What Paul Really Says About Women in Ministry

by George P. Wood

Does the New Testament limit the ministries women can perform in the church?

Bible-believing Christians divide into two camps in answer to this question. The first camp is complementarianism, also known as "biblical manhood and womanhood." It teaches that God created men and women equal in dignity but distinct in roles, both at home and in church. Thus, while it affirms that all Christian women have ministries of some kind, it denies that they can teach or lead the church as a whole. Only men can perform certain roles of teaching and leadership. The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood1 is a representative complementarian institution; and "The Danvers Statement"2 and Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood3 are representative publications of the complementarian position.

The second camp is egalitarianism, also known as "biblical equality." It teaches that God created men and women equal in all things. Thus, while it affirms that men and women are distinct from one another, it denies that these distinctions warrant exclusively male leadership in the church. God can call and empower any person, regardless of gender, to fill these roles. Christians for Biblical Equality4 is a representative egalitarian institution; and "Men, Women, and Biblical Equality"5 and Discovering Biblical Equality6 are representative publications of the egalitarian position.

Though both camps appeal to the entire Bible for support of their position, their debate centers on a handful of passages in Paul's letters that expressly limit women's ministries in some way: 1 Corinthians 11:2–16; 14:34–35; and 1 Timothy 2:11–15.7

However, a closer look at these key Pauline passages reveals that egalitarian interpretations make better sense of Paul's instructions. Historically and presently, the Assemblies of God official position on women in ministry supports the egalitarian interpretation. In fact, Scripture itself provides the best argument against complementarian interpretations.

1 Corinthians 11:2–16

According to complementarians, women may perform public ministries in the church as long as they minister under the "headship" of male leaders. The proof text of this position is 1 Corinthians 11:2–16, which states, "the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God" (verse 3).

For example, complementarian Thomas R. Schreiner writes: "The fundamental principle is that the sexes, although equal, are also different. God has ordained that men have the responsibility to lead, while women have a complementary and supportive role. More specifically, if women pray and prophesy in church, they should do so under the authority of male headship."

Schreiner further says, "The women in Corinth, by prophesying without a head covering, were sending a signal that they were no longer submitting to male authority. Paul sees this problem as severe because the arrogation of male leadership roles by women ultimately dissolves the distinction between men and women."8

First Corinthians 11:2–16 contains numerous words that scholars continue to debate, not only in commentaries but also in contradictory translations. For example, the New International Version (NIV, 2011) consistently translates the Greek words anēr and gynē as "man" and "woman," respectively. The English Standard Version (ESV), on the other hand, variously translates them as "man"/"husband" and "woman"/"wife." Paul uses the word "head" (kephalē) both literally and metaphorically in this passage, but scholars debate whether the metaphor means "source" or "authority." The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) speaks in terms of women veiling and unveiling, but the NIV and ESV speak more abstractly of covering and uncovering, which may refer to women pinning up their hair or to veiling their heads. Even the one explicit use of the word authority (exousian) in verse 10 translates variously: "a woman ought to have authority over her [own] head" (NIV) or "a wife ought to have [a symbol of] authority on her head" (ESV). (The brackets here isolate those words translators added to the underlying Greek.)

How should we work our way through this welter of conflicting interpretations and translations? There are four important points to consider.

1. The issue for Paul is how women ought to pray and prophesy, which are public ministries, not whether they should do so. The fact that Paul validates the prophetic ministry of women is important. Paul rates prophecy highly, placing it after "apostles" but before "teachers" in his list of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12:27–31. In 1 Corinthians 14:1, he writes, "eagerly desire gifts of the spirit, especially prophecy" (emphasis added). And in 1 Corinthians 14:29, he says, "Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said."

Regarding this last verse, we should assume that Paul means spiritually gifted women both prophesy and evaluate the prophecies of others, including male prophets. From all three verses, we learn that women can exercise public speaking ministries in church, just as men can.

