Women in Ministry: Women in Leadership

The New Testament teaches that all Christians should minister to one another, each person serving as his or her gifts allow. Elders are appointed in the church to shepherd, direct and teach. Elders lead and serve by equipping others. May women serve as elders and pastors? Are they permitted to shepherd, lead, direct and teach? Should the church recognize and train women as pastors and teachers?

Let’s begin our examination of this question by making a historical review of how God has used women to help his people. We will then examine the question in greater detail to see what the evidence says and does not say.

In the beginning

When Jesus answered a question about divorce, he used the Genesis story to show God’s original intent for marriage (Matt. 19:4-5). In the beginning, “God said, `Let us make man¹ in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’ So God created man¹ in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:26-27).

This passage tells us that, despite differences in appearance, both men and women are created in the image of God. Both men and women were given dominion over creation. “Let them rule,” God said. Verse 28 tells us: “God blessed them and said to them, `Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’ ” These commands were given to both male and female. Genesis 1 treats men and women equally.

In Genesis 2, however, we see gender distinctions in the story: The male was created before the female. Genesis 2 also tells us that God gave a certain job and certain commands to the man before Eve was created (Gen. 2:15-17, 19). But it was not good for the man to be alone. God therefore made a woman for him. Paul notes this, but observes that “woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman” (1 Cor. 11:8-11). Adam recognized that the woman was the same kind of being that he was, made out of the same stuff: “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gen. 2:23). This text emphasizes similarity, not difference. Verse 24 then says that husband and wife become a unity.

Then sin entered the picture. Both Eve and Adam sinned, and both were ashamed. God spoke to Adam first, and then to Eve. Then God explained to Eve and Adam the negative consequences of their sin. When he explained the consequences, he made some distinctions based on sex. To the woman, he said that childbirth would become painful. To the man, he said that agricultural work would become difficult (Gen. 3:16-17).

Genesis does not directly answer the question we want to answer, but it does give us some clues. First, men and women are equally made in the image of God (Gen. 1). Since the story tells us that God did not deal with the man and woman in identical ways, we conclude that some sex distinctions can be legitimate. [For a longer study on what Genesis 1-3 teaches about women, click here.]

Old Testament women who were leaders

The Old Testament reflects a male-dominated society. Many of the laws are written from a male perspective, and give preferential treatment to men. There are few Old Testament examples of female leaders. Nevertheless, at various times in history, God has used women as leaders for his people. They led in various ways. Just as with male leaders, some of the female leaders were good and some were not.

Women had important roles in the Exodus and in the formation of the Israelite nation. Miriam the prophetess sang praises to God, leading other women in public praises to God (Ex. 15:20-21). Later, when she exercised leadership in a wrong way, she was criticized for rebellion, but not for being a woman in leadership (Num. 12:1-15). Miriam continued to be credited as one of the nation’s original leaders (Micah 6:4). [For more on women in the books of Moses, click here.]

Deborah led the Israelites for several years (Judges 4:4-5). The text says nothing about this leadership role being inappropriate; it says nothing to suggest that none of the Israelite men were qualified. It just says that she was a prophetess and served the Israelites by judging their disputes, just as other judges had done. God spoke to her, apparently on a regular basis, and she gave the Lord’s commands to Barak (verses 6, 14). She had civil, military and religious roles. Deborah and Barak sang a song of praise (Judges 5:1-31). Verse 7 attributes the song primarily to Deborah.

Huldah the prophetess gave an authoritative message to the high priest and several men (2 Kings 22:14-20).

Female leadership is not incompatible with the way God works. God sometimes called women to positions of leadership, including civil, military and religious roles.

Although ancient Israel was a male-dominated society, and female leadership was unusual, it is not incompatible with the way God works. God sometimes called women to positions of leadership, including civil, military and religious roles, and the people accepted that leadership. For more on women in ancient Israel, click here.]

Female leaders in the New Testament

Women were important in Jesus’ ministry, too. Unlike most rabbis, Jesus taught women (Luke 10:38-42). Women were among his traveling disciples (Luke 8:1-3). Martha was given the spiritual insight to recognize Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God (John 11:27).

Jesus told the Samaritan woman that he was the Messiah (John 4:7-26). The lesson he gave her about living water was just as profound as the lesson he had taught Nicodemus — and the woman had a better response. She went and told her townspeople about the Messiah, and she was effective in testifying about Jesus. Many of the people believed in Jesus because of what she reported (verses 28-29, 39).

