In Praise of Women Preachers
An Analysis of Paul's Position on Women in Ministry

© 1991  Dr. C.S. Cowles

All Rights Reserved

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. . . . It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 3:28; 5:1).

The greatest social revolution in the history of mankind has occurred in this century: namely, the radical change in the status of women relative to men. Possibilities have exploded for women today which their great grandmothers could scarcely have imagined. For the first time in human history women have achieved full equality and relative parity with men in virtually every area of Western society, except the church!

The Church remains—with only a few exceptions—the last bastion of institutional discrimination against women. Women continue to be locked out of the Roman Catholic priesthood. The Southern Baptists and Missouri Synod Lutherans are but two of the many Protestant Evangelical denominations that deny ordination and leadership positions to women. The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, whose members comprise a “Who’s Who” list of Evangelical leaders (Bill Bright, Jerry Falwell, Carl F. H. Henry, Beverly La Haye, et. al.), recently published the Danvers Statement in CHRISTIANITY TODAY in which they assert that “. . . Scripture affirms male leadership in the home, and that in the church certain governing and teaching roles are restricted to men. . . . Both Old and New Testaments . . . affirm the principle of male headship in the family and in the covenant community.”1

Holiness denominations believe otherwise. From the beginning they have granted to women all the rights and privileges of membership, ministry and leadership in the Church that are accorded to men. In the last few decades however, there has been a decided erosion of this distinctive heritage. Many question this heritage in the light of Paul’s direct commands in which he says: “Let the women keep silent in the churches . . . I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man” (I Cor. 14:34–35; I Tim. 2:11–15). The meaning of these passages seems crystal clear. Women are not permitted to speak (hence, teach or preach) in the Church, nor are they allowed to exercise leadership roles over men. The issue appears to be quite simple: either we obey the clear teaching of scripture or not.

Is it, however, really that simple? Paul writes, just as unambiguously, “Slaves, in all things obey those who are your masters. . . . Masters, grant to your slaves justice and fairness” (Col. 3:22; 4:1). Generations of Christians used such scriptures to justify what John Wesley called “that most vile of sinful institutions,” slavery. Other practices are defended as “biblical,” such as the separation of the races, anti-Semitism, polygamy, Saturday worship, wine drinking, dancing, snake handling, tongues speaking, works salvation, and divorce. Biblical support can be cited for infanticide and genocide.

There is a hermeneutical principle which holds that “interpreting a text apart from context is a pretext.” Never is that “truism” more true than in analyzing Paul’s teaching concerning women in ministry. In this case, the context must include the whole range of scripture as it finds its center-point in Jesus, the role of women in society in biblical times, and the specific church situations in which these two particular texts were written. We can do no more than sketch the contours of these varied but inter-related contexts, and then see how they help us in our effort to understand what was Paul’s position regarding women preachers and leaders. What is striking about the Danvers Statement is that it is not unique at all. It represents a reaffirmation of the principle of male dominance and female subordination which has characterized all societies—pagan and biblical—since the dawn of recorded history.


Women have constituted the most discriminated against majority in the history of mankind. In every civilization, every culture, every race, every nation, and every religion—at least until the twentieth century—women have been denied citizenship, an education, civil or legal rights, and a voice or a vote in any public assembly. Women did not gain the right to vote in our country until 1920. They have been regarded by whole cultures as a subhuman species whose sole purpose was to bear children and serve at the whim and command of men. They have been treated as property to be bought, sold, or cast aside when they no longer served men’s purposes.

When Jewish women in Jesus’ day, for instance, went out in public their heads were to be covered and their faces veiled so that their features could not be recognized—a custom still enforced in some Arabic countries. It is difficult to imagine any social custom more dehumanizing and depersonalizing than this. Men did not treat even their animals in so demeaning a manner. A Jewish woman had the legal status of a slave and was acquired like a slave as a possession of the husband. The Jewish Mishna provided that a wife could be acquired “by money, or by writ, or by intercourse.” Only the husband had the right to divorce, and he could turn his wife—and her children—out of house and home for any reason of displeasure, even if he found more pleasure in another woman!

Women were forbidden to enter into the inner courts of the Temple. Because their mother Eve was deceived, bringing the curse of sin into the world, women were not worthy to hear the law read or expounded. Hence they were barred from Synagogue worship—a practice that still holds true among Orthodox Jews. Even today Jewish women are forbidden to participate in their own son’s Bar Mitzveh. Jewish literature is full of expressions of joy over the birth of a son and sorrow over the birth of a daughter. The Genesis commentary called the Rabbah, written by the Rabbis, describes women as “greedy, eavesdroppers, lazy, jealous, querulous, and garrulous.” Rabbi Hillel, grandfather to Gamaliel, taught that wherever women gathered together there was much witchcraft. A good Pharisee prayed, “O God, I thank thee that thou didst not create me a Gentile, a dog, or a woman.”


