Women in Ministry: Is There a Biblical View?

Posted By on February 20, 2011

I’ve been asked a couple of times to hit on this topic. It’s been two years since I said anything about it on this blog. To be honest, it ranks right down there near prophecy for me. In other words, I find it hard to care about on many levels.  But if I’m going to spend time on eschatology, why not this one? In case you aren’t familiar with the terminology of the debate, you can get caught up by following these links for “Christian egalitarians” and “complementarian.”

As a strategy for keeping my interest, I’ve asked my friend and fellow blogger John Hobbins (Ancient Hebrew Poetry) to do this one in tandem. John is an egalitarian, which means he would support the idea of women being ordained to ministry. Good thing, since both he and his wife are ordained ministers!  This post is designed to start things off. John will be responding. His task will be of course to inform readers and, more difficult, to make me care.

So does the above mean I am a complementarian?  Actually, I’d describe myself “unconvinced of egalitarian views while being relatively unconcerned over complementarian fears.” But, because of the nature of the debate, I guess that makes me a complementarian, and I’m comfortable with that (since it is the traditional view, it’s also the default view). I really don’t feel any need, though, to oppose a woman’s sense of calling who feels called to the pastoral ministry. I’ve had women professors in biblical studies who were wonderful. I’ve heard women preach in church and wished I could hear them more often. I can look a woman seminary student in the eye and tell her I hope she has a fruitful ministry and is a blessing to anyone under her leadership. My view is that such a sense of calling is between her and God.

The trade-off is that I don’t feel like I could honestly defend her view exegetically. Frankly, I know of no clear exegetical argument in favor of female ordination. Yes, one can theologize the topic to the point of stupor, but I really don’t care about theologizing. I want something that clearly derives from the text and which cannot be coherently defeated on the basis of exegesis.

So why do I feel this way? Why do I feel I could not exegetically support an egalitarian view, but don’t care to oppose it? I’ll try to succinctly explain.

Let’s get the major points out of the way first.  If this debate is new to you, I’m sorry, but I can’t explain everything in this post or maybe even a few dozen.

1. “Junia” arguments are a stalemate at best.

Yes, the textual evidence that Junia (Greek Iounian) in Romans 16:7 is a woman is weighty, and the male-female pairings elsewhere in the benediction of Romans 16 also suggest Junia is female. (For a recent summary of the evidence by a well-respected textual critic, see this book). But all this solves little because:

A. The real issue is what “en tois apostolois” means (translated “to the apostles” or “among the apostles”; the latter would mean Junia was an apostle). The phrase is ambiguous in my mind.

B. Even if we go with “among the apostles,” there were apostles outside the 12 disciples. That is, the word is used of others “sent” (the word = sent ones, messengers) to do the work of the ministry (like missionaries nowadays). Whether that ministry meant a pastoral ministry (a pulpit ministry) or some other type of ministry cannot be determined with certainty or clarity. So, who cares if Junia was an apostle — what does *that* mean?

An article by Burer and Wallace argued against “among the apostles” (some of that is summarized here); a response to that article by the egalitarian scholar Linda Belleville followed.1

If you cannot obtain these articles, here’s a complemetarian analysis that interacts with Belleville.

C. Despite the text-critical evidence, Al Wolters has shown in considerable detail that the name may be male anyway.

2. “Kephale” arguments seem to favor the complementarian view.

I saw “seem to favor” because the arguments made by complementarians on this matter are more coherent in my judgment. But even if Paul meant “authority over” and not “source,” the situation at Corinth may have specifically called for what Paul said in 1 Cor 11:3.  That is, it may reflect Pauline opinion on a specific matter. That means it may not be a universal idea binding on us today — but that is a theologizing argument (an academic way to say “guess”). Egalitarians of course favor that caveat, and I feel I need to honor it to the extent that it would be less than honest to say we know the complete context.  But I would add that honesty requires egalitarians to come up with a clearer argument for their view, since to base one’s position on a supposition about our own cultural limitations is *not* an argument from exegesis. It’s building a doctrinal position on a guess.

