Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

Or, Paul’s Theology of Ministry

The means of ministry Romans 12:6-8

Tradução em português aqui.

One Body, Many Members

For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. Romans 12:4-5 NIV

In Romans 12, Paul uses the “one body, many members” metaphor he had used in an earlier letter to the Christians in Corinth (1 Cor. 12:12ff). Paul uses this metaphor to illustrate that we do not all have the same function, or the same ministry, even though we all belong to, and are united in, the one universal Christian community (i.e. the “body of Christ”).

All followers of Jesus, male and female, are members of this body, yet some Christians maintain that only men can have a legitimate leadership function or ministry. Some go even further and state that all men are leaders by divine design. These Christians believe that only men may be leaders (or senior leaders) and teachers in the “body of Christ.”[1]

You’d think that if this was the case, Paul might mention it in his discussions on ministries in Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:4-31, as well as in Ephesians 4:4-13. Paul, however, says nothing at all about gender in these passages. Rather, he mentions gifts, grace, and faith as being the prerequisites and means of ministry.

Grace and Faith

We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us . . . Romans 12:6a NRSV

Paul goes on in Romans 12 and points out to his audience, both men and women, that we have been given different gifts (charismata) (Rom. 12:6; cf. 1 Cor. 12:4; domata in Eph 4:8). But he doesn’t write that these gifts differ according to our gender. Instead, he writes that our gifts “differ according to the grace given to us” (Rom. 12:6 cf. Eph. 4:7). Paul himself ministered according to the grace that was given to him (Rom. 12:3a).

The word “grace” (charis) is frequently used in the New Testament in the context of divine power, strength, and ability. It is God’s grace working within us, through the Holy Spirit, that equips us to be effective ministers in the church and effective agents of Jesus Christ in the wider world. The Holy Spirit (and not masculinity) is the source of empowerment in genuine Christian ministry.

If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith . . . Romans 12:6b NIV

Our level of faith also plays an important part in how we exercise our ministry gifts and functions. Paul explicitly connects faith with the prophetic ministry; he tells those who prophesy they should do so in accordance with their faith.[2] It is possible that the idea of faith continues implicitly in the other functions that Paul lists in the following verses: ministry (diakonia), teaching, exhortation (or encouraging), giving, leading, and doing acts of mercy (Rom. 12:7-8). Faith has no gender preference or bias.

The Gift of Leading and Phoebe

“Leading” is listed as one of the ministries in Romans 12, and Paul gives no indication it is restricted to men only. The participle proistamenos (“leading”) in Romans 12:8b comes from the verb proistēmi.[3] This verb can mean “lead,” “preside,” “act as patron.” Leadership and patronage were closely associated and intertwined in the first-century Roman world and the verb proistēmi has a combined sense of leading and providing for people. A cognate of proistēmi occurs a few chapters later in Romans 16 in reference to Phoebe who was a patron of many including Paul (Rom. 16:2).[4]

A cognate of the word for “ministry” (diakonia) used in Romans 12:7 is also applied to Phoebe (Rom 16:1).[5] This woman was a minister in her church at Cenchrea. It is also widely believed she was entrusted with Paul’s letter to the Romans. Part of the job of letter carriers was to pass on verbal messages from the sender and help explain the contents of the letter to the recipients. Some further suggest Phoebe may have even have been the first person to read Romans aloud to the Christians at Rome.[6] Whatever the case, Paul clearly trusted and valued women ministers.

The Gift of Teaching and 1 Timothy 2:12

If we leave 1 Timothy 2:12 aside for a moment, nowhere in the New Testament does it state that any of the ministries Paul lists in Romans 12:6-8, 1 Corinthians 12:28, or Ephesians 4:11 are off-limits to women. 1 Timothy 2:12 is where Paul writes that he is not allowing a woman to teach …. The Greek word didaskein (“to teach”) in 1 Timothy 2:12 is a cognate of the Greek words for “teaching” and “teachers” found in each of Paul’s three lists of ministries (cf. Col. 3:16 CSB).

