The Bible does not allow gender to be a criterion for eligibility for any office or function in the church. Although in the Semitic/Hebrew culture the subordination of women to men was probably universal, and although there were no early explicit divine prohibitions against female subordination, the climax of special divine revelation in the New Testament repudiates such subordination and teaches the full equality of women and men. This equality is wrongly compromised when gender is made a criterion for church office. In support of the foregoing, the following theses are offered:
- “God created man in his own image. . . male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27). The man and the woman were each full image-bearers of God. The language does not permit any degree of superiority or subordination. “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number, fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over. . . every living creature that moves on the ground’ ” (Gen 1:28, italics added). The man and the woman were given equal and joint responsibility to fulfill the divine mandate. The more detailed account of the creation of the woman recorded in Genesis 2 states that when a “helper suitable,” (Hebrew, ezer kenegdo) for the man was not found among the lower creatures God fashioned a “suitable helper” from the man’s own body, and the man called her “woman” (Gen 2:22a-23). The word translated “suitable helper” is also used to refer to God himself in his support of his people. It is not, therefore, a word denoting subordination.
- When, at the behest of the serpent-devil, the woman and the man disobeyed God’s explicit command, God said to the woman, “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing. . . Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” (Gen 3:16). From that point on, humanity’s relation to God was disrupted. In addition, the relationship between man and woman became stressed and conflicted. The fulfillment of the woman’s desire for her husband could be realized only at the cost of submitting to his rule over her. This is radically different from the arrangement prescribed in Genesis 1:27-28.
- Throughout human history women and girls have suffered under a wide variety of forms of male oppression, including injustice, multiple forms of abuse, sexual exploitation and even slavery. Discrimination against the full use of women’s gifts in the church is rooted in the very wrong concept that women must be in subordination to men. Such injustice is made all the more ugly when appeal is made to Genesis 3:16. Since God’s words in that verse were spoken in response to human sin, it is clear they do not describe the way things ought to be. Conversely, they refer to the tragic effect of sin. From that point on, all the rest of Holy Scripture unfolds God’s plan and actions to overcome human sin and ultimately to remove its dire consequences, including the subordination and abuse of women.
- In the fullness of time the Son of God became incarnate in order to suffer and die to expiate human guilt and rescue believing women and men from abject bondage to sin. The abnormality predicted in Genesis 3:16 and practiced universally is to be overcome by Christ, the great Liberator. In him “there is. . . neither male nor female” (Gal 3:28).
- Mary, the mother of our Lord, and Elizabeth and Anna celebrated Christ’s birth with joy. A Samaritan woman unabashedly proclaimed his saving power in her village, and a Canaanite woman, against high odds, insisted that Jesus cast out the demon ravishing her daughter. Mary Magdalene and Martha ministered to him openly, and Mary of Bethany, against established tradition, sat at his feet to learn and adore. Women stayed at the cross while he died, and were the first at his tomb to celebrate his glorious resurrection. In contrast with entrenched rabbinical tradition, such models of female acclamation and devoted service give witness that in the Kingdom of God women may occupy the most prominent places and perform vital functions.
- At the feast of Pentecost Peter quoted the prophet Joel and declared that this prophecy was being fulfilled that day: “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. . . Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit. . . and they will prophesy” (Acts 2:17-18). In fulfillment of this the Holy Spirit equipped and prompted the four unmarried daughters of Philip to prophesy (Acts 21:9). Also Priscilla, along with her husband, gave special instruction to the scholar/preacher Apollos (Acts 18:24-28). And Paul declared that all the Gentile churches were grateful for the ministry of Priscilla and her husband Aquila (Rom 16:3-4). He also mentioned two women, Euodia and Syntyche, as having contended at his side in the cause of the gospel (Phil 4:2-3). Thus the emerging prominence of women in the gospel accounts and the recognition Jesus gave them became more formalized in the Pentecostal event that fulfilled Joel’s prophesy. That epochal phenomenon moved the apostolic church to recognize and implement the many signals given in connection with the birth, ministry, death and resurrection of our Lord. Jesus’ association with women and his recognition of their gifts had prepared the apostolic company for the pouring out of the Spirit that enabled daughters as well as sons to prophesy.
- Frequently appeal is made to 1 Corinthians 11:3- 16, 14:33b-35 and 1 Timothy 2:9-15 to deny ordination of women to the offices of elder and minister. Objective reading of these passages suggests they are quite enigmatic. Many and varied interpretations have been advanced. Whether influenced by the culture or not, the church, almost universally, does not regard several items in these passages to be absolutely normative when read literally. For example, it is rare for a church today to insist that women refrain from cutting their hair or to require that their heads be covered in the worship of God. Few voices are raised against women wearing pearls or gold. Braiding of hair is not condemned, nor do churches venture to tell a woman her “expensive clothes” are evidence of disobedience. And we find it hard to determine just when “it is a disgrace for a woman to speak in church” (1 Cor 14:35). Yet these Scriptures continue to be offered as the bases for denying ordination to women. To apply these passages in such an uneven and inconsistent manner is unacceptable. How then are these passages to be interpreted and applied? While it is not crystal-clear what specific abuses Paul was seeking to correct in Corinth and Ephesus (the destination of the letter to Timothy), it is prudent to say that the valid interpretation of these passages for all time is simply that women, in whatever culture, must be discreet, must not be offensive in the light of accepted standards in the church community, and must not display an air of superiority over men. It is likely that in Ephesus and Corinth, pagan styles of dress and conduct were beginning to taint the church and disrupt good order. Paul was most anxious to see peace, propriety and unity restored and maintained—an appropriate and valid application for present times as well.
- A fundamental rule of biblical interpretation says that the less clear sections must be seen in the light of the more clear sections. It is also true that traditional patterns and practices must not be allowed to stem the flow of divine revelation (cf. Acts 15; Gal; Col 2:8-23). The cryptic passages in Corinthians and Timothy may not be used to deny office in the church to women. The Bible teaches that in Christ sin and its dire results are overcome, the image of God is fully restored in women as well as men, and that the out-poured