• johned@aibi.ph

Women In Ministry

by Dr. Steve Martin

I decided to search the Scripture regarding the question of women as leaders in the church, particularly in the area of preaching and teaching. The following passage, shown here in both the King James Version and New International Version discusses the apostle Paul's commendation of Phoebe, a servant (diakonos) of the church in Cenchrea, as well as Priscilla and Aquilla

(Romans 16:1-5 KJV) I commend unto you Phoebe our sister, which is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea: {2} That ye receive her in the Lord, as becometh saints, and that ye assist her in whatsoever business she hath need of you: for she hath been a succourer of many, and of myself also. {3} Greet Priscilla and Aquila my helpers in Christ Jesus: {4} Who have for my life laid down their own necks: unto whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles. {5} Likewise greet the church that is in their house. Salute my well beloved Epaenetus, who is the firstfruits of Achaia unto Christ.

(Romans 16:1-5 NIV) I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchrea. {2} I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a great help to many people, including me. {3} Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus. {4} They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them. {5} Greet also the church that meets at their house. Greet my dear friend Epenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in the province of Asia.

Strong's defines diakonos as follows:

1249. diakonos, dee-ak'-on-os; prob. from an obs. diako (to run on errands; comp. G1377); an attendant, i.e. (gen.) a waiter (at table or in other menial duties); spec. a Chr. teacher and pastor (techn. a deacon or deaconess):--deacon, minister, servant.

You noted that you were unable to find anywhere in the Bible where women are spoken of as ministers or pastors. Yet in this passage Paul uses the specific Greek word diakonos in referring to Phoebe. If you look at the definition you'll see that diakonos has both a general use (as found in Acts 6) and a specific meaning. I'm sure you'll agree that Paul was one of the most highly educated men of his day and chose his words very carefully. The specific meaning of diakonos in this instance refers to Phoebe as "a Christian teacher and pastor" a "deacon, minister, servant." Let's take a look at what Holman's Bible Dictionary has to say about this topic.

PHOEBE (foh' bih) Personal name meaning, "bright." "Servant," "minister" (REB), "deaconess" (NASB, NIV note), or "deacon" (NRSV) of church at Cenchrea whom Paul recommended to church at Rome (Rom. 16:1-2). See Deacon.

DEACON, DEACONESS The term "deacon" is derived from the Greek word diakonos, which is usually translated "servant" or "minister." Only a few times in the New Testament (Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:8,12, and, in some translations, Rom. 16:1) is it translated "deacon" and used to denote one holding a church office. The noun form comes from a verb which means "to serve," probably originally in the sense of waiting on tables. It came to be used to signify a broad range of types of service. In the New Testament, the noun is used to refer to ministers of the gospel (Col. 1:23), ministers of Christ (1 Tim. 4:6), servants of God (2 Cor. 6:4), those who follow Jesus (John 12:26), and in many other similar ways.

Although Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3 clearly indicate that the office of deacon existed in New Testament times, no explicit Bible reference describes the duties of deacons or refers to the origin of the office. In Philippians 1:1 and in numerous references in early Christian literature outside the New Testament, bishops and/or elders and deacons are mentioned together, with deacons mentioned last.

Because of this order, and because of the natural connotations of the word diakonos, most interpreters believe that deacons, from the beginning, served as assistants of the church leaders. Certainly, that was clearly the role of deacons by the second century. Deacons continued to fill an important role in the ministry of the early church, serving the needs of the poor, assisting in baptism and the Lord's Supper, and performing other practical ministerial tasks. The nature of the qualifications of deacons outlined in 1 Timothy 3:8-13 perhaps indicates the function of deacons in the New Testament period. In most respects, the qualifications of deacons mirror those of the "bishops," the leaders of the churches. The high standards of morality and character expected of both demonstrates the church's serious regard for the offices and the importance of their functions.

The requirements that deacons must have a clear understanding of the faith (1 Tim. 3:9) and that their faithfulness already be proven (1 Tim. 3:10) indicate that their duties consisted of more than menial chores. The exclusion of those who are "double-tongued" (v. 8) may be evidence that the work of the deacons brought them into close contact with the everyday lives of the church members, as would occur in visiting the sick and ministering to the other physical needs of fellow Christians. Such service would both give them greater knowledge of items for gossip and allow them greater opportunity to spread such gossip, thus making it crucial that they should not be prone to talebearing. The requirement that deacons not be greedy may indicate that they were responsible for collecting and distributing church funds.

Whether the deacons' functions extended to leading in worship is not clear. Gifts for teaching, a requirement for "bishops," are not mentioned in the qualifications for deacons. The connotations of table service in the word diakonos and the centrality of the Lord's Supper in the worship of the early church strongly imply that distributing the elements and, in the early years, serving the agape meal were important functions of deacons.

