Women in Ministry

by Dr. Ben Witherington III
Witherington, Ben, III. (Winter 1997). Women in ministry, The Asbury Herald 108, no. 1, 3-7.

Should women be ordained as ministers of the gospel? This question is at the heart of the complex issue of women in ministry. No church, no pastor, no denomination is immune from dealing with this subject. And, no matter what our opinions are, they must first be rooted in Scripture. That is why it is critical to probe and examine the Word of God to get the answer.

But before we begin looking directly at Scripture, we need to obtain some background information. We need to spend a few moments talking about the world in which Jesus lived, into which the first Christians came and the roles women played in it. If you examine first-century cultures, it is obvious they were patriarchal cultures. A patriarchal culture is a culture in which males, by the nature of the culture, assume the basic leadership roles. They will be the heads of tribes, judges in the courts of law, heads of families and leaders in religious observances. Some were more patriarchal, some were less, but they were all male-dominated cultures in one way or another.

The second thing I want to say to you is about the New Testament itself. The New Testament is an androcentric book. That is, it was written by males from a male’s point of view. These are maybe the two most important things I could start with. That means when we look at the New Testament and the New Testament world, one of the things we have to realize is even though women were playing very important roles, often those roles are sublimated or subsurface. They are not immediately apparent, and it requires a certain amount of digging to get at what roles women actually had.

The third thing that I’d want to say to you is that our basic access to the first-century world is not just limited to texts. We have evidence about women and their roles from other sources as well. For example, we have inscriptional evidence. We have evidence from tombstones that tells us about the women who paid for a certain tombstone to be erected for their husbands or sons. And sometimes these tombstones will tell us what their roles were. There’s also archeological evidence – the evidence we derive from excavating homes and buildings. That tells us a little more broadly some of the roles that women have assumed. There’s papyrological evidence – not formal documents, but very informal documents. In ancient times paper was very expensive, so people wrote on everything, such as pottery.

With that in mind, we are now going to concentrate on the New Testament evidence, and also draw on a wider wealth of data.

Let’s look now at a little core sampling in Palestinian and Greco-Roman culture.
Palestinian culture, in the time of Jesus, was a culture in which the dominating parties were not Jews. It was dominated by a foreign power. And that meant Jews were not free to be all they could. They were not in control of their political destiny. And that, in itself, affected the way women’s roles were viewed. One of the things that becomes clear when you examine the
Pharisaic movement, is that they were very concerned about amalgamation. They were concerned that Jews would lose their sense of distinctive identity and no longer practice the distinctives of Judaism which made them a separate people – a people set apart. These practices included circumcision, food laws and purity laws. And for better or worse, this dramatically affected women’s roles. For instance, circumcision only involved males (baptism, on the other
hand, was inclusive). The rules of clean and unclean people had a dramatic religious effect. Because a woman was unclean during her menstrual cycle, she could not hold leadership roles in the synagogue. Why? Because she might be menstruating on the Sabbath and, therefore, could not be counted on to be present every Sabbath.

Into that environment, comes Jesus. What is noticeable about Him is the way He stands out from His culture in His treatment of women. Not so much the way He conforms to the broader assumptions about women, but the ways He stands out from them.

Mark 3:31-31 – Family of Faith

The essence of this text is this, Jesus’ family, His physical family – His mother, brothers and sisters – have come to take Him home. They are worried about Him, they think He might be out of His mind. As Jesus’ family approaches, they say to Him, "Your mother, your brothers and your sisters, are outside asking for you." Jesus replies, "Who are my mothers and my brothers?" Then He says, "Here are my mothers, brothers and sisters. Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother." This is a radical teaching. What Jesus is saying is counter intuitive to Jewish culture. The basic family unit, says Jesus, is not determined by blood, but by faith. The physical family, what we would call the nuclear family, what they would have seen as the extended family, is secondary. That determines the family of faith? It is whoever does the will of God and whoever is prepared to be a follower of Jesus Christ – that is the primary family. The dictates of the physical family must fit into the dictates, agendas and priorities of the family of faith. Now this is a critical principle, because it means that heredity and traditional patriarchal culture are not going to determine what is going on here. What is going to determine it is faith and doing the will of God. The primary family is the family of faith. For Jesus, His
primary family is His following. The secondary family is the physical family.

Mark 7:17ff – Levitical Law

Jesus has a controversy with the Pharisees. The Pharisees were a reform movement within Judaism. They preached the gospel of Leviticus and wanted everyone to strictly adhere to its laws. However, most of the dictates of Leviticus were incumbent upon Levites and priests. The Pharisees wanted everyone to live like priests. They wanted a priesthood of all believers,
and from the pharisaic point of view, every jot and tittle of the book of Leviticus was to be lived out by every Jew. In Mark 7, we have the Pharisees asking why the disciples don’t wash their hands. That is, why aren’t they living up to Leviticus?

