The Ministry of Women: a Biblical Affirmation

The recent failure of the General Synod of the Church of England to support the ordination of women as bishops by a wide enough margin to carry the motion[1] has had the effect of focusing attention again on this issue, even in churches like ours[2], where the ministry of women as priests and bishops has been accepted and affirmed for a long time. Arguments purporting to be a biblical justification for reserving ordination for men have been given a fresh airing; some have found them persuasive, and others have seen them as proof that biblical and evangelical Christianity is so out of touch with the modern world that it is not worth a second thought. It is sometimes necessary, in situations like this, to go over the ground once again, so that people can be clear that it is not only possible, but imperative, for Christians – even Christians who think of themselves (as I do) as biblical and evangelical – to accept and affirm the ordained ministries of women. Let me list the two arguments that seem pertinent to me.

First, we need to be clear that episcopacy, priesthood, and ordination, as we know them today, did not exist in New Testament times. This fact can be obscured for modern readers because some of the words are, in fact, used in the New Testament; they are not, however, used in the same sense as we use them.

The Book of Acts tells us that when Paul and Barnabas planted Christian congregations in Asia Minor, they ‘appointed elders for them in each church’ (Acts 14:23)[3]. Biblical scholars have long accepted that in doing so Paul and Barnabas were intentionally replicating the government of the Jewish synagogue. ‘Elders’, in the synagogue, were not the same as ‘rabbis’ today; they were teams of people who shared responsibility for the leadership of the synagogue. It was not, for instance, their responsibility to do all of the teaching themselves, although it was their responsibility to ensure that teaching took place. They were not full-time synagogue employees; they earned their living in the usual manner. In modern Anglican parlance, they were far more like a cross between lay-readers and vestry/church council members than they were like priests as we know them today. Let me state it again: the modern concept of a seminary-trained, full-time, professional priest, who by ordination has been set aside from worldly employment for a career of doing all of the preaching and sacramental ministry in a congregation, did not exist in New Testament times.

The Greek word for ‘elder’ is ‘presbyter’ – from which, we are often told, the English word ‘priest’ is descended – and yet this is confusing because there is another Greek word, ‘hierus’, used to describe a sacrificing priesthood in the Old Testament and Greek and Roman senses. This word is never used to describe Christian ministers, in an exclusive sense, in the New Testament. It is used of Jesus, our ‘Great High Priest’, and it is used of the whole church, which is described in 1 Peter as ‘a royal priesthood’ (see 1 Peter 2:8-10).

The word ‘presbyter’ is not the only one used to describe Christian ministers in the New Testament. Paul speaks in Ephesians 4:11 of ‘pastors and teachers’; the word ‘pastor’ means ‘shepherd’ and is of course an illustration used by Jesus himself (John 10:1-18) to describe his care for the flock of God. Another word used for an elder in the New Testament is ‘overseer’ (eg. 1 Timothy 3:1), which is in Greek ‘episkopos’, from which we get our words ‘bishop’ and ‘episcopal’.

These words are used interchangeably, in New Testament times, for members of the leadership teams appointed in every congregation. Teams are of course necessary because many different spiritual gifts (teaching, preaching, administration, counseling, leadership, evangelism etc.) are required in a healthy congregation and no one person has been given all the gifts.

After the deaths of the last of the original apostles, the Church seems to have decided, almost universally, that in every local church one of the elders/pastors/bishops should take the leadership role, and gradually the custom arose to reserve the title ‘episkopos’ for this person. But let us be clear that we still do not have the modern situation of the bishop as having authority over a wide geographical area, with fifty or a hundred local churches under their care, along with a large synod office staff and huge amounts of money to administer. We have a local congregation with a leadership team of elders, one of whom takes overall responsibility as the overseer. Later on as churches grew and multiplied in a city, those overseers added more congregations to their charge, but it was many years before the office of a monarchical bishop, as we know it today, evolved in the church.

All this is by way of argument that our modern system of church government did not exist in the New Testament. And this has implications for what we argue about today. For example, for many years now it has been widely accepted in Anglican churches for people other than ordained clergy to preach regularly in congregations. Sometimes those individuals are trained lay readers, and this office has long been open to both men and women. It has also been customary, for a long time, for rectors of parishes to share leadership of those parishes with churchwardens and vestries, and to do so in a consultative manner. Almost the only role that continues to be reserved for ordained clergy alone, in our system, is presiding at the Eucharist or Holy Communion, and the effect of this has been that, for many Anglicans, sacramental ministry has been seen as the essence of ordained ministry. But it was not so for the elders in the New Testament.

