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Women in Ministry

A Study Paper for

Approved as a study paper by the Ministerial Committee of NYMC (Lester Bauman, Titus Kauffman, Harold Miller, Don Siegrist, Milton Zehr) on August 6, 1992


Within the Mennonite church we find varying practices concerning the involvement of women in church ministries.

Some churches authorize women to lead in all areas of responsibility in the church, including as lead pastor.

Some churches allow women to teach only children and other women. Others allow women to teach any Sunday School class. Others allow women on a team of elders but do not let them preach. Still others allow women to be on a pastoral team, though not as head of that team.

Men and women of good faith read the same Bible and come out holding different positions on women in ministry:
"Free women for ministry, even roles of responsibility over men. A person's role in the church is discerned by gifts and ability, not gender."
"Men, not women, are to exercise headship. A woman's opportunity to exercise leadership gifts must stop at some point, for only men are to be head'."

This issue of male and female roles in the church touches each of us personally and impacts our family and social life. Deep emotions are attached to positions held, making it difficult to discuss and assess the various arguments offered. We tend to be guided by our personal emotions on this issue rather than by what God is saying to the church. Nevertheless we are convinced that God in his grace will guide us as we seek his Word in this matter.

II. WHAT DO THE SCRIPTURES SAY - Part 1 - Passages that May Free Women for Ministry

Many biblical passages, though not specifically addressing the role of women in church leadership, are significant to our discussion.

A. How Jesus Related to Women

The most important question for the church is always: "What would Jesus do?"

In a society where women learned the domestic arts and were not thought capable of much more, men and women alike could talk to Jesus, could be taught by him, and could follow him.

Jesus admonished a woman that domestic service was not her highest reason for being (Luke 10:38-42). When another woman in a crowd called out a blessing on his mother (suggesting that bearing and nursing such a son was the ultimate role to which a woman could attain?), Jesus countered, "blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it." Discipleship, not motherhood, is the most important goal for a woman (Luke 11:27,28).

He engaged in conversation with women about deep spiritual realities (John 4:7-26 "Messiah"; 11:20-27 "resurrection and the life") even though his culture considered the education of women at best unnecessary and at worst scandalous. In a society where the testimony of women was not recognized in court, Jesus commissioned a woman to tell the news of his resurrection (John 20:17,18).

He had women followers, some of whom supported him out of their means (Luke 8:1-3)1.

B. Our Common Salvation

Men and women alike have a common standing before God in Christ (Gal. 3:28) and share together the gift of the Holy Spirit and prophecy (Acts 2:17,18). Since this is so, are not they both equally capable of making contributions in church life and decision making? Spiritual equality of men and women should have some effect toward equality in their social relations in the church--spiritual realities should find expression in the concrete life of the church.2

C. Occasional Leadership Roles for Women in the Old Testament

Miriam, a prophetess, helped lead Israel (Ex. 15:20; Micah 6:4).

Deborah led and judged Israel; she prophesied God's command to Barak (Judges 4:4-16).

Huldah advised national leaders concerning the book of the law (II Kings 22:14-20).3

D. Roles of Women in the New Testament Church

1. Co-worker4
Priscilla instructed Apollos (a powerful evangelist) concerning the way of God (Acts 18:26) and was a co-worker with Paul (Rom. 16:3).

Euodia and Syntyche are also called Paul's co-workers (Phil. 4:2-3).

2. Prophet
Peter taught that women would prophesy (Acts 2:17,18).

Paul gave guidelines for women who prophesy (1 Cor. 11:5). Philip's four daughters prophesied (Acts 21:8,9).

3. Deacon
Phoebe was a diakonos (variously translated deacon, servant, minister) of the church of Cenchreae, and was a helper of many, Paul included (Rom. 16:1,2). She was probably the one entrusted to deliver Paul's epistle to Rome.5

4. Apostle
It is quite possible a woman named Junia was an apostle. Paul greets Andronicus and Junia as "outstanding among the apostles" (Rom. 16:7).

