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Commentary Let Her Lead Theology

How Should We Apply 1 Timothy 2:11-15 Today?

In light of my commentary, I want to reflect briefly on how we might apply 1 Timothy 2:11-15 today. I’ll mention two big-picture principles, though I’m sure we could mention more. Then I want to do a thought experiment with you.

Prioritize Learning Christian Doctrine

False teaching was the big obstacle for the church in Ephesus. As it spread, the result was that people were being deceived. In the case of our passage, a woman or many women were deceived into believing they could dominate a man/all men (in my interpretation). False doctrine led to wicked behavior.

Paul’s short-range solution was simply to say no teaching or domineering. His long-range solution was to command that this woman/women learn with a teachable heart. He actually mentions the long-range solution first. The implication is that once someone demonstrates knowledge, humility, and self-control, they’d be eligible to teach.

The broad, abstract principle for us is that in order to combat false teaching, in any form, and avoid deception we must train and equip people in the church to know the truth. The concrete expression in Ephesus was to let this woman learn but, in the meantime, not teach because of her domineering manner.

The concrete expression in our churches may be very different.

Additionally, we must not put people in positions of leadership who are easily deceived due to lack of training, whether they are male or female. Someone who has not been educated is more susceptible to false teaching.

Formal education isn’t the point; knowledge is. In order to detect false teaching and avoid deception, you need to know the difference between truth and falsehood.

So, let’s teach people the Scriptures!

Prioritize a Humble Posture

Learning is not all. It must come with a humble posture, in full submission to God. That was Paul’s concern. Also, remember the call to “continue in love, faith, and self-control” in verse 15. Whether the person is new to learning or actively leading, the fruit of the Spirit, not authentein, is what should characterize them.

This is what we’d want for any student, male or female, who studies any discipline, right? How much more in theology?

We need men and women who are ready and willing to learn, not to push their way to the top of the church org chart, but to serve and lay down their life for others.

Competence is important, but competence in the hands of someone without character is a dumpster fire.

Anyone who has been a leader for a while knows this because we remember what we were like when we were young leaders! I’ll be the first to admit it was ugly.

We should remember though that 1 Timothy 2 says nothing about leadership! We read that into the passage, and we’re influenced by our English translations of authentein.

But the question remains: What about domineering leaders?

In Ephesus, the problem was that someone who did not have legitimate authority was trying to seize it. In the United States today, we have people (mostly men, by the way) who have been given legitimate authority in the church and are abusing it.

Simply, some of our churches (it’s hard to know how many) have bullies for leaders.

You know the famous names and churches. Perhaps you’ve even experienced it yourself. The problem is that it gets defended and justified with spiritual-sounding lines like,

  • “You’re being insubordinate to pastoral authority.”
  • “You’re causing division in the body.”
  • “You shouldn’t talk about your pastor’s attitude or behavior. Even if you think it’s abusive. That’s gossip!”
  • “His heart is in the right place.”
  • “Well, we need to give him grace.”

And on and on.

These “leaders” are authentein-ing their way through ministry. To authentein is to be full of yourself (remember the prefix “autos” in the last post?). Yet Jesus emptied himself. He didn’t come to lord it over. He became a servant who washed feet. And he calls us to do the same.

So, let’s prioritize character before calling, gifts, or ministry fruit when training someone or entrusting them with any level of leadership.

A Thought Experiment

If you’re a complementarian, I want to invite you to a brief thought experiment. It may not change your view, but I hope it makes you question your assumptions.

Experiment #1. Let’s assume that my interpretation is correct in that Paul is not talking about exercising positive, legitimate authority. Let’s assume authentein means domineering or seizing of authority, making it illegitimate. It’s not something anyone, male or female, should do or have, right?

So then consider: what if a man in your church was doing what Paul describes in 1 Timothy 2?

How would you handle it or expect the leaders to handle it?

I hope that little reversal helps you see that the problem here is not one’s gender but one’s heart. It’s why Paul calls for stillness (twice), submission, and love, faith, and self-control.

Isn’t the heart, not the appearance, what God looks at? And isn’t the heart what biblical application is all about?

I’ll grant that you may be stuck on Paul’s mention of Adam and Eve in verses 13-14. That may be why it’s so hard to not think gender is the central issue. But consider he may be 1) clarifying orthodoxy, or 2) clarifying that Eve was not Adam’s boss but his partner.

Experiment #2. What if the church in Ephesus was actually walking together in love, faith, and self-control. What if Timothy fought against false teaching but it wasn’t destroying the church from within? What if that woman wasn’t authentein-ing but living in humility and doing what Paul told the church to do in Colossians 3:12-17?

Then Paul would have never written those words. If that were the case, we would not have one explicit passage in the entire New Testament that restricts women from teaching men.

The overseer qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 may mean that only men can be elders/overseers. (I have my doubts on that, too, and I’ll try to show that in the next post.) But that text does not preclude women or non-elders or anyone else from teaching in the church. Many complementarian churches today will allow males who are non-elders or not even members of the church (e.g. a guest speaker for the weekend) to preach in a worship service.

Why not allow women to do this, too? Well, 1 Timothy 2:12, complementarians argue.

But without 1 Timothy 2:12, there is no support in the entire Bible for keeping a woman from teaching a man.

Well-known blogger (and complementarian) Tim Challies writes, “What the Bible teaches in one place it cannot refute in another.”[1]

We do see evidence of women teaching and leading in other parts of Scripture, Old and New Testament. (Check out the many posts I’ve written on this here.)

Paul tells the churches in Corinth and Colossae that they will teach one another. He expects it. And he doesn’t parse gender lines in those letters. Why? It’s likely because he wasn’t making a universal rule in 1 Timothy.

It begs the question, can we really use this one verse to nullify all those other instances?

This is the reason why Bill Mounce, a complementarian scholar, says that “the context thus limits the universal application [of 1 Timothy 2:12] to some extent.”[2]

I’m not trying to undermine the authority of 1 Timothy 2:12. Instead, I’m trying to show (quite outrageously, I admit) that to build an entire theology and practice on one verse despite quite a bit of evidence to the contrary is probably not a good idea.

Summing It Up

I hope these thought experiments help you see that Paul’s solution was specific to a problem in Ephesus while Timothy was there, not something every church in every culture in every generation deals with.

We’d do well to focus on the two principles I mentioned above and work out, in our own contexts, how to concretely express them.


Notes

[1] Tim Challies, “The Five Tests of False Doctrine,” 2/6/2017.

[2] Mounce is quoted in Michael F. Bird, Bourgeois Babes, Bossy Wives, and Bobby Haircuts: A Case for Gender Equality in Ministry (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012). I found the quote here.

Categories
Commentary Let Her Lead Theology

Prominent Women in the Life and Ministry of Paul

Like Jesus, Paul made it a point to include women in his ministry. He worked alongside them. He acknowledged them in his letters. He even commended their leadership to others. This post will be an overview of those women.

The goal of this post is simple. I want to show that Paul’s ministry alongside women should be the starting point for our discussion of gender roles rather than the restrictive passages. After all, there are only two such passages: 1 Tim 2:11-15 and 1 Cor 14:34-35. And the next two posts will cover those texts.

I am convinced that when we start with how Paul ministered with women and how he actually talked about them, we will be able to see the restrictive passages in a different light.

To put it differently: when we start with Paul’s endorsement of women in leadership, we can acknowledge that he may mean something other than an absolute, universal restriction of women teaching and leading men.

