Safe or Sorry in Developing the Female Missionary Force

by George Winston

A coherent biblical theology of women and the testimony of many exegetically simple passages reveal that women indeed have a significant role in missions.

Now I know in part,” but one day we will all know whether restrictions placed on women in ministry were justified. What if these limitations turn out to have been unwarranted? As mission leaders today, we might consider the possibility of erring on the side of full involvement of women for at least two reasons: the first one has to do with stewardship, the second with being true to the Word of God.

Taken on its own, the question of stewardship is worth little. However, the fact is, two-thirds of the mission force is made up of women. They come on the field with spiritual gifts, natural abilities, biblical or theological training and work experience. Their education and experience have enabled them to hone their gifts and abilities in their churches…or not. Whether these gifts are for teaching, leadership, shepherding or apostleship, these women hope to be able to develop their gifts fully on the field.

So what are mission leaders to do? Most leaders favor slowing the trend of so many women in ministry down gently, as best they can. The pressures on them increase as the restrictions put a de facto lid on what women are permitted to do on the field. How are things going to evolve? The question needs some serious thought. The answer lies ultimately in the hands of every leader. It is our responsibility to resolve this matter before God. Perhaps, when “we know fully,” those who hold more traditional views on women will be found to be right. However, to lead well demands that each one of us be quite sure that limitations are really justified. It is a question of good stewardship of the workforce under our care.

Of course, hesitancy to open wide the avenues of service to women stems from a desire to remain true to scripture. In the heat of debate over difficult passages, it might seem to some that it is better to be safe than sorry. From what I have observed, it is on this basis—and not on that of biblical convictions “beyond the shadow of a doubt”—that limitations are maintained. It could be, then, that what feeds traditional roles for missionary women is fear. And the status quo wins the day. If that is the case, we would do well to reconsider. Still, pragmatism has no place in settling a biblical issue.

In the meantime, let’s face it, we mission leaders are caught between a rock and a hard place; between the traditional stance, and the realities on the field. There, women sometimes accomplish things for the gospel that many North American pastors would never allow in their churches. We do not have to be safe or sorry. It is possible to be a good steward of the female workforce under our care, and hold to the timeless truths of inerrant scripture.

For many years, I have been haunted by the fact that dozens of clear passages of scripture present women serving in authoritative ministries; whereas a few New Testament passages seem to contradict the many, and impose limitations on women in ministry. Could these apparent contradictions not be resolved in a way that would demonstrate the coherence and harmony of the Word of God? My wife and I decided to undertake a study which would take into account everything that is said about a woman in scripture so as to demonstrate the coherence and harmony of the Word of God. After fifty years of work and study on the mission field, Recovering Biblical Ministry by Women—An Exegetical Response to Traditionalism and Feminism (Xulon Press) is our answer to an issue mission leaders face today.

The following is necessarily sketchy; however, it will point to a biblical theology of women in all spheres of authority and present biblical evidence of women ministering and speaking for God. I will also touch on three passages traditionally taken to limit women in ministry.

There are six biblically-defined spheres of authority: creation, marriage, family, state, workplace and church. In all spheres, except that of marriage, we find women exercising authority.

1. In creation, God appointed women as co-regents with men over nature. Genesis 1:26-28: “Let them rule” (note the plural pronoun “them”). Hebrews 2:6-8: “What is man?….You put everything under his feet.” The word translated “man” is anthropos (“mankind,” including both genders), not aner (man as male).

2. In marriage, God appointed the husband to be the head of the wife. Ephesians 5:23: “The husband is the head of the wife.” The word “husband” is used five times in the King James Version rendering of the context and the word “wife” nine times. No unmarried people are in view. Verse 31, in quoting Genesis 2:24, anchors this teaching in the creation order of Genesis 2:18-24, which is also the foundational passage in scripture on marriage. It does not deal with abstract sexuality, “manhood” and “womanhood,” but only with married sexuality. No man is ever “head” over other men’s wives. There is no such thing as “male headship” in all spheres of authority—only “husband headship” in the one sphere of marriage.

