Liberating Women for Ministry? part 1 (Key Texts)

Liberating Women for Ministry? part 1 (Key Texts) July 19, 2010

This is a series about women in ministry.  I have found that in most evangelical circles, women who are in ministry do not have the same opportunities as men.  Why is this?  It comes from a deep seeded belief that core leadership of a biblical church is found in men alone.  Women are equal in worth to God, but are limited in their function within the body of Christ.  Here is the kicker, I think that Scripture might tell a different story.  This series will be and exploration on this important topic…

Central Question: Can women serve in any role within the church?  If so, how does this compare to most modern evangelical churches?  If not, what are the boundaries for women in ministry?  How does the New Testament serve as a guide on this issue?


Today I want to explore this by looking at a key text that on the surface seems to exclude women from serving in leadership.

34 Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35 If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church. 1 Corinthians 14.34-35

In this first Corinthian letter, Paul spent several chapters discussing orderly worship.  In the flow of the letter, this text seems out of place and what some scholars refer to as an interpolation.  It appears to be an appendix that was added by a second or third generation Pauline letter compiler. This means that it was not authentic to Paul, but was inserted by a scribe because of some pressing agenda that was facing a segment of the church.  Both Richard B. Hays and Gordon Fee believe that this is indeed the case.  [1] If interpolation is not viable and this is authentically Pauline, then there are several explanations; one of which seems to be plausible.  Clearly, in 11.2-16, Paul has already stated that women may pray and prophesy in church as long as their head is covered in appropriate cultural dress.  Therefore, it is proposed that in the ancient Middle East women and men would sit in separate parts of the gathering area.  Most likely, worship gatherings in Corinth would have been taught in the popular language of the day: Greek.  Unschooled women lacked education and were less likely to understand, as they were fluent in their own local ethnic dialects.  They could have become bored or had questions that caused them to talk loud amongst themselves until the minister would have had to say: “Women, be quiet!  Ask your husbands at home.”  Paul may have written this to promote order in the Corinthian context so that worship would be orderly.  In any case, it was not a prohibition on women in a general sense, but an occasional circumstance.[2]



[1] Richard B. Hays, Interpretation: First Corinthians.  (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1997), 245.

[2] N. T. Wright, Women’s Service in the Church: The Biblical Basis.  Available Online:, 7.


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  • John F

    1 Tim 3:12 has been translated as “men” but the Greek is ei tis (any person). Had Paul intended it be restricted to males, he would have used aner (any male).

    Assuming the text in Cor is indeed inspired scripture, it is notable this is directed only to that church and is amongst other directions on “orderly worship”.

    This is a tough one as most cultures have been strongly non-egalitarian for centuries and this is reflected in God’s people.

    I’m having a senior moment recalling the text, but Paul refers to a church started and run by a woman, in addition to many other examples. Maybe someone can post the passages.

    While it isn’t necessary for all to know the Greek (or Aramaic or Hebrew), it certainly helps differentiate culture and tradition from Gospel 😀

    Thanks Kurt!

    • John, that is a great insight in regards to the Timothy passage. I am thankful for that added insight! Blessings!

    • I grew up in very conservative and fundamentalist churches, and I must admit that I still have an involuntary ‘knee jerk’ reaction to women in leadership roles in churches. My mind tells me one thing (that there is no good reason women shouldn’t serve in leadership roles) and my ‘knee jerk’ response tells me something else (that it’s ‘corrupt’ and ‘unbiblical’). But since I am not a believer in Biblical inerrancy or infallible authority, and am not even a member of a church, my views -whether intellectual approval or ‘knee jerk’ disapproval – are hardly relevant.

      Just a comment on the statement in 1 Timothy 3:1 (I think John F. must have meant that rather than 3:12). Although Paul used the generic “anyone” rather than “any man” in verse 1, verse 2 goes on to say that a Bishop must be the husband of one wife – which would seem, at least, to indicate that he had men in mind. Likewise, though, he said that deacons must be husbands of one wife, which would seem to indicate that he had men in mind for the ‘deacon’ position also. Yet I can think of at least one instance in the letters of Paul where a woman was referred to as being a ‘deacon’: Romans 16:1, concerning “Phoebe, our sister”. A number of translations (KJV, NKJV, NIV, and NASV) obscure the relevance of the word by rendering it “servant”, but it’s the same word Paul used in 1 Tim 3: διάκονος (diakonos). So despite the fact that Paul usually spoke specifically in terms of men when speaking of positions of leadership, he did not intend to exclude women from such service. It’s similar, if not the same, as the general use of the word ‘man’ to refer to both men and women. A male Bishop or deacon would be expected to have only one wife. If polyandry had been popularly practiced, then it would equally be expected that a female Bishop or deacon would be expected to have only one husband. Being a male oriented society, as shown by the fact that male terms were used to include all people, it’s probably true that the USUAL practice was to have male Bishops and deacons; but it was not an exclusive practice, and there is no reason that I can think of that it would always have to be the USUAL practice. As God’s people became more adjusted to the equality Paul inculcated when he said that in Christ there is neither male nor female, they would more and more readily accept women as being equally eligible for leadership positions.

