Mosaic of Paul presenting Praxedes to Christ

1. Paul on Women in Ministry

A few verses in Paul’s letters are frequently cited by Christians who exclude women from certain ministries. But did Paul himself restrict the ministry of women? What was his attitude to women ministers?

As with the two previous posts, this article gives a brief overview on “gender roles” rather than detailed information. Please click on links if you’d like more information.

Paul’s Terminology for Fellow Ministers

Paul regarded both men and women who ministered alongside him as his colleagues, and he used several of the same ministry terms for female ministers as he did for male ministers. As far as I know, Paul is the only ancient Christian writer to do so. Ignatius, writing in around the year 110, for example, mentions women who were active in ministry in the church at Smyrna, he even gives a couple of their names, Alke and Gavia, but Ignatius does not give these women any ministry title.

Paul’s preferred, most-used, terms for (male and female) ministers are (1) co-worker, (2) brother or sister, (3) minister or deacon (i.e. diakonos), and (4) apostle.[1] Euodia, Syntyche, and Priscilla are three examples of female co-workers of Paul. Apphia and Phoebe are each called “sister” by Paul. He also calls Phoebe “diakonos of the church at Cenchrea” (Rom 16:1-2). And he says of Junia that she is outstanding, or well-known, among the apostles (Rom. 16:7).

There is little doubt there were more male ministers than female ministers in the first century. But, unlike what some Christians say, the New Testament simply does not state that a woman cannot be a pastor or elder, etc. (Paul does not identify any individual Christian minister, man or woman, with the words “pastor” or “elder” or “bishop” in his letters.) Nowhere in the New Testament letters does it state women are prohibited from any legitimate ministry function.[2]

Furthermore, unlike the cultural convention of the time, Paul rarely describes women by their family attachments. Many women are mentioned in Paul’s letters without being identified with a male relative. And, with a few exceptions, we have no idea if any of the twenty-odd women associated with Paul (in the book of Acts and in his letters) had children. It is significant that Paul mainly refers to women in terms of their faith and ministry, not their family.

The Prohibitions in 1 Timothy 2:12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35

Paul welcomed and valued women as co-workers of the gospel. So what do we do then with 1 Timothy 2:12 that says, “I do not allow a woman to teach or to control a man . . .”? One thing we need to keep in mind is that 1 Timothy was an occasional letter. Many Christians read 1 Timothy thinking that it contains general advice or general instructions, but mostly it doesn’t. It was an occasional letter written with a specific church and specific people and specific issues in mind. One of those issues was the bad teaching and behaviour of an Ephesian woman; this is what Paul addresses in 1 Timothy 2:11-15.

Similarly, the statement in 1 Corinthians 14:34f, “women are to be silent in the churches”, addresses the disorderly and nuisance speech of some Corinthian women, assuming that Paul wrote these words in the first place. A few chapters earlier, in 1 Corinthians chapter 11, Paul acknowledges that Corinthian women prayed and prophesied in church gatherings, and he doesn’t silence them (1 Cor. 11:5). And in chapters 12 and 14 of 1 Corinthians, Paul mentions several ministries, some of which are vocal, without saying that they are only for men (e.g., 1 Cor. 12:7-11, 28; 14:26 NIV). This is the case in Paul’s other letters too; he doesn’t list spiritual gifts or ministries, such as being a prophet, teacher, or apostle, and then say these are only for men.

It is a terrible mistake, a blight on our churches, when we think that 1 Timothy 2:12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 restricts godly, gifted, and capable women from any kind of ministry.

2. Paul on Christian Marriage

But what about marriage? Are there gender roles in marriage? Does Paul teach that husbands are the leaders or authorities of their wives, as complementarians claim? Does he teach that wives are to be submissive to their husbands?

Female Submission or Mutual Submission?

I’ll begin with the last question: Does Paul teach that wives should be submissive to their husbands? Yes, he does . . . to their own husbands. How wifely submission has been stretched to mean that women, in general, should be submissive to men, in general, is overstepping what it says in Ephesians 5:22, for example.

