Women’s Leadership & the Bible

Our Beloved Bessie
The late Revd Bessie Pereira – whose eldership was widely recognised
and deeply valued by many in the missional/simple churches’ scene
internationally, and who pioneered the servant ministry that is OIKOS Australia

My journey in ministry has traversed a period in which paradigms have shifted significantly on this topic. And it is still a live point of theology in many parts of the church. For what it’s worth I want to set out why I believe that women’s leadership in the Church is an evangelical hermeneutic.

Among those on every side around this topic, many seeking a NT view appear to get stuck on the fact that NT “Eldership” appears to be male.

“An elder must be the husband of but one wife…” So says the Apostle Paul. The flow of thought in I Timothy is unmissable and appears to back believers into one of two corners, either ring-fencing the ministry of women, or relativizing the teaching of the Apostles – Paul and Peter – in the NT (though it is always Paul who seems to get the flak.)

We can process this seemingly sticky point in a number of ways ways. Firstly we need to consider carefully precisely what Paul may have been organizing and what he meant by the specific role of “elder”. 

In churches today the word “elder” is often used to describe – in effect – a guardian, a trustee, the member of board of reference, or the member of an accountability-body for ministry-leaders within a local church ministry. That was probably not what Apostle Paul meant by the word “elder”. Others fully equate the word “elder” with “leader”. When this equation is made it leaves women ipso facto with no “leadership”role in the body at all.

The reason I don’t make those equations is that if we read the rest of Paul’s material in the NT we find a large number of women ministers figuring among his colleagues. Women are named who host and gather churches There are women who teach. We encounter one woman named (Junia) and one woman (Priscilla) who are clearly discharging (small a) apostolic ministry. There are a number of women named named (and many others implied) as being active in prophetic ministry in the churches.

So if women are gathering, teaching, apostoling and prophesying in Paul’s churches, on what NT footing could we say that “leadership” in the churches is male! Are those not leadership functions?

jackie-pullinger.jpgJackie Pullinger – a woman in a proven apostolic ministry

I favour the hermeneutical principle of seeking coherence (as expressed in Article 20 in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer). This is the view that if a text in Scripture affords two possible interpretations, one should favour the interpretation which agrees with – rather than fights with – other Scriptures from the same context. To illustrate that principle I would argue that Apostle Paul’s teaching in I Corinthians 11 that women in church should be silent and not talk ought to be interpreted in a way that leaves room for women to prophesy (out loud!) – since they are taught to do so in that very same epistle – in the we hear way reported in Acts 16.

Genieve Blackwell, Assistant Bishop of Melbourne.

For another example, when Apostle Paul says that he does not permit a woman to “teach-and-have-authority” over a man we can read that in two ways. The first interpretation is that Paul is excluding women both from teaching and from having authority over men. This would then be an issue both of ministry and authority/order. The second possible reading is that Paul intends to rule out a woman “teaching-and-having-authority”. In other words it is purely an authority/order issue. Which is the correct reading?

I would argue that because we see a woman’s teaching ministry strongly affirmed in Luke and because of Paul’s references to Priscilla we have to rule the first interpretation out. (Priscilla and her husband are described together as teaching churches and specifically teaching the (small a) apostle, Apollos.

Phyllis as we remember her

Who would deny the late Phyllis Tickle’s teaching
and prophetic contribution to the churches?

For me the next point is the real pivot point in our hermeneutics on this issue. The “sticky” passage that occurs in I Timothy concerning elders and deacons has a clear flow of thought – vis An elder should be the husband of one woman (gunaikos)…he should be such and such…. Deacons, likewise should be so and so. The women (gunaikos) also should be so and so. A deacon should have only one woman (gunaikos)…etc.

The flow of thought is clear. Here we have a passage about elders, deacons and their (gunaikos) wives. That being so, Paul has in fact made no explicit mention in this text of women elders or women deacons.

This then raises the question: Does Paul’s omission of a gender-specific reference to female  elders or female deacons mean that women elders and women deacons are not part of Paul’s picture? Does that omission mean that women elders or deacons, therefore, are theologically impossible in Pauline theology?

Elaine Storkey embodies a renownedly insightful,
acute and weighty gift of teaching to the churches

Let’s unpack that question: To say, “An Elder should be this kind of man…” – is that the same thing as asserting that an elder cannot ever be a woman? Here it’s worth  remembering that a huge proportion of the Scriptures is addressed specifically to males. The Ten Commandments would be a clear example. They are all addressed to the men. Does that mean that women are excluded from their injunctions?