When we start with how Paul ministered with women and how he actually talked about them, we will be able to see the restrictive passages in a different light.

If we start with the restrictive passages, we will need to explain away the fact that Paul endorses and commends women in leadership throughout his letters.

Women and House Churches

Paul mentions several women who hosted churches in their homes.[1] Here’s a rundown:

  • Lydia, in Philippi, started following Jesus after hearing Paul preach (Acts 16:13-15). She hosted Paul and his missionary team in her home after converting. Later in that same chapter, we find her hosting a church in her home (Acts 16:40).
  • In 1 Corinthians 1:11, Paul writes, “My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you.” The phrase “Chloe’s household” (or “Chloe’s people,” ESV) probably indicates Chloe hosted a house church in Corinth.
  • Paul sends the Corinthians greetings from Priscilla and her husband Aquilla “and so does the church that meets at their house” (1 Cor 16:19). See the next section for more on Priscilla.
  • Paul asks the Colossians to greet “Nympha and the church in her house” (Col 4:15).
  • In his letter to Philemon, Paul also addresses the letter “to Apphia, our sister” (Phm 2) along with a man named Archippus. Some scholars speculate that Apphia may have been Philemon’s wife. Whatever the case, Paul recognized her publicly in the church that met in Philemon’s house.

What does hosting a house church have to do with women in leadership? A lot actually.

In the ancient world, a distinction was made between the public sphere and the home.[2] Men ruled the public sphere; women ruled the home sphere. Women were in charge of the home’s general oversight, managing the finances, raising children, and directing and disciplining servants and slaves. This structure existed in Jewish, Greek, and Roman cultures.

In a patriarchal world, we’d expect these new Christian churches to meet outside the home, where men ruled. It was quite revolutionary–and risky–to meet in the woman’s domain. What would outsiders think? It didn’t matter; the gospel leveled the playing field. This was one way the early church gave credibility and authority to women.[3]

When Paul mentions these women who hosted house churches, he does not call them pastors or elders or bishops. But he never does that with the men who host churches, either.

Just because someone hosted a church in their home did not make them a “pastor.” Nor did it automatically mean they were a leader of some kind. The New Testament doesn’t give us these details.

But in the cultural context, it’s unlikely that those who were “heads of household” and hosted a community in their home would not be a recognized leader that community.[4] These “hosts” would have been seen as overseers, organizers, patrons (financial providers), and, yes, teachers and leaders.[5]

Paul doesn’t need to label them because it would have been understood that they were one of the leaders in that community (remember all early church leadership was plural). They were a significant part of the gospel expanding through the Empire and that’s why Paul mentions them by name in his letters. So significant that he calls many of them his “co-workers” (e.g. Priscilla in Rom 16:3).

While these female hosts are never called “elders,” there is reason to believe that in his earlier letters Paul referred to them as “those who work hard among you, who care for you in the Lord and who admonish you” (1 Thes 5:12). It wasn’t until his later letters that Paul began calling house church hosts “overseers” or “bishops” (see Phil 1:1, 1 Tim 3:1).[6]

The Woman Who Taught a Man

Let’s zoom in on Priscilla, one of the house church leaders. In the six times Priscilla and her husband Aquila’s names are paired together (Acts 18:18, 19, 26; Rom 16:3; 1 Cor 16:19; 2 Tim 4:19), Priscilla’s name is first five times. This may mean she was the recognized or more natural leader or the more prominent speaker. We can’t know for sure.

Either way, Paul considered this woman an astounding minister of the gospel, even calling her his “co-worker” (Rom 16:3) a term he used for men like Timothy (1 Thess 3:2) and Titus (2 Cor 8:23).

Priscilla is most well-known for being the one woman in the New Testament who explicitly taught a man Christian theology.

Priscilla and her husband met a gifted missionary named Apollos. After hearing him preach, they noticed he needed further instruction to understand the way of Jesus more accurately (Acts 18:26). Apollos knew Jesus but had not heard of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. So the couple taught him privately to fill in the gaps.

It’s safe to say this was not the only time Priscilla did this kind of thing.

If Paul were so concerned that a woman should never teach a man, why wouldn’t he have corrected Priscilla? If Paul were concerned that Aquila, the man, was not leading his wife properly, why didn’t Paul call him out?

The three of them were together frequently, even building and selling tents together (see Acts 18:3). Because they’re mentioned so often in Paul’s letters, it’s clear they were dear friends. Surely there was opportunity to discuss this issue! 

What’s more, if gender roles were so important to the New Testament authors, especially Paul, wouldn’t that conversation have made it into a book–at some point–to clear up the matter? Paul’s confrontation of Peter’s ethnic discrimination makes it in (see Gal 2). Why not this?

Priscilla was living-out her God-given role as a teacher in the church.

Scripture never records anything because Paul never corrected Priscilla and Aquila. They were never in violation of any universal rule about gender roles in ministry. In teaching a man, Priscilla was doing exactly what God had called and gifted her to do.

Here’s the complementarian objection: But Priscilla taught Apollos privately, not in corporate worship! I used to argue this way. But now I see things differently.

If gender roles are grounded in “creation order,” as the complementarian argument goes, then does it really matter if the teaching is public or private?

Why did Priscilla and Aquila instruct Apollos privately? It was so that this fantastic, young preacher would not be publicly shamed or discouraged. It also kept his audience from doubting his character, ability, or giftedness.

Priscilla was living out her God-given role as a teacher in the church. Apollos benefited and continued his itinerant ministry of spreading the gospel to those who needed it (see Acts 18:27-28)

Paul’s Female Co-Workers

There are other women Paul refers to in his letters. While he uses different titles or descriptions for them, it’s obvious that they have some leadership in the church.

In Philippians, Paul wanted two women leaders named Euodia and Synteche to restore their fractured relationship (Phil 4:2-3). He said “have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers” (my emphasis).

Whatever role these women had, Paul bestowed on them the precious title of “co-workers” in ministry.

Then there’s Romans 16, the chapter that commends more women in ministry than any other.

Romans is often considered Paul’s greatest and most significant epistle. His magnum opus, if you will. The thing about Romans that gets overlooked is Paul’s devotion to bridging the divide between Jews and Gentiles. It’s probably not a coincidence that in Romans 16, as Paul ended his letter, he included a hefty roll call of twenty-nine Jewish and Gentile co-workers.

It’s also not an accident, in my opinion, that there are nine women mentioned in Romans 16.[7] This is yet another subversive way that Paul upended the patriarchal structures found in Jewish and Greek/Roman cultures.

I’m going to spotlight two of these women: Phoebe and Junia. I’ll provide a summary of my perspective and relevant observations, though both women deserve chapter-length posts on their own.

Phoebe

The first woman in the list is Phoebe. Paul writes, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, [who is] a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me” (Rom 16:1-2, NIV).

In just two verses, Phoebe is identified as a deacon, a courier, and a benefactor. That’s some resume! What’s the significance of these terms?

Wouldn’t calling Phoebe a “minister” (or “deacon”) change the way you view her?

First, Phoebe was a deacon. The Greek word diakonon (the female form for “servant” or “deacon” in English) could be a general term for a Christian worker, which Paul sometimes used for himself and others (e.g. Col 1:7; 4:7).

But there’s a translation issue. The ESV translates diakonon as “servant” here in Romans 16:1. But in Colossians 4:7, when referring to Tychicus (a man) who delivered Paul’s letter to the Colossians, the ESV translates the exact same word as “minister.”[8]

Wouldn’t calling Phoebe a “minister” (or “deacon”) change the way you view her?