2. Throughout this passage, Paul uses the terminology of honor and shame. Just as there is an honorable way for men to perform the ministries of prayer and prophecy (verse 4), there is an honorable way for women to perform them (verse 5). The honorable way for women is to "cover" their literal heads lest they shame their metaphorical head. Paul gives no hint that women must do more than this, however. For instance, he doesn't say they should ask their husbands for permission or get their male pastor's prior authorization to speak. Thus, with Schreiner, we believe that Paul wants the Corinthians to dress in ways that demonstrate the differences between men and women, thus showing respect to the opposite sex. However, unlike Schreiner, we do not believe that men's authority over women is part of this text or a necessary component of masculinity. Surely it is possible both to maintain sexual distinction and promote sexual equality!

3. Even if kephalē elsewhere has the metaphorical meaning of "authority," its most likely metaphorical meaning in verses 3–5 is "source." What Paul does in verse 3 is offer a Christological reading of the creation narratives of Genesis 1–2.9 Cyril of Alexandria, a fifth-century church father, offered this kind of reading in his comments on verse 3: "Thus we can say that ‘the head of every man is Christ.' For he was made by [dia] him ... as God; ‘but the head of the woman is the man,' because she was taken out of his flesh .... Likewise ‘the head of Christ is God,' because he is of him [ex autou] by nature."10

Interpreting kephalē as "source" in verses 3–5 is consistent with verses 7–9, where Paul alludes to Genesis 2 when he writes: "For man did not come from woman, but woman from man" (verse 8). On the other hand, interpreting kephalē as "authority" is inconsistent with verses 11 and 12, where Paul writes: "Nevertheless, in the Lord [i.e., in Jesus Christ] woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God."

After all, if authority is based on creation order, what happens to the authority when the order is reversed?

4. The only explicit connection of kephalē with authority in this passage is Paul's use of exousian in verse 10. But as Gordon D. Fee points out, the normal way to read this Greek verbal construction is that "the subject has the authority ‘over' the object of the preposition."11 In other words, the woman has authority over her head. The complementarian translation — "a sign of authority over her head"— both adds words not present in the text and transforms a woman's "authority" over her own head into "submission" to another person.12

The issue in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 is proper social decorum, not male permission. Paul wants men and women to present themselves publicly in ways that are culturally appropriate to their gender. In short, men should look like men and women like women. Their gender determines how they appear when they minister, not whether they minister in certain ways.

1 Corinthians 14:34–35

The next passage we must consider begins in 1 Corinthians 14:34: "Women should remain silent in the churches."

Interpreted absolutely, this prohibition contradicts Paul's permission of women's praying and prophesying in the church (1 Corinthians 11:5). Since neither complementarians nor egalitarians believe that the inspired and inerrant words of an apostle can contradict themselves, we cannot interpret this prohibition absolutely. In other words, it does not prohibit speaking per se. Rather, it only forbids certain kinds of speech.
But what kind?

Complementarian D. A. Carson outlines his position: "Paul has just been requiring that the church in Corinth carefully weigh the prophecies presented to it [1 Corinthians 14:29]. Women, of course, may participate in such prophesying; that was established in chapter 11. Paul's point here, however, is that they may not participate in the oral weighing of such prophecies. That is not permitted in any of the churches. In that connection, they are not allowed to speak — ‘as the law says.' "13

However, as egalitarian Craig S. Keener writes: "Perhaps the greatest weakness of the position is that there is nothing in the text that specifically leads us to suppose that ‘judging prophecies' is the particular sort of speech in view .... What in 1 Corinthians 14:34–35 specifies ‘judging' prophecies? And where does the text suggest that ‘judging prophecies' reveals a higher degree of authority than prophesying God's message itself?"14

The answers to Keener's rhetorical questions are: nothing and nowhere, respectively.

