A woman sits at a laptop with a cup of tea. In this post, I explore what the biblical narrative teaches us about women in ministry.

Women in Ministry Part Five of a Six-Part Series on Christianity and Feminism

One of the most controversial issues in the Christian Church over the last half-century has been the issue of women in ministry. I would even say that this issue is more divisive than one’s views on the nature of communion or the role of baptism, because if Jack believes that it’s a sin against God for any woman to hold authority over a man or to pray in church, Jack cannot, in good conscience, attend a church that allows for female worship leaders.

By contrast, if Jack believes in symbolic representation, he is still free to attend and receive communion at a church that believes in transubstantiation. And if neither of those words mean anything to you, then don’t worry about it. It’s my way of saying that the issue of women in ministry is one of the most divisive topics in the Church, so a clear understanding of what the Bible does (and does not) say about it is important if we’re going to have anything close to respectful dialogue.

This post is the much overdue continuation of my series on Christianity and feminism that I started earlier this year, and if you’re just now jumping in, you may want to familiarize yourself with what the Bible is and how I interpret it. Beyond that, what you read is up to you, but if you disagree with anything that I say below, it’s probably because we disagree about how to interpret the Bible (which is a function of how much authority we assign to it).

Is the Bible Misogynistic?

So, even more than “wives, submit to your husbands, the parts of the biblical story that speak to women in ministry get under our skin, because on their surface, plucked from the pages of the story and thrown in the faces of (usually) women, they come across in our culture as downright misogynistic.

In one part of the biblical story, we read that women are to be silent in church, that they are not allowed to speak and must always be in submission, asking any questions they may have of their husbands at home. In another part of the biblical story, we read that Paul doesn’t permit a woman to hold authority over a man, going so far as to base his reasons in the broader biblical narrative of the fall of Adam and Eve. What on earth do we do with this?

Well, at a minimum, we get mixed messages from the Bible on women in ministry. On the one hand, we read things like “women should be silent” and “I do not permit a woman to hold authority over a man.” On the other hand, we’ll read things like, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

As I established early on in this series, I interpret the Bible using what I call a biblical narrative hermeneutic. That’s just a fancy way of saying that I interpret the Bible as one cohesive story, from Genesis 1 through Revelation 22. And there are two implications from this that are relevant to our conversation about women in ministry.

The first is that if the Bible is understood as one cohesive story, you and I simply cannot pluck individual Bible verses from the pages of the story and throw them at each other as though they, standing on their own, were “what God says.” If the Bible really is a story and should be interpreted accordingly, then plucking individual verses from the page and assuming that they represent “God’s word” is about as silly and naïve as saying that because on page 106 of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, we read, “There’s somethin’ wrong with an old dog down yonder,” the entire book is about a sick dog.

The point? Yes, the Bible has some confusing language about women in ministry. Does that mean that the Bible is misogynistic? Not unless To Kill a Mockingbird really is all about a sick dog down yonder. We must read the entire story to get a full picture of what God is really saying.

Stepping Into the Tension

This brings me to the second implication of a biblical narrative hermeneutic. Resolution is a part of the narrative form. Stories usually resolve themselves, but not all stories do. Many of the parables told by Jesus, like the story of the prodigal sons, end with unresolved conflict, but when we read that story in the context of its telling, we find that by ending with conflict, Jesus is making a point.

So when we assume that the Bible is one cohesive story, we can reasonably conclude that where this story resolves itself, we can and should take its resolution as the final target for God’s redemption. There is no progress or redemption beyond this point.

We saw an example of this when we looked at gender distinctions in marriage. With the fall of Adam and Eve, we saw a conflict emerge: a dominant-submissive relationship that was all about power and control, a relationship in which both man and woman found their identity in something other than God. But we also saw that the Bible resolves this conflict for us, not by abolishing this relationship, but by redeeming it, calling on women to continue entrusting themselves to the leadership of their husbands (but only to them) because of their identity in Christ, while in the same breath calling on men to love and cherish their wives in the same sacrificial manner that Christ loves and cherishes his bride, the Church.

