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What should be the role of women in church? (Part 1)

Biblical examples of women in authority

The passages studied thus far seem to indicate:

  • Women and men are equally loved by God, and may be equally called to ministry leadership (Galatians 3:26-29)
  • Phoebe was a deacon of the church in Cenchrea (Romans 16:1-2)
  • Women deacons were required to fulfill the same character requirements as male deacons (1 Timothy 3:3-13)
  • Women in Ephesus were not to lead in public worship, lest their activity be confused with that of pagan temple prostitutes (1 Timothy 2:9-15); this passage does not relate directly to the question of women serving in leadership elsewhere
  • Wives in Corinth were forbidden to disrupt the message (perhaps delivered by their husbands) during public worship (1 Corinthians 14:33-36); this passage neither prescribes nor prohibits women in leadership in other places and/’or contexts
  • Women who prayed or preached in public were to wear their hair modestly; alternatively; they were to wear proper head coverings (1 Corinthians 11:4-10)

Now, how did the apostolic church practice these principles? Do we have evidence for or against women serving in ministry leadership in the New Testament era?

Ephesians 4:11 lists the primary leadership offices in the apostolic church:

  • Apostles
  • Prophets
  • Evangelists
  • Pastor/teachers (some interpreters separate these functions, though the Greek syntax seems to indicate that both descriptions relate to the same office and/or ministry)

Philippians 1:2 adds the office of “deacons”: “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons.” Interpreters are nearly universal in their belief that the function of deacons initiated in Acts 6 had become a formal office by this time in Philippi (though Paul does not address “deacons” in any other church, speaking to this office/ministry only in his instructions in 1 Timothy 3).

We have already noted the likelihood that Phoebe served the church at Cenchrea as a deacon. Did women serve also as apostles, prophets, evangelists, and/or pastor/teachers?

Women as apostles

Included in Paul’s list of greetings and commendations in Romans 16 is this statement:

“Greet Andronicus and Junias, my relatives who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was” (Romans 16:7, NIV). “Junias” is Jounian in the Greek, the accusative form; in the nominative it may be either male (Junias) or female (Junia). However, the masculine form has been found nowhere in literature, while over 250 examples of “Junia” have been discovered.

The female form was assumed by commentators from the patristic era to the Middle Ages. James Dunn argues that rendering this name by the masculine “is a striking indictment of male presumption regarding the character and structure of earliest Christianity.” [33] It seems clear that Paul referenced Junia, as “outstanding among the apostles.”

It is possible to interpret this latter phrase as “prominent in the eyes of the apostles.” However, the Greek syntax and phrases “strongly suggest that Adronicus and Junia belonged to the large group (larger than the twelve) of those appointed apostles by the risen Christ in 1 Cor. 15:7.” [34]

Of course, Paul’s inclusion of Junia among the “apostles” does not mean that she was part of the original Twelve. Rather, it signifies the fact that she became one of the significant leaders of the Christian church in the years following Jesus’ ascension, so that she and Andronicus were “apostles” of the Christian church.

Women as prophets

Paul instructed women to wear their hair appropriately (or, alternatively, to cover their heads) when they prophesied or preached in public worship (1 Corinthians 11:4-10), clear indication that women served in this role in Corinth. Old Testament precedent for women as prophet/preachers includes Miriam (Exodus 15:20), Deborah (Judges 4:4), and Huldah (2 Kings 22:14). Anna (Luke 2:36) and Philip’s four daughters (Acts 21:9) are New Testament examples of women who prophesied or preached.

Women as evangelists

Philip was an evangelist (Acts 21:8); his daughters’ preaching ministries may have been evangelistic in nature as well. Priscilla and her husband Aquila “explained to [Apollos] the way of God more adequately” (Acts 18:26). And Mary Magdalene was the first person entrusted with the task of telling others the good news of Jesus’ resurrection (John 20:17-18). It seems clear that women served in the vital role of sharing God’s good news with the lost world.

Women as pastor/teachers

Here the biblical evidence is less clear. We know that Priscilla and her husband Aquila hosted a church in their home (Romans 16:3-5); this function may have indicated that they served as the congregation’s pastor(s). Note that Priscilla is typically listed before her husband in the New Testament record, perhaps indicating that she was the more prominent ministry leader. And Lydia sponsored a church in her home (Acts 16:40), perhaps indicating that she served as the congregation’s pastoral leader.