If Paul didn’t want any women to ever teach, why didn’t he make this plain in his earlier letters? Why does he only bring it up later in First Timothy?[7]

Didaskein is connected by a conjunction to the Greek word authentein in 1 Timothy 2:12. Authentein means “to domineer” or “to control.” (It is not the usual word for “authority” used elsewhere in the New Testament.) And authentein is connected to the Greek word for “man/ husband.” So some scholars suggest Paul is prohibiting a woman from teaching a man in a domineering fashion. (No one, man or woman, should behave in a domineering or controlling manner in the “body of Christ.”)

Another understanding of 1 Timothy 2:12  is that a woman in the Ephesian church was teaching heresy, which is corrected in 1 Timothy 2:13-14, and Paul is saying 1. he is not allowing a woman to teach (anyone) until she learns more (1 Tim. 2:11-12), and 2. he is not allowing her to domineer or control a man, probably her husband.

Faithfulness

Like Paul, Peter also connects ministry with gifts, grace, and faith, rather than gender.

Each of you should use whatever gift (charisma) you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace (charis) in its various forms. 1 Peter 4:10 NIV

As faithful stewards, we must not bury our gifts and talents, or the gifts and talents of others (cf. Matt. 25:14-30), because to deny someone the opportunity to use their God-given gift is to restrict God’s grace and power in the church and in the wider world.

Conclusion

If Paul had meant for all women to be excluded from exercising certain ministry functions, why didn’t he mention this in his general teaching and in his lists of gifts and ministries in his letters? Why didn’t he write one list for men and another for women?

I do not believe Paul ever intended to restrict the ministry of godly, gifted women. Rather, his theology of ministry is gender-inclusive.

There is nothing whatsoever in Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4 (or in Col. 3:16 CSB) that suggests gender is a factor in any of the ministries mentioned in these chapters. Gifts, grace, and faith, and not gender, are the primary prerequisites and the means of ministry, including the ministries of leading and teaching.

Footnotes

[1] Note that the word “office” in the KJV of Romans 12:4 is not a faithful translation of the Greek word praxis.

[2] Faith and grace are gifts from God. They are the means of salvation and of ministry (Eph. 2:8-10).

[3] There are several masculine participles in Romans 12:6-8; however, these verses are just as inclusive, grammatically and in intent, as John 3:16 which also contains a masculine participle.

[4] Proistēmi occurs in Titus 3:8 & 14 in the context of “good works” (cf. 1 Tim. 3:1). It may be that in all eight occurrences of proistēmi in the New Testament—in Romans 12:8; 1 Thessalonians 5:12; 1 Timothy 3:4, 5, 12; 5:17; and Titus 3:8, 14—there is a sense of “caring” and “providing for” combined with a sense of “leading” or “managing” especially as it was wealthier people, who had the resources of both time and money, and who could take on the responsibilities of leading and “good works.” More on proistēmi and the ministry of overseers (episkopoi) here.

[5] Paul typically used the word diakonos for agents and ministers with a sacred commission (diakonia) (Rom. 13:4; 15:8, 25; 16:1-2; 1 Cor. 3:5; Eph. 3:7; 6:21-22; Col. 1:7-9, 23; 4:7-9; cf. 2 Cor. 11:13-15).

[6] Michael Bird, Bourgeois Babes, Bossy Wives, and Bobby Haircuts: A Case for Gender Equality in Ministry (Zondervan, 2012-12-25) Kindle Location 210.

[7] First Corinthians was probably written sometime in 54 AD. Romans was written in the winter of 55-56 AD or 56-57 AD. The letter to the Ephesians (which may have been a circular letter and not written especially for the Christians in Ephesus) may have been written around 60-62 AD. The date of First Timothy is much debated, but it was most likely written sometime towards the end of the first century.

