It’s hard to believe that I’ve been pastoring at my church for over 19 years.
I wouldn’t have done it if the church hadn’t called me first—I was happily engaged in teaching at Columbia Bible College, writing freelance, and being a volunteer within the church.
I wouldn’t have done it without the support of my husband, family, friends, denomination (see Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, Article 15), and colleagues at the college, including those who said “I’m not sure about women in ministry, but I can see you in that role,” or even “I don’t agree with women as lead pastors, but if you ever have difficulty in ministry, you can talk to me, and I will pray with you.”
I wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t sensed the growing call of God—who took me from not even thinking about pastoral ministry, to being curious, to having many questions bathed in prayer, to becoming excited about the possibilities.
I wouldn’t have done it, if I didn’t believe the Bible encourages women in ministry. I can’t cover everything here, since entire books have been written about this both for and against, but here at least is a brief sketch (see also Christians for Biblical Equality for some helpful resources).
1. God creates men and women as partners
The foundation for how we relate to one another as men and women goes right back to creation. Genesis 1:27-28 says that man and woman were created in the image of God and together they were to be partners in being fruitful and multiplying, in filling the earth and having dominion. From the beginning, God blessed man and woman to work together as partners. And God said, it was very good.
As time passed, however, things turned out not so good. Man and Woman chose to go their own way, and their very good relationship with God was broken; their very good relationship with themselves and with one another was broken; their very good relationship with the earth was broken.
Their close communion with God was replaced by fear as they tried to hide from God. Their partnership with one another gave way to blaming and hierarchy.
That’s the story of the first few chapters of the book of Genesis—how God’s original good creation where man and woman related freely to God and related freely with one another, then gave way to fear, mistrust, hierarchy, and blaming. Much of the Old Testament—and much of human history—is the story of that brokenness.
2. Jesus calls both men and women to follow him
In the New Testament, the good news is that Jesus came to make everything right. God did not want to leave us fallen and broken; instead, Jesus came to restore all of our relationships so we can have peace with God, peace within ourselves and with one another, peace even with the earth. That’s what salvation means. It’s a complete restoration. It’s a new life where we can again have close communion with God—without fear and without needing to hide. And we can again be partners as men and women—without blaming and without hierarchy.
As Ephesians 2:13 says, “now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near.” By the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, by the forgiveness and new life found in him, our good relationship with God is restored. As Galatians 3:28 says, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Our unique cultural, social and gender qualities are no longer cause for division, but part of the richness and unity of the body of Christ.
In his earthly life and ministry, Jesus called both men and women to faith, discipleship, and serving him. Women became Jesus’ followers, learning from him at a time when education was for the most part reserved for men. Women travelled with Jesus at a time and in a culture when men and women travelling together was simply not done. Luke 8:3 says that the women who followed Jesus even provided financially for Jesus and his disciples.
When a woman anointed Jesus with a whole jar of expensive perfume, those who were standing by became very disturbed. Some said, how could Jesus accept this from a woman? Others said, how could Jesus accept such an expensive gift at all? The perfume should have been sold, and the money given to the poor.
But Jesus said, “Do not trouble her, she has done a good service for me, she has done what she could.” In this instance, Jesus not only welcomed the ministry of a woman, but he also defended her from criticism (Mark 14:3-9, cf. Matthew 26:6-13; Luke 7:39-50; John 12:1-11).
3. Women were engaged in ministry in the early church
Priscilla (also known as Prisca) is mentioned a number of times in the New Testament as a co-worker of the apostle Paul (along with her husband, Acts 18:2, 18, 26; Romans 16:3, 1 Corinthians 16:19; 2 Timothy 4:19). In Acts 21:9, Philip’s four daughters exercised their gifts of prophecy.
In Romans 16:1-2, Phoebe is commended as a deacon of the church at Cenchreae; in Romans 16:6, Mary is described as one who worked hard in the church; and Romans 16:7 refers to Andronicus and Junia (a female name), relatives to Paul that he describes as “prominent among the apostles.” 1 Corinthians 11 refers to women engaged in both public prayer and prophecy, but instructs them to cover their heads in keeping with the custom of the day, in other words to be dressed decently.
4. Women need to exercise ministry with care (and so do men, but that’s another topic)
At the same time, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 says, “Women should be silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak.” What a contrast to the earlier chapter 11 that instructs women to cover their heads when they pray or prophecy. Context is important here. In chapter 11, women are speaking as they pray or prophecy, i.e., as part of worship. In chapter 14, women are apparently disrupting worship by talking to their husbands. Instead of interrupting the flow of worship, they are instructed to “ask their husbands at home.” In both instances, as 1 Corinthians 14:40 says, “all things should be done decently and in order.”
Another text to consider is 1 Timothy 2:12 which says, “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.” Again, context is instructive. In Ephesus—which is the church of 1 Timothy—there were serious concerns over women who were teaching before they were ready. In response, 1 Timothy 2:11 says first of all, “let a woman learn” and then v. 12 follows that with, “I permit no woman to teach.” This was a specific problem until women had first learned. (see for example, New Testament scholar Ben Witherington, who also says that the reference in 1 Timothy 2:15 to being saved by child-bearing is a reference to Mary giving birth to Jesus, our Saviour).
5. It takes all of us to be the church
In my congregation, we work hard at having a mix of men and women in ministry—in leadership and behind the scenes, on Council, as deacons, as Committee members, as visible leadership on Sunday morning. The participation of both men and women is not just tokenism. It’s not some kind of artificial quota system. Instead, it’s a recognition that it takes all of us to be the church, it takes all of us to build the church, and God has given each of us something we can use for the common good of our life together.
Ministry is not about fancy titles or about whose name comes first. It’s not about whether men are better than women, or women better than men. Instead we are to serve God and to serve one another.
There is mutuality in ministry, where the church is not only about women submitting to men or about men submitting to women. It’s not only about the church listening to its leaders, or about church leaders listening to their people. But church ministry is about all of that—where we submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21) and we submit to God (James 4:7) as we work together as the body of Christ, who is the head of the church.
Writing/Reflection Prompt: What convictions and concerns do you have about women in ministry?
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