There is no question about the fact that most of biblical history reflects a patriarchal social hierarchy in which women were under the dominion and rule of men. That, however, is neither the only model of male-female relationships to be found in the scriptures, nor—we believe—the God-ordained one. There are, for instance, two separate creation accounts in the first two chapters of Genesis. In the first (Gen. 1:1–2:4a), there is no suggestion of a hierarchical ordering between the sexes. To the contrary, “God created man (lit.: “human beings”) in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (1:27). The woman, like the man, is created in the image of God. The woman receives the same blessing of God as the man. Likewise, she too is given dominion over the earth (1:28). There is, between the man and the woman, a full equality of personhood, calling and role.

In the second (2:4ff.), man is created first and then woman. God created man out of the dust of the earth. In order to show special kindness to the woman, God created her out of the living flesh of the man. They are both “one flesh” (2:24): not a superior flesh for the man and an inferior flesh for the woman. To the contrary, “the man said, 'This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh’ ” (2:23). The woman was not created as a subordinate creature—a “help meet” as the KJV inaccurately translates it, but as a “helper like unto himself,” or a “helper corresponding to himself” (2:18). The word “helper” (ezer), used to designate woman in Genesis 2:18, refers to God in most instances of Old Testament usage. Consequently it conveys no implication whatsoever of female inferiority or subordination. Old Testament scholar Donald E. Gowan points out that “this is the only creation story known from the ancient Near East that gives to woman such an important role. It has stood for centuries . . . as a radical challenge to the assumption of male supremacy.”2

It is not until Genesis 3 that we read these words, invariably cited as support for women’s subordination, “To the woman He said, ‘. . . your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you’ ” (3:16). What is of vital importance to note is that the subordination of woman to man is part of the curse of sin after the fall, and does not represent God’s original intention for male-female relationships. It stands, like the curse of death, as a prediction of the consequence of the Fall rather than a prescription of God’s ideal order.

In spite of the universal subjugation of women relative to men, the Bible praises many women who broke the mold and were recognized for their faith in their own right. The roll call would include such women as Sarah who not only is mentioned thirty-five times in the book of Genesis but is eulogized by both Paul and the author to the Hebrews as a great woman of faith. No fewer than four women are included in the lineage of Jesus. Deborah became a judge and the first female ruler in Israel’s history. Jaal, the Jewish maiden who drove a tent spike through Sisera’s head, may well be described as the first to strike a mighty blow for women’s liberation. Many woman played a key role in salvation history, such as Rebekah, Rachel, Miriam, Rahab the harlot, and Hannah. In a patriarchal culture so heavily weighted on the side of men, it is ironic that two biblical books not only praise the exploits of their female actors but carry their names as well: Ruth and Esther. The ultimate expression of God’s special favor upon women is demonstrated by the fact that he brought His only begotten son into the world through a woman—and that without the participation of a man whatsoever. That is, if we take the virgin birth of Christ seriously. And I do.


We do not find, in Jesus, any expression of the shabby way in which women were treated in his day. To the contrary, He viewed them as choice and chosen daughters of the Most High God. He always treated women with the utmost dignity and respect. Women may have been locked out of the synagogue but they were welcome wherever he was and whenever he taught. He was as sensitive to the needs of a poor woman who touched the hem of his garment as those of the synagogue ruler whose daughter had just died. Women were among his closest friends and followers. He and the disciples depended upon them largely for their support. Women were the last at the cross and the first to the tomb.

Jesus never regarded women as inferior to men. To the contrary, He scandalized his own disciples by spending a lunch hour talking to one lone Samaritan woman—a disreputable woman at that! Yet through her witness Samaria was opened up to the ministry of Jesus, and later a revival under the preaching of Philip, Peter and John. He broke with Rabbinic tradition when he not only permitted Mary to hear the Word, but defended her when Martha complained that she was not fulfilling her proper domestic role in the kitchen. Jesus replied, “Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:38–42). In so doing, Jesus affirmed the right of women to hear God’s Word!

Nowhere is Jesus’ concern for women more powerfully portrayed than in his strong and uncompromising teaching on divorce. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus states: “. . . but I say unto you that every one who divorces his wife, except for the cause of unchastity, makes her commit adultery” (Matt. 5:32). How so? In that culture, what was an uneducated unskilled woman to do to support herself when turned out of house and home? There were only two viable options open to her: one was to sell herself into prostitution, and the other was to bind herself into someone else’s household as a bond-slave. This inevitably led to adultery since the master had absolute rights over the bodies of his female servants. So, in challenging the injustice of divorce, Jesus was striking a mighty blow on behalf of women’s rights. Women were not to be used, abused, and cast aside. Women were not to be treated as slaves.