Jesus makes it clear that this is not required of His disciples. And then He goes in the house and explains to them, in parabolic form, what He means. In verse 19, Mark adds, "Thus He declared all food clean." This is explosive teaching. He is saying we are not required to observe the Levitical laws any more. Jesus was not simply a Jewish reformer, He was a radical reformer. He was not just one who wanted to tinker with the existing superstructure, He was rebuilding it. He came to announce a new covenant. A new covenant signed in baptism, not
circumcision. It is clear that early Christians and the earliest followers of Jesus before Easter, had a very hard time processing this. "The meaning is," he says, "thus all foods are declared clean." The Old Testament law says, "Don’t eat this, do eat that." Jesus is saying none of that makes a person unclean. That means no more unclean food, and by implication, no more unclean countries and no more ritually unclean persons.

Now another thing we know about Jesus, which was bitterly complained about in the gospels, is that He continued eating with the wrong sort of people. He kept eating with sinners and the tax collectors. This made Him ritually unclean. Now there are two ways this could be read. One way would be to say that Jesus was an observant Jew who was willing to incur ritual uncleanliness, to redeem these people, after which He went and performed the rules about ritual
purification. The problem is, there is nothing in the New Testament about Jesus ever performing ritual purification rites. We hear about His baptisms, but that is not a ritual purification rite, that is a one-time entrance ritual.

The other point that could be made is that Jesus was doing a major revision of issues of clean and unclean and this had tremendous implications for women. It meant that Jesus was no longer going to treat a woman as someone who was periodically unclean – ritually speaking. It meant that in Jesus’ mind, if that’s what disqualified women from leadership roles, that disqualification was disallowed. The kingdom of God was here, the family of faith had begun,
so things were now different.

Luke 10:1-38 – Mary & Martha

This is the famous story of Mary and Martha. For these two sisters, Jesus was prepared to raise their brother, Lazarus, (who was obviously their visible means of support) from the dead. Upon reflecting on this particular story, the question, "Who is assuming the traditional role of the hostess among these two sisters?," should be asked. Clearly it is Martha, and not Mary. Jesus, when confronted with a suggestion that Mary really ought to be in the kitchen helping prepare the food and wine, says, "Mary has every right to sit at my feet, to soak up my teaching, to be my disciple, and in fact, she has chosen the better dish." The Greek here is a play on words, "she has chosen the better portion." Instead of the physical meal, she has chosen the spiritual meal. The one meal that every disciple needed to consume was the Word of God shared by Jesus.

Now, was Jesus opposed to Martha serving? No, but it was a matter of priority. The priority was, for women as well as men, not the traditional roles, but being a disciple of Jesus. It is no wonder, then, that women flocked to Jesus and followed Him. They were being offered by Him something they could not have gotten outside. It is no surprise that the majority of early Christians were women.

This always raises the question, "If Jesus was a supporter of equality between men and women, why did He choose 12 male disciples?" And it's a very good question. A proper answer is that He chose them as ambassadors to the traditional culture of Judaism. We are told that He chose them to sit on thrones, judging the 12 tribes of Israel. In other words, they have a role in relationship with traditional Judaism. Their job is, as Jesus said, "to seek out the lost sheep of Israel." This doesn't exclude others from being disciples and it doesn't exclude others from proclaiming the Word of God. It simply means Jesus had prepared them for a specific task, in relationship with a very traditional culture.

Matthew 19 – Divorce

This passage, in some ways, is the most revolutionary of all. The earliest Gospel we have is the Gospel of Mark. And it is always useful to compare the earliest form of a teaching with a later form. The earliest form of this teaching is found in Mark 10 and it is very clear there that Jesus' basic teaching about divorce is that it is not permissible. And if you look at Luke 16:18, the only verse in Luke which deals with the subject, it is also very clear that Jesus' basic teaching was no divorce. So the question is what does one do with Matthew, where in chapters 5 and 19, we have exception clauses. The Greek word following the words "except on the grounds of" is porneia. This word has two basic meanings. One would be a host of sexual sins: bestiality, homosexuality, lesbianism, adultery, fornication. In other words it can be a synonymous term
for all kinds of sexual sins. But when it is a technical term, it means incest. Now I want to ask a question at this point. What caused John the Baptist to lose his head? The incestuous relationship between Herod and his brother's wife. We know that Jesus was disturbed by this, and we know that He was close to John the Baptist. I think it was very likely that was what porneia is here – except on the grounds of incest. In other words, marriage was meant to be permanent, except in the case where the relationship is not a true relationship to begin with.

