It first came up in my theology class. My professor read aloud 1 Timothy 2:11–12 (for some reason he failed to read the verses above or below) and claimed that there was no solid evidence that this verse was intended only for a particular cultural context. Instead, it was applicable to all churches at all times. I then asked about women who feel that preaching is their spiritual gift, women who feel a deep desire to be pastors. He nodded his head at me and asserted, “Well, that is why it is important to understand spiritual gifts as really just roles in the church we participate in. With this understanding, we can see that women simply have different roles in the church.”
That was it. Case closed. No more discussion. Onto a different subject.
Later, it was in one of my literature courses. I sat on the edge of my seat during the very tense class discussion. The topic? Women’s role in society. At a Christian university, this often leads back to the question of women’s role in the church. I stated, as calmly as I could, that women should not be prohibited from church leadership on the basis of their gender. The atmosphere intensified. Finally, a young woman responded.
“Well, there haven’t been any good examples of women leaders in the past, so maybe that is evidence they shouldn’t be in those kinds of positions.”
On another occasion, a group of friends and I were up late one night talking about the kind of girl we each want to eventually marry. I mentioned it would be great to be married to a woman who wanted to be or was a pastor. This unsettled some of them, and they stared at me with shocked faces.
“Andy, women can’t be pastors. That is unbiblical.”
Then there were the students handing out “man cards” warning us not to be girly.
The complaints circulating our campus about America feminizing the church.
And my female friend who desired to be a pastor, but feared rejection.
Deeply unsettled by these experiences, I wondered, Where does this intense devotion to complementarian theology stem from? What I have discovered is that the majority of young adult Christians are simply unaware of the leadership roles that women held in the Bible, especially women of the New Testament. Through either the intentional suppression or the unintentional omission of the Bible’s rich history of women leaders, authority figures (whether professors, theologians, or pastors) are able to oppress their sisters in Christ who are gifted and called to lead. For if a young theology student has no recognition of Junia or Phoebe or Priscilla or Tabitha, then it is easier to convince them that 1 Timothy 2:11–12 is applicable for all women in all times and circumstances.
Most young adult Christians I have encountered, even those who support gender equality, have no idea that women in the Bible were leaders. When I have mentioned Mary Magdalene for example, they respond with a description of her as the redeemed prostitute (an idea never mentioned in the Gospels) instead of the one who shared the news of Christ’s resurrection—the “apostle to the apostles.” These bold women leaders have been forgotten, pushed to the side, and even stripped of their gender identity in years past. I myself, while always finding gender equality a core Christian principle, never knew about most of these women until I read Scot McKnight’s book Junia is Not Alone.
Who exactly are these unknown women?
In the sixteenth chapter of his letter to the Romans, Paul makes a point to encourage hospitality toward those who have aided in building God’s kingdom. Within this concluding chapter it is revealed that Paul’s ministry was marked by gender equality and inclusion, as he lists both men and women who partnered with him on his mission.
The very first person he mentions is Phoebe, “a deacon in the church in Cenchreae,” who has “been a benefactor of many people, including me.” In the New Testament, deacons were not just people who helped with communion. They were teachers. Phoebe financially supported Paul, despite the fact that she was either single or a widow. She was also responsible for making sure Paul’s letters were received. Couriers were in charge of both receiving and reading the letters. As such, Phoebe was probably the first person to deliver, read aloud, and interpret the letter to the Romans!
Another woman mentioned in Romans 16 is Junia. She and Andronicus are said by Paul in verse seven to be “outstanding among the apostles.” Not only was Junia an apostle, but she was an outstanding apostle. She receives nothing but praise from Paul. Apostles in Paul’s time were those who spread the saving work of Jesus Christ. They taught, they preached, and they led the early church.
Then there was Priscilla. Paul calls Priscilla and her husband Aquila his “co-workers in Christ Jesus.” They even “risked their lives” for Paul, according to Romans 16:3. Both Priscilla and Aquila were his equal partners in Jesus Christ. The couple is mentioned elsewhere in the book of Acts in which they both lead the soon-to-become-apostle Apollos to a more sound faith. “They invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately” (Acts 18:26, emphasis mine).
These are just some of the women in Paul’s ministry that he names in only one chapter! Think how many more there were. Romans 16 helps us to understand that when Paul writes, “There is no longer Jew nor Greek, no longer slave nor free, no longer male and female, for you are all one in Christ” (Gal. 3:28), he means it. Paul himself was putting Galatians 3:28 into practice.
The Bible describes a rich history of great women leaders doing the work of God. I haven’t even mentioned any from the Old Testament, let alone those found throughout church history. I encourage you to look them up. Read about them. Interact with the stories of the fierce Deborah, the brave Huldah, and the strong Shulammite girl in Song of Songs.
Throughout history women have been taught they are the lesser beings. They have been abused and disregarded. They have been oppressed, stereotyped, and objectified. The history of women suffering at the hands of men and society is horrifying. Yet Paul (and Jesus, for that matter) do not conform to these societal hierarchical norms. J.R Daniel Kirk writes that “if the kingdom of God is not based on socially constructed hierarchies, then bringing such hierarchies into the church is a denial of the gospel itself.”
The degradation of women has no place within Christianity, because God does not condone it. And an important way we can change the status of women within the church and culture is through gaining a broader education of all the faithful women leaders of the Bible.
Let’s be leaders in this education.
If the issue of women’s role in the church rears its head in conversation, do not be afraid to gracefully bring up biblical examples of women leading. If you have a friend or if you meet a woman who wants to be a pastor, encourage and lift her up as a woman participating in a long line of faithful and called women leaders. If you are a writer, write about them! Even just one mention on Facebook or Twitter could spark change.
Through my own personal education of these incredible women, I gained a broader understanding of the kingdom of God and the inclusiveness of Christianity. I have learned that freedom, no matter what your gender, is found in Christ.