[8] Priscilla and Aquila were in Ephesus when they instructed Apollos, who was himself teaching (Acts 18:25); they “explained to him the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:26). Paul wrote his first letter to Timothy when Timothy was ministering in Ephesus. Paul would not have intended his statement in 1 Timothy 2:12 to silence the instruction, explanations, or teaching of women such as Priscilla. Paul’s friendship and respect for Priscilla and Aquila is evident in the New Testament (e.g. Rom. 16:3-5a). More on Priscilla and Aquila here.

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Related Articles

The Power of God’s Grace
Paul’s Female Coworkers
Extra Honour for Underdogs (1 Corinthians 12:12-31)
Women Church Leaders in the New Testament
Phoebe: Deacon of the Church at Cenchrea
Several articles on 1 Timothy 2:12, here.
Following Jesus, Led by the Holy Spirit

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18 thoughts on “The Means of Ministry: Gifts, Grace, Faith . . . Gender?

  1. Quite right Margaret. What is often forgotten in the current discussions on gender is how the NT writers are interacting with the ideas about gender in their cultural context. Benefaction/ leadership was a class thing (your class gave you access to education and those with a certain degree of education were equipped with skills to lead in the church). Women in the educated classes were expected to conduct themselves appropriately as representatives of their class. We see these sorts of expectations in 1 Timothy 2. Wives were expected to compliment their husbands with the appropriate conduct for their class. People with disposable income would act as patrons/benefactors. Women often took on the role of patron continuing the patronage of their fathers and husbands. They would be expected to represent their fathers/husbands suitably as they continued their leadership/influence. Hence carefully delineated descriptions for men and women in 1 Timothy 2: 1-11(but men and women in the patron/benefactor/leadership/influencer roles). In verses 12-14 women are urged not to overstep the bounds of appropriate conduct (as do other Greco-Roman materials giving advice to women on their conduct). ‘To teach’ can have the meaning to persuade (as in lecturing in class/giving advice/ giving a view of a situation), which coupled with the negative ‘to domineer’, gives a picture of a woman not conducting herself appropriately in the 1st century context. Educated women were expected to lead, but in a socially appropriate way that would not defame the gospel. There was no question that a woman, especially an educated woman, would be spiritually equipped to exercise a ministry in whatever way God had called her. The question is ‘what social expectations would a woman need to consider in conducting herself in a ministry in the 21st century in a Western nation?’ Would a Christian woman in a speaking ministry in an Australian church/ministry/public role defame the gospel in such a role? I think the answer to that question is ‘Not at all’. Indeed, quite the contrary.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Lyn.

      I think many Christians have been given the impression, and even been taught, that women could not possibly have had leadership roles in the first century. But this was not the case, especially for women in the higher echelons of Roman society.

      I posted an article in September about four contexts where women could exercise leadership in Roman society here. I plan on posting a follow-up article about three devotional contexts which enabled Christian women to be leaders. The three contexts are: charismata, persecution, and celibacy.

      I think your question is an important one.

      1. Thanks Marg. Really appreciated your article.

  2. It would be wonderful if churches used language about organisation that was consistent with Christian teaching: administrator instead of ‘leader’ in many cases would completely disempower the sex-bias in church organisation.
    According to some in my church I ‘lead’ a home group. I keep telling the group that I merely conduct studies and organise things. I ‘lead’ nothing. The Spirit leads, we all follow as per our gifts. Thus I am the organiser of our home group.

    1. It would also be wonderful if we could trust, and comply with, the Spirit’s leading.

    2. By the way, I got your other message, Clive. And I had a look at your blog. I can see that we are in agreement on some major points. 🙂

  3. Another great post with good points. The bible never actually says women can’t be leaders. There is the argument that Phoebe was a deacon in the early church plus in you last post it’s been pointed out that Priscilla along with her husband Aquilla taught the Apollos. If women wasn’t suppose to teach men ever, than how come this part is mentioned? Thanks again for a interesting article. God Bless.