Furthermore, because this word diakonon is paired with the Greek verb eimi (translated “who is” in the brackets above), it’s probably a formal title denoting an official leadership role.

So she is “Minister Phoebe,” or “Deaconness Phoebe,” if you prefer.

Second, she was a courier. This word isn’t in the text, but Paul’s commendation of Phoebe is his way of saying, “I’m sending my letter with Phoebe and I trust you’ll receive her as you’d receive me.”

In the ancient world, couriers were more than our modern postal workers (no offense USPS!). Not only did couriers brave long and dangerous journeys to deliver important documents. They also had the role of answering questions about the letter they carried so the recipients understood it.

If couriers did not function as teachers or expositors, they were at least “authoritative interpreters” of the author’s intent and meaning.[9]

This means Paul entrusted a woman to help the Romans understand his magnum opus. That’d be mind-blowing in his day.

So Phoebe serves as Paul’s interpreter to the Roman church.

Finally, she was a benefactor. Paul used the Greek word prostatis to describe Phoebe. The word can mean “patron”–someone who helps fund a strategic project.

But this word also has clear leadership connotations. Its verbal form is used to describe church leader activity in 1 Thessalonians 5:12 and 1 Timothy 5:17. It carries the meaning of guardianship or even “to be over” others.

Phoebe is likely a church leader and a wealthy businesswoman who helped fund Paul’s ministry and the early Christian movement in general.

So Phoebe is a leader, guardian, and financial supporter of the movement.

It seems far-fetched to imagine that the same Paul who commended Minister Phoebe to the Romans would also say that all women everywhere cannot teach or lead men.

Junia…the Apostle?

Junia is a mystery of sorts, and has been the center of much debate for a while now.

In verse 7, Paul writes, “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was” (NIV).

Paul asks the Roman church to pass on his greetings to two people, likely a married couple, who are “outstanding among the apostles.”

Some complementarians argue that Junia was actually a man–that her name was actually the masculine Junias.[10] But the male name Junias is not found in any ancient document–not one![11] Kenneth Bailey, an expert in Middle Eastern culture, comments, “The male name Junias first appeared in the Middle East in 1860!”[12]

Most of the early church fathers took the name Junia to be a woman. Marg Mowckzo has compiled a helpful list of what the fathers said about Junia.[13]

One of the more clear explanations is from John Chrysostom, the fourth century, Greek-speaking father. He believed Junia was a woman and an apostle: “To be an apostle is something great. But to be outstanding among the apostles just think what a wonderful song of praise that is! Indeed, how great the wisdom of this woman must have been, that she was even deemed worthy of the title of apostle.”[14]

For all these reasons, despite some complementarian pushback, the majority of scholars today believe Junia was a woman.

Now, was Chrysostom right about Junia being an apostle? The NIV says, “They are outstanding among the apostles.” Translated this way, she’s “one of” the apostles. It’s like saying, “Among the quarterbacks on the team, he’s the strongest.”

But we have another translation issue. The very small word that sparks a very big problem is the Greek word en: “They are outstanding among (Gk en) the apostles.”

The ESV obscures this meaning by translating en differently. It says, “They are well to the apostles.” This obviously would mean Junia was not an apostle, but that the apostles were well-acquainted with her.

En occurs over 2,000 times in the New Testament! It’s a flexible Greek preposition that can be translated into many English words. But complementarian scholar Doug Moo says that the most likely translation is “among.”[15] The renowned New Testament scholar F.F. Bruce says the same.[16]

Marg Mowczko points out that Paul connects Andronicus and Junia to himself three times: 1) they are fellow Jews; 2) they’ve been imprisoned with him; 3) they were in Christ before him. It makes sense to see Paul connecting the couple to himself again by saying they are well-known “among the apostles,” which includes himself. But well-known “to the apostles…sounds as though the couple is known to a group of apostles or missionaries who are somewhat distant.”[17]

I’m comfortable affirming that Junia, a woman, was an apostle.

When I consider all this along with how Chrysostom and other church fathers saw Junia (see note 14), I’m comfortable affirming that Junia, a woman, was an apostle.

Now, what kind of an apostle was she? The Greek word apostolos generically means “messenger.” But when used in relation to a person, it always refers to eyewitnesses to the resurrection who had received a commission from him.[18] Since Andronicus and Junia were Jews who were believers before Paul, we have every reason to believe they were apostles in this sense.

We should not underestimate the significance of Paul identifying this woman as an apostle.

But we shouldn’t overestimate it either. It doesn’t settle the whole gender debate. It’s a major data point. But it’s just one. Rena Pederson is right about Junia when she says, “Her story is not some kind of ‘magic bullet’ to resolve all differences about women’s roles in the church, but it is certainly one more good reason to challenge the status quo.”[19]

One goal of this entire project is to help you feel the freedom to challenge the status quo.

Summing It All Up

None of these women is a magic bullet. They aren’t objects to be used to advance an agenda–even a worthy one. Men have been using women to advance agendas for far too long. Instead, taken together, the stories of these women are a beautiful tapestry that reveals how progressive early Christianity really was against its cultural backdrop.

We’ve looked at many prominent women who crossed paths with Paul. Paul welcomed women to partner with him as servants of the Lord Jesus, often calling them his “co-workers,” as he did male counterparts. He was consistent in speaking about women in celebratory, uplifting ways.

In the patriarchal world of the first century, we should expect Paul’s male co-workers like Timothy, Barnabas, Silas, and Titus to be more visible throughout the New Testament. But the simple fact that there were women who worked with and were commended by Paul should cause us to rethink our own patriarchal biases in the church today.

It’s easy to prioritize the restrictive passages from Paul. But how he interacted with and spoke about women should be the starting point for our conversation on gender roles.

Now, you may be wondering, Why haven’t I heard about all these women before? A part of that answer surely has to be that complementarians wouldn’t benefit from drawing attention to them. To give women the same status and authority these New Testament women had would cause upheaval in many evangelical churches.

With the last two posts in mind, I’ll now tackle the most controversial passage on gender roles, 1 Timothy 2:11-15.


Notes

Feature photo: “St. Paul Staying in the House of Aquila and His Wife Priscillaengraving by J. Sadeler after Jodocus Winghe (c. 1544-1603).

[1] We don’t know much about what house churches were like because the New Testament just assumes that’s the normal form of church. It’s likely that many churches, including the ones in this list, were hosted in the homes of wealthier people because of the size needed to gather. Even the largest homes could probably only hold between 20-50 people. A poorer household would simply not be able to fit that many people. Because of a home environment, wide participation would have been encouraged. There would not have been one man standing in front of this small group to deliver a 45-minute sermon. As Kevin Giles points out, it would have been quite awkward for someone to be “out in front” leading a group of 20 people! See my last post for more on this. For a very insightful article on house churches and women, see Kevin Giles, “House Churches,” Priscilla Papers 24/1, 2010.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Women were especially drawn to Christianity because if offered them a life that was so greatly superior to the life they otherwise would have led.” See Rodney Stark, The Triumph Of Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2011), 122.

[4] “Female house church leaders, it is important to add, were the counterparts of male house church leaders. They had the same social standing, they were accorded the same respect at home, and their leadership was of the same kind. It is simply not possible in that society that, when the church met, these women were subordinated to the men present, most or all of whom would have been of lesser social standing and wealth than they were, and some of them their servants and slaves.” See Giles, “House Churches.”

