A Review of Recent Arguments for Women Preachers
Every significant movement within society will eventually, to some degree, make itself felt in the church. The phenomenon of “women’s liberation” is no exception.
There are those within the body of Christ who are clamoring that women must throw off the yoke of male domination and claim their rightful place in the family of God—namely, an active role in preaching and leadership.
Two Basic Arguments for Expanding the Role of Women
The approach to this issue has been twofold. One group has argued that New Testament authority is virtually a fiction—that it’s restrictions have virtually no application for modern times.
Bobbie Lee Holley, former editor of Mission journal, adopted a completely infidelic attitude by suggesting that certain troubling passages in the Bible are merely the result of “rabbinical trappings, the innate prejudices of a patriarchal social structure, physiological ignorance, and obsolete cultural patterns” (1975, 9). Ms. Holley contended that there are no divine distinctions between the sexes, thus apostolic restrictions of woman’s role are not authoritative for today’s church.
Adopting a similarly modernistic viewpoint, some simply deny Paul’s authorship of passages like 1 Corinthians 14:33-34 and 1 Timothy 2:11-14. They allege that these proscriptions of woman’s public-serving capacity were authored by anonymous writers of a later period, and, therefore, may be ignored.
Such was the position of the Cahaba Valley Church of Christ (Birmingham, Alabama) as outlined in a letter from her elders to the congregation (Cahaba 1990, 8-9). While on one hand disputing the veracity of the New Testament documents, the elders oddly enough in the very same document also appealed to New Testament authority for their actions, alleging there are passages “that show women doing virtually everything that men do in the church” (5). With or without New Testament authority, the Cahaba elders then prescribed a program for implementing women worship-leaders, deacons, and preachers over the next five years.
Some have even brazenly claimed direct revelation from the Holy Spirit, instructing their expanded role as did Lauren King (pictured above), a “minister” with the 4th Avenue church in Franklin, Tennessee.
Such positions are so radical they should be forthrightly rejected by sincere Christians. We will not consume the space to refute them.
The other and more popular approach is to argue that there is New Testament authority supporting the expanded role of women in the worship and leadership of the church. The following is a brief review of some of the common arguments currently being advanced as alleged proof for this position.
Women Prophesied in the Early Church
The New Testament mentions women prophesying (Acts 2:18; 21:9; 1 Cor. 11:5). It is asserted that prophesying was preaching, hence, women of the first century preached.
Several unwarranted assumptions are made in this argument.
First, it would have to be proven that women prophesied in a leadership and teaching capacity within the sexually integrated assemblies in the passages under consideration.
There is no justification for that assumption in any of the texts cited.
Second, we must observe that the word “prophesy” derives from two Greek roots,
pro (forth), and
phemi (to speak). It is a very general term and may mean “to teach, refute, reprove, admonish, comfort” (Thayer 1958, 553; cf. 1 Cor. 14:3).
Prophesying can simply suggest the idea of “giving thanks and praising God” (1 Chron. 25:3). The meaning of the word in a given situation must be determined by the context, as well as additional information in the scriptures.
Elsewhere, Paul limits the extent of a woman’s “forth-speaking” (teaching, etc.) when he writes:
I permit not a woman to teach, nor to have dominion over a man, but to be in quietness (1 Tim. 2:12).
The negative conjunction
oude (nor) is explanatory in force, suggesting that the kind of female teaching prohibited is that which exercises dominion (i.e., leadership) over the man (Lenski 1964, 563; see also Arndt & Gingrich 1967, 595).
And so, while it is clear that women of the early church did prophesy, it is equally certain that they did not subordinate men to the role of students in any public teaching capacity.
It should be noted that Priscilla’s involvement in teaching Apollos was privately done in conjunction with her husband, Aquilla (Acts 18:26).
Was Phoebe a Deaconess?
On the basis of Romans 16:1-2, some are contending that: (a) Phoebe was a church “official” (a deacon); (b) the church was to “assist her,” allegedly implying her authority over the church; and; (c) she had been a “helper” (
prostatis) of many, purportedly suggesting that she had exercised authority, discipline, and supervision over men in the church.
All of this supposedly proves that Phoebe was some sort of authoritarian figure in the early church.
Mike Armour, former preacher for the Skillman Avenue Church in Dallas, employed this argument in defense of a feminine-authority role in the church (Methvin 1990, 257). Armour contended that
prostatis, used of Phoebe, is also employed of an elder’s “rule” in 1 Timothy 3:5.
Though a cognate verbal form is employed in that place, Armour neglected to mention that the term can also mean to “be concerned about, care for, give aid” (Arndt & Gingrich, 714).
For example, in Titus 3:8, 14 the sense is “maintain” good works, not to “rule.”
Both Hugo McCord and Norman Gipson publicly and lovingly rebuked brother Armour at the 1990 Yosemite Family Encampment. Both men have excellent responses to Armour’s material in the volume cited above.