For those unfamiliar with this debate, it was Grudem’s article (1985) that sort of (pardon the pun) brought the issue to a head. This was followed by a rebuttal by Cervin (1989) and then a sixty-nine page rejoinder to Cervin and other detractors by Grudem (1990; can we say “overkill”?). There have been other articles on both sides, but nothing that really wins the day.

3. Arguments from Deborah and female prophets are basically worthless.

Why do I feel this way? Several reasons:

A. Deborah was not a priest. There are no examples of female priests in the OT, which office would be the natural spiritual leadership role for “pulpit leadership” of the early church and today.

B. Female prophetesses in both testaments were not priests. Ditto the above.

C. Connecting either of the above to the issue at hand (female ordination) requires (for coherent logic) demonstrating that what they did as prophets was either (1) exercised normatively by priests in the OT (can’t be done); or (2) was inseparably linked to pastoral or apostolic ministry in the NT (also can’t be done).   What I mean here is that, since judgeship and prophetic preaching (predictive or otherwise) were done by people who were not priests or apostles (“pastors”), then those abilities or gifts cannot be used to prove one was a priest or apostle (“pastor”).  It’s a dead end.

I am aware that, on rare occasions, women in ancient Israel did “priestly things.” But you have to consider Zipporah’s circumcision of her son to save Moses’ life normative for that. Hardly an argument for female priests.

4. “Mutual submission” arguments are about relationships within the home.

Paul’s words ought not to be extrapolated (by either side) to refer to male relationships with women to whom men are not related, not married to, or pastoral leadership. Any of those areas are outside the context of what Paul is saying.

5. Arguments from “creation order” are also a stalemate.

What I mean here is that both sides can drawn on Genesis (before the Fall) for their view. An egalitarian could appeal to the textual fact that both men and women were created to image God equally. A complementarian could acknowledge that, but point out that certain elements of the description point to a hierarchical relationship between the two equal imagers of God. For example, an ANE/Semitic view of the act of naming (Adam names Eve) would be viewed as the act of a leader figure to a subordinate. While we might not like the perspective of an ANE/ Semitic culture, and could point out the obvious fact that we aren’t that culture, it is indeed the perspective of the biblical writer — the guy God chose to write/edit the text we have.  One cannot demonstrate the biblical culture would be egalitarian on points like this because, well, the rest of the Old Testament would be contrary evidence, being stilted in a hierarchical direction. Hence these sorts of arguments are tied to the culture argument (how and whether the biblical text as we have it ought to or can be bent to our cultural times).

This last point — the cultural hermeneutic — is probably my real concern in the debate. That hermeneutic has few objective restraints to it, making its use far too arbitrary and subjective. Our motto here at Naked Bible is “just the Bible,” and I think my position is consistent with that. I don’t see absolute clarity on this issue — I think that is where the biblical text leaves us — and that’s okay with me. I leave the text where it is and don’t supplement it with my own wisdom.

That ought to summarize things for now. For me, the only real argument for female ordination is the fact that one can find women as heads of house-churches in the early church. There is such textual and archaeological evidence.2. But all that means is that *some* early Christian contexts tolerated or embraced this (we don’t know which verb is appropriate, and maybe both are for a number of reasons). We have no idea what was behind the decision. It certainly wasn’t normative, but I’m not sure what that ought to mean to me, either.  I’d also suggest we don’t want early church data to necessarily drive our exegetical conclusions. This sort of data is notoriously conflicting and, in some cases for my tastes, wacky. It just doesn’t solve the issue — but it does make me feel that I ought not to dismiss the egalitarian view out of hand. I’m willing to bet God honored the ministry of these women pastors in the early church, and gave them a “well done, thou good and faithful servant” when they met the Lord after death. Who am I to say otherwise?  Hence I leave this to conscience.