Modern translations call this person Junias (a male name) instead of Junia. However "the early church fathers took these two people, Andronicus and Junia, as a husband and wife team. Chrysostom, a 4th century church father, said how wonderful it is to be called apostle and how doubly wonderful it is for this woman to be called an apostle. The view that this was a woman prevailed for the first ten centuries and began to change in about the 12th."6 The King James Version of 1611 still testifies to the view of the early church fathers--we can find Junia there.

5. House-church Leader
A woman is recognized in connection with five of the six house churches mentioned in the New Testament. Lydia - Acts 16:15,40; Priscilla & Aquila - Rom. 16:3,5 and also 1 Cor. 16:19 (in Ephesus); Nympha - Col. 4:15; Apphia - Philem. 2,3.

6. Others
Mary, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Persis, Rufus' mother, Julia, Nereus' sister (Rom. 16:6,12,13,15) were greeted by Paul--even though he had not yet been to Rome. Either they were itinerant workers Paul met in other cities, or so prominent in the Roman Christian community that Paul had heard of them.

III. WHAT DO THE SCRIPTURES SAY - Part 2 - Passages that May Teach Male Headship in the Church

The most direct biblical statements bearing on the subject of women in ministry are the passages that speak of restriction on the speaking and teaching role of women in the New Testament church.

A. 1 Cor. 14: 34,35

- "Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says."

Bible students agree Paul is not making an absolute prohibition against all speaking by women in the church. He only moments before gave instructions for women who pray and prophesy in church (11:5).

Many ideas are offered on the nature of the speaking which Paul is here seeking to silence.

More crucial than the nature of the speaking Paul prohibits is the nature of the submission he urges on women: does the submission to which he refers apply only to the particular situation in Corinth? Or to all times and all places?

Three (of the many) positions taken on this:

INTERPRETATION #1: When Paul brings in "...but must be in submission, as the law says," he brings the principle of man's headship into the sphere of the church. Paul's basis for limiting woman's participation is concern for the law of male headship which applies to all circumstances and all times.
Implication for Women in Ministry: This passage recognizes woman's submission to man as a universal principle.

INTERPRETATION #2: With the words, "...but must be in submission, as the law says," Paul refers to a civic law restricting the leadership role of women in Corinth which had been passed a few years earlier than when this text was written.7 Paul limits woman's participation because of a circumstance in the Corinthian situation which he felt required such action.
Implication for Women in Ministry: This passage teaches that the women in Corinth are to be in submission. Another situation might receive different instruction.

INTERPRETATION #3: Paul is not limiting any form of women's participation. The words "...but must be in submission, as the law says," are not even Paul's words. Verses 34,35 are the opinions of the Judiazers (Paul's enemies who insisted Christians must keep the Jewish laws) which Paul quotes and then rebukes (vv 36-38).
Implication for Women in Ministry: This passage does not teach woman's submission in Corinth or anywhere.

Much study has not enabled us to decisively choose only one of the above interpretations--unless we bring into consideration other passages.8

B. 1 Tim. 2:11,12

- "A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent."

Again we will not try to determine the specific behavior Paul is forbidding9 but rather focus on whether this passage teaches woman's submission as a universal principle.

INTERPRETATION #1: Paul's motive for restricting women's participation is to guard man's place of headship. Paul is stating that women are not to teach men, for--very simply--doing so means they are usurping man's headship. He does "not permit a woman to...have authority over a man."
Implication for Women in Ministry: This passage is a simple universal statement prohibiting woman from exercising authority over men in any circumstances.
The biblical context seems to support this interpretation. The reference to the creation account in verses 13-14 ("For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the women who was deceived and became a sinner") points toward the natural priority and superiority of man. Paul's premise is that Adam was first and since he was not deceived, he is the one who should have authority. On the basis of man's priority in the order of creation and women's weak record in the face of deception, Paul adopts verse 12 as a personal rule.

