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Fall 1989 · Vol. 18 No. 2 · pp. 44–53 

Women's Role in Ministry in the Church

Ed Boschman


My assignment is to clarify a “personal understanding and practice” with respect to the ministry of women in the church. It was requested that the paper be written in a Bible study format. “Was sagt das Wort?” (What does the Word say?) is still the right question where Christian belief and practice are the topics at hand. I will clarify a personal understanding and practice with respect to the ministry of women in the church, rather than offering a full scale research paper.

God’s word for women . . . a spirit of submission . . .

It is also clear that arriving at differing interpretations on the matter does not by default make one or another of those who disagree unbiblical. The issue is not whether or not the Bible is truth, but how it is to be interpreted for understanding and practice. Just as it is true that the context and culture in which the Scriptures were written had impact on its context and meaning, it must be borne in mind that our twentieth century cultural milieu may (for either good or ill) shade our view of the Holy Spirit’s intent.

There may never be a time when any church (local or extended) will be in agreement on issues which are not fundamental non-negotiables. One must also {45} be prepared to say that a present position on an issue such as the one before us may not be the last word, or (even after all these years of study) the final and correct word.

Several further preliminary statements are in order here.

  • We confidently assert that women and men are created in the image of God with inherent equality of worth before Him. (Gen. 1:26-27)
  • We confidently assert that the sexes are joint heirs with Christ of full salvation. (Gal. 3:28-29)
  • We confidently assert that the Holy Spirit gifts all God’s children for ministry, and that it is His intent to have both men and women involved in the work of the Kingdom. (1 Cor. 12:7; 1 Peter 4:10; Acts 2:17-18; Rom. 16:1-16)
  • We confidently assert that the Fall resulted in complicating unholy motivations and actions in the relationships between (now dominating) men and (now grasping) women. (Gen. 3:1-19) (Or has our culture reversed the problem?)
  • We confidently assert that the redemption of Christ is intended to be the groundwork for the restoration of pre-curse conditions, and that we still live within the process of that sanctification, and that it will be completed at the end of the church age. (1 Cor. 15:20-28)
  • We confidently assert that this paper is not the author’s immutable word.

The question which remains is this: in what way do God created and God-ordained male and female distinctives impact His intention for function in His church? Does God intend a difference in the roles lived by women and men? Are there ministries intended for women and men which are specifically assigned to one and not the other? We will examine five texts in the order in which they appear in the Bible.


The first thought which Paul introduces is that there is a divinely designed headship relationship within the family of God and the godly family. “The head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God” (v. 3). He refers to Genesis 2:21-23 when in verses 8 and 9 he interprets and applies them by reminding us that “man {46} did not come from woman but woman from man; neither was man created for woman but woman for man.” The meaning of the text for male-female relationship (re: headship) is further clarified with respect to the marriage relationship in Ephesians 5:22-24, where the Scripture teaches that wives submit and husbands serve as leaders as the church submits to Christ’s leadership. Headship is God’s intended plan inasmuch as it is modeled in His relationship with His Son. They are One, but the Son submitted to the Father’s headship.

New interpretations of this text suggest that headship here means origin, but it must not be restricted to that. It is clear in the case of husband-wife headship that it must refer to leadership, for the topic is the wife’s submission. The relationship of the headship of the Father over the Christ must also refer to the relationship they enjoyed during the incarnation. This clarifies that headship or leadership do not deny equality or suggest inferiority. A difference in assignment does not make for a conclusion about value. Verse 3 establishes the doctrinal foundation upon which the Holy Spirit clarifies the relationship between men and women with respect to propriety in worship. The suggestion that because verses 8 and 9 speak of source (origin) the earlier verses must have the same meaning isn’t convincing. It seems more likely that it is intended to clarify that the man was a created being and the woman a derived being. The Scriptures clarify by initial terminology (“suitable helper”) that God’s intent was to make woman because man alone was not good. The woman is man’s counterpart and is his glory because she demonstrates how suitable a being God could create from man, whereas man is described as the crown of creation demonstrating the apex of God’s creative work.

