In my denomination women cannot be in key leadership roles (such as deacon), but I know in yours they can (even pastors). How can I biblically argue in favor of women in leadership?
The belief, by a few denominations, that women cannot be in leadership is based on Old Testament culture and faulty hermeneutics (the practice of interpretation) concerning a couple of Scripture texts. As for the adaptation of Old Testament culture, I say that this is the twenty-first century of the Christian era. In fact, it is easily argued that, historically, the apostolic church (of the first century) had women in key leadership roles. In recent history it is certainly clear that, in ecclesiastical settings (church) women, for the most part, were marginalized and left at home. The Protestant Reformation brought some minor changes to this, but not until “modern times” have swift changes been introduced. This leads me to the second point, that of the contention brought by two leading New Testament texts.
First, we need to think it no small matter that the texts in question are of the Pauline canon. In fact, it would appear to be strictly Pauline letters that cause the most tension when dealing with matters between the sexes:
1 Corinthians 14:33b-35 – As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak at church. (NRSV)
1 Timothy 2:11-12 – Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. (NRSV)
Many years ago a Women’s Bible study not far from where I live refused to study the Pauline corpus because of these seemingly not too flattering texts. Upon meeting with one of the leaders of this study I pointed out the First Principle of the Christian faith – that of Scripture as the means by which one could call oneself a “Christian.” If we can disregard a New Testament principle because we don’t agree with it, what stops us from dissecting the Scriptures altogether and, thereby, making our belief system defy all known laws of logic? If we can remove a sub-principle of our First Principle, then, in effect, we have no First Principle and we are illogical.
I am normally considered a conservative theologian. However, in many circumstances I must part from the conservative interpretations (thus, call me what you will). For example, conservative theology dictates that all Scripture is axiomatic (universal in its applications). If that sentiment in and of itself is axiomatic, Scripture has become self-contradictive and, therefore, illogical.
Case-in-point: If the instructions in the above texts are universal and are of account across all time and space and, furthermore, assuming that the Apostle Paul wrote one if not both of these letters, then they flatly contradict other letters and texts that Paul supposedly wrote (rather, dictated). Even if Paul did not write any of them, they are still considered “Scripture” and, as such, cannot self-contradict.
In Romans 16:1 Paul commends to the Roman church “Phoebe, a ‘deaconess’ of the church at Cenchreae.” Regardless of denomination, a “Deacon” and its female parallel, “Deaconess,” are leaders in the Christian church.
Likewise, in Romans 16:2 Prisca and Aquila, a husband and wife team, are mentioned as leaders of Paul’s movement within the Christian church. Certainly, if the instructions in 1 Corinthians and 1Timothy were universal, Paul would have dropped Prisca’s name (the wife) from this text.
And again, in Romans 16:7, in the best ancient manuscripts, “Junia” (a feminine name) is the name given as actually being an apostle along with Paul (later redactions changed the name to “Junias,” a masculine name). Here again, a woman, not just in a place of leadership, but an apostle at that.
“Euodia” and “Syntyche,” two women mentioned in Philippians 4:2-3, are at least leaders in Paul’s movement; and there is even evidence that they were leaders (if not co-pastors) of the church in Philippi.
The Greek sentence structure and word and grammar usage in 1Timothy 3:11 speaks not of the wives of deacons, but of women who are deaconesses of the church.
Thus, we have apparent contradictions from one letter to another, which poses logical problems if these interpretations are to be considered universal. However, if these letters are written dialogically and circumstantially (in a specific time, to a specific place, to a specific people, addressing a specific problem, etc.), then contradictions evaporate.
For example, in the ancient Greek world it was unacceptable (as a rule) for women to debate and employ argumentation in public (not to mention to enter into public refutation with men). Could it be this cultural phenomenon to which Paul was speaking in both the Corinthian and Timothian letters?
It also warrants noting that it was only in Corinth and Ephesus (where Timothy was pasturing) that these instructions concerning women were directed. In no other letter are these instructions even mentioned. Also, back in 1 Corinthians 11:5 women are prophesying, which is speaking “for and forth God” (i.e. preaching), in worship.
Many scholars believe that, according to historical accounts, there were issues specifically in portions of the Greek speaking world where something equal only to the modern women’s movement was attempting to take hold. Whether this is politically correct or not today, it was not in the ancient world.
I should also mention that some scholars believe 1 Corinthians 14:34-36 to be later non-Pauline interpolations (texts added some time later than Paul’s original correspondence). I am not convinced that there is enough evidence for this belief, but the literary style of the passage does warrant questions. In verses 26-33 and 37- 40 Paul is giving instruction on orderly worship concerning speaking in tongues and prophesying, and this literary theme is interrupted by the instruction of women. The text would flow much more smoothly and evenly without the introduction (as if in a vacuum) of verses 34-36; not to mention that, the letter itself would not appear self-contradictive just three chapters apart. [Remember, chapter and verse breaks were not in the original manuscripts.]
While we can only speculate as to why the two texts in question are contained in the letters, we can conclude without a shadow of a doubt that there are issues of self-contradiction if the letters are to be understood axiomatically. Logically (and theologically) there are axioms contained in the letters (for example: Paul’s Christology, Ecclesiology, and Theology Proper, et. el.), but it does not necessarily follow that the corpus in general must be read universally. As we have established, this creates self-contradictions, which end-result is theological suicide.
I cannot fail to mention the eschatological (dealing with the ‘last things,’ or end times) prophecy of Joel 2:28, “Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on male and female servants, in those days, I will pour out my spirit” (NRSV, emphases mine) of which it is said to have been fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14-21).Are we to deny that God is calling women to preach and be leaders of His church because it contradicts our own hermeneutics and self-understanding?
I will mention only briefly the fact of a certain evangelist named “Philip” (Acts 21:8) who had “four unmarried daughters who had the gift of prophecy” (Acts 21:9).It appears that, even early in the Christian movement, paradigms (both spiritual and physical) were shifting and God was gifting women as well.
I shall also remind us, since it is the Pauline canon of which we are mostly dealing, of Galatians 3:28 – “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ.” Having studied Pauline Theology for the past twelve years I can assure you that what Paul here speaks concerns his idea of being “in Christ” as a new creation; one that no longer sees people as “male or female,” but as an expression of the Person of Christ.
So, as we have evidenced, while there are a couple texts of which female leadership is brought into question, we have discovered that it is our interpretation of those texts (and not Scripture itself) that is the real question. It would appear as though we have arrested culture and status quo and elevated them to the level of authority by making them a part of our theology. A denomination and the people of it can decide who can and cannot be in leadership, but in this case they cannot reasonably point to Scripture as support for not allowing women to lead (and, as we have seen, lead as pastors or bishops).