Examining the role of women in church leadership

Last week, I talked about how sectarianism damages the church’s reputation.

One point over which denominations differ is the ordination of women. This has proved an obstacle for me in the publication of Alara’s Call, because one of the main objections I come up against is that a novel about a clergywoman will be inaccessible to readers from denominations that don’t ordain women.

Woman preaching in church

Photo by CEFutcher • iStockphoto • This could be Phyllida Li, the pastor in Hope and Pride

If that’s true, I’m in trouble, because my next manuscript, Hope and Pride, also includes a clergywoman, albeit in a much smaller role.

I don’t write these things solely to challenge people’s assumptions. But I do write out of my own experiences and worldview, and if the product of that challenges assumptions, well, I consider that a bonus.

I’m willing to have my own assumptions challenged, as well. I wrestle with 1 Timothy 2:12 on a regular basis. I mean, it says right there: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.”

But then I have to reconcile that with Paul’s high praise for female leaders in the church. In Romans 16 alone, he gives a shout out to seven women whom he praises for their hard work. Here are a few of them:

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae…v.1

Greet Prisca and Aquila, who work with me in Christ Jesus…v.3

Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles… v.7

If women aren’t supposed to be in authority, why is Paul praising these women in authority?

This word “authority” — in Greek, authenteo — appears nowhere else in the NT. In extrabiblical sources, it is not used for a just, duly elected authority, but only for a domineering dictatorship. (For more on this, see What Paul Really Said About Women by John Temple Bristow, or “10 Lies the Church Tells Women” by J. Lee Grady.)

We also have to consider the time and place of the writing. Paul wrote this letter when Timothy was overseeing the church in Ephesus, in what is now Turkey. Since neither Jews nor Arabs educated women at that time, it is unlikely that any women in Ephesus were qualified to teach or to lead. So the conclusion of those denominations that ordain women is that this advice is not for all Christians in all times, but is specific advice for the first-century church at Ephesus.

Of course, others disagree, which is why we have different denominations. But does our disagreement make fiction from other denominations’ worldviews inaccessible? Don’t Protestants read G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories? Could someone from the Roman or Orthodox tradition enjoy Jan Karon’s Mitford series, which feature a married Episcopalian priest? Or are our differences so great that we won’t even consider what the “other side” has to say?


About Kristen Stieffel

Kristen Stieffel is a writer and freelance editor specializing in speculative fiction. She's a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, Christian Editor Connection, and American Christian Fiction Writers.

11 comments on “Examining the role of women in church leadership

  1. When does good hermeneutics stop and special pleading begin? The solid majority of pro-“women in ministry” arguments I see are special pleading. Like these three.
    How about just saying, “This is what we’re going to do anyway, but here’s a possible defense if it matters to you for some strange reason.”

    • Bruce, that’s an excellent question, and it’s part of the reason I still struggle with 1 Timothy 2:12.

      I gave my denomination’s answer to the question of how to reconcile 1 Timothy 2 with Romans 16. I am totally open to hearing how others interpret these two passages.

      • What a conciliatory tone of voice! Makes me want to really deliberate along with you.

        There was a time when I saw a patriarchal point of view as the mark of an honest and humble Christian point. of view. Now I know that it is not straightforward to everyone. I was admitted to grad school on one day, and in a couple of days after, I let it slip that I couldn’t just “blow off the teachings on women.” That got back to my department with many a ruffled feather along the way. The chair of the department was raised in the south, where his mother was a housekeeper for Charles Rice, publisher of the newspaper The Sword of the The Lord, a fundamentalist Baptist paper; and he subsequently graduated from Baylor. He did not consider himself a believer in a regular sense, but understood my concern with dealing with the conflict between the Bible and society. The chairman’s view prevailed, and I was able to do my work–in how to bring an adult contemporary convert to maturity in an educational process. The thesis was more than that alone, but included that much. (I have it as a PDF if you are interested.)
        Blessing to you.

  2. Kristen,

    I enjoyed your post. This subject has come up in a couple of small groups I’ve attended recently–in fact, I’m starting to see the debate everywhere. When that happens, I think its God trying to tell me something.

    I plan to write a blog post about my research into the subject, but to summarize my findings, it seems that one question is on preaching vs. teaching and whether women are allowed to do either. From what I can tell, preaching in the biblical sense seems to be proclaiming the gospel, what we think of as evangelism today. I think we’re all called on to “go and make disciples…” by sharing the Good News. So with that definition, women can “preach.” The real issue comes with the teaching part–after someone has been saved, who should instruct them in biblical knowledge and how to apply it properly? This is what we think of as “preaching” in today’s churches and I think that’s what Paul was talking about in 1 Timothy 2:12 because of verses 13-14.

    “2:11 A woman must learn quietly with all submissiveness. 2:12 But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man. She must remain quiet. 2:13 For Adam was formed first and then Eve. 2:14 And Adam was not deceived, but the woman, because she was fully deceived, fell into transgression.” (NET)

    The argument is that God created Adam with the intention he would lead and Eve would help him. God has given men responsibility to be spiritual leaders and if women teach then they run the risk of leading men into a spiritual trap like Eve did in the garden. That doesn’t mean that women can’t teach because elsewhere in Paul’s letters to Timothy, older women are to teach younger women.

    Of course, its not completely clear, which is obvious because its a widely debated hot-topic. At this point, we have to leave it to the Holy Spirit to convict people on what is right. If women are called to lead by the Holy Spirit, I will not stand in their way. How can I judge what the Spirit is telling someone else?

    What the Spirit is telling me in this season, is that I need to take a step back and listen. So for me, that means taking a backseat on “teaching” men.

    Now, I would still read your book and I’m sad you can’t get it published for that reason. It seems like it should get put out there and the readers can decide if they want to get offended by it or not. 🙂 Otherwise it’s a bit like censorship, isn’t it?

    • Lisa, that’s an interesting point. I hadn’t thought of it as censorship — just pickiness. 😉 I think it’s based more on worry that the book might not sell well than desire to suppress the topic.

  3. Bruce, you’re so right that it’s not straightforward. If it were, we wouldn’t be debating it.

    Lisa, I love what you said about not judging what the Spirit is telling someone else. Because that’s what it all comes down to, isn’t it? Studying the Word and following as the Spirit leads you. That’s all any of us can do.

  4. Kristen, you’re probably right. It’s all about what’s going to sell. What they think will sell. What’s driving the market. We’re probably missing out on tons of good books. 🙂

  5. If you’re writing fantasy, why not just have her serve a goddess? Problem solved!

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