Verses 10 and 11 affirm that in spite of the underlying headship relationships, men and women are not independent of each other. The church of Jesus Christ provides a context for full participation in the celebration of worship. Though this was contrary to earlier practice, the apostle clarifies that women are expected to meet for fellowship and worship with men as co-equal heirs and celebrators of salvation.


The text introduces a specific injunction that women {47} should remain silent in the churches. Inasmuch as 11:2-16 did not speak to this, and freely included women in the meetings of the church as co-equally involved, the challenge is to harmonize the two sections. Some have suggested the reference is only to speaking in tongues. Others have noted that women sat separately from men and if they voiced questions from their section, it would be disruptive. The general context of “speak” in the chapter has most often to do with addressing the entire assembly. Another view is that Paul needed to silence the women to preserve respect and integrity for the Christian church in the first century culture.

It seems clear, however, that the text cannot be understood that narrowly. Verse 34 makes reference to what “the law says.” The law must be a reference to the Old Testament clarification that God had ordained headship in the relationship between man and woman. As already clarified, this was to provide honor and dignity to both in their God-assigned functions. Verse 37 asserts that Paul is writing “the Lord’s command.” Verses 33 and 34 clearly show that the order is for all the churches, regardless of cultural backdrop. It appears that this is not a cultural mandate for the time, but a God ordained practice for all time. Note that Paul warns severely about prideful independent practice which counters the clear Word of the Lord.


The practice of worship in the church at Ephesus had evolved to various disorders and confusion. The newfound freedom in Christ which women had come to experience apparently became the cradle out of which was birthed a situation in which women had thrust themselves into positions of authority over men.

In context we note Paul clarifying that the men of the church ought to lift up their hands in prayer “without wrath and doubting” (v. 8, literal). Following that example of holiness, he urges the women to dress and behave appropriately as “those who profess to worship God” (vv. 9-10). Paul desires that the men (males) need to properly lift up holy hands in prayer, and that the women exemplify attitudes, demeanor, dress and deeds appropriate to their place alongside the men as co-worshippers. {48}

Paul then addresses the matter of appropriate behavior for women in the church. To suggest that this entire text has nothing to say to the gathered church—that is, that it addresses only marriage relationships—would still leave the issues of submission and authority in place. The doctrinal foundation referenced in verses 13-14 is the same as referenced in other passages, and underlies the application Paul makes. To redefine the text as special instruction for a special time is not satisfactory for the same reason. The basic nonnegotiable truth Paul cites as foundational is that God had a deliberate creation order and that authority follows those lines. It is true that acceptable hermeneutics must see the text in its context, but that does not negate its truth for other application. If delineation of authority is rooted in creation order, then it stands for all time. Verses 11 and 12 list three specific principles about the behavior of the woman in the public gathering: she is to be quiet rather than vocal; she is to receive instruction rather than give it; and she is to refrain from taking authority rather than usurping it.

It is clear enough that Paul is not giving an absolute gag order to women, whether in worship or elsewhere. To remain quiet is not the same as to remain (absolutely) silent. A key word in context is the word “teach.” There is a clear link between teaching and authority. Paul states that women are not to have authority over or to teach men. “I am continually not permitting that,” Paul asserts.

The doctrinal moorings in verses 13 and 14 clarify that God had an intentional creation order. The fact that man was created first is referenced by Paul as significant for leadership (or headship, or authority). Additionally, verse 14 states that Eve was first deceived and led humankind into sin. The inference is that Eve’s decision to head out independently, though God had intended for her to link with Adam as his suitable helper, resulted in the fall. This does not imply that the woman was more defective or inferior to the man. The curse further clarifies that though it will not be what Eve desires, her husband will rule over her (Gen. 3:16).

