a hermeneutic on gender and ministry [#ICSEX]

Written by Dan King

Christ-follower. husband. father. author of the unlikely missionary: from pew-warmer to poverty-fighter. co-author of activist faith: from him and for him. director of family ministry at st. edward's episcopal church. president of fistbump media, llc.

August 12, 2010

Few things bother me as much as misinterpreted and misapplied scripture. And (I believe) one of the worst examples of this is around the issue of women’s role in ministry in the church.

There are many that disagree with women being active in ministry, and others that would go so far as to say that they should be silent participants in church. Not only do I feel that this is based on a misinterpretation of the intent of the Scriptures, but it also creates a situation that forces society to question the validity and relevance of the Word in our world today.

First let’s look at the passages used to support this idea:

The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. 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.

– 1 Corinthians 14:34-35

A woman must 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.

– 1 Timothy 2:11-12

Seems pretty clear, right? I mean, Paul doesn’t even stutter when he lays outs this direction.

But responsible Bible interpretation isn’t as easy as just looking at these passages at face value and saying that God is trying to tell us that women should never talk in church. After all, when Paul wrote this he was writing specifically to a first century audience dealing with very specific first century issues.

This means that there are cultural and sociological differences that we need to consider for us to fully understand what’s happening here. We must also take these passages in their literary context by understanding how they fit into the entire writings to which they belong. So here are a couple of questions that we need to consider before we can apply these ideas to the church today.

Who is Paul writing to and about?

The simple answer is that he’s giving instruction to a first century church and church leader. Because these passages are about women, we should understand what first century women were like. More often than not, women in the first century would have been very uneducated. They may be very skilled in the ways of keeping the home and raising the children, but most would not have been very educated at all, but especially in the Scriptures. Many may not even know how to read, but due to the lack of availability of literature they probably wouldn’t have needed to read in the first place.

Therefore, it would have been very common for women to have questions when listening to a great intellectual like Paul. It would have been the modern equivalent of a fifth-grader trying to listen to an Albert Einstein lecture. So they would have had questions about what Paul was teaching… LOTS of questions. And who would they turn to? The passage in 1 Corinthians answers that one pretty clearly.

Why would Paul be addressing this issue?

Considering that these curious women would’ve had lots of questions, and would’ve been asking things like, “Hey honey, what does he mean by we are ‘saved by grace’?” The women’s inability to understand complex intellectual and religious concepts would’ve created quite a disturbing chatter for someone who was trying to teach (probably in pretty tight quarters). These uneducated women were interfering with Paul’s teaching! I can imagine Paul thinking, “How rude! I wish these women would just be quite for a minute! They can ask their husbands what I meant later!” Oh… he did say that…

So what’s Paul’s intent?

Especially considering the surrounding text for the passage in 1 Corinthians, I believe that Paul is trying to talk about respecting the service than he is trying to prove male dominance in the church. Even the passage in 1 Timothy can be interpreted as being more about order, structure, and respect, than it is about keeping women quiet.

How does this translate for today?

Well, first of all, women are much more educated today than they were back then. And this level of knowledge/wisdom means that chattering, confused women are not interrupting the church services today like they would have back then. And if we look closely at Paul’s intent and the state of the church today, then Paul’s word might actually apply to many men as well.

And with other writings (like the Book of Acts) clearly pointing out that women often had a prominent role in ministry, it makes it hard for me to believe that Paul (and God) intended for women in today’s church to remain silent and miss out opportunities to minister to others.

What factors do you consider?

What else do you consider when interpreting passages like these? How do you reconcile these passages with others that clearly show women as active parts of ministry? What role do you feel women play (or don’t play) in church today? Why?

This post is for The Idea Camp blogging series during #ICSEX Gender Week.


  1. SuzieLind

    Other factors include other Scriptures like the ones you mentioned in Acts (Priscilca, Lydia) and Romans (Phoebe) as well as elsewhere in Corinthians when it speaks of women who prophesy… “Let them prophesy.” Do we not learn anything when the Spirit of God speaks through a woman in church, even when we call it “a prophetic word?” In addition we can look through Church history and see the fruit of what God has done through women. I always think of Henrietta Mears who had a deep impact on the lives of great men such as Bill Bright and Billy Graham when they were young and starting their ministries. This is a great post. I really believe the only way this will diminish as an issue is if more men speak up on behalf of women as women who are called to lead do so with grace and humility, respect for others and reverence for God. Thank you.

  2. Seiji Yamashita

    What do I consider when interpreting passages like these? That my wife is diving headfirst into ministry – lol.

    Seriously, the thing that I think about first is that it doesn't matter what a tool looks like so long as it gets the job done. I know a carpenter who has his favorite hammer that he's had for thirty years (his entire career as a carpenter) and that thing looks nasty. I mean it is beat up, stained, oddly shaped where he had to file away the rust but it's a good hammer and get's the job done. Same thing in ministry – does really matter if it's a woman so long as she's doing God's work? I'm thinking not.

