Women in Ministry According to the New Testament
An Exegetical and Theological Issue


Should women be priests or pastors? On an issue like this, one should use a wide range of texts in the New Testament, including instructional material, narrative material, and passing references in letters that provide a glimpse of life in the earliest churches Paul founded. One must also consider the social context in which something was written: What sort of patriarchal attitudes were current? How might "full participation" have worked in that setting? What specific problems, about which we no longer are aware, may be behind this or that statement? Note also that as the end of the first century C.E. approached, ministry became less and less a matter of exercising one’s spiritual gift or calling and more a matter of office, passed on through the proper channels of authority.

As you reflect on each of the passages below, think about whether the passage implies the full participation of women in the ministry of the church or whether it implies less than full participation in the ministry of the church.
Could Imply Full Participation
Could Imply Less than Full Participation
Matthew 5:27-32
     "You have heard that it was said, `You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. 
     It was also said, `Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.' But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. 
John 8:1-11
     Then each of them went home, while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?" They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; 
and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" She said, "No one, sir." And Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again."
Here Jesus seems to side with the woman by freeing her from the injustice of double standards. Jesus did not specifically challenge the patriarchy of his day from a feminist or liberationist perspective.
Mark 5: 24b-34
     And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, "If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well." Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, "Who touched my clothes?" And his disciples said to him, "You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, `Who touched me?'" He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, "Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease." 
Luke 10:38-42
           Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me." But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her." 
Luke 11:27-28
           While he was saying this, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, "Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!" But he said, "Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!" 
Luke 7:36-50
           One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee's house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him--that she is a sinner." Jesus spoke up and said to him, "Simon, I have something to say to you." "Teacher," he replied, "Speak." "A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?" Simon answered, "I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt." And Jesus said to him, "You have judged rightly." Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little." Then he said to her, "Your sins are forgiven."But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, "Who is this who even forgives sins?" And he said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace." 
John 4:9,27
     The Samaritan woman said to him, "How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?" (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) ... Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking 
with a woman, but no one said, "What do you want?" or, "Why are you speaking with her?"
Here Jesus seems to judge cultural taboos and stereotypes about women. The radical acceptance Jesus showed to women suggests that artificial boundaries about what women "can" or "can't" do in the church are more social and cultural constructs than they are revealed truth. The radical acceptance Jesus showed to women may have little to do with their participation in ministry.
Matthew 28:1-8
     After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, `He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.' This is my message for you." So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. (cf. also Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-12; John 20: 1-13) 
Luke 6:12-16
     Now during those days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. And when day came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles: Simon, whom he named Peter, and his brother Andrew, and James, and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Simon, who was called the Zealot, and Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor. 
Luke 8:1-3
     Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages,  proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod's steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, 
who provided for them out of their resources. 
Luke 10:38-42 (see above)
John 4:9,27 (see above)
All four Gospels agree that Jesus revealed his messiahship and appeared as resurrected Lord first to women. Women also followed Jesus closely, supported his ministry financially (i.e., they bankrolled  it) as well as that of the Twelve, and Jesus treated women disciples with at least the same respect and seriousness that he did the men disciples. Given the patriarchal society of Jesus’ time, he showed women respect to the extent that some people felt uncomfortable. "The twelve" (disciples) were men.
Mark 5:24b-34 (see above)
Luke 7:36-50 (see above)
Luke 4:25-26
     But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 
Luke 8:1-3 (see above)
Luke 23:55
     The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. 
Luke 10:38-42 (see above)
Luke 11:27-28 (see above)
Mark 15:40-41
     There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem. 
Mark 14:1-9
     It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; for they said, "Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people." 
     While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. But some were there who said to one another in anger, "Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor." And they scolded her. But Jesus said, "Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her."
Jesus repeatedly affirmed the human worth and spiritual gifts of women. Recognizing the human worth and dignity of women is not the same as affirming that women have the same gifts and calling as men do.
Acts 12:12
           As soon as he realized this, he [Peter] went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many had gathered and were praying. 
Acts 16:15
     When she [Lydia] and her household [in Philippi] were baptized, she urged us [Paul and the writer (Luke?)], saying, "If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home." And she prevailed upon us. 
Colossians 4:15
     Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters in Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house. 
1 Corinthians 16:19
     The churches of Asia send greetings. Aquila and Prisca, together with the church in their house, greet you warmly in the Lord. 
Romans 16:3-5
     Greet Prisca and Aquila, who work with me in Christ Jesus, and who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles. Greet also the church in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert in Asia for Christ.
Women served as hostesses, patrons, or leaders for house churches. Although it is clear that women in the early church were especially gifted with hospitality, it is not clear what sort of ministerial functions they played.
Romans 16:1-2
     I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon [or minister] of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.
Women served as ministers in local churches--at least in first-generation Christianity. The word for "deacon," "deaconness," or "minister" here is the same word used in Eph 6:21: "Tychicus will tell you everything. He is a dear brother and a faithful minister in the Lord." It is also the same word used in Philippians 1:1, "Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi."
1 Corinthians 11:2-16
     I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you. But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ. Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head--it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil. For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man. Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man.
Paul implies that women can and should pray and prophesy in the church (with their heads covered). The task of prophecying is closest to that of preaching today, and is clearly something that Paul allows that women will do in the church. 

Paul's appeal to "headship" here seems designed to deal with the cultural offense of women going about unveiled.