Marriage is permanent whenever God joins two people together, except in cases in which the relationship was not a proper marriage to begin with, and it was an incestuous relationship. Now, this makes very good sense of this text. Notice the reaction of the disciples. If Jesus had simply stood up and said, "No divorce, except for any and all kinds of sexual sins," He would not have been saying anything different from what other rabbis often said. Now if that was Jesus' teaching, then the reaction of the disciples is inexplicable. They said, if that's the way it is for a man and woman, better not to marry. In other words, Jesus was taking away the male privilege of divorce. He gives two options – life-long fidelity in marriage or celibacy in singleness. Now here is the punchline. Who would have found this teaching restrictive? The males, who had the right of divorce.

This is the vision of the physical family from Jesus, and singleness. First of all he's saying I'm going against the cultural assumptions. Number one assumption, that everybody ought to get married who is an able-bodied person. "Be fruitful and multiply." That meant get married and have children. That was understood by most rabbis to be a demand of the law – not an option, but a demand. Being single for the sake of the kingdom was not seen as an option. Jesus ways it is. Now again, what kind of person would most benefit from saying you can be single for the sake of the kingdom? Who would most likely assume new roles? Women, because they were no longer required to be mothers or wives. It's not surprising that Jesus was crucified for saying things like this. It's just surprising He lasted three years before it happened.

Acts 18:24-26 – Priscilla & Aquilla

This is a story about Apollos, one of the most famous early Christian proclaimers, a man who was a native of Alexandria. He comes to teach in Ephesus, where two Christians, Priscilla and Aquilla, are dwelling. Priscilla and Aquilla, we are told, when they heard him preaching, discovered he didn't know about Christian baptism. The key verse is verse 26, where they took him aside and explained the way of God to him more accurately. That is, as a husband-and-wife team they instructed Apollos, one of the great proclaimers of early Christianity. Now for later Christian scribes who were copying the New Testament this was too much to handle. Some of the later copies of the Greek New Testament, and certainly many of the Latin copies, changed verse 26 to read "And He took him aside and explained the Word of God to him." The earliest manuscripts have "they," the later manuscripts have "he." Why? Because by the middle ages ministers were priests, and, therefore, women couldn’t be ministers, therefore they can’t serve in the teaching office of the church. But here we see it, Priscilla and Aquilla instructing and taking a male aside to explain the way of God to him more accurately. They are not just explaining matters of hospitality or trivial matters, but the important matters about the sacrament and faith in Jesus Christ.

Now we could look at many other texts in Acts, but instead we will turn to some of Paul’s most difficult and interesting texts.

1 Corinthians 11 – Head Coverings

This is a text which is familiar. It has to do with veiling or head coverings. It is
explaining under what circumstances in Christian worship women and men can pray and prophesy. Notice the issue in 1 Corinthians 11 is not whether men and women should pray and prophesy in the worship service, but rather how and under what circumstances. Paul’s argument is long and complex, but Paul’s most basic point is that it is all right for women to pray and prophesy in the worship service, just as it is men. Men should do it, says Paul, without a head
covering, women should do it with a head covering. But my point is, if Paul had wanted to say women should never speak in congregational worship, he would have simply said no praying and prophesying by women. But, he doesn’t do that. Paul’s reason for the provision is that in Christ the male/female distinctions are not obliterated, they are recognized. Women are still women,
men are still men. Male and female, God created us in His image. Paul says that the creation order is not obliterated in the order of redemption, it is renewed, strengthened and recognized. Therefore, in worship, if women are going to lead in the praying and the prophesying let them cover their heads and let the men not cover their heads. The interesting thing about this is that
we know in Greco-Roman settings, both men and women covered their heads before praying or offering a sacrifice. So Paul is not merely endorsing a cultural practice. He is instituting a Christian practice for a theological reason, the goodness of the distinction of men and women, and yet, also their viability in ministry, to offer prayers and prophecy in the early church.

1 Corinthians 14 – Quieting of Women

This is a controversial text. It has been used a great deal to suggest that women should not speak in the Christian worship service. The problem with that exegesis is three fold: first, we’ve already seen in 1 Corinthians 11 that Paul has instructed them how they may speak in the worship service. So it is quite clear from 1 Corinthians 11, that all speech by women in the worship service cannot be being banned. Whatever else this text may mean, it cannot amount to a banning of women in the worship service. Second, these verses must not be taken out of context. The context is how worship should be properly practiced when the issue is the sharing of certain charismatic gifts – prophecy and tongues. Paul is stressing the importance of not interrupting the prophets in the middle of their prophecy. He says let each take turns and be
silent while the others speak. In other words, be in submission to the teaching. Paul is trying to instill a little order into the worship services. And in that context, when the prophecy was uttered, Paul says there needs to be a time for the weighing of the prophecies, apparently some married women were asking questions of the prophets. Paul was saying Christian prophecy is
not like pagan prophecy, Christian worship is not a time for questions and answers, it is a time to worship God and to share fellowship with one another. So he says, don’t interrupt the worship service with questions, ask at home. The silence has to do with the kind of speech they were offering, not all kinds of speech.

