If we set aside 1 Timothy 2:12 from the debate over the ordination of women to the presbyterate and the episcopacy (see post below), then two other (related) arguments bear consideration. I shall conjoin them as one argument with two (perhaps three) aspects. The argument in essence is that the role of leadership over a mixed gender community is not assigned by God to women. One aspect, drawn from the Old Testament, highlights the story of creation in Genesis 2 which places the woman as derivative from the man, and assigns her the role of ‘helper’. Another aspect, drawn from the New Testament, highlights talk in 1 Corinthians 11 and Ephesians 5 of ‘headship’: the husband is the head of the wife. Here Genesis 2 does not seem to be far away. The primogeniture of Adam over Eve carries through into the life of every family. Husband/father is the head of the household, and rightly so from a creation perspective is the gist of this talk. A possible third aspect is the Trinitarian discussion about the relationship of the Father and the Son as involving equality and subordination, or, if one prefers, equality of status yet differentiation of roles. From this one can affirm the equality of men and women in Christ (cf. Galatians 3:28) while also talking about their distinctive roles, and even the subordination of one to the other.
Perhaps before going further it is important to get a few red herrings out of the way. Let’s not worry here, first, about whether the idea of woman as ‘helper’ is intrinsically demeaning: ‘Helper’, after all, is a descriptive name of the Holy Spirit; and many of us in many instances in life find ourselves in the helping role but not demeaned by that. To be the helper in family or church life is phenomenally important, so let’s not worry before we start about where we might end up in respect of the role of ‘helper’.
Secondly, whatever Ephesians 5:20-22 means in respect of marriage (‘wives submit to you husbands’, does that mean what it looks like it means?), let’s not worry about that here either. In fact for the sake of the particular argument about church leadership with which we are concerned, let’s suppose the (apparently) worst case scenario: wives are to do what their husbands tell them. Our question is whether this kind of talk necessarily forbids women from taking up leadership roles over mixed gender congregations.
The texts which concern us here are fairly clear that man is the head of woman. Take, for example, 1 Corinthians 11:3, ‘But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.’ Or, are they? Reading on in 1 Corinthians 11 we find the thinking of 11:3 extended in 11:8-10, ‘For man is not from woman, but woman from man. Nor was man created for the woman but woman for the man. For this reason the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.’ But then we find this in 11:11-12, ‘Nevertheless, neither is man independent of woman, nor woman independent of man, in the Lord. For as woman came from man, even so man also comes through woman; but all things are from God.’ It is interesting that Paul seems to modify the bold ‘creation’ statement re woman in relation to man with a ‘redemption’ statement (“Nevertheless … in the Lord”) akin to Galatians 3:28. In Ephesians 5 we find similar modification when 5:22 ‘Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord’ is read alongside 5:21 ‘submitting to one another in the fear of God’ and 5:23-33 which repeatedly enjoins husbands to love their wives with a Christ-patterned sacrificial love.
Two observations then come into consideration in debate over these passages. One, made by some, is that nowhere in these passages is a direct deduction made that a woman should not lead or teach a mixed gender congregation. (Indeed 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 presumes that women will contribute through public prayer and prophesy to the life of mixed gender congregations). Another made by others is that, nevertheless, we are justified in making a deduction that woman should not lead or teach because the church is understood as the household of faith (Galatians 6:10; 2 Timothy 1:16) and Ephesians 5:20-33 is part of ‘household’ teaching and thus what prevails in the human family should prevail in the church family.
Which of these observations trumps the other? Here I suggest we work from the New Testament itself, no matter how tempting it may be to bring to bear the searching light of (say) feminist criticism. When we reflect on the variety of roles undertaken by the likes of Lydia, Priscilla (Acts and elsewhere), Phoebe, Junia (Romans 16), Euodia, Syntyche (Philippians 4), and the elect lady of 2 John 1, and the affirmation they receive, including Paul’s notable description of Euodia and Syntyche as ‘co-labourers’, I suggest we should reckon with this possibility: that headship of women refers to their relationship with their husbands (or, if not married, with their fathers), and not their relationship with the congregations to which they belonged.
In other words, it is consistent with all the New Testament says about the roles of women and about headship that women contributed to leadership and teaching of mixed gender congregations while being in an appropriate relationship of respect and (mutual) submission to husbands (if married). Putting it in terms relevant to our day: headship with respect to a woman in leadership and teaching roles requires her to be respectful of her husband (if married) but does not require her to refrain from exercising leadership and undertaking teaching.
The counter may then come, ‘but what about the helper role of Eve, does this not signal that God intends men and women, equal as they are, nevertheless to fulfil distinct roles?’ And, if we give an affirmative answer to that question, would that not fit well with the possibility that in the New Testament headship teaching implies women should not be in charge of churches?
