Biblical Teaching on Women in Ministry

Rev. Paul de Vries, Ph.D, President of New York Divinity School,



Two Approaches, one is good:

  1. Creative re-contextualization – rarely legitimate and full of problems: imaginative reconstructed history, open to bias and sloppy logic. [BAD approach]
  2. Concentrate on what exactly is taught in the Scriptures, to the best of our understanding of words and language, and what the teaching means to us today.

The two approaches are not entirely independent.  Our own situation always affects our reading of a text—for better or for worse—and yet no contextualization process should begin without a thorough knowledge of what the text itself says.  In fact, one of the greatest challenges of present reading of Scripture is to break through years of bad, prejudiced “contextualizations” that have clouded many popular Bible translations and Bible dictionaries. When we go back to our best Greek texts, there is no prejudice.


Following the more Bible-centered, objective, second method, there are three categories…  and we will limit ourselves to the Apostle Paul’s leadership and teaching.


1.     Paul recognized many women in ministry leadership, for example:


Pricilla – mentioned by herself several times, and when mentioned with her husband Aquila her name usually comes first, in the position of honor.  She is the teacher of Apollos, a great evangelist, and possible author of Hebrews.


Phoebe – a deacon of the Corinthian Church, who was given the honor of personally delivering Paul’s Epistle to the Roman Church.  Paul calls here a “deacon” even though in the Greek language she would ordinarily be called a deaconess – except that she held an office in the church as “deacon” on equal basis with men.


June [Junias, clearly a woman’s name] – whom Paul calls an “apostle” (Romans 16:7), a term used very sparingly in Scripture.  It is applied to seventeen (17) people.


In Romans 16, out of 27 Christian leaders mentioned specifically by name: 13 are women.  Four people are mentioned as “hard workers”; all four of them are women.


2.     Instructions Paul gives to the churches imply strong presence of women in ministry.


I Corinthians 11:1-15 – assumes women are prophesying [speaking out, probably including preaching] and praying in churches


I Timothy 2:12 – Paul says that he does not want women to have dictatorial authority [αὐθεντεῖν—used only here], but he leaves all other kinds of authority open to women. 


I Timothy 3:11 – Paul states qualifications for women deacons, the same term as for men [diakonh, the Greek word for “deaconess,” is never used in Greek Scripture.]


3.     The texts often used to prohibit women in leadership do not say what some people think that they say.


Ephesians 5:21-33 – The theme verse (21) is often skipped over completely, even though 5:22 {lit: so wives to your husbands} is a dependent clause of the same sentence as 5:21.


I Timothy 2:12 – The issue is to be peaceable (not “silent”) and non-dictatorial – and ends with a reminder that God brought the savior into the world through “woman.”

q  hsucia, translated “silent” in 2:12 is translated “peaceable” in 2:2.

q  Auqentein, the word in 2:12 for “authority” means “murderous authority” or “tyranny” – and that is all that the Apostle Paul prohibits.

q  Then at the end of the chapter he honors Mary as the second Eve, and says that women are saved by “the childbirth,” in reference to the Christmas event that brings salvation also to us.


I Timothy 3 – Language can be generic – whether Greek or English – and as a reminder of this, there is an explicit reference to women deacons in the middle (3:11) of the qualifications for deacons (3:8-13), making the qualifications equivalent.  Some bad translations incorrectly try to make 3:11 a reference to the wives of deacons.  Note, however, there is no parallel female reference in the text of overseers’ qualifications (3:1-7), and no woman in the Scriptures is called an overseer..


I Corinthians 14:34-36 – There are many clear signals here that either Paul is quoting some of the divisive Corinthian leaders, or more likely being sarcastic, or both.

q  These words come within a context where allowing each one to speak one at a time is an obvious strong theme.  (I Cor. 14)  what could cause this abrupt change?

q  sigh [sige’], the word for “silence” in 14:34 means complete silence – even deathly silence! not even the sound of a breath.  Thus, this extreme statement is a signal of sarcasm.

q  There is no requirement in the OT law for women to be silent, ever – and both of the authors of I Corinthians, Paul and Sosthenes (1:1 and Acts 18), were experts in the OT law.

q  There is no reason to think that all women were married.  Paul has just argued that it is good for men and women not to be married. (I Cor. 7)

q  The phrase “if they have any questions” surely sounds like a bad put-down.  Only sarcasm.

q  How could it be disgraceful for a woman to speak in church when Paul has just outlined clearly how women should publically preach [prophesy] and pray? (I Cor. 11)

q  Verse 36 starts with a generally un-translated word “h” – pronounced: “Hey!,” meaning” “What?!” – implying an emphatic change in perspective.

q  Apostle Paul had a deserved reputation for irony and sarcasm.


Therefore, two understandings are compatible with a careful, attentive reading of the text of I Corinthians 14:34-36, considering these blatant signs of Paul’s irony just outlined.


q  Paul is quoting the Corinthian Christians directly—or perhaps hamming it up a bit.  Since there are no quotation marks in Greek language, we have to watch the flow and tone of words to determine when someone else is quoted.  Verses 34 and 35 do clearly seem separate from the theme and flow of the rest of the context.

q  Paul is being ironic or even sarcastic – as he was also earlier in this same letter, such as in I Corinthians 4:6-14.  Can the Holy Spirit guide the Apostle Paul to be deeply sarcastic twice in one book?  Why not?  The Spirit is the master of all language, including even sarcasm.


Some General Conclusions:

1.     In the Bible, specific women are affirmed in virtually every role of ministry – even to the high responsibilities and honors of teacher, deacon, prophet and apostle.

2.     Much or all of the contemporary restriction against women in ministry in some churches is based on ignorance of Scripture or the use of misleading (biased) translations.

3.     Churches and denominations might still restrict some offices to men only, by their own “man-made” traditions, but there is no Biblical basis for these male-dominating policies. 

4.     In these matters, we are accountable first of all to the Lord Jesus Christ who continues to call women and men into his awesome ministries. 



Copyright © 2007 Paul de Vries, PhD, (646-395-0008)   Please copy only with this copyright notice.