      Them’s my thoughts, anyway – 😀 – for whatever they’re worth.

      The passage in 1 Corinthians 14 concerning women keeping silent in the church, and waiting until they get home to ask any questions – and in 1 Timothy 2:11 and 12 where the woman is told to learn in silence and is forbidden to teach or have authority over a man – would seem to negate what I just said, though. Some interesting comments on the 1 Corinthians passage have already been made, and I look forward to Kurt’s further comments.

  • David Leonardo

    Also, this is spoken in a cultural reference where women were not allowed in the inner temple and were generally not taught to be teachers. It is possible that Paul did not want the church appearing like the pagan cultures surrounding them.

    In any case, our culture allows women in leadership roles unlike then and so this verse can be read without the negative. I would argue that Paul would write a letter today saying that women should be allowed to be leaders, however, I would maintain that this would be in the absence of a equally or greater qualified man. I suggest this because in marriage the man is the spiritual leader, still maintaining a mirror of Christ’s relationship with the church.

  • I am a proponent of full inclusion of women in all areas of ministry and leadership, but I am also not a fan of this kind of bracketing of texts as “inauthentic” to do so, nor do I think we need to. Regardless of how this particular verse came to be (I agree it was likely not written by Paul), it is Scripture for us.

    I became an egalitarian (really, I’m what Scot McKnight calls a mutualist; I believe in male/female complementarity without hierarchy) when I realized:

    1. The overwhelming majority of churches would shut down, today, if not for the involvement, including leadership and teaching, of women. This includes churches that claim women cannot lead or teach. It is particularly maddening when churches allow women to hold positions like “Director of XYZ” when they clearly have the same status as any (male) “Minister of ABC”. This is just hypocrisy and cowardice. I try to maintain the point of view that complementarians are genuinely following what they believe the teaching of Scripture to be, but it is hard in the face of such cognitive dissonance.

    2. It’s far from clear that Jesus and Paul held to some kind of hard complementarianism. There is the oft-quoted verse mentioned here, but Paul also frequently alludes to women prophesying, leading churches, and so on, and the gospels are full of images of women as leaders in Jesus’ movement, like the first witnesses of the Resurrection, and Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet in the posture of a rabbi’s disciple.

    3. Even if Jesus, Paul, and the early church were indeed hard complementarians who would have restricted women from certain roles, that does not in any way make those sorts of gender relations normative for all time. The NT also implicitly accepts slavery. The Bible is not a book of rules that we just have to follow blindly. We are called to ethical discernment. I am persuaded by the redemptive movement hermeneutic that, like with slavery, the overall thrust of Scripture’s narrative is firmly in favor of emancipation.

    • Travis, you make some good points here. I would simply add that I think that the text could very well be authentic to Paul. this is why I think, being able to interpret the “why” question is quite important. So, I chose to offer both options. The only area in which i disagree is that you seem to not care if Paul actually wrote that passage, but still insist it is scripture for us. That would be like saying- if I wanted to add something into a bible today, that it could also be included as scripture (ok, this is a bit simplistic on my end, but I think you get what I am trying to say). If interpolation is indeed what happened historically, and we could prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt, I would not consider these two verses as part of the Cannon.

      With the one exception that I made about your comment, I agree with you entirely!

      • The Old Testament is full of such interpolations. In Jewish tradition, Ezra, the great redactor/editor of Scripture, is valued alongside Moses the writer of the Torah (if not at the same level, at least in the same category). I think it’s a mistake to assume God’s inspiration didn’t work through the editing as much as in whatever was originally written (or for much of the OT and probably the gospels, spoken) in a given text’s earliest form.

        We are not talking about an interpolation that happened yesterday, or in the Middle Ages or something. Paul wrote many letters, some of which were kept, the ones we kept and canonized all having been edited to some degree. Some are likely combinations of different letters. Doesn’t matter. From my perspective, ferreting out the origins of different parts of texts, as much as we are able, is useful for understanding context, but we don’t have the authority to edit what the church community has already established as canon. What does authentic mean? Written by Paul? It’s not Scripture because it was written by Paul. It’s Scripture because the church decided it was inspired, authoritative, and useful.

