Vindication of female leadership in the church – Part 1: Opening Thoughts

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This is a blog post that I have been wanting to write for a very long time – actually, over a year. However, I’ve always known myself well enough to deduce that it would be an issue that would get me very very angry, even in the actual process of writing the article, and then when it came to replying to any possible comments on the article. So I have taken all this time to help myself to calm right down (breathe Tosin!) to get to a place where I can trust myself to write this article with something at least approaching professionalism and maturity. So here we go! Apologies in advance for any times that I allow myself to slip into sarcasm, which is usually the default mindset I adopt whenever I hear ridiculous arguments from those with opposing views. That is, not all opposing views on this subject are ridiculous, many are quite valid, but as with almost anything, some opposing views are quite ridiculous. I will of course go over this article to edit out any of my own slips into sarcasm or other expressions of immaturity, however, if my pride gets the better of me, as it has done so many times on this blog, and if I “accidentally-on-purpose” let something slip through that is less than 100% appropriate, please forgive me!

OK then, so this is one issue or topic on which the weight of Biblical evidence seems to fall on the opposing side of the argument. That is, I personally believe that female leadership in the church is of course totally good and acceptable. Of course it is! I believe that women can and should demonstrate leadership in the church to the highest possible levels – of course they should! However, I do concede that at least on the surface, people could be justified for interpreting the Bible differently. This is why I talk about sarcasm – because many people seem to hide behind Bible arguments for the sake of their own sexist views. So sometimes you get people insisting on something and shouting “The Bible says….The Bible says…!” – not because they are always so quick to submit to true Bible teaching – notice the overwhelming silence regarding my challenge to the tithing issue – but rather because in this issue they believe the Bible justifies their own innate sexism. (You know me – I’ll just say it as it is!) And naturally, this subject is especially pertinent to me because I am actually a woman, and for so many years I have chafed under these rules which to me just seem…silly.

This is why I believe that it is wrong to suggest that women should not be leaders in church (over men) – the overwhelming reason why I believe that this is wrong is because, to me, it MUST be wrong! That might not seem like a very forceful argument, however, let me give you an analogy. Thinking back to chemistry at school, does anyone remember Mendeleev and how he re-organised the Periodic Table? By analysing the nature of scientific elements to which he had access he guessed that there MUST be some missing elements, and he was able to deduce their properties even before they had been discovered. And then he was vindicated when, sure enough, each and every one of these theoretical elements was discovered, each having the properties he had deduced.

This to me is how it is with this issue of female leadership. To suggest that God for some reason does not “want” women to be leaders is to me completely inconsistent with the nature of God. It is also completely inconsistent with the rhythm of the Bible. Remember that women are after all half of humanity – and the greater half, at that! Admittedly this is how it was in the Old Testament, that the priests and leaders and prophets were all male – actually, there were a few female prophetesses – how about that?! – but generally the leadership was male. However, remember that in the Old Testament, there were lots of other bars which have long been made obsolete. For instance, those of us who would have been considered Gentiles, ie not ethnically Jewish – none of us – female or male would have been “allowed” to officiate in God’s Temple, much less enter into the Holy of Holies – and as Gentiles we take it for granted that we can do that today. If Gentiles generally are allowed, why is there such a big issue about women specifically?

I do intend to look into the actual Biblical text regarding those contentious verses – ie the ones that might be interpreted as forbidding female leadership. However, let me first demonstrate why I say that views opposing female leadership are inconsistent with the nature of God, and also inconsistent with the rhythm of the Bible.
It will probably be easier for me to start by considering the rhythm of the Bible. Perhaps “rhythm” is the wrong word – it is more about Biblical symmetry etc – just the way the Bible unfolds, how the Old Testament contrasts with the New Testament. The basic point is that there is more restriction in the Old Covenant, the Law, of the Old Testament, which flows into greater freedom in the New Covenant, the grace of the New Testament. By introducing a New Testament teaching that women are not “allowed” to be leaders, then we turn that general principle backwards, but only for the case of women leaders. This is a jarring inconsistency.