However, being submissive is a Christian behaviour much like being humble or deferential (e.g., Phil. 2:2-4). It is a behaviour for all Christians, not just wives. We see this in Ephesians 5:21 were it says, “Be submissive to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

This idea of mutual submission among believers also occurs in early Christian letters not included in the New Testament.

  • In First Clement, a letter written from the Roman Church to the Corinthian Church in around the year 90, it says, “Moreover, you were all humble and free from arrogance, submitting rather than demanding submission, more glad to give than to receive . . .” (1 Clem 2:1). I believe this verse captures the heart of Christian submission.
  • A couple of decades later, Ignatius, bishop of Antioch in Syria, wrote to the church at Magnesia and stated, “Submit to the bishop and to one another” (IgnMag 13:2). “To one another” (allēlois) in this verse is identical to the word in Ephesians 5:21. (The Greek word for “to one another” has the sense of reciprocity and is a called a reciprocal pronoun.)
  • And a few decades later still, Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, wrote to the Philippians and urged them, “All of you be subject to one another” (PolPhil10:2).[3]

Being submissive is not a gender role. It is not even a role. It is an attitude and a behaviour for all brothers and sisters in Christ, with mutual, reciprocal submission being the ideal. Mutual submission was not a foreign concept in the first and early second-century church, and it should be the norm in the church today.

Male Leadership or Mutual Love?

So what about the idea that husbands, or men, are leaders? What does it mean where it says, “The husband is the head of his wife” in Ephesians 5:23? In the first century, the Greek word for “head” rarely, if ever, referred to a person in authority. So when Paul says “the husband is the head of his wife”, he is not saying the husband is the boss of his wife. Rather, he is using a head-body metaphor signifying unity. The head may be more prominent than the body, but this metaphor is not about authority.

Unlike other contemporary Greek writers, such as Plutarch, who wrote that husbands were the rulers of their wives, Paul does not use any of the many usual Greek words that mean leader or ruler or authority for husbands. No New Testament author does. Rather, in Ephesians 5:22-33, Paul uses verbs that mean yield, love, nourish and unite. Yielding and unity are the themes in Ephesians 5:22-33. Not authority.

In Colossians 3:18-19, the instructions to wives and husbands are much shorter than in Ephesians 5, and there’s no mistaking the meaning: “Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.” That’s it! There is no mention of leadership or authority here or in Ephesians 5.[4] And let’s remember that these verses are particularly about marriage, not about men and women in general.

I also want to point out that the instructions about love given to husbands in Ephesians 5 are almost identical, word for word, as the instructions about love given to all Christians at the beginning of chapter 5.

Note the similarities:

“Walk in lovejust as also Christ loved us and gave himself up for us . . .” (Eph. 5:2).
”Husbands, love your wives, just as also Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her . . .” (Eph. 5:25).

To love sacrificially as Christ loved is the instruction to all hearers and readers of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, not just husbands. Waking in love is not a gender role just as being submissive is not a gender role. Nevertheless, wives and husbands are singled out with instructions, possibly because the marriage relationship, ideally, is an especially close union.

Obeying Mothers and Female Masters

Ephesians chapters 5-6 and Colossians 3 don’t just address wives and husbands. In these passages, children are told to obey their parents, both their father and mother (Eph. 6:1-3; Col. 3:20). In the first-century Greco-Roman world, all children—including, or especially, adult children—were expected to obey their parents. In some cultures today, we still see that adult children are expected to be obedient to their parents. Importantly, there is no gender hierarchy or preference given in Ephesians 6 or Colossians 3 between fathers and mothers. Paul expected grown sons to honour and obey their mothers.

Christian slaves are also addressed in Ephesians 5-6 and Colossians 3, where they are told to obey their masters (Eph. 6:5-8; Col. 3:22ff). When people think of masters, they tend to think of men. Many masters in New Testament times, however, were women; and many women had male slaves. The author of the second-century Christian writing The Shepherd of Hermas is just one example of a man who had been sold to a female master (HermVis 1:1). Male slaves and female masters were included in the New Testament instructions. Paul expected male slaves to obey and be submissive to their female masters.

