Why I’m sadden by Women Bishops – Part 2 (A biblical argument for Women’s leadership in the church)

Synod 1Right, I’m sick of the argument that those who support Women Bishop’s are ignoring the Bible.  So I’m going to try to give a very brief overview as to why I support women leadership in every section of the Church.  Obviously, it will not be possible to do this in-depth – if you want an in-depth look, go and read “Man and Woman, One in Christ: An exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters” by Philip B. Payne (see here) – I fully admit that this book helped me a great deal in what I write below.

It is also worth noting that I argue this as an Evangelical – I believe in the authority of Scripture.  I fully acknowledge that if you’re a Catholic and emphasise the importance of tradition then you are unlikely to support Women Bishop’s.  For most of the Churches history the Church has, I believe, gone along with the culture and had only male leadership – although I believe the Bible does show that women were leaders in the very early Church, but we’ll get to that.

To argue this I’m going to argue for why I believe the Bible supports women in leadership in the church and then look at the main passage often taken to mean women can’t hold these positions.


Firstly we must understand the cultural background to Scripture.  Obviously this varied considerably as the Bible was written over a long period, in a variety of different cultures.  As such I will concentrate on the Greek and Jewish cultures of the New Testament period.

In the Greco-Roman world of Paul the standing of women varied considerably from place to place.  In a small number of places women were respected and even had  political responsibility (e.g. Sparta and Rome).  However, across most of the Roman world women were considered vastly inferior to men.  Plato, for example, wrote:

“Do you know, then, of anything practiced by mankind in which the masculine sex does not surpass the female on all these points? …[The] one sex is far surpassed by the other in everything, one may say … the woman is weaker than the man.”  (Resp. 5.455c-e).

Likewise, the 1st century Jewish view of women was that they were inferior.  As the Jewish historian Josephus claims:

“The woman, says the Law, is in all things inferior to the man.  Let her accordingly be submissive, not for her humiliation but that she may be directed; for the authority has been given by God to the manspirit.” (Ag. Ap. 2.201).

This is the background to the New Testament, making what we find there stand out in bold contrast!

Women leadership in the Bible

Firstly, when compared to the surrounding culture, the place of women in the Bible is incredible.  Even the Old Testament, in contrast to the surround culture, gives a remarkable portrait of women.  Women as prophets (Ex. 15:20), Women as leaders of the nation (Jg. 4-5), a woman as the saviour of the whole nation (Esther).  When Jesus and the New Testament writers look back to the Old Testament they highlight women as great examples of faith and faithfulness (e.g. Heb 11:31; James 2:5; Lk 4:24-26; Matt 12:42).

In the ministry of Jesus women are given an honoured place.  They travel with him (Lk 8:1-3; Matt 27:55-56; Mk 15:40-41), were praised as great examples by him (e.g. Lk 21:1-4; Mark 12:41-44; Lk 10:38-42; Matt 26:6-13; Mk 14:3-9; Lk 7:36-50; Jn 12:1-8) and were made the heroes of many of his parables (e.g Lk 15:8-20; Lk 18:1-8; Matt 25:1-13).  Even more surprisingly, Jesus purposefully affirmed many women who were the most untouchable and vilified in his own culture (e.g. Lk 8:43-48 [see Lev. 15:25-30]; Jn 4:7-42 [see 2 Kgs 17:24-34); Jn 8:1-11; Matt 15:21-28; Mk 7:24-30).

None of these prove that women can be leaders – but notice how remarkable this is against the culture of the time.  Jesus, in a culture where women were little more than property, treated women as equals!!

More than this, notice the honoured place given to women in the Gospel narratives.  Pilates wife is the one person to come to Jesus’ defence (Matt 27:19).  As the disciples flee, the women remain (Matt 27:55-56; Mk 15:40-41; Lk 23:49, 55).  And, most importantly of all, women are the first to see the risen Jesus, and specifically commission by him to tell the (male) disciples the Good News that he had risen (Matt 28:1-10; Mk 16:1-11; Lk 24:1-10; Jn 20:1-18).  The first ever proclamation of the good news was, by Jesus’ direct command, given by women to men!