For instance, when we are told in the Ten Commandments, “Thou” shallt not covet thy neighbour’s “wife,” we infer immediately that in precisely the same way a woman should not covet her neighbour’s husband. I would go so far as to say we regard that corollary as implied.

Who would fault that logical step? We would surely all make it and apply the commandment to men and women even though the counterpart female scenario is not spelled out. What is logical in our handling of the Ten Commandments must surely be logical also in our handling of I Timothy.

Teresa of Avila – visionary theologian, community leader, protector
of the Counter Reformation and patron to John of the Cross

Some may feel that argument leaves a margin for doubt. If it does, it seems to me that Paul decisively closes that margin by referring explicitly in Romans 16 to Phoebe – the female “Deacon” at the church at Cenchrea. Evidently the Apostle Paul does not see his affirmation of Phoebe’s work at Cenchrea as being in conflict in any way with his teaching in I Timothy 3 teaching about what kind of “man” a deacon should be!! They didn’t have inclusive language back in the day! Get it?

The reference to Phoebe the Deacon in Romans 16 makes clear that in Paul’s mind – notwithstanding his injunction that “deacons should have but one wife” – a Deacon can indeed be female. This key piece of information demonstrates in what light we need to read the whole of I Timothy 3.

What I have said above unpacks – from an entirely Evangelical perspective – the logic of the inclusive approach. The wider context of Scriptures reveals that I Timothy 3 can not be set in opposition to an acknowledgement of Phoebe-the-Deacon in Romans 16.

In that light it becomes clear that the omission of their mention in  I Timothy 3 does not rule women deacons out after all. It is simply that in that text Paul mentions only the male version of the scenario – exactly as we see with the cross-gender application of the Ten Commandments!

If in Paul’s mind there is no conflict between  I Timothy 3 and the engagement of a female Deacon, then it follows automatically that the adjacent words concerning Elders, likewise do not exclude the possibility of women elders.

Margaret Knight

Margaret Knight, who headed up the healing prayer-ministry
at St Andrew’s Chorleywood and introduced me to that ministry 

I believe that only this hermeneutic of coherence makes sense of the wider NT context. How could we have in Paul’s churches female gatherers/hosts, teachers, deacons, prophets and apostles…and not elders?!!

he moment Phoebe is recognized as a deacon, there is no logic with which you can use I Timothy 3 as a grounds for ruling women out of whatever it was that the Apostle Paul meant by “elders/eldership”. The fuller picture rules it out.

I believe the issue of women’s ministry and the Bible is one of those areas where it is important to take care that our theological method is running with the insights of the reformed method. Accordingly we must be careful not to read our contemporary church positions and structures into Paul’s teachings about “headship”. To state the obvious, there is no mention in Paul or Peter’s grand visions of the church of today’s structures of bishops, archdeacons, priests, regional superintendents “international apostles” and all the rest.

Paul’s headship teachings (and Peter’s too) are addressed explicitly to the context of Christian family households. Having stated their grand vision of salvation history (see Ephesians, Colossians and I Peter) both Peter and Paul state that the rubber hits the road in the domestic relationships of Christian households. That is the proper context of the headship teachings.

Having spoken emphatically, I want to repeat that I can fully understand why  believers differ on this issue. I have to say that because it has taken me a number of years to make this hermeneutical journey for myself; to really engage with the fuller picture of the New Testament, and then to do the work of joining the dots! It is hard to avoid the apostolic and prophetic input of women in the NT, but to understand the logic and weight of the inclusive hermeneutic takes more joining of dots than polemical debate often permits.

At a more instinctual level the view of Paul’s teaching as flowing from a place of personal misogyny has always grieved me. It is an approach which totally avoids the solidarity of  Peter and Paul on topics touching the matter, and it quietly tiptoes around the fundamental question of the nature of the authority of the Apostles teaching as we have it expressed in the NT. To so insult the Apostles in order to relieve oneself of their authority is contradictory if one wishes then to affirm the NT as our canon and source. It sidesteps the duty to carefully interpret the NT Scriptures. That’s why I believe it is vitally important to  clarify that the NT pattern – does not exclude women from these vital leadership roles.

Where there is less room for manoeuvre is in the NT’s presentation of C1st women in prophetic and apostolic ministry. Their leadership input is there in black and white! In the light of those figures whose images I have included in this post, I just throw out the question; could it be when the churches operate in a way that is more truly apostolic and prophetic that the unique and vital leadership ministry of women becomes the most unmissable?! Read the end of Romans – the most Pauline of Pauline texts – and you will find the apostolic, leadership and diaconal ministry of women wholeheartedly and enthusiastically  celebrated by Paul who self describes as “apostle” to the Gentiles – and “deacon” of the Gospel.