3. In the family, God gives mothers authority over their male offspring. Identical honor is due both parents (Exod. 20:12; Deut. 5:16; Prov. 23:22; Eph. 6:1-2). Marriageable sons must obey their mothers (Gen. 28:7; Deut. 21:18-21). The man Christ Jesus submitted himself voluntarily to a female (his mother) on an ongoing basis: “He was obedient to them” (Luke 2:51). Authority and submission are not based on sexual identity, but on relationships within a sphere of authority.

4. In the state, God gives authority to female magistrates over its male citizens. The following nations had queens: Sheba (1 Kings 10:1), Persia (Neh. 2:6), Egypt (1 Kings 11:19), Judah (1 Kings 15:13), Babylon (Dan. 5:10) and Media (Esther 1:9). A queen (malkah) was simply a female king (melek).We must not think in terms of the figureheads in modern constitutional monarchies. The New Testament commands “everyone” (including the man) “to submit himself to every authority instituted among men.” This includes all female authorities (Rom.13:1; Titus 3:1; 1 Pet. 2:13,17).

5. In the workplace, God requires the submission of male employees to their female employers. 1 Samuel 25:18-19: “Abigail told her servants, ‘Go on ahead.’” 2 Kings 4:8,24: “A well-to-do woman… said to her servant, ‘Lead on.’” Sheerah was the overseer of a massive construction project (1 Chron. 7:24). “Esther summoned Hathach…and ordered him to find out” (Esther 4:5, italics mine). The New Testament mentions many prominent noble women (Luke 8:3; Acts 13:50; 17:4,12) and commands servants to be subject to their masters (Eph. 6:5-8; Col. 3:22; 1 Tim. 6:1; Titus 2:9; 1 Pet. 2:18).

6. Among his people, including the Church, God gives women spiritual authority over men. Miriam was sent by God as a religious leader of Israel in the same sense as were Moses and Aaron: “I (the Lord) sent before thee Moses, Aaron and Miriam” (Mic. 6:4). All three were prophets (Deut.18:15; Exod. 7:1, 15:20). Deborah, the judge, was “leading Israel” (Judg. 4:4). “The sons of Israel” came to her for decisions (Judg. 4:5, italics mine). She issued prophetic orders and commands (Judg. 4:6,14) and gave instructions to Barak (4:5-16). Her leadership brought spiritual results on a national scale for forty years (4:15-16; 5:11,31). Huldah was consulted by King Josiah’s officials (2 Kings 22) in preference to her contemporaries, Jeremiah and Zephaniah. She answered the king severely in God’s name (2 Kings 22:15-20), which resulted in a spiritual revival throughout Judah (2 Kings 23). Queen Esther instituted the religious feast of Purim for God’s people by royal decree (Esther 9:29-32).

The tendency is to downplay these examples because they are taken from the Old Testament. But is the new covenant of grace more restrictive and exclusive than the old covenant of law? Clearly, the OT presents these female characters speaking freely to men for God. This is a fact and as Paul puts it: “All scripture…is profitable for doctrine…for instruction in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16) and “For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope” (Rom.15:4, italics mine).

Indeed, all the words of scripture authored by females have the full force of divine authority for males. The following women were channels of biblical revelation: Hagar (Gen.16:7-13), Rebekah (Gen. 25:23; Rom. 9:11-12), the wife of Manoah while her husband was not with her (Judg.13:3-7), Deborah (Judg. 5:1-31), Hannah (1 Sam. 2:1-10), the mother of King Lemuel (Prov. 31:1-31), Elizabeth (Luke1:41-45), the Virgin Mary (Luke1:46-55) and Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of James (Matt. 28:7,10).

Ten women are called “prophetesses”:
• Miriam (Exod. 15:20-21)
• Deborah (Judg. 4:4)
• Huldah (2 Kings 22:14)
• Noadiah (Neh. 6:14)
• Isaiah’s wife (Isa. 8:3)
• Anna (Luke 2:36-38)
• the four unmarried daughters of Philip (Acts 21:9)

Innumerable women are said to have prophesied: “The daughters of your people” (Ezek. 13:2,17), “your sons and daughters” (Joel 2:28), “both men and women” (Acts 2:17-18) and “every woman prophesying” (1 Cor. 11:3-5). Eleven passages, in both Testaments, show that biblical prophesying is directed to God’s people collectively—it is public ministry (i.e., 1 Kings 18:19-21; Acts 15:30-32; 1 Cor. 14:3-4). Ten passages, in both Testaments, state that what prophets did was to “preach” or “proclaim” (i.e., Neh. 6:7; Jer. 3:12; Acts 15:32).