How do complementarians reconcile their notions of gender roles with Paul’s instructions that children (including adult sons) should obey their parents (including their mothers), and that slaves (including male slaves) should obey their masters (including female masters)? The so-called household codes in Ephesians chapters 5-6 and Colossians 3 do not outline a gender hierarchy, or gender roles, as most complementarians understand it.


The Bible does not teach or mandates gender roles. Rather, reciprocal love and mutual submission is the ideal in marriage and in all relationships between fellow believers. Moreover, it is an individual’s God-given gifts and abilities that determine who does what in any given situation, in the church and in marriage. In both marriage and ministry, love must be a guiding principle. (See 1 Cor. 13:1-14:1.) Our aim should be to “walk in the way of love” because, as Paul said, “Love does no harm” and it is “the fulfilment of the law” (Rom. 13:10). Like all other New Covenant principles, this applies equally to men and to women.


[1] E.E. Ellis has observed that “The designations most often given to Paul’s fellow workers are in descending order of frequency as follows: coworker (synergos), brother (adelphos) [or sister (adelphē) as in the cases of Apphia and Phoebe], minister (diakonos) and apostle (apostolos) .” E.E. Ellis, “Paul and his Coworkers”, Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, Gerald Hawthorne and Ralph Martin (eds) (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 183.
Another word Paul uses several times for Christian ministers and ministry is labourers and labour. (More on coworkers and labourers here.)

[2] Some Christians think the qualifications for supervisors in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and elders in Titus 1:6-9 exclude women, especially the phrases “one-woman-man” and “managing [his] own house well”. (More information here.)

Two of the most prominent complementarians acknowledge this phrase does not clearly exclude women. Douglas Moo acknowledges that this phrase need not exclude “unmarried men or females from the office . . . it would be going too far to argue that the phrase clearly excludes women. . . .”
Douglas J. Moo, “The Interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:11–15: A Rejoinder,” TJ 2 NS (1981): 198–222, 211.
Thomas Schreiner acknowledges, “The requirements for elders in 1 Tim 3:1–7 and Titus 1:6–9, including the statement that they are to be one-woman men, does not necessarily in and of itself preclude women from serving as elders. . . .”
Thomas R. Schreiner’s “Philip Payne on Familiar Ground: A Review of Philip B. Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters,” JBMW (Spring 2010): 33–46, 35.
From Philip Payne’s, Does “One-Woman Man” in 1 Timothy 3:2 Require that all Overseers be Male?

[3] Chapters 10, 11, 12 and 14 of Polycarp’s letter do not survive in the Greek. The pertinent Latin phrase in 10:2 is Omnes vobis invicem subiecti estote.

[4] The instructions to wives In Ephesians 5:22-24 and Colossians 3:18 are given in the context of Christ-like love, spirit-led behaviours, and Christian marriage. The instructions to wives in Titus 2:4-5 and 1 Peter 3:1-6 are given in the context of respectable behaviours and expectations of Greco-Roman society and marriage to a non-believer.


Mosaic of Paul presenting St Praxedes (who was martyred in 165) to Christ, in the Basilica Santa Prassede, Rome. Used with permission © Sr Anne Flanagan (Source)

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This article is adapted from a talk on gender roles that I gave on the 19th of May, 2018, for CBE-Sydney.
« Part 1: Gender roles and Gendered Activities in the Old Testament
« Part 2: Jesus on Gender Roles and Gendered Activities

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Articles on 1 Timothy 2:12 here
Articles on 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 here
Ephesians 5:22-33 in a Nutshell
Paul and Women in a Nutshell
The Means of Ministry: Gifts, Grace, Faith . . . Gender?
The New Testament household codes are about power, not gender
Wives, Mothers and Female Masters in the NT Household Codes
Paul’s Qualifications for Church Leaders (1 Timothy 3)
1 Corinthians 16:16: Another submission verse that applies to women

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