INTERPRETATION #2: Paul's motive for restricting women's participation is the need for qualified teachers. He is stating that in Timothy's congregations in Ephesus, women are not to teach men. Women in the days of the early church generally had not been educated in the Scriptures and, consequently, these women were hardly equipped to teach or have authority over males. Paul is saying, "I do not permit a woman (who is probably uninstructed) to teach or to have authority over a man (who probably has been instructed)."
Implication for Women in Ministry: This passage gives a guideline for a specific type of situation; it does not set a universal principle.
The biblical context can be seen as supporting this interpretation. The reference to the creation account in verses 13-14 illustrates the situation of these women in Timothy's congregations. Eve, a late-comer on the scene and without the experience of hearing first-hand God's prohibition on the tree, was not qualified to teach Adam. Similarly, these women in Ephesus missed out on the instruction time. Adam's priority in creation illustrates the present situation of male priority in teaching at Ephesus.

Again, much study has not enabled us to choose only one of the above understandings10--unless we unless we bring into consideration other passages.

C. 1 Tim. 3:2

- "The overseer must be...the husband of but one wife."

This instruction seems to imply that a church leader must be capable of taking a wife, meaning we should restrict that position to men only.

However, in Luke 14:26 ("If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters--yes, even his own life--he cannot be my disciple") Jesus says nothing about hating one's husband. We do not let this teach that a wife cannot be a disciple; we recognize that the Bible often describes something which applies to men and women in terms of the men only. We must be willing to do the same as we interpret 1 Tim. 3:2.

So this passage is guarding against a polygamous overseer and not against a wife being an overseer.

D. 1 Cor. 11:3-16; Eph. 5:22-24; 1 Pet. 3:1

- "For the husband is the head of the wife..."

These New Testament passages teach the headship of man in marriage. And there is reason to believe that this headship is not a culturally-bound institution: man being the head of his wife is linked to God being the head of Christ, and to Christ being the head of the church (1 Cor. 11:3; Eph. 5:23).

A general definition of headship is that it refers broadly to the leadership function. It at times includes the idea of source from which something grows (Eph. 4:15-16; Col. 2:19). But most commonly it is used with words such as "over," "under," and "submit," referring to those who have power and authority (Eph. 1:10; 1:22; 5:22; Col. 2:10; Deut. 28:13,43-44; Isa. 7:8-9; 9:14-15).

This headship of man in the home seems pertinent to the issue of whether women can exercise leadership in the church. If the Spirit of God teaches male headship in the home, would he not also in the church? Would not concern for male headship in the family be reflected in the church? It seems man's headship in the home would be undercut if there was no corresponding male headship in the church. We as a committee do not feel it is prudent to assume God limits male headship to only the marriage relationship. We choose to believe that male headship carries over into the public sphere of the church.11

As we saw, when 1 Cor. 14 and 1 Tim. 2 are viewed by themselves it is uncertain that they teach male headship in the church. But choosing to believe that male headship applies in the church tips the balance toward an interpretation which says 1 Cor. 14 and 1 Tim. 2 teach male headship as a universal principle.


There is a general sense of tension between the "Passages that May Free Women for Ministry" (Sec. II) and the "Passages that May Teach Male Headship in the Church" (Sec. III). One set points toward freeing women from traditional restrictions; the other upholds restrictions.

At one point this general tension seems to become an outright contradiction. If some scripture passages teach that men have headship or authority in the church (Sec. III.D), don't they then clash with other passages which give examples of women functioning as leaders among the people of God (Sec. II.C and II.D)? These women performed many of the same functions that men undertake in leadership roles. It was not just women they were leading. They exercised considerable authority, particularly Deborah as judge. Granted, the number is few; but we see them as significant in light of the fact that women in biblical times normally received little or no training and experience beyond the domestic realm. These examples are not cast in a bad light by the biblical writers who recount them.

We have to explain away these examples or rethink our understanding of male headship.12


The examples of women exercising primary leadership roles among the people of God do not violate male headship when we correctly understand the concept of headship. Headship allows the inclusion of women into all parts of church life. In fact, it is functioning according to the divine pattern when that happens.

