There is a prevalent idea among many Christians, spurious though it is, that women cannot serve in church leadership as ministers, or to teach men in any capacity such as in a seminary class. To do so these folks claim is to ignore Biblical authority. In their view, the world is a sinful place filled with people who need Jesus, but despite the large number of people that they believe need to be saved from eternal hellfire, they think that being born with a penis is a requirement for being called to ministry. Recently this view came to the fore once again when Southern Baptist evangelist John MacArthur told Beth Moore to “go home” in as misogynistic a way possible. For the uninitiated, the Southern Baptist church is the largest Protestant denomination in America and is at its core a rotten expression of slave holder religion stemming from its white supremacist origins. I grew up Southern Baptist and know first hand about the toxicity that pervades it in terms of sexism, misogyny, racism, and militaristic nationalism. Therefore, it comes as no surprise to me that a prominent SBC minister is spewing his toxic nonsense and calling it “Biblical,” by which he means to imply, that the Bible is unequivocal in saying that women should stay at home having babies, never teach men, or be ministers of the Gospel. (1) It’s not.
Regarding women in ministry, it is “Biblical” in a sense because there definitely are places within the Bible, and in particular in the New Testament, where some of the texts do speak about women’s roles in a quite restrictive sense. What MacArthur and those of his ilk claim though is completely disingenuous, because as is often the case with the Bible, there are multiple view points expressed about various topics, including women’s roles in society and in ministry. I was fortunate to get to take classes in seminary with some exceptional professors including the renowned Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar Dr. Julia O’Brien. She taught an extremely illuminating class called Gender, Sexuality, and the Bible, which I took in my final term at Lancaster Theological Seminary in Lancaster, PA. In that class we did an exercise that was helpful in understanding how the New Testament texts differ in regards to women’s roles in the church and society. I can say without equivocation that MacArthur’s assertion that there is no where in the Bible that says a woman can be a preacher is one hundred percent incorrect as the texts themselves will show.
To explore this question Dr. O’Brien printed off some of the verses from the New Testament that address these issues. We were to read them and decide whether the text was favorable towards women in ministry, negative, or ambiguous. For the texts we were provided, I found five that were affirming: Acts 2:17-21; 18:24-26; 17:1-4. There were three that were highly restrictive and indicative of a androcratic, patriarchal viewpoint: 1 Corinthians 14:34-37; 1 Timothy 2:8-15; 2 Timothy 3:1-7. Two that were ambiguous 1 Corinthians 11:2-12; 1 Timothy 3:2-12. Going through each pericope is beyond the scope of this blog post. My goal here is to show that there are in fact multiple views about the roles of men and women in society and the church as these passages readily attest.
That said, I do want to address some of the aspects of the passages most restrictive to women from those listed above. The passage in 1 Corinthians 14 does not appear to have been written by the Apostle Paul according to many Biblical scholars. What follows shows the importance of context within a text and the danger of proof-texting. In 1 Corinthians 14 starting at verse 29, Paul is telling the church at Corinth what he believes regarding speaking in tongues and prophecy during worship. The argument continues until 33b (the second half of verse 33) when suddenly a non sequitur derails the argument that Paul is making on those topics by inserting something completely irrelevant to the discussion that completely disrupts the flow through verse 36. If one removes verses 33b-36 from the passage, then Paul’s argument makes much more sense. For this reason, many Biblical scholars believe these verses to be a later addition to the original text by someone whose agenda included silencing women. This insertion of non-Pauline ideas contradicts Paul’s earlier statement in 11:5 that states that women pray and prophesy in worship. 1 Corinthians 11 NRSV
Note the parenthesis around 1 Corinthians 14:33b-36 (NRSV). They’re placed there to indicate that this passage is not part of Paul’s original letter.
