I was in our church lobby between services when a man approached me, shaking his head and staring at our church bulletin. “You mean that you have women pastors here?”
“Yes,” I replied. Our senior pastor’s wife is in fact the copastor of the church.
“See, I told you,” interjected the man’s wife.
“We like this church a lot,” continued the man, “but I had no idea you had women pastors.”
I tried to assure him that this could be explained biblically. Still, I was unclear then about the textual and cultural explanations that I had been taught.
That conversation was similar to others I have had throughout my ministry; this has been especially true because I am married to a woman who is ordained and has a strong sense of calling to pastoral leadership and teaching. These are among the factors that motivated me to study the issue for myself and to write this article. In it I will examine the subject of women being involved in Christian leadership and the degree of leadership in which it is appropriate for them to be involved.
I will examine the different views regarding this issue and give a brief summary of the New Testament account of women in leadership. I will give particular attention to those passages of Scripture that have been the primary cause of disagreement over this issue. And I also will relate this subject to the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel (ICFG), the denomination of which I am a part.
Foursquare History And Position
My denomination was founded by a woman. During the 1920s into the early 1940s, Aimee Semple McPherson preached to huge crowds across the United States and in Canada. The revivals she led were characterized by salvations, dramatic healings, and the manifestations of the gifts of the Spirit. She ended up founding and pastoring Angel-us Temple, the church she started in Los Angeles, which ministered to well over 10,000 people each week and where she regularly preached 21 times each week. The ministry included a Bible college and one of the earliest Christian radio stations. Sister McPherson (as she was called) was unconventional and very popular. Besides being a woman, she did not fit the legalist mold common to the Pentecostals of her day (she wore makeup, had short hair, and she had experienced the tragedy of divorce). She was famous for her use of elaborate dramatic presentations and illustrated sermons. She had no intention of starting a denomination, but as people responded to the gospel and were discipled and trained, new churches began to be planted.
Originally, the number of women pastors in the Foursquare church was quite high. Three-fourths of the institute’s first students were women; fourteen of the first sixteen graduates were women. The dean of the college was a woman. Currently, one-third of all active credentialed Foursquare ministers are women.1 Sister McPherson did not spend much time defending her position of leadership as a woman. Her ministry was motivated by a deep sense of personal calling (“God has called me to preach this message”). She frequently made reference to Joel 2:28-29 and to other examples of women in the Bible. She did not feel it was necessary to defend her position, because she was convinced she was merely obeying God.
Today, women serving in official Foursquare ministry and leadership have been endorsed and encouraged by statements approved and passed as sanctioned Foursquare resolutions. The 1975 official organization statement, “Women in Public Ministry,” reads:
A close study of the Word of God, both Old and New Testament, indicates that God has seen fit to use women in His service in virtually every way He has employed men.
We, therefore, see nothing that should restrict God-ordained and Spirit-filled ministry of women in any capacity or office of the Church in keeping with the Word of God which guides men and women alike.
A 1998 declaration was unanimously passed by the board of directors. It reads:
The present and historical position of the Foursquare Church affirms the biblical truth that women are called of God to a role of leadership and public ministry. We hereby reaffirm and encourage the ministry of women throughout the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.2
My personal opinion is that the need to reaffirm this position stems from an absence of women in positional leadership in the ICFG. Female senior pastors are very rare, although many couples go by the title of copastor. The number of women “pastors” in the Foursquare church who preach on a regular basis is extremely small. This is true in spite of statements that the Foursquare church has recently published to affirm its theological and positional support of women in ministry.
Four Views Of Women In Ministry
There are four general views regarding women’s involvement in leadership in the church.
1. Complementarian/traditional. This view focuses on the complementary nature of men and women. It uses Genesis 2 and 3 (Adam and Eve and the Fall) as the starting point, as well as 1 Timothy 2:9-15 in the New Testament. It affirms that men are meant to lead, women are meant to follow. Therefore, a woman cannot be a pastor, probably cannot be an elder, and possibly cannot be a teacher or a leader. In this model of ministry, women’s primary roles are with children and other women, as hostesses, serving at potlucks, quilting, and possibly as church secretaries.
Complementarians that I interviewed did not see this view as sexist. They see it as being consistent with the Bible. They claim their position is one whereby men and women are of equal value but have different roles. Still, they were unable to explain to me why it is acceptable for women to teach Sunday school or to sing in church.