Likewise, in the Epistles, women are portrayed in a remarkably good and equal light.  Men and women are understood to be made in the image of God and being, together, made into a new humanity (Col 3:10).  Men and women are “circumcised” into God’s new family (Col 2:10-12).  Men and women are the bride of Christ (Eph 5:22-27).  Men and women are equally “in Christ”, and will be saved (Rom 10:12-13).  Men and women are both, equally, called to mutual submission (Eph 5:21).  Both men and women are equally part of the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:25) and all should be involved in ministering to one another and building one another up (Eph 4:12).  Men and women are, likewise, (as Paul is addressing the whole church) called to teach and admonish one another (Col 3:16) and that each person, male or female, when gathered may have a teaching to share (1 Cor 14:26).  Men and women are both given spiritual gifts for the good of the whole body (1 Cor. 12:7).

And, most importantly of all, in Christ men and women are equal:

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28).

Despite what some have argued, this cannot simply be a theoretical comment regarding individual salvation!  The whole purpose of Paul’s letter to the Galatians are the extremely practical implications for the relationship between Jew and Gentile.  Paul sees that the fact that all those who believe in Jesus are now equally part of one family means that all must have relationship together and share table fellowship!  Can you imagine what Paul would say if the early church proclaimed that only Jews could be leaders of the Church?  If they argued that both Jews and Gentiles were equal in terms of spiritual salvation, but called to different roles within the church?  How about if the early church proclaimed that those born as slaves could not be leaders of the Church?  … How about women?  I’m sure he would have some very strong words – much stronger than I (with my inbuilt British politeness) would dare to say.  No, this deeply theological statement has real world application – as Paul’s letter’s show time and again.  All Jews and Gentiles who believe in Christ are now equal and part of the same family.  All slaves and free people who believe in Christ are now equal and part of the same family.  And all males and females who believe in Christ are now equal and part of the same family.    Do not spiritualise this statement, but let it have the practical repercussions Paul clearly thought it must have.  And as one final blow, remember the cultural presuppositions of the time!

Finally, there are multiple examples of women leaders in the early church!  Famously, Phoebe who is a deacon (διάκονον) of the Church in Cenchrea (Rom 16:1).  This is clearly a leadership position, just as in the other uses of the word in Romans (13:4; 15:8).  This is clear in the next verse: “I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been leader of many people, including myself.”  (This is the same word as the word “lead” in Romans 12:8).

Paul left Priscilla (female name) and Aquila in charge of the church in Ephesus (Acts 18; 1 Cor 16:19).  Later “Priscilla and Aquila … explain [plural verb] to [Apollos] the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:26).  Against Greek and Hebrew custom, Priscilla’s name is listed first suggesting that she played the dominant, or at least a significant part, in their ministry together.  The plural verb shows both taught.  And Luke (a long-term co-worker of Paul) not only does not suggest that this is inappropriate, but praises her accuracy and the results (Acts 18:26-28).  Paul himself refers to Priscilla and Aquila as “fellow workers” – meaning those who share in the work of preaching Christ crucified (Rom 16:3-5).

Junia (female name) is listed as a female Apostle (Romans 16:7)!  Paul always describes an Apostle as someone who encountered the risen Jesus (e.g. 1 Cor 9:1; 15:8; Gal 1:1, 15-17) and is commissioned to preach the Good News (e.g. Rom 1:1-5; 1 Cor 1:1; 15:10).

Other more complicated examples are also present in the New Testament (e.g. Rom 16:12; Phil 4:2-3) but this is enough to demonstrate that, despite all the implications of the surrounding culture, despite the fact that most women of the time would have been uneducated and despite the fact that women would have been widely unrespected by many … women did hold leadership positions within the early church!

In light of the all this what are we to make of those small number of passages which seem to indicate that women cannot hold positions of authority in the Church.  There are a number of passages, but one in particular is used regularly: 1 Timothy 2:8-15 (Other passages are used in regard to the relationship between and man and a woman in marriage – however, I consider that to be a separate topic!).  I fully acknowledge that there are one or two smaller passages in the New Testament which can be read in this way, but this is only a blog and I can’t hope to cover everything.  So I’ll just look at the most used text.  (The other passage which is used, although not as much, is 1 Cor 14:34-35 where women are told to be silent – but this clearly can’t mean that in a straight forward sense as Paul has already discussed women praying and prophesying in church at length!  1 Cor 11:2-16)

1 Timothy 2:8-15

“Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing.  I also want the women to dress modestly, with decent and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.
A woman should learn in quietness and full submission.  I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.  For Adam was formed first, then Eve.  And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.  but women will be saved through child bearing – if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.” (1 Tim 2:8-15, NIV)