In the case of the woman taken in adultery (John 8:1–11), Jesus set himself against not only the male chauvinists of his day but the law of Moses itself. The law called for the stoning of both the man and the woman who were caught in an adulterous act (Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22f.). That only the woman was apprehended indicates the double standard operative in Jesus’ day. By saving the woman’s life, Jesus laid down the radically new principle that women were more important than even the Mosaic law!

It is surely a fact of inexhaustible significance that the first Christian preachers of the resurrection were not men but women! It was to the women who came to the tomb early on that historic first day of the week that the angel first shared the good news of the gospel: “Do not be afraid; for I know that you are looking for Jesus who has been crucified. He is not here, for He has risen, just as He said.” And it was to these same women that the first expression of the great commission was given: “Go quickly and tell His disciples that He has risen from the dead . . .” (Matt. 28:5–7). Three of the four gospels specifically mention that Jesus appeared, first of all, to women! We can conclude, therefore, that the historic practice of relegating women to a subservient role and denying them the opportunity to preach finds no support whatsoever in the life or teachings of Jesus!


The two text prohibiting women from preaching and leadership in the Church are by no means representative of the Apostle’s attitude toward women in ministry. A careful study of all the passages in Romans, for instance, in which women are mentioned, fails to yield even a hint of such discrimination. To the contrary, Paul seems to treat women with special deference. Both Abraham and Sarah are equally important. Yet both equally believe the promise of God and equally share in the subsequent glory of God over the birth of their son Isaac (4:19–21). In 7:1–3, Paul lifts up the wife—not the husband—as the paradigm of our new life in Christ and the freedom we are to enjoy in Him. If he had been true to his rabbinical training, he would certainly have used a man rather than a woman as a model.

In dealing with the complex issue of God’s election of His people (9:6–25), and how the Church fits into this overall scheme, not only does God choose a most unlikely people unto Himself, but most unlikely individuals within that people. More than that, he lifts out two women, Sarah and Rebekah, as special examples of the grace of God’s surprising election. In other words, God was not at all adverse to calling out and using women as vehicles for His revelation and as instruments in accomplishing his gracious purposes.

Most instructive is Paul’s long list of personal greetings in chapter 16. He begins by commending—not a man but a woman—Phoebe, whom he addresses as “our sister . . . a servant of the Church which is at Cenchrea” (16:1–2). The word for servant is diakonos, which appears in both masculine and feminine forms in the NT. Surprisingly, in this instance, though it is used of a woman, its form in the Greek is masculine even as it is whenever Paul speaks of himself as a diakonos, servant, of Christ. Diakonos was the accepted title indicating pastoral leadership in the Church. In short, Paul recognizes Phoebe as a respected minister of the Word. There is no distinction drawn between Phoebe and say, Timothy because of gender. The very fact that Paul encourages the believers in Rome to “receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints” indicates that there may have been some latent reluctance to submit to her ministry because she was a woman.

In 16:3–5, Paul does not greet Aquila, “my fellow worker,” and his good wife, Prisca. Rather, he greets them as a husband and wife team, describing both as “my fellow-workers in Christ Jesus.” Both equally share in the ministry in “the church in their house.” Likewise, Paul greets “Mary, who has worked hard for you” (16:6). The verb “work” or “labor” which Paul uses of Mary is the same used elsewhere to speak of ministerial labor in the gospel. The prepositional phrase, “worked hard for you,” can also be rendered “worked hard among you or over you,” as Paul speaks of himself in reference to the Galatians (4:11). Mary had oversight of some important ministry in the Church at Rome.

Then Paul greets “Andronicus and Junias,” his kinsmen and fellow prisoners (16:7). Junias is also rendered in the feminine case, Junia, in many of the most ancient manuscripts. This may well have been another husband and wife team. What is of special interest is that they were “In Christ” before Paul. Furthermore, Paul classes them as among the original core of apostles. It is entirely possible, then, Junia was one of the original resurrection witnesses, and that she too was designated as an apostle by virtue of having seen the Lord. There is support for this in the writings of the influential fourth century Church father, Chrysostom, who commented on this verse by saying, “And indeed to be Apostles at all is a great thing . . . Oh! how great is the devotion of this woman (Junia), that she should be even counted worthy of the appellation of apostle!”

To summarize Paul’s attitude toward women in Romans, we can draw these conclusions. First, men and women are equally recipients of the grace of salvation. Second, women as well as men have been elected of God to play key roles in the unfolding of salvation history. Third, women share equally with men in the work of Christian ministry. They exercised leadership roles in the earliest Church and may have even been numbered among the original apostolic circle.