A. How God and Christ Exercise Headship

Within the Trinity God is the head of Christ (1 Cor. 11:3). As we look at their relationship we see how God exercises headship. He raises Christ to the right hand of his throne (Eph. 1:19-23; 1 Pet. 3:22). Rather than limiting Christ from exercising the authority that belongs to the head, God helps him to exercise it!

Christ exercises headship over the church in a similar fashion. He gives the church gifts which nurture it and build it up; the church grows "from" him as head (Eph. 4:15-16; Col. 2:19). And what is his purpose in working for this growth? It is to enable the church to "become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ," to "grow up into him who is the Head" (Eph. 4:13,15).

Only once is Christ's headship of the church linked with its submission to him (Eph. 5:23-24). And that passage describes Christ, not as asking the church to submit, but as being the church's Savior (v23), as sacrificing himself for her perfection, working to remove any flaw keeping her from her full potential (vv 25-27). Paul's descriptions of Christ as head of the church do not emphasize rule but nurture. Both rule and nurture are present; but nurture is central.

In sum, Christ's efforts as head focus on serving those in his charge to bring them into his "fullness." His headship is not a simple hierarchy or chain of command which reserves his position and status for himself. Rather, he takes on himself responsibility to nurture and groom those "under" him to enter into what he has already attained. He is working toward the church being able to reign with him (2 Tim. 2:12; Rev. 5:10; 22:5).

The two characteristics that we noted in our definition of a "head", that of source-of-growth and that of authority (Sec. III.D), come together in this understanding of headship as nurture.

B. Headship-as-nurture: the Shape It Takes

If male headship is to include lots of nurture, what are the implications of this understanding of headship for the issue of women in church ministry?13 How would a gifted woman in the church be treated by a male church leader who, as Christ, gives everything possible to the one "under" him, to enable that one to grow to be able to share his authority?

Such a male church leader may place a gifted woman on a leadership team with himself and be her mentor, imparting his skills and wisdom, helping the potential of her gifts to be actualized. To help her grow, he will move away from making decisions for her and insisting she follow his judgment. He will let her learn if her way fails--and he will learn when her way works! And if he recognizes the woman as gifted, as she gains experience he will empower her for an out-front leadership role.14 He may eventually place himself in a position of receiving from those gifts. This appears to be what Barak did to Deborah, and King Josiah to Huldah (Sec. II.C), and what Apollos did to Priscilla (Sec. II.D.1)--though they did it not out of concern to nurture the woman but out of desperation, needing what she had!

Such a leader invites the woman to share in the exercise of dominion over the earth to which God called both men and women (Gen. 1:28; see Appendix I). They function as a team complementary to each other, each contributing from his or her uniqueness. Responsibilities are assigned according to ability, not gender. Leadership and initiative in an area is supplied by the one most able to give it (due to gifts and character).

Instead of having to choose one of the two positions on women in ministry contrasted as we began
- "Free women for ministry, even roles of responsibility over men"
- "Men, not women, are to exercise headship"
we can affirm that both are true.15

And we also can join together Interpretations #1 & #2 of 1 Cor. 14 and 1 Tim. 2. In the Corinthian church and Timothy's congregation at Ephesus, the relationship between men and women was one where the men were doing all the leading and the women were solely receiving. The redemption that comes in Christ had come to them only a few years earlier. It had just begun to transform the men into ones who exercise their headship as responsibility to nurture and love. But soon this headship-as-nurture would have worked long enough to lift the women to the place where some would have the skills, training, and character to join Priscilla, Phoebe, Junia as co-workers with the men, sharing with them in the task of subduing earth for the kingdom of heaven.

C. The Move to Headship-as-nurture

In our churches, how do we move to a headship which nurtures women and shares power with them?

We will have to make this move in the home as well as in the church. If men do not share authority with wives in the home, it is difficult to see how they would be willing--or able--to do so in the church. Further, we cannot legislate the change to a headship which primarily nurtures rather than rules. It must come from the inside out as the Spirit of Christ begins to pervade the nature of both the man and the woman with the way of Christ, the way of the loving servant.