First Corinthians 14:26–40 offers clues as to the specific kind of speech the apostle prohibited in verses 34 and 35. It contains three pairings of the Greek verbs laleo ("to speak") and sigaō ("to be silent"):

  1. Verses 27,28: "If anyone speaks [lalein] in a tongue ... [but] there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet [sigatōsan] in the church."
  2. Verses 29,30: "Two or three prophets should speak [laleitōsan] ... [but] if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop [sigatō, literally, ‘be silent']."
  3. Verses 34,35: "women should remain silent [sigatōsan] in the churches. They are not allowed to speak [lalein]."
    In the first two pairings, Paul prohibited speech that disrupted "fitting and orderly" worship (1 Corinthians 14:40). Given the conjunction of laleo and sigaō in the third pairing, it is likely that what Paul prohibited was disruptive women's speech, not women's speech per se.

What kind of disruptive speech? Paul identifies it in verse 35: "If they [i.e., women] want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home."

This implies that women were interrupting the services with questions. Since women in Paul's first-century world were socially and educationally disadvantaged, they likely would have had many more questions than men. Further, since Paul's preaching was less of a monologue than a dialogue (see Acts 17:2, which uses a form of the verb dialegomai), and since prophets were supposed to publicly weigh putative prophecies (1 Corinthians 14:29), it is likely that the worship services of Paul's churches involved conversation from pulpit to pew and back, so to speak. If less-educated women got lost in the dialogue, became bored, and asked questions that led the congregation down conversational rabbit trails, their speaking might cause an impediment to the achievement of "the common good" (12:7), which is the goal of all spiritually gifted ministries. Therefore, as with tongues-speakers and prophets, so now with women: Paul requires that their participation be done "in a fitting and orderly way" (verse 40).

1 Timothy 2:11–15

To this point, we have seen that Paul does not limit the ministries women can perform in the church. Paul's concern in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 is social propriety. In 1 Corinthians 14:34–35, it is fitting and orderly worship. Both concerns are consistent with an egalitarian understanding of the ministry of women. Neither passage explicitly teaches men's authority over women. Indeed, neither passage explicitly limits the speaking ministries of women at all. The former passage deals with how women should speak in church; the latter addresses how they should learn, not whether they can teach.

The first — and, as far as I know, the only passage in either Paul's writings or the rest of the New Testament — that explicitly limits the kinds of ministry women can perform in the church appears in Paul's first letter to Timothy. Paul writes in 1 Timothy 2:11–15. "A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing &— if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety."

Of this passage, egalitarian Linda L. Belleville writes: "Despite a broad spectrum of biblical and extrabiblical texts that highlight female leaders, 1 Timothy 2:11–15 continues to be perceived and treated as the Great Divide in the debate."15 

So, how do complementarians interpret this passage? Douglas Moo writes: "We think 1 Timothy 2:8–15 imposes two restrictions on the ministry of women: they are not to teach Christian doctrine to men and they are not to exercise authority directly over men in the church. These restrictions are permanent, authoritative for the church in all times and places and circumstances as long as men and women are descended from Adam and Eve."16

By contrast, egalitarian Philip B. Payne writes: "[First Timothy 2:12] does not support a universal prohibition of women teaching or having authority over men. Nothing in this passage states that women are inherently unsuited to teach or exercise authority over men in spiritual or any other matters. Nor does Paul universalize this particular prohibition for all churches and all times."17

The "Great Divide" between complementarians and egalitarians centers around three questions:

  1. What is the context for Paul's instructions?
  2. What did Paul command?
  3. Why did Paul command it?

To answer the first question, we must realize that Paul's overriding concern in 1 Timothy is rebutting false teaching at Ephesus. Thus, as in his letter to the Galatians, Paul skips his standard statement of thanksgiving in 1 Timothy and gets right to the point: "command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer" (1:3; cf. Galatians 1:6).

He ends the letter on a similar note: "Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to your care. Turn away from godless chatter and the opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge, which some have professed and in so doing have departed from the faith" (6:20–21).

Paul returns to this concern throughout the letter (1:18–20; 4:1–8; 5:11–15; 6:9–10). It is likely that women were involved in teaching false doctrine.

