So far in this series on women in ministry we’ve talked about my journey with the subject and why I interpret 1 Timothy 2:11-15 as not forbidding female pastors. In the last post I addressed some potential objections to women in ministry from other biblical passages. Now we’ll consider some broader theological questions about men and women, as well as what is the biggest stumbling block for some:
Why has the church traditionally barred women from the pastorate/clergy for so many centuries?
Let’s start with that. Because while I absolutely believe that Scripture takes priority over tradition, we should not ignore the importance of tradition for testing our interpretations. If we’re going to throw out a large chunk of historical precedence, we ought to have good reason. And to do so, we need to ask: Why did the tradition rise to prominence, and is it really reflecting biblical truth?
In this case, we’ve already seen that women held prominent leadership positions during the first century, when the New Testament was written. Junia was an apostle (Rom 16:7), Phoebe was a deaconess (Rom 16:1-2), and Paul considered Priscilla one of his coworkers (Rom 16:3; Acts 18:24-26). This means that any universal bans on women in ministry would have been postbiblical developments.
So did the earliest churches in the post-apostolic era include female ministers?
Turns out, many of them did! There is archaeological evidence for female deacons/ministers throughout the first several centuries of the church, as well as written evidence attesting to women in leadership positions.
In a letter to Emperor Trajan (111 C.E.), the Roman governor Pliny mentions that he obtained information by torturing two Christian women “called by them ‘deaconesses’ (Latin: ministrae).” In the 300s C.E., we find in a Christian letter a curious reference to a woman called “Madame Teacher.” In the fifth century, a woman named Olympias was lauded as a deaconess and founder of a monastery.
Also in the fifth century, Theodoret of Cyrus makes this interesting comment on Romans 16:7, where the female apostle Junia is mentioned: “…[Paul] says that they are of note, not among the disciples, but the teachers; nor among ordinary teachers, but the Apostles.” In other words, it seems this ancient church father took Paul’s words to be affirming a very authoritative female teacher.
However, although women often ministered in the earliest churches, there is a noticeable movement toward male-only leadership by the third and fourth centuries that became overwhelmingly dominant throughout the Middle Ages. Why the change?
According to church historian William Witt, there is one key reason, which he lays out in this excellent article:
“Historically, there is a single argument that was used in the church against the ordaining of women. Women could not be ordained to the ministry (whether understood as Catholic priesthood or Protestant pastorate) because of an inherent ontological defect. Because of a lack of intelligence, or a tendency to irrationality or emotional instability, a greater susceptibility to temptation, or an inherent incapacity to lead, women were held to be inferior to men, and, thus, were not eligible for ordination. Moreover, this argument was used to exclude women not only from clerical ministry, but from all positions of leadership over men, and largely to confine women to the domestic sphere.”
Witt goes on to cite a number of comments from prominent church fathers and theologians (including Origen, Tertullian, Chrysostom, Thomas Aquinas, and several Reformers) that clearly exhibit their misogynistic assumptions. These men were deeply enmeshed in the prejudices of their times, so it’s hard to blame them too much.
But it’s also hard to follow them on this.
Because the major problem with their line of reasoning is that it is simply not true — women are not inherently intellectually inferior to men. Science doesn’t back it up, experience doesn’t back it up, and Scripture nowhere legitimates such a view (unless we take a wrong view of 1 Tim 2:13-15, as I’ve belabored already).
So the major flaw with the “argument from tradition” against women in ministry is that the reasoning behind the tradition is flawed. It relies on incorrect assumptions about women that, while common in the ancient and medieval periods, is not exactly in keeping with the truths we see in Scripture and in nature — that women and men are equally created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), equally redeemed and united in Christ (Galatians 3:28), and equally capable of leading, teaching, and stewarding authority.
But there were always outliers, in spite of the larger consensus on male priesthood that built up during the medieval period. It simply isn’t true to say that arguments in favor of female ministers only show up after the feminist movement of the modern era. As New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg points out,
“Some of this history has, in fact, been suppressed during the last century by those who have wanted to pretend that it was only with the rise of modern, secular women’s liberation in the 1960s and 1970s that any churches have opened all leadership doors to both genders. . . . E.g., the facts that the Evangelical Free Church of America ordained women and Moody Bible Institute supported the ordination of women before the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the 1910s and 1920s.” — Craig L. Blomberg, A New Testament Theology (Baylor University Press, 2018), pg. 286.