Many interpreters believe that the account of the choosing of the seven in Acts 6 describes the selection of the first deacons, although the term diakonos is not used in the passage and the term diakonia ("service" or "ministry") is used only for the work of the twelve. The tasks that the seven performed, however, later seem to be principal functions of deacons. On the other hand, two of the seven, Stephen and Philip, are known to us as prominent preachers and evangelists, roles which may not have been common for deacons. The seven were set apart for their task in a ceremony in which the apostles "laid their hands on them" (Acts 6:6). This ceremony may reflect the origin of later ordination practice. Other than this passage, which may or may not represent usual practice, the New Testament does not mention ordination of deacons.

The list of qualifications in 1 Timothy 3:11 requires that "women" must "likewise" (NASB) be similar in character to the men. Although this remark may refer to the wives of male deacons (KJV, NIV) it probably should be interpreted as a parenthetical reference to female deacons, or deaconesses (NIV footnote; NASB footnote; NRSV footnote). Romans 16:1 refers to Phoebe as a diakonos of the church at Cenchrea. Williams New Testament translates this as deaconess. The NRSV uses "deacon." Other translations use "servant." In this verse, Phoebe's role as "helper" and Paul's obvious regard for her work seem to support the conclusion that she functioned as a deacon in her church. Deaconesses are mentioned prominently in Christian writings of the first several centuries. They cared for needy fellow believers, visited the sick, and were especially charged with assisting in the baptism of women converts.

(Galatians 3:28 NIV) There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28: Paul's assertion does not obliterate social or role distinctions. Observation will confirm the continuing existence of Jew and Greek, male and female. The statement is an affirmation of the impartial nature of the love of God in salvation (cf. Acts 10:34, 35). The equality of personhood which God gave to His entire creation is a birthright of new life, to be exercised as an opportunity for intimate fellowship with God Himself. Similarly, the divinely assigned responsibility of race, position, or sex is a mandate of office, to be accepted as an opportunity in service and for glory to the Lord. This is no contradiction to the equality and unity we experience "in Christ," which transcends all racial, ethnic, social, national or sexual distinctions.

Okay, that gives us a better understanding of how Paul felt about women in ministry. Let's not limit it to Paul, though. Let's look at the overall view of woman the New Testament takes.

What the New Testament Teaches About Woman

Jesus was able to retain the best in the Hebrew tradition and yet cut away some of the rigid structure that restricted it. He was able to do the same for woman. Without radically changing her roles, Jesus enlarged and transformed women's possibilities for a full life. His manner and teachings elevated her status and gave her an identity and a cause. Jesus' manner in His interactions with women is at least as significant as His teachings about woman. At the risk of censure from a male-oriented society, Jesus talked to women, responded to their touch, healed them, received their emotional and financial support, and used them as main characters in His stories. Jesus saw women as persons. Martha wanted Jesus to make Mary help with the serving duties, but Jesus affirmed Mary's choice to learn as a disciple. Women of that day could not be disciples of rabbis, but Jesus recognized women's potential for intelligent thought and commitment (Luke 10:38-42).

On another occasion, Jesus welcomed a woman's anointing His head as indicative of her understanding of His real mission. Instead of rejecting her public display or chiding her for extravagance, He commended her for her act of love. He treated her as a person of insight and feeling (Mark 14:3-9). The woman at the well in Samaria is another example of Jesus seeing women as persons. Jesus would not have talked theology to her if He had related to her primarily as a woman or as a Samaritan. However, He saw her as a person, so He was not restricted in His interaction by her sex or race (John 4:1-42).

The woman caught in adultery was treated as a person. Her action was not condoned by Jesus, but neither did He allow her to be subjected to a double standard by her male accusers. Jesus offered her new possibilities of living with His directive: "Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again" (John 7:53-8:11 NRSV).

Besides seeing women as persons, Jesus involved them in His earthly ministry. Luke mentioned a group of women who traveled with Jesus as He journeyed from town to town (Luke 8:1-3). Among them were Mary of Magdala, Joanna, and Susanna. These women provided financial support for Jesus and the twelve apostles. Women also proclaimed the gospel. In His encounter with the Samaritan woman, Jesus revealed Himself as the Messiah. She immediately left and began telling people, "He told me everything I have ever done" (John 4:39 NRSV). Many Samaritans believed in Jesus because of the woman's testimony.

