by Joel Comiskey
Written in Spring 2006 and updated in 2012
This article resulted from my own debates with certain members at Wellspring, our church plant in Moreno Valley, who held strict views against women leading cells in which men were present, women coaching male leaders, and women speaking/preaching in church. This article came about as I reflected on Scripture, my own convictions, and counsel from pastors and leaders I respected on this topic. These debates took place in 2006. I am no longer the lead pastor at Wellspring, although Wellspring sees me as their missionary.
As a seminary student in Nyack , New York , the hot topic was women in ministry. As students we read all the women in ministry books and had to defend our own positions on the topic. I remember the faculty approved women-in-ministry debates, in which those opposed would present their views and those in favor of women-in-ministry would state their arguments.
As I read the literature back then, I concluded that the only clear verse of Scripture against women in ministry was found in 1 Timothy 2, where Paul asked women not to teach or exercise authority over a man. I understood that Paul was talking about a position because in chapter 3 he addresses the role of bishop. And thus, I concluded that a female was not permitted to be a senior pastor because I equated the office of bishop with the pastorate.
That was 1983. My views have now changed. My journey, however, is not what’s at issue here. More importantly is what the Scripture says about women in ministry.
NUMEROUS REFERENCES TO SUPPORT WOMEN IN MINISTRY
One thing that is crystal clear from Scripture is that God has used women in the past and plans on using women in the future. The Bible, in fact, is full of references of women in ministry. Here are a few:
- In Acts chapter 2, Peter references Joel about how God will pour out His Spirit “on your sons and your daughters,” even on “all of humanity.” This is very inclusive.
- In Acts 21:9 Scripture tells us that Philip had four daughters who “prophesied.” The Apostle Paul was there with them in Caesarea . Paul doesn’t chide them for being out of line. In Paul’s hierarchy of gifts, prophecy was the highest form of ministry, the greatest gift. I Corinthians 14:5 tells us, “He who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may be edified.” Many scholars, translating the word “prophesy” into contemporary terms, say this passage is talking about “preaching.”
- In Romans 16 Paul refers to a number of women as colleagues in ministry, and in some cases uses technical terms for ministry with them. Paul says that Phoebe, for example, was a “servant” of the church in Cenchrea. Some versions translate the word servant for “deaconess.” But a more literal translation would have to be “deacon.” Everywhere else this term is used of a man.
- Romans 16:7 calls attention to two of Paul’s relatives, Andronicus and one other person. Paul says of them, “They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.” If you read the KJV or the NIV you will find that other person called “Junias.” This appears to be a male name. However, the RSV reads, “Junia.” This is a clearly a female name. William Barclay, the great English expositor, wrote, “Andronicus and Junias form an interesting pair, because it is most likely that Junias is a female name. That would mean that in the early church a woman could be ranked as an apostle.”
- In Romans 16 Paul affirmed Priscilla as a teacher, along with her husband. It is worth noting that in the Greek she is mentioned first more often than not, indicating that most likely she was the stronger leader. In that culture the name of a woman would not have been mentioned before that of her husband. Paul cites Priscilla and Aquila as “fellow workers.”
- Paul says the same thing in Galatians 3:26-29. “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:26-28). Since the gift passage immediately follows in chapter 4, Paul seems to be saying here that God will call the people gifted to do the job that needs to be done. Sometimes they will be women, sometimes men, but almost every time God’s choice will stretch us and the church.
- In the Old Testament, God uses women like Deborah in a powerful way—in her case God even used to rule his nation Israel .
THE DIFFICULT PASSAGES
1 Corinthians 11-14
In I Corinthians 11 Paul articulates guidelines for how a woman (the Greek word “gyna” could—according the context—also be translated “wife”) should dress in Corinth when she prays or prophesies.
Clearly, Paul believes there is a place for women to speak in the gathering of the congregation. He’s simply wants to make sure that women are using discretion. Right here in this text, Paul defined the rules regarding the place of a woman in the ministry of the church (even one who is married).
There is an interesting passage in I Corinthians 14 where says, “women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says.” A.B. Simpson, founder of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, has commented on this phrase that whatever Paul means here he cannot be contradicting what he had just said in I Corinthians 11:31 where he says, “For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged.” (Emphasis added).
Paul wraps up his comments on this issue in I Corinthians 14:39, “Therefore, my brothers (the Greek word “adelphoi” is not as gender specific as our word “brothers” and could be better translated by the English word “kinfolk”), be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues.” If Paul were wrapping up an argument against women speaking in church this would be a bad way to conclude. If, on the other hand, he were concluding an attack against a legalist’s prohibition of women, then this would be a forceful and logical conclusion.