The Spirit never led the New Testament church to use force or external coercion to correct repressive social relationships.16 Reconciliation and restoration in personal relationships does not come through the one "under" winning at a power struggle. It comes from the "top" down, with the one "on top" choosing to empty himself and become a servant.17 The Spirit did not advocate the subtraction of the woman's submission but the addition of the man's.

We see major damage resulting from our society advocating the subtraction of the woman's submission in order to make men and women equal. Often the character and relationship skills of husband and/or wife are too low to handle equality--they are not able to pull off giving each other equal say. And so when a woman comes into a marriage expecting she need not settle for anything less than having equal say, often her expectations are dashed. And far too often the family breaks apart with profound costs. The human costs of the patriarchal family system are often pointed out, but there are also costs when male headship is jettisoned. Let us choose a course which gives hope of ending both those sets of costs.

Rather than casting off headship to create equality, a wiser strategy is to let Christ redeem the character and nature of both men and women which will make headship less and less visible. This was Paul's method in Eph. 5:21-33. He retains the husband as "head," yet he moves the husband so far toward the servanthood and love of the new order in Christ that any headship remaining is barely recognizable. The husband is not instructed to assert his headship (authority) but to sacrifice himself for his wife's perfection (nurture). Such leadership yields a practical equality as she submits and he sacrifices himself for her. (Sounds like both are to give a hundred percent!) And this equality has promise of being secure and long-lasting, for it springs from two persons serving and submitting to each other. Such an equality is surely more valuable than the pure-but-precarious form achieved by jettisoning male headship.

In line with that to which we discern the Spirit called the early church, we as the conference Ministerial Committee have committed ourselves
- to nurture rather than rule women in our personal relationships, sharing power with them;
- to advocate, in the church, for men to share authority with gifted women, involving these women in leadership ministries.


Note1 Jesus did not choose to include women in the 12 disciples he specifically appointed. Was he simply recognizing the fact that in that particular cultural setting only males would have been acceptable as leaders of the community which was to be formed? return to text

Note2 Gal. 3:28 states the fact that in Christ there is "neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female." The first two realities certainly have social implications. So also should the third. return to text

Note3 "There may have been no suitable men available at the time of Deborah when she exercised leadership in political, military, civil, and religious spheres, although this is difficult to believe, but in the time of Huldah it is certainly not true, for both Jeremiah and Zephaniah were active at this time." Evans, Women in the Bible, p 30. return to text

Note4 The term co-worker (or fellow-worker) occurs so frequently it was probably a technical designation (Col. 4:10,11; Philem. 24; Rom. 16:21). return to text

Note5 In Phoebe's case...if the word does not describe an office it is very difficult to see why diakonos, which is a specifically masculine term, was used rather than some feminine alternative." Evans, Women in the Bible, p.125. return to text

Note6 Willard Swartley, "Women in Church Ministries," sermon delivered at Belmont Mennonite Church, Elkhart IN, on June 26, 1983. Swartley further explains:
in the original it is Junian' (the accusative case calls for an "n" at the end of the word [for both genders]). But translators, thinking that an apostle could not be a woman, speculate that this is a contraction of Junianas,' a male name. But we have no evidence of such contraction in the contemporary literature and Junia was a common female name. Further, a textural variant reads Julia which is strong evidence that is must be taken as feminine. return to text Note7 "Women under the influence of mystery cults, had given leadership to wild frenzied worship....To put a damper on the movement, the city passed a law restricting public leadership of women." --Willard Swartley, Women in Church Ministries, Sermon delivered at Belmont Mennonite Church, Elkhart, IN on June 26, 1983 return to text

