Women in Ministry (in 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus)

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Women were involved in the first-century church, with some taking active leadership roles (see Women in the Church in the TBC for 1 Tim 2:1-15). Throughout the history of the church, women have taken leadership roles. Evidence exists that the Eastern church ordained deaconesses. The strong reaction that developed to it at a later time confirms that this was the case (Madigan and Osiek 2005). In fourth-century Rome, two women assisted Saint Jerome. Marcella was a close associate, and Jerome referred people to her for counsel. When people debated Scripture, Jerome sent them to Marcella for correct interpretation. Another Christian woman— Paula—worked with Jerome in translating the Latin Vulgate, which was then used as the Bible in medieval Europe for more than 1,000 years. Women’s monasticism arose in the fourth and fifth centuries and continued to grow for several hundred years. After some decline, it thrived again in the twelfth century. Susanna Wesley, mother of John and Charles Wesley, preached sermons to Anglican parishioners. She preached so well that there was standing room only in some settings as people came to hear her exposition of Scripture. John Wesley referred to her as a preacher of righteousness.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Bible institutes led by A. B. Simpson of the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church and D. L. Moody’s famous Moody Bible Institute promoted women in ministry. Many Pentecostal and other evangelical women preached, served as pastors of churches, and taught the Bible during this period, believing that they were obedient to God’s Word. A decline in women’s ministry in the church developed between World War I and World War II, due to a separatist subculture and a Protestant backlash against changing social values.

In mainline Protestant denominations, women were regularly called and ordained to ministry around the middle of the twentieth century. From 1975 onward in the church, women in leadership became a growing movement known as the Second Wave of Renewal of women’s ministry. From 1977 onward, evangelicals wrote and published a steady stream of quality biblical and theological studies that supported and encouraged women in ministry. In 1984, twenty-six evangelical leaders met for a colloquium on Women and the Bible. Following this meeting, conservative evangelical leader J. I. Packer said, “The burden of proof regarding the exclusion of women from the office of teaching and ruling within the congregation now lies on those who maintain the exclusion rather than on those who challenge it” (Mickelsen: 298). Some evangelicals disagreed with this assessment, and a backlash arose from a sub-culture that interpreted biblical feminism as an expression of unfaithful feminism in the culture at large. At the annual Evangelical Theological Society meeting in the winter of 1986, the debate came to a head. Many evangelicals hoped for good dialogue and reconciliation between opposing views on the subject of women in leadership. Unfortunately, reconciliation between the opposing groups did not happen. Instead, a group of conservative evangelicals, known as the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, produced a statement and later published a book in strong opposition to women in leadership. Another study of 1 Timothy 2:9-15 was published in 1995 by conservative evangelicals opposed to women in leadership (Köstenberger, Schreiner, and Baldwin 1995). The debate continues among evangelicals.

In the patriarchal society of the sixteenth century, Anabaptist and Mennonite women shared more actively in church life than did women in Protestant and Roman Catholic groups of that time. Anabaptist women held worship services, taught the Scriptures, saw visions, distributed the sacraments, evangelized, prophesied, and debated with theologians (ME 5:933). A third or more of all Anabaptist martyrs were women. In some regions as many as 40 percent of Christian martyrs were women (Snyder 1996: 12). This large number of Anabaptist women martyrs indicates the major role these women took in the church’s life and mission. In North America, the Church of the Brethren, Mennonite Brethren, and Mennonite Church worked at biblical and theological studies of women in ministry between 1950 and 2000. The Church of the Brethren officially granted ordination of women for pastoral ministry in 1958. Although as early as 1911 Ann Allebach was ordained as the first Mennonite woman pastor, not until 1980 did Mennonite congregations choose women as pastors with the blessing of their conferences and denominations. In its official polity, Mennonites affirm the ordination of women for pastoral ministry while respecting a minority who are not yet open to women in ministry (Thomas: 49-51).

Presently the debate over women in leadership in the church continues, with less rejection of women in ministry. Perhaps Bartlett goes too far when he says, “To deny ordained ministry to women does not come from faith but from fear, and whatever does not come from faith is sin” (Bartlett: 197; Rom 14:23). Much of the debate on women in ministry hinges on hermeneutics. Does one interpret the Bible by privileging a hierarchical view as some read in Genesis 2:18-25; 1 Corinthians 14:34-36; and 1 Timothy 2:9-15? Or does one privilege an egalitarian view as others read in Genesis 1:26-28 and Galatians 3:28 and as Jesus apparently did when he taught and responded to women? And how should the narrative evidence of women in leadership roles in the NT church affect one’s hermeneutic? Should one use the ministry of Christ and the practice of the early church as a lens through which to read all of the relevant passages? If one interprets the Bible this way, the prohibition passages in 1 Corinthians 14:34-36 and 1 Timothy 2:9-15 appear to be exceptions due to the recipients’ particular historical and cultural contexts. From my perspective, the biblical witness and the church’s experience of the blessing of God on women’s ministries place the burden of proof regarding the ordination of women on those who oppose women in leadership.


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Paul M. Zehr