1 Timothy 2 – Regulating Worship

Again, the context is crucial for understanding all of what is going on here. In 1 Timothy 2, the subject is regulating worship. Both men’s and women’s behavior is being regulated. In verse eight, Paul says, "I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing." As in 1 Corinthians 14, Paul is correcting abuses and he corrects the men first. He says men, stop squabbling. Lift up holy hands in prayer. No more anger, no more disputing, no
more pecking order of who gets to pray first, none of that sort of thing anymore. Then he says of women, "I want women to dress modestly, but with good deeds appropriate for women to profess to worship God and women should learn quietness and full submission. I am not now permitting a woman to teach or to have authority over a man. She must be silent, for Adam was formed first then Eve. Adam was not the one deceived, it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But the woman will be saved through childbearing."

In the larger context of 1 Timothy, Paul says, I want the older women to instruct the younger women. So again, it is clear from the larger context that Paul is not ruling out women from any and all kinds of teaching. That is point number one. He is correcting some kind of abuse, and the abuse has to do with the translation of verse 12, "I am not now permitting a woman to teach or usurp authority over a man." Now "usurp" is the key term, maybe the most
key term in the New Testament for the issue of women’s ordination. The term in question is the Greek verb authenteo. This verb can either be used in a positive or a negative sense. It can mean to have authority, it can mean to usurp authority. The context would prepare us to think that since he is correcting abuses the proper translation here would be "usurping."

So what’s the problem? There were women in this particular congregation who were interfering with those who were already teaching, and trying to usurp authority over the men who were teaching. Paul is saying, "I am not permitting that." Apparently there are some women who have not been thoroughly instructed yet in the faith. He speaks about these women later in 1 Timothy, saying they are flighty, they are not well-grounded in the gospel, and they are
running off at the mouth before they know what they are talking about. Now if men had done the same thing, I’m sure he would have given them the same exhortation. The issue is not a gender issue, it’s that these are unprepared women. So he says I want a woman to learn in quietness and full submission at this point.

Notice in this text and in 1 Corinthians 14, it’s submission to the teaching, not
submission to men. It’s submission to the authoritative teaching, which was being interrupted. That’s what they ought not to do. Then why this elaborate argument which follows about Adam and Eve and then this whole thing about childbearing? The argument is a theological argument to reinforce the point. To whom in the garden did the instruction come, not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil? Adam, chiefly to Adam. Eve was not properly instructed. And yet, she presumed without proper instruction to dialogue with the devil. The devil says, "Did God really say that?" She says, "Maybe not." Now the point is, that Eve is like these women, inadequately instructed and therefore not prepared for the confrontation she has.

The long and short of these texts is this, they are intended to correct abuses. If Paul were here today, I think he would still say that if these abuses show up in worship, they should be corrected. The word is still authoritative. I am not suggesting that these texts are culturally bound, but that they are still applicable if an analogous situation arises. The principle of analogy is crucial. You cannot take a specific text like this and use it to provide a rationale for the
argument that women should never be ordained. In the first place, the New Testament doesn’t say anything about ordained men or women elders. The whole issue there is the character of the person who is going to serve, not the job qualifications, and certainly not that they are male. So the issue here I think is abuse of power and abuse of privilege.

Let’s take a moment and review. If we look carefully at all of this, we can see the newness, the new wine of the gospel, changing the way women are viewed and the way women’s roles appear. This affects the structure of the physical family, especially because the family of faith, brothers and sisters in Christ, is the primary family now. Jesus and Paul set about to reform the traditional patriarchal structure, in terms of women’s family roles and their religious
roles. In Jesus’ context, the reformation was more radical, because the society was more conservative. In Paul’s context, there were plenty of women assuming prominent roles in various ways even thought the culture was largely patriarchal. So, it was not an entire surprise in the Christian communities that Paul dealt with, but much more a surprise during the ministry of Jesus. And so, we see here Paul reforming the existing patriarchal structure. The vision of the
New Testament about women is a vision of a changing world. Paul believed, Jesus believed, the earliest Christians believed that new wine should be put in new wineskins, and this meant new roles, new possibilities for women in the family, and also in the family of faith.
Dr. Ben Witherington III is a professor of New Testament at Asbury Seminary.