The proposal by some that “exercise authority” means to “domineer” or to “bring pressure in a sexual way,” is less than plausible because of the relationship between verses 11 and 12. The statements of verse 12 are the converse of verse 11 and flow out of it. The teaching and the authority which the {49} text disallows for women are clearly linked to men (as the object of both verbs, vv. 11-12). Note, too, that Paul clarifies in other parallel texts that women teaching other women is not contrary to creation order. The restriction given is not a prohibition in a holistic or general sense, but rather for the church gathered; that is, it clarifies that God’s order is that men serve as leaders by the authority that God vests in them.

The scriptural encouragements to teach “one another” are not contradictory to this proviso. Public teaching/preaching in the gathered body is but one of a myriad of ways that teaching is exercised in the body of Christ. Nor is there inherent in this principle the conclusion that women will never have a prophetic or teaching word for men. We have Scriptural affirmations of such, but not in the function of ongoing authoritative leadership for the gathered church. Significant ministries are not confined to upfront teaching or the exercise of eldership authority in the church.

Verse 15 need not be as difficult as some would make it. Some suggest that since the woman lives through childbirth, God is evidencing that He moderates this judicial sentence by His grace. The context does not support the notion that it is the birth of Christ which provides their salvation (though theologically that is true). The return to dignity for the woman, who led humankind into sin, is now derived through a return to the divinely ordained role of suitable helper as faithful, loving, holy and proprietous woman and mother. Mothering in a God ordained and ordered way restores women to rightful dignity. This verse clarifies a principle and does not, therefore, demean singleness or barrenness.

So, while there is no distinction between male or female by way of spiritual position in the Kingdom of Christ, there is a distinction when it comes to the role of authority in the local church and it is rooted in God’s intentional creation order.


The maleness and femaleness of humankind gives rise to differences in role assignments. Though husband and wife are joint heirs of grace, they are given different assignments simply because one is the husband and one the wife. Titus 2:3-5 addresses some specifics about God’s plan for women. The text first addresses older women who may or may not be {50} married. A reverent lifestyle is enjoined, and then clarified in several specific examples: avoidance of slander, not slave to much wine, and teaching what is good. Exemplary and experienced women then are assigned to train the younger women to love and be subject to their husbands, to love their children, to be self-controlled, to be pure, to be busy at home and to be kind. If one takes the last clause to refer to the entire section, then all of these together will verify God’s word that such women (wives/mothers) will be living as God intends. If the clause only modifies the final statement, then being subject to their husbands will honor the plan of God. In either case, submission is included. It must be understood that this is not a call to blind subservience. Biblical submission is mandated for all of the family of God, and it calls for meaningful interdependency and harmony. Nonetheless, there is a clear mandate here for wives to give their husbands authority in their relationship.

The other injunction which has application for our subject is the reference to being “busy at home.” The original word translates “home workers.” As disconcerting as it may be, the Bible makes an unmistakable case for wives/mothers to have significant responsibility for home management (cf. Prov. 31).

How does this speak to our subject? It suggests at least two things. In the context of the church, older experienced women ought to teach younger women formally and by example how to honor God in their roles. Secondly, wives are to preserve the integrity of God’s word by giving their husbands the responsibility to be lead rower. This has application in both the home and the church.


In this text, Peter reiterates and clarifies some of what we have already studied from the pen of Paul. He corroborates that wives are called to be submissive to their husbands. It is clear that it is not only the assignment of those whose husbands do not believe in or always obey the Lord. Peter suggests that true beauty is the result of godly attitude and behavior, not fashionable clothes and jewelry. The inner self is the place where the beauty of the gentle and quiet spirit is born, and this is of great worth in God’s sight. Apparently, it was not only Gentile women who struggled with godly submission. Peter {51} uses the illustration of Sarah to elevate an attitude which gives the husband the freedom to lead, though he may well err in that exercise. The Old Testament account of Abraham and Sarah bears out that God honored their ultimate trust in Him and their mutual support of each other, flawed though it was. (Thank God that His blessing and providence are aimed at us in spite of where we are aimed!)