Women of the Bible addressed large, mixed gatherings (Num. 27:1-2; Luke 2:36-38; John 4:28,35). Sarah taught Abraham (Gen. 21:8-12), Manoah’s wife taught her husband (Judg. 13:1-25) and King Lemuel’s mother taught her grown son (Prov. 1:8-13; 31:1-9). The female witnesses of the resurrection taught the male disciples (Matt. 28; Mark 16; Luke 23- 24; John 20); Priscilla taught Apollos (Acts18:24-28).

Peter describes the Church as “a chosen people, a royal priesthood…that you may proclaim (exaggello) the praises of him who called you” (1 Pet. 2:9, italics mine). All believers, men and women, are priests. Fifteen OT passages state that teaching is one of the functions of priests (i.e., Lev. 10:8-11; Deut. 17:9-11). Do we believe in the universal priesthood of believers, or only in the universal priesthood of male believers?

If it were the biblical testimony that women may teach only women, would we not expect to find references in scripture to meetings that were exclusively female? There is no trace of any such gatherings. Instead, we find plenty of instances of women ministering and speaking freely to men for God both in private and in public settings. The Bible testifies of God’s blessing on the authoritative roles these many women played throughout scripture. Yet the debate overshadows these exegetically simple accounts to focus on a few difficult passages. Why not settle for a grammatically correct translation that does not contradict the many and brings forth the great coherence of the Word of God? Let us consider such an alternative.

1. Titus 2:3-4: “Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live…to teach what is good. Then, they can train the younger women to love their husbands and children.” These verses seem to say that women should teach only women. However, the older women are not said to be teachers of the younger women. What they do for this restricted group is to “train” them to be godly wives. There is no restriction placed on their teaching. There is a specific audience for this training because men do not need to learn how to be godly wives. These verses do not say that women should teach only the subjects mentioned or only the people mentioned. (All would agree that women should be permitted to teach middle-aged women, older women and children). In verse 4, Paul is simply saying that the best person to train a young woman to be a good wife is an older woman with experience.

2. 1 Corinthians 14:33-35: “As in all congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.” These verses seem to say that all women should be totally silent in church. Let us break this down.

“In all congregations of the saints.” This phrase makes it a timeless truth.

“Women.” The phrase, “their own husbands,” (v. 34) qualifies the word “women” which is parallel to it. Is the counterpart of “husbands,” “women” or “wives”? Does this passage concern single women—or only married women? With what man would an unmarried woman be sharing a “home” (v. 35)? To what man here should a single woman be “in submission”? Where, in this passage, are single women prohibited from speaking in church? The correct translation is evidently “wives” or “married women.”

“Remain silent.” The same verb, sigao, is also found in vs. 28 and 30, where men, as well as women, are in view. It speaks of a lessening of activity—a qualified silence, not total silence. Would this keep women from singing hymns? Giving a report? Praying? Testifying? Prophesying? How would one explain away the twenty-some clear passages mentioned above under “Speaking for God,” showing that women prophesied in public gatherings and taught men? If we believe in the inerrancy of scripture, we must also believe in the coherence of scripture.

“They are not allowed to speak.” If this “speaking” by women includes prophesying, why does the immediate context say repeatedly that all believers, regardless of gender, may prophesy in the church (14:5, 24, 26, 31, 39; 11:5)? The word for “all” or “everyone” occurs seven times in these verses, concerning those who may prophesy in the church.

“Must be in submission.” This qualifies the speaking in view as being not submissive or refractory in nature. It is not ordinary speaking. Does this mean they must be in submission to other women’s husbands, or only to their own husband? The Bible limits submission to human headship to married women with respect to their own husbands (Eph. 5:22-24; Col. 3:18-19; Titus 2:4-5; 1 Pet. 3:1,5). That is why this passage applies specifically to the wives of male preachers, and not to the husbands of female ones. What then was the type of speaking that was not submissive?