After Jesus was resurrected, he could have chosen to appear to men first, but he did not. He revealed himself to women first, and told the women to relay his orders to the men (Matt. 28:8-10). He apparently expected the men to follow the women’s instructions. [For more on women in the ministry and teachings of Jesus, click here.]

Women continued to be an important part of the early church. They were included among the 120 disciples (Acts 1:13-15). Peter said that the Holy Spirit caused women as well as men to speak (Acts 2:17). The story of Ananias and Sapphira shows that women were held equally accountable (Acts 5:1-11). The church grew in men and women alike (Acts 5:14; 8:12).

When Paul persecuted the church, trying to stop its growth, he felt it necessary to imprison not only men but also women (Acts 8:3). Apparently women were also spreading the gospel. (Although men did all the public preaching that we know about (which is to be expected in that society), women were apparently effective evangelizers in other settings.)

Women were prominent in the start-up of the church in Philippi. Lydia, apparently the head of her household, was the first to believe (Acts 16:12-15). The church met at her house (verse 40). In Colosse, the church met at Nympha’s house (Col. 4:15). In Thessalonica and Berea, prominent women became Christians (Acts 17:1-4, 12). These women were probably influential leaders in their cities and in their congregations.

Priscilla was another prominent woman. She and Aquila gave Apollos an important lesson in Christianity (Acts 17:26). Paul called Priscilla and Aquila “fellow workers” (Rom. 16:3), a term Paul also used for Timothy, Titus, Epaphroditus and other men.

Paul mentioned a number of other women who were important to his ministry, although their specific roles are not given in detail. He commended Phoebe, a diakonos servant of the church in Cenchrea (Rom. 16:1). Paul asked the Romans to receive Phoebe and help her in any way she wanted, which indicates she was a person of importance (verse 2).

Paul greeted Mary, Tryphena, Tryphosa and Persis, “women who work hard in the Lord” (verses 6, 12). Similarly, Paul said that Euodia and Syntyche “contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers” (Phil. 4:2-3). It is clear that these women had important roles in Paul’s evangelistic work, but it is not clear exactly what their roles were. They may have been key support staff, or they may have taught women, or they may have worked with men to teach men, like Priscilla did. All believers should be servants of the church, working hard for the Lord, contending for the cause of the gospel.

Paul had a much higher view of women than most Jewish rabbis did. For example, he gave women just as much control over conjugal rights as he gave men (1 Cor. 7:3-5). He considered all believers equal in Christ (Gal. 3:26-28). Of course, this does not imply a complete elimination of sex differences. Paul himself gave certain commands specifically to males and other commands specifically to females (1 Cor. 11:10; 14:34; Eph. 5:22, 25; 6:4; Col. 3:18-21; Titus 2:2-6).

Women also influenced the church through the gift of prophecy. Anna was a prophetess (Luke 2:36). Philip’s daughters had the gift of prophecy (Acts 21:8-9). Since they spoke the word of God, they spoke with authority. [For more on women in the early church, click here.]

In Corinth, both men and women prayed and prophesied (1 Cor. 11:4-16). Paul’s concern about head coverings shows that this praying and prophesying was done in public. He was concerned about their appearance when they met or came together “as a church” (verses 17-18). Women were praying and speaking in the Corinthian church, and Paul praised that.

Prophecy is speaking that strengthens, encourages, comforts and edifies (1 Cor. 14:3-4). In Corinth, the Holy Spirit was inspiring both men and women to speak edifying messages during church services.

Prophecy is inspired speaking that strengthens, encourages, comforts and edifies (1 Cor. 14:3-4). In church meetings, prophecy may convict people of sin and bring them to faith (verses 23-25). In Corinth, the Holy Spirit was inspiring both men and women to speak edifying messages during church services. Paul encouraged all the Corinthians to seek the gift of prophesying, and he did not forbid women from using that gift if they had it. [For more on 1 Cor. 11, click here.]

1 Corinthians 14:34-35

However, Paul also wrote: “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.”

Earlier in this letter, Paul gave guidelines about how women should appear when they pray and prophesy in public (1 Cor. 11:4-15). Does he now forbid them to pray and prophesy at all? How are we to understand 1 Cor. 14:34-35 without making it contradict what Paul wrote earlier in his letter? The context indicates that Paul’s command in 14:34-35 is limited to certain situations.