Note8 We have found that when we put aside our own preferences for what a passage might say--and not make it say any more than it is actually saying--we come up with a considerable amount of ambiguity in Scripture. Language itself is ambiguous. (Why else would we pay a lawyer to make sure we word contracts just right?) Context determines a word's content, and we are many steps removed from the situational context of this passage. Do not think that divine inspiration means the Spirit gave Bible writers technically-precise terms by which to express all their truths. We only wish it were so. (We rejoice that the things essential for salvation are clear.) return to text

Note9 The Greek word translated "quietness" and "silent" in this passage allows some speaking--see its use in v2 of this chapter. The word evidently indicates quietness in the sense of causing no disturbance to others. return to text

Note10 The first one seems to have the simplicity and naturalness that is the ring of truth. But a simple understanding of 2:15 ("women will be saved through child-bearing") would not be truth, but error! Paul would never contradict salvation by faith. He elsewhere commends singleness. return to text

Note11 Even though there is no Scripture passage which unambiguously states that male headship applies in the church, we choose to make this leap for the reasons just given.

We make this appeal to those of you who know, deep within, that male headship is wrong: there are also many in our church who know, deep within, that male headship is right. So for the sake of the unity of the church, hear us out. Keep reading. return to text

Note12 When faced with this dilemma, some in our church propose to solve (dissolve) the tension between women in church ministries and the teaching of male headship by saying that women can lead with no questions being raised about headship as long as they lead by serving. Unfortunately, this does not eliminate the issue of headship. Even servant leaders are leaders, ones on whom overall responsibility is placed (eg. Heb. 13:17; 1 Thes. 5:12). Doesn't that raise matters of headship?

Others in our church resolve the tension by questioning the Gospel character of the Scripture passages teaching male headship, believing these were inspired more by the apostles' cultural background than by God. But, saying some passages are "tainted" has radical implications for our view of Scripture and its authority. return to text

Note13 We have warrant for applying the way God and Christ exercise headship to the discussion of how man is to exercise his headship:
- Paul specifically takes the example of how Christ acts as head of the church and instructs men to do the same (Eph. 5:25).
- And the relation of God and Christ is parallel to that of man and woman: in each relationship both persons are the same in nature, though one is called "head." return to text

Note14 Some in the church understand male headship to mean that all men are over all women, that a woman should not exercise authority over any man. And so they say a woman can never occupy any church leadership role which involves leading men; a woman is never to be in a position of responsibility over a man.

We as a committee cannot with integrity take that understanding of headship because of the biblical examples of women functioning as leaders among the people of God (Sec. II.C & II.D; see discussion on those examples in Sec. IV). return to text

Note15 They are both true when the following clarifications are understood:
- Free women for ministry, even roles of responsibility over men--however only men can be head (final authority) of a social unit composed of men and women. (Ending section of document discusses this.)
- Men, not women, are to exercise headship--however this does not mean women cannot lead men. (See footnote 14 for discussion on the understanding of headship which allows women to lead men.) return to text

Note16 In the days after the resurrection of Jesus, Rome still exercised its tyranny over Palestine, slavery was still an accepted part of the social structure, men still dominated women. But the apostles led no army to overthrow Rome; they organized no abolition movement; they initiated no power play to gain women's rights. In fact, on the surface they might even be accused of supporting tyranny, endorsing slavery, and contributing to the subjugation of women.

The apostles' consistent form of addressing the relationships of rulers and citizens, masters and slaves, husbands and wives, parents and children, and of men and women in the church was this:
- they forbid revolt in any form and urge submission on the party who is one-down in the relationship (the underdog);
- they define that submission as a submission (or services rendered) to the Lord;
- they remind the party that is in a position of power that he too is equally under the Lord;
- and they redefine the meaning of the power-position in terms of mutual subjection or servanthood, pointing toward the example of the self-emptying Christ.

--From summary of a study done at Reba Place (Evanston, IL) in mid-1980's; Gerald & Sara Wenger Shenk gave copy to Milton Zehr for further use in 1/92. return to text Note17 Perhaps this is a reason Jesus chose men to be his disciples: only those "on top" can take initiative in this process without it becoming another power struggle! return to text