Payne notes, "Paul repeatedly describes women using identical or similar expressions he uses to describe false teachers."18 As specific examples, Payne cites 1 Timothy 5:12–15 and 1:20; 5:15 and 1:6; 5:11–12 and 4:1–2.

That brings us to the second question, which must be answered by focusing on verses 11,12. Given women's role in promulgating false doctrine, it is not surprising that Paul commands them to "learn in quietness (en hēsychia) and full submission" and to "be quiet" (einai en hēsychia). ("Learn" is the only imperative verb in verses 11 and 12; "I do not permit" is an indicative verb.) The prepositional phrase en hēsychia functions as an inclusio here, indicating that learning in quiet is Paul's primary concern in these two verses. Such quietness is appropriate to those who need to learn, obviously &— especially if they have been talking "nonsense, saying things they ought not to" (5:13). It is also a demeanor appropriate to all Christians, whom Paul says should aspire to live "quiet lives" (2:2, hēsychion bion) &— not just Christian women.

So, Paul commands women to "learn in quietness" (verse 11). He goes on to prohibit them from didaskein and authentein in verse 12. Didaskein means "to teach." Regarding this prohibition of teaching, Paul cannot prohibit here what he permits elsewhere. Paul greeted Priscilla in 2 Timothy 4:19, which means she was present in Ephesus when Paul's letters to Timothy arrived. Paul expressed high praise of her in Romans 16:3–4. Along with her husband, Aquila, Priscilla had led the Ephesian congregation in Paul's absence (Acts 18:19–21), a congregation that met in their home (1 Corinthians 16:19–20). While in Ephesus, Priscilla and Aquila took the gifted Alexandrian evangelist Apollos under their wing and "explained to him the way of God more adequately" (Acts 18:26). (Notice that Luke lists Priscilla first, suggesting that she took the leading role in teaching Apollos.) In Acts 28:23, Luke uses the same Greek word — to describe Paul's public teaching. Both men and women, then, served as teachers in the Early Church.

Moreover, we have seen that Paul accepted the prayer and prophetic ministries of Corinthian women (1 Corinthians 11:5), a role that would have included publicly evaluating prophetic messages (14:29). Given that Paul mentioned prophesy prior to teaching in his spiritual gifts list (12:28) and encouraged the Corinthians to seek spiritual gifts, but "especially prophecy" (14:1), it is unlikely that he would have allowed women to prophesy publicly but not teach publicly.

Given Paul's praise of Priscilla and what he says about women prophesying at Corinth, then, it is likely that he permitted women to teach men. Why, then, does he seem to prohibit it in verse 12?

That brings us to authentein. Does it mean (a) "to exercise authority" (ESV), (b) "to control," in the sense of domineering (CEB, Common English Bible), or (c) to "usurp"/"assume" authority (KJV/NIV)?19

It is one thing to prohibit women from acting in a domineering manner or from usurping authority; it is another thing entirely to prohibit them from having any authority in the first place. I believe that the best translation of the Greek verb authentein is "to assume or usurp authority." This is not a modern, egalitarian invention, by the way, as the 400-year-old KJV translation of verse 12 indicates. Lexicographers have long known that the Greek verb authenteō has negative connotations, including "to murder," "to domineer," and "to usurp."

The reason complementarians believe that authentein does not have negative connotations here is because it is paired with didaskein, which does not have negative connotations. Grammatically, however, the not/neither (ouk/oude) construction in Greek may function "to define a purpose or goal"20 or "to merge [two verbs] together to convey a single more specific idea."21 This would render the meaning either "to teach in order to dominate" or "to assume authority to teach." In either case, the issue is not that women teach men but how they do so. As long as they do not teach in a domineering manner or assume authority to teach, women are free to teach.

That brings us to the final question, which must be answered by focusing on verses 13–15. All commentators agree that Paul grounds his commands in verses 11–12 by appealing to creation (verse 13), the Fall (verse 14), and redemption (verse 15) — in other words, the events of Genesis 2–3. The agreement stops there, because it is now clear how the grounding relationship works.