On a positive note, this view recognizes the differences between men and women. It reinforces the complementary nature of marriage. On the other hand, to define roles rigidly can also cause difficulties, and while overemphasizing our differences we can miss our similarities.
2. Egalitarian. This view has an emphasis on the equality of men and women. It begins with Genesis 1:26-28 and Galatians 3:28. Egalitarians say that women can do anything in the church that men do. In other words, women can be pastors, women can be senior pastors of a staff, women can preach, and women can hold any position in the church for which they are gifted and qualified.
Egalitarians I spoke with strongly expressed the belief that women are generally discriminated against in the church. They feel women need to be further empowered so as to be able to function in ministry with greater freedom.
Egalitarians must be careful to recognize and affirm gender differences. If there is a fear of being politically incorrect, it can become easy to overlook and not discuss the differences. Ultimately, this could lead to androgyny. We should be careful not to forget that men and women are different, and that not all people are necessarily called to the same roles.
3. Radical feminist. This group has a focus on promoting women. They sometimes form women’s churches. They take the liberty to rewrite the Bible so as to make it nonpatriarchal and to do away with male texts. They have a reputation for evoking fear in the hearts of men.
4. Egalitarian . . . but. These are people who support the egalitarian position theologically but, in practice, women are limited in their opportunities to lead. In this view, women usually cannot be senior pastors. Opportunities often are found to be unavailable for women; women are not encouraged and are not promoted. This position is very conflicted and frustrating, because statements are made but not supported. Promises are made but not fulfilled. Women in this case feel the most frustrated and have the smallest amount of support. They may feel they are taken advantage of, and they are given limited opportunities to develop their leadership skills. Mixed messages dominate in this position. The men who lead sometimes appear to be controlling, chauvinistic, and threatened.
Today we find women who are leading most effectively are in the complementarian and egalitarian churches, but divisions over this issue are increasing. Strengths and weaknesses must be recognized in the extremes of all of these positions.
Women In The New Testament
It is my conviction that the basis for an ethical view of women in ministry must be found in Scripture. Consequently, I want to examine some important passages that are used as a basis for defending the different ethical positions regarding women in ministry.
According to the evidence of the New Testament, the exclusion of women from ecclesiastical ministry is neither in accord with the teaching or practice of Jesus, nor with that of the first century church. The New Testament presents the call of Jesus as universally inclusive. . . . Both the call of Jesus to discipleship and the call to ministerial service in the early Church were universal. They were not restricted by sex, marital status, social class, race or nationality.3
In the New Testament we see women functioning as disciples, apostles, prophets, deacons, and proclaimers of the Good News. They were the first preachers of the good news of the resurrection of Jesus to the Christian community. (Matt. 28:7-8). Romans 16:1-2 describes Phoebe as a “servant” of the church of Corinth. This term could refer to a deacon (diakonos).
Paul’s use of the masculine term diakonos not only suggests the existence of an order of women deacons, but also that the women were included in the same order as male deacons.4
This term was used to refer to a person with administrative responsibility in the early church and even more often in reference to a minister of God’s word, such as himself. Paul also calls her a helper, or patron, which would indicate that she owns a home in which the church meets and holds a position of honor.
Romans 16:3-16 includes references to several women. Though it lists twice as many men as women, more than twice as many women as men are commended.
- Prisca (Priscilla): a fellow minister with her husband. She was involved in the instruction of another minister, Apollos (Acts 18:26).
- Junia: a fellow apostle. This is a common feminine name. Romans 16:7: “Greet Andronicus and Junias [Junia], my relatives who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was” (NIV). Junias is a woman. 5
- Euodia and Syntyche, Philippians 4:2. They shared in the work of the gospel in Philippi—”help these women who have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel.”
There were women prophets in the New Testament church. (Philip’s daughters, Acts 21:9). Others were described as proclaimers of the Word; they presided in the celebration of the Lord’s supper and were called fellow workers of Paul (Rom. 16:3, Aquila and Priscilla. This usually referred to one who shares in preaching. 1 Thess. 3:2). Others served as deacons, and still others functioned as evangelists. This, in spite of the fact that they were generally subordinate in the Jewish, Hellenistic, and Roman societies of their day.