But maybe John or one of you can move me.

  1. See Michael H. Burer and Daniel B. Wallace, “Was Junia Really an Apostle? A Re-Examination of Rom 16.7,” NTS 47 (2001): 76-91; Linda Belleville, “IOUNIAN … en tois apostolois,” A Re-Examination of Romans 16.7 in Light of Primary Source Materials,” NTS 51 (2005): 231-249.
  2. See Carolyn Osiek, A Woman’s Place: House Churches In Earliest Christianity;  Karen J. Torjeson, When Women Were Priests: Women’s Leadership in the Early Church and the Scandal of Their Subordination in the Rise of Christianity.

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38 Responses to “Women in Ministry: Is There a Biblical View?”

  1. Janina says:

    First my personal disclaimer – I have no desire to be ordained to lead a church (any church) right now and frankly it does not matter – accountability is far too great (and believe me I’m not a shrinking violet)- James 3:1

    When we look at the whole of the Bible the “patriarchal” (read that: male dominated) system seems to be enforced.
    OT – only men were priests
    NT – no clear evidence of women being either priests or apostles

    At the same time women had their role in the ministry, both OT and NT (teachers, prophetess) – I wish women would see that – they could do so much more – the problem is not the position one is in but how one fulfills that position.
    Unfortunately some men use the Scripture to abuse their God given authority and that’s probably the crux of the issue.

    Some can argue that in Christ’s church – Gal 3:28 – ” There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” – denoting total equality (including ordinations).

    Rev 1:6 – “and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father…” – some may use this verse plus Rev 5:10 and Rev 20:6 in conjunction with Gal 3:28 as a clear indication that women can be ordained as priests

    • MSH says:

      I like the line about “it’s not the position…”

      The problem with applying the “kingdom of priests” idea to the ordination idea is that, despite the language of the former, office-holders were outlined and instituted within the Church (in the NT and thereafter). In other words, the NT writers didn’t apply that the way some egalitarians might want to.

  2. Sue says:


    I had an extensive email interaction with Al Wolters on this topic. I hope that I might be able to interact with you on this and other topics.

  3. What do you think about Phoebe?

    • MSH says:

      I think she was a deacon. I don’t see the NT making the nice distinction of deacon-deaconness (the latter defined as the wife of a male deacon) that some churches make.

      • I guess my follow up would be – what do you think it meant that she was a deacon? The picture of a deacon in Acts seems to make them an authority figure and a teaching figure (as opposed to my church tradition which makes deacons the caretakers of the building).

  4. Sue says:

    If you cannot obtain these articles, here’s a complemetarian analysis that interacts with Belleville.


    I don’t think that David Jones interacts with Belleville. I don’t think that anyone has interacted much with her work on Junia other than Epp.

    • MSH says:

      if you have a better source, let’s have it; otherwise, I guess I’d have to find Belleville’s article and post it.

      • Sue says:

        David Jones did not mention Belleville’s article. at all. I have read it and made extensive use of it, and have revisited all the same data myself. But I would have to find it.

        I do think that both Belleville and Epp have disproved Wallace and Burer’s article. Rick from This Lamp sent me a copy of the Belleville article. I will look it up tonight.

  5. KR Wordgazer says:

    Perhaps we should stop worrying so much about “ordination” and just let people serve, as Jesus said. He seemed to envision the ministry as– well, people ministering (serving), and not worrying about who gets to be in charge of whom. I certainly don’t see Him telling those accustomed to the highest seats at the banquet that they should cling tightly to their seats and that their job is to tell those who have always been given the lowest seats, that they should be content with their place.

    As for this:

    “I guess that makes me a complementarian, and I’m comfortable with that”

    I hope I may be frank, and I assure you that no insult is intended– but may I say that It’s understandable that you would feel that way, being born to a position of privilege such that the issue need never touch your life personally unless you let it?