Complementarian Moo, for example, understands verse 13 (viewed in conjunction with 1 Corinthians 11:3–10) to mean that "the man's priority in the order of creation is indicative of the headship that man is to have over woman."22

The problem with this interpretation is that (a) it's not obvious that "head" means "authority" in 1 Corinthians 11:3, and (b) Paul himself subverts such an interpretation in 1 Corinthians 11:11–12, when he writes, "Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as a woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God."

If, as I argued above, Paul's point in 1 Timothy 2:13 is similar to his argument in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16, then proper social decorum is the point at issue, not male permission. Ephesian Christian women were not demonstrating proper respect to their male teachers. That would explain why Paul emphasized learning "in quietness."

Moo interprets verse 14 to mean, "Eve was deceived by the serpent in the Garden (Genesis 3:13) precisely in taking the initiative over the man whom God had given to be with her and to care for her. In the same way, if the women at the church at Ephesus proclaim their independence from the men of the church, refusing to learn ‘in quietness and full submission' (verse 11), seeking roles that have been given to men in the church (verse 12), they will make the same mistake Eve made and bring similar disaster on themselves and the church."23

But the serpent didn't tempt Eve to take the initiative over Adam. He tempted her to eat the forbidden fruit — the same fruit God commanded Adam not to eat (Genesis 3:1–7; cf. 2:5–7). Moo is reading hierarchy into the temptation narrative. In reality, the first explicit mention of a husband's "rule" over his wife comes in Genesis 3:16, where it is mentioned as a divine judgment against Eve for her transgression. Hierarchy, in other words, belongs to the order of the Fall, not the order of creation.

Paul cites Eve's deception in warning Ephesian women to avoid false teaching. In 2 Corinthians 11:3, he pointed to Eve's example to caution the entire Corinthian congregation: "But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent's cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ."

Why did Paul write, "Adam was not the one deceived"? It cannot mean that men are less gullible or prone to false teaching. After all, the only named false teachers in 1 Timothy are men: Hymenaeus and Alexander (1:20). Moreover, if Adam was not deceived (cf. Genesis 3:6), then he sinned willfully. It makes little sense to prohibit women from exercising teaching/authority roles because Eve was deceived, but to allow men to exercise them despite the fact that Adam knew what was right and did wrong anyway. Perhaps Paul, by contrasting Adam and Eve in verse 14, is simply providing warrant for why men such as Hymenaeus and Alexander are being "handed over to Satan" (1:20), while women are enjoined to learn "in quietness" (2:11). The men knew better and abused their positions of authority; the women didn't and were trying to usurp positions of authority. The better way for all is to learn the truth first and then teach it.

Finally, regarding verse 15, Moo writes that it designates "the circumstances in which Christian women will experience ... their salvation — in maintaining as priorities those key roles that Paul, in keeping with Scripture elsewhere, highlights: being faithful, helpful wives, raising children to love and reverence God, managing the household (cf. 1 Timothy 5:14; Titus 2:3–5)."24

By contrast, Payne concludes, " ‘The childbirth' makes best sense in this context as a synecdoche referring to Jesus" (1 Timothy 2:15, cf. Genesis 3:15).

The problem with Moo's interpretation is that it's difficult to square with Paul's preference for celibacy in 1 Corinthians 7:1,8. If women need not marry in the first place, then why must — or how can —marital roles confine their ministries? Indeed, isn't it possible for women today to follow the example of Priscilla, who was both a faithful, helpful wife and a teacher of doctrine to men like Apollos?

The difficulty with Payne's interpretation, on the other hand, is in seeing how a reference to the Incarnation grounds the command to learn in quietness and not to assume authority to teach.

These difficulties remind us that no interpretation of verses 13–15, whether complementarian or egalitarian, is without problems. Interpreting Paul in these verses is like listening to one half of a phone conversation. You hear the response, but you don't know what questions prompted it.