First, we understand that Paul does not forbid all speaking. He does not mean that women cannot say amen after a prayer; he does not mean that they cannot whisper to their children. Although the verse says that women are not allowed to speak, it should not be interpreted in a literal extreme. It does not contradict what Paul wrote in chapter 11, and it does not contradict what he wrote in 14:1 and 14:39, telling all the Corinthian Christians to seek the gift of prophesying.

Second, we should note that women are not the only people Paul told to be silent. In verse 28, he told tongues-speakers to be quiet (same Greek word) if interpreters were not present. In verse 30, he told prophets to stop (same Greek word) if a revelation came to someone else. For these groups, the silence Paul commands is for some church situations but not for others. This appears to be true for his comments about women, as well.

Paul’s concern throughout this chapter is peace and order in the church meetings. The Corinthian meetings apparently had been rather chaotic, and Paul was giving some basic rules of order. Everybody wanted to speak at once — some with tongues, some with interpretations, some with prophecies, some with teaching, some with hymns (verse 26). So Paul told them to speak one at a time (verses 27-31). He was putting some order on the chaos.

We see why Paul told tongues-speakers to be silent: to reduce the confusing babble. We see why he told prophets to be quiet: to reduce the confusion. Why did he tell women to be quiet? He does not tell us why he specifically mentions women but not men, but his concern is probably the same as it was earlier in the chapter. Instead of everyone talking at once, Paul wanted one person to talk at a time. When someone else was talking, the women were to be quiet.

Quiet, please!

What were the women talking about? Paul does not directly tell us, but verses 34 and 35 give us some evidence. Verse 34 indicates that women were speaking in a nonsubmissive way. Verse 35 indicates that women were asking questions, presumably in such as way as to add to the confusion. We do not know exactly what the situation was, but we might speculate that women were speaking at the same time as the men, perhaps acting disrespectfully toward the men. Whatever it was, Paul told them to stop talking.

Why did Paul tell women not to ask questions in church? Obviously, he did not intend to forbid absolutely all questions. For a modern example, if a woman is taking notes on a sermon and misses a point, she is allowed to quietly ask her husband (or someone else) what the speaker said. Questions are permissible if they are not disruptive. When we read verse 35, we should consider the context. Paul is concerned about reducing chaos in the church; he is not forbidding all questions.

Presumably the Corinthian Christians would know what kind of questions were causing problems. In the chaotic meetings at Corinth, questions would have to be asked in a loud voice. The problem seems to have been wives asking questions of their husbands. Paul’s command for women to ask their husbands at home obviously would not apply to women who had no husbands, or women whose husbands were not Christians.

Paul’s main concern was order.² After Paul wrote about how women should appear when prophesying in public, and after exhorting everyone to seek the gift of prophecy, he is not now forbidding women to speak at all. Rather, his command for quiet is not a demand for absolutely no talking. Rather, it is a directive for order, just as his command for the tongues-speakers and prophets to be quiet was also a directive for order.

We should understand verses 34-35 in their context: the need for peace in a disorderly situation. Verse 34 is not a complete prohibition of all speaking, and verse 35 is not a complete prohibition of all questions. We prohibit inappropriate speaking, disruptive questions, argumentative interruptions, and more than one speaker at a time. But we do not forbid women from praying in church. Likewise, we do not forbid prophesying — we do not forbid women from giving messages that comfort, encourage and edify. [For a more detailed study of this passage, click here.]

Cultural details and timeless principles

Paul dealt with a similar subject when he wrote to Timothy. He urged that prayers be made for everyone (1 Tim. 2:1). He gave instructions for how men should pray (verse 8 uses the Greek word aner, meaning males, rather than the generic word anthropos, meaning humans). “I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing.”

This command contains a temporary, cultural aspect, and a timeless aspect. Christians generally conclude that the physical details (lifting hands) are not universally required today, but the attitudinal principles (without anger) are timeless and appropriate today. This distinction between physical details on one hand and attitudes on the other illustrates the way the modern church sometimes needs to analyze the instructions Paul gave the first-century church.

Starting in verse 9, Paul gave some instructions for women — first, that they “dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes.” Again, the principle that Paul uses — modesty and the avoidance of excess — is timeless, but the physical details he mentions are shaped by culture and are temporary.

There is nothing inherently wrong with braided hair; the Bible does not forbid braids. Likewise, the Bible does not forbid women from wearing gold on their fingers or in their hair. It does not forbid pearls. And many of the dresses that American women wear to church would be judged “expensive” in many other cultures. The concept of “expensive” is culturally determined.