But what are we to assume when, as with women in ministry, the Bible doesn’t resolve this conflict for us? As we see in the parables of Jesus, when the biblical story doesn’t resolve a conflict for us, we can assume that it’s God’s making a point. But what point is God making?

Back when we talked about what the Bible is and how we ought to interpret it, one of the most important points I made is that how much authority we assign to the Bible is always going to be with respect to the authority we assign to the Church, for apart from the authority of the Church, the Bible is nothing more than a collection of (at least) 66 independent ancient texts. At the same time, however, the Church lacks any authority apart from the biblical story, in which we discover that it’s God, through Jesus, who gives that authority to the Church.

What’s more, when we read the Bible as one cohesive story, we find that there’s a gap in that story, a gap in which we now sit. That gap is the uncharted narrative water between the end of Acts and the grand climax in Revelation 21. Given the interplay between the authority of the Bible and the authority of the Church, we can safely assume that in this gap, we, as the Church, get to write the story, but we must do so in a manner that’s consistent with the broader biblical narrative. (Stories must make sense, after all, and this ain’t Mad Libs.)

So it seems clear to me that whenever the biblical story does not resolve a conflict for us, God is making a point, and that point is that we, as the Church, are to resolve this conflict in a manner that fits with the rest of the story. Let’s return again to the tension, as applied to women in ministry.

Women in Ministry: The Conflict

Most people focus exclusively on the New Testament when looking at women in ministry, but I actually think that there’s a character in the biblical story long before the advent of Jesus whose story lends important insight to this question.

Her name is Deborah, and as a woman, she occupied the highest position of political power in ancient Israel. But one would do well to remember that Israel’s government was a theocracy, which meant that Deborah, as a woman, held not just the highest position of political power in ancient Israel, but the highest position of theological influence as well. Especially in the absence of a functional priesthood, this would be the equivalent today of a woman serving as Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, and it’s super important to bear this in mind as we keep reading through the biblical narrative.

Now we can enter the New Testament, where we find that although women are involved in the ministry of Jesus, he appoints twelve men to be his disciples and (later) the apostles of the early Church. We find in Paul’s letters an insistence that because of our oneness in Jesus, there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female, while at the same time reading instructions that women should remain silent in church and shouldn’t hold authority over a man.

Women in Ministry: A Resolution

The biblical narrative is not akin to our cultural narrative. Our cultural narrative assumes constant progress. It assumes that by a long series of millionth-millionth chances, you and I evolved from single-celled organisms to the complex creatures we are today. It assumes a progression from simple to complex that is, in the grand scheme of things, both upward and linear, pointed in the direction of some perfect human utopia in which, through science, we ultimately gain full control of our world, eliminate death and disease, and survive the death of our star (the sun).

The biblical narrative, by contrast, does not assume progress, but regress. We read of a fall from paradise. We read how humankind chose their independence over an intimate relationship with God, and by doing so, ushered into our world all forms of brokenness—greed, ambition, illness, pain, and death.

As we continue reading, we find that God remains faithful to us in the midst of our continued rebellion, and that rebellion only gets worse, not better—that is, until Jesus arrives on the scene. At that point, things start to turn around. We read of an in-breaking Kingdom of God, and we discover that the entire biblical narrative is centered around the only Man to have ever bodily conquered the grave. We read of how God promises that his Holy Spirit will dwell within each person who chooses to return to intimate relationship with him through Jesus, and how that Spirit promises to heal us from the consequences of our rebellion.

Thus, the biblical narrative, contrary to being upward and linear, takes much more of a “V” shape. Humankind, through our rebellion, fall from the paradise in which God placed us—but God remains faithful, doing for us in Christ and the Holy Spirit what we could not do for ourselves and promising that one Day every tear will be wiped from our eyes, that from that Day forward there will be no more pain or suffering or death. The Bible tells of a fall from paradise, and of a return to that paradise, solely because God remains faithful.

