Can God Appoint Women to be Preachers or Elders in the Church?

By Mark Koonz |  August 23, 2019

Can God appoint women to pastoral ministry or is it contrary to God's will at all times? A brief examination which includes Galatians 3:26-29 (male and female are real gender distinctions but not ultimate in the church); 1st Corinthians 11:5 (women speak and prophesy) and 14:26-35 (women should keep silent); 1st Timothy 2:12 (women should not teach); Judges 4:4-9 (Deborah exercised authority over men); 2nd Kings 22:8-20 (the prophetess Huldah directed both king and high priest); Acts 21:8 (four women continued prophetic ministry - pastoral ministry is in the prophetic tradition).

Paul says women are not supposed to speak! Does that not settle the matter? (Answer: 1st Corinthians chapter 14 comes after chapter 11!)
          There is a sentence in chapter 14 which says women should be silent in church gatherings, but it follows a verse in chapter 11 which allows women to speak and not be silent.  Therefore it is not as cut and dried as may seem at first glance.
         
One of the difficulties with reading and understanding Paul’s letters is that they were written in answer to questions, and we have to guess what the original questions were.  He does not restate them at all times, and he does not always notify us when he changes topic.  The original recipients were congregations and at that time they knew what the questions were which he was answering, because they were the very ones who had asked for help.
         Discussing a gender distinction that had cultural relevance in the first century Jewish context, Paul discusses why a woman should have her head covered at a specific time, specifically when they pray or prophesy in a congregational setting.  We generally see this today as a cultural accommodation  to Jewish customs rather than a timeless command.  The head covering may also have been a way to differentiate female Christian prophesy from female pagan prophesy, where the body and hair shook in a frenzy and became unkempt - a frenzy which was associated with demon possession. In the context of this discussion, Paul in 1st Corinthians 11:12 says, “in Christ’s fellowship woman is as essential to man as man to woman.  If woman was made out of man, it is through woman that man now comes to be; and God is the source of all” (The New English Bible).  The ideal is that both male and female are important in the church, because both genders have played a central role since the creation of the human race.
            Note that it is in this context that Paul says a woman should have her head covered if she prays or prophesies at a congregational meeting.  This has great implications.  It means that Paul did think it was an acceptable practice for women to speak in congregational worship, both praying and prophesying. Head covering was about a current gender distinction in that culture.  But the cultural expectation for a woman at a public meeting did not deny her a prophetic role.
            The role of preaching is contained within the ancient prophetic tradition.  The pastoral role does not derive from the priestly work in ancient Israel but from the prophetic work in ancient Israel.  To put this bluntly, if a woman can prophesy then we have no grounds for claiming that she cannot preach, which means declaring the message of God. The preacher today works in continuity with the prophetic tradition.
        With this as our starting point we should be careful in our examination of other passages that seem to say the contrary.  At the very least we should ask questions of ourselves and of the text.  Sound interpretation is not always easy, but we must do our best.
        Now we find an apparent contradiction in 1st Corinthians 14:34.  The word “apparent” is important, for if Paul is really contradicting himself within the same letter then he was probably too confused to warrant our respect and it is doubtful that he was an inspired teacher. 1st Corinthians chapters 11 and 14 form part of the same unit, part of the same flow of instruction.  It is not reasonable to think that Paul will contradict himself in these two different parts of the one whole set of answers which he is sending to Corinth.  I think there is no contradiction.
        In 1st Corinthians 14 he is answering questions about ecstatic utterances, sudden outbursts of instruction and revelation in the guise of prophesying.  It seems there was too much chaos and noise. So in verses 27-33 he instructs the people to take turns in their speaking and prophesying.  It does not matter if they are sure they have an inspired message from God, they are to be patient and take turns, so that they do not talk over one another.  For God is free to give more than one person a message for the congregation, and can send several messages via different people, but God does not interrupt God’s first messenger with an urgent word from a second or third messenger, “for the God who inspires them is not a God of disorder but of peace.”  Do things decently and in order is this instruction, and it was not about having an order to our worship service, such as an early liturgy, rather it was about inspiring words that came from God and how to share them without interrupting someone else.
        This specific instruction includes next a word about women.  Here in verse 34 the strange words are added that “women should not address the meeting.  They have no license to speak, but should keep their place as the law directs.”  Here he is talking about Jewish custom being brought into the Corinthian house churches.  They divided women from men in their seating.
        Now if Paul earlier said that women could prophesy and pray, then they could certainly speak.  So what is he now saying in 14:34?  If we do not have a contradiction then we cannot take this as a blanket statement or a rule for all time, because he has already ruled out such a rule.  So his words at verse 34 must apply to the context of ecstatic speaking.  When men are speaking, women should not interrupt them.  If they think they have received a word from God, they should control themselves and take their turn, making sure they are not interrupting or speaking in an undertone while others are speaking.  [If seated separately you can imagine someone saying, “What did he say?” and the loud whisper coming back, “He said such and such.”] 
        If you don’t like this answer, make sure that whatever solution you come up with does not put Paul in the position of contradicting his earlier statement that women prophesy and pray.  That was said first, and what is said first must control how we interpret what is said afterwards in the same context, in the same letter.
 
