Women in Ministry
Over the past 20 years or so, there has been an increasing number of women entering ministry fields, while at the same time there has been increasing commentary, speculation, and acrimony among congregations, denominations, and even between churches in the same neighborhoods and towns over this issue. It is the expressed intent of this article to take a look at the issue of women in ministry, with a view towards determining, as best as possible, what Scripture says about it. Since every denomination and church claims to use scripture as their "backing" or foundation for their decisions concerning the issue, it then becomes incumbent upon us to observe the simple fact that there is room for interpretation and understanding. It is also important to note that no matter what the decision, it is not expedient, nor Christian, to "break fellowship" with another because of their differing view. There are, arguably, two things to consider here. First is the overall issue of women in ministry, and the second is women in ministry positions of authority (ie: pastors, bishops, elders).
The first question we will deal with is the general issue of women in ministry. Can they be ministers with Gods blessings upon their ministry? Exactly what does scripture say about women in positions of ministry?
Let's begin by looking at noted women of the bible, and what they did.
Exodus 15:20 "And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances."
Judges 4:4 "Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, she judged Israel at that time."
Deborah is a unique character in the Bible. She is the only woman to be a Judge of Israel. Her story takes place between the years 1209 and 1169 B.C. She was a prophetess and Judge of Israel. How she came to be chosen for this position is not recorded but it is evident in her story that her leadership was honored. As Judge, she was also leader of the army of Israel. During the time of Deborah's rule, the nation of Israel had been under domination by the Canaanites for twenty years. They had suffered terrible atrocities and finally began to cry out to God for deliverance from this enemy. (Judges 4:3) Jabin ruled the Canaanites and the captain of their army was Sisera. The Canaanite army had 900 iron chariots and many more warriors to boot. Poor Israel had only 10,000 warriors; they were badly outnumbered. Outnumbered or not, God tells Deborah to instruct Barak, her general, to take their 10,000 soldiers up to the River Kishon on Mount Tabor. There, God would send Sisera and his 900 iron chariots and the Canaanite soldiers. God tells Deborah that the Israelites will win the battle. (Judges 4:6-7)
Barak says he'll obey this command only if Deborah accompanies him. She agrees. Remarkable. This general is given a prophecy that his army will win but won't go to battle without Deborah. We can discern two things from this: that Barak had incredible faith in Deborah, if not in God, and that Deborah was a courageous and faithful woman.
2 Kings 22:14 "So Hilkiah the priest, and Ahikam, and Achbor, and Shaphan, and Asaiah, went unto Huldah the prophetess, the wife of Shallum the son of Tikvah, the son of Harhas, keeper of the wardrobe (now she dwelt in Jerusalem in the second quarter); and they communed with her."
Nehemiah 6:14 "Remember, O my God, Tobiah and Sanballat according to these their works, and also the prophetess Noadiah, and the rest of the prophets, that would have put me in fear." Although referred to as a prophetess, Noadiah was seen as a false prophet(ess).
Isaiah 8:3 "And I went unto the prophetess; and she conceived, and bare a son. Then said
Jehovah unto me, Call his name Maher-shalal-hash-baz." It is worthy of note here that the
word translated prophetess in each of the instances above is n@biyah, or neb-ee-yaw',
a) ancient type endowed with gift of song (Miriam)
b) later type consulted for a word (Huldah)
c) false prophetess (Noadiah)
d) wife of Isaiah the prophet
Neb-ee-yaw' is the feminine rendering of Nabiy' (naw-ba), which means:
1) spokesman, speaker, prophet,
this being the designation given to Jeremiah, Isaiah, and other prophets. It is also relatively significant that in the case of Isaiah's wife, she was referred to as prophetess, although there is no record of her ever giving any prophecy, or functioning as a prophet. Could this be simply because of her marriage to Isaiah? Remember, in Gen. 2:24; "Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh." In the specific case of Deborah, please note that her position as Judge of Israel was significantly a civil position. During her time, spiritual matters were still handled by the Levites.
We will now turn to the New Testament, to see what women are noted there. In Romans 16, we have people from at least three races - Latins, Jews, and Greeks, who are "all one in Christ Jesus." They are from lower and upper classes, including slaves and freed slaves . Of the 29 people, ten are women. Apart from Priscilla, none is mentioned elsewhere in the NT. Paul apparently honored these women and held them in high regard. In spite of the lack of information on these women, it is reasonably certain that they must have had some importance in the Church to be included in this list of greetings.
In the ancient world (as today) when someone is applying for a position or job they seek testimonials or references from others who know them well. Many churches today still use letters of commendation or reference from one assembly to another if someone is traveling or moving. These sustatikai epistolai, letters of introduction, were common in business transactions in the ancient world as well.
Paul begins by commending Phoebe (16:1) to the church in Rome. She is the bearer of this letter, and Paul asks them to welcome her. Paul uses two very specific terms to describe her - diakonos - deacon, servant, minister, and prostatis ( (1) a woman set over others (2) a female guardian, protectress, patroness, caring for the affairs of others and aiding them with her resources) - a great help to many people. The term "diakonos", or deacon, is the same as used generically in 1 Thess. 3:2, 2 Cor. 3:6, 11:23; of a specific group or function in Phil 1:1, 1 Timothy 3:8,12. And it is used of Christ (Romans 15:8), Apollos (1 Corinthians 3:5), Timothy (1 Timothy 4:6) and of Paul himself (1 Corinthians 3:5, Ephesians 3:7; Colossians 1:23,25). NT scholar E. Earl Ellis concluded that diakonos as used by Paul referred to a special class of co-workers who were active in preaching and teaching. She is also a prostatis - the only time in the NT this word as a noun appears. In secular Greek at that time this was a relatively strong term of leadership. The verb is used by Paul in three out of five occurrences to refer to leadership in the Church. Thus the word suggests Phoebe had a prominent role, leading several Bible translators to render the word as "overseer" or "leader".