        Besides, once you start setting verses aside, it can become dangerously easy to simply explain away bits we don’t like as “inauthentic” (or failing that, “accommodation”) and creating a text in our own image.

        Anyway, I don’t want to derail this important conversation about valuing women in leadership, one I think too many male pastors don’t want to have, because they’re afraid of the competition! Thanks for the dialogue, I’m enjoying it.

        • Travis… I agree with you on some points, but have some nuanced responses to some of what you said. But, I am with you that this is not the place to worry about such… the women in ministry question is much too important 🙂 Blessings!

  • Beth Gaddie

    I have just read the above interchange and I find this an interesting text as well. What I find to be more interesting is that no women have replied. As a female seminarian about to complete my M.Div. I only want to make one comment. Last I checked Jesus came to all, men and women mutually. Paul has numerously times written about the inclusiveness of the Christian faith and there are several instances of women as key figures in “THE WAY” but all of that aside one of the most outspoken supporterrs for womens’ rights was Jesus and I cannot immagine having Jesus say that anyone is not qualified to be God’s messenger in and out of the pulpit as long as they are preaching a message based on his greatest commandment: To love your neighbor as yourself. It has been my experience that the conditions we place on the appropriateness of individuals to serve as pastors and ministers are often man made and not biblical. Therefore, I believe the passage has less to do with the roles of male and female in worship and more to do with remembering that the purpose of a worship service is to glorify God and any distraction from worship in any form should not be tolerated. Given this understanding there are many men who should not be allowed to speak in church either.

    • Beth, I have one word: AMEN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Leo

      That’s cute, but please, beth, you should go do something useful while the men are talking.

  • Eleonore

    Thanks for the invitation to the conversation Kurt.

    I would like to suggest that thinking that women should be empowered to serve in the church is still different from doing it. Let’s use exercise as an example. Many of us say, “When I feel good then I’ll exercise”. When in reality it’s closer to: When I exercise then I feel good. We misplace the action & reaction. Similarly we may think that when people will bless women into ministry then women can become pastors. I am, however, increasingly convinced that when women are called to pastor in the church then people will change the way they feel about women in ministry. To use some Change Theory terminology, we need to change the physical – to change the psychological – to change the philosophical. In other words once we change what we do, it’ll change the way we feel and perhaps this will help us to change the way we think.

    Mr. Leonardo’s logic causes some concern. I wonder at the link between the interpretation of Husband leadership in a marriage and it’s transference to prioritizing male leadership in the church. It seems a strange equation. I understand that the Eph 5 text is clear about who is the “head” of the church (Christ); and would by no means suggest that where there are two people equally gifted to serve, the male trumps the female. I suppose, of course, that the logic could be something like this: Jesus was male therefore the male gender is superior to the female. Hmm, funny, I don’t think that’s what scripture says either?! Sarcasm aside, I actually think that men promoting male superiority is less destructive to “liberating women for ministry” then the female acceptance of this point of view. In my experience women are much less likely to support another woman in ministry than men – this could lead to a much longer conversation; instead, I’ll simply leave it there.

    • David Leonardo

      Not exactly sure how you arrived upon the idea that I “promote male superiority,” even with consideration of my choice of phrasing. It is true that due to my lack of available time that my succinctly published comment did not contain my full and complete structuring of logic and for this I apologize. I will hopefully find time to finish, and fill in, my perception of this case.

      However, perhaps a question with concern toward my logic would have been more appropriate? Might I also suggest that mocking inflections are best left unsaid. Or, should opposite views always be met with condescending degradation?

      As well, if it should be known, I have, at various times, deferred, with full awareness of my ignorance, to more knowledgeable and quite capable women that I admire.

      • Eleonore

        Mr. Leonardo your rebuke is noted. My apology for having caused offense. I look forward to hearing your further thoughts on the subject.

  • My mother is a Pentecostal preacher. And I can tell you that Pentecostals are quite accepting of women as ministers. And the acceptance is growing. Ten years ago, we would have never dreamed that the churches in my hometown would accept a woman as a fellow minister. But now, not only do they accept them, they tried to elect my mother as the President of the local ministerial association (she refused, so they elected her Vice-President). There are only two women members of the ministerial association, her and the Lutheran pastor. But progress is being made every day. I think women ministers are becoming more accepted each day.