Women were the first at the tomb after the resurrection; and, as such, they were the first to broadcast His victory over death (Luke 23:55-24:11). Matthew, Mark, and Luke all called attention to the loyal women who participated in Jesus' Galilean ministry and followed Him all the way to the cross and the grave. They shared the greatest news: "He is not here, but has risen" (Luke 24:5 NRSV). As a master teacher, Jesus used parables to teach about the kingdom of God. He reached out to the women in His audience by telling stories about their life experiences. By capturing their attention and commitment through parables, He offered them a place in the kingdom. God's seeking activity is the theme of two parables, the lost sheep begins, "What man of you" and the parable of the lost coin, "What woman." The woman looking for the lost coin represented God's activity in seeking the lost, just as the man represented God's seeking activity. Jesus appealed to women through their housekeeping experiences. He elevated their experiences by likening them to God's activity.

The twin parables in Luke 13:18-20 point to the way the kingdom of God grows. Again Jesus used the life experience of woman to illuminate an eternal truth. Jesus meant for women to identify with His mission. He meant to involve them in spreading the gospel. His parables taught that both women and men would be involved in the kingdom work. Jesus spoke directly to the matter of treating a woman as a sex object. In the Sermon on the Mount, He redefined adultery to include a lustful look (Matt. 5:28). While making religion a matter of the heart instead of the law, Jesus elevated women to the level of full personhood, from the level of sexual exploitation. Marriage and divorce were issues of great importance to women, since their lives were lived mainly in the roles of wife and mother. Their emotional, social, and financial security was dependent on their marriages. Jesus said that divorce is a testimony to the hardness of the human heart, not God's will (Matt. 19:1-9). To those who were casually divorcing their wives, Jesus stated plainly that they were committing adultery. Responsive to the plight of women, He offset the male bias toward divorce and strengthened marriage as a permanent union. (See Matt. 5:31-32; 19:1-12; Mark 10:1-12; Luke 16:18.)

Jesus' parable of the ten maidens, five foolish and five wise, hints at the way Jesus saw and dealt with woman (Matt. 25:1-13). He saw women as neither inferior nor superior, but simply as persons. He saw their potential, their sinfulness, their strengths and weaknesses, and He dealt with them directly. As a group, He elevated their status and strengthened their participation and influence in their world. But as individuals, He treated them as friends and disciples.

Paul's theological vision (Gal. 3:28) was that there was no partiality among persons with God. Yet Paul felt the tension of maintaining order in the New Testament church. He often fell back on Jewish social customs of the day to ensure that the fledgling church would not be seen unfavorably by the rest of the world. A man of his time, he still had a vision toward which he strove. Paul moved ahead of his Jewish background when he called for mutual submission between husbands and wives (Eph. 5:21-33). The prevailing custom was for wives to be submissive. However, Paul reflected Jesus' concern that all relationships reflect the grace extended by God. Responsibilities of both husbands and wives to love each other follow the initial exhortation to submit to each other in love. In other passages Paul implied a hierarchy of submission from God, to Christ, to man, to woman, to child as the sequence. However, the tone of this hierarchy was not military, but voluntary and self-sacrificing. Here again was a concession to order and not the ideal (1 Cor. 11:2-16; 14:33-40; 1 Tim. 2:8-15).

Paul wrote in response to problems in churches. Paul was concerned that the Christians should "give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God" (1 Cor. 10:32 NRSV). Therefore, he wrote responses to the way specific problems should be handled in different churches. Some of his remarks do not have direct relevance to our day. For example, he spoke of meat offered to idols (Rom. 14), and women wearing jewelry and braiding their hair (1 Tim. 2:8-12). In contrast to these specific problems, Paul espoused basic principles which have relevance to every age: (1) A Christian should take into account how his or her actions may influence others (1 Cor. 8:13) and (2) A Christian should do all things to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). Of equal weight with what Paul said regarding women is how he related to them. Paul welcomed women as colabourers in the churches and commended them for their gifts and faithfulness (Rom. 16:1,3-5). Phoebe, Prisca, Lydia, and others were seen as partners in the gospel. To the Roman church Paul said, "I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae" (Rom. 16:1 NRSV). He called Phoebe a "benefactor of many and of myself as well" (v. 2 NRSV). Evidently Paul relied on women to exercise their gifts (1 Cor. 12) as a part of the body of Christ. See Deacon; Offices; Phoebe; Prisca.

Summary Woman is the subject of many questions and controversies in the church today. Is she equal to man? Can she exercise the same spiritual gifts as man in the church? Should she be subject to her husband in all matters? As Christians turn to the Bible for guidance in responding to these questions, they must be careful not to focus on one verse or passage. The total impact and message of the Bible should become the guiding spirit in answering these and other questions.

The Old Testament clearly subjected woman to the will and protection of her husband. She was extolled for performing her important roles as wife and mother. On occasion she rose above those roles and led the Jewish nation in times of crisis. The New Testament brings a different picture of woman into focus. Jesus, and later Paul, elevated the status of woman so that she could be a full participant in the kingdom of God. However, she is urged to use her responsibility as well as her freedom to find her place in the body of Christ. The spirit of freedom and love in Christ is woman's as well as man's.