Nowhere in the New Testament is the issue of who presides at Holy Communion even addressed, and in the texts which opponents of the ordination of women usually appeal to, it is not the issue at all: the issue is of women ‘teaching or having authority over a man’ (1 Timothy 2:12). But most Evangelicals appear to work happily in churches where women minister as lay-readers (and, in the Church of England, they are also required to accept the authority of a female ‘supreme governor’); for them to then turn around and appeal to these texts as somehow supporting the idea that Holy Communion services presided over by women are invalid seems like very dodgy exegesis to me, when the texts do not even address that issue.

So, having established the principle that our modern practices of episcopacy, priesthood, and ordination had not yet evolved when the New Testament documents were written (so that biblical texts cannot simply be lifted out of their context to support or disallow ‘the ordination of women’), we must go on to recognise that, when it comes to leadership ministries in general, the New Testament texts do not speak as clearly as is sometimes assumed by opponents of the ordination of women.

New Testament Christians, of course, fully accepted the authority of the Old Testament view of the creation of human beings. The Book of Genesis tells us that ‘God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them’ (Genesis 1:27). There is no hint of hierarchy in this verse; male and female equally express the image of God, and are charged equally, in the succeeding verses, to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.

The next chapter contains another creation account, in which the man is created first, and then God looks for ‘a helper suitable for him’ (2:18) because ‘it is not good for the man to be alone’. But the word ‘helper’ should not be seen to imply subordination; indeed, the Hebrew word in question is regularly used in the Old Testament to describe God himself! The chapter goes on to speak of the man leaving his father and mother and being joined to his wife, so that they become ‘one flesh’ (2:24). Once again, there is no hint of subordination or hierarchy of any kind. In fact, it is not until the third chapter of Genesis, with the story of ‘the Fall’, that subordination enters into the picture (‘your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you’ – Genesis 3:16). Subordination is seen, then, not as a creation ordinance of God, but as one of the evil effects of sin.

But the New Testament argues that, in Christ, there is a new creation. Christ is the new Adam, the one who comes among us to heal us from the curse of sin and death and to restore us in the image of God. What, then, is Jesus’ attitude toward women? Unquestionably, he would have been seen by his contemporaries as radically egalitarian. He took no notice of social norms that forbade Jewish men from speaking to women other then their wives; he was glad to include women in his theological discussions and refused to send them off to the kitchen in conformity to conventional views of ‘women’s roles’ (see Luke 10:38-42). Women were present among the disciples of Jesus, in their own right, and supported him out of their own means (Luke 8:1-3).

It is often said that Jesus only appointed male apostles, and showed by this that he intended the Christian ministry to be restricted to men forever. It is true that none of the Twelve were women, but we need to remember that the word ‘apostle’ means ‘one who is sent’ – i.e. one who is sent as a representative of the sender, with a message to give to others. That being the case, surely it is instructive that the first person to be ‘sent’ (with a message to the male apostles, no less!) as a witness to Jesus’ resurrection is Mary Magdalene (see John 20:10-18). The gospels make it clear that the tomb was visited on Easter Sunday morning by male apostles too, and presumably Jesus could have chosen to appear to them first if he had wanted to, but he chose not to do so; instead, he chose to appear first to Mary Magdalene, and to ‘send’ her as a witness to ‘my brothers’ (John 20:18). The other gospels mention that Mary was not alone; other women were with her, including ‘Joanna’ and ‘Mary the mother of James’ (obviously names known by the people for whom Luke was writing in Luke 24:10); they told the apostles of his resurrection, but ‘they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense’ (verse 11).

The Book of Acts makes it clear that women were among the company of believers who waited expectantly and prayerfully for the coming of the Holy Spirit (see Acts 1:12-14). The group of believers then numbered about one hundred and twenty, and presumably it is this same group that was present on the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came. On that day Peter, explaining to the crowd what had just happened to the early believers, appeals to Old Testament prophecy:

“In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy” (Acts 2:17-18, quoting Joel 2:28-29).

So women and men share equally in the gift of the Holy Spirit and are able to share equally in the ministry of prophecy – speaking God’s message in God’s name, saying (as the Old Testament prophets put it) ‘thus says the Lord’.