In Paul’s lengthy discussion about spiritual gifts, he never indicates that some gifts are for men and other gifts are for women. Rather, Paul teaches that the Holy Spirit gives gifts to every Christian without regard for racial background, economic status, or gender, and strictly as the Holy Spirit chooses (see 1 Cor. 12:11). He never distinguishes between “male gifts” and “female gifts” nor does he suggest differences in the way gifts should be exercised.6
The structure that kept women out of leadership in the church developed in the second, third, and fourth centuries. This structure was modeled after the Old Testament priesthood in which women were excluded from service. An overall view of the teachings of Paul reveal a progressive (not chauvinistic) attitude about the roles of women in society as well as in ministry.
Elizabeth Tetlow writes: “In the New Testament there were not ministries of men and women. There were only ministries of Jesus in which both men and women served. . . . There is nothing inherent in the character of Christian ministry as it is presented in the writings of the New Testament which would give reason for the exclusion of women. On the contrary, the New Testament portrays Jesus treating women as equal human persons. It also portrays women and men serving side by side in the various ministries of the church.”7
So why are women forbidden from teaching in the church? This view is complicated by a couple of passages of the New Testament. Let’s examine the key passages along with some explanations.
- 1 Corinthians 14:34-35: “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. 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 (NIV).”
1. Questions of authorship. Many, including Richard Hays, believe this passage “is an interpolation, not written by Paul but added to his letter by a later scribe or editor, such as the author of the pastoral Epistles.”8 Such individuals also question this passage because it appears to be inconsistent with the context. Thus, when removed, the passage reads smoothly. While this is possible, most would not take the liberty to “throw out” passages of Scripture.
The passage can also be explained as “a Pauline digression on a specific aspect of church order relevant to the Corinthian church.”9 Attempts must be made to reconcile this passage with the rest of the New Testament.
2. A quotation and refutation of the Corinthian position. This view proposes that verses 34 and 35 are a quotation of the Corinthian position, refuted in verse 36: “Did the word of God originate with you?” Some would say that the sarcastic tone of this verse invalidates the Corinthian position that is actually being quoted in verses 34 and 35. While this is a possibility, there is not direct evidence that this is how Paul intended the passage to be read.
3. Gender-segregated services. Many have said that communication between the sexes was disruptive because the men and women sat on different sides of the congregation. Though many use this as an explanation, it has been refuted in the examination of the architecture of the synagogues and the homes that were used by the early church.
4. A digression regarding a specific issue of church order. Some would say that Paul is referring specifically to the one kind of speech directly addressed in these verses, that of asking questions. It was common in the ancient world for hearers to interrupt teachers with questions, but it was considered rude if the questions reflected ignorance of the topic. Women were uneducated, and it is suggested that they were given a prohibition of silence, as a short-term solution, to end the disruptive questions. The men were told to instruct their wives at home, and therein gain instruction and education.
- 1 Corinthians 11:2-6: Here it is revealed that there was a problem in Corinth in which women were casting off traditional veils and thereby apparently not honoring men in the church with the mutual respect taught in Ephesians 5:21. Paul plainly is not advocating total silence, clearly based on the fact that earlier, in the same letter, he expressed expectancy that women would pray and prophesy publicly along with the men (1 Cor. 11:4-5). He had spoken there of a proper way for women to speak in church.
The only way to explain this is to understand that he is dealing with a specific type of speaking. Nothing here refers to teaching. A literal interpretation of this passage, carried to its natural conclusion, would exclude all forms of verbal communication, including singing and teaching Sunday school. “If we insist on a literal, legalistic interpretation, let us then eliminate all women teachers in Sunday School, Bible School, and in schools and churches on the mission field,” says L. E. Maxwell.10 So why would it be wrong to have women teaching the adults, but okay to have them teaching children? There is no reference here to age. If it is “potentially dangerous” to have women teaching adults, we should, in fact, be even more careful with our impressionable children.
- 1 Timothy 2:11-12: “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.” Here are two explanations of this passage:
1. A better translation. The rare Greek term for “take authority” is translated in the NIV as to “have authority.” This would mean women are not allowed to have any authority in the church. Other scholars say this is a stronger term and that it could accurately be translated as meaning to “seize authority.” Some would even translate this phrase as meaning to “domineer in a murderous way.”11
This would forbid women from “teach[ing] in such a way as to take authority.” This explanation changes the meaning of the passage. It would mean Paul is simply stating that he forbids women from grabbing and usurping authority, in the same way he also would have forbidden any man. There were many power struggles in the early church, especially with the influence of false teaching. Paul is likely dealing with a problem in this church; apparently some women were involved in this insurrection of power.