Beyond these instances, we have no clear biblical evidence for or against women serving as pastor/teachers. Paul’s instruction that “overseers” must be “the husband of but one wife” (1 Timothy 3:2) prohibited polygamy for those in this role (as did the same phrase with regard to deacons in v. 12). As we noted when discussing this passage, women were unable to marry more than one husband in Paul’s day. As a result, this instruction would have been unnecessary with regard to woman pastors; it assuredly does not prohibit their service in this role.

One reason this question is ambiguous in the biblical record is that the function of “pastor” itself is open to interpretation. The only time the Greek word translated “pastor” is so rendered is in Ephesians 4:11, where no gender identification is made. Every other use of this word is rendered “shepherd” in the New Testament.

Evidence against women serving as pastor may be asserted by studying other words associated by most Baptists with the office of pastor. “Overseers” (episkopos) and “elders” (presbuteros) were responsible for general leadership of the church (Acts 20:281 Timothy 3:2Titus 1:5-71 Peter 2:25). Those who follow the “episcopal” church governance model elevate “bishops” as leaders responsible for churches and pastors. Those in the “presbyterian” model assign a group of “elders” the responsibility for church leadership, the “preaching pastor” among them. (Note that many churches and denominations which recognize “elders” include women among them today.)

Baptists, however, consider these titles to be synonyms for the “pastor” of the church. We note Acts 20:17, where Paul called the “elders” of the Ephesian church together. He then addressed them as “overseers” and “shepherds” of the church (v. 28). Titus 1 speaks of “elders” (vs. 5-6) and “overseers” (v. 7) in apparently synonymous ways.

Here’s the point regarding women and church leadership: in his letter to Titus, Paul refers to the “overseer” or “elder” in the masculine throughout his discussion of this role (vs. 5-9), not only with regard to the issue of polygamy (v. 6). If the overseers/elders in Crete were also the “pastors” there, Paul apparently recognized only males in this office.

Those who advocate women as pastors are quick to remind us that these titles may or may not relate to the office of “pastor” as we know it today. And they note that Paul’s description to Titus is by no means a prescription against females in this role. Nowhere does the Bible prohibit the ministry of women as pastors, on Crete or elsewhere. It may be that women served in this role in other places in the Kingdom, and even that they eventually came to such leadership on Crete as well.

Paul is quick to commend women who serve in significant ways within local churches, functions which may or may not have been pastoral in nature. For instance, the apostle refers to Euodia and Syntyche as women who “contended at my side in the cause of the gospel” (Philippians 4:3). He reminds the Romans that Mary “worked very hard for you” (Romans 16:6). And he commends Tryphena and Tryphosa as “women who work hard in the Lord” (Romans 16:12a), as did Persis (v. 12b).

My position: no biblical text clearly describes women serving as pastors in the New Testament era, but no text prohibits such ministry, either. This decision must be left to each church as it seeks the will of God for its pastoral leadership.

Read Part 2 here.

Originally posted at Denison Forum.


[1] James D. G. Dunn, Romans 9-16, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas, Texas: Word Books, Publisher, 1988) 2:886-7.

[2] A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1931) 4:425.

[3] R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1936) 899-900.

[4] F. F. Bruce, Romans, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1985) 252.

[5] Donald Grey Barnhouse, Romans (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans 1964 [repr. 1988]) 4:123.

[6] Thomas R. Schreiner, “The Valuable Ministries of Women in the Context of Male Leadership: A Survey of Old and New Testament Examples and Teaching,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1991) 220.

[7] William C. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000) 202.

[8] For further agreement see Luke Timothy Johnson, The First and Second Letters to Timothy, The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 2001) 35a:229: “In Rom. 16:1, Paul names Phoebe as a diakonos of the church at Cenchrea, so we know that he had no difficulty with women holding such a position”; and R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians, to the Thessalonians, to Timothy, to Titus and to Philemon (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1937) 598-9.

[9] John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans 1968 [1993]) 2:226 (emphasis his).

[10] William Barclay, The Letter to the Romans, The Daily Study Bible Series, rev. ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975) 207 (emphasis his).

[11] Dunn 887.

[12] Mounce 210.

[13] James Denney, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, The Expositor’s Greek Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, repr. 1979) 2:717-8.

[14] Everett F. Harrison, Romans, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1976) 10:161.