        While there are massive cultural differences between the Jewish practices and Gentile practices, there were also some similarities and continuities.  Greeks were familiar with the idea that women could prophesy in a frenzy of spiritual encounter with divine power.  Paul was likely eliminating that kind of behavior from the churches, but was open to the genuine use of both male and female receiving and sharing messages inspired by the Holy Spirit.
        There was a long tradition of prophesy in ancient Israel that reached all the way to the early church, and while it is true that most prophets were men it is also true that some were women.  There was Miriam, the sister of Moses, and later Huldah in the days of King Josiah (2nd Kings 22).  Both the king, Josiah, and the high priest, Hilkiah, turned to Huldah, who was a married woman, asking her to seek God’s guidance when they consulted her.  They also obeyed her instruction as though it was the very instruction of God.  Both king and high priest submitted to her authority because they recognized that God called her into this prophetic role and used her to speak divine truth.
        Then, in the New Testament days Acts 21:8 says that Philip had four unmarried daughters and they “possessed the gift of prophesy.”  That means that God used them more than once to guide the church in discerning God’s will in practical decision making or to give messages of encouragement that helped them in times of persecution.  Prophesying was an ongoing role for them, not a one-time special experience.  Now since this verse says they were unmarried when Luke and Paul and their companions reached Caesarea, it does not mean they had to remain unmarried the rest of their lives, though we are not told any more about them.  Remember that Huldah was a prophetess and she was married, as was the case with Deborah.
 
