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International Women’s Day (2015): Can women be church leaders?

Last week my wife, Christina, wrote a fantastic blog about our daughter, called Dreams for My Daughter on International Women’s Day. Christina hopes that Teyah will be a woman with choices, strong opinions and deep convictions. This is the example we’ve seen in scripture and from our family leaders.

In the recent history of the church, strong female leadership is often discouraged. Why? Many amazing female leaders are not allowed to lead others in church community. I believe deeply that this is not consistent with the message of the cross or the life of Jesus our Lord.

From left to right, Dorothy Day, Tina Barkman and Mother Theresa

Women Leaders

When I was young, many powerful and influential spiritual leaders in my life were women. My grandmother is a particularly good example. She was someone who looked most like Jesus to me and to everyone else around her. More than three hundred people attended her funeral. Men and women. It sounded like she was a leader to them when they spoke about her. They all told me that Grandma’s kindness, generosity and cooking showed a love far above what they expected from a friend.

The way she communicated the Good News: Jesus’ changed our broken world! Love between insiders and outsiders or strangers and enemies is God’s world standard made me a missionary. My family and Grandma’s friends are in roles of leadership because grandma was a leader who shepherded and pastored us.

Grandma wasn’t a “pastor” in the ordained sense. But in the scripture passages commonly used to discourage female leadership (discussed below) Paul wasn’t talking about giving women titles of pastor either. He was talking about women speaking in church community and teaching men (these are the interpretations I disagree with).

Why should women lead the church?

A few of days ago, on International Women’s Day, I wrote on a message board, thanking female church leaders I respect. A friend in the group asked for more biblical background to support my view of Jesus wanting women to lead churches, so here are a few biblical points I believe direct the church toward having women at every level of church leadership.

The Big Idea

Scripture lists women as church leaders in the early church. I believe woman can be church leaders because woman were church leaders from the beginning.


In Luke 10:38-42, Mary was sitting at the feet of Jesus learning his teaching while Martha was cooking. The implication of Mary’s action is more than “story time with Jesus.” Sitting at Jesus’ feet in that context meant that Jesus was teaching, so the learners could teach others. Therefore, this is a powerful example of Jesus expectation for Mary and other women who follow Jesus to make disciples in a mixed gender situation.

Paul’s examples : Junia

Paul highlights a woman named Junia and calls her an Apostle in Romans 16:7. An apostle (from the Greek = apostéllō meaning “send”) is “an official representative, authorized and sent with an official message.” Junia was a woman in the New Testament Church. She taught the official message of God, the gospel, just like the twelve male disciples who walked with Jesus.

By the way, there is no reason to think that she was only teaching women. The absence of evidence about who she was teaching does not prove that she was only teaching women.

Paul’s examples: Precila and Aquila

Paul greets Precila and Aquila the married couple as his coworkers in Romans 16:3, Acts 18:8 and 2 Timothy 4:19. By naming Pricilla first, the woman, Paul subverts the culture which prioritizes males. Males were prioritized even in writing. Similar to how we often describe a married couple as “Mr. and Mrs. ______” Maybe Paul’s not making a point intentionally but it’s safe to say that he knew that Jesus gives women freedom to use their leadership skills boldly. By highlighting these women, Paul shows that women played valuable roles in ministry.

Women leading in prophecy and worship.

In 1 Corinthians 11:2-11, Paul gives instructions about how women should act in leadership during the church service (don’t be flamboyant, or dress too sexy, etc). This is another example that women were acting as leaders in the church but they needed guidance, not rebuke and rejection from leadership.

The Major Fight

My complaint about 1 Timothy 2:9-15 (Click here to read it)

This is the passage where Paul writes, “I do not permit women to teach or to assume authority over a man,” but the passage has very complicated original language. There are many translations and they are different. (One PHD paper I read 5 years ago said that the word translated “have authority over” could be translated into 5 different thoughts. They ranged from not allowed to “have authority over a man” to not allowed to “sexually dominate a man”.)  But, if you insist to interpret 1 Timothy 2:9-15 to mean females can’t lead males then I insist it needs to be applied with consistency, which I’ve never seen.

