Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

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Church cultures that include and exclude women leaders

Some suggest I advocate for women in ministry because I have been influenced by the secular culture of Australian society where egalitarianism is seen as the ideal. These people are mistaken.

Conversely, I suspect these same people reject the idea that women were leaders in some New Testament churches because of a poor understanding of how the first Christian communities (i.e. churches) fellowshipped and functioned. Their view of “church” has been influenced by a culture of large gatherings that meet in purpose-built sacred spaces, where a professional all-male clergy presides, and where the Sunday sermon or priestly rituals are prioritized. In this kind of church culture, which has been the norm for centuries, members who are not part of the clergy typically have little or no room for either regular or spontaneous ministry contributions during services.

New Testament church life shares almost nothing in common with modern church culture. Instead, many of the first churches were small, often consisting of an extended household that included relatives and slaves, as well as a few neighbours or clients. These churches met in homes where the householder could be a relatively wealthy woman (e.g., Lydia, Nympha, the Chosen Lady, etc) or man (e.g., Stephanas, etc) or a couple (e.g., Priscilla and Aquila). These men and women used their homes as a base for the church and hosted frequent gatherings. And they used their resources to care for the spiritual and material welfare of fellow members.

In the decades after Pentecost, both men and women had the freedom to exercise their gifts, sometimes spontaneously in church meetings (1 Cor. 14:26; Col. 3:16). Men and women could also initiate ministries or be commissioned by their church for various missions further afield (e.g., Stephanas, Andronicus and Junia, Priscilla and Aquila, Phoebe).

I advocate for women in ministry because I see in the New Testament that ministry and leadership were shared in the dynamic, inclusive, Spirit-led culture of the very early church, and was not restricted to men.

I advocate for women in ministry because I see that Jesus valued women, discipled them, and included them in his mission. Jesus is still commissioning women.

I advocate for women in ministry because Paul also valued women. He regarded several women as his colleagues, referring to them with identical ministry descriptions as his male colleagues (e.g., apostle, deacon, co-worker, labourer).

I advocate for women in ministry because godly women have vital contributions to make to the ministry and mission of the church today, some in the capacity of leadership.

I advocate for women in ministry because the scope and effectiveness of the ministry and mission of the church are diminished and reduced when gifted women are prevented from full participation in church life and are prohibited from using their God-given talents.

My advocacy for women in ministry has little to do with being influenced by the broader Australian culture.

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Postscript: March 30 2022

B.T. Roberts, who published his treatise Ordaining Women back in 1891, made it clear that his positive views on the ordination of women were based on scripture and were not influenced by culture or “the spirit of the age.” The next time someone suggests my views were influenced by secular feminism or political correctness (they’re not), I may quote Roberts.

“I have purposely avoided all appeals to sentiment and to ‘the spirit of the age,’ and based my arguments mainly on the Word of God. Where texts have been interpreted contrary to the generally received meaning, reasons have been given, which, I trust, will be found satisfactory.”
B.T. Roberts, Ordaining Women (1891) (A PDF is here.)

Postscript: March 31 2022

James D.G. Dunn, an esteemed New Testament scholar, remarks on the different experience of church life among the first generation of Christians than that of later generations when Christianity became institutionalized.

“Increasing institutionalism is the clearest mark of early Catholicism—when church becomes increasingly identified with institution, when authority becomes increasingly coterminous with office, when a basic distinction between clergy and laity becomes increasingly self-evident, when grace becomes increasingly narrowed to well-defined ritual acts. … such features were absent from first generation Christianity, though in the second generation the picture was beginning to change.”
Dunn, Unity & Diversity in the New Testament: An Inquiry into the Character of Earliest Christianity (Westminster Press, 1977), 351.

Postscript: June 29 2022

In light of 1 Samuel 8 where the Israelites ask for a king, John Goldingay, a respected scholar and translator of the Hebrew Bible, makes the candid observation that the church took less time than Israel in establishing a patriarchal hierarchy in the way she was organised.

“I have hinted that the story of the church in due course followed the same trajectory as Israel’s. It started off with the abolition of kings and priests* which re-established the order of creation whereby there was no fixed patriarchal hierarchy. But we took less time than Israel did to re-establish hierarchy, so that each congregation sat under the authority of one person, and the pattern has been the near-universal one ever since.”
Goldingay, Men Behaving Badly (Paternoster, 2000), 66.

