The Role of Women in Ministry

This lesson explores the role of women in ministry and compares the arguments for their participation in full or limited ministry.
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In the general discussion about "saints" I think it would be helpful to review an issue that is creating turmoil in the church, and that is the role of women in ministry in the church.

I am thankful for a helpful booklet by brother James Meadows who has summarized well some of the many arguments over the role of women in the church.

An Old Problem

If you read certain articles about this subject you would think that the debate over the role of women in the church began in the 1980's and 90's. In actual fact the stress and strain over the appropriate role for women to play in church life, especially in the area of public worship, is as old as the church itself.

Paul was already addressing this issue in the Corinthian church with instructions about women praying and teaching. Examples can be found in I Corinthians, chapters 11 and 14.

As far back as 1892 we read in the Christian Evangelist, a magazine published by churches of Christ, about debates by preachers of that day over the propriety of allowing women to preach in church.

In 1974 two congregations of the church sponsored a seminar entitled, "Women in Christ Today," where women were the keynote speakers, and the issue being promoted was the right of women to be elders, preachers and deacons.

In the late 80's and early 90's several churches in Alabama and Texas appointed female deacons with the stipulation that they would read Scripture, lead prayer and serve communion.

We already have a major congregation in Oklahoma City that allows women to lead singing, and recently a young woman took part in leading a devotion on Sunday morning.

The role of women in ministry, therefore, is a question that has always been with the church, and continues to be with us today.

What is the Problem?

I believe that the first step in addressing this issue is to identify where the disagreement and the problems lie, and then offer biblical teaching in order to provide some direction in this matter.

The key question is, "What role can women exercise in ministry?" There are two answers to this question that are usually put forth. One says that women can practice full ministry in the church. This means that all roles are open to them including preaching and teaching to both men and women, and leadership roles as elders/pastors. The other answer is that women can have only limited ministry roles. In most cases this would mean that the ministry of preaching and the eldership are not open to women in the church.

Full Ministry

This is not a group but rather an idea shared by many different people. Basically a full ministry supporter would say that women should have the right to minister in any way that a man does (preacher, deacon, shepherd).

There are various levels of full ministry supporters:

  • Can serve in every ministry and every role
  • Can only serve as deacons
  • Can serve as deacons or preachers, but not as elders

These supporters are usually younger people and women.

Limited Ministry

This has been the traditional position. It says that only the men can be appointed as deacons, preachers and shepherds. Also, that only men should lead in public worship.

This position has been held by the majority throughout history. Obviously, those who support each side have arguments to promote their ideas.

Full Ministry

1. Cultural Argument

The primary argument for full ministry is the one that says, "...God created men and women equal but that the Old Testament and New Testament teachings on women in ministry were the result of rabbinical interpretations and the prejudices of a patriarchal social structure."

In other words, it was the custom of the Jewish culture that women were subordinate to the men, and this custom was reflected in their religion, and has carried on until today. Since this custom has changed, and is no longer the rule in our society, it should, therefore, also change in the church as well.

2. Phoebe Argument

1I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea; 2that you receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and that you help her in whatever matter she may have need of you; for she herself has also been a helper of many, and of myself as well.
- Romans 16:1-2

Phoebe is referred to as a deaconess in Romans 16:1-2 and thus proves that women held this position in the early church. If women could be deacons in the church, at the very least they should also be allowed to lead in public prayer, teach mixed groups (men and women), and do the things that some deacons did (i.e. Philip, the deacon, also taught and performed miracles - Acts 6:8-10).

3. Equal Argument

For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.
- Galatians 3:26

This passage teaches that we are all equal in Christ. If slaves and free men as well as Jew and Greek are put on the same footing, then the idea that men and women are equal should mean that each have access to the same ministry roles as well.

4. Example Argument

The Old Testament has many examples of women who ministered as prophets and leaders (Miriam, Deborah, Anna) so they should be allowed to minister fully in the church today. God used women in dynamic ways in the past and can still use them today, but it is men, and not God, who deny them their potential role in ministry.

