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Female leadership in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament)

Passages from Acts, Romans,
Corinthians, Galatians, & Philippians

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Passages that may refer to female ordination / leadership:

bulletActs 9:36: Paul refers to a woman (Tabitha in Aramaic, Dorcas in Greek, Gazelle in English) as a disciple.

bulletActs 18:24-26 describes how Priscilla, a woman, and Aquila, her husband, both acted in the role of an official pastor to a man from Alexandria, called Apollos. Various translations of the Bible imply that they taught him in the synagogue (Amplified Bible, King James Version, Rheims, New American Standard, New American, New Revised Standard). However, the New International Version has an unusual translation of this passage. The NIV states that the teaching occurred in Priscilla's and Aquila's home.

bulletRomans 16:1: This chapter is apparently unrelated to chapter 15 and to the rest of the book. It appears to be an independent note that has been attached to the epistle to the Romans. It starts with a letter of recommendation which introduces Phoebe to a group of people associated with the church at Corinth. Paul refers to her as a "deacon in the sense of a preacher, a minister, because Paul uses the same word for himself. He calls himself, in a number of instances, a deacon of the new covenant in 2 Corinthians." 1 It is often translated "deaconess" or "servant" or "helper" in English translations - perhaps in order to disguise her true status. The same Greek word appears in Ephesians 6:21 where it refers to a male and is normally translated "minister." It also appears in 2 Corinthians where Paul used the word to refer to himself.

Dr. Helmut Koester comments:

"Most of the persons named in this list are not simply personal friends of Paul in the church of Ephesus, but associates and co-workers. This is shown by the repeated references to their functions. The fact that such a large number of women appears in this list is clear and undeniable evidence for the unrestricted participation of women in the offices of the church in the Pauline congregations." 2

bulletRomans 16:3: Paul refers to Priscilla, a woman, as another of his "fellow workers in Christ Jesus" (NIV) Other translations refer to her as a "co-worker". But still other translations attempt to downgrade her status by calling her a simple "helper". The original Greek word is "synergoi", which literally means "fellow worker" or "colleague." 1

bullet Romans 16:7: Paul refers to a male apostle, Andronicus, and a female apostle, Junia, as "outstanding among the apostles" (NIV) The Amplified Bible translates this passage as "They are men held in high esteem among the apostles." The Revised Standard Version shows it as "they are men of note among the apostles." The reference to them both being men does not appear in the original Greek text. "Men" was simply inserted by the translators. We suspect that they did this because their minds recoiled from the concept of a female apostle. Many translations, including the Amplified Bible, Rheims New Testament, New American Standard Bible, and the New International Version simply picked the letter "s" out of thin air. They converted the original "Junia" (a woman's name) into "Junias" (which they considered a man's name) in order to erase all reference to a female apostle. Junia was first converted into a man only in the "13th century, when Aegidius of Rome (1245-1316) referred to both Andronicus and Junia as "honorable men." 3 One source 1 refers to Hans Lietzmann who studied names used in ancient times. He found no evidence that "Junias" was ever used as a man's name. "Junias" might possibly have been used as a short form for "Junianus," which did exist. But there are no references to it in antiquity. It appears obvious that Junia was definitely an outstanding female apostle, and that many Bible translators have been trying to suppress this information.

bullet1 Corinthians 1:11: Chloe is mentioned as the owner of a house where Christian meetings were held. There is some ambiguity as to whether the women actually led the house church or merely owned the building. Similar passages mention, with the same ambiguity:
bulletThe mother of Mark in Acts 12:12, and
bulletLydia in Acts 16:14-5, and 40, and
bulletNympha in Colossians 4:15.

bullet 1 Corinthians 11:3: "...Christ is the head of every man, and a husband the head of his wife, and the head of Christ is God. (NIV)" Conservative Christians often quote this passage as proof that a husband should retain full authority over his wife in family matters. This concept of women being in an inferior power position might then logically be extended to the church organization as well. Some liberal Christians note that the Greek word translated "head" is "kephale", which can be interpreted in two ways: "having authority over," or alternatively "source" or "origin." Looking at verses 3 to 12, each interpretation looks equally valid. The former would support rejection of women in positions of authority; the latter would not.

bullet1 Corinthians 11:7-9: "For a the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman but woman for man. For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head." (NIV) St. Paul is attempting to give an explanation why women should cover their hair while in church. This passage is often quoted by conservative theologians to justify the inferior position assigned to women and thus deny them access to positions of power in churches. Liberals might point out that this passage is largely ignored in practice; most women today do not cover their hair during church services. Also, it does not appear to say anything about female ordination.