    But what about those women to whom you would be willing to say, “may your ministry be blessed,” who may find nothing but opposition and conflict at every turn instead? Women whose sense of calling turns to dust and ashes as the churches they would serve say, “women need not apply”?

    • MSH says:

      I was hardly born a person of privilege. It’s pretty arrogant for you to assume anything about my upbringing or background, too. And my endorsement of a woman candidate in any official sense would hardly remove opposition on her path. In other words, nothing I say or do will remove the conflict, so that’s sort of a pointless thing to desire from me.

      • Sue says:

        I do think that males have privileges in Christendom that women do not have. In the Brethren at the age of 30 I watched barely literate 18 year old boys address the assembly.


        There may be other ways that men are not privileged, but males do have privileges that women do not have in most churches. I think there has to be a little compassion shown here.

        I sat all day today with a Dad who had the social services after him. I am capable of showing compassion to males. There has to be mutuality. Some of us have truly suffered – as men or as women.

        • MSH says:

          I hear you (I am from eastern PA, so I get the illustration), but I don’t worry about being disadvantaged (see my other reply). Every day people who are “disadvantaged” and “oppressed” (some very severely) overcome obstacles. I say that God made us for stress and to overcome, not to cry about the culture or our circumstances. A woman who feels called to serve God and who lets such things get in her way has weak character and insufficient faith. And I’d say that to men in some other circumstance of disadvantage as well.

          • Sue says:


            I was not allowed to continue my education at a certain point. Once I was married, I was not given “permission.” This was absolutely denied to me, and I do not consider myself a weak person. I was categorically denied certain things and it was beyond my control. I could never accept the PhD position offered me, whether I could have afforded it or not. I also work long days, and support two children. I am not well off. I work hard, live modestly and was restricted in my movement and thought significantly for quite a long time.

            However as a child I was well provided for and loved. That makes up for a lot. But complementarianism robbed me of a great many things in my life. if you want to cast aspersions on my character due to the losses I suffered, I would have to disagree with you.

            • MSH says:

              This is tough when it involves a marriage. I would say it’s a situation that you were truly powerless to change, and so it isn’t whining! But you are the exception that proves the rule. I seriously doubt that most women who “fall away” from a call are in your situation. I’m talking about circumstances that one can proactively change. You certainly weren’t in that category. It seems to me you did the most honorable and godly thing you could. I would not take back my distaste for whiners in other regards, though.

  6. Hodge says:

    The problem with seeing the argument from created order as irrelevant is that Paul uses it himself. It’s not just that Gen 1-3 can be used by both positions, but that one use is substantiated by Paul (and for most of us, that means the Holy Spirit here). So why see these arguments as irrelevant when they are continually used as a way of saying that what is established/created first has priority over that which comes later?

    • MSH says:

      You are of course referring to Paul’s comments about headship, grounding that in creation order. Problem: one can play another part of Genesis (1:26-27) against Paul there. Paul shows no intention of addressing all the issues in Genesis or creation order in what he says. He focuses on one item. The task would be to reconcile all of the creation order concepts into a coherent whole, and each side attempts to do that. And so the question becomes, “whose blending is best?” As I have stated, I think the complementarian approach is more defensible, but I’m not going to conclude that I think it is inerrant.

      • Hodge says:

        I agree that any side can get an argument from created order. My point is that one side seems to be validated by Paul and the other does not. His argument uses priority as Second Temple interpreters always do, i.e., to override any later view or practice that is viewed as accommodation to less than ideal circumstances rather than fulfilling the ideal. So my point is that once the Holy Spirit weighs in on one side of the argument from created order, we ought to give credence to that side. It, therefore, wouldn’t be a stalemate for those who see Paul’s argument as a deciding factor in that regard, especially since we’re getting the idea of woman’s exclusion from being a presbyter over a man primarily from him.

        • MSH says:

          why do you suppose so many NT scholars don’t see this as self-evident?