Admittedly, this is the most difficult passage in the Scriptures. 1 Timothy 2:12 says, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.”
The way that I’ve viewed this Scripture is to understand that Paul was talking about a position because he uses the phrase “teach and have authority.” Paul defines that position in 1 Timothy 3. My thinking in 1983 was that the office of a bishop was the office of a senior pastor. I now believe, however, that the position of a bishop was more likely a leader of a house church or various house churches.
I’ve also come to the realization that it’s impossible to interpret and apply 1 Timothy 2:8-15 without understandng the cultural context. Practically no evangelical believer applies all these verses literally. Paul says that women should not braid their hair or wear jewlery (verse 9). How many women follow this advice today? Or how many men try to enforce this? Paul says that women should be silent (verse 12). How many male leaders try to enforce silence on females in today’s church? Finally, verse 15 says that women will be saved through childbearing. Literally taken, these
My point is that no one accepts a straight forward reading of 1 Timothy 2:8-15 without understanding the cultural context.
To understand these verses it’s important to know the context of Ephesus, where Timothy was the pastor. Ephesus was notorious for its commitment to the Queen of Heaven, Artemis. The entire region of Asia Minor, modern Turkey , was culturally matriarchal. It was taught that if a person wanted to have a higher experience of the deity, he or she would go to the Temple of Artemis and woud engage in sex with a temple prostitute (male or female). Followers of Artemis claimed that the ecstasy of sex brought one closer to god.
As Ephesians began to place their faith in Christ, they brought with them many of their pagan concepts. Because of the matriarchal nature of their culture and their religion, they came to church with the assumption imbedded in their minds that women were superior to men. This superiority was, in part, the result of woman being the source of the race.
Some in Ephesus were saying that man came from women and that women were superior to man. Paul makes it clear that if she were so superior spiritually then why was she deceived? But it seems that the crux of this passage lies in the Greek word “authentein” which is translated by the NIV in the phrase, “have authority over.” Authentein occurs in the whole New Testament at only one place, I Timothy 2:12. Most likely the meaning of this one word here is: “I do not allow a woman to teach or proclaim herself author of man.”
If the prohibition is against female superiority then the following verse makes a lot of sense. “For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.”
In conclusion, rather than I Timothy 2:11-12 being a prohibition against women serving in the church, which would clearly contradict Paul’s own practice, these verses challenge the Ephesian heresy that lifted up women above men and claimed that women were somehow closer to God. We should not, however, use 1 Timothy 2:12 as a prohibition for women to participate in ministry.
In 1 Timothy 3:1 the NASB reads, “It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do.” The problem in the Greek is that the word “man” in English does not appear in the Greek text. In the Greek the word is “tis,” an indefinite pronoun. The masculine and feminine forms of this pronoun are identical, and indistinguishable as to gender apart from the context (The RSV translation is better, “If any one”). Second, the Greek phrase translated “husband of one wife” in verse 2 is not helpful in determining gender since the same Greek phrase appears in the requirements for deacons (vs. 12), but women, who obviously cannot be husbands of wives, can be deacons (Romans 16:1). Since there were female deacons, and since a female deacon couldn’t be anyone’s husband, the Greek phrase must have a different rendering, such as “a one woman man” and a different meaning (such as “marital fidelity”).
I see three options for women in ministry today:
- The Bible permits women to do some kinds of ministries but prohibits other types of ministry.
- The Bible prohibits women’s ministry under most circumstances but allows exceptions in specific cases, in which case we should allow such ministry today in exceptional cases.
- The Bible permits women’s ministry under normal circumstances but prohibits it in exceptional cases, in which case we should allow it under most circumstances today.
I believe in the third position–that God wants us to promote and encourage women’s ministry but that at times exceptional situations may arise that would prohibit women in ministry (e.g., cultural circumstances like those that existed in Ephesus).
THE TESTIMONY OF VARIOUS PASTORS AND SCHOLARS
As I wrestled with the issue of women in ministry, I emailed key leaders and mentors to give me their opinions. I’ve included their responses below:
Jim Corley, pastor of an Alliance church in Tucson, AZ.