This is important because on the way “down,” so to speak, we encounter the story of Deborah, and when we read her story in light of the broader biblical narrative, we can safely assume that Deborah’s story is actually a less broken view of women’s role in ministry than anything we read in the New Testament. In other words, in light of what we find in the broader biblical narrative, we can assume that Deborah’s story and the role that she played is actually one that is closer to the paradise we lost (and to which God is returning us) than anything we read in the New Testament. Now (and this is important), if the New Testament resolved this conflict for us, then that would be the end of the inquiry. But it doesn’t. Quite the opposite, both Paul and Jesus sit in this conflict, and leave it for us, as the Church, to resolve the conflict in this “gap” between the end of Acts and the grand climax of the story in Revelation 21.

Let’s look again at some of Paul’s letters for a moment. In 1 Corinthians, we find Paul saying that women should be silent in church, and that they should ask any questions they have of their husbands when they’re at home. Plucked from the pages of the biblical story, that seems to be the end of it. But read in the context of Paul’s letter, we find that Paul may not be talking about all women. We have only to ask, “What about the women who have no husband?” and the seemingly neat little bow quickly comes untied.

In the same letter that Paul writes that women should ask their questions of their husbands, he not only considers the scenario of a woman choosing not to marry, but strongly encourages it. In the same letter that Paul writes that women should remain silent in church, he is well aware that women are praying and serving as prophets, and he encourages them to seek that gift.

This seems to suggest that Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 14 wasn’t meant to be read as instruction for all women, but perhaps just for married women, and in light of Paul’s concerns in 1 Corinthians 12-14, is almost certainly concerned with maintaining good order in a church gathering and ensuring the mutual edification of everyone gathered. Having said that, let’s look at Paul’s words to Timothy in 1 Timothy 2.

When we read a passage like 1 Timothy 2:11-15, the hair on the back of our necks is so firm and prickly that we often graze right past the revolutionary statement embedded right in the middle of Paul’s instruction: Let a woman learn. This was not 21st Century America, people. Women were considered mere property (as they still are in much of the Middle East). They couldn’t give testimony in court, much less obtain anywhere near the education that men could. Paul is making no small statement here. He is advocating for women’s education, and this would’ve been revolutionary in his context.

And that’s where I’m going to leave it. I have no intention of tying up the conflict we find in the Bible regarding women in ministry in some neat little bow. I firmly believe that nothing in the course of history has come as a surprise to God, and accordingly, I believe that the conflict exists for a reason. God expects the Church as a whole, and not some mere writer like me, to resolve this conflict in a manner that’s consistent with the broader biblical narrative. What I’ve hopefully illustrated is that in light of that broader biblical narrative, whatever resolution that we, as the Church, arrive at on the question of women in ministry, that resolution can and should point us to a more egalitarian view.

I will say, as many Evangelicals have concluded, that there is good reason within the biblical narrative to believe that Paul’s concern in 1 Timothy 2 is tied to a disruption of the marriage relationship described in Ephesians 5. This could very well have been a concern undergirding Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 14 as well, and would help to make sense of those words in light of what we read in the rest of that letter.

If understood that way, then perhaps an appropriate resolution for the Church on this question is to allow women to serve in any ministry role they choose, so long as in doing so, they’re not disrupting the Ephesians 5 dynamic of their marriage—if they’re married. That’s fine, so long as we recognize and affirm that 1) women are free (and encouraged by Paul) not to marry, 2) that this caveat with Ephesians 5 does not apply to those women who choose not to marry, and 3) if a woman chooses to marry, Paul makes it clear in Ephesians 5 that her husband is the only one to whose leadership she is entrusted, so if her husband says he’s okay with her serving in a particular ministry role, the Church must defer to her husband, and she should be both allowed and encouraged to serve in that role without any further questions asked.