  3. Accordingtosister

    Dan, Great post! I’m late to the conversation, but wanted to let you know I appreciate you speaking out on this issue.
    I’ve considered this subject a lot; (more than I care to, if I’m being honest). As a woman who is in ministry, here are the three issues I’m currently mining as I seek God’s heart on this matter:
    1. The work of the church is God’s work; the Holy Spirit working through surrendered men and women. Col 1:18 makes it very clear that Christ is to have first place in everything. I get uneasy about debating “who comes first” in ministry since the Scriptures are clear that it is Christ. Are we making too much about man or woman, when we should be making much of Christ? One rabbit hole I often fall down in this discussion is if the ministry of the church is the Spirit’s work through His people, then do women have less of the Spirit then men? That would be hard to defend from the text, so why is it then so hard to believe that God will use both genders surrendered to His Spirit in whatever means He determines best? Are we still looking too much to the work of the church to be accomplished in the flesh?
    2. The gospel. The other snaggletooth for me is Paul’s commitment to esteem the gospel. A complete reading of his writings make it clear that he doesn’t want any of God’s people letting dust settle on the gospel. If women are acting disorderly or dishonestly (as may have been the case in Ephesus) and causing an offense to the gospel, Paul exhorts them to stop. However, he also exhorts the men to guard the gospel’s reputation too. In our culture, do the ministry roles denied to women hurt or esteem the gospel? Do these roles given to them bear witness to the gospel’s power, its freedom, its ability to give new life?
    3. I spend a lot of time with women who have experienced sexual abuse. The prevalent language of male leadership is a challenge to their healing. (It’s not male leadership they resist, it’s the similarity of the language to that which they heard during the time of their abuse.) Their God-given identity and dignities have been stolen from them and when they listen to the “strong man” rhetoric is takes them back to a broken and painful place; a place where it makes it very hard for them to hide themselves in Christ. This doesn’t mirror the Jesus with the woman at the well we’ve come to know and love!
    Just a few of the aspects I’m continuing to explore as I seek to be all I was created to be in Christ! Thanks for your post.

  4. Dikmin1

    Great way to handle a touchy subject. One that my husband and I have discussed often.

  5. Heidi Mann

    It was touched on by Accordingtosister, but I would lift up again how affirming Jesus was of women. Think Mary (Martha’s sister), listening at Jesus’ feet (the typical position of a student before a rabbi in those days). Think of, yes, Jesus with the woman at the well — some have called her “the first evangelist.” Think of the women at the empty tomb, sent to tell the Resurrection News to (gasp!) the male disciples who were in hiding! (LOL, sorry, guys! — that one always gets me smiling a bit!). Think of the Prophetess Anna. Think of the many women who “ministered to Jesus” as he and the 12 disciples whose names got recorded traveled about. Just because, in the custom of that time and place, many women’s names and ministries weren’t written down, that doesn’t mean that was the will of God — and, too, how amazing it is, then, that some WERE recorded! And even dear St. Paul — who certainly leaned in a progressive direction for his day considering the role of women and other issues — even dear St. Paul was not “God”; he was human and certainly capable of making mistakes, just as we all do, even WITH the Holy Spirit working in us.

    So, in short, I do certainly believe passages like those at the head of this post have been misinterpreted. Others too, regarding other issues — but perhaps we won’t go there today… (not in my *first* comment post on this site, at any rate!).

    Thanks, Dan! I look forward to reading more.

  6. @bibledude

    There are many great women of God who have sown into my life, and I am extremely grateful for that! So I definitely am a firm believer in women playing an active role in ministry!

    I believe that the Old Testament esteems many women as well, and I think that Paul would have recognized that as well. So it really seems out of context to say that he is trying to suppress the role of women in ministry…

    Thanks for the comment Suzie! I’ve enjoyed your #ICSEX Gender Week posts as well!

  7. @bibledude

    I’m sure that having a wife who is active in ministry affects your perspective, but I really like the analogy! God created both man and woman in His image, so it makes sense that He can use both equally as tools of righteousness.

    Thanks for dropping by and sharing your experience and perspectives! You rock Seiji!

  8. @bibledude

    I absolutely LOVE the point here about God giving the same Holy Spirit to both men and women! I’ve heard that point applied to adults and children before, but not to the gender discussing… and it makes perfect sense! I think that someone trying to make the case that women are somehow inferior would be hard pressed when trying to support the idea that they get a ‘lesser’ Holy Spirit.

    I love all of the points that you make here, and I really appreciate you coming by to join in this discussion! Thanks!

  9. @bibledude

    Thanks! I’m glad to hear that this is something that couples talk about!

  10. @bibledude

    Jesus certain did set a precedent when it comes to affirming women! I love the pictures of Jesus rebuking the men that brought Him the sinful woman, and the woman at the well is one of my favorites in the Gospels.

    I believe that one of the biggest problems in the church today is Biblical illiteracy that causes people to misinterpret passages like these…

    Thanks for the *first* comment! I look forward to chatting with you more!

  11. Angela

    I realize this is a late comment, but what about the verses in 1 Timothy that talk about how Timothy learned about God, not from his dad or his grandfather, but from his mother and grandmother. Timothy’s spiritual heritage points to the women in his life and he is working in the church. Ok, you could argue that they were working in the home, but it is clear they were leaders speaking into Timothy’s life from a young age.

    • @bibledude

      The Biblical precedent for women in ministry certainly is overwhelming. I think that fact completely supports the idea that ‘women don’t talk in church’ is usually taken out of context.

      But it also bothers me if it is completely ignored. I think that it’s most important to consider it within it’s proper context. But you are absolutely right when you talk about Timothy’s heritage and the role of women in the ministry.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts Angela! It’s never too late to join the conversation!

  12. Hannah Maul Roberts

    Galatians 3:28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
    I always think this verse applies.

    • @bibledude

      This is a GREAT verse about our equality, regardless of cultural, social, and gender status. I agree that it applies to this conversation and the precedent for the role of women in ministry and the church.

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing that Hannah! It’s great to hear from you here!

  13. Andy Carlson

    Right on……thanks……gives me “learned” knowledge form which to have a discussion….Thank you Sir.


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a hermeneutic on gender and ministry [#ICSEX]

by Dan King time to read: 4 min