Let us look at a few examples:
JEWISH MEN
Old Testament Law:
Jewish men were generally at the top of God’s hierarchy in the Old Testament Law. However, even they faced restrictions. Only men who were from the Tribe of Levi were allowed to minister in the Temple. Only the Levites who descended from the line of Aaron were allowed to be priests, and from that High Priests. However the women in these families were allowed to  eat from the holy offerings alongside the men.

New Covenant Grace (New Testament):
Even Jesus Himself, the Messiah, the ultimate High Priest of our faith, was not from the tribe of Levi, but rather from the tribe of Judah. The men He picked as His disciples, to be the founding members of His Church, were ordinary, uneducated men. They were not recorded as being from the tribe of Levi, but were presumably from a variety of the 12 tribes in Israel. They were fishermen, business men, tax collectors – however if they had been Levites, presumably they would have been employed in the Temple. This was in the era when there were established rabbinical schools, producing highly trained scholars in the law, called Lawyers in the New Testament Gospels.  So the point is that if Jesus wanted to have highly educated scholars as His disciples, then He could easily have found some. Rather He chose instead to work with everyday people.

Many of these men went on to become Apostles, to hold the highest possible office in the Christian faith – that of founding Fathers. Even Paul the Apostle, who was a trained Lawyer, and a Pharisee, was of the Tribe of Benjamin, rather than the tribe of Levi. Philippians 3v5

So with Jewish men, there is a restriction in the Old Testament, which flows into greater freedom in the New Testament. In the Old Testament, there is a suggestion that “You are not allowed…” which disappears in the New Testament. (Admittedly, I do have to concede that many of the prophets and other people who wrote the Old Testament were not necessarily from the tribe of Levi, much less Priests from the line of Aaron.  Amos was a sheepbreeder, David the writer of many of the Psalms was from the tribe of Judah, Solomon the accepted writer of the Proverbs and Song of Solomon and Ecclesiastes was the son of David so he was also from the tribe of Judah…)

GENTILES (MEN)
We’ve already looked at the case of Gentiles. But let us consider it here again “officially”:
Old Testament Law:
The Law of God was given to Jewish people, by Jewish people, primarily for Jewish people. Gentiles on the whole were not considered to be God’s people. Gentiles were certainly not allowed into the Temple as far as Jewish men were – even as far as Jewish women were. According to this Wikipedia article, the Court of the Gentiles in the second Temple of the Israelites was on the outside of the Temple, and the Court of the Women was an inner court, into which all Jewish people could go, and then there was the Court of the Israelites where only Jewish men could enter, and then there was the Court of the Priests, reserved for Levite Priests, and then there was the Holy of Holies, where only the High Priest could go, and that only once a year.

secondTemple

So in essence, Gentiles, or non-Jewish men, could not even enter the Temple. They could certainly not offer sacrifices. In fact, even Jewish men – even Jewish priests – were not allowed to enter the Holy of Holies. If someone wanted to become Jewish, they would have to practise all the rites and rituals, the males would get circumcised, they would keep kosher, observe Passover etc etc, but they would not be allowed to consider themselves fully Jewish (that is, enter into the Temple) for 4 generations,  CORRECTION:  The Edomites and Egyptians could enter the Congregation of Israel in the 3rd Generation. For people from a certain group of nations – Ammonites and Moabites,they had to wait for 10 generations before they could enter the Congregation of Israel. If a generation was only 15 years long, that is, if each man would have children at 15 years old, while that is quite young by our standards that would still require a period of 150 years before that family became fully accepted into the people of Israel.