Another problem passage (1st Timothy 2:12)
            In a completely different letter, 1st Timothy 2:12, Paul says, “A woman must be a learner, listening quietly and with due submission.  I do not permit a woman to be a teacher, nor must woman domineer over man; she should be quiet.”  Some people take this as the final word, though it is not the first word or the only word he spoke on the role of women.  It seems direct and to the point, but it requires interpretation.  What was the question Paul was answering?
            He elsewhere says women prophesy in church meetings, which is the opposite of remaining silent.  Is he contradicting what he said previously?  I don’t think so.  But it comes across as an apparent contradiction, so we have a right to explore all possible interpretations, because Paul was mentally sound enough not to contradict himself.
            Is it possible that women could prophesy but not teach?  Remember, however, that teaching was for lifestyle not just information about the Scripture, and prophesy could address lifestyle.  Application of God’s will in daily life touches on the practical. A prophetess might remind the people to honor God in all things, in all behavior, in all trade practices and business dealings, to keep one’s word to a neighbor, to not quarrel, and so on.  What sounded like a word of encouragement would also serve as ethical guidance in such a case.
            It is also interesting that people take Paul’s words here as a command from God.  When they do so they make an assumption.  Many people assume that there is a theological reason why a woman cannot teach, rather than a practical or a culture-bound reason.
            Regarding cultural reasons, women were not allowed to give testimony in most law courts.  They were not respected in leadership roles.  Yet in many ways throughout the ages many cultural conditions were accommodated by God without being endorsed.  Cultural conditions were not always in harmony with God’s ideal for humanity or for the people of Israel.
            The ideal for the Christian church is stated in Galatians 3:28, “There is no such thing as Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female; for you are all one person in Christ Jesus.”  All are heirs by promise.  Of course there are these distinctions in our earthly existence, we are made either male or female and live accordingly.  Some were legally free but many were slaves at that time.  And Jews were different from everyone else.  But none of these distinctions were meant to determine acceptance or honor in the congregations of Christ Jesus, for in him these differences are not of ultimate importance.  Everyone should receive honor, and how we treat one another is of importance to our Lord.  This is the ideal, not the various distinctions that came about since Adam and Eve were cursed.  It is hard to derive a basis for Paul’s saying he did not allow women to teach from the ideal he stated in Galatians 3:28.  For this reason it is my guess that there might be something other than a theological reason at work.  Can we find one that seems to fit?
            Can we think about practical considerations, especially those bearing on the role of education in ancient society?  The teacher must first learn. The few Greek males who were educated were taught to read and write and do some basic math.  For Jewish males education was almost compulsory, at least socially, because of the goal of the Jewish communities that all Jewish males should be able to read and understand the Scripture.
            For Greeks and Romans, only the sons of the well-off could afford a teacher, or the sons of parents willing to make a financial sacrifice.  And when they were taught to read they were also taught to discuss what they read.  Furthermore, as they entered their teenage years they were taught how to speak in public.  There were rules and guidelines for speaking well so that an argument could be made in a public context, so your train of thought seemed reasonable and your style could hold a crowd’s attention – this was the skill called rhetoric. 
           Not all Greeks would take a role in a public meeting, because their training had not been sufficient. Not all Jewish males were good enough to even read aloud in a public synagogue service, but many had the major parts of Scripture memorized, and that helped.  But at least they had a semblance of education because they were males.  By comparison most girls in their youth were not taught to read and write, nor were they trained to speak in public.  So may we ask the question that needs to be asked?  Was Paul against women teaching because women had not been educated to teach?  Was this an instruction that was bound to Paul’s culture and historic context?  Or is there a reason to think that this was a command from a new Mount Sinai and it is always applicable, regardless of training, and must always mean that God will never call a woman to this role?  My guess is that Paul had instructed the churches not to be taught by people who were not qualified to read and speak and teach, and that ruled out most females.  But I do not see this as a timeless instruction that reveals a law for the church which goes against the ideal of Galatians 3. 
            Specific sentences of instruction always need to be looked at in their context in Scripture, and that is what I have tried to do here.  We presume no contradictions where a reasonable alternative can be discovered.  Furthermore, we look not only at didactic passages that provide instruction, but we also look at narratives.  For this reason I mentioned the case of Huldah the prophetess, and now the story of Deborah, who sat under a palm tree in the role of judge.
           Deborah was also a married woman. Judges 4:4-6 says she was both a prophetess and a judge in Israel.  When trial cases were too difficult for village elders, clan elders, and even tribal elders, men travelled a long distance to present information to Deborah and seek her judgments.  And they abided by her judgments.  Do you see what that meant?  She had authority over men, and it was a divinely appointed authority.  She did not only receive inspired words from God, she received knowledge and wisdom in judgment, and she had authority over men in cases of judgment.  She had authority over the very elders of Israel and the families of Israel in a time when there was no king.  Hear me again.  Deborah had authority over males.
          So when you read something that makes you think that a husband is to have authority over his wife and a woman should know her place in the church, just remember that in at least two cases God put women in authority over men.  Bear in mind the very possibility arising again.
          Not everyone likes the idea of women in leadership roles, including women, but be careful of thinking that God can never arrange it to be so.  For God was free in biblical days and is now free to do so again.  Placing a woman in a position of authority, as with a man, should always involve our discernment of the will of God, discernment which is case specific and not based on mere assumptions.
          However we read Scripture, let us be careful of making the same mistake Jesus’ immediate enemies made.  The majority were well-versed in the Scripture and based their opposition on a religious ground, on their very reading and interpretation of Scripture.  As Eduard Lohse says, “They were diligent in study; they believed themselves to have grasped the rules in accordance with which God alone would act.  But they had become vain . . . they thought it possible, on the basis of their knowledge, to set limits to the will of God (Mark 12:38-40).”[1]
          Today people tell us that God is not free to use women, that it must be against the will of God for women to preach or teach or serve in positions of authority, because of 1st Timothy 2:12 and 1st Corinthians 14:34.  Do they know so much about these passages that they can set limits to the will of God?  Even when biblical examples show that God did not impose those exact limits?
          There are many considerations, including other things said by the Apostle Paul, which must not be forgotten.  The examples of Deborah and Huldah show that God is free to go outside of male leadership, outside of cultural expectations, outside of standard gender roles, and call women into amazing prophetic and leadership roles.  While I have not answered all questions, hopefully I have provided food for thought.  In the end, no one (male or female) can presume to leadership apart from the calling of God, the current opportunity or need of the church, appropriate training and invitation, and the leading and gifting of the Holy Spirit.  This must always be a matter of discernment for the entire congregation as God’s will is sought in prayer.

 
[1] Eduard Lohse, “Mark’s Witness to Jesus Christ” (Lutterworth Press, 1955), page 62.

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