Paul’s instruction is essential, but the details of form he gives are based on a specific culture. The principle of modesty is valid across cultures and centuries, but the prohibition of braids, gold and pearls is not. In first-century Ephesus, these things indicated immodesty, perhaps a lack of humility. In modern America, they do not necessarily indicate immodesty.

1 Timothy 2:11-12

Paul then says, “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent” (verses 11-12). Why did Paul need to say this? Probably because some women in Ephesus were not learning in quietness and not learning in submissiveness. They were attempting to teach and exercise authority over men. So Paul told them to be silent when they were being taught.

Just as in the previous verses, some of what Paul wrote concerns attitudes, and some of it concerns the details of how attitudes are expressed in behavior. Paul’s primary concern here seems to be the attitude of submission. Different cultures express submission in different ways. Judging by what Paul wrote here, apparently women who taught men in public were not considered submissive in first-century Ephesus — just as it was considered inappropriate for them to wear braided hair and gold.

In most nations today, however, customs are different. For example, a professor may say near the end of a lecture, “If there is any part of the lecture you do not understand, I want you to ask your questions now.” A submissive student, whether male or female, would obey by asking questions in class rather than later in private. In other situations, men might recognize that a woman has more knowledge about a specific subject and ask her to teach them about it. In such a case, a submissive woman would teach the men.

Modern cultures do not expect women to be completely silent. Expectations are different today. In Bible-study discussion sessions, for example, women may ask questions, comment and interact with the leader. If a woman has access to facts that the others do not know, she may supply that information. In most cultures, this is not seen as rebellious or immodest.

In church services, too, women are not required to maintain strict silence. We do not forbid them from singing hymns and/or solos. They can be completely submissive, willing to learn, yet without being completely silent. For our services today, most men and women are expected to act in almost identical ways: singing when everyone sings, speaking when everyone speaks (saying amen), and listening when everyone listens.

Whatever the Ephesian situation was, we do not believe that women must be completely silent in church today. Likewise, we do not forbid women from all forms of teaching. Women teach at home; they teach children during children’s church; they teach other women and they conduct training sessions that include men and women.

Women can teach men

Can women teach men? We have already seen some biblical examples of women teaching men, both in private and in public. It was not wrong for Deborah to tell men the word of the Lord. It was not wrong for Huldah to give authoritative information to the high priest. It was not wrong for Anna to publicly speak about Jesus “to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38). These are all forms of teaching, of conveying information.

It was not wrong for Rhoda to inform everyone that Peter was at the door (Acts 12:14). It was not wrong for women to relay commands to men (Matt. 28:10). It was not wrong for women to tell the apostles that the Lord had risen (verse 7). They were relaying spiritually significant information to the men, and Jesus wanted the men to learn from the women. It was not wrong for the Samaritan woman to tell people what Jesus had done (John 4:29). It was not wrong for Priscilla and Aquila to work together to teach Apollos (Acts 18:26). It was not wrong for Philip’s daughters (Acts 21:8-9) to tell their inspired messages to men.

It is not wrong for a woman to teach her husband through her example (1 Pet. 3:1-2). We also see in Scripture that is sometimes appropriate for a woman to teach with words, as well. It is not wrong for a woman to give an answer if a man asks a reason for the hope within her (verse 15). It is not wrong for a woman to prophesy edifying words during church services (1 Cor. 11:4-16). When Paul told the Colossians to teach each other (Col. 3:16), he did not mention any sex restrictions.

Paul is not saying that it is wrong for a woman to say anything that a man might learn something from. Nevertheless, 1 Tim. 2:12 says that he did not allow a woman to teach a man. The context is the church, and yet we have already seen that Paul allowed women to pray and prophesy in the Corinthian church. To avoid interpreting Paul in such a way as to make him contradict himself, we conclude that Paul allowed women to teach in some situations, but not others. What he wrote here was not a universal prohibition that applies to all situations and all ages. [For a more detailed study of that passage, click here.] In fact, there is no verse or biblical principle that makes any permanent restriction on what women may do in the church, and we do not make any restriction, either. A woman may serve as an elder or pastor when she is the best person for the job.

What may women do?

Every member is important part to any fully functioning church. All members are spiritually gifted and should be equipped for works of ministry. No matter what one thinks about the ordination of women, everyone can agree that there are numerous activities that women can participate in — some traditional, and some not. Traditional roles include singing and teaching children. Our tradition also includes the service roles that go with the office of deaconess: organizing socials, serving the ill, helping new mothers, etc.

