Rethinking Women in Ministry

I’m often asked the question, “What is your position on 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 14 where Paul seems to argue that a woman cannot speak or teach in a church meeting?”

Some years ago, I wrote a 20-page essay answering this question. It was originally slated to be a chapter in my book Reimagining Church, but the publisher said it couldn’t fit the page count. So a footnote was added in the book directing people to read the chapter online.

Over the last two decades, several good books have been published which have tackled the subject. But many Christians struggle with finding time to read. In such cases, a short essay consolidating the issues is easier fodder.

In my essay, Reimagining a Woman’s Role in the Church, I list a series of recommended books at the end which weigh deeper into the subject. Nevertheless, the essay covers the waterfront on the matter in a very small space.

What follows is the introduction to the essay. Note that it’s written as an open letter, inspired by one of the many letters I have received on this question.

I suspect a few of my subscribers will disagree with my conclusions. But I expect that you’ll understand (and perhaps respect) the reasoning behind them.

Dear Sister,

Thank you for your gracious letter. You’ve asked an excellent question. What is my view on a woman’s role in the church and how do I understand the “limiting passages” that seem to restrict their ministry?

To be honest, I’m monumentally disinterested in adding more noise to the ill-fated gender brawl that rages in some Christian circles. It is for this reason that I’ve been loath to write on the subject. Yet I keep meeting women who have been spiritually straight-jacketed by what I find to be a wooden interpretation of certain Biblical texts.

Their stories have provoked me to tread on this hazardous minefield. And for their sake, as well as for the sake of all my beloved sisters in Christ, I regret not having done so sooner.

With that said, I’m now ready to have my ears singed with the hand-wringing, nitpicking, nailbiting, and tooth-gnashing that may be generated by my response.

So let this letter forever settle the whole controversy. Here, dear sister, is the answer to your question. Here is the final word on the subject:

Paul put it plainly when he said that under no condition and under no circumstance may a woman speak in a church meeting. She must never, ever, under any situation, say a word in the church. She must without exception keep absolutely, totally, and completely silent.

Unless . . . 

she has her head covered!

Are you clear now?

I trust you are laughing, for I was being facetious. Yet I was also trying to make a point. The fact is that Paul seems to contradict himself on this subject. The so-called “limiting passages” are incredibly difficult to interpret.

Given their obscurity, no one can be dogmatic as to what Paul really meant when he penned them. This being so, every interpretation that’s been given to these texts has shortcomings. And I will shamelessly admit that this applies to my own.

For the sake of those reading this letter over my shoulder, the “limiting passages” are those texts that seem to put some restriction on a woman’s ministry in the church. Interestingly, there are only two such passages in all the New Testament. Here they are:

Let the women keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but let them subject themselves, just as the Law also says. And if they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in the church (1 Corinthians 14:34-35, NASB). 

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. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and become a transgressor (1 Timothy 2:11-14, NRSV).

Before we discuss these two passages, let me explain how I arrived at my conclusions . . .

Click here to read the rest of the essay

Related:

God’s View of a Woman

Does Christianity Have a Feminine Feel?

A Farewell to Self-Righteousness: In Honor of Our Sisters in Christ

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Comments

  1. Mike Singer says

    Great article – I would like to know what your thoughts are in 1 Corinthians 11:2-17.? Further insight would be appreciated.

    Shalom,

    Mike

  2. William Timmers says

    “I suspect a few of my subscribers will disagree with my conclusions. But I expect that you’ll understand (and perhaps respect) the reasoning behind them.” LOVE THAT QUOTE! I thou shalt re-tweeth that and pasteth to Facebook, too!

    Now I know why I already had admired your work ever since first time I learned about you through Pagan Christianity book published by Barna Group as I learned while reading UnChristian book also published by Barna Group.

    Guess what? that is… Barna Group is the one who “poisoned” me to like your work, give credit to them! :-).

  3. KinleyW says

    Loved your article Frank. Very timely as I had just had a conversation with lady here who was excitedly telling me how her church services were different than the norm. But in her description she mentioned only men speaking. I asked her about women speaking and she said “sometimes, but they must cover their heads.” I sent her your article, I pray she has ears to hear.

    On another point completely, you made the statement that you are not a fan of Bible paraphrases. That struck me as odd due to your teaching style and wanting to tell the stories differently. I love your retelling of the Samaritan woman. I also love listening to The Message. It is has opened my eyes to several passages, like this one in 1 Timothy 2. So I am curious as to why you are not a fan.

  4. David says

    Frank, I’m very impressed with your essay. I’ve read most of those points before (not sure who said them) and have wondered how to get all these arguments into one concise presentation, and… how to structure it.

    You NAILED it. How perfect to set it up as “Here’s the overall tone of how Christ and Paul treated and promoted women, and here’s the point of the New Covenant, so how do these two obscure passages REALLY fit into the big picture?”

    Simple. Concise. Biblical. Thorough.

    Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.

  5. joy says

    Thanks for this very liberating article. I am a woman and am one of the pastors at our church. It took me a long time to embrace my calling because I had a traditional mindset. I’m often at a loss for words when people question my ministry on the basis of the verses you cited. I usually resort to citing Deborah in the OT.

    It is my hope that more men, especially in very traditional churches, will read your article (hopefully a book in the very near future?) with open hearts and minds. God bless you!