This passage is the primary text that forces women out of leadership, but it always seems applied out of the insecurity of male leadership rather than to give life to the whole church. The goal of Christian leadership is to give life to the whole church. Why is it that many respected women I know have resigned themselves to stay out of church leadership? Why do the feel suppressed? Suppressing women is outside of God’s will. God’s will is that all people experience shalom and freedom (the Peace of Christ) which is the opposite of suppression. If someone doesn’t feel freedom, they are not free. It doesn’t matter how you rationalize it.

“If we get this issue wrong by allowing women to lead what’s going to happen? We’ll have more female influence in our executive level dialogues. On the other side, if we get it wrong by stopping women from leading then we’ve just handcuffed 50% of our church membership and hampered their growth into who God’s calling them to be as new creations in Christ.”

Our Story

Years back Christina felt suppressed when we were part of a church that decided women were not qualified to join the church board as an elder. Their reason is that the bible teaches women cannot lead men. Ok, I understand that interpretation. As I said there are different ways to interpret the 1 Timothy passage. 1 Tim 2:9-15 is often treated as the most authoritative scripture about female leadership in the church. But it isn’t the only voice in scripture about women in church leadership. I believe we need to reevaluate and give authority to all the examples of women leaders in the New Testament Church I listed above.

Back to my point that this interpretation should be enforced consistently: the teaching that women can’t lead men isn’t enforced at all levels of church leadership. For example, some churches allow women to teach men as pastors, but, only because the elder board is all men. The rationale is that those men are overseeing her, so that woman pastor is not truly overseeing the men in the congregation. Is she teaching men? Yes. But did they create a loophole? Yes. Is this inconsistent? Yes. The woman pastor is exercising leadership over men.

Sounds like legalism to make a way in a muddy interpretation.

Are women allowed to lead men? This is not a central issue for the Christian scriptures, but how we understand it affects more than fifty percent of the church in a very big way. A close friend and bible school professor once said to me, “If we get this issue wrong by allowing women to lead what’s going to happen? We’ll have more female influence in our executive level dialogues. On the other side, if we get it wrong by stopping women from leading then we’ve just handcuffed 50% of our church membership (I recently read that globally the church is 60% female) and hampered their growth into who God’s calling them to be as new creations in Christ.” I don’t think it’s worth the gamble!

Consider what you believe and how you act towards woman in leadership. Remember, belief isn’t real in God’s kingdom until it affects your actions.

The Mission of God and Women.

The Mission of God is the highest priority of the church and God’s mission is bringing all things together (Colossians 1:19). We need to show the world that there is a new reality since because Jesus is the authority of the universe. Being dead can’t even hold him down :). This news travels in history through men and women. These transformed people learn together and they transform one another every day becoming more like Jesus’ healing and teaching people in our world.


The church demonstrates eternal life by living like Jesus with all cultures and people groups. Men and women shape one another in daily life; this is the legacy of the church. In the same way, the Apostle Paul calls husbands and wives to mutual submission, not hierarchy.

I’ve listed above why I believe that women have been instrumental in spreading the Good News of Jesus and why God is happy about it.

My grandmother, and countless other women across the globe, show that following Jesus is leading means leading others towards Jesus and across gender divides.

I’ve matured from leaders of both genders. Both genders have taught me that leadership in God’s family is not determined by gender. We see holy leadership through hospitality, humility, meekness and the courage to live in service to others, like Jesus did. Jesus is our ultimate example, and we learn from him, just like Mary did when she sat at His feet.

What do you think?

Are you a female influencer who’s felt diminished in the church? What’s your story?

Men, have you ever felt your power in the church is inconsistent with the example of Jesus?

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