7 HCSB)  This greeting that comes at the close of his letter to the Romans gives another tantalizing peek into the characters of the early church.  The best textual evidence (as well as the testimony of the early church fathers) indicates that “Junia” was a woman, and the early church testified that she was married to Andronicus.  Paul unmistakably calls them both “apostles,” even though they may not have carried as much weigh as he or the original twelve did.  Here is clear evidence that a woman was among the number of the “apostles” (probably itinerant preachers with authority over local congregations).  Many English translations of the Bible try to change the feminine name Junia into the supposedly masculine name “Junias.”  However, there is no evidence that there ever was such a name in antiquity.
  12. And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head–it is just as though her head were shaved.” (1 Corinthians 11:5 NIV)  In this larger passage, Paul is dealing with proper head coverings during worship.  So we see, in passing reference, that women were praying and prophesying (out loud) during worship in the early church!  So much for them remaining silent!  The Koine Greek word Paul uses for prophesying (propheteuo) can refer to speaking in tongues or, more likely, sharing a revelation from God during the gatherings of the church.


Many conservative Protestants sideline women from participating in the gospel ministry of the church, allegedly on biblical grounds.  In actuality, the biblical evidence tips in favor of women leaders.  More than likely, their prohibition stems from incomplete theology (errant biblical interpretation and application) or just tradition.  On the other side of the coin, many liberal Protestants gladly endorse women as ordained “ministers,” completely unhinged from the witness of Scripture.  They mistakenly claim that women have the “right” to assume leadership in the church by invoking a modern paradigm of inalienable rights that is foreign to the world of the Bible.

Throughout these posts, I have explored the relevant biblical texts and conclude that, based on the weight of Scripture, women ought be included in the various leadership roles of the church.  There are many qualifications required of Christian leaders found in the New Testament, including faith in Jesus Christ as Lord, sound doctrine, concern for the flock, and the Spirit-activated gifts for ministry.  But being a man is not one of those qualifications.


2 thoughts on “Women in Church Leadership, Part 3

  1. Hi,
    I just stumbled upon your blog via another blog. Thanks for this posting this well thought out series. Greatly appreciated, especially as a female worker in the church (I know, I have a guy’s name..)

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