Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

Close this search box.

Romans 14 and the Divisive Issue of Women Pastors

woman pastors Romans 14

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 about 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.

You can support my work for as little as $3 USD a month at Patreon.
Become a Patron!

Image Credit

Woman Walking With Both Hands in Pockets by Vinicius Wiesehofer via Pexels #1698809

Explore more

I have articles on my website on all the key verses used in “Women in Ministry” discussions.
My articles on female ministers in New Testament churches are here.
My articles on 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 (1 Cor. 14:26-40) “women should be silent in the churches” are here.
My articles on 1 Timothy 2:12 (1 Tim. 2:8-15) “I do not permit a woman to teach …” are here.
My articles on 1 Timothy 3:1-7 (and Titus 1:6-9), the moral qualifications for church overseers, are here.
My articles on 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 (on “head” and head-coverings/ hairstyles) are here.
And here are links to some articles on whether women were pastorselders/ presbytersbishops/ overseers, deacons, or whether they preached in New Testament times.

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

18 thoughts on “Romans 14 and the Divisive Issue of Women Pastors

  1. Thank you Ma’m. Church, which we believe is a Called out, Sent out community, has unfortunately these issues… To me, the church’s task is to make this world more Godly… Godlier than what it is… we need both men and women… If we miss that point and focus more on our cultures we loose. Some are theological issues, lets allow theologians to deal… My prayer is let us strive to make this world more Godly.

    1. Thanks, Vilbert. And God bless your work.

  2. Thank you for the work that you are doing on this very important subject.

    1. Thanks, Ingrid. 🙂

      1. I just recently found and followed you, and, as a female M.Div. student in a historically baptist seminary (that is trying to make itself an interdenominational learning space), your post is so refreshing to read and wonderfully coherent. Thank you for using and sharing your gifts and insights!

  3. Dear Marg , this was just what I needed this morning to answer a new Christian’s question on this subject. May God bless all you do. Yours Maggie

  4. I appreciate your point Marg about how disagreements, critical comments, and harsh judgement can divide the body of Christ. And in the passages you quote, Paul was expressing concern about how people were letting their interpretations of an issue override their love and inclusion of others and for the unity of the church. It seems that this message is often forgotten today in the way people are interpreting and then responding to others on a variety of issues. There is always room for respectful and thoughtful and open discourse about issues – but as Paul warns, it is imperative we avoid the critical, demeaning, and dismissive responses that divide and hurt people. And in the end, we will all be held responsible for the way we treat others. For as Paul reminds us, “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)”

  5. Thank you, Marg. Well, said and well done.

    You always seem so even-keeled and fair in your writings. These issues and debates are important and have real-world consequences. But it seems we too often forget (no matter what our views are) that a fundamental doctrine of Jesus is “love one another.” And as Paul expresses it, “look after the interests of others.”

    If it isn’t built on the foundations of love and kindness, then we’ve missed Jesus.

  6. Hello Marg
    Is Romans 14 only about disputable matters as it days in the beginning, & could women’s ministry be a disputable “secondary issue”? It feels like this is common sense, but this verse feels so stifling. Am I supposed to conform to random peoples values on modesty, trad wives, & female ordination? Are we supposed to accept any kind of irrationality out of love? Is morality really that relative? I don’t see Jesus doing this when the pharisees thought he was breaking sabbath & other laws. If someone believes a “secondary issue” is a sin which threatens your salvation , doesn’t that affect the gospel, just like the circumcision problem?

    1. Hello Casey, Romans 14 is not about “accepting any kind of irrationality” or “conforming to random people’s xyz.” It’s about being sensitive to the weaker faith of fellow believers in one’s own community. And as with all biblical principles or instructions, kindness and commonsense are needed if, or when, we apply biblical principles in our own context.

      1. I do think one’s own local context is important. We are, *whenever possible* to live at peace. But I think, too, we must be careful to apply text to truly parallel situations.
        Is suppression of an entire class of people what Paul had in mind? Are Gentile churches told they must be vegetarian and observe Sabbath or other festivals?
        The weak is someone who is made to stumble (i.e., sin). Does allowing women to exercise their giftedness parallel with eating meat or not observing a special day?
        Furthermore, is Paul suggesting local—maybe even individual choice—behavior or ”denominational” policy? (He is speaking to at least 16 house churches which are likely somewhat independent from each other: Gentile—i.e., “strong” don’t force Jewish house churches to give up the sabbath and Jewish house churches—weak—don’t bind dietary restrictions on Gentile churches).
        Just thinking out loud.