The same pattern follows in I Corinthians. Paul acknowledges that a report from the Church at Corinth had been brought to him by a delegation headed up by a woman (1:11ff.). This indicates some sort of leadership position accorded to Chloe, a woman, by the believers in Corinth. In 7:1–40, Paul affirms that the wife has equal conjugal rights as her husband, and he ought not be insensitive to her needs and desires—not even for supposedly spiritual purposes. Rather, they are to both prayerfully consider the needs and desires of the other and enter into mutual agreements relative to their intimate relationships. There is no counterpart to this example of Paul defending a wife’s conjugal rights in either the Old Testament or in the voluminous tomes of rabbinic literature. In Jewish society the woman was entirely at the mercy of the man’s whims and desires, or lack thereof. Thus Paul assumes and affirms the full equality of rights and responsibilities for men and women.

In I Cor. 11:3, however, we read, “But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.” At first glance Paul seems to clearly teach a relational hierarchy, a “chain of command,” in which the woman is placed in a subordinate relationship to the man. Before we leap to this conclusion, however, we need to see how kepholay, headship, is expressed in a Christian context. In a parallel passage in Ephesians 5:23ff., Paul says, “For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church.” Precisely, how does Christ exercise his headship over the Church? Paul’s answer is, “Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her” (5:25). The authority that Christ exercises over His Church as its head is not like that of the Gentiles. To the contrary, it is the authority of servanthood leadership exercised in the power of self-giving love (Mark 10:42–45). The only hierarchy that fits within kingdom relationships is that reflected in Jesus’ Gethsemane prayer, “Not my will but Thine be done.” The proper paradigm for relating to one another “in Christ” is not that of a king lording it over his subjects but that of a servant with a wash basin in his hands. Not subordination but mutual submission.

Then Paul goes on to deal with the problem of women praying and prophesying with their heads uncovered (11:4–6). What is often overlooked, however, is the fact that women were praying and prophesying (preaching, exhorting, teaching ) in the Corinthian Church! And there is no word prohibiting such public ministry. The only concern Paul has is that women would respect social convention by having their heads covered while praying and prophesying in Church. There were women preachers in the Church at Corinth.

In 11:8–9, Paul borrows from Rabbinic tradition which bases its doctrine of female subordination upon the “order of creation:” namely, since man did not originate from the woman but woman from the man, and since man was not created for the woman’s sake but woman for the man’s, then it follows that to man is given leadership and authority over the woman. The “order of creation” establishes the hierarchical order of male-female relationships. This is the rationale adopted by the framers of the Danvers Statement who declare that “Adam’s headship in marriage was established by God before the Fall.”

That argument might work except that Paul destroys it in the very next verses when he states, “However, in the Lord, neither is woman independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as the woman originates from the man, so also the man has his birth through the woman; and all things originate from God” (11:11–12). Lest prideful man should assume that the “order of creation” established a permanent hierarchy—and thus his dominance over the woman, God planned it so that every man, since Adam, would have “his birth through the woman.” In other words, after the original creation, God reversed the “order of creation!”

In the next chapter Paul deals with the exercise of spiritual gifts in the Church (12:3ff.). While he does not specifically mention women, he does use such qualifiers as “every” and “each one” without distinction between men and women. Further, he describes all the Corinthians, “whether Jews or Greeks , whether slaves or free, (whether male or female—Gal. 3:28)” as “all baptized into one body” (v. 13). We can assume, therefore, that he encourages women, along with men, to exercise their God-given spiritual gifts “for the common good” (v. 7).

Perhaps Paul had women especially in mind, given the cultural bias against them, when he observes, “It is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; and those members of the body, which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor. . . . But God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, that there should be no division in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another” (vv. 22–25).

We conclude, therefore, that Paul would be appalled at the discrimination which has dominated the Church since then. To withhold certain offices and functions from women institutionalizes divisiveness in the body based on no higher principle than that of physical gender. This is only a beginning and partial survey of all that Paul had to say about women. Yet if we were to examine the rest of his writings, excluding I Cor. 14:34–35 and I Tim. 2:5–11, they would be consistent with what we have discovered to this point.

We can summarize the Apostle’s position regarding women as follows: First, men and women are created equally in the image and glory of God, and participate equally in the grace of redemption. Second, marriage relationships are not to be ordered according to an externally imposed hierarchy “according to the law,” but by an internally embraced expression of self-giving love through mutual submission. Third, women have just as much right as men to exercise their spiritual gifts in the Church and fulfill their ministry, especially if they are called to preach. The wholeness and the health of the Church depends upon the freedom of each individual to exercise his or her spiritual gift and calling to the fullest.