- Some have asked, “Do you believe in the ordination of women?” My usual response is, “Let’s first settle the issue of whether, or not, I believe in the ordination of men.” My problem with this whole ordination issue is that it creates a false dichotomy within the body of Christ. The distinction between clergy and laity has done a great deal to harm the church and prevent its forward march to the completion of the great commission. I am not speaking against education. I am not against the idea that the church needs to assess whether, or not, a person is worthy of service in the body. However, I believe, this is best done in the local church and on the basis of the character qualities set forth in I Timothy 3:2-7. Giving a person a slip of paper so they can move from congregation to congregation and be approved for ministry finds no place in the scriptures. I believe anyone, female or male, whose life exemplifies the qualifications outlined by I Timothy 3 and who aspires to leadership, should be permitted to use and to develop their giftedness. I am advocating the liberation of the other half of the priesthood to serve God in any capacity for which they may be gifted and/or needed. I also believe that Christian marriages will thrive and succeed if each partner will pay careful attention to the instructions given in the Bible. This is very different than trying to get one’s partner to obey the Bible’s instructions.
Steve Fowler, missionary with the CMA to China:
- One of the mistakes of the American hermeneutic is that pastor is position. It is not position. It is gifting. Somehow, we have translated teaching, coaching, leading as a position of authority. Most guys who struggle with a woman cell leader struggle because they feel the woman is in a position of authority over men and that this is a wrong understanding. They are not in authority over them simply by using their giftedness! I tell them this about a woman coach/cell leader. Jesus is head of the church. Peter Nanfelt is the President of the C&MA. Kelvin Gardiner is the DS. I am the senior pastor. Tom Hight, Chuck Byers, Jim Cram, Bob Simmons, Nick Stumbo, and Rick Romano are elders. Nick, Rick, Steve, and Ann are pastors. Ken Sharer, Paul Elam, June Hoover, Janet Heinz and Brian Clark are the Governing Board (By the way, the Alliance allows women to serve on Gov Bd’s which is a certain level of authority). Then we have our cell leaders and their coaches. When a woman is a coach or cell leader she is so far down the list of authority that there is no comprehensible way you can say that she is in authority of men. The buck doesn’t stop with her or any other cell leader. They are all women and men under authority. Being under authority doesn’t mean women can never teach or lead men. There is a good book out there on this subject. It’s called, “Four views of women in ministry.” I can’t recall the author, but can get that to you if you wish.
Dr. Paul Pierson, Historian and professor at Fuller Theological Seminary:
- I note that women have very often been greatly used by God in pioneering situations, the house churches in China , many of the early Assemblies of God missionaries, etc. And the late Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade, was led to Christ along with hundreds of others, at Hollywood Presbyterian Church, by Henrietta Mears. When I was in college in Berkeley she was there, and probably headed the most outstanding college ministry in the nation as well as the largest Sunday school in the nation. Did God make a mistake? She was not ordained by the Church but in my opinion she was certainly ordained by God. I have sometimes used this illustration in class.
Floyd Evers, seasoned pastor:
- “The two passages in 1 Timothy and Corinthians are more about a local situation than about universals. There were cultural things that Paul was addressing. There was a militant femine mentality in Ephesus and Corinth . There was a cultish mentality about the WOMEN is created first. There was a super women mentality. Paul was dealing with people coming out of temple worship. They were coming out of temple prostitution. All of this was tied together.”
Jim Grant, Ph.D., president of Simpson University:
- Years ago I struggled with this issue and discussed it with a woman pastor in Alabama . She had started 10 or more churches and successfully pastored one of those for several years. I asked her for her reasoning in this matter. As to the issue of elder authority, she stated that she never interfered with the elder oversight. She never went to their meetings unless invited. She took the same position for the governing board. Her main position was that she was gifted of God as a pastor and as a preacher. Everyone acknowledged this. She stated that according to I Cor. 11 God appropriates the gifts as He chooses and who are we to argue. She also argued that one has not to confuse the issue of office (such as elder) with a gift (such as pastoring or teaching). In my view she is absolutely correct. If a woman is gifted by God and that is acknowledged by the church, then it seems she should be allowed to exercise that gift.
Jim Egli , Ph.D. and pastor:
- “Often I tell people that the real question is not “Who gets to lead?” but “How in the world are we going to get enough leaders to fulfill the ministry of Jesus?” If we ask the later we use women a lot more as traditional denominations have always done on the mission field. The story of Wesley, Cho and the Meserete Church in Ethiopia all show that explosive cell growth is only possible if we use the women. If people have a theological problem, we can say that the women are not pastors just cell leaders. Interestingly the world “diakonos” is used for women in the NT and I think these must have been the home group leaders.
