The SBC, Women in Ministry, Misogyny, and Scripture as Authority

There has been a lot of talk in the news lately regarding the Southern Baptist Convention, women in Ministry, and misogynistic attitudes. It seems appropriate to write about the subject this week. There is no place for the degradation of women in our culture or in Christian denominations.

To begin, I would like to explain a few basic concepts.

First, in philosophy the term Egalitarian means that all people are created equal. They have the same value, abilities, etc. All people deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. Philosophically, I agree with Egalitarianism. However, in the church the terms Egalitarian and Complementarian are used to describe one’s position with regard to whether or not a female can serve as the Senior Pastor of a church. Egalitarians believe that women can and should serve as Senior Pastors. Complementarians believe that women and men are created as equal, that they are of equal value, that they equally bear the image of God, and that they are both saved by the same death and resurrection of Christ, but that they have different functional roles in ministry. Primarily, they believe that women should not serve as Senior Pastors. For the record, I am a Complementarian in this sense of the term.

Second, while Complementarianism as defined above should not give rise to abuses in the church, family, or religious life, many under the guise of being complementarians have used the term to their own bent in order to promote the degrading of women, misogynistic treatment of women, and to wrongly keep women from doing legitimate ministry. Hear me clearly, it is wrong at any time and in any context to have an ingrained prejudice against any person based on gender, ethnicity, socio-economic status, or for any other reason. Christianity teaches that God created humans as equals and that everyone is deserving of respect.

Third, it shameful that the reputation of the church has been marred by the many people who have wrongly used Scripture to defend poor treatment of others (including women, foreigners, unborn children, etc.). The church should be a light showing the world how to treat people. We are to love one another above all else. We must apologize for the ways that people have been treated poorly by those claiming that their actions are in the will of God. We must rectify our past wrongs, and we must be willing to take appropriate steps to remove abusers from places of power and influence not only in Southern Baptist circles, but all denominational (and non-denominational) circles.

To that end, in this post I would like to run through the Bible and discuss exactly what Scripture says about women in ministry and leadership.

Women in the Old Testament

The Bible discusses several women in the Old Testament who take leading roles in delivering God’s people. In Exodus 15:20 Miriam, the sister of Moses, is mentioned as a Prophetess and it is noted that she led the people in worship song. In Judges 4 and 5 the story of Deborah is recounted. She is a Prophetess in Israel and a Judge. She gives Barak (a man) an opportunity to defeat the enemies of the people, but when he does not trust her as he should, the Lord delivers the enemy’s leader into the hands of another woman (Jael). In 2 Kings 22:14-ff, Huldah the Prophetess is consulted and she pronounces judgments and blessings. She is a prophetess living in Jerusalem. It is clear from these passages alone that women were called as prophets in the era of the Old Testament. They spoke on behalf of the Lord and they helped lead the people of Israel. In the case of Huldah, another man is mentioned as High Priest. Thus it would seem that while the women could speak and prophesy, the place of High Priest even in Jewish tradition was reserved for only men.

Other notable women in the Old Testament that God used to deliver the people from oppression or to aid them in victory were Rahab, Esther, Ruth and Naomi. Of these, Rahab and Ruth are both mentioned in the Genealogy of Christ. While these women do not serve in official ministerial roles, they are clearly called by God for specific tasks.

In Proverbs 31:18-20 with regard to a virtuous women the text reads:

18 She perceives that her merchandise is profitable.
    Her lamp does not go out at night.
19 She puts her hands to the distaff,
    and her hands hold the spindle.
20 She opens her hand to the poor
    and reaches out her hands to the needy.

Here we see that a virtuous woman not only works outside the home, but that she cares for the oppressed. James 1:27 states Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” The virtuous woman is clearly involved in ministry. And rightly so, as all Christians are called to do ministry.

So now we ask, how does the New Testament build on what is observed in the Old Testament.

Women in the New Testament

Women were involved in the ministry of Jesus. In Luke 8:1-3 we read that Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna (among others) traveled with Jesus and even helped financially provide for him through their own means.

Jesus associated with women and treated them with dignity (including the prostitute who washed his feet (John 7:36-50), the woman at the well (John 4:1-45), the Canaanite woman who sought healing for her daughter (Matthew 15:21-28), and the woman who had been bleeding (Luke 8:43-48).

It was women who first discovered the empty tomb and were told to go and tell Jesus’ disciples of the resurrection (Matthew 28 and Mark 16). This is significant in that women’s testimonies were not even allowed in court at that time, but Jesus entrusted them with being the first to share the good news of the resurrection with the disciples.

