On Women in Ministry
And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. - Luke 2:36 ESV
One of the great debates that continues to vex the church is the question of whether or not it is acceptable, Biblically speaking, for women to serve in ordained ministry. Why are there denominations even within the Presbyterian tradition (e.g., ECO and PCUSA) that do ordain women and others (e.g., PCA, OPC, ARP) that do not? Among Scripture passages frequently cited against women serving in the ministry, probably the most significant are 1 Corinthinans 14:33b-35 ("women should remain silent in the churches"), 1 Timothy 2:11-15 (women are not to teach or have authority over men), and passages in 1 Timothy and Titus calling for a minister to be "the husband of one wife." Not that any of those passages are insignificant or that any of them should be ignored but there is much more to Biblical interpretation than just reading particular verses without considering their context.
All of us who have been schooled in Historical-Critical methodology learned early on the necessity of considering the history in the text, the history of the text and then balancing particular texts against the overall message of Scripture. In other words, the verses cited above were each dealing with specific issues in specific churches within their own historical contexts and were probably never meant to be understood as laying down the law for all churches in all times and places forevermore. When balancing these texts against the overall message of Scripture the question needs to be considered as to what the Bible in general has to say about women in ministry. Luke 2:36 is just one example where a woman is referred to as a "prophetess." A prophet (or prophetess, as it were) is one who speaks forth the Word of God. In other words, a preacher. Other examples are Miriam, sister of Moses and Aaron (Exodus 15:20) and Deborah the prophetess (Judges 4 and 5).
So as not to fall into the trap of playing dueling Bible verses we should first concede that there is a Biblical precedent for women serving in ministry (as cited above) and then consider what the Bible has to say in general about the egalitarian nature of ministry. As an aside, it should be noted that the Holiness movement and Pentecostalism were both founded on the preaching of women. Why, we might wonder, were Holiness and Pentecostal churches in the late 19th and early 20th century ordaining women to the preaching ministry when even liberal mainline protestant groups like the Presbyterians and Methodists universally rejecting such a move? As it pertains to the Pentecostal and Holiness groups, they cited primarily Acts 2:17a (and, tangentially, Joel 2:28) which reads, "And it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy..." With that, there are other New Testament passages like, for example Galatians 3:27, 28 ("For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.") which state the fact that in Christ all are equal in the sight of the Lord and that, therefore, categories like race, class and sex that tend to divide people along hierarchical lines no longer apply. Rather than building doctrines in terms of propositional understandings of particular verses taken out of context, the Pentecostals and Holiness churches knew 150 years ago what some of us still have a hard time accepting. Jesus laid the Great Commission on the whole church and not just on those of us of the more masculine persuasion.
Having been saved, sanctified and called to preach in the Holiness tradition (Church of the Nazarene) the idea of women in ministry has never been a challenge to me. I am thankful that our new denominational home, ECO, also places a high premium on the egalitarian nature of ministry and welcomes the gifts of women as well as men. As to our particular local church, some of our most powerful, gifted and visionary leaders are young ladies, several of whom have yet to celebrate their 40th birthdays. I thank God for them each and every day and shudder at the thought of where our church might be without them. I was reminded of that fact this morning as I was having my devotions and came across the prophetess Anna in Luke 2:36, who was one of the first people in Scripture to recognize and proclaim Jesus as Savior.