Here I think we need to reflect a little on what the scope of ‘helping’ might be, informing our reflection with the whole range of God’s counsel in Scripture. First, ‘helping’ is not about being confined to kitchen and child-rearing duties. In the story of Mary and Martha, for example, Jesus endorses both Martha slaving away in the kitchen and Mary who takes time to sit at her Master’s feet. Deborah, Huldah, Naomi, Abigail, Priscilla, Phoebe and others show flair for practical organisation (a form of helping) which is not confined to their immediate household duties, and often has significant bearing on the fulfilment of God’s plans for Israel or the church. Secondly, the Bible develops a vision for the role of women which enlarges the scope of helping beyond the home to include planning and completion of commercial projects (Proverbs 31:10-31). Thirdly, we find in Luke 8:1-3 a unique story of a group of women disciples (‘And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities’). Here they are helpers (‘provided for them [or him] out of their means’) but they seem to have wangled a leave pass from home duties (were they rich women with servants at home?). Alongside (and including some of) these female disciples lie the roles of the women who became the first witnesses to the resurrection. Then, fourthly, as we wind our way through the New Testament, we find, already enumerated above, the likes of Lydia and Priscilla and Phoebe and the elect lady who take leading roles in the church. Women form a distinct order of widows in 1 Timothy 5:3-16, and teach children and other women in Titus 2:3-5.
Putting all that together we build up a picture of a biblical account of helping as a wide ranging set of possibilities that are not confined to acts of service undertaken by women who more or less function as subordinate servants. Rather women take leading roles in family, community and church in respect of the outworking of the helping role given to Eve as the archetypal woman.
The question of a distinct helping role leads to this question, is the helping role, broad and wide as it is worked out in the Bible, a legal restraint on women doing one or both of two things, (1) developing the helping role to include helping through leadership, and (2) stepping outside of a female role into a male role, such as leadership (even where leadership is conceived as a ‘non-helping’ role)?
In respect of (1) and (2) it does seem as though women embraced leadership without men saying either ‘this is not right; helping means that but not this’ or ‘you should not do this, go back to your helping role’ (with the exception of 1 Timothy 2:12 – and even that ruling does not tell women they are meant to be ‘helpers’ only). The actions of a Deborah or Huldah or Joanna, wife of Chuza, or Priscilla or Phoebe are never accompanied by any sense of a debate about the appropriateness of their actions or a lurking rule in the background which is being infringed. In respect of (1) alone, the actions of a Priscilla or Phoebe suggest a broadening of the helping role to include leadership responsibility – though it is quite fair to note that nothing is clearly said about either being the sole leader of a church. In respect of (2) alone, the talk of widows in the Bible – they feature in quite a few stories and instructions – raises the interesting question of unmarried women being in charge of households (whether widowed or as unmarried daughters/sisters taking up responsibility when father/brothers not available). There is no New Testament account of the responsibilities of widows which suggests their immediately responsibility was to find a man to lead their household (whether son or brother or uncle or another husband). When we reckon that a woman might be a leader in this way and ask whether a woman ever led a congregation, the story of Lydia in Acts 16 takes on some importance. Lydia was a woman without a husband mentioned, involved in commerce, and keeps figuring in the story of this fledgling church even when men members are mentioned. We will come back to her in a moment. The picture we can build up is that women and men do take up different spheres of ministry, and more men than women are involved in the leadership of the church. But, 1 Timothy 2:12 excepted, we find no rule prohibiting women such as Lydia and Priscilla taking a leading role, and find no evidence that the early church was concerned to demarcate these spheres of involvement.
In fact I think we can go further and say this: from the perspectives of helping and headship we find women embracing a wide range of activity and service in the life of community and church. This range includes leadership. The only exclusion on understanding such leadership being full leadership of mixed gender congregations takes us to 1 Timothy 2:12 as a key statement to consider (as we have already done in a separate post). It does not in fact take us to Genesis 2, 1 Corinthians 11, or Ephesians 5.
There remains one objection I want to briefly consider. This is: ‘nevertheless, there is no clear and unambiguous example in the New Testament of a woman leading a mixed gender congregation – at best there are ambiguous examples of husband-and-wife leadership (e.g. Priscilla and Aquila, Andronicus and Junia).’ I accept this as far as it goes. I would put more weight on the example of Lydia and Phoebe than proposers of this objection would grant, but even then it’s not clear that Lydia remained the leading figure of the Philippian church once established nor that Phoebe’s role as patron and deacon of Cenchreae extended to teaching and presiding at the eucharist. The response which can be made is this, building on observations made above.
The Bible allows for change and development in life and in the church. Different responses are made to different situations, for example, in the course of the mission described in Acts. It is widely agreed that the New Testament with its talk of deacons, elders, and bishops nowhere lays down a single uniform pattern for leadership. Thus churches such as the Presbyterian and Anglican churches claim to have leadership structures which are earthed into the New Testament, and consistent with the New Testament, and yet the differing structures in each church does not contradict the New Testament. It is plausible to think of a trajectory of development, such as this, beyond the New Testament in other areas of life. Slavery, for example, is not specifically banned in the Bible but we now prohibit slavery because we draw that conclusion from our reading of the whole of Scripture as it speaks about freedom and human dignity and equality. (Conversely we continue to understand homosexual sex as wrong because the Bible bears consistent witness in both Testaments to its wrongness.)
Our question, then, with respect to female leadership of mixed gender congregations is whether there is a prohibitive conclusion for all time which may be drawn from Scripture in respect of helping or headship or 1 Timothy 2:12? Our answer here, combined with our earlier post on 1 Timothy 2:12, is that this conclusion is not required from Scripture. In fact, drawing together Scriptural talk of freedom and oneness in Christ, and the distributive nature of the gifts of the Spirit which is never gender specific, we may properly draw the conclusion that a woman may lead a mixed gender congregation and teach it.