“If they want to inquire about something…ask their own husbands at home.” This shows that the kind of speaking here was not prophesying, but the addressing of questions to husbands in the meeting. 1 Corinthians 14 shows that meetings in the early Church were more interactive than our present-day Western worship services. All speaking was not one-way. There was response to the preaching and there were questions coming from the congregation. Spontaneous give-and-take are also found today in many Majority World and non-liturgical churches. Prophesying is so that the hearers “may learn something” (v. 31). The purpose of this speaking by a married woman was that she, the speaker, might learn something from her husband by asking him a question about what he had said in his message. It is clear from v. 29, that when a prophet had spoken, the listeners were to “judge” what he had said. It is easy to imagine how a wife, during the question time, could disagree with a point in her husband’s message. She could easily embarrass him or show a lack of respect in front of the rest of the congregation. Paul is simply saying that subjects for possible disagreement between spouses are better discussed in private than in public. Verse 33 reads, “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace.” There is no prohibition of wives asking clarification from other speakers than their husbands. Nor does the passage say anything about single women. Rather, it addresses, in a specific and concrete way, the overlap between two spheres of authority—namely, that of Church and marriage.

3. 1 Timothy 2:11-15: “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. 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. But women will be kept safe through childbearing, if they continue in faith, love and holiness.” These verses seem to say that a woman should not teach or have authority over a man.

“A woman.” The word occurs four times here. Is it “a woman” or “a wife”? Paul uses Adam and Eve, a married couple, to illustrate the truth he wants to teach. Are we free to apply it to singles? Would the “childbearing women” in v. 15, be unmarried mothers in the church? Three times out of four, in Paul, aner means “husband” and gune means “wife.” This is doubly true when these two words are coupled, as here.

“To have authority over a man.” The usual words for “authority” (exousia -iazo) appear 107 times in the NT, whereas the word used here (authenteo), “to domineer over” (v. 12), appears nowhere else in the NT. Paul uses the usual word for “authority” dozens of times. If he meant a normal use of authority here, why did he choose another word, and such a rare one? The lexica agree that the term refers to improper, excessive exercise of authority. What the Bible here forbids is a wrong use of authority by wives. Elsewhere, it also forbids a wrong use of authority by men.

“Full submission.” To all males? Since Christ is the only head in the Church, there is no “male headship” in the Church, only “husband headship” in marriage (note the six texts to that effect mentioned above). “A man” should thus be rendered “a husband.”

“I do not permit a woman to teach.” But the sentence does not stop there, it continues, “…nor to domineer over a husband.” We may not interpret the word “to teach” as if the word “to domineer” were not there at all. The teaching and the domineering are linked by the word “nor.” All teaching by a woman is not prohibited, but only teaching that leads to domineering over her husband.

“It was the woman who was deceived.” If Eve’s being deceived into sin disqualifies all women from teaching in the church, what must be said of Adam’s wilful sin. And if women may not teach “undeceivable” men, why are they limited to teaching gullible children and other deceivable women?

“Silent.” The same word (hesukhia) translated “quietness” in v. 11 is rendered “silent” in v. 12. Why the difference in translation? A few verses earlier (v. 2), the adjective is rendered “quiet lives,” not “silent lives.” According to the King James Version, out of eleven occurrences of the root in the NT, only three refer to silence. In the lexica, “quietness” is listed as the first meaning. May a wife not utter the least sound in church?

The WILLIAMS translation renders this verse: “I do not permit a married woman to practice teaching or domineering over a husband” (italics mine). In other words, when in the sphere of the church, a woman should not overlook the fact that she is married. She must be careful in the way she treats her husband.

In summary, more than thirty passages support ministry by women and contain few if any exegetical difficulties. On the other hand, a few exegetically difficult passages might seem to contradict the many. And we are left wondering if we are being good stewards of two-thirds of the mission workforce. Surely, a coherent biblical theology of women, the testimony of many exegetically simple passages and a grammatically correct translation harmonizing apparent contradictions should be given due consideration. Why settle for being safe or sorry?


George Winston served for twenty years as director and taught for thirty-three years at the Belgian Bible Institute. He is co-founder of the Evangelische Theologische Faculteit and has planted several churches in Belgium.

Copyright © 2008 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.

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