Prisca and Aquila (16:3) were a fascinating couple. Prisca is sometimes called Priscilla (Acts 18:2,18,26) - an affectionate version of the same name. When they first appear on the pages of the NT (Acts 18:1-2) they're in Rome. Claudius banished Jews from Rome in AD 52 and this couple settled in Corinth. They were tent-makers - the same trade as Paul's - so in Corinth he stayed with them. They and Paul left Corinth together and went to Ephesus where Prisca and Aquila settled (Acts 18:18). When Apollos stayed with Prisca and Aquila, it is noted that Prisca and Aquila taught him "more perfectly" (Acts 18:24-26). Later, when Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians from Ephesus, he sent greetings from Prisca and Aquila and from the church in their house (1 Corinthians 16:19). Next we hear of them back in Rome, where they have a church in their home. The last time they appear is in 2 Timothy 4:19, and they're back in Ephesus.
So wherever these nomadic people are - Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, back in Rome, or finally again in Ephesus - they are at the center of Christian ministry, worship and hospitality (1 Cor. 16:19, Philemon 2).
But there's something odd about the way they're mentioned in the epistles: they are always mentioned together, and on four of the six occasions Prisca is named before her husband. Normally - then as now - the husband's name is mentioned first - 'Mr. and Mrs.'. The possibility exists that Prisca may have been of Roman aristocracy, thus resulting in a "first mention". Maybe. Considering the fact that Paul did not seem to be a respecter of persons, it is more likely that her leadership gifts or her role in the church was the reason she's mentioned first. Paul calls them fellow-workers: the same term is used of men such as Timothy and Titus, as well as of women such as Euodia and Syntyche. Paul also considered Apollos and himself God's "fellow- workers" (1 Corinthians 3:9). It is in this group of people who take leadership in the ministry of the gospel that Priscilla, without any distinction related to her sex, is included as well as her husband Aquila. We don't know what roles all these people had as 'fellow-workers' - perhaps their roles were as diverse as their gifts.
Mary (16:6). There are at least six Marys in the NT story - and they are all special people. We don't know anything more about this Mary than that 'she has worked very hard' among them, a similar expression to that used of Tryphena and Tryphosa and Persis (16:12). What kind of hard work? Did she grow flowers for Sunday services? Clean out the room before house-church? Serve eats after the worship? Perhaps - these so-called menial tasks are honoured when the Lord Christ is served. But the Greek verb 'work very hard' is used regularly by Paul to refer to the special work of the gospel ministry. Only twice does Paul use it in a common or secular sense - both within a proverbial expression (Ephesians 4:8, 2 Timothy 2:6). Paul frequently describes his apostolic ministry with this word, and also the ministry of other leaders and persons of authority: the context of some of these stresses the need for respect for and submission to such workers.
Euodia and Syntyche (Philippians 4:2,3) two women Paul describes as having '...contended at my side in the cause of the gospel' (NIV)].
Andronicus and Junia (16:7) were Christians before Paul was - their conversion goes right back to the time of Stephen, so they must have had a direct link back to the earliest church in Jerusalem. There is some debate about the sex of Junia or Junias. Paul's word junian may be either masculine or feminine. So we have to be a bit tentative here. Andronicus was certainly a common male name, but there's no evidence Junias was used as a male name. Chrysostom (d. AD 407), one of the first Greek fathers to write extensive commentaries on Paul, and known for his 'negative' view of women, understood that Junia was a woman. He marveled that this woman should be called an apostle! It was not until the 13th century that any writer represented Junia as a male (Aegidius of Rome). He/she is outstanding among (en) the apostles: does this mean Junia was well known by the apostles or well known as an apostle? The natural meaning in Greek is that these two were outstanding as apostles. Keep in mind that the term 'apostle' was used in the early church not just for the Twelve but for any authorised Christian missionaries.
Were Tryphaena and Tryphosa (16:12) twin sisters? Their names mean 'dainty and delicate' but they worked (Gr.-kopian) to the point of exhaustion! Again, the word "worked" is the same as used by Paul to describe the special work of ministry.
Three final comments. Romans 16:1-16, then, in an incidental way, allows us to see that Paul had several women coworkers in the church's ministry. Mary, Tryphena, Tryphosa and Persis (as well as Euodia and Syntyche mentioned in Philippians 4:2-3) all shared in the hard labors of a gospel ministry. Priscilla also was a fellow worker with Paul in the ministry. Phoebe was a minister of the Cenchrean church and a leader in the Church. Junia was, along with Andronicus (her husband?) an outstanding apostle.
It is in the context of what we see here that we must begin to view and assess the references found in 1 Cor. 14:34-35 and 1 Tim. 2:8-15 to Pauls view of women in ministry. When viewed properly, the persistent notion that Paul was a wom