When it comes to the issue of women in leadership, I often hear that the only thing that matters is what the Bible says. I completely agree.
What does the Bible say about women in leadership?
To answer this question, people usually jump to the passages that they read as limiting the roles of women. It is critical to understand those passages, but the problem with starting there is that we too often forget about the rest of the Bible. It is not an encyclopedia, where we can simply look up a topic and read a few lines to find our answer. We have to look at the entire Bible, understand the language of the writers, and read each passage in light of its Biblical context, its historical and cultural context, and the over arching message of scripture.
A good place to start is the beginning. When God created humanity he created "the adam," which is the word used for human. In Genesis 2:18 the NIV translation reads, "It is not good for the man (the adam) to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him."
The words, "helper suitable" come from the Hebrew words "ezer kenegdo." The English translation of "helper suitable" is a bit anemic, and doesn't reflect the strength of the original Hebrew very well. A better image is of "a strength equal to" or "a savior corresponding to" him. This phrase appears more than 20 times in the Old Testament, and usually refers to God. It is hardly a phrase that would be used to describe someone who was designed to be subordinate, or simply a helper.
At the very beginning we see humanity created in God's image, both male and female (Genesis 1:27). And we see that female was created to be a strength along side of male. There is no hint of hierarchy or gender roles until after the fall in Genesis 3, which comes as a result of the brokenness that enters the relationship between humanity and God, and between the woman and the man.
Throughout the Old Testament we see examples of God using women to lead his people and to save his people in various circumstances. From the amazing story of Deborah in Judges 4 to the stories of Ruth, Esther, Tamar, Rahab, Huldah the prophetess, among others, we consistently see God drawing women into leadership, drawing them up out of the brokenness of patriarchy, and using them as leaders in his greater redemption plan.
In the New Testament, we can look to the ministry of Jesus. He consistently interacts with women throughout the gospels in ways that are radically counter to the culture of patriarchy around him. He praises the worship of the sinful woman who anoints him with perfume. He engages the Samaritan woman at the well in theological discussion. Then she preaches about Jesus to her town, inspiring many to believe in him. He commissions Mary Magdalene, one of his disciples, as the very first person to preach the resurrection to the other disciples. He never shames women, he does the exact opposite. He lifts them up, in a culture that has pushed them down.
The New Testament holds many examples of Godly women who lead, preach, teach, and disciple.
- Acts 18:24-26, Priscilla instructs Apollos
- Romans 16:6-7 Paul sends greeting to the apostles Mary and Junia.
- Romans 16:1 Phoebe is named as a deacon in the church.
- Acts 16:14-15, Lydia is named as a powerful woman in the community, who is head of her household, and who cared for Paul and Silas.
- 1 Corinthians 1:11, and in Colossians 4:15 we see Chloe and Nympha listed as the heads of churches that met in their homes.
All throughout the Bible we see a message about women that puts them on equal footing with men. Galatians 3:28-29 states it clearly, "There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise." Heirs. The implication is that barriers in status are gone. We are all heirs, adopted into the family of Christ. None of us remains as a slave or a subordinate. None of these groups listed holds of place of superiority, leadership, or hierarchy over another in Christ, or in his family, the Church.
Once we've considered all the many places where scripture, Jesus, and even the apostle Paul affirm the leadership of women in the church, then we can look at the few places where the passages seem to be limiting. We can do the work in those passages to understand what the Greek word "kephale," often translated as "head," would have meant to Paul's audience. We can study the cultural issues facing the churches addressed by these texts. We can read about the rarely used word "authentein," translated "authority," which is found only once in the entire Bible (1 Tim 2), and the difficulties with understanding its actual meaning.
We can unpack the difficult passages, and then we can begin to draw conclusion about God's greater message regarding men and women.
But we should do the work, because the only thing that matters is what the Bible says.