        1. More thinking out loud: Would we suggest Romans 14 demanded Gentiles to be circumcised in order to make Jewish Christians feel more comfortable? Of course Paul has addressed circumcision—but that means Paul has demonstrated there *are* exceptions to this principle. Since it isn’t likely that complementarianism was a “thing” in the first century, there wouldn’t be a need for Paul to address gender roles as an issue.

          1. Complementarianism wasn’t a thing in the first century, but patriarchal attitudes certainly were. And both Luke, especially in his Gospel, and Paul, especially in his earlier letters, use rhetorical devices and make statements (e.g., Gal. 3:28) that counter such attitudes.

            As I say in the article, the “principle in Romans 14 of not judging has applications beyond different attitudes about diet.” This principle can be applied by more Christians than just those who belong to the church at Rome with its own unique issues.

  7. Indeed. Not disagreeing with your point at all.

    The principle of Romans 14 certainly goes beyond the house churches in Rome. When I say local context, I’m referring to knowing the people you are dealing with. Is this truly a “weak” Christian or perhaps new believer with whom I need to be patient with and help them grow? Or is this a tyrannical church leader who demands their own way and does not even attempt to conform to the image of Christ?

    Unfortunately, my response was imprecise.

    Also, to clarify, I’m just pointing out that Paul doesn’t detail the possible exceptions to this principle.

    He doesn’t in this occasional letter say directly, “This exhortation doesn’t apply to circumcision.” In the same way, I wouldn’t expect he’d have to spell out that it doesn’t apply to gender roles in the church, either.

    As you point out, he has already addressed gender roles in other places (just as he has addressed circumcision in other places).

    1. I don’t think for one second that Paul wrote Romans 14 with tyrannical church leaders and misanthropic bullies in mind.

      And I think you may be mistaken with the people I “deal” with on a daily basis. Most of the people I communicate with, by far, are ordinary Christians trying to work out what God wants and what the Bible says.

      1. I’m a bit confused, Marg—I’m speaking generically. I have no idea about your particular context. I’m not talking about you, per se.
        We may be talking past each other—and I’ll allow that perhaps I’m the one totally misunderstanding the string of comments.
        When I say “you” and “your” I’m speaking in the general sense.
        I could have worded it thusly:
        “When I say local context, I’m referring to knowing the people [one is] dealing with. Is this truly a ‘weak’ Christian or perhaps new believer with whom I need to be patient with and help them grow? Or is this a tyrannical church leader who demands their own way and does not even attempt to conform to the image of Christ?”
        Again, I’m talking about how to apply the idea in one’s own local context. I think we both agree that Paul’s immediate context is Jewish believers who are having problems with Gentile believers who do not observe Jewish dietary law or observe Jewish special days. Paul is trying to get the Jewish believers (the “weak”) to not pass judgement on the Gentile believers (the “strong”). He’s also encouraging the Gentile believers to be sensitive to the Jewish believers consciences. You’re right, there’s no indication Paul was referencing a tyrannical church leader. I’m trying to think through how this would apply to our current discussions of gender roles. Does this apply to the current issues, and if so, in what way?
        Have I missed something?

        1. Sorry Darryl, I’m confused too. I did think the “you” in this statement was me: “I’m referring to knowing the people you are dealing with.” Unfortunately this can easily happen in these kinds of online conversations. I apologise. But I see what you mean now.

          I apply Romans 14 in my relationships to well-meaning Christians who do not hold egalitarians views. I’ve (kind of) written about this, here.

          1. Great. I was concerned my “stream-of-consciousness” word salad might have been the problem! 8^)
            You’re absolutely right–comments, like texts, can come across differently than one intends!

            I’ll check out your links. I always enjoy your writing and appreciate your scholarship.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to Marg's Blog

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.


Join Marg's Patreon

Would you like to support my ministry of encouraging mutuality and equality between men and women in the church and in marriage?