[15] A. T. Robertson interprets the verse to mean “apparently ‘women as deacons’ (Rom. 16:1 about Phoebe) and not women in general or just ‘wives of deacons'” (4:575).

[16] White is definitive: “in the same way” (osautos) is “used in introducing a second or third member of a series. . . . The series here is of Church officials. Again, the four qualifications which follow correspond, with appropriate variations, to the first four required in deacons, as regards demeanor, government of the tongue, use of wine, and trustworthiness. And further, this is a section dealing wholly with Church officials. These considerations exclude the view that women in general . . . are spoken of. If the wives of the deacons or of the clergy were meant . . . it would be natural to have it unambiguously expressed, e.g., by the addition of auton [“their”]” (Newport J. D. White, “The First and Second Epistles to Timothy and the Epistle to Titus,” The Expositor’s Greek Testament, ed. W. Robertson Nicoll [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, repr. 1979] 4:116).

[17] Mounce 202.

[18] See Ralph Earle, 2 Timothy, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, gen. ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1978) 11:368.

[19] This is Hendricksen’s position (ibid).

[20] Douglas Moo does not believe we should limit the application of this text prescriptively to the Ephesian context, with application in principle to the larger Christian faith, since he does not find “clear warrant in the text” for this interpretive decision (Douglas Moo, “What Does It Mean Not to Teach or Have Authority Over Men? 1 Timothy 2:11-15,” Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem [Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1991] 193. But Dr. Moo does not discuss the Ephesian practice of temple prostitution as part of the historical context behind Paul’s instructions to Timothy, or the fact that Paul’s concerns about women’s dress are not repeated in his letters to other churches.

[21] Sharon Hodgin Gritz, “The Role of Women in the Church,” The People of God: Essays on the Believers’ Church, ed. Paul Basden and David S. Dockery (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1991) 306.

[22] G. P. Hugenberger, “Women in Church Leadership,” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, rev. ed., ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1988) 4:1099.

[23] White asserts that the verse “refers of course only to public teaching, or to a wife’s teaching her husband” (4:108).

[24] For a full exposition of this thesis see Richard Clark Kroeger and Catherine Clark Kroeger, I Suffer Not a Woman: Rethinking 1 Timothy 2:11-15 in Light of Ancient Evidence (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1992).

[25] Robertson 4:570.

[26] White sees such responsibilities as a mother’s “normal and natural duty” by which she is to “work out our own salvation” (4:110).

[27] Gritz 308.

[28] Donald Guthrie, The Pastoral Epistles, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1988) 78.

[29] Quoted in Gritz 303.

[30] D. A. Carson, “‘Silent in the Churches:’ On the Role of Women in1 Corinthians 14:33b-36,” Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1991) 140-53.

[31] Gritz 300-2.

[32] Thomas R. Schreiner, in an article on this text strongly affirming the submission of women to men, nonetheless concludes that “we should affirm the participation of women in prayer and prophecy in the church. Their contribution should not be slighted or ignored.” Then he adds, “Nevertheless, women should participate in these activities with hearts that are submissive to male leadership, and they should dress so that they retain their femininity” (“Head Coverings, Prophecies and the Trinity: 1 Corinthians 11:2-16,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem [Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1991] 139.

[33] Dunn 894; he adds that Andronicus and Junia were likely husband and wife. For agreement see John R. W. Stott, Romans: God’s Good News for the World (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1994) 396.

[34] Ibid; for agreement see Bruce 258. Dunn summarizes, “We may firmly conclude . . . that one of the foundation apostles of Christianity was a woman and wife” (895).

[35] For an extensive discussion of deaconesses in Christian history see Aime Georges Martimort, Deaconesses: An Historical Study, trans. K. D. Whitehead (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1986); Lucy Rider Meyer, Deaconesses: Biblical, Early Church, European, American (Chicago, Illinois: The Message Publishing Company, 1889); and Henry Wheeler, Deaconesses: Ancient and Modern (New York: Hunt & Eaton, 1889).

Adapted from Dr. Jim Denison’s daily cultural commentary at Jim Denison, Ph.D., is a cultural apologist, building a bridge between faith and culture by engaging contemporary issues with biblical truth. He founded the Denison Forum on Truth and Culture in February 2009 and is the author of seven books, including “Radical Islam: What You Need to Know.” For more information on the Denison Forum, visit To connect with Dr. Denison in social media, visit or Original source:

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