I would not be the disciple of Christ that I am if it were not for female leaders in the church. As a pastor, author, and community developer, my discipleship, spiritual formation, and leadership development is—and has been—inextricably linked to female leadership at every level within the church. I have been pastored, trained, and discipled by women who are called, anointed, and commissioned by God. These women are not in violation of Scripture; they are continuing a long legacy of women whom God has used and worked through to lead the church and build the Kingdom. These women are boldly and faithfully living into their created purpose.
The Bible is full of examples of women serving in a variety of leadership positions, in both the Old and the New Testament. These women served as leaders in the church and in the broader life of the religious communities in which they served. From Deborah, Huldah, and Miriam in the Old Testament to a plethora of woman like the apostles Lydia and Junia, Anna the prophetess, Phoebe the deacon, Priscilla, Martha, Mary, Euodia, Syntyche, Tabitha (sometimes translated as Dorcas), and the nameless woman at the well in the New Testament — these women all represent a variety of different leadership roles that women are called to serve in throughout the Body.
Moreover, in both the Old and Testament we see God at work, pouring the Spirit out upon males and females indiscriminately. This Pentecost is prophesied in the Old Testament book of Joel (2:28-32) and actualized in the Acts account (2:17-21). Biblical scholar Linda Belleville reminds us that during Pentecost “the women among Jesus’ disciples were enabled for witness just as the men were (Acts 1:8, 14-15; 2:7-18). The result was a major paradigm shift from the male priesthood of the Jewish cult to the charismatic worship format and gender-inclusive leadership of the early church.”[i] The book of Acts, known as the record of the early church, attests to this. Throughout the book, the significance of women in leadership is mentioned frequently.
The truth is that most people have solely relied on two biblical texts to legitimate denying women the ability to serve in all forms of pastoral leadership throughout the church. These arguments are based upon Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 2:11-12 and I Corinthians 14: 33-35. Yet, this logic fails to hold up because Paul himself acknowledged that women played crucial roles within the leadership of the church and even referred to a number of them as his co-workers in Christ. In Romans 16, we see that Paul commissioned Phoebe to deliver his epistle to the Roman church. Out of everyone eligible for this critical task, Paul selected Phoebe. This is telling!
Additionally, Paul commended Phoebe for her noteworthy ministry within the church. In fact, at least five of the nine women that Paul makes reference to in Romans were his ministry colleges, his co-workers.[ii] Moreover, in mentioning Priscilla and Aquila (Rom 16:3-5), Paul’s Roman readers would have recognized that Priscilla’s name was listed first. The ordering suggests that Priscilla had the more significant ministry role within the church and was recognized as the ministerial leader within this union. We also see that Priscilla played a pivotal role in teaching and expanding Apollos’ understanding of the Gospel in Acts 18:26, where she is again listed before her husband. Therefore, Paul is subversively deconstructing patriarchy here. By uplifting women and the significance of their roles and ministry within the church, Paul was illustrating the essential role of women in ministry.
Historically, some English Bible translators have tried to circumvent the attribution of apostleship to a woman by changing the gender of Junia within the biblical text. “The majority of English translations done from the 1940s to the early 1970s translate Iounian as the masculine Junias. While both older translations (e.g. Tyndale New Testament, Geneva Bible, KJV), more recent translations (NKJV, NRSV, TNIV) and newer translations (e.g. NLT, ESV)[iii] all render Iounian as the feminine Junia.”[iv] This is significant because Paul greets Junia (whose name was changed to “Junias” due to translator’s error and the male inherent patriarchy, either consciously or subconsciously, that was at work within many male translators) along with Andronicus as “my fellow Jews who have been to prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles” (Rom 16:7 TNIV). Another way that Junia has been canonically stripped of her apostleship is through the translation of “Paul’s apostolic acknowledgement [of her] by translating the Greek prepositional phrase as ‘esteemed by’ or ‘in the sight of the apostles’ rather than ‘outstanding among the apostles.’”[V]
While I understand how someone could read the two passages of Paul and conclude that women should be prohibited from certain leadership positions, as Christians we have the responsibility of reading these two passages within their particular context and within the broader biblical narrative. As we do this, we will begin to see how God is making all things new and moving us beyond these prohibitive limits on the lives of women—limits that God never intended to begin with.
As ambassadors of reconciliation, we must confess that sexism is alive and well today, both inside and outside of the church. While many have come to accept that women have been called and equipped to serve in all levels of pastoral ministry, we need more faithful advocates who are consistently proclaiming this message. In particular, we need more men who believe that women are gifted and called to all levels of church leadership to lift their voice, leverage their platforms, and intentionally disciple their flocks in a way that helps the body to grow in this crucial area of spiritual formation. We need these men in ministry to profess their support of women in ministry loudly and proudly. We need male allies who are willing and equipped to enter into difficult conversations with our male peers who do not yet believe that our sisters are called to every level of pastoral ministry. As men in ministry, who believe in and support women in ministry, we must be ready to humble ourselves sacrificially by being willing to step aside at times in order to ensure that women are present at the table and are represented in all levels of leadership—including church conferences, boards, and leadership teams. We also must be ready to speak up, and speak correctively, when women are not present in spaces and our peers default to interacting in ways that align with “good old boy networks.”
[i] Linda L. Belleville, Women Leaders in the Bible, p 6.
[ii] Belleville, Women Leaders in the Bible, p 7.
[iii] The Wycliffe Bible, Weymouth, NABR, REB, God’s Word, Holman Christian Standard, NET all translate Iounian as the feminine Junia.
[iv] Belleville, Women Leaders in the Bible, p 8.
[V] Belleville, Women Leaders in the Bible, p 9.