New Covenant:
Now Gentiles are allowed to embrace the whole word of God, we have been grafted into the people of God, we can consider ourselves children of God without becoming Jewish, without our sons needing to be circumcised, without observing many Jewish rites. Anyone can become a Christian in an instant. Gentiles are allowed to offer praises to God in church, in fact we can now all enter the Holy of Holies, metaphorically speaking, by having a personal relationship with God.
In the New Testament we have a number of Gentile men who are accepted into full leadership in Church. First there was Luke, the writer of the Gospel bearing his name, as well as the writer of Acts, widely accepted as being a Gentile physician. So here we have God giving His word through people who are not Jewish. Then we have Timothy, whose mother was indeed Jewish, but whose father was Greek – Acts 16v1. In spite of his Jewish heritage through his mother, it seems that Timothy was not brought up as an observant Jew because Acts 16v3 tells us that Paul circumcised Timothy when Timothy was a grown man. If Timothy had been brought up as an observant Jew he would certainly have been circumcised as a young child, in obedience to God’s command to Abraham in Genesis 17 verse 10. Despite this, Timothy was entrusted with the leadership of churches, and there are a couple of letters (1st and 2nd Timothy) addressed to him from Paul instructing him in how to best exercise his leadership as a pastor.  This article explains more, but makes the point that Timothy was not a pastor in the modern sense of the term – but then, who in the New Testament was?!

Do you see how there is very obviously a tight restriction in the Old Covenant Law on Gentiles, and their claim to God, which is completely blown away in Christ? In fact, it is obliterated. This is the way new Testament grace works. Restrictions of the Old Covenant just completely dissolve in the light of New Testament Grace.

SINS
Whether in Old or New Testament, sin is sin, our sins were responsbible for taking Jesus to the cross. However, there is a phenomenal shift between the Old Testament and the New Testament.

Old Testament Law:
Many sins were punishable by death. Leviticus Chapter 20. These included many sexual sins: adultery within marriage, or where the woman was engaged to someone else, male homosexuality (female homosexuality is not mentioned in the Old Testament), bestiality. It also included idolatry, specifically offering human sacrifices in pagan rituals, and cursing one’s own parents. The Old Testament taught the principle of an eye for an eye. Leviticus 24v19-22. If you sinned, and you got caught, you were punished.

New Testament Grace:
Jesus the revolutionary came along and taught some completely new principles. Instead of sexual sins being punishable by death, He taught: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” – John 8v7. Instead of an eye for an eye, He taught His followers to forgive people their sins, to turn the other cheek, to love their enemies, to pray for people who hurt them. Matthew Chapter 5 verses 38-42. In fact, in these passages Jesus deliberately contrasts His new approach with the “eye for an eye” doctrine.

Here again there is a tight restriction in the Old Testament, which flows into greater freedom in the New Testament. This is not to say that there is greater freedom in the New Testament to sin; rather that the repercussions of our sin in the New Testament are wrapped around with a grace that is absent from the Old Testament. As always, the difference is breathtaking.

WOMEN:
Aha, so now let us look at the case of women.
Old Testament Law:
In the Old Testament Law women were not allowed to officiate in the Temple, or to be priests. That said, they were not expressly forbidden. It is just that by default the role was given to men. Women who were of the families of the priests were allowed to eat of (some of) the holy offerings Leviticus 22 v 12-13. Even though they were not allowed to minister in the Temple, women were allowed to operate in leadership.

-There was the wife of Ezekiel Isaiah, who was simply referred to as “the prophetess”: Isaiah 8v3.  Apparently however, this might simply refer to the fact that she was the wife of the prophet.

Judges 4v4
-There is the example of Deborah, who was a Judge over the whole land of Israel before the period of the Israelite Kings. It could be argued that she was not in spiritual leadership. However, the nation of Israel was a theocracy, that is, one ruled by the law of God. Anyone who was in leadership over such a nation was to some extent in spiritual leadership.  Additionally, she is referred to as a *prophet/prophetess.  Judges 4v4

2 Kings 22v14-20
-The prophetess Huldah: She was consulted to get the opinion of the Lord when the book of the Law was discovered. So here we have a woman, yes, a woman, explicitly exercising spiritual authority over not just men, but over a king, in fact, over a whole nation. And
they obeyed her – oh yes they did!

