Conversations on Paul IV: Should Women Preach & Lead Churches?
“Your mother needs to repent or she will go to hell! Women should not preach. The Bible clearly says so.” This was the gist of a twitter message sent to my younger sister by someone she considered a friend. It wasn’t the first or last time my siblings or I received a message like this.
In 1993, my parents moved to Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city, to start a church. Abuja was a new city at the time (it had just become the nation's capital two years prior), and my parents scarcely knew a soul there. Yet, they stepped boldly into the unknown, driven by a burning call in their souls. Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I watched my parents toil tirelessly to build their church—not just the building, but the community.
I was 15 years old when my father died in 2003. I did not understand much about gender or church politics at the time, but to me, the only logical next step was for my mother to assume leadership of the ministry I had watched her build from the ground up with my father. Many felt otherwise and my mother's gender was a large factor. After grueling deliberations by the church board and others leaders, my mother was elected president of the ministry and senior pastor of the church. Many left.
In 1 Timothy 2:12, Paul wrote: “And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence.” To the church in Corinth he also gave this instruction: “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says” (1 Corinthians 14:34).
When it comes to Paul’s writings, three things matter greatly: context, context, context. The first-century churches at Ephesus and Corinth attracted a lot of women, particularly widows. As a result, if you read the Pastoral Epistles (particularly the books of Timothy) you’ll notice that Paul wrote quite a bit about widows. Theologians like Rachel Held Evans note that Paul was particularly concerned about a group of young widows who had infiltrated the church and developed a reputation for promiscuity, spreading wrong ideologies, gossip, feeding from the church’s widow fund, dressing inappropriately and disrupting church services. Scholars like Bruce Winter (Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities) and Philip Townsend (The Letters to Timothy and Titus) note that the behavior of these young widows closely resembled that of members of a popular Roman fertility cult of Artermis. It seems that by his instruction for the women to remain silent, Paul was trying to create order in the churches he was addressing, and to prevent the reputation of the early church from being tarnished.
It is hard to believe that Paul’s verses in 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 14 were a blanket prohibition on all women’s speech and leadership in the church, because he did not practice this in his own ministry. Take Romans 16: in this chapter, Paul names eight women who were influential in his ministry. These women included Phoebe, a deacon in the church of Cenchrea; Priscilla a “co-worker” in the ministry (some scholars suggest she authored the book of Hebrews); and Junia who was “prominent among the apostles.”
Despite these early strides, women in ministry continue to face a “stained-glass ceiling” today. The problem of female representation among the clergy cuts across denominations, cultures and countries. For example, according to a study by the Barna Group, female pastors in the USA are generally more highly educated than their male counterparts. By 2009, more than 77% of female pastors in the USA had a seminary degree, while less than 63% of their male counterparts could make the same claim. Yet, female pastors typically have smaller compensation levels than their male counterparts. But this isn’t just an economic problem, it’s a social one too: popular televangelist Joyce Meyer often notes she lost all her friends and got ostracized from her family when she began her ministry.
Men suffer when women are silent in the church. I was privileged to have a conversation with the televangelist Creflo Dollar, a few weeks ago. He mentioned that because his wife is a Co-Senior Pastor of their church, they are able to share the burdens of the ministry, and as a result, to accomplish more together. I wonder how many men in the global church are struggling from carrying burdens of the pulpit alone, while there are women in their pews graced to share the burden with them.
Women suffer when they are forced to remain silent in the church. There are so many women who have so much to offer the body of Christ, but so little space to do it; women who have been called to preach, to lead, to evangelize, and to strategize. To recall Maya Angelou: there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.
The church suffers when women are silent. “God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1: 27). To understand God in his fullness, we need both male and female voices. Sons and daughters are called to prophesy (Acts 2:17).
The world suffers when women are silent. In 1843, a former slave woman called Isabella Baumfree became a Methodist and told her friends: “The Spirit calls me, and I must go.” She changed her name to Sojourner Truth and set about traveling and preaching about the abolition of slavery—the rest is U.S. History. Ain’t she a woman?
And when I think about my personal history, there are women preachers, teachers and leaders in the margins, the footnotes, and the text of my faith story. Kathryn Kuhlman. Joyce Meyer. Christine Caine. Juanita Bynum. Sarah Bessey. Margaret Idahosa. Michelle McKinney Hammond. Bimbo Odukoya. Rachel Held Evans. Darlene Zchech. Carolyn Curtis James. Sarah Jakes Roberts. Cindy Trimm. Marilyn Hickey. My Mommy.
Mom, I know you never felt entitled to the pulpit or the position. Nevertheless, you did what needed to be done. I look at all God has accomplished through you, and I can’t help but think at least some of it was pre-ordained in heaven.
Ubuntu—I am because you are.
To the nameless and countless more in the trenches, this post is for you too.