In Matthew 28:19 Jesus is speaking to the eleven remaining disciples of the original twelve when he gives the Great Commission. It states, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” This command is generally understood as a universal command for all believers. Indicating that all believers should share their faith, and make disciples through teaching. Other passages in the New Testament support this idea.

In Acts 16, we are told of the conversion of Lydia. The church in Philippi ended up meeting in her house.

In Acts 18, the Bible states in verse 26 that Priscilla and her husband Aquila both taught and discipled Apollos so that he could better share the faith.

Paul wrote 1 Corinthians based on a report that he had received from Chloe or from those working with her (1 Corinthians 1:10). Her people could refer to her servants or possibly those meeting at a church in her house.

In Colossians 4, Paul mentions a woman named Nympha and greets the church that met at her house. In Philemon, Paul greets Apphia along with others stating that the church meets at her house.

In 2 Timothy 4:21 Paul mentions a woman named Claudia. She is working with Paul and sends her greetings to Timothy. It is worth noting that Priscilla is also mentioned by name in this passage as one who is currently working with Timothy.

In Philippians 4, Paul names Euodia and Syntyche as women who have labored with him side-by-side in the Gospel. He also mentions Clement in this passage. Clement was a pastor and some early church fathers have interpreted Paul’s description here as stating that these women were also pastors. Though Paul does not explicitly say this.

Finally, in Romans 16 Paul mentions ten [10] women by name who are all part of his ministry team and servants of the church. [1] Phoebe (who serves at the church in Cenchreae), [2] Priscilla (along with her husband), [3] Mary (who worked hard for the church in Rome), [4] Junia (and her husband who had been imprisoned for the faith and were known as outstanding among the Apostles), [5] Tryphaena and [6] Tryphosa (who worked hard in the Lord), [7] Persis, [8] the mother of Rufus, [9] Julia, and [10] the sister of Nereus. These women were all involved in ministry, but exactly how is not known.

From these passages we clearly see that Paul was not opposed to women doing ministry. Paul worked with women, women prophesied, they helped teach and make disciples, they hosted churches in their homes, etc.

The term prophesy in the New Testament often means to declare God’s will, to make God’s truth known in order to influence people, or to interpret God’s will for someone or a group. It is not meant to be new Scriptural revelation, but rather is to be understood in light of Scripture. Explaining Scripture is often part of using the spiritual gift of prophecy.

And now for the controversial passages!!!

The Three Major Passages Regarding Women in Ministry

1 Corinthians 11:1-16 discusses the issue of the head covering. In this passage, Paul states that women should not have shaved heads (likely because of the prostitution cults in the city of Corinth where the female ministers shaved their heads). He also states that men should not have long hair. Paul even states that men and women are dependent upon one another, but that men are to be the head of the house just as Christ is the head of the church. Here we see a functional role that contradicts culture. In Rome, women were seen as the heads of the household. Paul states that men are to be spiritual leaders in the home. Perhaps this assignment from Paul is a result of him knowing that men will often not be sensitive to the Spirit and his promptings if they are not conscientiously thinking about them. However, here Paul also states that women pray and prophesy just as men pray and prophesy. The idea that women are still prophesying in the New Testament is further supported with Acts 21:9 where Luke writes that Philip had 4 daughters who were Prophetesses. So clearly Paul allows for some kind of speaking from women in the church. This makes the other two passages that much more difficult to understand.

1 Corinthians 14:33-35 reads:

As in all the churches of the saints, 34 the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. 35 If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

Paul has already stated in Chapter 11 that they may prophesy. Some have argued that the term “speak” in this passage refers to informal speaking. Perhaps the women were talking when they should not have been talking and it was disrespectful to the formal speaker. The New American Standard translated the passage to read that the women should be in submission to themselves meaning that they should keep themselves in order during the service. One interesting thing to note about this passage is that no verse in the Law states that a woman must be silent. Some have postulated that this could be a reference to a local Roman law. But if that is the case, why does Paul say that this is for all the churches?

Given the full context of this chapter, it seems appropriate to say that Paul may be simply referring to speaking out of turn in a chaotic manner. In verses 27-33 Paul states that those with the gift of tongues should speak one at a time. Those with the gift of prophecy should also speak one at a time. If there is no one to interpret the gift of tongues, then the one with the gift should remain silent. Paul even states in these verses that God is a God of order and not confusion. This is the last thing Paul says before making the pronouncement in verse 34 that women should be silent. Like speaking in tongues without an interpreter, speaking in a way that causes chaos or confusion is unhelpful to the unbeliever visiting the church. Thus women should remain silent so as not to make the formal worship time chaotic. The Law of the Old Testament does deal with order.