Limited Ministry

I personally believe and support the notion that there is a limited ministry role for women in the church, and give the reasons why this is so by responding to the arguments made by the Full Ministry supporters.

1. Cultural Argument

What is written in the Bible is the product of inspiration, not culture (II Timothy 3:16). It is written by people in a cultural context, but its instruction and commands are inspired from God not social customs.

For example, the New Testament instructions that limit a woman's ministry in the area of public worship and leadership in the church is based on a "creation" principle not "cultural" one. When I say a creation principle I mean that the idea presented is sourced in the initial creation of man. For example, I believe that homosexual practice is wrong because human sexuality is based on the principles initially established at creation by God. Men were created to partner with women; this is in the basic DNA of human sexuality. One can change this and act differently (what I refer to as a cultural change) for various reasons but the essence of human sexuality is the creation model of one man and woman interacting in sexual intimacy. With this in mind I pose the following questions:

  • Is it cultural when Paul says, "the head of woman is man" in I Corinthians 11:3? What about the statement in the same verse that says, "the head of Christ is God" - is that culture or creation?
  • Paul says that women "are to be under obedience, as also says the Law" in I Corinthians 14:34 - is that culture or creation?
  • He also says in Ephesians 5:23, "the husband is the head of the wife" is this just cultural? If it is, then how do we explain his comparison in the same verse where he says, "even as Christ is the head of the church." Then later he writes in the same context, "children, obey your parens in the Lord" (Ephesians 6:1) - is this cultural too? If so, then it means that what he says about Christ is also cultural and subject to the changing times as well.
  • In I Timothy 2:12-13 he says, "women are not to teach or exercise authority over the man... for Adam was first formed, then Eve."
    • In this verse he explains the basis for the order that God has established in the home as well as in the church. It is this order that provides the context for interpreting many other verses in the Bible regarding the role or ministry of women in the home and in the church.
    • Jesus did the same thing when questioned about divorce. He went back to the creation to establish the model that we are to follow for marriage. Paul does the same to establish the model for the role of women in the home and church.

There are pressures today to change the rules and style of traditional marriage that is based on the model found in the Bible. It is the same for the role of women in the family and in the church. There are many changes in society (which may be legitimate) but for the house and church we are bound by the Biblical Model in every era. Jesus didn't legislate for the role of women in society, only the home and church.

2. Phoebe Argument

The word deacon used to describe her is a common word used to describe any servant. It is the same Greek word used to describe the ones who filled the water pots at the wedding at Cana (John 2:5). It is even used to describe the Emperor Nero in Rome. It was also used to refer to specific servants in church.

The use of this word to describe Phoebe simply means that she was a good and trusted servant or messenger; which all Christians should be. There is no reference or example in the New Testament of a woman serving as a deacon. The first deaconess only appears in writings that were made hundreds of years after the end of the New Testament period. In the Bible we have direct commands, lengthy teaching and examples of men being singled out to be deacons, but none of these for women serving in this role. Good Bible interpretation requires that when we have a clear teaching, we go with what is written in the Bible and not with church history notations long after the Apostolic period.

It is not prejudice or chauvinistic to say that there is nothing in the New Testament to support the role of women as deacons. It is simply a matter of record (inspired record) that we are all subject to obey as Christians. Romans 16:1 could refer to Phoebe as an official deacon or a trusted servant - all other passages point to her being a trusted servant and we are to go with that. In the study of the Bible, it is better to go with the many pieces of evidence that point to a logical conclusion than the one obscure notation that can be interpreted in a variety of ways.

3. Equal Argument

The Bible taught and promoted the idea that men and women were equal, contrary to the social custom of New Testament times. Christianity was the religion that promoted the equal value of women to men long before it was a modern social issue.

The distinction the Bible makes however is that men and women have different roles. Some roles are different because of nature (child rearing, giving birth) and some are different because of assignment by God (role in family and church).

Men and women are equally saved when they are united to Christ through baptism but they do not discard their natural or assigned roles. You're still a female even after baptism.