See Divorce; Family; Marriage; Sex, Teaching on.

What is witnessing, after all, but declaring what Jesus has done in your life and the lives of others. What is preaching, but declaring the good news of Jesus Christ as revealed to us by God and His messengers. You wanted to see any reference to women preaching and teaching in the Bible . . . Phoebe is called a minister, a pastor; the Samaritan woman at the well won people to Christ by sharing her testimony; the women at the empty tomb were the first to proclaim His resurrection.

Let's examine two of the verses of Paul's teaching that give problems to many people today. The commentary comes from the Believer's Study Bible.

(1 Corinthians 14:34-35 NIV) women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. {35} If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.

1 Corinthians 14:34: Comparison with 11:5 indicates that it is probably judging the prophetic utterances and speaking in tongues that Paul forbids women to do in church (cf. 1 Tim. 2:12, note).

(1 Timothy 2:12 NIV) I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. 1 Timothy 2:12: Since the epistle to Timothy was written sometime after the first Corinthian epistle, there is doubtless some evidence that Paul was dealing with a particular problem, as in the Corinthian congregation (1 Cor. 14:34), in which the women had usurped the leadership role and were "lording it over" the men.

However, a careful study of the Scriptures as a whole indicates further significance to this very straightforward statement. The apostle Paul shows an unequalled esteem for and appreciation of the home. Throughout his epistles Paul is careful to present a thorough and consistent pattern for relationships within the home. In forbidding women to hold teaching/ruling positions, Paul is further protecting God-assigned lines of authority within the home. The Greek word andros, translated "man," may also be translated "husband." A wife, then, is not to instruct or rule over her husband. This does not rule out a teaching ministry for women (Titus 2:4, note), but, rather, in the case of married women, that ministry comes under the protection and direction of their respective husbands (Acts 18:26).

In other words, a woman should give careful consideration to her husband's leadership in the teaching responsibilities she assumes within the church, not because of essential inferiority or inadequate intellectual faculties for reasoning and decision making but as a means of avoiding confusion and maintaining orderliness (cf. 1 Cor. 14:40). The Greek term hesuchia, translated "silence," may also be rendered "quiet," giving the picture of one who patiently accepts God-assigned authority and leadership and seeks to make herself valuable to God (1 Pet. 3:4).

Concerning the role of women in the church, the N.T. clearly shows that women played a prominent role in the development of the church in the first century. This obviously included prophecy and prayer (1 Cor. 11:5), teaching (Titus 2:4, 5), personal instruction (Acts 18:26), testimony (John 4:28, 29), and hospitality (Acts 12:12). However, the divinely assigned leadership in the home does not end on the doorstep of the church. When a woman chooses to marry, she accepts the responsibility of voluntarily "lining up under" (hupotasso, Gk.) her own husband (cf. Eph. 5:22, 23; Col. 3:18; Titus 2:5; 1 Pet. 3:1), not because the husband is superior ontologically, intellectually, physically, or spiritually but because he is given by God the assignment for headship (cf. Gen. 2:15-17; 3:16; 1 Cor. 11:3). This is the same way every believer is to submit himself to Jesus Christ, "lining up under" His lordship, even as Jesus subjected Himself to the Father (cf. 1 Cor. 11:3; Phil. 2:7, 8).

As you said recently, we have to be careful not to pick and choose only our favourite verses, but examine all of Scripture. The answers are there, but they don't become apparent by proof-texting. Remember that much of the New Testament was written as letters to specific churches. Therefore, context becomes extremely important. Did the author of the particular letter intend to establish a rule to be followed by the church for all time? Was he addressing a specific need in a specific church? Don't just read the verses superficially. Plunge into the depths to discover the true riches. Just because someone you like or respect claims that they understand the true meaning of a passage of Scripture, doesn't keep them from falling into error.

I agree that the answers to all our questions can be found in the Bible, but not by using it as a quick reference. It doesn't usually work that way, but by searching God's Word both carefully and prayerfully we may discover God teaching us more than we ever believed possible. I don't claim to have divine wisdom and know all that God wants us to derive from the Bible, even after 9 years of study at one of the finest seminaries in the world. I have both a Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry degree, but like Paul I say:

What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ {9} and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ--the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. {10} I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, {11} and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:8-11 NIV)

I pray that you may have an open mind and a teachable spirit that you may be conformed ever more clearly to the image of our blessed and only Savior, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Yours In Jesus' Name,


This article may be freely reproduced for non-profit ministry purposes but may not be sold in any way. For permission to use articles in your ministry, e-mail the editor, John Edmiston at johned@aibi.ph.