And as Witt concludes in his article,
“It is all to the good that Catholics and Protestants have embraced the inherent ontological equality of men and women and no longer argue against women’s ordination based on an inherent inferiority, irrationality, or sinfulness of women. However, in so doing, they can no longer argue that they are simply adhering to the church’s historic stance against the ordination of women.”
In other words, if you don’t think that women are inherently inferior to men, but you still want to exclude women from ministry, then your position technically isn’t the “traditional” one; rather, it’s a quite recent innovation!
Let’s turn now from the “tradition” issue to some other theological arguments commonly brought up against women in church leadership.
Broader Theological Arguments Briefly Considered
#1: God is identified in male terms throughout Scripture, so shouldn’t his representatives be male?
This potential objection seems incredibly beside the point, since Genesis 1:27 tells us that God created all humanity, male and female, in his image:
“So God created humankind in his image,
in the likeness of God he created him,
male and female he created them.” (LEB)
Thus, it would seem appropriate that both men and women be able to serve as God’s ministers. I only mention this objection preemptively, as I’ve never found it to be a good support for an all-male pastorate.
#2: The Old Testament priesthood was restricted to males, so shouldn’t the pastorate be, too?
Perhaps this question is a little less beside the point, but at the same time, there is considerable discontinuity between the levitical priesthood and the “priesthood of all believers” we see in the New Testament. For example, 1 Peter 2:9 and Revelation 1:6; 5:10; 20:6 refer to all Christians (whether male or female) as priests now.
Plus, when one considers the importance of ritual purity for priesthood in the ancient Near East, you can see a very practical reason why women were barred from the Israelite priesthood: they would be ritually unclean (and therefore unable to officiate) due to menstruation for an entire week out of every month!
Under the New Covenant that Christ initiated, such concerns for ritual purity were replaced by an emphasis on moral purity — a purity of the heart. And with that change there is no reason to restrict priesthood in the new temple of God (=the church community; see 1 Corinthians 3:16; Ephesians 2:21-22) — on the basis of gender.
#3: So then why did Christ only appoint men to be his twelve apostles?
Jesus certainly took a big step forward from his Jewish contemporaries when he allowed women to follow him and learn as his disciples. That much is largely undisputed. But when it came time for him to choose his primary successors — the twelve apostles — he chose all men. Why not include a woman or two, if he wanted to truly show equality? Doesn’t it mean he wouldn’t support female church leaders?
Why Jesus chose twelve men is a good question to ask, but as an objection to female pastors it’s actually a flawed argument. Consider how I could turn it on its head by saying, “Well, the twelve apostles were also all Jewish men, so therefore we should never have any non-Jewish church pastors, right??” It’s a non-sequitur.
This kind of argumentation can also be dismissed when you keep in mind that there is a very important historical reason why Jesus chose men to comprise the Twelve: they were to be a symbolic reenactment of the original twelve patriarchs of Israel, who founded the twelve tribes. By choosing twelve Jewish men in particular to be his inner circle, Jesus was symbolically showing that he was founding the new people of God — the new Zion, the restored Israel — around himself. This action was a powerful messianic claim in and of itself.
In light of this, it should be clear that the choosing of twelve male apostles was a very unique situation in history — one that shouldn’t factor in to the discussion of whether we can have female pastors today.
We’re almost done with the topic of women in ministry for now. In my next post I’ll offer a few parting thoughts regarding my change in perspective on the matter, as well as some recommendations for further research in case you’re still wanting to do some more digging.
Let me know if you’ve found these posts helpful! Have I answered your pressing questions, or do you have others I haven’t covered? Let me know in the comments.
See you down the path.
 References are from Ruth A. Tucker & Walter Liefeld, Daughters of the Church: Women and Ministry from New Testament Times to the Present (Zondervan: 2010), 91, 94, 120.