For Paul, creation, the Fall, and redemption provided grounds for his commands to Ephesian Christian women to learn in quietness and to refrain from assuming the authority to teach. They do not prohibit women from exercising rightly established authority to teach, as Priscilla's instruction of Apollos reminds us.


And so we return to the question I asked at the outset: Does the New Testament limit the ministries women can perform in the church?

In all the New Testament, the passages most commonly cited as affirmative answers to this question are 1 Corinthians 11:2–16; 14:34–35; and 1 Timothy 2:11–15. The first addresses how women minister in the church, not whether they can minister. The second addresses how women should learn in the church, not whether they can teach. And the third prohibits assuming or usurping the authority to teach, not teaching per se.

Consequently, a negative answer to the question is the best answer. God both calls and empowers men and women to minister in His churches. Let all of us — men and women alike — carry out this mission in the power and love of the triune God for the common good!

1. The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, http://cbmw.org.
2. The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, "The Danvers Statement," http://cbmw.org/uncategorized/the-danvers-statement/.
3. John Piper and Wayne Grudem, eds., Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, rev. ed., (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2006). Hereafter, RBMW.
4. CBE International, http://www.cbeinternational.org.
5. CBE International, "Men, Women, and Biblical Equality," http://www.cbeinternational.org/sites/default/files/english_0.pdf.
6. Ronald W. Pierce, Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, and Gordon D. Fee, eds., Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2004). Hereafter, DBE.
7. Both DBE and RBMW include chapter-length articles about these passages, which indicate that they constitute the crux of the debate concerning women in ministry. I am not including 1 Timothy 3:1–13 and Titus 1:5–9 for three reasons: (1) Although this is not apparent in English, in Greek, neither passage uses the male pronoun autos, preferring the indefinite pronoun tis. (2) The best reading of 1 Timothy 3:11 is that it refers to women who serve as deacons, such as Phoebe in Romans 16:1 &— not to the wives of male deacons. (3) The only use of "man" (anēr) in either passage (1 Timothy 3:2,12; Titus 1:6) &— "the husband of one wife" &— cannot be interpreted to exclude women because they are not a husband any more than it can be taken to exclude bachelors because they also are not husbands. Taken together, these three reasons suggest that the ministries of overseer and deacon cannot be off limits for women, especially since we have explicit evidence of at least one prominent woman deacon: Phoebe.
8. Schreiner, "Head Coverings, Prophecies, and the Trinity: 1 Corinthians 11:2–16," in RBMW, 138–139, passim.
9. Cf. 1 Corinthians 8:6: "yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live."
10. Ad Arcadiam et Marinam 5.6, quoted in Gordon D. Fee, "Praying and Prophesying in the Assemblies: 1 Corinthians 11:2–16," in DBE, 151.
11. Fee, "Praying and Prophesying," 156; cf. 1 Corinthians 9:4–6, where Paul repeatedly points out that he and Barnabas have rights (echomen exousian) to food, drink, and marriage. Even if they do not exercise this exousian, it remains theirs.
12. Ibid, 155–156.
13. D. A. Carson, " ‘Silent in the Churches': On the Role of Women in 1 Corinthians 14:33b–36," in RBMW, 151–152.
14. Craig S. Keener, "Learning in the Assemblies: 1 Corinthians 14:34–35," in DBE, 163.
15. Linda L. Belleville, "Teaching and Usurping Authority: 1 Timothy 2:11–15," in DBE, 205.
16. Douglas Moo, "What Does It Mean Not to Teach or Have Authority Over Men? 1 Timothy 2:11–15," in RBMW, 180.
17. Philip B. Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul's Letters (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2013), 444.
18. Ibid, 299.
19. Moo, "What Does It Mean," 186–187 argues for (a); Belleville, "Teaching and Usurping Authority," 209–217 argues for (b); and Payne, Man and Woman, 361–397 argues for (c).
20. Belleville, "Teaching and Usurping Authority," 219.
21. Payne, Man and Woman, 359.
22. Moo, "What Does It Mean," 190.
23. Ibid.
24. Ibid, 192.