In a previous article, I explained why I support women serving in every level of ministry. I made a positive case from Scripture using various texts demonstrating the Bible’s support for women in ministry.
That article was incomplete, however. As I noted at the time, there are key texts in the New Testament that would seem to contradict my stance. Because of space limitations, I was unable to address those texts directly. Now, I plan to finish what I started.
There are four New Testament passages I wish to explore, in order of ascending difficulty: 1 Corinthians 14:33-36; 1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9; and 1 Timothy 2:8-15.
1 Corinthians 14
In this text, Paul is addressing confusion and disorder in the Corinthians’ worship services. The key verses are 34 and 35: “The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church” (NASB).
The most important detail about this text is that, if taken in the absolute literal sense, it directly contradicts 1 Corinthians 11. In that passage—just three chapters prior to this one—Paul gives commands for how women are to conduct themselves while praying and prophesying in mixed worship (verse 5). If women must remain absolutely silent during worship, chapter 11 makes no sense.
There are multiple possible solutions, but I want to focus on the two I find most viable. First, it’s possible Paul didn’t write verses 34-35; they were inserted by a later scribe. The ancient manuscript evidence for this position is ambiguous, but there is a solid argument nonetheless. (See Gordon Fee’s volume in the New International Commentary on the New Testament.)
Another possibility is that Paul specifically is addressing Corinthian women who were disrupting worship by talking and asking questions. (See N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Scripture.) This is a possible reading, but not certain. Regardless, 1 Corinthians 14 cannot be making an absolute prohibition against women speaking in worship without utterly contradicting 1 Corinthians 11.
1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1
These two passages outline the qualifications for pastors. Some might note the passages use male pronouns throughout, but that’s only in most English translations. In Greek, the pronouns are almost all gender-neutral.
The more serious issue is the texts saying a pastor must be “the husband of one wife” (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6 NASB). Translated more literally, a pastor must be “a one-woman man.” That would seem to be open-and-shut. But is it?
Sign up for our weekly email newsletter.
Taken in the most literal sense, these two passages require, at minimum, that a pastor must be a man with one wife, must have a household, and must have multiple children. For one thing, even most complementarians don’t believe this. Such requirements would disqualify Jesus, Paul, maybe Timothy, and others.
Woe to churches that would refuse to hire Jesus or Paul as a pastor because of their singleness! Why would Jesus and Paul encourage celibate singleness in Matthew 19 and 1 Corinthians 7 if it disqualifies one from pastoring? Of course, many Baptist churches shamefully do refuse to hire single people as pastors, but that’s a different issue.
How, then, do we faithfully apply these passages? In their book Rediscovering Paul, David Capes, Rodney Reeves and E. Randolph Richards argue that these “qualifications have to do with character.” For example, “‘a-one-woman-kind-of-man’ [is] an individual capable of marital fidelity” (249). If we press these texts to restrict women from pastoring, we likewise must restrict single and childless men.
1 Timothy 2
This is the hardest passage in the entire Bible for people like me who endorse women’s preaching and pastoring.
Paul says, “But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression” (verses 12-14).
This text, more than any other, forces me to be humble in my dialogue with complementarians and admit I might be wrong. But Christians do not reach conclusions on important doctrines and practices by invoking only one passage without reference to the rest of the canon.
As I demonstrate in my previous article, there is a wealth of evidence in both Testaments that God endorses and encourages women teaching and having authority over men. Consider Deborah, Huldah, Priscilla, Junia and others.
The tension between 1 Timothy 2 and other texts becomes sharper when you pay attention to 1 Timothy’s details. Some complementarians soften the text by interpreting it only to mean, “Women can’t be pastors;” but it doesn’t say that.
The text is clear: Paul is saying—in the church, at minimum—women may not teach men or hold authority over them in any capacity. Women must be quiet. Does this text hopelessly contradict others in the New Testament? I don’t think so.
One of 1 Timothy’s key themes is the problem of false teaching spreading among the letter’s recipients. Women especially are being targeted by the false teachers. (See Philip Payne’s Man and Woman: One in Christ, pages 296-304.) I believe the instructions in 1 Timothy 2 were originally meant to stem the tide of false teaching, not to make an absolute rule for all churches everywhere.
My interpretation of these four passages may not convince you. I encourage you, though, to think deeply about what I say here, (re)read my previous article, and look at the sources I cite.
I understand why many Christians believe only men should preach and serve as pastors, but I also believe we are being unfaithful to Scripture and our sisters in Christ if we do not wrestle deeply with these questions.
Joshua Sharp is a Master of Divinity student and graduate assistant in the Office of Ministry Connections at Truett Seminary in Waco, Texas. The views expressed are those solely of the author.