The question of a woman’s role in ministry is a pressing concern for today’s church. It is paramount first because of our need for the gifts of all the members God has called to serve the church. The concern, however, has extended beyond the church itself. Increasingly, secular thinkers attack Christianity as being against women and thus irrelevant to the modern world.
The Assemblies of God and other denominations birthed in the Holiness and Pentecostal revivals affirmed women in ministry long before the role of women became a secular or liberal agenda. Likewise, in the historic missionary expansion of the 19th century, two-thirds of all missionaries were women.
The 19th-century women’s movement that fought for women’s right to vote originally grew from the same revival movement led by Charles Finney and others who advocated the abolition of slavery. By contrast, those who identified everything in the Bible’s culture with the Bible’s message were obligated both to accept slavery and reject women’s ministry.
For Bible-believing Christians, however, mere precedent from church history cannot settle a question; we must establish our case from Scripture. Because the current debate focuses especially around Paul’s teaching, we will examine his writings after we have briefly summarized other biblical teachings on the subject.
Women’s Ministry in the Rest of the Bible
Because Paul accepted both the Hebrew Bible and Jesus’ teachings as God’s Word, we must briefly survey women’s ministry in these sources. The ancient Near Eastern world, of which Israel was a part, was a man’s world. Because God spoke to Israel in a particular culture, however, does not suggest that the culture itself was holy. The culture included polygamy, divorce, slavery and a variety of other practices we now recognize as unholy.
Despite the prominence of men in ancient Israelite society, God still sometimes called women as leaders. When Josiah needed to hear the word of the Lord, he sent Hilkiah the priest and others to a person who was undoubtedly one of the most prominent prophetic figures of his day: Huldah (2 Kings 22:12—20). Deborah was not only a prophetess, but a judge (Judges 4:4). She held the place of greatest authority in Israel in her day. She is also one of the few judges of whom the Bible reports no failures (Judges 4,5).
Although first-century Jewish women rarely, if ever, studied with teachers of the Law the way male disciples did, Jesus allowed women to join His ranks (Mark 15:40,41; Luke 8:1—3)—something the culture could have regarded as scandalous. As if this were not scandalous enough, He allowed a woman who wished to hear His teaching “sit at his feet” (Luke 10:39)—taking a posture normally reserved for disciples. Other Jewish teachers did not allow women disciples; indeed, disciples were often teachers in training.