Exodus 15v20, Micah 6v4
-Miriam: A criticism that could be levied against the two earlier examples is that they were not explicitly endorsed by God. This is completely negated in the case of Miriam. In Micah 6v4 God says that He sent Moses to lead the people of Israel, also Aaron and Miriam, where Aaron was the elder brother of Moses, and Miriam was his elder sister. So here we have God Himself, explicitly speaking through the Bible, telling us that He sent A Woman As A Leader. Yes, God sent a WOMAN, As A Leader!!! Hello?! Remember that all scripture is breathed by inspiration of God. 2 Timothy 3v16. This is the word of God. This is what God Himself has said – thank you very much!!!!!

Yes, these female leaders were rare. But such is the nature of women’s biology, being concerned with bearing and bringing up children etc that female leadership over nations will always be rare, as it remains rare even in our world today. But then to say that it is forbidden altogether is a whole extra step.

New Testament Grace:
So if we were to follow the previous examples we have examined where Old Testament restriction flowed into New Testament freedom and grace, then clearly it would follow that women would be freely allowed to assume any extent of leadership or expression of closeness to God. In Christ Jesus there is no male nor female Galatians 3v28… implying that women are as fully seated in the heavenly places with Christ as are men, Ephesians 2v6.
But no, on this issue, and this issue only, apparently Old Testament restriction flows into…even tighter restriction in the New Testament grace. Women in the Old Testament were allowed to be in leadership, even in leadership over whole nations. God Himself explicitly sent women for that purpose. But apparently in the New Testament, not only can women not conclusively give the opinion of God to men, much less to a whole nation, as did the prophetess Huldah, some Christians even maintain that women are not allowed to speak in church. Can you see that this quite clearly makes zero sense?

Oh but wait! Even in this supposedly and inexplicably stricter New Testament stance on women in leadership, there are still pinpricks of light. There are the four daughters of the Apostle Philip, who prophesied Acts 21v9. There is Priscilla, who with her husband Aquila operated in leadership, and taught Apollos – or rather explained things to him Acts18v24-26 **. From the phrasing of the Greek (which many naughty Bible translators turn around) – ie, the fact that her name comes first in the Greek, the indication is that she was the more prominent party in this over her husband. There is Phoebe, the deacon of the church in Cenchrea: Romans 16v1– which again some naughty Bible translators (which seems to be most Bible translators – but not me, when I eventually get to that passage, by God’s grace!) translate not as deacon, but rather as “servant” – however it is is the same word in Greek:  diakonos (here in the accusative case, diakonon).  There was Chloe with the church that meets in her house,1 Corinthians1v 11, and then there are those disputed name forms.  In the cases of the disputed name forms, the plain Greek gives a feminine form of the name, but Bible translators in their wisdom have historically deduced that these people could not have been female, because of the positions of spiritual authority that they held – so they have assumed that these apparently feminine names are actually shortened forms of masculine names. This is how “Nympha” (a feminine form)  in the Greek with a church meeting in her house, gets tranformed  into “Nymphas” – a masculine name, in English: Colossians 4v15. (Even though we also have the unmistakably female Chloe with a church meeting in her house). The same thing happens with feminine Junia who gets her gender reassigned  into Junias: Romans 16v7.  Junia/Junias  was referred to by the Apostle Paul as an apostle – apparently, according to Wikipedia, the fact that Junia was indeed a woman (and therefore a female apostle) is now seldom contested by Christian theologians.

Question – why would it be a big deal in the first place for a woman to be an apostle in the New Testament when a woman was a national Judge in the Old Testament, when God Himself by His own testimony explicitly sent a woman as a national leader of the children of Israel, where the word Apostle means “sent” (by God)?  No-one in our days might use the word “Apostle” for Miriam, but that might be what she was, or the status that she had, by God’s own testimony, along with being a prophet.  More on Nympha and Junia in this article.

Inconsistent with the character of God
And does anyone else notice how promises in the New Testament, if anything, can seem almost exaggerated? We are now seated with Christ Jesus in heavenly places: Ephesians 2v6. The power that raised Jesus from the dead is at work in us. Romans 8v32. Romans 8v32 says: “He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all–how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things?”
This is the way God works – He opens His hand, and He just gives us literally everything. He does not hold back at all. He tells people who were not allowed: “You are allowed!” He says to those who are not His people: “You are my people” Romans 9v25.
The Bible also teaches us that God is not a respecter of persons. (This means that He regards us all equally). Acts 10v34. In the Old Testament, with all the stipulations about Levites and Priests, and restrictions on Gentiles, one would have been forgiven for thinking that God was a respecter of persons. However, all those restrictions have been lifted in the New Testament – oh look, apart from the restrictions on women.

