I grew up in a denomination that did not ordain women, and for a long time I was convinced that this stance was biblical. It seemed to me that the New Testament (NT) clearly prohibited a woman from serving as a teaching pastor. Furthermore, I suspected that those Christians who supported the ordination of women were driven to that position by the pressure of modern culture and not by the careful exegesis of Scripture.
Today, I remain sympathetic to the view that the NT prohibits the ordination of women. I recognize that a strong case for this view can be made from Scripture. Nevertheless, I have become convinced that, on balance, the evidence weighs against this view. For the following three reasons, I have come to believe that the NT does not in fact prohibit women from serving as teaching pastors in the church.
1) The role of prophecy in the New Testament church
Paul frequently names women as his coworkers (e.g. Rom 16:1-7; 1 Cor 16:19; Phil 4:2-3), and in one passage, it is probable that he identifies a woman as an "apostle" (Rom 16:7). The most decisive evidence, however, concerns prophecy. It is absolutely indisputable that some prophets in the NT church were women (see Acts 2:17-18; 21:9; 1 Cor 11:5). For a long time I did not grasp the significance of this fact, because there were no prophets in the Baptist churches I attended. In the churches I was familiar with, it was the pastor who stood in the pulpit and exhorted the congregation. Everyone else listened quietly and took notes. As I studied the NT more, however, I came to see that prophets played a central role in the early church gatherings.
In Acts 15:32 we read, “Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, exhorted the brethren with many words and strengthened them” (RSV). Most significant, however, is Paul’s lengthy discussion in 1 Corinthians describing the role of prophecy in a typical weekly gathering:
Make love your aim, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him. ... On the other hand, he who prophesies speaks to men for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church. Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. ... Since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church. ... I thank God that I speak in tongues more than you all; nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue. ... When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification. ... For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged. (14:1-31 RSV)
When the Christians at Corinth came together for their weekly meeting, who was it that provided the edification? Who was it that provided the exhortation? Who was it that provided the instruction? It was clearly those who exercised the gift of prophecy. Furthermore, as Paul has already stated explicitly in 11:5, some of those who prophesied in these gatherings were women. Thus we cannot escape the conclusion that women routinely stood up in the midst of the assembly and delivered exhortation and instruction for the entire community.
One should also note that Paul twice ranks prophets directly after apostles and above all other roles (1 Cor 12:28-31; Eph 4:11). This suggests that prophets, including women prophets (Acts 21:9), held a position of considerable authority in the local church.
2) The evidence against the authenticity of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35
There are only two passages in the NT that place some sort of restriction on women in ministry. The first of these is 1 Cor 14:34-35:
Let the women keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but let them subject themselves, just as the Law also says. And if they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church. (NASB)
Before attending seminary, I did not realize that many scholars doubt the authenticity of these two verses. Consider first the context:
For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted; and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets; for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints. Let the women keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but let them subject themselves, just as the Law also says. And if they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church. (1 Cor 14:31-35 NASB)
It is precisely in the context of a discussion of prophecy in the church that women are commanded to be silent. Thus 1 Cor 14:34-35 seems to clearly prohibit women from prophesying. However, in 1 Cor 11, Paul discusses women who prophesy! He insists that these women must wear a head covering, but his entire argument is predicated on the assumption that women do indeed prophesy in the weekly gatherings (11:5). Thus the command in 14:34-35 stands in direct and apparently irreconcilable contradiction with what Paul has already said in chapter 11.
This fact alone should make us suspicious, but two other independent factors also call into question the authenticity of these verses. First, the beginning of verse 36 perfectly fits the ending of verse 33. Consider how naturally the text reads if verses 34 and 35 are omitted:
(33) For God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints. (36) Or was it from you that the word of God first went forth? Or has it come to you only?
Second, while every manuscript which we possess includes verses 34 and 35, in some manuscripts these verses appear at the end of the chapter, after verse 40. One explanation for this phenomenon is that these verses were not part of Paul’s original letter, but were added to the text by a scribe.
To be sure, this evidence is not conclusive. The fact that we have no manuscripts which omit verses 34 and 35 is a strong argument in favor of their authenticity. Nevertheless, on balance, I think the evidence weighs against the authenticity of these verses.
3) The exegetical problems associated with 1 Timothy 2:11-15
If 1 Cor 14:34-35 is indeed a later addition to the text, we are left with only one single NT passage that appears to place a restriction on women in ministry:
(11) A woman should learn in silence with full submission. (12) I do not allow a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; instead, she is to be silent. (13) For Adam was created first, then Eve. (14) And Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and transgressed. (15) But she will be saved through childbearing, if she continues in faith, love, and holiness, with good judgment. (2:11-15 HCSB)
It is important to recognize that this is an extraordinarily difficult passage. What can Paul possibly mean when he says that women are "saved through childbearing" (2:15)? Scholars have offered a variety of different interpretations to make sense of these words, but I have not found any of them entirely satisfactory. A straightforward reading of this verse seems to suggest that childbearing is a condition for a woman's salvation. However, as noted in the NET Bible, such an interpretation must be rejected because "it is unsupported elsewhere in Scripture" and "is explicitly against" Paul's "teaching on both marriage and salvation."
I submit that we find in verses 11-12 precisely this same dilemma. A straightforward reading of these two verses seems to suggest that women must remain silent in the Christian gatherings. However, such an interpretation "is unsupported elsewhere in Scripture" and "is explicitly against" Paul's teaching on women in ministry (see section 1 above).
How then should we understand Paul's words in 1 Tim 2:11-12? Some scholars suggest that these verses contain a limited prohibition aimed at a local problem and not a universal prohibition which is binding on all Christian women at all times. One suggestion is that these particular women did not have the requisite education. Another suggestion is that the authority which these particular women were assuming in the community was influenced by the practices of pagan cults or mysteries. Yet another possibility is that these particular women were in some way subverting the traditional household hierarchy (see Col 3:18, Eph 5:22; Titus 2:5; cf. 1 Pet 3:1), perhaps by publicly correcting or rebuking their husbands.
Nevertheless, I freely admit that I do not find any of these suggestions entirely satisfactory. A straightforward reading of verses 11-12 does seem to suggest a universal prohibition on women teaching in church, just as a straightforward reading of verse 15 does seem to suggest that a woman must experience childbirth in order to be saved. Both of these interpretations, however, are in serious conflict with what Paul says elsewhere. Thus, just as it would be unwise to construct one's theology of salvation on the foundation of 1 Tim 2:15, I think it would be unwise to construct one's theology of women in ministry on the foundation of 1 Tim 2:11-12.
It is indisputable that women served as prophets in the NT church and exercised the gift of prophecy in the assembly. Furthermore, Paul ranked prophets just below apostles and clearly stated that the gift of prophecy was intended for the instruction and edification of the congregation. Thus the conclusion seems inescapable that women engaged in public exhortation and teaching in the NT churches. There are only two passages which appear to contradict this picture: 1 Cor 14:34-35 and 1 Tim 2:11-15. A strong case can be made that the first of these two passages is not authentic, and because of the final verse, the second passage is universally recognized as extraordinarily problematic. Thus, while I acknowledge the difficulty of the question and respect those who reach a different conclusion, I no longer believe that there is sufficient scriptural warrant for objecting to the ordination of women.