This year and last we have had several churches on the James River District welcome their very first female pastor. Whereas the ordination of women is more commonly accepted and most will be warmly welcomed there are still some people who struggle to accept this reality. It may be due to a cultural or a theological bias, or it may be just one of those, ” we’ve never done it that way before” kind of things. All should know that the United Methodist Church has been ordaining women since 1956 and lay women were always an important part of John Wesley’s (not to mention Jesus’), ministry. So, I thought I’d share a few biblical insights which I pray may be helpful to those who still have questions.
First, you will want to look up Ephesians 5:21-23 and 1 Timothy 2:11-12 for the two most familiar passages on the role of women in the early church. In short, they tell us that you wives (you know who you are) should submit to your husbands and that no woman should have authority over a man.
Like real estate, an important rule in biblical interpretation is location, location, location! To understand how God is speaking through the writer it is important to know the context of the passage as located in its cultural-historical setting, and Paul was definitely a product of his time and culture. In Paul’s’ time women were little more than property. This was true in both Greek and Hebrew cultures. Marriages were business transactions and daughters could be sold. No rights – period. Paul knew that in this culture no self-respecting Greek or Jew would listen to a woman, and for Paul the only thing that mattered would be for the Word of God to be heard. Whereas Paul had his ideas on proper decorum (covered heads and all), he never says that women cannot pray or prophesy. In fact it is our brother Paul who argues for equality in marriage, the equal dependence of male and female on each other, and the right of women to participate in worship.
Why, by first century standards, Paul was an outright liberal! In Corinth he made provisions for women to prophesy. In Romans he sent greetings to his friend, Phoebe, a deacon. In his missionary journey he works with several women, specifically Euodia and Priscilla. Paul even refers to a female apostle (yes, apostle), Junia in Romans 16:7. For you scholars, Junia has been interpreted in the masculine (Junias) by the patriarchal church, but the oldest texts we have always read the feminine. At the heart of Paul’s desire was to become like those he was trying to reach, “Though I am free, I make myself a slave…to win as many as possible. To the Jews I become a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became one under the law…to those not under the law I became like one not having the law…so as to win those not under the law. To the weak I became weak…” (1 Cor. 9:19-22). You get the picture.
But this thing with women is really all Jesus’ fault. He seemed bent on breaking all the old rules and went so far as actually associating publically with women (a real Old Testament no, no). He even bent down so low as to hang out with prostitutes and Samaritans. Maybe it was because it was a prophetess named Anna who gave thanks to God when Mary and Joseph brought their baby to the Temple to be blessed (Luke 2). And as I recall the Easter story, it was three women to be first to witness the resurrection, while the guys slept in, and it was a woman, Mary Magdalene, who gave the first Easter message to the disciples that began with, “I have seen the Lord! (John 20:18).”
And if that’s not enough biblical citations….
In Acts 21, Philip is reported to have 4 daughters who prophesied (that’s preaching). And in Acts 2, Luke quotes the prophet Joel on the day of Pentecost when he says, “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy…” So here we are in the 21st century and women can actually vote and everything. Do you really think if Paul were here today he would even worry about what the people of the 1st century believed about gender? Or do you think he would be just as sensitive to the roles defined by contemporary society and do whatever was necessary to preach the very same message of Christ in a very different cultural context? I believe the last thing Paul would want for us today would be to make his words about social roles an absolute for all time. In fact, to apply Paul’s principle of doing whatever it takes to preach Christ it would be just as big a sin not to allow a women to preach because they share a more equal status in contemporary culture, serve in more positions of authority and therefore would be listened to. Paul was just a man of his time trying to get the gospel across to the people of his time in a way they would hear it in his time.
Sometimes Paul changed his mind about things (study his view on the second coming) and sometimes he just admitted he was stating his opinion (see 1 Cor. 7:12) and sometimes Paul was just (I’m going to get letters here), wrong! He did seem to think slavery was OK in his day, and we are pretty much in agreement that is not an acceptable practice today – right?
Perhaps it is Paul who says it best in Galatians 3:28: There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
So why should a woman not preach? The same reason a man should not preach – because they have not been called to do so. But if God does call you, whether you are male, female, Greek, Jew, slave, free, etc. and you don’t preach, well then woe be to thee!
For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! 1 Cor. 9:16