All that we have seen thus far leads us to affirm that Paul’s attitude toward women is best set forward in his strong Declaration of Spiritual Emancipation: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. . . . It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 3:28; 5:1).


1) The Corinthian Texts: “Let the women keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but let them subject themselves, just as the law also says. And if they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church” (I Cor. 14:34–35).

These two verses, when taken literally, contradict everything that Paul has taught and affirmed to this point. How can he acknowledge women praying and prophesying in the Church in I Cor. Chapter 11 without one word of prohibition or condemnation, and then in Chapter 14 tell them to keep silent? How were the women, whom Paul so warmly commends in Romans 16, to exercise their public ministry in the Church if such a “gag-rule” were in place?

The rationale given for silencing women is, “just as the law also says.” What law? None in the Old Testament. To the contrary, the laws of Moses are noteworthy for their egalitarian application: that is, they apply to rich and poor, bond and free, and men and women alike. The “law” here mentioned is not found in the scriptures, but in Judaism’s Mishna (“traditions of the elders”). How then do we reconcile I Cor. 14:34–35 with the even-handed way Paul treats men and women in all the passages we have surveyed to this point? We answer: With great difficulty! Scholars and biblical interpreters have struggled with this issue for generations.

The most likely explanation focuses upon the astonishing fact that women in the early Church were not only permitted—for the first time ever—to worship side by side with men but were given freedom to pray, prophesy, and participate in the services. It was the first and only public forum in their culture that welcomed such freedom of expression. Unfortunately, their newfound freedom bred excesses. Since women were illiterate and had been denied access to the scriptures, they may have been creating confusion and disorder through aggressive and noisy displays of ignorance. Consequently, they not only offended the sensitivities of male believers but were bringing reproach upon the Church in the eyes of non-believers. Thus Paul’s cautionary command.

In the light of Paul’s overall attitude toward women in the Church however, this passage is best interpreted as representing specific instructions to a particular problem-Church, and is not meant to be generalized as a universal rule binding upon all churches for time immemorial. It is ironic that most of the denominations which appeal to these verses for support in excluding women from preaching conveniently ignore Paul’s further command in this same chapter, “and do not forbid to speak in tongues” (14:39).

2) The I Timothy Texts: “Let a woman quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being quite deceived, fell into transgression. But women shall be preserved through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self-restraint” (I Tim. 2:11–15).

There is, not only a restatement of the injunction against women speaking in Church voiced in I Cor. 14:34–35, but a further rule: “I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man.” This is the proof-text most frequently cited by those who deny ordination and leadership positions to women in the Church. There is no question but that verse 12 asserts an externally imposed, gender-differentiated law excluding women from teaching and, thus, from all preaching and pastoral offices. This directive then is a clear call for the Church to order its life “according to the law” of Rabbis (I Cor. 14:34), rather than according to the grace which is “in Jesus Christ” (Gal 3:28). The rationale given for this prohibition is the “order of creation” by which the Jews defended female subordination: namely, man has preeminence over women because he was created first. We have already seen, in our study of I Cor. 11:8–12, that Paul rejects this argument out of hand. First, it does not reflect the believing woman’s standing “in the Lord.” Second, it ignores the fact that, after Adam, God Himself reversed the “order of creation.”

A second reason is offered which, again, owes its genesis not to any clear teaching found in either Testament but to Rabbinical tradition: that is, since “the woman, being quite deceived, fell into transgression,” she cannot be trusted with either teaching offices or leadership roles. This is a theologized version of “the weaker sex” argument. Paul, however, draws quite the opposite conclusion from the Genesis story of the fall in his other letters. In Romans he affirms that “Through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned. . . . Death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of Adam’s offense” (Rom. 5:12–14; cf. I Cor. 15:21ff.). Adam, and not Eve, is responsible for the entrance of sin and death into the world. Eve may well have been deceived, but Adam was not. He disobeyed with his eyes wide open. His was a knowing, deliberate, and dispassionate act of sin. Therefore his guilt was the greater. Eve is not blamed by Paul: he does not so much as even mention her. So much for Rabbinical “blame the woman” theology.

This restrictive passage concludes with a patronizing statement in v. 15: “But women shall be saved through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self- restraint.” The implication is that both a woman’s salvation and worth as a human being is dependent upon her biological function as a mother. Where then does this leave single or barren women, such as Mary and Martha? While this demeaning view was prevalent in Judaism, it is impossible to imagine Jesus reflecting such a low estimate of a woman’s status before God.

How then do we deal with these multiple problems? Again we say: with great difficulty. Some scholars argue persuasively, on the basis of careful stylistic, linguistic and historical grounds, that the Pastoral Epistles did not come directly from the hand of Paul but from a more fully developed Church such as we find in the early second century. Others suggest that this passage may well have been an interpolation by a later copyist.