  • I come from a Pentecostal tradition and up until a very few years ago I would still have described myself as one. In theory I agree with jtvestal but in reality, women as lead or senior pastors are rare within the classical Pentecostal denominations. In the charismatic congregations there is a trend to co-pastoring. I don’t have a problem with that IF the woman is trained, unfortunately, most aren’t. But that’s another matter all together.
    This is an awesome blog and glad I saw it. The Evangelical church by in large is far behind in this matter. I appreciate the scholarly approach to this question. However, when I, as a woman in ministry, am queried on this topic, usually the person just wants to argue. They aren’t interested in series scholarly discussion. My answer for these folk is something like this (with a smile I say) – God called me to preach. I didn’t ask Him to but I did say yes to His call. If you have a problem with it I suggest you talk to God. I have to do what He told me to do.
    I don’t mean that to have a tone of sarcasm either. It’s just the way it is.
    GREAT JOB!!!

    • I for one am glad that God called you to preach Joyce!

    • beth gaddie

      My only comment to your post is to note that in many denominationsthe men who serve as preachers are not trained or academically prepared either. Being prepared and grounded in sound theological learning is not gender specific. But, leaving room for the Holy Spirit to work throuh human vessels is also not gender specific. I am otherwise very supportive ofyour comments and equally happy to find the discussion is taking place.

      • Agreed – while the Holy Spirit is a priori, good training is important as well. Because of the preponderance of men in ministry I’ve heard more ill-trained men than women.

        • “I’ve heard more ill-trained men than women.”

          That’s also because, even among groups that do celebrate women’s gifts, they are still tied to credentialism in a way that men aren’t.

          • TL

            ““I’ve heard more ill-trained men than women.”
            That’s also because, even among groups that do celebrate women’s gifts, they are still tied to credentialism in a way that men aren’t.”

            It is possible to place to much importance to human training and not enough to God’s calling and equipping. I’ve been in God’s training for 41 years, with some seminary training. In God’s eyes He has equipped me for service. In my small town I’m recognized as a woman who is well equipped to teach and my services are appreciated. But still the recognition goes to men who don’t really know how to research and study Scripture to the degree that I do, just because ….

            I am not unique in this. Many women with true giftings in the HS and real knowledge and insight to share that would well serve the body of Christ are passed over every day for someone of less ‘on the job’ training because they are male or just because they have gone to some seminary and graduated. I’ve seen men who have graduated and amazingly really don’t know Scripture as well as I think they should. While seminary training is great (I’ve a couple years) it is not the most important part. IMO the most important part is what God has to say about it all. Who is He calling to serve in what capacity. The assumption that everyone who graduates with a degree is supposed to a pastor is why we have so many inept pastors today.

  • Amy Stone

    1) We stand on pretty wobbly ground when we try to make inferences about marriage roles based on a literal NT reading. We stand on even wobblier ground when we then make inferences about church leadership based on our inferences about marriage roles.

    Marriage in the NT context has little to do with our contemporary Western conceptualizations of the matter.

    2) Paul seems to be addressing some behavior in the local church that was bringing shame on the community (and, perhaps, paterfamilias, within the community, whom he would also want to protect from being shamed by their women’s behavior, as a witness to the goodness of the gospel).

    It seems to me that we bring shame on our own communities when we do not foster an egalitarian leadership model. In our setting, we embarrass ourselves and alienate the world when we continue to subjugate women.

    It is way past time for the church to take the lead in humanizing and dignifying women. But we are still recovering from the influence of the church fathers who declared that women are not the imago Dei (i.e., not fully human).

  • beth gaddie

    Well said!

  • I don’t think anyone has commented on the phrase, “as the law also says”. This is significant because there is no place in the OT that this alleged law appears. But it does appear in the Talmud, per Gordon Fee, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, p. 707 or Women Keep Silent. (ex.: “It is a shame for a woman to let her voice be heard among men” (Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin)

    “The voice of a woman is filthy nakedness” (Talmud, Berachot Kiddushin)

    The passage is followed by a word weakly translated “Or”, but should more likely be a much stronger “WHAT!?” since Paul goes on to sarcastically ask whether these people were the only ones to whom God had spoken. The text easily supports the idea that Paul is strongly refuting the claim.

    This was reinforced for me in the past year or so when I watched a lecture by a modern-day Pharisee (can’t recall name, sorry). He explained that in the ancient Pharisees’ minds, when God put them in charge of interpreting the Law, not even God Himself could ever contradict them, since He had handed it over to them. They truly did consider themselves the final authorities on what God did or did not say. That Paul would “smell” such an attitude from the Corinthian question put to him seems all the more likely due to his being a Pharisee himself.

    We also have the fact that Paul is answering several questions from the Corinthians and giving his recommendations or divine rulings, as the case may be (the “I not the Lord / not I but the Lord” phrases). There are no punctuation marks to indicate quotes, so we have to guess from context. Yet in other places, such as when Paul writes “‘Everything is permissible’, but not everything is beneficial”, it is presumed to be a quote even though the context is not all that clear. I think there is much more to support a quote of the Talmud here than presumed quotes elsewhere.