*The abolition of kings and priests refers to the story of the church where, at the start, Jesus was our only king and our high priest with no other priests.

church culture patriarchy

Explore more

Women Church Leaders in the New Testament
The First Century Church and the Ministry of Women
Were there women elders in New Testament Churches?
The role of overseers in first-century house churches (1 Tim. 3:1ff)
Four Social Contexts where Women could Lead (AD 40–200)
Sandra Glahn on the Decline of Women in Public Ministry 
A collection of articles on NT Women Church Leaders
My articles on 1 Timothy 2:12 are here.
My articles on 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 are here.
My articles on Paul’s theology of ministry are here.
The Means of Ministry: Gifts, Grace, Faith … Gender?

Image Credit

Priscilla du Preez via Unsplash

This 4-minute video shows one main difference between what many of us think of as “church” and something more akin to what the first Christians experienced as “church”.

24 thoughts on “Church cultures that include and exclude women leaders

  1. People say “I am advocating for women in ministry because I have been influenced by the secular culture.”

    Little do they realize they are advocating against women in ministry because they have been influenced by ‘religious’ and secular culture.

    If Patriarchy were the way of the Bible then Christians would have nothing to give the world that is also strongly patriarchal. Patriarchy was never the message of the Bible and patriarchy pre-dates Christianity. In my view, it is just that patriarchy will not bend to the message of Christ.

    1. I know in my heart of hearts what motivates me, and it has nothing to do with the ways of broader society. It has everything to do with the message, and the kingdom values, taught and demonstrated by Jesus. It is tragic that the church has been so slow in realising Jesus’ message.

  2. It is painful that people who are saying women in ministry is imported from secular culture are overlooking the fact that the early Christian church arose out of a highly patriarchal culture.

    That early church clearly didn’t adopt those values — but it did ask people to respect those values as far as they rightly could so that people of the time could hear the message.

    Those against women’s ordination have taken this stance of tolerance toward a gender-stratified secular culture and turned it into a spiritual requirement.

    This was not at all the spirit of the early church. Any gender hierarchy they practiced was for the sake of reaching a gender-stratified culture. Those against women’s ordination have literally imported “biblical roles” from secular culture and then turned around and projected this onto those who support women’s ordination.

    I’d laugh if it weren’t so grievous and sad.

    1. I agree Terri.

      Gender restrictions and stratification were not part of the spirit of the very early church, because the spirit of the church at that time was deeply and powerfully influenced by the Holy Spirit.

      It is terribly grievous what the church has done in binding the work of the Spirit and the mission of Jesus.

      1. I find it interesting, too, that where women were treated differently in the NT, that it was to adhere to a culture’s idea of good conduct. Don’t let people think less of the church because the women are not acting as culture says to. Now women in the church are held back, making church look bad. Holding women back has become counter culture, yet some churches like thinking that they are being counter culture in this way! At any rate, I think Paul would be horrified to see women help back in the church with all the freedoms we have available to us in the outside.

        1. The way some Christians treat Titus 2:4-5 is a good example of this. The instructions in Titus 2 were written “so that no one will malign the word of God” (Titus 2:5b NIV).

          But the current obsession with gender roles, and who has and hasn’t got authority, in the church is causing many people to malign and dishonour the word of God, the very thing Paul wanted to avoid.

  3. Dear Marg, I enjoy reading your articles because they are biblically sound, and historically accurate. I have been studying the Bible, and women’s roles in the Church, being called to ministry, for decades.

    God bless you for the Truth and always keep preaching and exposing the lies of Satan. And the men that are afraid to respect a woman as his equal, fearing it will take something from himself instead of being a blessing to him. A wife of noble character is her husband’s crown. Women make up most of the church it is sad to see them oppressed and treated as less than a man.

    Thank God for the men that know the Word of Truth and for the women that refuse to take a different place than the one God has called them to. God will use them, even if it is out of the building God will fulfill his call to any woman that will obey!!!

    1. Hi Deborah Marie,

      Thanks for your message. It’s always lovely to “meet” a reader.

      My prayer is that God will use both men and women inside and outside the “building.” 🙂

  4. Amen, women should be in ministry positions in every church!

    The only exclusions should be those found in Scripture, which are very narrow (pastor and elder). Aside from that, women can and should be serving in all sorts of capacities!

    Let’s not go overboard in our enthusiasm, however, and pretend that the real Scriptural exclusions do not exist. We still must submit to the authority of the Bible, no matter what the surrounding culture says.

    1. So where in the Bible does it say that women are excluded from functioning as pastors or as elders?

      Or, where does it say that only men can be pastors or elders?

      There is no pretence on my part. I’m sorry that you have assumed me to be dishonest.

      Also, I couldn’t have made it clearer that my views come from reading the Bible and not from the surrounding culture.

      1. This probably isn’t the forum for a debate on the issue, but I have little doubt you know the Scriptural evidence for that position (as it is the prevailing Evangelical interpretation). I have read several of your other articles where you interact with the verses that are problematic for your position, and while your arguments are often interesting, they are not convincing for what I assume would be unsurprising reasons.