Many conservative New Testament scholars suggest that this may well have been a particular directive applied, once more, to a specific Church problem situation in Ephesus. That is, unlettered and unschooled women were voicing “strange doctrines, . . . myths and endless genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation” (I Tim. 1:3–4), thus creating disorder and fomenting false doctrine. It was never intended by Paul to be a rule locking women out of ministerial leadership roles for all time. For example, in this same letter Paul counsels Timothy to “drink a little wine for your stomach’s sake” (5:23). Most Evangelicals do not take this as a universal command for all ministers to partake of alcoholic beverages. Rather, they understand it to be sound medicinal advice appropriate to that time and situation in which water was not fit to drink.

I feel constrained to point out a flagrant flaw in the logic of those who use these two passages to justify gender discrimination in ministry: and that is, nobody really takes the command for “women to keep silent in the Church” seriously. To the contrary, both Protestant and Catholic Churches would be irreparably crippled if women ceased to “speak”—that is, witness, testify, sing, teach, counsel, comfort, encourage, and serve in all sorts of ministries. Here is the question: if we are not willing to interpret this injunction against women speaking in Church literally, then on what basis do we draw the line at the point of women preaching? If women cannot be trusted to preach and teach the Word to adults, should they be allowed to shoulder the bulk of responsibility for leading and teaching children who are at the most impressionable and vulnerable stage of their lives?

We began our study by noting that positions supporting male dominance and female subordination in the home and Church are indeed “biblical:” that is, they are supported in the Bible. Our question, however, has been: do these texts represent the overall revelation of scripture which finds its fullest and final expression in Jesus? More specifically, do these specific texts, which circumscribe women’s role in the Church, reflect Paul’s underlying position?

Our answer has been: no! These texts which discriminate against women do not represent God’s original intention for the race. Neither are they representative of the overall teaching and practice of the Apostle Paul. Further, they find no support in the teaching or example of Jesus whatsoever. And, for the Christian interpreter, the life, teachings, and example of Jesus is the ultimate criterion by which everything else in the Bible is evaluated and judged. Finally, they cannot represent a timeless and universal rule in the Churches that understand themselves as a Community of the Spirit. On the day of Pentecost Peter exults in Joel’s prophecy which celebrates the new freedom women will enjoy in the new age of the Holy Spirit: “your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,” and “upon both men and women, I will in those days pour forth of My Spirit, and they shall prophesy" (proclaim, preach) (Acts 2:17–19).

As this was being written, there came to my attention an advertisement, published in a recent issue of CHRISTIANITY TODAY by a new coalition of Christians For Biblical Equality who advocate that “Both men and women are divinely gifted and empowered to minister to the whole Body of Christ . . . as administrators . . . and board members, and in pastoral care, teaching, preaching, and worship.” It appears to be a reaction to the Danver’s Statement published earlier. This too is supported by a “Who’s Who” list of Evangelical leaders including Myron Augsburger, David Allen Hubbard, and Kenneth Kantzer, senior editor of CHRISTIANITY TODAY. In speaking to the problematic texts we have examined, they affirm that “the few isolated texts that appear to restrict the full redemptive freedom of women must not be interpreted simplistically and in contradiction to the rest of Scripture, but their interpretation must take into account their relation to the broader teaching of Scripture and their total context.”


It would come as a surprise—if not as a shock—to most Evangelicals today to discover that the feminism movement that has so shaped the twentieth century has its origins, not in Marxist socialism, nor in secular humanism, and not even with theological liberalism. Rather, it was a direct outgrowth of the great evangelical and holiness revival which swept our country in the 1800's. I am indebted to the scholarly work of Donald Dayton in his definitive work, Discovering An Evangelical Heritage,3 for making me aware of the origins of the women’s rights movement within our own particular evangelical and Wesleyan heritage.

1) John Wesley. John Wesley, a rigidly conventional Anglican Priest and Oxford Don, was the first—since the earliest days of the Church—to break convention and give his official approval to women preachers. What brought him to this radical break with tradition was the fact that God had called, gifted, and mightily used women preachers all over England. When he saw that the Holy Spirit made no distinction but called women to preach, and blessed their labors with abundant spiritual fruit, he could no longer withhold his formal and official blessing. Adam Clarke, scholar of the early Wesleyan movement, affirmed of women that “under the blessed spirit of Christianity, they have equal rights , equal privileges, and equal blessing, and let me add, they are equally useful.”

