One Sunday, a man walked out of my church. Having not researched the congregation before visiting, he was apparently appalled to discover the pastor (me) was a woman. He wrote to me later to explain that if I would just study my Bible, then I would understand that women are not allowed to teach men.
There is only one verse in all of scripture that suggests women shouldn’t teach men. And during a lifetime of reading the Bible, eight years of higher education studying biblical translation and scholarship, and the process of becoming a female Baptist pastor in the South, I had heard 1 Timothy 2:12 more times than I could count. Interestingly, three verses earlier, Paul also tells women not to wear gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, and men not to use anger, none of which I ever heard preached on at all.
Recently I asked my Instagram community what they were told growing up about why women couldn’t be pastors. People had heard a host of reasons: Women could not be pastors because women are too emotional, because women might tempt men with their bodies, because women have periods, because women couldn’t handle the workload, because a woman’s voice is too soft, etc. These answers reveal that the majority of objections people have about women preachers and pastors are not really related to scripture, but rather stem from their own assumptions about gender.
But let’s pretend for a moment that scripture, and not sexism, is at the root of the issue. The Bible has more to say about women in leadership positions than we are often led to believe, and with the exception of that pesky little 1 Timothy passage, the biblical narrative about women leaders is overwhelmingly positive. Let’s take a look at 10 examples:
1. “Outstanding among the apostles” (Romans 16:7)
The following women often get overlooked, but even though we do not have long stories about them, their leadership still is recorded in the Bible. There is Anna, who was a prophet (Luke 2:36) along with the four daughters of Philip who also prophesied (Acts 21:9). A “prophet” in the biblical sense, is a truth-teller delivering God’s message to the world — in other words, a preacher. More descriptively, a preacher who can pack a punch. There is also Phoebe, who was a deacon (Romans 16:1), and Junia, who the Bible describes, not only as an apostle, but an outstanding one (Romans 16:7).
Priscilla, along with her husband, is someone Paul names as a “co-worker” in Christ, and in Acts 18, Priscilla teaches Apollos, a “learned man, with a thorough knowledge of scripture.” Despite his considerable expertise, Priscilla is able to explain “the way of God more adequately” to him, and he expresses no dismay at her gender. In many of the passages where she is mentioned, Priscilla’s name is listed before her husband’s, which is noteworthy in a culture that usually placed husband’s names first, suggesting Priscilla, rather than Aquila, was the leader of this particular couple. So far the women in scripture are defying that “complementarian” business by a landslide, and I’m only just getting started.
2. “They told all these things” (Luke 24:9)
Did you know the very first Christian preachers were all women? In all four gospels, women are the first to learn of Christ’s resurrection when he appears to them, and they are the very first people to share this news with others. Depending on which gospel you read, the first proclaimer is either Mary Magdalene (Mark 16:9-10 and John 20:17-18), Mary Magdalene and the other Mary (Matthew 28:8-10), or Mary, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and others (Luke 24:9-10). The first time the story of the resurrection is told, it is proclaimed by a woman. If women had “kept silent in the church,” there wouldn’t be a church.
3. “Because of the woman's testimony” (John 4:39)
We usually know her as the “Woman at the Well,” but I prefer to think of her as the "Woman Who Abandoned Her Water Jar," because after talking with Jesus, the Living Water, John 4:28 reports that she left her jar behind to go tell the people about Jesus. She left behind what she came to the well to do because she found more important work. Shortly thereafter, the text reports that many Samaritans believed in Christ because of her testimony (4:39), demonstrating she was quite the effective evangelist. The conversation Jesus has with her in John 4 is the longest recorded conversation Jesus has with anyone. Why would Jesus spend all that time talking theology with a woman if he didn’t want her to tell anyone about it? He doesn’t reprimand her for leaving her jar — her “women’s work” — behind. Rather, he encourages her spiritual pursuits and questions, then welcomes those she leads to him.
4. “Until I, Deborah, arose” (Judges 5:7)
So far I have mentioned New Testament women, but there is no absence of strong women in the Hebrew scriptures. Deborah, for example, is named in the Hebrew scriptures as both prophetess and judge. The people come to her for words from God; she leads, directs, and guides them, and no one seems to object based on her gender. In Judges 5, Deborah leads the people in song after leading them to victory in battle. She sings, “They held back until I, Deborah, arose, until I arose, a mother in Israel” (Judges 5:7). Without her leadership, the people would not fight on their own behalf.
Our English translations call her Deborah, “wife of Lappidoth,” but this phrase could also be translated “woman of Lappidoth,” noting where she is from, not who she is married to. Lappidoth means torch, so it is possible that the phrase “woman of Lappidoth” means Deborah is a fiery woman, which seems like an apt descriptor.
5. “Go and inquire of the Lord for me” (2 Kings 22:11-20; 2 Chronicles 34:14-33)
For some reason, Huldah (2 Kings 22:11-20; 2 Chronicles 34:14-33) is always overlooked by the men who say women can’t teach, though in her own day she was anything but invisible. As the story goes, King Josiah’s men were cleaning out the temple when they discovered a scroll of the Book of Law given by Moses. Josiah asked several men, including the high priest, to go inquire of the Lord about the contents of the scroll. Who did all those important men seek out for answers from God?