It is true that there are few stories in the New Testament about women fulfilling this ministry (although we do hear about the four unmarried daughters of Philip the Evangelist, all of whom had the gift of prophecy – see Acts 21:9). But we do see, for instance, the Jewish tentmakers Aquila and Priscilla (or Prisca), who worked together with the apostle Paul in Corinth (see Acts 18). This excellent couple obviously took a leadership role together in the Corinthian church and later accompanied Paul to Ephesus, where they both together exercised a teaching role with the young preacher Apollos, instructing him ‘more adequately’ in the way of Jesus (Acts 18:24-26). Paul describes Priscilla and Aquila in Romans 16:3-4 as ‘my co-workers in Christ Jesus’ and he also refers to ‘the church that meets at their house’ (v.5). We also meet Phoebe, ‘a deacon of the church in Cenchreae’ (Roans 16:1), and, interestingly, ‘Andronicus and Junia (a feminine name), my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was’ (Romans 16:7, emphasis mine). We also meet Euodia and Syntyche, Philippian women who seem to be having a quarrel. Paul asks a friend to ‘help these women since they have contended at my side for the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life’ (Philippians 4:2-3).

Some might object that the term ‘co-worker’ is a loose one and does not imply any sort of official ecclesiastical or apostolic office; that is, it is not a recognized title like ‘apostle’ or ‘pastor’ or ‘presbyter’ or ‘overseer’. To this I would respond that the term ‘co-worker’ or ‘fellow-worker’ is one of Paul’s most common ways to describe and honour people who have worked with him in his ministry of spreading the gospel, both in travelling missionary work or in local situations. It appears at least nine times in his letters, and they are worth quoting in full: Romans 16:3-4 (‘Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus.They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them.’), Romans 16:9 (‘Greet Urbanus, our co-worker in Christ, and my dear friend Stachys’), Romans 16:21 (‘Timothy, my co-worker, sends his greetings to you’), 2 Corinthians 8:23 (‘As for Titus, he is my partner and co-worker among you’), Philippians 2:25 (‘But I think it is necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, co-worker, and fellow-soldier’), Philippians 4:3 (‘Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side for the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life’), Colossians 4:11 (‘Jesus, who is called Justus, also sends greetings. These are the only Jews among my co-workers for the kingdom of God, and they have proved a comfort to me.’), 1 Thessalonians 3:2 (‘We sent Timothy, who is our brother and co-worker in God’s service in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith’), and Philemon 1 (‘To Philemon our dear friend and fellow–worker’).

It seems clear to me, from these references, that to be called Paul’s ‘co-worker’ was no small thing. It did not imply, for instance (to use a modern illustration), simply receiving his monthly prayer letter and making the coffee when he came to visit! Timothy and Titus had travelled with Paul and shared his evangelistic and missionary labours, and Epaphroditus may well have been the first person to take the Gospel to the Colossians. In being included on the list of Paul’s ‘co-workers’, surely women like Priscilla and Euodia and Syntyche were members of a distinguished and honoured company!

What is the overall picture, then? In Galatians Paul says, ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (3:28). This verse has been overworked somewhat, and it needs to be used with caution, as it is not talking about ministry roles but about the fact that all alike can be saved through faith in Jesus Christ. Nonetheless, it does give a picture of a Christian community in which these distinctions are seen as part of the old creation, as something that is passing away now that Christ has come.

But surely, some will protest, that is not the whole picture? What about 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 (‘Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church’)? And what about 1 Timothy 2:11-15 (‘A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing – if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety’)?

Yes, it is true that these texts exist as part of the New Testament witness. And yet even these texts seem somewhat inconsistent with what we know of New Testament church life. Take Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 14 that ‘women are not allowed to speak’. This refers to standing up and speaking to the congregation in the name of God, right? Well, apparently not, because in 1 Corinthians 11:4-5 Paul says, ‘Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonours his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonours her head – it is the same as having her head shaved’ (emphasis mine). Obviously Paul is referring to some social interpretation of a head covering which we no longer see as valid today, but be that as it may, it is quite clear that women prophesied (speaking to the congregation in the name of God) and prayed regularly in the Corinthian church, so that whatever ‘women are not allowed to speak’ meant, it obviously did not mean that![4]

To me, this says that the small minority of texts that appear to restrict the ministry of women need to be treated with caution. We obviously are not fully informed about the context in which they were written, and in the one case that we have examined carefully, it is clear that the text does not mean what we might naturally assume it to mean. That Jesus and his apostles carried out their ministry in a world formed by patriarchy, we cannot doubt. That the apostles were not always successful in shaking off that patriarchy, we ought not to be surprised. But that the New Testament ideal was that of the new creation, in which men and women shared equally in the image of God and the gift of the Holy Spirit, and in which ‘your sons and daughters will prophesy’, we can, it seems to me, be reasonably sure.