The Bible makes clear that "submission" to the husband or "in submission" while learning in church does not mean inferiority. The role assigned by God is one that must be accepted freely in order to be legitimate. Men must accept freely to provide holy and loving leadership in the home and in the church. Women must accept freely to place themselves in submission to their husbands in the home, and to the elders in the church (as men must do also).

God has created man and woman equal in value and in human potential for good. In certain contexts both men and women can exercise their talents and abilities freely and without restraint (business, sports). God has ordained however that in the family and in the church each sex will play a specific role, and not necessarily one that comes easily or naturally to them. For example:

  • For some men, leadership does not come easily or naturally.
  • For some women, submission goes against their nature.

God supplies the grace and strength to mold our individual personalities to His will in order to honor Him. I'm sure that it did not come easily to Jesus to submit to a disgraceful public execution either.

God requires for the sake of order, peace and edification that equal people take on specific roles, and we honor Him when we do so freely and joyfully.

4. Example Argument

The idea that there are many examples of women ministers in leadership roles in the Bible is simply inaccurate. In his book "All the Women of the Bible" Dr. Herbert Lockyer says that in the 260 references where women are named or referred to in the Bible there is not one single case where a woman was in a leadership role in the worship to Jehovah.

There are some specific cases like Anna who prophesied in the temple but there was a partition that separated the men from the women in the temple, and so she may have done so to the women in a regular way. Deborah, a woman described as a prophetess in the Old Testament (Judges 4:4, 5:7), gave judgment over Israel as "...a mother in Israel" always maintaining a maternal imagery.

In I Corinthians Paul talks about women praying and prophesying, and gives instruction about how they are to do this.

33For God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints. 34The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. 35If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church.
- I Corinthians 14:33-35
8Therefore I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and dissension. 9Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments, 10but rather by means of good works, as is proper for women making a claim to godliness. 11A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. 12But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. 13For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. 14And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression. 15But women will be preserved through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self-restraint.
- I Timothy 2:8-15

Paul says that women are not to speak, teach or have authority over a man in church. Did he contradict himself?

The full ministry people seem to think so but a more simple explanation is to conclude that in the first century church, like in the synagogues and like we do today, the women edified each other, and when this happened those who prayed and prophesied at those occasions wore a veil to demonstrate their on-going submissive attitudes despite the demonstration of gifts and leadership among the women.

Today we don't use the veil in our society but women who exercise their talents and gifts for leadership in our children's programs, women's Bible studies, and various benevolence and service projects demonstrate their submissive attitudes in the way they act and by working under the oversight of the church's elders. The oversight of the elders provides the cover of the veil for Christian women of today. This is why even the preachers and deacons ask them to review their work and plans before they go ahead - a sign of submission.


So much time and energy are spent discussing the few areas where God, not man, has limited woman in the area of ministry. There are so many other important ministry roles where women can serve equally if not more effectively than men. Here are just a few for example:

  1. Ministry to the ill, elderly and alone
  2. Ministry of teaching to children, women
  3. Ministry of mentoring younger women and especially younger wives and mothers
  4. Ministry as wives of elders, deacons, preachers and the responsibilities that go with this
  5. Ministry of evangelism (Priscilla and Aquila, missions)
  6. Ministry of hospitality (greeters)
  7. Ministry of service

Here are three appeals I have for the church:

  1. That women accept their biblical role in ministry with grace and humility, and honor God in doing so.
  2. That women exercise the opportunities for ministry that do exist and are sufficient to satisfy, edify and glorify.
  3. That all women realize that, like men, their #1 ministry is the saving of their own souls.

Discussion Questions

  1. What does Paul teach in 1 Corinthians 11 and 14 regarding women praying and teaching?
  2. Summarize the idea of full ministry verses limited ministry for women.
  3. What are the arguments for full ministry of women?
  4. What are the arguments for a limited ministry for women?
  5. How can you use this lesson to grow spiritually and help others come into a relationship with Jesus?