        Anyway, my main point was not the tiny number of roles women should not have in the church, but rather the huge number they SHOULD have! Encouragement for women (and men) to be more involved in ministry is important and needed.

        1. Fair enough, John. 🙂 I’m very happy not to engage in another online to-and-fro on the meanings of certain verses. (Most are just a time wasting exercise that achieve nothing.) But just to be clear, I’m very honest about my writings. There is no pretense. I continually check my conscience and my logic, and I pray about what I write. I truly believe that any New Testament verses which limit women are restricting disruptive or unwholesome activities, they are not aimed at godly women such as, say, Prisca.

          Also, I’m not sure that there is a prevailing evangelical interpretation on 1 Corinthians 14:34, and there is certainly no consensus on the application of 1 Timothy 2:12 among evangelicals.

          Anyway, Thanks for your overall encouragement. I appreciate it.

    2. answer this please—a woman can preach the gospel in the mission field and street corner but not bring the same message in a church???….But if that church were to blow away in a tornado could she then stand on the empty lot where the church once stood and preach Christ???

  5. Well said. I will post a topic regarding women in ministry and the controversy surrounding this topic among the Christian community some time in the future. I agree with everything you said. God Bless.

  6. Part of the problem with male ‘leaders’ in the church is the very notion of ‘leader’. It is alien to the church. In church we have mutual ministry; so all women are ministers in one way or another, as are all men. What we’ve got to clear out is the dictatorial triumphalist view of ‘leader’ which reflects the twinning of military and (US) business concepts. Nothing to do with the life or conduct of the church at all.

    1. And nothing to do with what Jesus taught his followers about service and ministry. He never told his disciples to be leaders.

      1. And the title of ‘servant-leader’ is particularly offensive. If we all have the Holy Spirit, have received good instruction, why do we even need a leader? Of course, I always have a problem with any authority, so don’t go by me!

      2. Servants, shepherds and overseers are very different from what the world usually expects from those in positions of responsibility.

        Marg, thanks for challenging my thinking that has been shaped by a lifetime in modern, western church culture.

  7. I wish there were more churches that allowed more people to participate. Sometimes, just having a select few people able to participate makes the service feel almost spiritually dead to me. Colossians 3:16 is one of my favorite verses about how all believers should contribute something, but I do have a question about it. I have seen some translations make it seem as if the teaching is separate from the singing, and others that make it seem as if teaching is through singing. Both make sense to me. But I’m not sure which translation is more accurate, and I was wondering how you interpret it?

    1. It is tricky working out if we should put a comma after “yourselves” (ἑαυτοὺς), especially as there are several prepositional phrases beginning with ἐν (en) meaning “in” or “with.”

      Importantly, the main verb is “let dwell” (ἐνοικείτω). The participles (teaching, instructing, making music) flow from the principle idea that the word of Christ must dwell among believers richly. The participles are evidences of this indwelling.

      The following makes sense to me. (Compare with 1 Corinthians 14:26 CSB.)

      λόγος τοῦ Χριστοῦ ἐνοικείτω ἐν ὑμῖν πλουσίως
      Let the Word of Christ dwell among you richly,

      ἐν πάσῃ σοφίᾳ διδάσκοντες καὶ νουθετοῦντες ἑαυτοὺς
      with all wisdom, teaching and instructing yourselves,

      ψαλμοῖς ὕμνοις ᾠδαῖς πνευματικαῖς ἐν χάριτι ᾄδοντες ἐν ταῖς καρδίαις ὑμῶν τῷ θεῷ
      with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, with joy, make music with your hearts to God.

      Though this works too.

      ὁ λόγος τοῦ Χριστοῦ ἐνοικείτω ἐν ὑμῖν πλουσίως ἐν πάσῃ σοφίᾳ
      Let the word of Christ dwell among you richly with all wisdom,

      διδάσκοντες καὶ νουθετοῦντες ἑαυτοὺς ψαλμοῖς ὕμνοις ᾠδαῖς πνευματικαῖς
      teaching and instructing yourselves with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs,

      ἐν χάριτι ᾄδοντες ἐν ταῖς καρδίαις ὑμῶν τῷ θεῷ
      with joy making music with your hearts to God.

  8. Six years late to the party, but just wanted to say how much I enjoyed the article and the video at the end. Very insightful!

    1. Thanks, Alicia.

  9. I am crazy blessed and humbled to have married a “Prisca.” We’ve been running hard, side by side, for Jesus for forty years. We’ve taken a lot of flak for it, from every corner, all along, but what a glorious adventure! “Stumbled” upon your work about a year ago and what encouragement!!!! Thank you ☺️

    1. That’s great, Matthew!

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