In reply to this argument, the following facts must be observed:
A servant doesn’t imply authority
diakonos simply means a “servant” (Matt. 23:11, John 2:5, etc.), and any “official” attachment to the term must be demanded by the context, as in Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3:8, 12.
Assistance doesn’t imply authority
The fact that the saints were encouraged to “assist” Phoebe did not imply her authority over them.
The Greek word
paristemi meant to “come to the aid of, help, stand by.” When Paul said, “the Lord stood by (
pareste, i.e. assisted) me” (2 Tim. 4:17), he certainly was not asserting that he had authority over the Lord!
A helper doesn’t imply authority
prostatis (helper) does not necessitate oversight or a position of authority. If it did, then Phoebe had exercised authority over an apostle, for Paul said she had been his helper as well as others!
The term could simply denote the idea of rendering aid. Though the word is found only here in the New Testament, a third-century B.C. letter of a son to his father uses the verbal form:
There will be nothing of more importance for me than to look after you for the remainder of life, in a manner worthy of you, and worthy of me" (Mouton & Milligan 1963, 551).
Phoebe had merely been a helper of Paul and others. There is not the slightest evidence that she held any male-designated church office or served as our modern-day preacherettes so badly desire.
Fellow-workers, Euodia and Syntyche
In Philippians 4:2, 3, Paul comments that these two women “labored” with him in the gospel. He calls them, along with others, his “fellow-workers.”
Again, the assumption is made that “fellow-workers” necessitates an authoritarian position comparable to the apostle’s.
However, Christians are said to be “God’s fellow-workers” (1 Cor. 3:9). Obviously this does not suggest that we possess authority comparable to that of deity! Countless godly ladies have assisted, and labored with, gospel ministers without ever having become public preachers themselves.
Was Junia an Apostle?
It is argued that Junia (KJV), a woman, was an apostle and thus certainly occupied a place of authority in the early church (Rom. 16:7).
This is truly a desperate argument. In the first place, in the Greek text the name is Junian—in the accusative case. The gender of the name is not evident. It could either be Junia (feminine), or more likely, Junias (masculine), especially since the pronouns modifying the names are masculine. Origen, a scholar of the third century A.D., considered it a reference to a man (Lightfoot 1957, 96).
In the second place, it is by no means certain that Junias is here identified as an “apostle.” The phrase translated “of note among the apostles” (ASV) is rendered by Zahn as “famed, mentioned with honour in the circle of the apostles,” giving the sense of being well-known by the apostles, rather than actually being an apostle (1953, 418).
But in the third place, the word “apostle” is used occasionally in the scriptures in a nontechnical sense to denote merely a messenger.
Jesus said that “one sent” (
apostolos) is not greater than the sender (Jn. 13:16). See also 2 Corinthians 8:23. The word need not imply one who has dominion over another, nor even a preacher.
No case can be built on Romans 16:7.
Does “As Also Saith the Law” Authorize Women Preachers Today?
Some argue that Paul’s admonition that women be in subjection is limited by the expression, “as also saith the law” (1 Cor. 14:34). And since the law allowed women prophets (as in the case of Miriam, Huldah and Anna), and even a prophetess/judge, Deborah, so preaching executives are permissible in the church today.
A careful study of the foregoing cases will reveal that the coveted evidence for women preachers is lacking.
When Miriam prophesied, it was “all the women” that went out after her (Ex. 15:20), and there is no evidence that she publicly preached to men.
Though Huldah was a prophetess, the solitary record of her prophesying involved some men going to her where they communed privately (2 Kings 22:14f; 2 Chron. 34:22f). It is impossible to find public preaching here.
Anna was a prophetess “who departed not from the temple” (Luke 2:36-38). In describing the temple, Josephus says “there was a partition built for the women” that separated them from the men; this was “the proper place wherein they were to worship.” (Wars, 5, 5, 2.)
If Anna instructed men, it was doubtless in private situations. There is no proof that she publicly prophesied to mixed audiences.
Deborah was a prophetess of the hill country of Ephraim, but there is no indication that she publicly proclaimed God’s message to the multitudes. Rather, “the children of Israel came to her for judgment” (Judg. 4:5). She gave prophetic judgment as a “mother in Israel” (Judg. 5:7).
The fact that she judged at all is a dramatic commentary on the spiritual anemia of the Israelites during this period, and Deborah’s song laments this woeful condition (Judg. 5). This was but one of those occasions where Jehovah accommodated his working to Israel’s weaknesses (cf. 1 Sam. 8:9; Matt. 19:8), and it certainly affords no precedent for the Christian age.
The Culture Argument
Some are asserting that Paul’s limitations upon women were given in view of the Graeco-Judaistic culture of his day, but they are not binding in our twentieth century where such cultural elements are lacking.
William Barclay wrote regarding 1 Timothy 2:12:
This is a passage that cannot be read out of its historical context ... All the things in this chapter are mere temporary regulations laid down to meet a given situation (1960, 76, 78).
