Excerpted from the “Women In Ministry” document written for Westwinds Community Church.
This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:
In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
ACTS 2.16-18, citing Joel 2.28-30
The single most convincing argument that women should be included in all levels of church leadership is that they were included in all levels of church leadership in the Bible. Given the numerous occasions on which women lead, taught (and taught men), spoke publicly, evangelized, prophesied, and were listed among the elders and deacons and apostles of the New Testament church it is impossible to believe that Paul’s limiting passages (1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2) were meant to negate all that had already (in many cases by Paul himself) been put into place.
Consider what women actually did in the Bible, the New Testament specifically:
Mary (not Joseph) is the first to receive the message of Christ’s birth into the world. She is honored and blessed by angels. She is also the first to sing and prophesy about the Christ child (cf. Luke 1).
The prophetess Anna receives honorable mention as one who speaks of the Messiah to those who have waited for Him (Luke 2.36-38).
Mary (the mother of Jesus) obviously had a tremendous impact on the way in which her son fulfilled his messianic purpose. Consider that many of the themes present in Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1.46-55) appear in much the same way in both Jesus’ teaching and James’ (Jesus’ half-brother) epistle (cf. Luke 4, James 1).
During Christ’s earthly ministry, a group that Luke calls the Women were just as well known as the Twelve(Luke 8.1-3, 23.49 + 55, 22.24). In fact, the twelve male disciples were a rather pitiful bunch when compared to Christ’s female disciples, who abandon Jesus in the Garden and are not rehabilitated until much later. Because of this Tom Wright has light-heartedly referred to these women as “apostles to the apostles.”
Mary (not Jesus’ mother, but the sister of Martha) caused near-scandal by avoiding her “women’s work” in the kitchen and instead sitting at Jesus’ feet. In that world, at that time, to sit at someone’s feet meant that you were a student and they were the teacher. Receiving this kind of instruction was strictly the province of men. Furthermore, you wouldn’t simply learn like this for your own personal edification, but in order to become a rabbi or teacher yourself. This, undoubtedly, is what really bothered Martha: her sister was neglecting her female role and adopting, instead, a male role as a student and apprentice.
The woman who anointed Jesus’ feet (traditionally, Mary Magdalene) was performing a priestly action – she was preparing Jesus’ body for burial – and Jesus recognized the sacramental nature of her offering (cf. Luke 7.36-50).
The Women were the last ones to leave the Cross (cf. Luke 24) at Christ’s crucifixion and the first ones to visit the Tomb after his burial (cf. Luke 24).
Priscilla and her husband, Aquila, taught Apollos (a Greek scholar) the way of the Lord more fully (Acts 18.26). This is significant, because in order for them to have taught a scholar, Prisiclla and Aquilla must have been well-versed (to say the least) in both Scripture and theology. Furthermore, four out of the six times this couple is mentioned in the Bible Priscilla’s name is listed first (Acts 18.18 + 26, Romans 16.3, 2 Timothy 4.19). This is ancient shorthand for signifying that Priscilla was more spiritually prominent. The fact that her name appears first when she and her husband instructed Apollos indicates that she led in that exchange (Acts 18.26 NASB and NIV).
Philip the evangelist had four daughters who were prophetesses (Acts 21.9). This means they prophesied, which – in the first century – was always done in and among the church.
In 1 Corinthians 11.4-5, Paul says that women may both pray and prophesy when the church comes together (cf. 1 Corinthians 11.1-34). The context of this passage means clear that Paul is referring to public meetings where both men and women are present).
When Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, he honored the following women for their services in the church: Phoebe, Priscilla, Mary, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Persis, Julia, and the sister of Nereus (cf. Romans 16).
In Romans 16.2, Paul refers to Phoebe, a deacon (a lesser officer in the church, charged with visiting the sick, taking care of the poor, and fiscal management of the church’s resources), a prostatis, which means “one who stands in front of, superintends, guards, and provides care for others.” Historically, we know that Phoebe was the courier for Paul’s letter to the church in Rome and was charged with the task of explicating it so the Romans could understand the complex theological reasoning. Clearly, Phoebe was a minister of the Gospel message and had some authority over – not only individuals, but entire congregations as a teacher and expositor.
Paul commends Junia for being outstanding among the apostles (cf. Romans 16.7). This shows that Junia (a woman) was  an apostle, the highest officer in the early church; and  therefore obviously met (at least) the qualifications for the office of elder, which was a lesser office within the church. Along with her husband, Andronicus, Junia was recognized as having gifts from God – “gifts” meaning things like evangelizing, teaching, preaching, establishing leaders, and leading churches.
In Philippians 4.2-3, Paul makes special of Euodias and Syntyche who helped him in the Lord’s work.
Paul reminds Titus that the older women should be “teachers of good things.” They should teach the younger women (Titus 2.3-5).
Paul commends Timothy’s mother and grandmother. We can reasonable infer that these two women taught Timothy the Scriptures since he was a child (2 Timothy 1.5, 3.15).
Clearly, women were active in the ministry of the first-century church. Because they were recipients of the Holy Spirit, they were just as much a part of the believing priesthood as were the men. We find them prophesying publicly, praying publicly, teaching publicly, leading alongside Paul (as well as other men), and leading male Christians.
Given these facts, how can we reasonably assume that Paul meant for us to completely silence women in the higher levels of ecclesial leadership? Even if he did mean that women shouldn’t become elders – which, again, I think we’ve established is not what he meant – Paul obviously felt comfortable appointing and employing women in the highest levels of leadership whenever he felt it was appropriate.
At best, Paul’s injunctions are flexible. Much more likely, Paul’s injunctions are merely situational.
He didn’t mean to keep women out of the highest offices of leadership. He himself put women in those offices and commended them for their high performance.
Dr. David McDonald is the teaching pastor at Westwinds Community Church in Jackson, MI. The church, widely considered among the most innovative in America, has been featured on CNN.com and in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and Time Magazine. David weaves deep theological truths with sharp social analysis and peculiar observations on pop culture. He lives in Jackson with his wife, Carmel, and their two kids. Follow him on twitter (@fossores) or online at fossores.com