2) Charles Finney. Charles Finney has been called the father of the American revivalism movement. Finney was an innovator. He was the first to popularize the “protracted meeting,” and the first to employ the use of the “anxious bench” (later known as the altar) for those under conviction of sin. Most controversial of his “new measures” was his practice of encouraging women to pray, testify, and speak in mixed assemblies. This opened the door wide for women preachers. Soon he, along with Theodore Weld, were encouraging women to take the platform in speaking out against slavery. From this time forward, the abolition movement and the feminist movement would proceed together. After all, if Galatians 3:28 declared that “There is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female, but you are all one in Christ Jesus,” then why should they not work together for the emancipation of slaves and the enfranchisement of women?

3) Oberlin College. In the early 1930's, Oberlin college was founded to perpetuate both revivalism and the social positions of Charles G. Finney. It was at the forefront of three historic social movements: the abolition of slavery, the peace movement, and the women’s rights crusade. Oberlin will go down in history as the first coeducational college in the world. Oberlin was the first institution in America to ordain a woman preacher in 1835. Luther Lee preached Antoinette Brown’s ordination sermon from Gal. 3:28. He confessed: “I cannot see how the text can be explained so as to exclude females from any right, office, work, privilege, or immunity which males enjoy, hold or perform. If the text means anything, it means that males and females are equal in rights, privileges and responsibilities.”

Oberlin graduated many women who became leaders in both the abolitionist and feminist movements in the 1800's. Asa Mahan, Oberlin’s first president, was so proud of this record that he suggested this epitaph for his tombstone: “the first man, in the history of the race who conducted women, in connection with members of the opposite sex, through a full course of liberal education, and conferred upon them the high degrees which had hitherto been the exclusive prerogatives of men.”

4) The Salvation Army. It was the Salvation Army that made the most progress in giving women full rights of ministry. Catherine Mumford Booth, co-founder of the Salvation Army with her husband, was a powerful and popular preacher in her own right. In Portsmouth, England, crowds averaging over 1,000 came nightly for seventeen weeks to hear her preach. And she often spoke to much larger gatherings. When her daughters were grown and married, they kept their family name and became among the first to use a hyphenated married name: Booth-Tucker, Booth-Clibborn, and so on. In 1934 Evangeline Booth was elected General, the highest office of the Salvation Army. She thus became the first woman leader of any major denomination in Protestant history.

5) The Holiness Denominations. It was, however, the denominations produced by the mid-nineteenth-century holiness revivals that most consistently raised feminism to a central principle of church life. This movement received a mighty thrust from the work of Phoebe Palmer, a Physician’s wife and a Methodist lay evangelist. She played a major role in the great revival of 1857–58. She published a 421 page book defending the right of women to preach titled The Promise of the Father. She based her argument primarily upon the prophecy of Joel, quoted by Peter in his Pentecost sermon, which declared that in the age of the Spirit both men and women would prophesy. This became the principle scriptural justification for women preachers throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

The Wesleyan Methodists began to ordain women in the 1860's, nearly a century in advance of the mainline Methodist Church which, today, is the denominational leader in ordaining women. By the year 2000, the Methodists fully expect to be ordaining as many women as men. When the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana) emerged in the 1880's, 25 percent of their ministers and delegates were women. The Pilgrim Holiness Church, founded by Seth Rees (father of Paul S. Rees, prominent in the founding of the National Association of Evangelicals in the 1940's), opened wide the door to women preachers, who comprised 30% of their ordained elders in the early decades of their denomination.

From the time Phineas Bresee founded the First Church of the Nazarene in Los Angeles to its union with other Holiness groups in 1908, women preachers and leaders were very much a part of the life of the Church. A book published in 1905, Women Preachers, featured the testimonies of a dozen prominent female holiness preachers. In a Herald of Holiness article in 1930, General Superintendent J. B. Chapman articulated the denominational stance on women preachers:

The fact is that God calls men and women to preach the gospel, and when He does so call them, they should gladly obey Him and members of the church and of the ministry should encourage and help them in the fulfillment of their task. This is the teaching of the New Testament, the logic of the new dispensation, the position of the Church of the Nazarene . . .4

Unfortunately, most of these denominations have capitulated under the insidious attack leveled by the larger Evangelical and Fundamentalist movements. They have quietly squeezed women from pulpits, off Church boards, and out of leadership roles. Today, less than 12% of ordained Nazarene elders are women, and less than one percent are serving as pastors as of April, 1989. While a few others are serving as missionaries or in associate roles, the majority of ordained women ministers are “unassigned” or retired. No women serve as either District or General Superintendents, nor as Directors of the Denominational agencies.5 General Superintendent William Greathouse raised his voice about this demise of women in ministry in a 1982 editorial:

The partial eclipse of women ministers in the church of today is lamentable. It reflects the influx of teachings and theologies which are in basic disagreement with our historic biblical position. The gospel is the Magna Charta for women’s ministry. Once again the Lord is pouring out His Spirit on His handmaidens in the Church of the Nazarene and calling them to preach. At least 40 young women are now preparing themselves for various ministries at Nazarene Theological Seminary.6

The question is: will there be District Superintendents willing to recommend or appoint them as pastors and congregations open to calling a woman as pastor? There is a remarkable contemporary example of what could happen if our Churches self-consciously resisted this loss of a vital dimension of our heritage. Dr. Paul Cho, pastor of the world’s largest Church, writes about a major breakthrough in the early years of his ministry. The Church he founded in Seoul, South Korea, leveled out at about 3,000 members after experiencing rapid growth. He had worked himself into such a state of nervous exhaustion that he was sidelined for several months.

