Addressing Division in the Church
I read Romans chapter 14 today and saw that Paul’s message here has some relevance to the issue of women ministers, an issue that continues to cause debate and division in some sectors of the church.
In Romans 14, Paul addresses division over the issue of food. It appears that some Roman Christians believed that eating meat was acceptable, but others believed they should eat only vegetables. Similarly, there are Christians today who believe women pastors are fine, but others believe only men can be pastors (or elders, priests, or reverends).
Here is the CSB translation of Romans 14:1-4 but I’ve deleted the words that refer to eating food and replaced them with words (in italics) that refer to believing, or not believing, women can be pastors. I’ve also removed the second occurrence of the phrase “who is weak.” (I’ve done this to make an analogy and to demonstrate a point, not to claim Paul said things that he never uttered. I recognise that verses 2-3 are no longer Holy Writ.)
Welcome anyone who is weak in faith, but don’t argue about disputed matters. One person believes women can be pastors while one … believes only men can be pastors. One who believes women can be pastors must not look down on one who does not believe women can be pastors, and one who does not believe women can be pastors must not judge one who does, because God has accepted him. Who are you to judge another’s household servant? Before his own Lord he stands or falls. And he will stand, because the Lord is able to make him stand. (Compare with Romans 14:1-4 CSB)
Paul then uses the example of attitudes towards “days” to illustrate his point about different attitudes about diet. (Note that the Bible addresses “days” and diet and gives instructions on these matters. The Roman Christians, nevertheless, held to differing views, just as today there are different interpretations of verses that are used in debates about women and ministry.)
One person judges one day to be more important than another day. Someone else judges every day to be the same. Let each one be fully convinced in his own mind. Whoever observes the day, observes it for the honor of the Lord. Whoever eats, eats for the Lord, since he gives thanks to God; and whoever does not eat, it is for the Lord that he does not eat it, and he gives thanks to God. For none of us lives for himself, and no one dies for himself. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. Christ died and returned to life for this: that he might be Lord over both the dead and the living. But you, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written, As I live, says the Lord, every knee will bow to me, and every tongue will give praise to God. So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God. (Romans 14:5-12 CSB)
The Analogy Between Food and Pastors
This is great advice from the apostle Paul, and I wish it was this easy, but the question of whether we should only eat vegetables is not as profound or as potentially harmful as the question of whether only men can be pastors.
Food doesn’t have feelings. Food is not hurt or diminished if it’s overlooked, ignored, or excluded. People, on the other hand, have feelings. It can be incredibly hurtful for women to be overlooked or ignored for ministry roles just because they are female. And churches are diminished when they are deprived of the ministry of gifted women. (See Romans 14:15 CSB.)
Eliminating certain foods from a diet and excluding capable women from ministry can damage the health of a person and of the church. Still, while Paul’s advice in Romans 14 has some relevance and correspondence to the potentially divisive issue of women in ministry, the analogy between food and pastors doesn’t hold entirely.
One point that needs to be emphasised, however, is that the majority of Christians who believe women can be pastors, and the majority of those who don’t, are sincere Christians who take the Bible seriously. So we need to be wary about judging our brothers and sisters who hold different views on this issue, and we must not despise them. (See Romans 14:10 CSB). Rather, “let us pursue what promotes peace and what builds up one another” (Rom. 14:19).
Female Ministers in Rome
It seems that women in ministry was not an especially contentious issue in the church at Rome. The letter to the Romans was carried from Corinth by a woman, Phoebe, who Paul describes as a minister, a diakonos (Rom. 16:1-2 NIV). And Prisca heads the list of the 28 Roman Christians in Romans 16:3-16. Prisca, a woman, is listed first, even before her husband.
Ten women are mentioned in Romans 16:1-16, and seven of the ten women are identified with Paul’s favourite ministry terms, terms he uses in his letters for his male and female ministry colleagues: diakonos (minister/ deacon), apostolos (missionary/ apostle), coworker, labourer, and sister/brother. The seven women who are clearly identified as ministers are Phoebe, Prisca, Mary, Junia, Tryphena, Tryphosa, and Persis. (More on these Romans 16 women here.)
By comparison, only three men are described in Romans 16:1-16 in terms of their ministry―Aquila, Andronicus, and Urbanus― and two of these men are ministering alongside a female partner: Aquila with Prisca, Andronicus with Junia. (You can see Paul’s list here.)
Paul never identifies any of his male or female fellow ministers as a pastor or elder.
The church at Rome was experiencing conflict and division over a few issues, but the issue of female pastors, or ministers, does not seem to have been one of them. Still, I believe it’s useful to think on our issue in light of Paul’s teaching about not judging the weaker brother or sister. This principle in Romans 14 of not judging has applications beyond different attitudes about diet.
Unity is important. We must make efforts to minimise animosity and division among Jesus followers but, hopefully, without sacrificing the efficiency of the mission of the church and without needlessly hindering and hurting its members. Commenting on Romans 14, Michael Bird states, “We have to balance liberty with love, protecting consciences while striving for consensus, and do it without lurching toward either license or legalism in the process.” (Romans, Volume 6 of The Story of God Bible Commentary Series, Zondervan, 2016)
The church, the Christian community, needs the God-given gifts and talents of both men and women. As in the first-century Roman church, women today have much to contribute in all areas of church life.
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Woman Walking With Both Hands in Pockets by Vinicius Wiesehofer via Pexels #1698809
I have articles on my website on all the key verses used in “Women in Ministry” discussions.
All my articles on female ministers in New Testament churches are here.
All my articles on 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 (1 Cor. 14:26-40) “women should be silent in the churches” are here.
All my articles on 1 Timothy 2:12 (1 Tim. 2:8-15) “I do not permit a woman to teach …” are here.
All my articles on 1 Timothy 3:1-7 (and Titus 1:6-9), the moral qualifications for church overseers, are here.
All my articles on 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 (“head” and head-coverings/hairstyles) are here.
And here are links to articles on whether women were pastors, elders/presbyters, bishops/overseers, deacons, or whether they preached in New Testament times.