Let’s face it, at first sight this passage seems so clear, so unequivocal, that it’s hardly surprising that some people simply right-off people who agree with female ministry as liberals who want to go along with the culture!  That is precisely why I have always insisted that those who disagree with me must still be welcome within the church.  However, if you are conservative I’d just ask you to be careful.  It is all too easy to play the “proof-texting” game.  1 Peter 2:18 (“Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh”) can be used to “prove” that slavery is justified.  1 John 3:6 (“No-one who lives in him [Christ] keeps on sinning.  No-one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.”) can be used to “prove” that Christians are sinless and that if you sin you aren’t really a Christian after all.  James 2:17 (“In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”) can be used to “prove” that we are saved by works.  And Matthew 5:29 (“If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away.  It is better for you to lose one part of your body then for your whole body to be thrown into hell.”) can be used to “prove” we should all be blind by now!!

“Now wait there!” I hear you say, “All of them need to be read both in their own context and in the context of the whole Bible.”  Quite right!!  And that’s true of 1 Timothy 2:8-15 as well!  So let’s do that, shall we?

The primary reason Paul (some argue it wasn’t Paul – I think it was, but that’s a discussion for a different time!) wrote first Timothy was to advise Timothy on how to counter false teaching in Ephesus.  It appears that some of the women in the church had been strongly influenced by false teachers and had “turned away to follow Satan.” (1 Tim 5:15).  Many of these women had become “idle” and were “going about from house to house” talking “nonsense, saying things they ought not to.” (1 Tim 5:13).  This, it would seem, is the same nonsense that the false teachers were speaking (1 Tim 1:6; 6:20; 2 Tim 2:23).  Therefore Paul calls on women to perform “good deeds” (1 Tim 2:10) and, in order to stop the circulation of these false teachings, he commands “Let women learn in quietness and full submission.” (1 Tim 2:11).  In other words, let the women who are spreading this false teaching come and learn the true gospel (“In quietness and full submission” is the description commonly given to a disciple, of whatever sex (in a culture in which women wouldn’t normally be allowed to do that!)).  Paul then orders, in order to prevent the further spread of this false teaching, that “I am not permitting a woman to teach and to assume authority over a man, but to be in quietness.” (2 Tim 2:12).  The Greek makes two things clear:

  • Firstly, Paul is ruling out one thing, not two – “teaching and, together with this, to assume authority”.
  • Secondly, the phrase does not mean “to have authority” but to “assume authority” – to falsely claim an authority which doesn’t exist!  It appears that women, who were not recognised leaders in the church, were claiming the authority to teach and disciple, when they had not been given that authority.

Paul then gives two reasons for this restriction.  Firstly, it would be disrespectful to men, as in the Genesis account (which I do not have time to discuss, but does not indicate any superiority between the sexes) Eve is taken out of Adam (1 Tim 2:13).  And secondly, Eve was deceived, demonstrating how serious it can be when a woman is deceived by a false teacher and passes this on to a man (1Tim 2:14).

However, even while doing this Paul carefully balances what he is saying by affirming women.  He encourages women to “good works” (1 Tim 2:9) and commands them to learn (1 Tim 2:11).  Extremely importantly, he equalises men and women by affirming than women, like men, were formed by God (1 Tim 2:13).  And (I wish I had time to argue this fully) he affirms that women, through childbirth, brought Jesus into the world for salvation and they will continue to experience this salvation if they continue in the true Christian life (1 Tim 2:15).

Therefore, 1 Tim 2:12 does not support a universal prohibition on women teaching and having authority.  Nothing in the passage even comes close to suggesting that women are inherently unsuited to teach or have authority.  Likewise, Paul does not universalise the advise to all churches at all times.  This would make sense considering the way Paul worked alongside fellow deacons and apostles that were women (see above).  The simply fact is, genuine exegesis of the passage does not allow us to use 1 Timothy 2:8-15 as a way to prevent women from teaching and holding authority in the church.

Indeed, if Paul had meant to exclude women from having authority, the very next chapter would have been the ideal place to do so!  However, despite what the English translations indicate, there is not a single masculine pronoun in 1 Timothy 3:1-13 (or Titus 1:5-9 for that matter), where Paul describes the role of the overseer and deacon.  This could do with more discussion, but this blog is already far too long!

I don’t expect many to read all this, but I do expect my conservative brothers and sisters to stop accusing everyone who supports women bishops of not taking the Bible seriously!  It is my belief in scripture which drives me to support women bishops, not my ignorance of it!

About David

I'm the curate at St. Anne's Church, in the parish of Shevington, Standish Lower Ground and Crooke. I'm married to Carole and have two beautiful daughters called Sarah and Anabel
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