This is what I mean when I say that banning female leadership is completely inconsistent with the character of God, who liberally opens His hand and bestows on us literally everything. Why would He so contradict Himself to restrict this thing – or anything whatsoever – from half of humanity? That does not make sense. Galatians also tells us that “In Jesus Christ, there is no Jew or Gentile, no slave nor free, no male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3v28. In ordinary Christian life, the restrictions that did make an Old Testament difference between Jews and Gentiles, between slaves and free men, have been removed. The only restrictions that remain are those that make a difference between men and women. Do you see how that is inconsistent? Remember that God Himself also said that “in the last days, He would pour out His spirit on all flesh” – in case we might have excluded women, He goes on to make it explicitly clear that this does include women – “your sons and your daughters will prophesy..even on my servants, both men and women….and they will prophesy….”  Joel 2.28
So God is going to pour out His spirit on women, to the point where they can prophesy…so that they can keep quiet in church? Does that make sense to you? Does that flow with the rhythm and symmetry of the Bible as we have examined?  This was also quoted in the new Testament, in Acts 2v17:  The fact that Peter claimed the “Last Days” prophesy for his own times shows that those “last days” promises regarding the outpouring of God’s Spirit were already in force in his own times, the 1st Century Church.  If that was true then 2000 years ago, that the church was in the last Days, then clearly 2000 years later we must still be in the Last Days, and all those promises regarding the outpouring of God’s Spirit on all flesh must still be valid and appropriate for us now.

Please also have a look at my diagram above showing a basic outline of the way the courts worked in the Second Temple.  Do you notice that in that Temple, Jewish women were “allowed” to be closer to God than Gentiles, even Gentile men?  They may only have been women, but at least they were Jewish! Well in the popular understanding of the place of New Covenant leadership, Gentile men have inexplicably overtaken Jewish women – for no apparent reason.  If we are going to maintain any thought of hierarchy, then why would God suddenly change the order from the Old Testament?  If anything, you can understand why Gentile men might be made equal to Jewish women – but why would they suddenly overtake them altogether? That does not make sense.

If we were to take away this teaching that women are “not allowed” to be leaders over men, or allowed to speak in church, then oh look, everything would suddenly make sense. It would fit with the rhythm and the symmetry of the restrictions in the Old Testament flowing into freedom in the New Testament. This is why I know, even before looking in depth into the difficult teachings, that this belief that would limit female leadership, or teaching in church MUST, MUST, a thousand times MUST be wrong. These verses simply cannot say or teach what so many people think that they say and teach. Please stay tuned as I plan to look in depth into the difficult teachings to explain what I think that they actually do mean 😉
Image at the top – what a modern day Apostle prophet or evangelist might look like –  because I could not find a picture of myself actually preaching – ha ha!  😉

 

*In the cases of Deborah,  Huldah, and Miriam, some Bible translations translate their titles as “prophet”.  This leads me to believe that the Hebrew word for prophet makes no distinction for the fact that they are female – perhaps something to deduce from this is that a prophet is a prophet – and these ones simply happened to be female.  The same is true of Phoebe the deacon – where it is definitely a distinctly male form of the word deacon that is used – diakonon.  I personally have no problem with the use of the words “prophetess” and “deaconess”, to indicate that the people concerned are female.

**Apparently a lot can hang on the distinction between “teaching” and “explaining”.  Some Christians who like to maintain that women are not allowed to teach men emphasise that what Priscilla and Aquila were doing here was explaining the way of God to Apollos more accurately – but emphatically not teaching him.  Because women, after all, are not allowed to teach men….This article speaks a little more about this subjectThis article, on the other hand, argues against the idea that the word order indicates Priscilla’s greater prominence.

There is now a second part to this post, available here
Part 3, a round up, is available here

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