Women and the Church: Understanding What the Bible Says About Female Leadership

Many people seek to find biblically-sound answers to questions about the relationship between women and the church. Can a woman be a pastor? What does the Bible say about women preaching? What is the role of women in Christianity? The first step in understanding how women should be involved in the church is uncovering what the Bible says about women. When you learn about Jesus’ deep love, care, and admiration for women, the answers to questions related to women and the church start to become more clear.   

What is the Role of Women and the Church?

There is “scriptural, theological, and pastoral justification for female ministry and authority in all Christian denominations” (Jesus and Women, p. 118). However, to understand the role of a woman in the church today, we must dive into the role of women during Jesus’ earthly ministry and the Early Church after His ascension.    It was Jesus who showed unconventional (for the time) love and respect to women. Jesus accepted women as his disciples. He ensured a positive place for them in the ministry of the earliest churches. Although there is still much debate over the role of a woman in the church today, the ministry of Jesus paved the way for women to have equal leadership opportunities. 

What Does the Bible Say About Women Preaching?

Lydia in the Bible is a perfect example of this. “In Acts 16:15-15 and 40, we are told about a prominent female Christian called Lydia, who, impressed by the preaching of Paul, is baptized along with her household into Christianity and then becomes the head of a house where a Christian community meets in Philippi” (Jesus and Women, p. 119). During Lydia’s time, there weren’t dedicated church buildings like there are today. Instead, Christians gathered in homes to fellowship with one another. Therefore, it is understood that Lydia was the head of a house church–what one might consider a “pastor” or “religious leader” today. 

Can a Woman Be a Pastor?

Lydia wasn’t the only prominent woman leader in the Early Church. In Acts and Corinthians, we learn of many people whose service involved leading house churches, either independently or as co-workers with their husbands (Acts 18:2 and 26; 1 Corinthians 16:19).     However, much changed from that time, and “by the end of the first century, the Church had become a bastion of male superiority” (Jesus and Women, p. 122). It wasn’t until Martin Luther’s reformation in 1517 that steps were taken to dissolve the elitist barrier between clergy and laity, providing everyone with the opportunity to read biblical texts and encounter God without the need for a priestly intermediary.    Through his Biblical studies, Luther encountered a very different God than the one he encountered in medieval culture. He found that the God of the Bible was kind and merciful, and His son Jesus was loving, compassionate, non-judgmental, humble, and unconventional. It was clear to Luther that love was the central theme of the ministry of Jesus and, through Jesus, everyone could have direct access to God.    “Unsurprisingly, the abolition/reduction of clerical hierarchical systems, along with belief in the priesthood of all believers has led, in many Protestant denominations, to the ordination of women” (Jesus and Women, p. 134). 

What Does the Bible Say About Female Leadership?

Lydia, along with other women’s roles in the Early Church–influenced by Jesus’ radically inclusive treatment of women–highlights the equal leadership roles of both genders. Still, “the fact that Jesus did not send any of his female followers out to proclaim him is often cited by church authorities as justification for the non-ordination of women. It needs to be acknowledged that he could not have sent them out to proclaim him publicly in his lifetime as it would have been culturally impossible, an argument that no longer holds” (Jesus and Women, p. 144-145).    During Jesus’ time on Earth, He had to navigate an extremely male-dominated society characterized by laws and religious practices that alienated women. While He showed His care and consideration for women in many ways, He still had to work within the parameters of human freedom.   However, “in the Early Church, women and men were equally involved in church ministries. With its change of status into the state religion of the Roman Empire, however, it became highly patriarchal and developed attributes common to religion, in general, that are at odds with the ministry of its founder” (Jesus and Women, p. 129). Therefore, it’s clear that the historically-founded, cultural and religious barriers placed on women in the church today are very different from what the Bible says about female leadership, evident through women’s active involvement in the Early Church.

The Future of Women and the Church is Characterized by Empathetic Love

During a time in Church history when “Aquinas’ formulation of the doctrine of transubstantiation had established the necessity of priestly mediation for access to God,” an essential group of women was testing the validity of such claims (Jesus and Women, p. 124). These women, known as “mystics,” were experiencing the power and ability to relate with God directly through love, praying to God as Mother and as Father. The women mystics held firm to the belief that all people could have equal access to God, regardless of gender, status, or wealth. These women experienced love, intimacy, awe, wonder, and mystery in their unconventional (at the time) direct relationship with God.    As you might imagine, it wasn’t well received during a time in which status and knowledge were the ruling factors over access to God. The result was the brutal death of the women mystics, along with their radical understanding of individual spirituality and mystical relations with God.   Yet, their work was not in vain. As we discuss the future of women and the church, the understanding of the women mystics becomes a central theme. “I would argue that the way forward for women in the Church can be inspired by the lifestyles and courage of the medieval women mystics” (Jesus and Women, p. 143). Their emphasis on love and compassion is inherently female and is also essential for the future of the church to focus on developing close relationships of loving kindness with God. 

Church Unity in Love Requires Women Leadership

As Paul states in 1 Corinthians 12:27-28: “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues.”   I believe “women’s abilities for empathetic and compassionate service, as well as serving at an individual level, would have a great contribution to make to the ordained pastoral ministry” (Jesus and Women, p. 147).    If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, I encourage you to read Jesus and Women, in which I dive deep into the historical significance of the evolution of religion in relation to women’s rights, roles, and the essential presence of women and the Church.