An important, but underutilized, role includes the teaching of other women to help new members mature in the faith. Spiritually mature women may serve as ministers to other women. They may train other women for works of ministry. (This can be done in women’s ministry, women’s classes or through one-on-one mentoring.) Women may also share the gospel, either in a public forum or in a private home, for either men or women. They may answer questions from both men and women.

Women may also pray publicly in church. Many songs are actually prayers, and there is no reason to say that a woman may sing a prayer but not say one. Paul allowed women to pray and to prophesy (1 Cor. 11:4-16). Prayer is not a function restricted to men. It is not a teaching function nor an authoritative function. A woman may also lead the congregation in songs of praise and worship as well as lead choirs.

A woman may serve as treasurer of the local church account. Women may supervise the organization of socials, telling men where to put tables and food, etc. They may supervise children’s church or teen church teachers, even if some of the teachers are men. Women may also chair committee meetings, facilitating discussion and decisions. Women may facilitate small groups. A woman may serve as an usher, to help people find seats. She may count attendance. She may help collect offerings and may help distribute bread and wine at the Lord’s Supper.

Just as first-century women could pray and prophesy in public, women today may speak to the church. They may give reports, read announcements, give personal testimonies, read and explain the Scriptures.³ A woman may officiate at communion or perform a baptism; even laypersons may perform baptisms, though that is not the norm.4


Women and men are of equal value to God. Jesus Christ came and died to serve and save women as well as men. But equality does not require identical roles. The same verse that says that women are equal heirs of salvation also tells men to treat women differently than they do men (1 Pet. 3:7). Just as God values women highly, the church should also value women highly.

God gives spiritual gifts for the common good, and it is through the exercise of those gifts that the church grows. Individual members also grow as they use their gifts to serve others. To help women grow spiritually, the church needs to help them use their Spirit-given gifts, to encourage them to participate in works of ministry in the church.

Many women have pastoral or shepherding skills. If a woman’s gifts are in this area, she should be encouraged to pastor and teach.

Let us return to one of our introductory questions: “As pastors equip the members for works of ministry, should they be training and equipping women to pastor and to teach?” The answer is yes. Many women have pastoral or shepherding skills. This does not automatically make them ordained pastors or elders, but it does mean that they have pastoral responsibilities in the church: toward other women, toward children and teens, and sometimes toward men. If a woman’s gifts are in this area, she should be encouraged to pastor and teach.

A wise pastor will find a way to equip and enable women and men to use their spiritual gifts for the common good. They may be given training and allowed to minister as God gives them the ability and as Scripture allows. Pastors should strive to maximize the ministry potential of all members, each according to his or her gifts.

Further study needed

For those who wish to study more about the subject, we have listed a few books below. Many more could be listed, but we have chosen two from each viewpoint, and one book that presents both views. We especially recommend that people read a book that has a conclusion different from their own:

Beck, James R., ed. Two Views on Women in Ministry. Revised edition. Zondervan, 2005. Articles by Craig Keener, Linda Belleville, Thomas Schreiner, Craig Blomberg, and the editor.

Stackhouse, John G., Jr. Partners in Christ: A Conservative Case for Egalitarianism. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015.

Westfall, Cynthia Long. Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2016.

Köstenberger, Andreas J., Thomas R. Schreiner, and H. Scott Baldwin, eds. Women in the Church: A Fresh Analysis of 1 Timothy 2:9-15. Second edition. Baker, 1995, 2005. Argues against the ordination of women.

Piper, John, and Wayne Grudem, editors. Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism. Crossway Books, 1991. Argues against ordaining women.


1 The Hebrew word ha’adam, which the NIV translates as “man,” refers to all humanity, both men and women.

2 Paul does not tell us why he mentions women but not men. If we want to discuss his purpose, it is necessary to speculate as to what the situation was. We are trying to use hints in the text to sketch the historical situation in which Paul would tell women to be silent, just a few chapters after indicating that they could prophesy in public.

3 What is appropriate in Western culture may or may not be appropriate in some other cultures. Paul allowed women to prophesy in the Corinthian church. We do not know exactly what this prophesying was, but it seems to have involved more personal authority than would be needed for someone to read Scripture today.

4 This does not mean that lay members can baptize people in secret, or at their own whim. Baptism is an introduction into the community of faith, and as such, it should be done in the context of that community. The congregation (or a person designated as a representative of the congregation) should be present. If possible, it is preferred that an elder or other leader of the congregation be present.

Author: Michael Morrison


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