2. The social situation. There is clearly a specific situation being addressed that was known to Paul and the readers, even though it is not explained in the text. 1 Timothy speaks of male false teachers causing problems in the church (1:20, 2 Tim. 2:17). They have introduced dangerous heresies into the Ephesian church. These false teachers were influencing the uneducated women with their destructive doctrines. If these women had seized authority within the church, they would have injured the church’s witness. In response to this specific problem, Paul calls for specific action. He tells them that they are not to take positions of authority in the church. At the same time, he encourages them to learn “in quietness and submission.” It is not hard to imagine how this problem could have developed with this group of new believers and how Paul’s response was appropriate.
Paul’s further reference to Adam and Eve complicates the issue. Is this reference the basis of his point, or an “ad hoc argument to support it”?12 Is he saying that all women are more easily deceived than all men? Or is Paul using Eve as an illustration to the Ephesian women about the danger they have fallen into—of being deceived as untrained new believers? In 2 Corinthians 11:3, Paul uses Eve as an example of anyone, male or female, who is deceived.
One especially interesting study that sheds light on the immediate cultural situation is to look at the Gnostic teachings regarding women. These teachings glorified Eve (and women in general) as the one possessing superior wisdom because she ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In fact, Paul used this verse to expunge that teaching.
Ramifications, Both Current And Personal
The subject under discussion has been a source of division within the church at large. We need to remember to be accepting of one another in spite of our different interpretations or positions. This subject can be argued both ways; those of us who hold the egalitarian position must learn to explain that position and not hesitate to release gifted women to serve within the church. Good leadership is not based on the leader’s gender; all other factors must have primary consideration (training, experience, calling, giftedness, health of the marriage, character issues, etc.).
I began this study with an egalitarian perspective, but with many questions about the biblical basis for my stance. My study has only reinforced that perspective. I feel there is a tremendously superior amount of biblical evidence in favor of women being given the opportunity to express leadership in the same roles and positions of leadership in the church as men. If there ever was a time in our history for women to be free to minister, that time is now.
My perspective will have a great impact on my own ministry as I serve along with my wife. The things that I have learned in this study will be helpful in explaining our perspective regarding women in leadership in the church. I also can give women the opportunity to serve in positions for which they are gifted and called.
- Cook, Barbara. Ordinary Women Extraordinary Strength. Cootamundra, Australia: PeaceMakers Ministries, Ltd., 1988.
- Clouse, Bonnidell, and Clouse, Robert G., eds. Women In Ministry: Four Views. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989
- Elliston, Edgar J. Foundations of Leadership, Lesson 9. Lecture Notes. Fuller Theological Seminary. Pasadena, CA, 1998
- Hawthorne, Gerald F., and Reid, Daniel G. Dictionary of Paul and His Letters. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993.
- Hays, Richard B. The Moral Vision of the New Testament. San Francisco, CA: Harper Collins, 1996.
- Helgesen, Sally. The Female Advantage. New York: Doubleday, 1995.
- Maxwell, L. E. Women in Ministry. Wheaton: Victor Books, 1987.
- McPherson, Aimee. Aimee: Life Story of Aimee Semple McPherson. Los Angeles, CA: Foursquare Publications, 1979.
- Stokes, Allison. Women Pastors. New York: Crossroads Publishing, 1995.
- Tetlow, Elisabeth. Women and Ministry in the New Testament. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, Inc., 1980.
- “Women in Leadership Ministry: A Position Statement for the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.” International Church of the Foursquare Gospel. Los Angeles, CA, 1998.
- “Women in Leadership Ministry: A Position Statement for the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.” International Church of the Foursquare Gospel. Los Angeles, CA 1998.
- Tetlow, Elisabeth. Women and Ministry in the New Testament. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, Inc., 1980, 120.
- Clouse, Bonnidel, and Clouse, Robert G., eds. Women In Ministry: Four Views. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989, 191.
- Tetlow, Elisabeth. Op. cit., 131
- Hays, Richard B. The Moral Vision of the New Testament. San Francisco, CA: Harper Collins, 1996, 54
- Hawthorne, Gerald F., and Reid, Daniel G. Dictionary of Paul and His Letters. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993, 590.
- Maxwell, L. E. Women in Ministry. Wheaton: Victor Books, 1987, 100.
- Hawthorne, Gerald F., and Reid, Daniel G. Op. cit., 591.