In a similar way, many scholars consider the pastoral epistles, which includes 1 and 2 Timothy, to be pseudopigraphical, which was quite common in the ancient era when these letters were written. This means that they were attributed to Paul in order to give them authority in ancient churches. The point here is that though these letters are attributed to Paul, they do not necessarily represent his ideas, because in the undisputed letters like Romans, 1 Corinthians, and Galatians Paul wrote clearly affirmative things about women in ministry. It’s also important to consider that Paul’s letters were contextual to his time and place. He was writing letters to churches he had started, not scripture that would become part of the New Testament. It’s also important to know that what following Jesus, and worshiping God looked like had evolved from the earliest moments of the Jesus movement to the time when many of the books of the New Testament were written, and they continue to do so. For example, our modern ideas of what a pastor is did not exist in the Ancient Near East when Jesus was teaching or when Paul was writing his letters.
Let’s take a brief look at some other passages in the New Testament not referenced above. In John 4, Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman at a well and engages her in conversation. As Biblical scholar Amy- Jill Levine notes in The Misunderstood Jew it is Jesus who breaks social norms and behaves in a shameless way because he is the outsider in the story and yet demands a drink of the woman. As a result of their conversation, the Samaritan woman understands who Jesus is right away, in stark contrast to Nicodemus who is a member of the religious elite and yet is befuddled by Jesus’ teaching in the previous chapter (see John 3). The woman goes back into town after encountering Jesus and proclaims the Good News. She is in every sense of the word an evangelist and according to John 4:39, “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony…” It was she that planted the seeds of the Gospel into the hearts of her fellow Samaritans and as Levine notes, “There is much to be celebrated in the story of the Samaritan woman, not the least of which is the depiction of a successful female evangelist.” (p.138) This flies in the face of people like John MacArthur who assert that women preaching is not Biblical.
MacArthur also fails to note that in the Gospels it is women who discover that the tomb is empty and then proclaim the Good News for the first time. For example in Matthew 28:5-7 an angel tells two women named Mary that Jesus is risen and commands them to go tell the disciples. In Mark 16:1-8, it is the two Marys and Salome whom the angel adjures to go proclaim the resurrected Jesus. In Luke 24:1-12 there are even more women who witnessed the empty tomb with the author naming Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Joanna, and “the other women.” In John it is only Mary Magdalene who tells the disciples that Jesus has been risen because Jesus reveals himself to her. “I have seen the Lord,” she proclaims in John 20:18. It is helpful to recall that it was the named twelve disciples(2) who who fled when Jesus was arrested. It was Peter that denied him and Judas that betrayed him. Both men. Yet, in every Gospel account it is the women who stay throughout and then learn of Christ’s resurrection. It is the women who proclaim the Good News for the very first time after Jesus was crucified and rose again. This fact certainly belies the notion that the Bible forbids women from proclaiming the Gospel.
As we have seen, the Bible in no-way universally condemns women in ministry thus restricting them to a household role as a homemaker. Certainly there are pericopes in the New Testament that suggest these limited roles for women, but their authorship is disputed by Biblical scholars as noted above. The so-called household codes found in Ephesians 5:21-6:9 and Colossians 3:18-4:1 fall into the disputed categories just like the aforementioned passages in the Pastoral Letters, with many scholars believing that Paul did not write them. Yet, Paul affirms women in ministry in the undisputed letters, and the Gospel narratives speak to women being effective and early evangelists. The idea that only a person with a penis can legitimately be a minister of the Gospel is ludicrous in the extreme and is a relic of patriarchal and androcentric thinking that is in direct violation of the Golden Rule. To emphasize and make normative the restrictive texts is a choice to selectively read the Bible through a patriarchal lens while ignoring the other texts that refute those interpretations.
I cannot think of a single male minister who wants to be told his ministry is invalid because of his genitals. I’ve listened to some profoundly good sermons by women pastors and preachers. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from Biblical scholars, church historians, theologians, spiritual directors, chaplains, and pastors who all happened to be women who have definitely been called to their ministries by God. When God put up the HELP WANTED sign that calls people to ministry, God most certainly did not decide to restrict that calling to men only. As Genesis 1 makes clear, men and women alike are created in God’s image. It’s theologically untenable to suggest that a penis is required to answer God’s call, for the harvest is plentiful and the workers are few.
(2) Twelve disciples are named likely as a nod to the twelve tribes of Israel. It’s clear that Jesus’ followers were far greater in number though. The Gospels often speak of the crowds following him.
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