[5] For more on this, read “House Churches” by Giles. See also Marg Mowczko, “Must Manage His Own Household Well (1 Timothy 3:4-5),” Marg Mowczko blog, 6/23/2018; and Marg Mowczko, “Chrysostom on 5 Women Church Leaders in the NT,” Marg Mowczko blog, 6/10/2020.

[6] This is a theory proposed by Giles. It makes sense if we consider the timing of Paul’s writings. Remember that even Paul worked out his ecclesiology (“doctrine of the church”) progressively. Not everything was sorted out that day he met Jesus on the road to Damascus. We lose sight of this when we read the Bible in our modern, non-chronological format.

[7] This list in Romans 16 deserves a post all its own. Thankfully, Marg Mowczko has already written it. See Marg Mowczko, “A List of the 29 People in Romans 16:1-16,” Marg Mowczko blog (5/18/20190).

[8] Why the difference in translating diakonon? What’s gained by using different words about two people who both delivered letters of Paul? I believe there is a reason and I hope to include an interlude post soon about the ESV’s gender translation problems.

[9] Ian Paul, “Phoebe, carrier of Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians,” Psephizo blog, 12/1/2012.

[10] Thank link will take you to Kevin DeYoung, “Let Us Reason Together About Complementarianism,” TGC Blog, 5/26/2021. DeYoung has become one of the more vocal complementarian voices recently. In an earlier article, I talked about how complementarians don’t so much believe in biblical inerrancy as much as the inerrancy of their interpretations. We see this clearly in DeYoung’s introduction: “[W]e want to be humble before the Lord and before each other, acknowledging that we can make interpretive mistakes. On the other hand, we don’t want to undermine practical biblical authority by declaring that all we have are ‘interpretations.'” Framing his article this way puts the reader in a tough spot. If I disagree with something he says, I’m “undermining practical biblical authority” because I see an issue (a secondary issue, mind you) differently than he does. Unfortunately, this is how complementarians have argued for decades, causing Christians to fear even the thought that there may be other viable options for a Christian understanding gender roles.

[11] Marg Mowczko, “Junias and Junia in Early Commentaries of Romans 16:7,” Marg Mowczko blog, 4/2/2010.

[12] Kenneth E. Bailey, “Women in the New Testament: A Middle Eastern Cultural View,” Theology Matters 6/1 (2000), 4. 

[13] Marg Mowczko, “Junia in Romans 16:7,” Marg Mowczko blog, 4/2/2010.

[14] John Chrysostom, Homily 31 on Romans.” Chrysostom’s native language was Greek and even though he limited women in some settings, he certainly understood Paul’s words to mean that Junia was an apostle. Also, Craig Keener, NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan), on BibleGateway.com, notes, that Junia was a “feminine Latin name that normally belonged to Roman citizens. (Against some, it cannot be a contraction of the masculine ‘Junianus’; not only is this contraction not attested, but it does not work for Latin names. Thus ancient interpreters understood her as a woman.” See also, “Who was Junia?” The Junia Project, which notes, “More recently, scholars have overwhelmingly acknowledged that the name is definitively feminine.”

[15] Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 923. “With a plural object, en often means ‘among’; and if Paul had wanted to say that Andronicus and Junia were esteemed ‘by’ the apostles, we would have expected him to use a simple dative or hupo with the genitive.”

[16] F.F. Bruce, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980), 272.

[17] Marg Mowczko, “Was Junia well known ‘to’ the apostles?,” Marg Mowczko blog, 11/29/2019

[18] Bailey, “Women in the New Testament,” comments that because the Twelve disciples, Barnabas (Acts 14:14), and Paul are the only ones who are called apostles in the New Testament, “[T]he title of apostle (as applied to Junia) cannot be seen as a casual reference to an insignificant early Christian witness.”

[19] Rena Pederson, “Paul Praises a Woman Apostle,” CBE International Academic Articles.

Categories
Commentary Let Her Lead Theology

The Difference of Pentecost

We come to Pentecost in Acts 2. It is, without a doubt, one of the most electrifying, motivating, and mystifying passages in the New Testament. 

It also helps us make sense of gender roles in the post-resurrection era of the Kingdom of God.

Think of this post as a sequel to the last two on Jesus and women. In those, we looked at how Jesus’ interactions with women changed the game on gender in the first century. Now, we’ll see how Jesus begins to carry on his work through his people, including women, by his Spirit.

What Happened at Pentecost?

Pentecost was a Jewish feast to celebrate the first-fruits of harvest. Because it was a religious observance, thousands of faithful Jews from other parts of the world made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem to worship God during the festival.

There were about 120 believers gathered together for prayer on the day of Pentecost. The group included both men and women (see Acts 1:14). Luke, the author, writes while they were praying a mighty wind rushed upon them. Something like “tongues of fire” came to rest above their heads and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit.

The disciples began sharing “the wonders of God,” and everyone heard what they said in their native language. The crowd was quite confused. Some even said that they were drunk.[1]

Joel foretold of a day when God would pour out his Spirit on all who believe without regard to status, ethnicity, or gender.

But Peter stood up to explain that they weren’t drunk. (It was only 9am!) This was the fulfillment of what the prophet Joel had written centuries before. His speech is found in Acts 2:14-36. His opening words in Acts 2:17-18 (quoting Joel 2:28-30) are the most important for our discussion. Here it is in the NIV:

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.

In the Old Testament, God poured out his Spirit for certain occasions and on particular people. No longer. Joel foretold of a day when God would pour out his Spirit on all who believe without regard to status, ethnicity, or gender (cf. Acts 2:39).

At Pentecost, that day had finally come. God now lives in and with his people–men and women–for good.

What Does Pentecost Mean?

Pentecost means a whole lot. As it relates to gender roles, I’ll mention three important take-aways:

1. Pentecost means God has come to dwell with both men and women, equally.  

This was the goal of creation all along. In the beginning, God dwelt with humanity in perfect fellowship. The story of the Old Testament is God’s pursuit of his people Israel to dwell with them in spite of their sin. Nothing is a permanent solution. 

Until Jesus. 

All who believe in him become the place where God’s presence dwells on earth. We are God’s temple—his sacred space.

Jesus is God’s sacred space—the “place” where God dwells. He calls himself the temple to prove the point (John 2:19-21). He is where heaven and earth meet. 

And through his life, death, and resurrection, he reconciles people back to God and gives them his Spirit. Now, all who believe in him become the place where God’s presence dwells on earth. We are God’s temple—his sacred space.[2] 

This is a major theme in the New Testament, and it was foundational for the early Church’s understanding of what it meant to be God’s people. (see 1 Cor 6:18; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:21-22; 1 Tim 3:15; 1 Pet 2:5). 

This has nothing to do with worshiping in a building or particular liturgies or churches operating as organizations. It has everything to do with being a people-movement energized and empowered by God’s Spirit for a specific identify and function: being with God as his people and being his witnesses to the rest of the world.

2. Pentecost means men and women are both his authoritative witnesses to the world.

Because God now dwells in us, we represent him to the world. This was, again, God’s intention from the beginning. He created man and woman in his image and likeness (Gen. 1:26-28), meaning they represented God in their activity in the world.

Sin did not entirely remove God’s image from humanity. But it brought destructive effects so that we sought to rule ourselves, rather than joyfully represent God as we were created to. 

Women, along with men, are authoritative witnesses for God because they, like men, have the Spirit.