So what ought we to do? Obviously I write as a contented member of a church that accepts and affirms the ministries of women as deacons, priests, and bishops; in this, I believe, we are faithful to the overall New Testament witness. But there is no room for complacency here. Yes, we are being fairly successful in shaking off the chains of patriarchy and recovering a New Testament picture of partnership, where men and women are co-workers for the Gospel. But what about the rest of the picture? What about the picture of a church where the question of who presides at Holy Communion is not even an issue? What about a church where every congregation is led by a team of people (elders, presbyters, or whatever you want to call them) who share the work of leadership in the congregation? What about the fact that in the New Testament every Christian is seen as a member of the Body of Christ with gifts of ministry to share for the benefit of the whole body?

Do we encourage this view of the work of the Church when we exalt the ministries of pastors and bishops above all others, when we give them special robes that they alone are allowed to wear, and when we give them titles like ‘the Reverend’ and ‘the Right Reverend’ and ‘the Most Reverend’? Do we encourage New Testament ministry when we seat our bishops on thrones in cathedrals (the word ‘cathedra’ means ‘throne)? Do we encourage a New Testament view of ministry when we exalt the presidency of the Eucharist above all other functions of the ordained, even making it the be-all and end-all of their work?

I believe we do not. I believe it is time for us to ask serious questions about whether our received practice of the threefold ministries of bishops, priests, and deacons bears any resemblance to that of the early church at all. I believe it is time for us to reconsider our traditional practices around ceremonial, around clergy dress and nomenclature, and around ministry roles in general. It is not enough for us to open all ordained ministries to both men and women. We need to go further than that, to examine our whole understanding and practice of ministry and ordination, in order to recover the New Testament concept of the whole people of God as ‘a royal priesthood’ (1 Peter 2:9). Only then, it seems to me, will we experience the fullness of ministry that is Christ’s will for his Church.

[1] I use this language deliberately. The Church of England’s General Synod did not ‘vote against women bishops’. To carry the motion, a two-thirds majority was required in all three houses of Synod: bishops, clergy, and laity. The motion was supported by over 90% of the bishops and over 75% of the clergy, but fell 6 votes short of a two-thirds majority among the laity. This is hardly a decisive rejection: approximately three quarters of the Synod were in favour of the motion!

[2] I am a member of the Anglican Church of Canada.

[3] All biblical quotations are from the New International Version, 2011 edition.

[4] And I note in passing that the text says absolutely nothing about the question of whether or not a woman may preside at the celebration of Holy Communion; as I have already said, this issue is of no interest to the authors of the New Testament documents

10 thoughts on “The Ministry of Women: a Biblical Affirmation

  1. Pingback: Affirming the ministry of women | connexions

  2. I can only assume that Catholics (or more particularly Catholic thought) on this matter is verbotten since you’re an Anglican and it’s an Anglican issue that has brought this to the forefront… but Catholic thought seems pertinent, logical and relevant to me and so I put the following link up if only to have folks see that your view, however well it is expressed, isn’t the only view on this (obviously) and that people who are scholarly and intelligent have given the matter some deep thought.

  3. Tim Chesterton

    Not verbotten, Rick, but I’ll admit I don’t have a lot of energy for engaging Roman Catholic thought on ordination. This is because, of course, RC thought not only regards female priestly ordination as invalid, but all Anglican ordinations as well. I believe the current pope reaffirmed Apostolicae Curae when he was prefect of the CDF in 1998. This papal bull from 1896 declared all Anglican ordinations to be ‘absolutely null and utterly void’. This presumably means that every time I preside at the Eucharist, in Catholic thought, I am presiding at a sham and not a true communion in the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.

  4. Tim Chesterton

    The idea that Jesus and the apostles ‘ordained’ anyone in the sense that RCs understand that word today – i.e. a sacrificing priesthood centred on the Mass – seems to me to be totally anachronistic to the NT documents. Nowhere in the NT is presiding at Holy Communion mentioned in connection with the role of presbyters/elders – their job descriptions are all to do with teaching and with the government of the church (see especially 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1). And nowhere in the NT are any of the apostles, or any of the people they appointed as elders, described as presiding at the Eucharist. At the end of the gospels and the beginning of Acts, when Jesus gives his commission to his apostles, he does not mention sending them out to preside at the Eucharist, but to preach the gospel and make disciples of all nations.

    In fact, Shea’s piece does not address the arguments I am making at all. I am making an exegetical case based on the NT evidence. I am doing this because a minority of conservative evangelical Anglicans believe that the Bible is against the ordination of women. I am making the point that priesthood, episcopacy, and ordination as we know them today did not exist in New Testament times, so using biblical arguments against female clergy and bishops is anachronistic. I am also pointing to the cases that show very clearly Paul working together in evangelism and disciple-making (which, according to Jesus, is the essence of apostolic ministry) with both men and women ‘co-workers’. You have not yet sent me anything that addresses these issues, Rick.

