Women And Ministry In The Early Church

I see this as one of the most pressing issues and also one of the most fruitless issues in the church today.  I typically don’t give much time or effort to it because I am settled in my stance – a fully inclusive approach – which I see as the practice of the early churches.

That said, here is an excellent video in which NT Wright briefly addresses the issue quite well.

He encapsulates my primary take on the issue at 4:20 into the video where he states that the only way one would have a problem with women involved in ministry is if they hold church tradition over the scripture itself.

That is exactly the crux of the issue, and the problem only gets worse the more tradition is added over the centuries leaving us with an exhausting, divisive and distracting debate among Christians these days, which Paul also warned about.  (1 Timothy 1, for “those who have ears”…)

The book Wright refers to at the end of the video is his Paul For Everyone: The Pastoral Epistles, a very approachable and well written commentary on 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus.  It reads much like a conversation yet also handles the issues quite well, so I highly recommend the series.  You can also see similar and more in depth info. on his site here.

We must keep in mind the original setting of 1 Timothy.

Paul is writing to Timothy, a young leader in Ephesus, who is asked by Paul to help keep the churches there focused on sound teaching and practice.

In Ephesus, was the Temple of Artemis, which NT Wright explains:

…was a massive structure which dominated the area.  As befitted worshippers of a female deity, the priests were all women.  They ruled the show and kept the men in their place.”  (Paul For Everyone: The Pastoral Letters pg. 25)

So, we see that the setting in which Timothy found himself was one in which women held a special and esteemed place in society in the popular religious cult of the community.  The church, in order to proceed among the Ephesians in sharing the gospel of Jesus must be careful to do at least two things:

  1. Maintain the beliefs and practices that Jesus had left and that his apostles passed on to the churches.
  2. Maintain a distinction from the popular cultural religious practices, especially since these practices directly challenged and would compromise the teachings of Jesus Christ and his apostles.

In this light, it makes sense for Paul to ask Timothy to set standards that would ensure that the church would develop in a healthy manner in the midst of the popular pagan cult.  NT Wright states that Paul’s concern was that:

…men and women alike can develop whatever gifts of learning, teaching and leadership God is giving them.  (Paul For Everyone: The Pastoral Letters pg. 26)

The goal then, is not simply to put restrictions on women.  It is to challenge both men and women to leave behind the old stereotypes concerning men and women.  (1 Tim. 2:8-9)

  • Men should seek action in prayer as opposed to being loud, argumentative and factitious.
  • Women should seek beauty and significance in wisdom and good deeds as opposed to fancy dress and jewelry.

Primarily then, the church – men and women alike – should seek to represent Christ and his gospel above all – above culture, religion, and typical male/female distinction.  The goal is to ensure a “good testimony” as Jesus did.  (1 Tim. 6:13-14)

As we can see then, much of the argumentation on this topic simply misses the point.  In the process of reading and interpreting the Bible, it is imperative that we not impose our own cultural or traditional baggage onto the text, but let it inform and challenge us to re-interpret our culture and traditions in light of Jesus Christ and what he calls us to be and do as his church.


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