Pentecost reverses this curse. The indwelling Spirit brings redemption and restoration to whoever believes in Jesus. Revelation 1:6 and 5:10 call the Church “a kingdom…and priests to our God,” echoing the language of image and likeness from Genesis.[3] Believers in Jesus can now fulfill humanity’s original intent.

Peter’s choice of the Joel passage especially highlights the mutuality between men and women in this new era of the Spirit. To prophesy in the context of Pentecost means to speak on God’s behalf with his authority. Women, along with men, are authoritative witnesses for God because they, like men, have the Spirit.[4]

There’s no hierarchy here. There’s no male-only leadership. The Kingdom of God, through the event of Pentecost, ushers in a new ministry paradigm in which men and women labor side-by-side in the work of the gospel.

3. Pentecost means the Church previews the world to come.

Jesus’ resurrection inaugurated the new creation. But it didn’t end with him. He is called the “firstborn” of a new creation (Col 1:15-20; cf. Rev 1:5). Now, whoever has the Spirit dwelling in them is “in Christ” and is, therefore, a “new creation” (2 Cor 5:17).[5] This will take its full effect when we are with Christ and receive our resurrected bodies in the new creation. 

As “new creation” beings, we are a “sneak peak” of the “coming attraction.” We’re a preview of what it will be like when we will reign with Jesus in the new heavens and new earth.

We do this in many ways, don’t we? We fight sin, pursue Christ-centered community, give justice to the disadvantaged and oppressed, care for the environment, bring hope to the hopeless, healing to the hurting, food to the hungry, and so on.

All of these are a faint whisper of life without sin, brokenness, and death.

In other words, we fight the curse.

Why wouldn’t we do the same with gender hierarchy? 

If men and women will live together in a redeemed world serving God equally as a kingdom and priests, shouldn’t we align our beliefs and practices with that reality now? Shouldn’t our ministries reflect the equality and mutuality God gave men and women at creation and in redemption?[6]

For me, the answer is a resounding “yes!”

If men and women will live together in a redeemed world serving God equally as a kingdom and priests, shouldn’t we align our beliefs and practices with that reality now?

What’s Next?

Now, on to Paul. In the next post, we’ll look at how Paul included women in gospel ministry. We’ll also consider some of his general teaching that should help us set a “baseline” for how Paul would think about women in ministry.

After that, we’ll start to dive in to the specific, controversial texts by Paul on women’s roles in the Church.


Notes

[1] For our purposes, what this language phenomenon actually was isn’t important. I have my own take. But that’s for another post. 

[2] If the concept of “sacred space” is new to you, please read my previous posts on Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 for context. 

[3] This is a major theme in 1 Peter. I’ll also show in the next post on Paul, that it’s a significant reason for his focus on the entire body of Christ contributing to its growth through spiritual gifts. Which, as we know, are not gendered.

[4] Of course, Peter, a man, takes the lead in his Pentecost speech. But as I’ve shown previously, we can’t overlook the fact that Jesus’ closest disciples were male for cultural reasons. Jesus accommodated himself to the culture he came to live in.

[5] A literal translation of 2 Corinthians 5:17 goes something like this, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ—new creation!” (2 For 5:17). There is no gendered pronoun in the verse. When a committee translates this passage as “he is a new creation,” we may know that Paul is talking about a generic person, but the gender bias damage has already been done. The focus of the verse is not “he” but “anyone” (Gk tis). Why is this text important for gender roles? Because it’s in a section where Paul talks about the ministry of reconciliation. If anyone is in Christ and is therefore a new creation, Paul writes, they have the distinct role of being his ambassador—to preach the message of Christ to a lost world. This ministry is for men and women. The theology of Acts 2 is no doubt in the forefront of Paul’s mind as he writes these words to the Corinthians. We have to ask ourselves: why would any woman be able to have this high identity and calling of “ambassador of Christ” to the world and yet not be a local church elder/pastor?

[6] I have heard some complementarians argue that there will be gendered hierarchy in the new heavens and new earth, based on the fact that there was a hierarchy built into the original creation. I have not found an actual article or book that explains the idea of “gender roles” in the new creation, however. Still, I remain unconvinced by this argument based on my conviction that Genesis 1-2 does not teach men are inherently “over” women as leaders. If there was no hierarchy in the Garden, it doesn’t make sense to me that there would be in the new creation. See my posts on Genesis 1, 2, and 3 for more on this. Other complementarians may argue that if a gender hierarchy is the result of the fall, that’s “just the way world is” and we should live with it. I may write an interlude post soon responding to the issue of birth order and whether or not we should fight against the curse. 

Categories
Commentary Let Her Lead Life Theology

Finally Seeing the Blind Spots

Anyone who has had conversation with me on a biblical text or a theological topic knows that I hate the answer, “Well, the Bible says so.” I want to get to the why behind the what. Sometimes it’s impossible to know, of course. But often, “The Bible say so,” is a lazy answer.

When it came to the debate on women’s roles in gender, I often answered genuine questions with, “Well, the Bible says so.”

Far too often I resorted to that rigid, biblical literalism I mentioned in a previous post. And it kept me from seeing an obvious blind spot which produced all kinds of inconsistent–if not awkward–applications.

The glaring blind spot of complementarianism that I missed for so long is fairly easy to explain. Here it is:

Complementarianism holds that women are equal to men, but separate from–namely, underneath–them

Proponents say they value women because women are “created equal with men.” Functionally, however, complementarians devalue women because, in any family or ministry setting, women are separated from men since they are “called” to place themselves under the authority of men–even if the men are not as mature, wise, gifted, or experienced.

We’ve heard “separate but equal” before, haven’t we?

How did that work out for us?

Equal But Separate No Longer

The Civil Rights movement in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States fought against the idea and practice of “separate but equal.” We all know how this produced all kinds of evils against black people.

Women in the church have been fighting against this same kind of thing for a very long time. It’s just harder to notice.

I’m not just trying to shock you by making the link between the struggle of women in the church and racism. Preachers and theologians in the United States used Scripture to argue that slavery and racism was God’s design for black people. They also argued that patriarchy was God’s design.

Complementarianism is simply patriarchy in our modern world.[1]

At some point a shift happened. Any respectable preacher or theologian in America today would say the slavery texts are reflective of a sinful system within a particular culture and should not be repeated today.

Yet the same preachers and theologians will defend the subjugation of women.

Historian Beth Allison Barr makes this exact case in her wonderful new book The Making of Biblical Womanhood.

Barr’s point is clear:

When we rightly understand that biblical passages discussing slavery must be framed within their historical context and that, through the lens of this historical context, we can better understand slavery as an ungodly system that stands contrary to the gospel of Christ, how can we not then apply the same standards to biblical texts about women?[2]

Patriarchy is designed to keep one half of humanity in power and the other half in submission.

Now, I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. I’ll have an entire post soon on how we can know whether a Bible passage is culture-bound or not. So, we’ll discuss the connection between slaves and women.

For now, the point I’m making is that slavery and segregation were designed to keep an entire group of people in submission. In the same way, patriarchy (aka complementarianism) is designed to keep one half of humanity in power and the other half in submission.

This does not reflect the spirit of Christ’s humility, love, and freedom.

We cannot keep saying women are “equal to men” and they must be “separate” from “a man’s work” in ministry. As someone has rightly said, “Separate but equal is not equal.”[3]

Now, please don’t hear something I’m definitely not saying. I am not saying that women and men are the same. Women and men are obviously different. 

And that’s the point, isn’t it? It’s exactly why men need women at the leadership table. If women were the same, we men wouldn’t need them, and vice versa.