There are three New Testament contexts where the apostle discusses the distinctive roles of men and women in the church. They are 1 Corinthians 11:2-16; 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35; and 1 Timothy 2:8-15.
A summary of these passages reveals that Paul’s inspired reasons for feminine subjection were based upon;
- the order of creation 1 Corinthians 11:7-9; 14:34b; 1 Timothy 2:13; and
- woman’s deception by Satan 1 Timothy 2:14.
“Culture” is not a factor in these contexts (see Command or Culture? Discerning the Difference).
This is evidenced by the fact that the apostolic regulations concerning woman’s role were universally imposed in the first century (cf. 1 Cor. 11:16; 14:33-34), whereas cultural conditions fluctuate from place to place.
When Paul discusses authority within the home in Ephesians 5:22-33, he appeals to Jehovah’s creation of Adam and Eve (Gen. 2:24) as the basis for his instruction. In fact, it is clearly evident that the graduation of authority within the home, and within the church, is grounded upon the same facts of sacred history.
Accordingly, if women can demand a place of equal leadership with men in the church, by the same reasoning no wife today would be bound to be in subjection to her husband. Some might delight in this conclusion, but those who fear God will continue to serve the Creator with honor and dignity consistent with divinely assigned roles.
Neither Male nor Female in Christ
Several years ago Roy Lanier, Sr. reviewed an article by Melvin Bobo that took the position that the Greek terms
gune (generally rendered “man” and “woman”) have been mistranslated in virtually every English version of the New Testament. Bobo alleged that the rendition of these words in such passages as 1 Corinthians 11:2ff; 14:33-34; 1 Timothy 2:8ff should be “husband” and “wife” (1984, 229-234). This theory was also argued by Mike Armour (Methvin 1990, 257).
The logical consequence of this position is that there is no male-female order of authority in the church. There is only the authority of the husband-wife relationship. This would mean that a woman may do anything in the church that a man may do—preach, lead prayers, etc., provided her husband is not present. Single women would have no restrictions at all.
The fallacy of the argument is the fact that
gune are ordinarily rendered “man” and “woman” and the translation “husband” and “wife” must be demanded by contextual circumstances (e.g., 1 Cor. 7:3-4), which factors are not present in the contexts under consideration. An exception is in 1 Corinthians 14:35, where “their own” indicates that a husband is under consideration.
But the fallacy of Armour’s theory is further demonstrated by considering the logical consequence of his argument. Does 1 Corinthians 11:3 suggest that Christ is the “head” of “husbands” only, thus bachelors are exempt from the headship of Jesus Christ?
Armour does not even consistently stay with his own translation. Occasionally he slips and renders
gune as “man” and “woman” himself in the very context he attempts to reinterpret (e.g., 1 Cor. 11:2ff). The fact is this argument is baseless.
Some in the body of Christ are militantly pushing for a broader role for Christian women in preaching and leadership activities of the church. They no longer respect the authority of the Bible and feel free to adapt the church to their personal preferences or the whims of culture.
Others are assuming a noncommittal stance, at least for the present. One may be assured, however, that when it is politically expedient to do so, they will join the revolution.
Meanwhile, those who respect the authority of the Holy Scriptures will continue to honor women in harmony with the instruction of the New Testament. They will not degrade godly Christian ladies by imposing upon them roles which are not ordained of God.
We offer our sincere regrets for mistaking the Cahaba Heights Church of Christ (Birmingham, AL) for the Cahaba Valley Church of Christ (Birmingham, AL). We are grateful to Christopher Withrow for correcting our mistake, for which we are thankful. We offer our sincere regrets to the members and elders of the Cahaba Heights congregation.
- Arndt & Gingrich. 1967. Greek-English Lexicon. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Barclay, William. 1960. Letters to Timothy, Titus, & Philemon. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.
- Cahaba Valley Church of Christ Elders. January 1990. Letter to Cahaba Valley Church of Christ. Birmingham, AL 35242.
- Holley, Bobbie Lee. March 1975. “God’s Design: Woman’s Dignity.” Mission.
- Lanier, Sr., Roy. 1984. 20 Years of the Problem Page. Vol. 2. Abilene: Quality Publications.
- Lenski, R. C. H. 1964. Paul’s Epistles to Colossians, Thessalonians, Timothy, Titus & Philemon. Minneapolis: Augsburg.
- Lightfoot, J. B. 1957. The Epistle of Paul to the Galatians. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
- Methvin, Paul ed. 1990. 50th Anniversary Yosemite Family Encampment. Nashville: Gospel Advocate.
- Moulton & Milligan 1963. The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament. Hodder & Stroughton.
- Thayer, J. H. 1958. Greek-English Lexicon. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.
- Zahn, Theodor. 1953. Introduction to the New Testament. Vol. I. Minneapolis: Klock & Klock.