Women in Ministry
By Rev. Joy J. Moore
I was surprised to see how many books I have on my shelves related to the question of whether or not women should be in ministry. It reveals not only the extensive reflection given this subject, but also, just how often the questions continue to surface. Some introduce their position by addressing the issue as holding the view of traditional Christian practice. Others, by describing their experience of God, a response I have often used myself. However, it is important to allow Scripture to provide guidance when addressing practice and experience. As I offer my own response here, I recognize that many able scholars have already weighed in, most obviously beginning with a specific bias toward a patriarchal or feminist agenda. If I might provide my own bias, it would be to understand each individual text as a part of the whole canonical narrative. I no longer view Scripture as a source book for rules and principles, though certainly they are there to be found throughout the story. Rather, I read to learn about the God revealed in the text; the God, make known in Jesus Christ, whose action throughout history reflects holiness, grace, and unfailing love. It is because of the narrative presented in the Christian scriptures that I have come to know this God. And it is my greatest desire to share that knowledge with others that they, too, might enjoy the peace of experiencing God.
In all of Christian scripture, the only text that explicitly sets the limit on all women to be silent is 1 Timothy 2:11. The verse, if taken literally, actually contradicts the chapter, which is addressing public prayer. Men are instructed to pray without anger and doubt, and women are similarly instructed to be decent and modest in appearance. While the instructions for public prayer to men refer to attitude, the directive to women specifies outward appearances (which reflects inner attitudes). I am inclined to consider this single limiting instruction in the context of the many directives throughout scripture encouraging believers to go and make disciples of Jesus Christ.
In the context of first century Judaism, a directive to let women learn was not only countercultural, but a revolutionary notion that would effectively double the number of witnesses of Jesus Christ to all the world. Whereas previously tradition forbade women from even being taught the scriptures, this text grants women the opportunity to learn in the same manner as men who previously had little knowledge of a subject. Some teachers then, such as Pythagoras (for those who know Greek teachers), even required long periods of silence probably as a form of moral discipline.
The Greek word translated as silence used in 1 Timothy is otherwise used to mean respectful attention or quiet demeanor rather than imposing total silence. The same word is used in verse 2 of this same chapter to exhort the whole church to lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.
Scholars are divided on the meaning of the warning again women teaching in such a way as to take authority, which could mean “to seize authority in an overbearing way” or “proclaim oneself originator or creator of the ideas.” The restrictive meaning of “accepting a position of authority” 1)goes against the authority afforded Deborah, Phoebe, Pricilla, and Lydia; 2) categorizes the ministry of prophecy as less authoritative than teaching; and 3) regards spiritual instruction given privately to a man to be less authoritative than spiritual instruction given publicly to the general congregation. (also, considering the acceptance of women missionaries, Christians disregard the so-called mandate when sending teachers into all the world.)
Further restrictive interpretations in this chapter have not been consistently enlisted in selecting elders, which would literally suggest all elders would be a married father whose disciplined children obey his teachings. It raises a question we don’t have space to address that assumes (beyond the text), that Paul and Timothy were married men with children. Such assumptions beyond the text reflect the opposite bias of the assumption that the text literally means Junia was an apostle and Phoebe a deacon.
Most people consider the texts in Corinthians directing married women to wear head coverings as a specific cultural instruction. Similarly, the directive that married women cannot speak publicly at all, seems excessive as an instruction for all times and all Christian assemblies. Silence in this portion of Scripture is related to ordering worship, not restricting half of the body of Christ to total public silence. Isolated texts in Scripture need to be interpreted in conformity with the overall message of the Bible. In contradiction to the many teachers today who believe the message of the Bible is that Christians are a privileged group of faithful persons blessed by God, I believe the message of Scripture is God’s self- revelation to human creation that we might bear the image of the Creator in word and deed. Christianity considered in this manner is more a responsibility than a privilege. I encourage believers to persuade one another to focus on contending for the faith, rather than advancing fights for the right to speak or prohibiting half of the church from accepting the mandate to receive the Holy Spirit’s power to witness Jesus Christ, wherever God provides opportunity. Some would say I have no call to witness to this God because I was born female. I respect their right to hold that opinion. But God’s grace is too precious to only receive it for myself. God’s love is too great to simply claim as mine. And God’s holiness is too awesome to experience, and then remain silent.
The Rev. Joy J. Moore is an elder in the West Michigan Annual Conference and is instructor of preaching at Asbury Theological Seminary.