  6. Marsela Sava says

    Thanks Frank for writing this. We esteem the other more, not because of gender difference, or any other difference, but because this is the Spirit of our Lord. In Christ one esteems the other above self. Bringing clarity on this topic is vital, not from the rightly standing up for the sisters perspective (although it is that) and much appreciated, but more so, for rightly standing for Christ.
    Whenever two or more of us are gathered together in the name of the Lord, not only is He in our midst, but He desires to express Himself freely and fully. He desires to reveal His heart to us, so that we may know Him, and fall in love with Him every time in a fresh way, that we may all experience and enjoy the abundance of His life, that we all share. As you have so clearly expressed, that’s hard to imagine with half the Body frozen.
    I pray that the Lord will use this writing, as well as the other writings to bring clarity and liberation, wherever has been perplexity over this topic and this passages.
    May our Lord, who has ordained praises out of the mouth of babes, have His way every time, so that we may all be edified and He glorified!

  7. says

    Thanks for sharing this with me Frank. Women are and will remain important to the Lord. I love teaching, I love sharing the JOY & love of the Lord with anyone that I can…. I imagine I always will.

    keep being a beacon for the Lord! I appreciate you!!

    {hugs}
    @spreadingJOY

  8. Kalil says

    Frank,

    Reading your article highlights the importance of doing research and knowing the context behind the scriptures.

    Oh how beautiful it is to have God’s new humanity uplift the women in a society where most cultures put her down in various ways.

  9. Gioia Morris says

    It brings my heart much joy when a brother speaks up for us sisters in such an eloquent and loving way – thank-you Frank for blessing us women in His body !

  10. bob christopher says

    Hey Frank, very well written article. Love that you couched this fiery issue in terms of the New Covenant.

  11. Tyler Williamson says

    Love the essay, shared it with a couple of my friends. Thanks for sharing the revelation the Lord gave you. And so beautifully honoring the Lord and His heart, and our sisters in Christ.

  12. says

    I left my “comment” (at least the initial one that gushed out first) on another site, but I wanted to bless you, and express my gratitude, here on the blog as well. I have this thought, Frank, (and I don’t pretend to know how/if it represents the heart of God) that among God’s many mysterious, often wildly creative, ways of working His grand plan of redemption occurs when His people search their hearts and use the well-spring of love and grace they find there, to apply healing on deep, old wounds. (Nasty long, run-on-ish sentence, that! Sorry.) I need to listen to your message and read your post a few more times to really organize my thoughts, but my initial reaction is to pass you a heartfelt “thank you” and share an analogy of sorts.

    As my daughter and I have grieved some very painful losses in recent years, we’ve had many opportunities to reflect on redemption…God’s great “buy back” program that has the power and intent to transform the worst into the best. Two of the three sorrowful and tragic deaths that have influenced our lives in the past 2.5 years showed us what we believe are “for sure” transitions of souls from life on earth to life in Heaven. We have no doubt that these two dear souls are with God for eternity. (We are far less clear, and still very much praying and processing the loss of our other dear one.) But in the case of the two whom we believe to be certainly in Heaven, these precious souls lived very messed up, grievously and complexly broken lives. My daughter and I have just about come around to believing that God’s redemption of their lives doesn’t begin and end with their salvation and transportation to Heaven. We believe that the ways in which we continue to trust and love God (ways that inspire us to love and care for others)in direct response to the love God placed in us for our dear ones in Heaven…these things constitute more and continual manifestations of God’s redeeming love. In a sense, while our distribution of, and persistence in, love cannot change history. Our love cannot rewrite the facts of their broken lives and the damages done. But our love, which we believe comes entirely from God, is infused with the power to “buy back” some of that damage and transform it into blessing.

    Such is the response I have to your message about women. What you have said, and how you live out your words by your actions, cannot undo history and take on the responsibility for all the damage done to women in the church by the church. However, what you say goes a nice way toward buying back some of that damage and transforming it to blessing…and in kind, humble, wise (yet still bold) ways. I experience that as a very personal gift from God that came to me by way of your keyboard. Thanks, Frank.

  13. says

    I’ll echo several others in saying that this is the clearest, most concise, and most convicting treatment of the “women’s role issue” that I have ever read. Thank you, Frank.

    HALLELUJAH WE’RE FREE!

  14. says

    When it comes to women in ministry, believers tend to look at a few scriptures and ignore the rest of the Bible. Thanks for your teaching which I read quite a few years ago when you were just a pup and still have it in my files.

  15. says

    This is the best, most concise treatment of this vital question I’ve seen.

    I’ve been helped greatly by the “Three Levels of Authority” method for understanding and applying the scriptures:
    1) The clear commands of Christ (highest level of authority)
    2) Apostolic Precedents (to be applied with consideration of their unique context in which we find them written in scripture)
    3) Modern Church Traditions (lowest level of authority)

    Thank you, Frank. Excellent.

  16. Debby says

    Thanks for this post. I’ve been doing much research lately into the FIC movement in how it is beginning to dominate so many homeschool circles (we homeschool), so this was a timely essay.
    Thank you.

  17. Angela Bisignano says

    I just read your article, “Reimagining a Woman’s Role in the Church.” I think it is one of the best articles I have read on the topic. When interpreting the Scriptures understanding context is key to a thorough understanding of the text. Regarding 1 Timothy 2, I find it a curious matter that so many camp out on the verses applicable to the women (9-15), with very little mention or complete disregard to the previous verse about men, “I desire therefore that the men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting” (vs. 8). It just goes to reason that if people are going to hold tight to verses 9-15, paying closer attention to verse 8 and men’s roles might be a worthy endeavor. Thanks for a great post, I really appreciate your perspective.

  18. Rachel says

    This is the best thing I’ve ever read on the subject. Love the word pictures and the humor too. I’m sharing this with all my friends. Thanks for writing it!

  19. Jim Puntney says

    Thanks Frank for shedding light upon a topic that has been so deeply misunderstood, and then applied. What a mixture application of false teaching.

    This gives all of the sisters there loving and proper respect.

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