But how does this square-up with 1 Timothy 2?

Verses 11-12 read:

11 Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.

Paul makes this statement just after sharing that women should be modest, respectable, and self-controlled. She is however to do good works. So she is told to learn quietly. This seems to be related to 1 Corinthians in that perhaps she should refrain from asking questions or causing a scene in the formal time of worship. But it is the next statement that is more difficult to deal with. She is not to teach or exercise authority over a man.

Here the term for authority is an uncommon Greek term. It is not the common word for authority found in the New Testament, but has a similar meaning. The problem is the word also has other meanings. In context, we know that women were being caught up in heretical teachings at Ephesus. The term for authority used often refers to an improper authority in early Greek literature. Here it is likely that Paul is stating that women are not to teach heretical doctrines to the men. One suggested interpretation is that in Gnosticism (a problem the church in Ephesus where Timothy is located is actually dealing with) it was taught that women were the originators of humanity. Men came from women-specifically Adam came from Eve. Paul states that the reason the women are not to teach or exercise authority over men is that Adam was created first and that Eve was created from Adam. Thus correcting a potential false teaching. Perhaps these women were trying to teach Gnostic doctrines out of sync with Scripture and as such, Paul tells them to learn in submissiveness to the teachings of the true Gospel. Promoting false teachings would also be out of line with the previous statements made about self-control and being respectable. If the statement were related to Gnosticism, it would also explain why Paul gives the specific reason he does for sharing this command.

The problem with this verse is that we just don’t really know beyond doubt to what exactly what Paul is referring. We know that women could prophesy. We know they could present other information in church, we know churches could meet at their homes. We know that older women could teach younger women. We know that women could disciple others. We just don’t know exactly what Paul has in mind.

Paul does seem to promote the idea that a male would be the senior authority in any congregation. This seems plausible from reading both Corinthians and Timothy (including statements about elders having only one wife), where Paul explains that men are to lead the house as Christ leads the church, and with regards to the fact that the High Priest was never a woman in the Old Testament.

Jesus is our Great High Priest, but the senior pastor of a church is a head of the local congregation just as Christ is the head of all congregations.

Therefore, I conclude from these passages (and agree with the BF&M 2000) that the only job in the local church that is meant specifically for men is that of senior pastor. God has used women in leadership in the Old and New Testaments, and throughout history, and doubtless He will continue to do so, especially where men in the church are not being sensitive to the Spirit or answering the call to senior pastor. Again, this is not to say women should serve as senior pastors.

Some have argued that Galatians 3 proves that women can hold any office in the church, but contextually Paul’s statements here about no distinction between male and female, Jew and Greek are to be understood in light of salvation. Through Jesus all are saved the same way. This verse makes no claims about ministerial roles.


There is certainly a place for women in ministry. Anywhere that there is not, something is wrong. Anywhere women are relegated to the sidelines or made to feel inferior in their ministry something is wrong.

I am a big fan of Beth Moore. She has had a wonderful ministry that has helped countless women (and men). I thank God for what he has called her to do and how he has allowed her ministry to remain fruitful for all these years.

If it had not been for women (who tend to be more sensitive to the Spirit than men), many of the great male leaders in church history would never have been prepared for God’s calling. If not for women, many of the most significant ministries done in churches today would not exist. Even the biggest day of giving each year in Southern Baptist churches is done in the name of a woman who was a missionary who taught the Gospel and trained disciples – Lottie Moon.

Women have spiritual gifts, they are to use those gifts. They have every right Scripturally to be teaches of theology, religion, Old and New Testament, Biblical languages, etc. They have every right to serve as worship leaders, administrative pastors, youth leaders, Sunday School teachers, discipleship pastors, etc. They should be treated with respect and dignity. They should be viewed as valuable to the Kingdom of God. There should be no cause for concern when they speak publicly in a formal setting in front of both women and men.

They should not be belittled or abused by men afraid to let go of power. They should be seen as fellow workers and not as challenges to the status quo.

Women should be seen as essential to ministry and to the spiritual health of the church.

For additional reading check out the following:

Beth Moore’s Open Letter

7 Part Study over 1 Timothy 2:12

Egalitarian and Complementarian Summaries by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood

Other TTC articles on Egalitarianism and Complementarianism