Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

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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 the 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 ministers are (1) co-worker, (2) brother or sister, (3) minister or deacon (i.e. diakonos), and (4) apostle or missionary (apostolos).[1] Euodia, Syntyche, and Priscilla are three examples of female co-workers of Paul. Apphia and Phoebe are each called “sister” by Paul. And he also calls Phoebe “diakonos of the church at Cenchrea” (Rom 16:1-2). He says a few things about Junia, including 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 disruptive 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.

So, to be clear: 1 Timothy 2:11-12 addresses the poor teaching and bad behaviour of a woman in Ephesus; 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 addresses the unruly, nuisance speech of some women in Corinth. It is a terrible mistake, a blight on our churches, when we think these verses restrict 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 some Christians 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 an overreach of what it says in Ephesians 5:22-24 and elsewhere in the New Testament.

Being submissive is a Christian behaviour much like being humble, deferential, and loyal (e.g., Phil. 2:2-4). It is a behaviour for all Christians, not just wives. We see this in Ephesians 5:21 where Paul says, “Be submissive to one another out of reverence for Christ” (cf. 1 Pet. 5:5 NKJV).

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 Paul 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, meant “a person in authority over others.” 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.

Nowhere in his letters does Paul, or any other New Testament letter writer, tell husbands to lead their wives. Rather, Paul uses the word “love” six times when addressing husbands in Ephesians 5:25ff.

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. They apply in all Christian relationships but especially in marriage which is an especially close relationship.

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 some Christians 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.

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 follow on from passages on Christ-like love, spirit-led behaviours. 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

Explore more

All my articles on 1 Timothy 2:12 are here.
All my articles on 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 are 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

Ephesians 5:22-33 Christian marriage submission

artigos em portugues sobre igualdade entre homens e mulheres no lar e na igreja

7 thoughts on “Paul on Gender Roles in Ministry and Marriage

  1. Marg
    I am a Brit living in Florida and a Methodist.
    I have been leading an adult Sunday School Class on Woman and Authority in the Christianity (using a booklet Women and Authority by Ian Paul from St John’s College (Seminary), Nottingham UK and Lynn Cohick’s book “Women in the World of the Early Christians” as my main sources, together with your referenced material from Ian Paul. In the next session will be focusing on relevant texts in Ephesians and 1 Timothy. I thought the whole study would take 2-3 weekly sessions and have had to expand it to 6 weeks.
    On Sunday afternoon, I was struggling to find passage in the NT on women teaching in the NEB and “Googled” “Women and Teaching in the NT” and was directed to your website and your paper entitled: “The Chiastic Structure of Ephesians 5:22-23” which I found fascinating, logical with many of your comments similar to those in Ian Paul’s booklet (intended for study groups).

    As I prepare for next Sunday (24 June), and should you have time, I would welcome any further thoughts you may have on Ephesians.

    My final week (1 July) will be focussed on prominent (radical) Methodist women in the 18th and 19th Centuries who bucked the direction from the 1803 Methodist Conference which banned women from preaching to mixed (male and female) congregations and limited them to preaching to female groups and the under very strict conditions. This was opposite to Wesley’s approach (probably influenced by his mother) where he licensed women preachers and teachers in the UK (earliest 1761 Mary Crosby) and in the US.

    You BLOG also provided a connection to the Junia Project in CA, founded by Gail and Kate Wallace and I have read their website with interest.

    I was inspired to lead the class on Women and Authority in the early Christian Church after reading an article in the UK Times by Profs Helen Bond and Joan Taylor where they claimed new evidence for many more women leaders in the early church. It was followed a week later (Sunday after Easter) by a TV programme on Channel 5 in the UK. Ian Paul started a blog and, together with his booklet on the subject, triggered my memory of my first visit to Bath Abbey in 1974 where I found the first two leaders were Abbesses and have wondered how that happened. According to Bath Abbey website it is because Bath Abbey started out as a Convent and then became a Monastery. Nevertheless this was just the encouragement I need to start researching the subject, which led to the Sunday School classes. Although, I will be first to admit, I am just a novice in this area of study.
    Following Wesley’s death, women in the UK and the US were discouraged from preaching and at the Methodist Conference (UK) of 1803 women were banned from preaching to mixed (male and female) groups and reluctantly permitted to preach to women under strict conditions. The Methodist Conferences in US and UK did not ordained/license another women preacher until 1866 in the US (not with full clergy rights) and 1910 in the UK when the ban on women preaching to mixed congregations was lifted. Amongst those women licensed by Wesley there were some wonderful radicals in the UK, including Sarah Crosby, Mary Barrett Taft, Mary Bosanquet Fletcher. Later Catherine Booth (co-founder of the Salvation Army) which embraced women preachers from the outset in 1865 (originally the Christian Revival Society). I have seen from your website that you have written a paper on Countess Huntington, probably Wesley’s most important benefactor.