Scott Boren, author and pastor:
- “Gordon Fee, my master’s mentor, is coming out with a new book on this topic this year with IVP. I tend to follow his line of reasoning and exegesis. . . it can be argued that for every supposed instruction against women in ministry, Paul addresses women who were clearly leaders in the early churches in his letters. Therefore, if we were to take his instructions as law, it would seem that he is breaking his own laws.”
SITUATION AT WELLSPRING
Let’s admit that we’re learning and growing
We’re learning and growing in our own beliefs about ministry. While we’re learning, however, it’s important to give women the place they rightfully deserve in church ministry and a chance to exercise their gifts. .
Will not force you against your conscience
I will give each network leader the liberty to form the new groups and shepherd the networks the way they see fit. I won’t force the network pastor, for example, to multiply female cell leaders who lead men. The main thing is that cells are evangelizing, developing leaders and multiplying cell groups.
Freedom for women in leadership
I won’t, however, hinder women from leading cell groups. I believe that a cell leader is a facilitator and a cell multiplication leader is a coach of that new leader. I believe that being a coach within the authority structure of the church is within the Biblical guidelines.
I will certainly not hinder any male who desires to form part of a cell group led by a woman. And if a male leader comes from a female cell group, I wouldn’t have a problem with the woman coaching the male leader—although I would counsel extreme caution about one-on-one discipleship in that setting.
At Wellspring, we don’t know what our future staffing will look like. I don’t have any problem, however, with hiring a female pastor. I want to focus on fruitfulness for all people—not just for males.
LET’S GO FORTH TOGETHER
It’s my conviction that we should not allow the women in ministry issue to divide the church. Godly, evangelical Christians have taken different sides on this issue. As you can tell from this paper, I’m still developing my ideas on the topic. Yet, it’s also clear that I favor giving women the opportunity to exercise their gifts and minister to their full capacity.
APPENDIX: PASSAGE FROM LEADERSHIP EXPLOSION:
When I visited Yoido Full Gospel Church in 1997, I desired to know how this church succeeds in raising up so many cell leaders. One clear answer is that Cho trusts his lay people. He believes in the priesthood of all believers—whether they are men or women.
Today, David Cho’s church is the prime example of a cell ministry that was launched by women and that uses women as the vast majority of cell leaders (note 1). For years, Cho tried doing everything himself. One night he tried to baptize 300 people, and he had a physical breakdown that required ten years to overcome. His doctor prescribed strict bed rest. In desperation, he asked his board of elders to help him pastor the church. They refused–even considered finding another pastor (note 2). With few alternatives, he gathered all the women leadership in his church, saying, “I need you to help me to pastor this church.” They said, “Yes, pastor, we’ll help you. They began to pastor and care for the church through the cell ministry. When Cho had his physical breakdown, there were some 3,000 people in his church. When he finally recovered in 1978, there were 15,000 people in his church.
In Cho’s church today over 19,000 of the 25,000 cell groups are led by women (note 3). The women who lead cell groups in Cho’s church are not considered authoritative Bible teachers. Rather, their authority is derived from their submission to Pastor Cho’s leadership. These women leaders are seen as facilitators ministering under Pastor Cho. Their job is to encourage the spiritual life of the group by visiting, praying, and ministering to each member. New Hope Community Church in Portland Oregon views their women leaders in the same way. At NHCC an equal number of men and women are Lay Pastors (note 4).
Most of the rapidly growing cell churches make extensive use of women in ministry. This is not a new phenomenon. Back in the days when Wesley turned England upside down through a powerful small-group ministry, the majority of his cell lay leaders were women (note 5). The proliferation of cell groups creates a need for more leaders and it becomes especially critical that a church not eliminate 50 percent of its potential small-group leaders on the basis of gender. .
- David Yonggi Cho, Successful Home Cell Groups (Plainfield, New Jersey: Logos International, 1981), pp. 21-32.
- Larry Stockstill, “Leadership Base Path,” message given at 1998 National Cell Church Pastor’s Conference in Baker, Louisiana, audio tape.
- I visited YFGC in April, 1997, and these were the current statistics. The District Pastor is always male but the vast majority of Zone Pastors (sub-District Pastors) are female. This fact became obvious to me as I walked from district office to district office.
- Dale Galloway, 20 20 Vision (Portland, OR: Scott Publishing Company, 1986), p. 132.
- William Brown, “Growing the Church Through Small Groups in the Australian Context,” D.Min. dissertation (Pasadena, CA: Fuller Theological Seminary, 1992), p. 39.