Women in Ministry? Yes!

Robert Webber
women in ministry - Robert Webber

Life In The Congo

An example of a woman as a minister that hits close to home for me is my mother, Harriet. She did not grow up in a Christian home. She had a tough childhood and was orphaned by the time she was sixteen.

As an orphan, she was befriended by the people of Spruce Street Baptist Church in Philadelphia where she was converted and encouraged to go to a Christian college. In 1929 at the age of 27, she went alone to Africa under the Africa Inland Mission. There she met my dad, and they were married in 1930.

Over the next few years, my mother and father ministered in a village in the middle of the African forest. My mother translated the scripture into the native language, taught the Bible, and ministered alongside my father in the numerous duties of a pioneer missionary.

Our family returned from Africa in 1940, and Dad became the pastor of a Baptist church. My mother’s ministry came to a near halt – only allowed to teach in a Bible club for children. I remember once saying to my mother, “How come you could do all the ministry stuff in Africa, but here in America, you can’t do anything?” Whatever answer she gave, didn’t stick. 

Called To Ministry

Recently I lectured at a denominational seminary, a denomination that was actually started by a woman. I spent some time conversing with a deeply committed Christian woman who was wonderfully talented with ministerial gifts and characterized by a deep commitment to be a minister. “I really want to be a minister,” she said, “but our denomination does not recognize women ministers.” “What!” I said startled, “your denomination was started by a woman.” “Go figure,” she said as she shrugged her shoulders. 

Should Women Be Silent In The Church?

Those who propagate the silence of women in the church will immediately argue: “But what about Paul? Doesn’t he state that women should be silent in the church?”

He does. But this admonition has to be understood against the evidence that women were active in the New Testament church as ministers. Euodias and Syntyche, two women, appear to be the ministers of the church at Phillipi (Philippians 4:2), where Paul apparently kept his membership. Then, too, there are women ministers in the Roman Church. Paul makes special mention of them and commends their work. “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a great help to many people, including me” (Rom. 16:1-2).

So, how then should we interpret Paul’s addition that “women should remain silent in the church” (I Cor. 14:34 & I Tim. 2:12)? Perhaps there was a particular situation here when the women were “taking over” and Paul had to ask them to refrain themselves to allow the men to also emerge as leaders. Perhaps Paul was using irony, as some have suggested: “This is the way women are treated in society. Are you going to do the same thing? If so, they can’t do anything in the church!”

Paul Contradicted

The absolute logic of taking Paul literally would state that a woman cannot do anything in the church. And not just preaching or serving communion, they can’t teach Sunday school, lead worship, be deacons or elders, sing in the choir, or even greet people at the door.

“The absolute logic of taking Paul literally would state that a woman cannot do anything in the church.”

Obviously, this attitude contradicts one of Paul’s central teachings that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ” (Gal. 3:28). A rule for the interpretation of Scripture, which has been practiced throughout history, is always interpret obscure passages in view of clear passages of Scripture. In the case of women in ministry, there seems to be a surface contradiction between the women commended in Romans 16 and the admonition that women are to be silent in the church. However, both of those examples become obscure when confronted with Paul’s clarity in his letter to the Galatian church, which states that we are “all one in Christ Jesus.”

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