    Thanks again for your insightful Chiastic Structural approach to Ephesians 5 and your great website. I will certainly be visiting again, and again.

    Blessings from Florida.

    1. Hi David,

      Ian Paul and I are online friends and we are on the same page with some of our interpretations of verses that affect women. He has posted a couple of my articles on his website, Psephizo ~ Lyn Cohick’s book is one of my favourites. In fact, she is one of my favourite scholars. ~ I’ve only been able to see snippets of the recent documentary with Helen Bond and Joan Taylor. I can’t wait for it to be screened in Australia. ~ I’m a bit of a fan of Wesley and some of the women of early Methodism.

      Anyway, everything I have on Ephesians 5 can be found here: https://margmowczko.com/category/equality-and-gender-issues/ephesians-5/
      I think my most important posts on this passage are this one: https://margmowczko.com/ephesians-522-33-in-a-nutshell/
      And this one: https://margmowczko.com/the-household-codes-and-male-slaves-with-female-masters/

      All the best on your classes!

  2. Hi Marg

    Thank you for your reply with the additional references to your work on Ephesians 5. I look forward to reviewing on Friday as I make the final prep for the Sunday class.

    The TV programme on Channel 5 was a bit of a let down as the director, as described by Ian Paul, had “spiced up” the presentation. Ian’s final paragraph in his Blog provided a refreshing perspective: “I am aware of the need of producers of the programme to ‘spice it up’ with claims that scholarly insights are ‘new’ when they have been around for some time—but some of the
    things here will be new to many of the programme’s viewers. There is also no need to argue that women were ‘equally’ important numerically; you don’t have to suppose that women led in equal numbers to believe that women can lead equally. But it was great to see Joan and Helen bringing serious scholarship to bear in a popular programme on a Sunday evening—and we could do with more of this.”

    1. I totally agree with Ian Paul’s appraisal of the show. And I noticed, in the bits that I was able to see, that Joan and Helen don’t necessarily agree with what others are saying, they are just interested. I would be thrilled to see the fresco of Cerula in real life, but I can’t see that the symbolism denotes she was a church leader.

  3. Hi Marg

    As I was preparing for an adult Sunday School Class in Florida last week (12 Aug) on Ephesians 5:22-33 and 1 Timothy 2:8-15 this coming week, it struck me that the church at Ephesus was founded by Priscilla and Aquila, with Priscilla taking a leading role. Ian Paul points this out in his study guide “Women and Authority: Key Biblical Texts” which I have found helpful. Whilst Ian makes several references to the importance of Priscilla’s work and leadership in the body of his work, on reflection I was surprised that his conclusions make no mention of the fact that the letters to the Ephesians and to 1 Timothy were written to the church in Ephesus founded and led by Priscilla, appointed by Paul. In the research that I have done, I have not come across Priscilla’s leadership at Ephesus, appointed by Paul, having any bearing on the arguments for or against women in leadership/preaching roles. Is this a point that is missing?

    I have posted a comment on Ian’s Blog under 1 Timothy 2 and look forward to his response.

    I have also drawn on your work in preparing for the classes which has been much valued.

    Your thoughts would be much appreciated.


    1. That’s an interesting proposition, David.

      According to Act 18, Paul left Priscilla and Aquila in Ephesus while he travelled further. But I wonder if there was already a church in the city. In Acts 19:1ff, Paul finds believers in Ephesus, and these didn’t know “the way of God accurately.” So they may not have been taught by the couple. And Acts 18:27 seems to indicate that there was a group of believers in Ephesus, though these may have come to faith through Priscilla and Aquila’s ministry. Perhaps they did found the church there.

      Whoever founded the church at Ephesus, one thing is fairly certain, Priscilla functioned as a leader there (and in Rome). I mention this here: https://margmowczko.com/women-elders-new-testament/

      I’m glad my articles have been useful to you. 🙂

  4. Complementarians believe Ephesians 5 supports gender roles and marital hierarchy. I agree more with you. I don’t think Paul is trying convey hierarchy here in relation to husband and wife. I noticed that in all the submission verses, the word “own” is always present. Submissive to your own husband, etc. But children are not told to obey their own parents, nor are slaves told to obey their own masters, nor are husbands told to love their own wives. Ephesians 5 also seems to correlate submission to respect. I am no scholar here, but I have the impression that maybe the women were overly submissive to or catering to men who were not their husbands, so maybe Paul is trying to tell them, in the context of submitting to one another out of reference for Christ, your own husband comes first, in everything, not someone else’s husband. Your own husband should be your first concern. Anything else is disrespectful to him. Then in 1 Peter, submission to your own husband is correlated to chaste conversation, which seems to imply the same thing. (The complementarian interpretation has women groveling at the feet of their abusers.)

    1 Timothy says, Let the woman learn in silence and full submission. My question is, how can/should this verse be applied to female scholar? Is that even logical? I think it is clear he is restricting only incompetent women, not all women. I think the Egalitarians win the debate here.

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