  5. d

    Rereading Acts 1: 12-26 begs the question;
    Why was a male chosen to replace Judas?
    There is also the question of headship that is not addressed.
    The duties of Priest and Rabbi although entwined today were not then.

  6. d

    Acts 8:5–8,Acts 3:1–8, & Mark 16: 20 records signs and wonders.
    All signs and wonders where preformed by males. There are no recorded instances where females, who too followed Christ, had the same power as the males.
    You will notice when a replacement for Judas was chosen Mary was present.

    I make these points because I am not convinced one way or the other when it comes to women as Head Bishops, Pope or Priests. Priest would be the wrong title. Priestess for the female.

    What do you make of it?

  7. Tim Chesterton

    Hi d.

    First, I note that when a replacement was chosen for Judas, he was not only a male but a Jewish male. Does this mean that all church leaders (and I note that apostles in the NT are not the same as pastors or bishops today) should be Jewish?

    Second, don’t you think that for the person who had been the mother of the Lord, being a mere apostle would be a comedown?

    Third, unless you are going to contend that God has never performed signs and wonders throughout Christian history through the ministry of women, your point about signs and wonders is a little strange (should I mention Kathryn Kuhlmann, the well-known American healing evangelist of the mid-20th century? I also note that in order to be recognised as a saint in the Roman Catholic church you need to have an attested miracle to your name, and it seems to me that the RCs have lots of female saints!).

    Furthermore, the New Testament does not restrict signs and wonders to apostles. You have quoted Mark 16:20 to me. I refer you to the passage three verses earlier, where Jesus says “These signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover” (Mark 16:17-18). Note that it says, ‘Those who believe’, not just ‘apostles’.

    Fourthly, whatever you make of the concept of headship in the New Testament, it is always related to the relationship between husband and wife in marriage, and never to men and women in general. It is true that in Ephesians Paul states that the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of his church, but it is important to realise that in this illustration the Church has no human head, but only Christ, therefore arguments based on the concept that pastors and bishops somehow share Christ’s ‘headship’ in the church are entirely unwarranted in terms of this passage.

    Fifthly, priestess would only be the wrong title if you believe that the title ‘priest’ is intrinsically male. I do not believe that. However, as my post makes clear, I think we have been wrong to use this title for presbyters anyway, as it confused elders with sacerdotal priests in a way that the New Testament does not.

    Finally, please note the new comment policy on this blog. Please sign at least a first name, and preferably a full name, to your comments.

  8. Dee (d)

    I appreciate your reply and respond not for the sake of argument but for study.

    “These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers.”

    “With the women” is believed to include the women that followed Christ – The women that had followed Jesus from Galilee, Luke 8:2-3, Luke 8:23, Luke 8:49, Luke 8:55; Luke 24:10; Matthew 27:55. So that would include another Mary.

    Headship is described clearly in the following passage:
    “The head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.” 1 Corinthians 11:2
    I do not think the word (kephale) used in this passage denotes authority but origin.

    There is no question women could teach, lead in some capacity and Mary learning “at the feet of Jesus” points to women being trained for future incorporation in ministry but limitations are still implied. It is also clear females would no longer be segregated from the males in the Christian Church but the ‘head” is still designated to the male.

    Although I have great respect for the RCC in many areas, I find some of their miracle workers questionable.

  9. Tim Chesterton

    Hi again Dee:

    Most biblical scholars today believe that ‘the head of woman is man’ should be translated as ‘the head of the wife is her husband’. Indeed, that is the way it is translated in the NRSV: ‘But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ’. The whole passage is very obscure; if we take it as permanently authoritative, we would need to insist that (a) women veil their heads when they pray or prophesy (i.e. speak to the congregation in the name of the Lord) in church, (b) women wear their hair long, and (c) men keep their hair short. But since keeping the hair short was a custom for Roman men but not for Jewish men, I confess I can make nothing of the passage. It seems to imply that women’s humanity is only derivative from men’s, which I’m sure we don’t want to be saying.

    But as far as a man being the ‘head’ in the church, the New Testament never says this. Christ is the only head of his Church, and theologically, in relation to him, we are all female, since the Church is his Bride.

    I’m gong to stop there, because I don’t want to carry this controversy into the Advent Season. Don’t worry, I’m not offended in any way, I just want to have a different focus at this special time of year. Advent blessings to you!

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