But complementarians believe the difference between men and women goes beyond their biological and anatomical differences.

They argue that because of their gender, our roles and functions are different. Men lead and direct. Women follow and submit in the home and the church. In every culture. For all time.[4]

You already know this. That’s why you’re reading.

The reason I’ve gone to such great lengths to talk about my experiences in and observations of complementarianism is to show how these provided the right conditions for me to see how dangerous complementarianism really is.

A woman’s voice is essential for a ministry to function faithfully and fruitfully. Not a token voice, but one that holds the same weight as a man’s. It reminds me of Mary Magdalene, the first person to give voice to the good news of Jesus’ resurrection.

A woman’s testimony had no weight in a Jewish trial. Yet here is the risen Jesus sending a woman to be the first witness to his male friends about the greatest news in history. 

Here is the risen Jesus sending a woman to be the first witness to his male friends about the greatest news in history.

How’s that for weighty? A woman. Authorized by Jesus. Teaching men about the One who is Truth.

But women today aren’t permitted to lead and shepherd and teach people–men–who want to follow Jesus?

There it is. The blind spot, finally, exposed.

Equal but separate no longer.

Inconsistent (and Awkward) Application

Seeing this canyon-sized blind spot opened up the door for my wife and me to ask more pointed questions about the way complementarianism is broadly applied in churches.

Here are many inconsistencies both of us wrestled with. We either noticed these in our own ministry contexts or others:

Can a mother teach the Bible to her 18-year old son at home on Saturday night, but not the next morning in church? 

  • Can a woman lead or co-lead a mixed gender small group that meets in a home? Can a woman teach other men anything about God, the Bible, doctrine, etc. in a small group setting?[5]
  • Assuming our worship songs teach theology and Scripture (and they do), can a woman sing and lead musically in a church?
  • Assuming our prayers teach theology and Scripture (and they do), can a woman pray in a church?
  • Does leadership really just boil down to being the one who initiates and makes the final decision? What is uniquely “male” about that?
  • What do women do with their gifts of teaching, prophecy, exhortation, wisdom, knowledge, and discernment–gifts that are traditionally valued in (male) pastors/elders, leaders, and men in general?
  • What are women who are mature, humble, strong leaders actually allowed to do in a church if they aren’t allowed lead?
  • If a woman can give a short reflection on Scripture at a Good Friday service, why can’t she do the same for a bit longer–say “sermon length” longer–on Easter Sunday?
  • If women can’t teach men publicly because it is “having authority” over them and if “teaching” is a function of the elders, then should a non-elder man ever teach publicly? Wouldn’t he be assuming an authority over the elders that is not rightfully his?
  • Are men allowed to read a doctrinal book written by a woman?
  • Why can a woman teach a man in private conversation (see Acts 18:26), but not many men in a public church gathering? Is the difference that there is a formal service, in a building, with a pulpit?
  • If a woman shares her story in a church gathering and happens to explain a Bible verse or expounds a point of Christian doctrine, is she in violation of 1 Timothy 2:12?
  • Can a mother teach the Bible to her 18-year old son at home on Saturday night, but not the next morning in front of him and the whole congregation?
  • At what age does a boy become a man and is exempt from being taught by a woman? At 13? 16? 18? 21? 30?
  • Why can a woman teach a mixed group of college students in a parachurch setting on a weeknight but not on a Sunday morning in a local church setting? Or are women in parachurch settings not allowed to teach college-aged men?
  • Why can a woman preach, teach, evangelize, disciple, and even start churches overseas but not at home?
  • Why would a group of male-only elders ignore, at best, or reject, at worst, female input on major decisions when, as statistics show, more than half of Christian congregations are female?
  • Does a single female have to submit to any male? Or every male? Or just her pastor? Or just her father? Or her father and her pastor? What if she is 37 years old…or 65 years old?
  • Why would God tell women they can’t lead men simply because he made them female? 

These were inconsistencies I had shrugged off before because I was convinced there was no other way to interpret the most controversial passages on women in ministry. 

I didn’t want to just shrug these off anymore.

But What Does the Bible Say?

The past several posts, including this one, have been about my experiences and observations living within complementarianism. This is my reality.

But I’ll be the first to say that experience is not a valid reason to change your mind on a biblical teaching.

We need to let God’s word have the final say. 

Perhaps what I started to feel as a complementarian pastor was hogwash. Perhaps my inclination that we need women’s voices at the leadership table is just caving to modern culture. Perhaps my desire to honor and champion my wife and daughters–not to mention the many other many women I’ve worked alongside in ministry–is misguided. 

Perhaps I’m full of it.

Only a deep-dive into the entire story of Scripture–and the ancient world in which it was written–can help me find out.


Notes

[1] I’m not trying to be harsh by calling complementarianism “patriarchy.” I’m simply repeating what some of the most well-known complementarians have said. Owen Strachan, former president of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, wrote, “For millennia, followers of God have practiced what used to be called patriarchy and is now called complementarianism” (my emphasis). See “Of ‘Dad Moms’ and ‘Dad Fails’: An Essay on Men and Awesomeness,” The Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood 17/1 (2012), 23-26.

Similarly, Russell Moore, former president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, wrote, “If complementarians are to reclaim the debate, we must not fear making a claim that is disturbingly counter-cultural and yet strikingly biblical, a claim that the less-than-evangelical feminists understand increasingly: Christianity is undergirded by a vision of patriarchy” (my emphasis). Generally, I’m a fan of what Moore says and writes, but not here. See “After Patriarchy, What? Why Egalitarians Are Willing the Gender Debate,” Journal of the Evangelical Society 49/3 (September 2006), 569–76. This article was written back in 2006. I agree with Barr when she says that she hopes Moore has changed his stance. I’m not aware that he has, however.

[2] Beth Allison Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2021), 34. See 32-35 for her entire discussion on the connection between the struggle of women in the church and racism. You really should just buy this book and read it. It’s truly spectacular.

[3] As far as I can tell, this quote is attributed to Paul Martin, the 21st Prime Minister of Canada.

[4] Even John Piper and Wayne Grudem, fathers of biblical manhood and womanhood movement, teach that women are not designed by God to lead in secular vocations.

[5] Since churches in the first century met in homes, this question is very relevant! As we’ll see in our exploration of 1 Corinthians 11, we absolutely know that there were women who “prayed and prophesied” in house church gatherings in Corinth. The concept of a sermon given by one person in a pulpit or behind a lectern is foreign to the biblical writers. Multiple communicators of biblical truth, not just one, was more typical of worship gatherings in the first century.

Categories
Commentary Let Her Lead Life Theology

How Being a Complementarian Pastor Changed Everything

Our experiences powerfully shape our understanding of the Scriptures. As I said in my first post, the truth of the Bible does not change, but our understanding and applications of it do depending on our culture, community, and circumstances.

How can we be sure this is true? Here are several obvious examples.

If you have never spent much time with the poor, much of Jesus’ ministry and teaching may not impact you all that much (it also may make little sense). But if you take a month, a week, or even a day to live among the poor, your eyes will probably be enlightened to what was already there, but you had missed. Jesus’ words will likely land on you with the force he originally intended.

Or say you have a strong conviction about what a worship service should look and sound like. But then you visit a worship gathering in another culture where people obviously love Jesus and want to honor the Scriptures. Hopefully, going forward, you will read those passages about corporate worship with a little more flexibility and less conviction about your own culture’s way of doing things.

