Can women be leaders in the church? It’s such a simple question, yet so complicated in the modern church.
There are few, if any, issues that have become more complicated and divisive as the complementarian/egalitarian debate. To be sure, there is legitimate biblical evidence that both sides of the debate use faithfully and logically. Case in point, I have books on my shelf each in excess of four hundred pages written by scholars on either side of the debate. There is no shortage of biblical text to explore in regard to this topic, and this article is by no means comprehensive. Not even close.
Please note that this article assesses biblical evidence for women having leadership roles in the church in general. The specific debate about women being senior pastors in particular requires more detail and explanation than is possible in this article.
Let’s explore three scriptural reasons in favor of women being leaders in the church.
Bible open to book of Genesis with magnifying glass to signify apple of my eyePhoto Credit: ©SparrowStock
1. Genesis 1:27 - Men and Women in the Image of God
One of the primary texts in support of women being leaders in the church is found at the very beginning of Scripture. Genesis 1 provides the birds-eye view of creation; and at the end of the chapter, God creates humans.
Genesis 1:27 reads, “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
Notice how there is no distinction here between male and female in regard to value or competence. Both male and female are created in the image of God. The male is not in the image of God any more than the female. The male is not singled out as having any more inherent value than the female. The male is not designated as more important or more capable than the female.
Therefore, if the male is neither designated as more valuable or capable than the female, why should women be prevented from obtaining leadership opportunities in the church? The creation account in Genesis clearly implies complete equality in value and competence between male and female. Therefore, leadership roles in the church should be open for both men and women. God created both with the same value and opportunities for giftings, and women should be able to use such giftings for God’s glory in the church.
2. Women Leaders in the Bible - Precedent for the Modern Church
In my opinion, this reason and the following reason are the most intriguing supports for women being leaders in the church. Throughout Scripture, women are shown in leadership roles, and are affirmed in such roles. Nowhere in Scripture is a woman put down as a result of her leading groups of Christians in a God-honoring manner.
With that said, here is a brief list of examples of women in Scripture who are shown to be leaders of God’s people.
Miriam is one of the first examples of a woman leader in Scripture. In Exodus and Numbers, she demonstrates leadership over the nation of Israel, and she is shown to be valued so highly by the congregation of Israel that they refused to continue traveling without her. Read the text for yourself:
So Miriam was confined outside the camp for seven days, and the people did not move on till she was brought back – Num. 12:15
Take note of this. While Moses and Aaron were appointed as the official leaders of Israel, when Miriam was outside of the camp, no one continued traveling! Everyone kept behind to wait for her. Were she not valued and revered by the people of Israel, they would not have gone out of their way to wait for her before moving onward.
Deborah is one of the most commonly referenced female leaders in biblical history. During the period of the judges, she took on several leadership positions over the nation of Israel, and was revered in all such roles. Examples of such leadership positions include, “prophet” (Judges 4:4), “judge” (Judges 4:5), and “mother of Israel” (Judges 5:7). She is a recurring example of godly leadership in the books of Deuteronomy, Judges, and 1 Samuel.
In the New Testament as well, women are praised for their roles in discipleship and growth of the church, especially by Paul. The greatest concentration of references to women leaders in the New Testament is found in Romans. Paul refers to the letter carrier (who would also be the reader of the letter) as a woman (Rom. 16:1-2). Paul refers to at least five ministry colleagues who are women (Rom. 16:3, Romans 16:6-7, Romans 16:12).
Paul also refers to Phoebe and Junia by name, especially noteworthy for their service for the church in Rome.
If women are to be prevented from leadership responsibilities in the church, would Paul be commending women for their service in church leadership? I think not.
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3. Jesus’ Treatment of Women in the Gospels
Every Christian understands that Jesus is the ultimate example to follow in every area of life. This becomes especially important in this conversation, because there is a clear theme when observing Jesus’ treatment of women in the Gospels. He treats them well. He affirms their giftings and abilities. He allows them to lead and serve with Him. Here are a few examples of Jesus’ treatment of women in the Gospels that should inform our conversations about women in ministry today.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus’ first explicit declaration of His identity as Messiah is to a woman. Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well goes as follows:
The woman said, ‘I know that Messiah’ (called Christ) ‘is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.’ Then Jesus declared, ‘I, the one speaking to you—I am he’ – John 4:25-26
If Jesus did not value women and their testimony in the church, why would Jesus’ first admission of being the Messiah be to a woman? Surely she would go around telling people what Jesus said. If he did not want a woman sharing the news of Him being Messiah, due to women not being worthy of responsibility in ministry, he would not have engaged in this conversation with the woman at the well.
Jesus also affirmed women through his teachings, challenging cultural assumptions at the time in favor of women.
A premier example of this is Jesus’ teachings on marriage. At the time, women were viewed as property. Therefore, women were essentially slaves to their husbands, often alongside several other wives married to the same man. However, Jesus affirmed the value of women by explicitly teaching that marriage is to be between one man and one woman, as well as that men are not to look at women with lustful intent. This was surely a countercultural and infuriating teaching at the time.
See Matthew 5 for a series of Jesus’ teachings that affirm the value of women.
Jesus’ teaching clearly implies that women are not solely designated to be homemakers, but rather are encouraged to hear His teaching and act upon it. Take the scene with Martha and Mary as an example. Mary chooses to sit and listen to the words of Jesus, whereas Martha occupies herself with household chores. Mary is singled out by Jesus as the one who has made the better decision.
In Jesus’ eyes, listening to His teaching is of more value for a woman than homemaking. This again challenged cultural assumptions at the time, as well as assumptions for some today. Jesus did not want women to be cast aside as mere servants. Jesus wanted, and still wants, women directly involved in the workings of the church.
The debate in regard to women in leadership in the church is controversial and divisive in the church today. There is biblical support for women assuming leadership roles in the church. These reasons include both male and female created with equal value in the image of God, the numerous examples of women in leadership in the Bible, as well as Jesus’ treatment of women in the Gospels both in his actions and his teachings.
Throughout Scripture, women are encouraged to be actively involved in the functioning of the church. We should make the same strides to encourage women to be involved in the church today.
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headshot of author Lucas HagenLucas Hagen is a freelance writer, recently graduated from Taylor University with majors in Biblical Literature and Youth Ministries. When he is not writing for Crosswalk, you can find him reading great books, playing guitar, competing in professional disc golf tournaments, and spending quality time with his lovely wife, Natalie, and their fluffy cat, Woodward. You can read more of his writing at habitsofholiness.com.[pie_register_form id="1" title="true" description="true" ]