Dale M. Coulter
I understand that there are some CG ministers and laity who think that the teachings of the denomination already exceed scripture with respect to endorsing women in the roles of pastors and leaders. My point about the inherent contradictions in current CG teaching and practice on women in leadership bears no weight for those who think the denomination is already out of alignment with scripture. For that reason, let me offer some points that might frame a biblical argument in support of women leaders.
First, there are no pastors in the NT. It’s a common misconception that falsely imports current practice onto the NT texts. The term “pastor” is a Latin loanword meaning “shepherd.” It appears in the NT not as an office or even a role but as a metaphor to describe teachers, elders, or bishops (Acts 20:28; Eph. 4:11; 1 Pet. 5:2).
The image of shepherding is rooted in the OT picture of God (Ps. 23:1) that was applied to Jesus (Mark 14:27; John 10:11). To pastor is to shepherd. Yet, this task of shepherding was applied to many different types of leaders in the OT from the king to prophets to priests. For this reason, it is false to see any house church as being led by a “pastor.”
Second, there is no single leader of the church in the NT. Instead, there are a plurality of leaders with various kinds of authority. There are local leaders that range from the person who sponsors the house church to elders and prophets. There are also itinerate leaders who traveled around.
Take Phoebe as an example. She was a “servant” (deaconess) in Cenchrea, a city just outside of Corinth. She most likely took Paul’s letter to Roman house churches and read it in their assembly (Rom. 16:1-3). She probably was like Chloe who also sponsored a house church in Corinth (1 Cor. 1:11-12).
There were also female prophets operating in Corinthian house churches, especially when they gathered together. If we consider Phoebe, Chloe, and female prophets, we have women operating at two levels of leadership among house churches in Corinth.
Third, there were no offices among the house churches until after Paul’s death by 68 AD. Paul wrote his letters over twenty years from 48 AD to 68 AD. There is no evidence for an established office or offices among house churches during this time. By office I mean a permanent position with a clear set of criteria for that position.
It’s not until 1 Timothy and Titus that we have anything approaching offices, but they were not written until after 65 AD. Instead, what we have during the two decades Paul operated was a series of roles in the church. This underscores my point about a plurality of leaders.
Fourth, Paul believed in team ministry. He had many “co-workers,” which was one of his favorite expressions for those who ministered alongside of him. This included women like Prisca/Priscilla (Rom. 16:3). Paul called Titus, Timothy, and many others his co-workers (fellow workers in some translations) because of his team approach. He referred to women and men in the same way when he did this. Given that there was a plurality of leaders, it’s clear that Paul’s co-workers were leaders in team ministry.
These four pieces of evidence reinforce the picture of women in the NT. One might consider the most common translation of Romans 16:17 that Junia was “outstanding among the apostles” and thus she was an apostle alongside of Paul. One might also consider women prophets, teachers, and sponsors of house churches.
I use the language of “sponsorship” to refer to women like Lydia or Chloe who opened up their homes for Christians to use. Lydia was Paul’s first convert in Philippi. Lydia and her household were converted, which indicates that she was a widow. When Paul and Silas escaped the Philippian jail they went to the church at her house (Acts 16:40). As the owner of the home and head of her household, Lydia would have exercised leadership over the church that met at her house. She would have “shepherded” in the same way that Priscilla “shepherded” with her husband Aquila.
Within the plurality of apostles, prophets, teachers, elders, and bishops, women assumed positions of authority and exercised degrees of leadership. Both men and women led under the headship of Christ who was over his body.
Finally, immediate appeals to 1 Timothy 2:8-15 to rule out women exercising leadership are overly simplistic. It is undeniable from the passage that Paul refers to a specific group of wealthy women who styled their hair, could afford jewelry, and fine clothing (1 Tim. 2:9). To conclude that Paul must be referring to women who were slaves or who worked common jobs like tent making as Priscilla had done is a false move. The context makes it clear Paul has wealthy women in the house churches in Ephesus in view. It may help to recall that by the time Paul wrote 1 Timothy, there had been house churches in Ephesus for around fifteen years. By this time, Christianity had attracted people from various classes of Roman society.
We can argue about whether the NT authorizes women to be bishops another day. For now, I hope that these basic points show the leadership roles women occupied in the NT church. I hope it also demonstrates that the Church of God’s current teachings remain deeply rooted in scripture. I firmly believe that the NT authorizes women to exercise leadership in the Lord’s church, which is why I say again, “It’s time to act.”