“The Bible on Women in Ministry”

Pastor Noel Schoonmaker

During a previous pastorate, I received an email inquiry through the church website that began like this: “Transferred in from out of state, and seeking a sound church for our family. I notice that one of the sermons [on the website] was delivered by a female ([the] pastor’s wife). Is female teaching to adults adhered to at your church? It was my belief that the Baptist church stood with the Bible on that subject.”

My wife, Dayna, indeed preaches. And, if her abilities are any indication, a woman’s place is in the pulpit. But the question posed pertains to the Bible’s teachings concerning women in ministerial roles, such as preaching and teaching. Here is my response in five points.

First, women played key leadership roles among God’s people in the Old Testament. Exodus 15:20 tells us Miriam was a prophetess, a woman who spoke God’s word. Micah 6:4 names her as one of three key leaders in the Exodus, along with Moses and Aaron. Judges 4:4 says Deborah was a prophetess and the judge of Israel. This means she led God’s people for a time and spoke God’s word. Second Chronicles 34 conveys that Huldah was a prophetess who spoke an authoritative word on behalf of God to the high priest Hilkiah and to King Josiah. She did so because these two male leaders had sought her wisdom concerning Scripture. In summary, women served as leaders of God’s people and proclaimers of God’s word in Old Testament times.

Second, women played key leadership roles among God’s people in the New Testament. Women prophets declared God’s word, such as Anna in Luke 2 and the four daughters of Phillip in Acts 21. Women hosted and led house churches, such as Lydia in Acts 16, Nympha in Colossians 4, Chloe in 1 Corinthians 1, and Mary, the mother of John Mark, in Acts 12. As Bible scholar Linda Belleville notes, “The homeowner in Greco-Roman times was in charge of any group that met in his or her domicile and was legally responsible for the group’s activities.”[1] A woman named Phoebe was a “deacon” of the church at Cenchreae, according to Romans 16:1-2. The Greek term is sometimes translated “servant,” but it is the same word translated “deacon” elsewhere in the New Testament, including 1 Timothy 3. Phoebe was such a trusted leader that she carried Paul’s letter to the church in Rome and was likely the one who read it aloud to the congregation there.

Indeed, several of Paul’s co-workers in the gospel were women. Romans 16:7 says Junia was a prominent “apostle,” the highest title in the early church. Some translations, such as the NASB, translate her name to be “Junias,” a male name, but the manuscript evidence is stronger for “Junia,” a female name. Priscilla, also known as Prisca, is mentioned in Romans 16:3-5 because she and her husband Aquila led a house church. Acts 18:26 adds that they instructed the mighty preacher Apollos in a better understanding of the gospel. Both of these texts mention Priscilla’s name before her husband’s, suggesting that she was the more prominent leader of the two and that she took the lead in correcting Apollos. Other female co-workers of Paul included Euodia and Syntyche in Philippians 4, and Mary, Tryphena, Tryphosa, and Persis in Romans 16.

In summary, women’s roles in the New Testament included prophetess, house-church leader, deacon, apostle, and missionary, among others. Bible scholar Craig Keener concludes, “Some of the roles by which women carried out ministry in the Bible were more authoritative than the offices from which they are often now restricted.”[2]

Third, numerous statements in Holy Scripture support women in ministerial roles such as preaching. Joel 2:28 says, “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.” This prophecy was fulfilled in Acts 2:1-11 and quoted in Acts 2:17. When God’s Spirit comes upon the church, both men and women, both sons and daughters, are inspired to speak God’s word in the assembly. Galatians 3:28 says, “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 Jesus.” This verse asserts not only unity in Christ but also equality in Christ, including gender equality. In 1 Corinthians 11:4-5, Paul discusses women who are prophesying at the church in Corinth. He has no problem with it as long as they wear a head covering. Furthermore, in the three New Testament passages that discuss spiritual gifts—Romans 12:6-8, 1 Corinthians 12:7-11, and Ephesians 4:11-13—the gifts listed include teaching, prophecy, leadership, and pastoring, and there is no indication that any of these gifts are distributed according to gender. In summary, several statements in Scripture affirm women in ministry.