    1. I’m grateful that women ministers are mentioned in the New Testament, along with ministry descriptions (titles?) that are the same as the descriptions of many male ministers: apostle, minister/deacon, coworker, etc.

  4. Thanks for keeping up the side of the Gospel. If people would actually read their Bibles seeking the mind of Christ and the heart of God, they would never have come up with patriarchy and hierarchy.

    Where are these in the lists of the fruit of the Spirit of God? where do these fit in with God’s clear antipathy to oppression and bondage. How do these fit with Christ’s cry that He came to SET CAPTIVES FREE? Handel’s Messiah begins with my favourite message from God that is reflected in the messages of Hannah and the Magnificat: “Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.” Surely this is the overview of God’s WORK…neither male nor female, bond or free…the equalizing work of God on earth because God had declared “Is not my way equal?” “Is not your way unequal”…KJV Ezekiel 18:25 and 29…and repeated in Ezekiel 33 for emphasis…surely the heart of God is for all to dwell in peace and equality of heart, submitting ourselves one to another in the fear of God!

    1. That is so interesting about the line from the Messiah (which comes from Isaiah 40:4) because just today I read that the word egalitarian comes from the French word égal which means “equal” or “level”.

      1. Thanks…I had meant to put in the reference to Isaiah 40 and forgot. The whole Bible seems to emphasize the levelling of humanity…so I suspect this is the mind of God…another verse that tells us this is Jesus’ words “The princes of the Gentiles lord if over one another BUT IT SHALL NOT BE SO AMONG YOU”…this is the new creation, created in Christ Jesus…funny how little the churches often look level, isn’t it?…in tune with God? no.

        1. Oh, and then Jesus said to the disciples “Ye have ONE master even Christ and ALL YE ARE BRETHREN”…again a levelling.

          1. sorry to go on …hence Hannah and the mother of Christ were both early feminists…”The bows of the mighty men are broken, and they that stumbled are girded with strength.
            5 They that were full have hired out themselves for bread; and they that were hungry ceased : so that the barren hath born seven; and she that hath many children is waxed feeble .
            6 The LORD killeth , and maketh alive : he bringeth down to the grave, and bringeth up .
            7 The LORD maketh poor , and maketh rich : he bringeth low , and lifteth up .
            8 He raiseth up the poor out of the dust, and lifteth up the beggar from the dunghill, to set them among princes, and to make them inherit the throne of glory: for the pillars of the earth are the LORD’S, and he hath set the world upon them.
            9 He will keep the feet of his saints, and the wicked shall be silent in darkness; for by strength shall no man prevail ”

            and the Magnificat is the same message many years later:” And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation.
            51 He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
            52 He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.
            53 He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away .

          2. Beautiful!

            Don’t apologise. This is great stuff!

  5. The Apostle Paul’s teaching has been misunderstood for centuries. I have continually expressed this in my teaching in our bible study class. Thank you, Marg, for your dedication and your blogs. You are now someone I can reference and quote!

    1. Thanks, Connie.

      And I’m glad you found this article. It’s one of my personal favourites.

  6. I have been a silent reader of nearly everything on this blog since this whole egalitarian v complementarian issue has become highly personal to me in the past year. I first heard of your blog from Shiela Gregoire’s marriage blog, I just wanted to say THANK YOU so very much for devoting a part of your life to helping women (and men) understand their dignity and value to God. I have some questions, and many thoughts that I would like to post on various articles soon (I’m even thinking of writing my own book, weaving together some personal experiences and some gospel truths I’ve learned along the way), but I couldn’t let another article pass without just saying thank you for your scholarly work and the heart behind it. You have been a blessing to many, I am sure, and to me (and my husband) as well.

    1. Thank you, Nicole. <3

      Your comment has made my day.

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