The Women’s Question in the New Testament

August 11, 2012

The witness of Scripture regarding the suitability of women for public ministry leadership is a mixed bag. Though there are interesting role models in the Old Testament (Deborah and Esther come to mind), this discussion will focus on New Testament data. We shall go back to the OT when necessary, to track down a reference or rationale given in the NT. We can organize our data into a grid (this would be a good white-board exercise, if you undertake a group study). The columns would be “pro” and “con,” and the rows would be labeled “Jesus and the gospels,” “Early church history (Acts),” “Paul’s Teaching and Practice,” and “Other NT witnesses.” My completed matrix appears here:




Jesus and the gospels

Mary and Elizabeth as first witnesses—Magnificat (Luke 1:39–55)

Mary and Martha and commendable roles        (Luke 10:38-42)

The Woman at the well, and her witness in town      (John 4:7-39)

“The women” as first resurrection witnesses (all four gospels)

The Twelve were all men (Matt 10:2f)[1]


Early church history (Acts)

Pentecost recipients, 120 men and women (Acts 1:13–15, 2:1-4)

Quotation of Joel that men and women shall prophesy (Acts 2:17–21)

Priscilla and Aquila teach Apollos (Acts 18:1–26)

Phoebe, a deacon and sponsor (Rom 16:1)

The itinerant apostles were mostly men (Paul, Silas, Timothy, Barnabas, John Mark)[2]

Paul’s Teaching and Practice

Appointed Priscilla, Phoebe, Mary, Junia, et al. (Romans 16 greeting)

Spiritual gifts never described as gender-related but “just as the Spirit chooses” (1 Cor 12:6–11)

Mutual accountability “when you prophesy” (1 Cor 11:5)

Women should be silent in the churches (1 Cor 14:33–36)

Let a woman learn . . ..I permit no woman to teach  (1 Tim 2:8–15)



       [1] The Catholic position is argued pro and con in the Research Report: Women in Church and Society (New York: Catholic Theological Society of America, 1978). The most difficult claim: “The ordained priest must act in the name of Christ, and, therefore, must be able to represent him physically as well as spiritually. The Orthodox refer to this as ‘iconic’ representation.” [Richard P. McBrien, Catholicism (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1981), 853.]

      [2] For a helpful discussion on this topic, see Craig S. Keener, Paul, Women & Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1992), 246–9 with notes 257.

Given the number of positive examples of women in leadership, the overall affirmation of equality before God of the sexes, and the few explicit prohibitions of ordained women, it is at once realized that the women’s question has a lot more movement toward freedom than it does toward restriction. From a cultural analysis method demonstrated by William J. Webb in Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), we see in the NT a redemptive movement propelled by seed ideas (e.g. Gal 3:28) and breakout examples (see matrix) that lead me to believe women can respond to the call of God for ordination with a clear conscience. By coming to this conclusion, I in no way jettison a high view of Scripture, and I take all passages into consideration as they present themselves (e.g. genre, historical context). I know full well that 1 Cor 14:33-36 is there, and I stand under it as a woman who does not disrupt worship with loud inquiries to my husband, drunkenness at the Table, or corrupt doctrinal teaching. If in my congregation, a group of young adult basketball players were to start a game in the middle of worship, I would say, “Basketball players are to remain silent in the church!” Does that mean that, forever or elsewhere, basketball players may never pray, preach, or participate in church leadership? No, it means that worshipers are to observe decorum and show respect, and on that occasion basketball players were the ones interrupting the Christian assembly. Same situation there in Corinth, only it was women firing questions at their husbands from the back balcony, during the Gathering, disrupting the proceedings. It was shameful behavior, and Paul called them out. If I were to behave this way in a worship gathering, I would expect the same rebuke. In fact, as a Presbyterian clergywoman who has promised to abide by the polity of the church, I have submitted my life and ministry to the discipline of the denomination. 

In my next post, I will tackle Paul’s instruction in 1 Tim 2, in which he argues from Adam and Eve to prohibit women from teaching.


6 Responses to “The Women’s Question in the New Testament”

  1. Steve Niccolls Says:

    I wonder if Philippians 4:2,3 might not be useful in arguing that Paul did not carte blanche deny women roles in leadership. If Eurodia and Syntche’s dispute was serious enough to cause Paul to tell the two to settle their dispute in a public letter, it would seem to me that they are in a leadership position. Paul also commends the two for the work they did along side of him.
    This is not a perfect example, but I think along with what was laid out in Mary’s chart it adds to the case.

  2. Jodie Says:

    Hi Mary,

    It is amazing that with so many positive and supportive biblical indications of women fully participating in the life and leadership of the church, that it took so many centuries for the Church to come around to recognizing it. The Presbyterian Church of Brazil still won’t ordain women elders. And the Roman Catholic Church still will not ordain women priests. (Even though that have plenty closet gay priests).

    Go figure.

    My favorite passage about the role of the women in the early church is this little comment Luke sneaks in, in Luke 8: 1-3:

    “The twelve were with Him, and also some women … and Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others who were contributing to their support out of their private means”.

    Wait. What?



  3. Renee Guth Says:

    Thanks, Mary!

    In addition to your Bible references above, Phillip had four daughters who were prophetesses. Prophecy is a gift to be desired, especially. How could a prophetess practice her gifts without speaking???

  4. Bob M Says:

    And don’t forget Lydia, the seller of purple in Acts. She as head of her household and it is implied strongly that she becomes the first leader of her congregation.

    While there are not many examples of women in leadership in the church, there are enough. I’ve been amazed by the women arguing for the lack of ordination standards telling me over an over again if we just used scripture “I couldn’t be ordained.” Did they sleep through their seminary classes?

    • Steve Niccolls Says:

      I don’t think they slept through classes. They probably decided to focus on eisegesis instead of exegesis. After all, eisegesis is an easier class to pass and you do not have to deal with “the problems”.

  5. I don’t think I give a good answer when some ask me how we can ordain women when we find clear instructions that an elder / deacon are to be the husband of one wife. How do you, or others reading this thread, answer such a question?

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