A proper caution and mandate is also delivered to the husbands, who shall respectfully and with consideration live with their wives as co-heirs of the gracious gift of life. The imperative is intensified, as the Holy Spirit clarifies that to do less will result in the hindrance of the husband’s intimacy with God.

What is God’s word for women in the church? Pursue a spirit of submission and the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit in the presence of all.


Five women are mentioned in connection with periodic or momentary prophetic ministry. Miriam, Moses’ sister, led Israel in a hymn of praise and delivered a one time message from God to women (Exodus 15:20-21). Deborah was called into a momentary prophetic ministry to deliver a message from God to Barak (Judges 4-5). Huldah was given a revelation from God to be given to Hilkiah the priest regarding upcoming judgment (2 Kings). Noadiah, who harassed Nehemiah as he rebuilt the Jerusalem wall, turned out to be a false prophetess (Neh. 6:14). Isaiah’s wife was called a prophetess in the context of God giving them a son (Isa. 8:3).

Romans 16 must be noted, as it references Phoebe’s ministry. There remains no question about Phoebe’s considerable involvement in ministry. The question is whether the words used to describe her work are the same as those referring to men in New Testament references. Some have argued that the feminine word (prostates) used to describe Phoebe’s ministry grows out of the same root (proistemi) from which the masculine noun (prostates) originates, and therefore, the feminine noun must of necessity define leadership authority. Language scholars agree that this statement does not say that Phoebe was a woman ruler. New Testament and classical Greek lexicons consistently indicate that the word means “helper” or {52} “patroness,” but not ruler. If then, we allow for her ministry to be additionally defined by the word deaconess, we are still left with the question of whether it was an official office of service. If it was, as this writer is inclined to think, it still differentiates her from the teaching or ruling office (eldership), because “deacon” denotes a serving office, not one of leadership authority.

Anna (Luke 2:36-38) is called a prophetess committed to faithful worship who witnessed to all about the coming Christ. Acts 21:9 refers to the four daughters of Philip who prophesied. This appears to be specific time and place speaking of God’s truth (perhaps comparable to the Old Testament). Jesus’ mother, Mary, prophetically raised her voice to disclose God’s truth in the context of family (Luke 1:39-56). Prisca (Rom. 16:3) is referred to as a fellow worker. Euodia and Syntyche (Phil. 4:3) are commended for contending alongside Paul for the Gospel.

End Thoughts

  • The Old Testament does not reference any priests, writers of Scripture, or female ongoing prophetic ministry.
  • The New Testament does not reference any women preachers, pastor-teachers, elders, evangelists, writers of Scripture, or apostles.
  • Christ did not choose female apostles (Mark 3:16-19).
  • The Scriptures clarify that women pray and prophesy (Joel 2:28-29; 1 Cor 11:5).
  • One of the qualifications for elders is that they rule well at home (1 Tim. 3:4-5).
  • What God requires of male headship in the family, he also expects in the church; unconditional, sacrificial self-giving service in leadership (Matt. 20:26-28).
  • We should deal equitably in our home churches and in our foreign mission churches on this matter.

Present Practice

  1. Elders/Pastors (the teaching/ruling ministers) are men.
  2. Women exercise authority in roles other than church governance.
  3. Women teach in roles other than at the gathered church. {53}


The matter of the place of women in the church is not and must not degenerate to a political or sexist power struggle. We are engaged in the pursuit of biblical directives for marriage and the body of Christ. Man and woman have been given equality by God, and also differences. We must recognize, affirm, and celebrate them by individual and corporate submission to God and each other as He intended.

Ed Boschman is senior pastor of Willow Park Mennonite Brethren Church at Kelowna, British Columbia.

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