Out of his crisis experience came two insights which were to trigger the most explosive growth of any Church in the history of Christianity. The first had to do with building the Church on a foundation of intimate and personalized cell groups. The second had to do with women. Cho writes,

God then showed me that we should use women as cell leaders. This was totally revolutionary to us, not only as conservative, Bible-believing Christians, but as Koreans. In Korea, as in most of the Orient, leadership is a man’s business. The traditional role for women was to marry, have children, and keep a good and happy home. The husband is the provider and he is in complete control of his business and home life. Although we see things changing in Korea now, our culture still is basically male-oriented. So for women to be given positions of responsibility and authority in the church was more revolutionary than establishing the cell system itself.

The first problem that I had with using women was theological. Paul did say, “Let your women keep silence in the churches” (I Cor. 14:34). The same theme is followed in Paul’s admonition to Timothy (I Tim. 2:11, 12). However, Peter preaching at Pentecost said, “But this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel: And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams: And on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy” (Acts 2:16–18). The promise of the Holy Spirit giving the ability to prophesy was not a promise to just men but also to women. These women had to prophesy somewhere and to someone, they could not prophesy to themselves. Paul speaks to the Romans concerning Phoebe, using the word translated in most places, deacon. He also tells Titus that older women should teach younger women concerning the practical responsibilities of being a Christian.

I also noticed that women were more loyal and faithful than men in the ministry of Jesus. Jesus first appeared to Mary Magdalene whose job it was to give the Good News of the resurrection to the rest of the disciples who were in hiding. As I continued to pray and study, I concluded that a woman could have a ministry as long as she was under the authority of the church. She just could not teach her own doctrine, but she could witness and minister my teaching. Therefore, I decided to use women as cell leaders in my church. Once the women began to be used and we had overcome all of the ensuing obstacles . . . the men in the church became much more cooperative. In all of the years I have been teaching the cell system, I found that my female associates have been loyal and reliable. They have not rebelled and done their own thing, but have worked hard.

My advice to you then is, “Don’t be afraid of using women.”7

Paul Cho is leading the way in showing the entire Church world that there is nothing to be afraid of in setting women free to minister on an equal footing with men. His Church has passed the 500,000 mark in membership and shows no signs yet of leveling off.


The choice before us is straight-forward and urgent: are we going to order our lives as the people of God under the dispensation of the curse where male domination and female subordination is the rule, or are we going to risk living in the freedom of the grace in which there is “neither male nor female, but you are all one in Christ Jesus?” (Gal. 3:28). Are we going to live under the oppressive bondage of the law in which gifted, God-called and Spirit-filled women are forbidden to exercise their vocation simply because of the accident of their gender—to the great loss of God’s kingdom and our Church, or are we going to dare to live in the liberty of the Spirit where both men and women may hear and respond to the call of God to preach, and where both men and women may exercise their spiritual gifts within the body of Christ for the edification of all and the evangelization of the world?

NOTE: This article appeared in a campus magazine at a Christian college. It is essentially a condensed version of a book by the same author, C.S. Cowles, entitled, A Woman's Place? : Leadership in the Church. Please visit our web page for this book.

1. Christianity Today, Jan. 13, 1989, pp. 40–41.

2. Donald E. Gowan, From Eden to Babel (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1988), p. 48.

3. Donald W. Dayton, Discovering An Evangelical Heritage (New York: Harper & Row, Pub., 1976), “The Evangelical Roots of Feminism,” pp. 85–98.

4. James Blaine Chapman, “October Gleanings,” Herald of Holiness, October 15, 1930, p.5.

5. My source for these statistics is an unpublished Master’s Thesis by Rebecca Laird, The First Generation of Ordained Women in the Church of the Nazarene, presented to the Faculty of the Pacific School of Religion, May 7, 1990.

6. William M. Greathouse, “Women in Ministry: An Editorial,” Herald of Holiness, June 15, 1982, p. 1.

7. Paul Y. Cho, More Than Numbers (Waco, Texas: Word Books Pub., 1984), pp. 43–44