Many of us (myself included), last summer, began to see the call for justice throughout the Scriptures quite differently in light of George Floyd’s death and the conversations on race and injustice that followed.[1]

If you see the Bible in accord with a particular denomination, chances are you grew up in that denomination or the people welcomed you and were nice to you at a critical juncture in your life. If not, you wouldn’t be a part of that church![2]

If nothing else, we can understand this simply because we mature both chronologically and spiritually. Parts of the Bible hit us differently at various stages of life. We hear it all the time: I’ve never noticed this before but since becoming a parent…a widow…a foreigner…etc.

The Scriptures never change. But we do.

The Scriptures never change. But we do. And that’s the point I’m making. Can we agree on that?

Not having certain experiences and therefore not seeing all Scripture “evenly” doesn’t make us rotten people who are actively rebelling against God. It’s just part of being human.

I believe that God is compassionate and the he accommodates us. We’ll talk about “accommodation” in a future post, but in a nutshell, it means God meets us where we’re at. Isn’t that the whole point of him becoming human? And he’s bringing us along on a journey. Isn’t that the whole point of spiritual growth?[3]

Our experiences in the world are the “lenses” we look through to interpret the Bible. Right or wrong. But that’s not the only lens we wear. Our experience and familiarity with the world of the biblical authors (or lack thereof) also helps (or hinders) us in understanding and applying the Bible.

Our experiences in the world are the “lenses” we look through to interpret the Bible.

In this post and the next one (or two), I want to share how God graciously provided me with experiences and observations to help me see the passages about women’s roles in a fresh way. My experiences weren’t the conclusive evidence. They just opened the door to a new possibility.

After these posts on my story, and before getting into specific Bible passages, I’ll talk about how knowing the world of the biblical authors can help us, particularly as it relates to women’s roles.

Forgive me in advance for the length. I want to share as much as possible as quickly as possible so we can get on to considering what the Bible has to say.


Complementarianism: Case Closed?

As a white, middle-class, Midwestern kid who grew up in North American megachurch culture, I didn’t give much thought to gender roles in ministry.

There was never a debate to be had.

The church I grew up in was a part of the Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA) denomination. Our church only had male leaders (pastors/elders).[4]

Every Sunday, a male pastor preached from the Bible. Our church also only had male music leaders/directors.[5] Women did serve in a number other capacities, most notably women’s and children’s ministries. I assume this is similar, if not identical, to the experience of most people reading.[6]

Growing up, I simply assumed that men did the “big church leading” and that women taught other women and kids.

I lived in a male-dominated church world.

It didn’t feel wrong. It just was.

I assumed this was the correct stance not only because of our church’s practice, but also because of how I was taught to read the Bible: it is literal in what it says. I don’t mean that the Bible is literally true. That’s a different thing–which I believe. What I mean is that from home to church to private school, I was taught that we believe the words as they exist on the page.

Case closed.

I was in this church–and don’t get me wrong, it was a good church–until I went to college.

One memory from this church stands out that, perhaps, planted a seed of doubt that the issue was actually closed. It certainly added a level of complexity, if not inconsistency, to the male-only paradigm. Every year, our church had a missions conference. Missionaries came back home to share what God had been doing in the mission field. Every year an older, single woman came back to share about God’s work in the small West African country where she ministered. Her name was Mary.

I’m not sure what her ministry specifically involved, and I didn’t give it much thought then. But recently, I’ve wondered, as I’m sure some of you are wondering right now: Was Mary able to preach the gospel to a mixed group? Did she ever share Jesus with men? Did she ever teach new Christian men how to study the Bible and pray?

These women were likely doing the exact kind of ministry overseas they were not permitted to do at home.

I have to believe she did. At least once, right?

There are countless stories of faithful women who served as missionaries throughout church history, just like Mary. They were likely doing the exact kind of ministry overseas they were not permitted to do at home.

Mary wasn’t called “pastor” or “elder.” But she was (probably) doing the job of one.

The One Passage I Couldn’t Avoid

My first eighteen years of life in this church weren’t very formative theologically speaking. (I got bored with Jesus in middle school, but that’s another story entirely.) Instead, it was during college, then serving with a parachurch ministry in Nebraska and South Africa after graduation, and finally during seminary that I really started to establish myself theologically.

To make a long story short, I listened to and read just about every Reformed, complementarian pastor, author, and blogger there was. You name him, and I knew everything about him. Like so many other millennial Christian men, I wanted to be a strong, godly leader. So complementarianism was the obvious place to pitch my tent.

My position was simple. And it all hinged on one, precious verse. I once heard a well-known complementarian pastor and theologian quip: “If you can get the Bible to say, ‘I do permit’ when it says, ‘I do not permit,’ then you can get it to say whatever you want.”

He was talking about 1 Timothy 2:12, of course: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet” (NIV).[8]

I identified with what he said, but not mainly because of the gender issue, as important as that was for me. I wanted to be a “strong, godly leader.” But even more, I wanted to take the Bible seriously. What I found in Reformed complementarianism was a group of (male) teachers who did that. So I grasped on to everything they taught–lock, stock, and barrel.

I had been converted to Jesus. Now, I was being converted to biblical literalism.[7] I became convinced that if someone doubted the straightforward, literal reading of 1 Timothy 2:12, they were on a slippery slope toward rejecting the authority of the Bible and, eventually, Jesus himself.

Granted, I didn’t personally know anyone who believed in female church leadership. But if I ever meet someone who does, how can I be sure they won’t twist other Scriptures if they can’t see what Paul is OBVIOUSLY saying in 1 Timothy 2:12?!

I knew there were other passages in the New Testament that seemed to suggest that local church leaders should be men. But, for me, everything hung on 1 Timothy 2:12.

To me, it seemed like a watertight argument.

Pastoring Among Female Spiritual Giants

Ironically, it was my experience as a pastor in a non-denominational, evangelical, complementarian church in Upstate New York, that paved the way for me to consider the egalitarian / co-laborer position.

Early in the interview process for the role of associate pastor, I was asked to articulate my position on women in ministry. I explained that I believed the office of elder/pastor was reserved for men, only men could preach during a formal worship gathering of the whole church, but that women could exercise their gifts in any other capacity.

Check. Passed with flying colors.

The church did not have an official position on women’s roles in ministry that I knew of. In tradition and practice, however, the church subscribed to complementarianism.

Here’s how it played out for this church:

  • Only men were permitted to serve as elders.
  • Only men were allowed to give the sermon on a Sunday morning.
  • Only men could formally teach the Bible/theology in an adult education class (i.e. Sunday school).
  • Women could lead worship, read Scripture, pray, give the call to worship, and even give biblical reflections during special services.

In terms of ministry activities, this looks a lot like “soft complementarianism.” The other side of the coin is the leadership’s attitude toward women. That is so much harder to quantify than what ministry activities women can do/lead! I’ll discuss the general dynamics of that in the next post.

Once I was immersed in the life of this church, I started to realize how fuzzy things really got when it came to gender roles.

When you minister to a church you’ve never been a part of before, it doesn’t take long to find out who the spiritual giants are–those people everyone else looks up to and wants to be like.

This church had a lot of these people.

And many, many, many of them were women.

These women had an insatiable hunger to know Jesus and his word. They explained Bible passages and Christian theology with passion and ease. They shared the gospel with non-Christians. They served the poor. They welcomed foreigners into their homes. They prayed–oh, did they pray! They were honest, gracious, compassionate, and patient.

So patient.

They were (and still are) women of whom the world was not worthy.