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bullet1 Corinthians 14:34b-35: "As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says, If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church." (NIV) There are many interpretations of this short passage:

bulletMany conservative theologians accept this passage in its plain and literal meaning and interpret it as prohibiting all talking by women during services in every society, forever. This would of course prohibit a woman from accepting a position of pastor, minister or priest.

bullet Bible scholar Hans Conzelmann concluded that this passage is a forgery*, inserted into St. Paul's original text by an unknown writer. 1 Thus, it cannot be regarded as the writing of Paul. The verses were not in the original version, and thus cannot be considered inerrant. He cites a number of reasons for this conclusion:
bulletthis passage contradicts Chapter 11:5 where women are described as taking an active role in church assemblies by praying and prophesying during services. Either the above passage or 11:5 must be invalid.

bulletthere are "peculiarities of linguistic usage, and of thought" in this passage which are not found in the rest of the Epistle

bulletthe passage "spoils the flow of thought" and "interrupts the theme of prophesy." There is a discontinuity between verse 36 and 37. Verse 37 links up neatly with verse 33a.

bulletIf verses 34b to 36 are simply removed, then the chapter flows smoothly, as it was probably originally intended to do. The forgery* was rather crudely done.

bulletOthers point out that Paul would hardly cite the Torah (the Law) as justification for restricting roles of women; his entire ministry involved the exact opposite: he preached liberation from the Law. Some Biblical scholars say that Paul is here describing divisive practices being promoted by the Jewish Christians in Corinth - those who believed in Jesus as Lord while still following the Torah. They were generating discord by teaching that "As in the synagogues, women should remain the Torah says." That is, they wanted to translate synagogue practice, as defined by the Torah, into the Christian assemblies. Women were not allowed to speak in synagogues, so they should not be allowed to speak in Christian assemblies. Paul follows up this passage with verse 15 which severely criticizes the Jewish Christians for this position by asking "Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached?" From this interpretation, restriction on women, as taught by the Torah, should be rejected; men and women should be treated equally with respect to their behavior and roles in church.
bulletStill others point out that the purpose of 1 Corinthians was to answer a number of questions raised by the Church at Corinth. Paul's style was to write a brief quotation supplied by a Corinthian Christian, and then respond to it. Verses 3:1, 5:1, 6:1, 7:1, 8:1 are some examples.
Following this same pattern, Verse 14:33b to 14:35 is not a comment by Paul. Rather it may be a question raised by a Corinthian who objected to women speaking in church.
bulletThe church member may have asked: "As in all of the synagogues of the holy ones, women should remain silent in the synagogues. They are not allowed to speak but must be in submission, as the Torah says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the synagogue."

bulletPaul would then have responded with an attack in Verses 36 - 38, and concludes the chapter with Verse 39, an instruction from the Lord to his "brothers and sisters" to be eager to prophesy, but in a fitting and orderly way. All that is required to come up with this translation is to rearrange the original Greek slightly. Ancient Greek was written without punctuation marks, divisions into sentences or spaces between words. This leads to a single passage having many different interpretations.

bulletOthers speculate that St. Paul is restricting the roles of women, but referring to:
bulleta temporary problem of a local nature at the church at Corinth

bulletwomen chattering during services

bulletwomen interrupting services with emotional outbursts

bulletwomen speaking about certain specific items in church

bulletStill others regard the passage as an indicator of St. Paul's poor regard for women, which originated in his Greek and Jewish background and was not overcome by his religious conversion to Christianity. That is, it was an expression of his personal beliefs and can be safely overlooked in the present day. Just as we have learned to ignore Biblical passages regarding slavery, passages concerning women covering their hair in church, passages prohibiting certain types of jewelry, we should learn to recognize the evil of  Paul's sexism and recognize that this passage should be disregarded.

bullet1 Corinthians 16:3: Paul refers to two a married couple: Priscilla and her husband Aquila as his fellow workers in Christ Jesus.

bullet Galatians 3:28: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (NIV) This is perhaps the most famous passage in the New Testament that assigns equal status to individuals of both genders (and all races, nationalities and slave status). Some religious conservatives believe that this equality refers only to women's salvation and not to their status in the church.

bulletPhilippians 4:2: Paul refers to two women, Euodia and Syntyche, as his co-workers who were active evangelists, spreading the gospel.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Hans Conzelmann, "Textual Commentary on 1 Corinthians 14:33-36," from "1 Corinthians: a Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians" translated by James W. Leitch, Fortress Press, PA, (1975), Page 246) Available at:
  2. Richard and Catherine Clark Kroeger, "I Suffer Not A Woman: Rethinking I Timothy 2:1115 in Light of Ancient Evidence," Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI. Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  3. Frank Daniels, "The Role of Woman in the Church." part of the Religious Heresy Page at:

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Copyright © 1999 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2011-SEP-05
Author: Bruce A. Robinson
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