Paul implies that "headship" creates some kind of a functional difference between men and women—whether spiritual, functional, or social.
1 Corinthians 14:33b-36
     (As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, 
but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at 
home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached?)
This passage shows some signs of being added later by a second- generation hand; it also reflects the more conservative perspective of second generation Christianity. "Paul" says that women should be silent in the churches.
2 Corinthians 6:16-18

"I will live in them and walk among them, 
       and I will be their God, 
       and they shall be my people. 
Therefore come out from them, 
       and be separate from them, says the Lord, 
and touch nothing unclean; 
       then I will welcome you, 
and I will be your father, 
       and you shall be my sons and daughters
says the Lord Almighty."

Paul adds "and daughters" to his quotation of the royalty covenant text in 2 Sam 7:12-14, indicating that the royal covenant (i.e., the right to reign) extends to both men and women in the Reign of God. This suggests that Paul meant what he said in Galatians 3:28, "... no longer male and female."
Romans 16:3-5 (see above)
Philippians 4:2-3
     I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. 
Romans 16:6,12
     Greet Mary, who has worked very hard among you. ... Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena [woman's name] and Tryphosa [woman's name]. Greet the beloved Persis [woman's name], who has worked hard in the Lord.
The Holy Spirit gave women both the calling and the giftedness necessary for pastoral ministry. Paul worked with many women who served as "synergous" (coworkers) in his ministry, including at least Priscilla, Euodia, Syntyche, Mary, Typhaena, Tryphosa, and Persis. These women almost certainly would have taught men in their own ministries.
Galatians 3:27-28
     As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
Paul implies that gender distinctions have been eliminated in the kingdom of God.
Romans 16:7
     Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.
At least one woman (Junia) served as an apostle and was imprisoned because of her ministry.
Acts 18:2,18,26
     There he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them. ... After staying there for a considerable time, Paul said farewell to the believers and sailed for Syria, accompanied by Priscilla and Aquila. At Cenchreae he had his hair cut, for he was under a vow. ... He [Apollos] began to speak boldly in the synagogue; but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained the Way of God to him more accurately.
A woman (Priscilla) and her husband (Aquila) teach a man how to be a better minister of the gospel. Priscilla is the diminutive form of the name Prisca. Paul uses the form Prisca in his writings, but Luke uses the diminutive and perhaps somewhat condescending form Priscilla in his.
Ephesians 5:21-33
     Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ: Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind--yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their ownbodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body. "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband. 
Colossians 3:18-19
     Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and never treat them harshly. 
1 Peter 3:1-9
     Wives, in the same way, accept the authority of your husbands, so that, even if some of them do not obey the word, they may be won over without a word by their wives' conduct, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. Do not adorn yourselves outwardly by braiding your hair, and by wearing gold ornaments or fine clothing; rather, let your adornment be the inner self with the lasting beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in God's sight. It was in this way long ago that the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves by accepting the authority of their husbands. Thus Sarah obeyed Abraham and called him lord. You have become her daughters as long as you do what is good and never let fears alarm you. Husbands, in the same way, show consideration for your wives in your life together, paying honor to the woman as the weaker sex, since they too are also heirs of the gracious gift of life--so that nothing may hinder your prayers.
The principle at work behind the "household tables" seems to be that of mutual subordination and love, not just the subordination of one people group to another. Nevertheless, Christians today should recognizes that all of these "Haustafeln" come from second-generation Christianity, which returned to and reaffirmed a more conservative social ethic that would not be perceived as overly radical by the larger society. Proper biblical interpretation includes the obligation to recognize and repudiate the way in which these household codes can be used to reaffirm the status quo, with its evil structures. Typical post-Pauline "household tables" may imply that women should freely accept the roles prescribed for them by society.
Acts 2:17-18

`In the last days it will be, God declares, 
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, 
       and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, 
and your young men shall see visions, 
       and your old men shall dream dreams. 
Even upon my slaves, both men and women
       in those days I will pour out my Spirit; 
                    and they shall prophesy.

With the gift of the Holy Spirit, women are seen as having the same gifts of prophecy as men. In fact, the full giftedness and participation of women are seen as a sure sign of the Holy Spirit's presence.
Luke 2:36-38
     There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but 
worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child  to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. 
Acts 21:9
      He [Philip the evangelist] had four unmarried daughters who had the gift of prophecy. 
1 Corinthians 11:2-16 (see above)
Women served as prophets in the New Testament.
Mark 9:33-37
     Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he askedthem, "What were you arguing about on the way?" But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me." 
Mark 10:35-45
     James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." And he said to them, "What is it you want me to do for you?" And they said to him, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory." But Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?" They replied, "We are able." Then Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for 
those for whom it has been prepared." 
     When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many." 
1 Timothy 2:8-15
     I desire, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument; also that the women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God. Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.
Jesus had a hard time getting his disciples to understand that leadership in the kingdom of God is primarily about serving others, not about having authority over others. 

Whatever historical or social situation that existed among the writer or original readers of the Pastoral Epistles, modern readers should balance this passage with the rest of what the New Testament says about women in ministry (see above) and even critique this passage in light of them as well as the questionable exegesis of Genesis reflected here (e.g., that the order of Adam and Eve's creation is relevant to the issue of women in leadership positions or that Adam was not deceived or that childbearing is a means of salvation).

The passages that speak most directly to the issue of women in leadership positions in the New Testament are conservative. The "pastor" says women should not teach or have authority over men.

Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000 by Loren L. Johns
Last updated 26 July 2000.
Page created and maintained by Dr. Loren L. Johns, Academic Dean and Associate Professor of New Testament
Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Indiana.