          • Hodge says:

            Well, when I set out to do my thesis on the topic, I asked the same thing, since there is almost nothing on the subject. One would think scholars would pursue it, but for whatever reason, these arguments (and we still make them today) seem to be ignored as significant. Plenty of scholars have noted that Paul does it here. Some see them as I’ve stated. But there is no systematic study of them (beyond what I’m doing now) that I have seen yet (although I am still in the middle of my research, not at the end).

            • MSH says:

              it’s a bit hard to believe you couldn’t find much on this topic — unless you mean anything conclusive; then I follow.

              • Hodge says:

                No, I mean I haven’t found a single systematic study or even indepth look at them. Even the commentaries only mention it in passing or not at all. It is hard to believe when every other tidbit within the NT has been examined ad infinitum, but believe it or not, this hasn’t. However, since I am in the middle of my research, if you are aware of any studies that do look at in depth, I’d be much obliged if you could let me know. thanks.

  7. KR Wordgazer says:

    MSH, you are male, are you not? As I said, no insult was intended, nor was I saying anything about your privilege or lack thereof in other areas of life– but if you are male, you are born to privilege in that you never have to worry about anyone telling you “it is your nature to be subordinate to the opposite sex.” No board of elders will ever tell you, “no matter what your giftings or qualifications, you will never be allowed to lead a church.” If your spouse is cruel to you, no pastor will ever tell you, “Go home and be more submissive and obedient.”

    I acknowledge that as a white woman, I am privileged to never have to worry about being saddled with limitations based on my race. You will never have to worry about being saddled with limitations based on your sex. As a person of privileged race, I have learned to let go of the illusion that I am not actually privileged. I hope you will understand where I am coming from and realize that you are privileged too.

    • MSH says:

      This is whining. Everyone has hardship. I say to the woman who feel called that she should not be deterred by such things. In my case, I was “economically oppressed.” Fifteen years in grad school working 40-50 hours per week while my “privileged” classmates didn’t have to solved my problem.

  8. KR Wordgazer says:

    PS. All that I desire from you is that you not be so “comfortable” in your position, understanding that though it causes you no hardship, that position does cause real hardship to countless others. If you want to continue to hold the complementarian position, you are free to do so– but please understand the cost and hold it becauce you are fully convinced, not because it’s comfortable to stay there.

  9. Don J says:


    As you do not know me, I am egal. I am egal as I understand Jesus, Paul, Peter, etc. to be egal. This does not mean that egalism is the highest principle in the Kingdom, it is not, love is.

    However, when understood in 1st century context, I think it is overwhelming that the above men were egal. However, I agree that some non-egals choose to spend a huge amount of time trying to show how those men were not egal. So the question is debated. In some sense it comes down to which type of glasses one wishes to wear, if you wear blue glasses the gender verses will appear blue and restrict women. If you do not, they will not appear blue and will not restrict ALL women.

  10. Cognus says:

    Mike I appreciate this treatment of a very thorny subject.
    We [or at least “I”] ain’t God… therefore I can not stand on extrabiblical reasoning on a whole list of subjects I may be opionated-upon. I must “let my words be few”, or decide on a different eternal course.

  11. KR Wordgazer says:

    Since you have labeled me twice– once as arrogant and now as whining (I was saying nothing whatever about my own circumstances, btw), I think I’d better withdraw from the conversation.

    All I said was that you have privileges as a male in Christianity that women do not. You are the one who read that as “arrogant” and “whining.” I am willing to acknowledge your own stated hardships– but I do not accept your labels, which seem to me to be a way to dismiss my words as irrelevant. Have it your way, then. God bless you.

  12. haibane13 says:

    What about Jobs daughters in extra biblical content ? How far do they serve as prophetesses or how seriously should we take the material ?

    • MSH says:

      sure — they were “spokeswomen for God.” Now what do we do with that? These same prophetesses were not allowed to be priests.

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