Growing up in a Southern Baptist church, I knew that women never preached from the pulpit or sat down in front as a deacon and passed the offering plate. Since my dad had raised me to believe that a woman can be anything a man can be, the seed of conflict over women preachers had been planted early on. In college, I spoke one time to a woman Methodist minister who had left the Baptist church, and she told me, “God called me, and nobody can tell me He didn’t.” Baptists typically justify their beliefs about women using 1 Timothy 2:11-12, which says that women should be silent in the church and cannot assume authority over a man. The problem with these verses isn’t just the avoidance of contextual understanding and consistent interpretation, but these shoddy interpretations actually deny many women their callings by God, render the church less effective in its overall mission, and limit the power of God to call whom He chooses in the world today.
Many Baptist churches, including mine, still deny women the opportunity to serve as deacons, let alone stand up and preach at the pulpit. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard 1 Tim 3:12 recited, which says that deacons must be the husband of one wife: therefore a woman cannot be a deacon. This interpretation never made sense to me because I knew we had male deacons in the church who were single and clearly not the husband of one wife. Furthermore, I know for a fact we have deacons that have been divorced and remarried. Why should that verse only apply to women and not these groups of men? Not to mention, Romans 16:1 discusses Phoebe (a woman) as a servant, or deaconess, of the church. Perhaps it is a patriarchal attitude not the message of God that reigns in our 21st Century Baptist churches?
Using passages to justify the denial of women deacons pales in comparison to using passages to deny women their place at the pulpit. 1 Timothy 2: 11-15 is probably the most popular passage used to deny women their call to preach. Paul wrote, “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner” (New International Version). However, these verses must be taken in the context in which they were written. As with all of Paul’s letters, he expresses concerns “that are specifically related to his pastoral and theological concerns for specific churches and congregations” (Davis, 2009, pg. 6). Booth (1993) argues that if one uses this passage as defense against a woman speaking in church, one must also follow his other instructions that men raise their hands when they pray and women must not wear make-up, jewelry, or expensive clothes. Not to follow all of the instructions consistently is to be hypocritical. Furthermore, Booth (1993) points out that Paul’s praise of Priscilla and Aquila as “co-workers in Christ” (Romans 16:3, NIV) suggests “her primacy as a member of that teaching team” (para. 8) and demonstrates his affirmation of her and other women as leaders in the early church.
Not only does using verses, such as the 1 Timothy 2 passage, out of context demonstrate poor interpretation within the larger Biblical context, but this narrow-minded view denies women the ability to respond properly to God’s calling for their life. One of the roles of the church should be to promote healthy mental, emotional, and spiritual life for all members, which should involve encouraging the pursuit of one’s God-given call. Psychologically speaking, if a person is told by spiritual authority that she cannot follow the direct passion God has given her, then the church is at best hindering the attainment of self-fulfillment and at worst creating possible “neurotic distortions” in the individual (Kuhnis, 2002, pg. 696).
Unfortunately, when the church either discourages or denies women their place in its ministry, it is not only the woman herself who suffers, but also the effectiveness of that church as well. Newkirk and Cooper (2013) report that although more women are accepting the call to preach, due to the inevitable difficulties some face in certain denomination, “many talented and educated women are moving out of the church environment” (pg. 327). These women have the passion, the education, and the calling of God behind them, and if permitted, could reach more people for Christ.
Kuhnis (2002) suggests that the problem in some churches is a lack of true honest reflection as to why women in leadership positions (deacons and preachers) disturb them. Possible answers include: the importance of male symbolism, stubborn tradition, or simply sexist ideas stemming from cultural values. Davis (2009) points out that the Bible’s examples of women in spiritual leadership roles such as Deborah in the Old Testament reveal how God did and does call women into authority over men to better the lives of His people, and churches who are “stifling the service of gifted women…[deprive] the churches of able leadership at a time in redemptive history” (pg. 9). Acts 2:17-18, quoting the prophet Joel, says, “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy; your young men will see visions; your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy” (NIV). We are living in the last days, and the church needs to use every impassioned soul willing to preach the good news to a lost world.
When the church denies women the opportunity to preach or to serve as deacons, it not only renders the church less effective, but also blatantly demonstrates lack of faith in the power of God. God used women from Deborah to Esther to Priscilla to others as well. The Bible says, “With God, all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26, NIV). Booth (1993) reminds us that “Christ is too big to be bound by our biases…that Christ is too wonderful to be walled in by our small worlds; and that Christ is too splendid to be saddled with our sexist baggage” (para. 20). Those who continue to deny women’s involvement in church leadership are not only ignorant of the Bible’s message, they are quenching the role of the Holy Spirit in individual lives, and they are demonstrating a lack of faith in the God they profess to love and worship.
Booth, W.D. (1993). The open door for women preachers: Acts 2:17, 18; 21:9,; Romans 10:15; Ephesians 4:1. Journal of Religious Thought, 50(1/2), 108.
Davis, J. J. (2009). First Timothy 2: 12, the ordination of women, and Paul’s use of creation narratives. Priscilla Papers, 23(2), 5-10.
Kuhnis, A. T. (2002). The ordination of women: A contribution from Jungian depth psychology. Anglican Theological Review, 84(3), 689-702.
Newkirk, D., & Cooper, B. S. (2013). Preparing women for Baptist church leadership: Mentoring impact on beliefs and practices of female ministers. Journal of Research on Christian Education, 22(3), 323-343.