Fourth, biblical arguments against women in ministry are readily refutable. The text most commonly cited against women in ministry is 1 Timothy 2:12: “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.” It is important to consider the historical and literary context of this passage. Belleville notes that the tone throughout 1 Timothy is corrective because “false teachers needed silencing (1:3-7, 18-20; 4:1-8; 5:20-22; 6:3-10, 20-21).”[3] Second Timothy 3:6 further addresses these false teachers, saying, “Among them are those who make their way into households and captivate silly women, overwhelmed by their sin and swayed by all kinds of desires.” Evidently, the false teachers threatening this particular Christian community were making headway with women. Keener makes a cogent point here: “The one passage in the Bible that specifically prohibits women from teaching is addressed to the one church where we know false teachers were effectively targeting women.”[4] Consequently, 1 Timothy 2:12 is best understood as a statement geared for a specific time and place rather than a universal principle for all times and places.

A second text often quoted against women in ministry is 1 Corinthians 14:34-35: “Women should be silent in the 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 in church.” This passage also speaks to a specific problem, this time in the Corinthian church, where certain women were causing disorder. Bible scholar Ben Witherington, III thinks certain women were asking questions during the time of prophesying and thereby disrupting the service, and therefore, Paul commanded silence from them because he didn’t want worship to be turned into a question and answer session. In any case, we know Paul was correcting the abuse of a privilege rather than withdrawing a woman’s freedom to speak in the assembly because he had already granted such freedom in 1 Corinthians 11, where he has no problem with women prophesying as long as they wear head coverings.[5]

A third text cited against women in ministry is 1 Timothy 3, especially verse 2—“A bishop must be above reproach, the husband of one wife”—and verse 12—“Let deacons be husbands of one wife.” The term “husbands” is often understood to require that bishops and deacons be male. However, we know from Romans 16 that Phoebe was a deacon in another Christian community, and therefore, the gender requirements in 1 Timothy 3 were not universally normative in New Testament churches. For this reason, they should not be regarded as universally normative today. What matters most in 1 Timothy 3 are the character traits befitting church leaders—such as temperateness, sensibleness, and hospitality—not the gender specifications. In summary, the scriptures most often cited against women in ministry are best interpreted as correctives for specific situations rather than normative principles for all times and places.

Fifth, the story of Christ, which is the key to all scripture, supports women in ministerial roles. Consider the accounts of Christ’s resurrection, keeping in mind that according to 1 Corinthians 15, there is no gospel without the resurrection. In all four gospels—Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, and John 20—the first witnesses and heralds of Christ’s resurrection were women. In John 20, Christ chose to make his first resurrection appearance to a woman, Mary Magdalene. In Luke 24, the angels at the empty tomb—who, hypothetically, could have chosen to tell anyone that Jesus had arisen—told women first. Then the women went and preached this good news to the men. In my view, this is all the biblical evidence necessary to affirm women in ministry. If male disciples first heard the good news of Christ’s resurrection from women, then surely, we are to keep hearing the good news from women today. If God ordained that women be the first to witness and proclaim Christ’s resurrection, why would we hesitate to ordain a woman to ministry?

In conclusion, given the abundant biblical evidence of women leading and preaching among God’s people, it is not merely permissible for women to lead and preach in the church today; it is crucial. Women must be affirmed to lead and preach and teach and minister according to the gifts and callings God has given them, if we are going to stand with the Bible on this subject.


[1] Linda L. Belleville, “Women in Ministry: An Egalitarian Perspective” in James R. Beck, ed., Two Views on Women in Ministry Rev. Ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 56.

[2] Craig S. Keener, “Women in Ministry: Another Egalitarian Perspective” in Two Views on Women in Ministry Rev. Ed., 207.

[3] Belleville, 78-79.

[4] Keener, 232.

[5] Ben Witherington, III, Conflict and Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), 287.