    • Paula, if I am understanding you correctly, that’s a very interesting observation that I don’t believe I’ve ever heard before – but which makes very good sense. Are you saying that verses 34 and 35 of 1 Corinthians 14 constitute a quote from some of the more Pharisaical members of the Corinthian congregation, and that beginning with verse 36 Paul objects to the idea expressed in that quote and refutes it? If that’s true, it’s very interesting indeed! 😀

      • Yes, that’s what I’m saying. There is no good reason to make less clear phrases or passages as quotes while not making this one a quote. The meaning of the passage turns completely on this point; it either orders women’s silence and subjection or it strongly refutes it.

        • Thank you. When I read your original comment, and looked at the passage again, it was like a light came on in my head – and I came just short of laughing out loud, 😆 To think that it might just be that simple!

          The “dimmer switch” for that ‘light’ though is 1 Timothy 2:11 and 12. Paul there said that he himself did not permit women to teach or have authority over men, and that they must be silent. Kurt’s comments, using N. T. Wright as a reference, haven’t yet had the ‘lights on’ effect for me. I would be interested to hear your comments on that passage, if they’re different from Kurt and N. T. Wright.

          • You’re quite welcome, mystic444. 🙂

            For my thoughts on 1 Tim., please see this link.

      • I should add that when Paul anticipates an objection, he prefaces it with something like “But some of you will say”. Here he does not indicate in any way that he is merely anticipating that some will object to his (alleged) ruling for women to be subservient; there is nothing in the passage to stand on that would allow Paul to be directing his “who do you think you are” to some hypothetical objection.

        • Aw, shucks. Now you seem to be backtracking on that wonderful insight. As you pointed out, it seems many interpreters view Paul’s statement (said twice), “All things are lawful for me” – in 1 Corinthians 10:23 as referring to something the Corinthians (or some in that congregation) liked to say – even though he didn’t precede the ‘quote’ with a statement such as “some of you say”. Paul did not repudiate that quote, though; he just qualified it.

          It seems like a good argument could be made that, despite the fact that Paul did not preface verses 34 and 35 of chapter 14 with a statement like “But some of you say”, it is implied by the fact that those verses seem contrary to what he himself taught elsewhere: that in Christ there is neither male nor female. And in chapter 11 he acknowledged the legitimacy of women praying and prophesying if they had their heads covered – and that’s not exactly being silent in the church.

          Of course the possibility still exists that Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians 14 had to do, as Kurt pointed out, with women talking with each other during the church meeting – in a way which would be distracting and disturbing to the orderliness of the service. I’m not ready yet to take a dogmatic stand on these verses. 😀

          • Actually, I don’t see it as backtracking but further support. Let me see if I can clarify.

            There are two unrelated issues: anticipated objection, and citing a quote.

            If Paul was ordering women’s subjection, then we have to explain his “who do you think you are”. That’s where the anticipated objection argument comes in. Yet for the reasons I already gave, we know Paul is not anticipating a hypothetical objection, so this argument cannot stand.

            Likewise, if this passage cannot be considered a quote, then the other passages cannot be quotes either, and then we have to say Paul really teaches that “all things are lawful for me”. Since this is obviously not the case, then it must be conceded that Paul was also quoting the legalists here.

          • Ah, thanks for that clarification. It makes a lot of sense to me, for what that’s worth. My sons, and a lot of other people, think I’m really weird, 😆 so the fact that it makes sense to me might not be a great recommendation!

            Thanks also for the link to the commentary in 1 Timothy. I’ve started reading in it. I just love when I come across enlightening commentaries on passages that seem to make Paul out to be an ogre. I’m not a Biblical literalist, nor do I believe in its infallible authority, so I don’t have problems rejecting ‘nonsense’ even if it’s in the Bible. However, I much prefer to discover that it actually is sensible, rather than nonsense.

          • Again, you’re very welcome. 🙂 I’ve had my sanity questioned and strangeness asserted many times too, so you’re in good company. I think. o.O

            But you make a good point about the sensibleness of the Bible. One point of apologetics is that the very reliability and sensibleness of the Bible are arguments for its divine authorship. If the Bible is no more sensible than other writings such as the Vedas or Quran, then it’s just another religious book. A much bigger issue is prophecy of course.

            Inerrancy is a huge issue that would take this thread too far off topic, but worth discussing sometime.

  • Guest
  • Hhh

    So u think u can pick and choose what u think is original to scripture…. Give me a break