Huldah. A woman.
It is worth noting that Huldah was married, but they went to her, not her husband (which, for the record, made perfect sense, seeing as how she was the prophet and he was the keeper of the royal wardrobe). It is also worth noting that Huldah was a contemporary of male prophets like Jeremiah, Zephaniah, and Nahum. The king’s men had lots of great options, and they chose Huldah. She doesn’t just instruct men; men seek out her instruction. If the King of Judah wasn’t afraid to listen to a woman, why should we be?
6. “All the women followed her, with timbrels and dancing” (Exodus 15:20)
Miriam was the very first person in Hebrew scripture to be named a prophet (Exodus 15:20). I don’t mean that she was the first woman named as a prophet. She was the first prophet. Period.
Furthermore, Moses would never have led the exodus of the Israelites if it weren’t for his sister, Miriam, who kept watch over his basket in the river and ensured her baby brother was cared for. If it weren’t for his mother. If it weren’t the two Hebrew midwives, Shiprah and Puah. If it weren’t for Pharoah’s daughter. Then later, his wife Zipporah saves his life again (Exodus 4:24-26). If it weren’t for the women delivering him over and over, the deliverer of the Hebrew people wouldn’t be around.
7. “And spare my people” (Esther 7:3)
Esther once saved the entire Jewish people from slaughter, which is hardly a minor accomplishment. Easily swayed by the petty and vengeful desires of one of his esteemed nobles named Haman, King Xerxes had signed a law ordering the massacre of the Jewish people. Had it not been for the bold intervention of Queen Esther, many, many people would have perished for no logical reason at all.
I would challenge anyone who says women are “too emotional” to be leaders to take a look at the two powerful men in the book of Esther — Haman and the King — then look at the two quasi-powerful women in the story — Queen Esther and Queen Vashti — and tell me which gender acts according to whim and emotional charge and which gender acts methodically and reasonably. (Earlier in the story, King Xerxes gets wildly drunk and requests that Queen Vashti come parade herself in front of the drunken men for their viewing pleasure — a request Queen Vashti quite soberly refuses.) Which gender acts with appropriate restraint and which gender is out of control? Which gender is motivated by self-interest and which gender demonstrates a concern for integrity and/or the safety of her people? (Hint: It’s really no contest. The women, in this case, undeniably win the show.)
8. “I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets” (Numbers 11:29)
Technically, Numbers 11 is about two men, but I can’t leave this story out because it is just so relevant. In the story, the Spirit of God falls upon these 70 elders who start prophesying inside the tent of meeting. But Eldad and Medad? They start prophesying in camp, outside the tent — that is, outside the approved parameters. Moses’ assistant, Joshua, gets really worked up about this unauthorized preaching and rushes to find Moses. “My lord, stop them!” he demands. But Moses responds like this: “Would that all the Lord’s people be prophets and God put his Spirit on all of them!” Gosh, what a beautiful line, and presumably when Moses says he wishes all people were prophets, that includes women, since his very own sister Miriam was God’s first prophet. Would that all God’s people be prophets — like Eldad, like Medad, like Miriam!
You know the man I mentioned who walked out of church after I preached? I was preaching about Eldad and Medad. Oh, the irony.
9. “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:4)
Pentecost Sunday is the day God’s Spirit pours out upon everyone. On Pentecost, Peter quotes the prophet Joel saying, “‘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 2:17-18).
Furthermore, the first chapter of Acts is clear that the “they” who gathered included women (Acts 1:14), so there is no reason to think that when the second chapter of Acts reports “they were all together in one place” (again) and “all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues” (emphasis mine) that the women were suddenly no longer present.
10. “My soul glorifies the Lord” (Luke 1:46)
And finally, while the list could go on, I rest my case with the blessed Mother Mary. I cannot imagine any better argument for women ministers in all of scripture than Mary, who quite literally bore the Word-Made-Flesh in her own body and gave birth to him. She carried God around in her belly and then labored to get that Good News out of her womb and into the world; if that’s not an accurate depiction of preaching, I don’t know what is. She let Love grow within her, fill her out, and expand her. She nurtured Love, fed Love at her breast, raised Love, sent Love out into the world, stood vigil when Love died, visited Love’s tomb, and proclaimed Love’s triumph when Love rose from the dead. In addition to the embodied ways in which she ushered the Good News into the world, she also prophesied in Luke 1, offering the now infamous song known as the Magnificat.
I will conclude here by saying that I’ve occasionally heard people attempt to argue that the rarity of female leaders/disciples/preachers/deacons in scripture is proof that God intended those positions to be for men — as if a precious few women got the gig only because the men wouldn’t take the job when they were supposed to. The fact that any women at all were leaders, disciples, preachers, and deacons in the midst of a patriarchal society that didn’t value women as equal contributors is proof that God’s call on women could not be deterred even by a culture that didn’t readily accept women’s gifts.
When I asked my Instagram community why they know women can be preachers, several women responded: “Because I am one.” Or: “Because I’ve seen one in action.” You only need one woman to prove that God does not just call men, and, my friends, we have a lot more than one, both now and in biblical times.