And there I was, 30-something, first-time, male pastor, leading among these female spiritual giants. I went in thinking I needed to teach them. I left realizing how much they had taught me.

I went in thinking I needed to teach them. I left realizing how much they had taught me.

The women in our church never demanded a female elder. They never demanded that a woman preach a sermon. Their vision was simpler–and grander–than that. They wanted their voice, their gifts, their passions, their person, their womanhood to matter. They didn’t want to be ignored, silenced, or marginalized.

An older, retired pastor befriended and mentored me while we lived in New York. We spent Wednesday mornings at IHOP talking ministry and drinking bad coffee. He constantly nudged me toward including and empowering our women without ever trying to convince me of one theological position or the other.

His counsel, time after time, was to recognize and celebrate the spiritual gifts of women by actually letting them use their gifts, and, most importantly, ask for and listen to their insights, opinions, and preferences on church matters.

“If you want to see ‘church’ become a movement,” he’d always say, “you need women.”

Even as a complementarian, I recognized this and wanted it. I knew women were not second-class kingdom citizens and they had amazing things to offer.

The bigger question was, How does this fit in my theological framework?

That Time A Woman Preached

Over several months, I worked with many of these women on various things. Women even helped lead teams, and our elders had started a women’s advisory group that met with some of our elders to share their thoughts and concerns about the church.

We were making progress. But the progress was primarily behind the scenes. Women still did not have much of a voice when it came to big picture leadership or discipleship issues, including, of course, proclaiming God’s word to the whole congregation.

But I sensed a change on Good Friday 2015, during a Tenebrae service. In this type of worship gathering, various people prepare brief reflections on the sayings of Jesus from the cross. In a “hard complementarian” church, this would be reserved for men only. But we had a mixture of men and women give what truly was a “sermonette.”

One woman spoke on “I thirst” from John 19:28-29.

Angst shot out from her face while she whispered as if her lips were dry, cracked, and bleeding, “I’m thirsty!” Reciting the psalmist’s searching cry in Psalm 63, she showed that Jesus fulfilled that ancient song in his statement from the cross. Jesus didn’t simply need physical water, she pointed out. He wanted–needed–his Father. That’s who he was thirsty for. Jesus died of (spiritual) thirst.

It was the one of the best sermons I’ve ever heard.

Everyone in the room knew she was preaching. And she was preaching like she was born to do it.

And I knew without a shadow of a doubt that she was preaching. Everyone in the room knew she was preaching.

And she was preaching like she was born to do it.

I can’t remember if I felt conflicted in the moment. (I hope I wasn’t debating the legitimacy of it–it was Good Friday!) Besides, everyone seemed edified because of what she said.

Whatever I thought about the role of women that night didn’t matter at all.

What mattered is that I wanted to know Jesus, love Jesus, and be like Jesus more because of what she said during that beautiful, dark, haunting Tenebrae service.

“What About Sunday School?”

Months later in late 2015, I had transitioned to interim pastor after our senior pastor had resigned. Discussions on the precise roles of women continued to increase. By spring 2016, our elder team had to deal with the most significant theological and practical question during my years as a pastor: can a woman teach and lead a Sunday school adult education class?

Prior to this, the church had an unwritten rule that only men could teach the Bible or theology proper.[9] But we had capable, knowledgeable, and willing women who wanted to teach on various topics, particularly books of the Bible, theology, or spiritual formation. They wanted to know if that was an acceptable way to use their gifts.

We (the elder team) had to answer in a way that 1) honored these women, and 2) upheld our complementarian framework. Our position was not up for debate–we weren’t all of a sudden going to have women elders or a woman preach to the whole church on a Sunday morning. But the application of our position wasn’t set in stone.

I spent weeks studying and praying about this issue. I read and re-read the Scriptures and consumed just about every article and opinion you could find online. I agonized over it.

I came to the conclusion that there was nothing in the Scripture that prevented a woman from teaching mixed groups in a “Sunday School-like” setting. I believed, as some complementarian churches do, if the person teaching and what is being taught are under elder oversight, it would be acceptable. I shared my view with the other elders and after many conversations, we agreed to start allowing women to teach adults the Bible and theology.[10]

Feeling the Foundation Crumble

What I’ve shared in this post is a tiny glimpse into the people and events God used opened my eyes to the value of women in the church, which then allowed me to see Scripture in a different light. Obviously, I don’t have the space to share every experience that deeply influenced me–private conversations, email exchanges, prayer times, planning sessions. I wish I did.

Ironically, while I was a complementarian pastor, my complementarian foundation began to crumble. By the time I stepped down as a pastor of the church my heart had ripened enough to at least be open to other options. After all, my wife and I were both transitioning to work with Cru as campus ministers together.

Carly, my wife, is tremendously gifted and, while I was a pastor, desired to use her gifts for the good of the church, too. But how could she use her gifts of teaching, wisdom, and discernment as the wife of a complementarian pastor in a complementarian church? How could we co-labor to serve both genders together? It seemed impossible.

In the next post, I’ll share more of our story, focusing on my wife’s influence on my journey and our experience together in the church as we started to notice the major blind spots of complementarianism.


Notes

[1] I’m not talking about the politics of race. I’m talking about Christian empathy, compassion, justice, and God’s heart for all people groups, especially marginalized ones, which, as we’ll see, relates to the issue of women in the church.

[2] I recognize that some people join a church or denomination based on doctrine or the “statement of faith” alone. But I’d be willing to bet my retirement account those people are by far the exception.

[3] In Christian theology, the term for this is “sanctification.” Sanctification comes from the Latin word sanctus which means “to make holy, to set apart.”

[4] The CMA has a long history of empowering women in ministry. However, their current position is still that only men can serve as local church elders. Their website states: “Women may fulfill any function in the local church which the senior pastor and elders may choose to delegate to them…and may properly engage in any kind of ministry except that which involves elder authority.” However, just two weeks ago Christianity Today reported that the CMA is reconsidering their position. CMA President John Stumbo said, “It’s become clear to me that some of our policies unnecessarily restrict otherwise called and qualified ministers. This grieves me.”

[5] Different churches have different names for their leaders: elders or pastors are most common in North American churches. In some baptist churches, “deacon” is used for the men who lead the church. Biblically speaking, however, “deacon” can refer to someone who is a minister-at-large (see Rom 16:1-2) or someone in a specific local church who helps with more practical, material needs (see Acts 6).

[6] For my friends and family who grew up in Pentecostal traditions, they are much more likely to have experienced female leadership in some capacity. The official position of the Assemblies of God, the largest Pentecostal denomination, is that women are not restricted in any sense: “We conclude that we cannot find convincing evidence that the ministry of women is restricted according to some sacred or immutable principle.”

[7] “Biblical Literalism is the method of interpreting Scripture that holds that, except in places where the text is obviously allegorical, poetic, or figurative, it should be taken literally.” GotQuestions.org, “What is biblical literalism?”

[8] Essentially every major English Bible translation says the same thing for 1 Tim 2:12. See the comparisons.

[9] “Theology proper” in our church’s context would be something like the content of our statement of faith, which primarily covered the essential doctrines of Christianity (the Trinity, atonement, salvation by faith, etc.). A parenting class, for example, would deal with aspects of theology, but would not be “theology proper,” therefore a woman would be allowed to teach it.

[10] You might be asking, “What happened next?!” About 5-6 months later , we announced that we’d be joining staff with Cru. We left the following spring. So, I can’t add much because my part in this church’s story came to an end.