I have three daughters. When they get a little older and start drawing the attention of young men, I will give them this piece of timeless advice: Don’t just listen to what he says; watch what he does. A man may say anything, but his actions will always reveal his heart.
This is good to remember when we come to scriptures regarding women in the Bible. For instance, did Paul really believe that women must not teach and that women should remain silent in church?
Many people think he did, and this has given rise to three lies that are harming the church: Women must remain silent, women can’t teach, and women can’t lead.
What did Jesus think? And what about the other apostles? What were their views on women in ministry?
Were there women in the Bible who taught, spoke in church, and led men? There were plenty:
- Who were the first two people to recognize the undeserved favor of God revealed in Christ Jesus and get their words recorded in the Bible (which meant they taught the men who wrote it)? Mary and her cousin Elizabeth (Luke 1). Mary became the first preacher of new covenant grace when she declared, “All generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me” (Luke 1:48-49).
- Who was the first to proclaim the good news of Christ’s resurrection? Mary Magdalene, and notice that she was sent by Jesus to instruct the men (John 20:17).
- Who was the first to evangelize a Gentile town? The woman at the well (John 4:28). Which means a woman understood the Great Commission before Peter or any of the apostles.
- Can women prophesy? Sure, just ask Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, Anna, and Philip’s four daughters.
- Who led the church at Ephesus? Priscilla, along with her husband Aquila. Paul called Priscilla a “fellow worker in Christ” (Rom 16:3). In other words, he considered her his equal, a colleague in Christ. Priscilla also explained the gospel to Apollos (Acts 18:26). So much for women not being able to teach men.
- Which female apostle did Paul endorse? Junia (Rom 16:7). Paul said she and Andronicus were “outstanding among the apostles.” (Note: Some Bible translators are so bothered by a female apostle that they have turned Junia into Junias and made her a man.)
- Which two women contended for the gospel at Paul’s side? Euodia and Syntyche (Php 4:2-3). These two ladies are famous for disagreeing; they ought to be famous for preaching alongside Paul.
- Which women led? Miriam, along with Moses and Aaron, was one of the three leaders of Israel during the Exodus from Egypt (Mic 6:4). Deborah, the prophetess, was a judge of Israel and basically in charge of the army (Judges 5-6). If women could lead under the misogynistic old covenant, they can surely lead under the new, and they did (see Junia, Priscilla, etc.).
If the women listed above had believed the nonsense taught about women in ministry today, none of them would’ve made it into the Bible.
What about Phoebe?
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church… for she herself has also been a helper of many, and of myself as well. (Romans 16:1-2)
Ah, good ol’ reliable Phoebe. She gives insecure men a comforting picture of women in leadership. “She’s a deacon, nothing more, and if that’s good enough for Phoebe it ought to be good enough for any woman.”
I confess that as a pastor I spoke about Phoebe the helper far more than I spoke of Junia the apostle or Priscilla the pastor. I was comfortable with Phoebe, but Junia worried me (was she really an apostle? was she a he?), and Priscilla-with-the-pants made me uneasy. (Why was her name always listed before her husband’s?)
Thank God I’ve been freed from my insecurities!
Look again at what Paul says of Phoebe. He calls her a helper, but that is a limp translation of his words. It gives us the impression that Phoebe waited on tables or kept the babies quiet while the men preached.
What Paul really said is that Phoebe is a “succourer of many.” The word is derived from prostatis which means a female guardian, protectress, or patroness. Phoebe was literally “a woman set over others.” She was not a waiter but a patron, a leader, a bona fide mother in the church.
(And if you think being a mother is somehow an inferior form of leadership, you haven’t read how Paul described himself in 1 Thessalonians 2:7.)
In the coming articles we will look at the difference between what Paul wrote and what people think Paul wrote about women in the church. But before we consider what Paul said, it is helpful look at what Paul did.
And what Paul did was encourage women to speak and prophesy and lead.
Read more articles about “Women in the Church.”
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