A Woman’s Right to Preach: Is It Biblical? – Part 1

Introduction

The role of women with respect to teaching and preaching in the local church has long been a topic of discussion and debate, with views ranging from her full involvement to total prohibition. The contemporary trend is toward equal ministry roles for men and women, as evidenced by the ever-increasing number of women attending seminaries and being ordained to the pastorate.

We believe that women's ministries in general, when conducted within biblical parameters, are vital to the overall spiritual health of the church. Further, we believe that church leaders should encourage women to minister their spiritual gifts, and should provide opportunities for them to do so.

More specifically, we believe that Scripture permits women to pray or prophesy within biblical guidelines and with a proper attitude of submission (1 Cor. 11:3-4; Acts 21:9), to witness to women or men in public, to pray with believers or non-believers in a non-leadership role, and to teach children and other women (Titus 2:3-4; 1 Tim. 5:16).

However, we also believe that Scripture does not permit women to preach or teach in the corporate gathering of the local assembly, to hold authoritative leadership roles in the church (e.g., Pastor or elder), or in any other way to exercise authority over men. This paper is a response to the most common arguments from those who believe otherwise.

As a matter of procedure, for each argument we give a brief summary, its main points, our responses, and the key principles. In most cases we also include documented representative quotes. We provide a complete bibliography at the end of the study,

Primary Texts

These are the primary texts used to support a woman's right to preach. We will consider each text as it appears in the various arguments below.

Joel 2:28-29 – "It will come about after this that I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind; and your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. And even on the male and female servants I will pour out My Spirit in those days."

Acts 2:17-18 – "'And it shall be in the last days,' God says, 'That I will pour forth of My Spirit upon all mankind; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even upon My bondslaves, both man and women, I will in those days pour forth of My Spirit and they shall prophesy.'"

Galatians 328 – "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

1 Corinthians 11:4-5 – "Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying, disgraces his head. But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying, disgraces her head; for she is one and the same with her whose head is shaved."

1 Corinthians 14:34-35 – "Let the women keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but let them subject themselves, just as the Law also says. And if they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church."

Timothy 2:11-15 – "Let a woman quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being quite deceived,fell into transgression. But women shall be preserved through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self-restraint."


Primary Arguments

1. Argument From Natural Qualifications

a. Summary of the argument

By Gods design, women are naturally well-suited for public speaking in general, and pulpit preaching in particular. Therefore, they should not be prevented from or criticized for ministering in those capacities.

b. Representative quote

The first and most common objection urged against the public exercises of women is that they are unnatural and unfeminine… [However] we cannot discover anything either unnatural or immodest in a Christian woman, becomingly attired, appearing on a platform or in a pulpit. By nature she seems fitted to grace either. God has given to woman a graceful form and attitude, winning manners, persuasive speech, and, above all, a finely-toned emotional nature, all of which appear to us eminent natural qualifications for public speaking" (Catherine Booth, Female Ministry: Woman's Right to Preach the Gospel, p. 5).

(Note: Catherine Booth was the wife of General William Booth, founder of The Salvation Army. She was theologically astute, articulate, and one of the primary voices for omen's ministries in her day. We quote extensively from her book because for more than 100 years it has stood as the definitive word on female ministry for millions of Salvationists and others committed to equal ministry roles for men and women.)

c. Our responses

1) In the quote cited above, Mrs. Booth is addressing not only the role of women in the pulpit, but also women in public speaking roles in general, which was a significant issue in her day. Her rationale for both roles is the same.

2) If a woman's right to preach were simply a matter of natural abilities such as form, attitude, manners, persuasive speech, or a finely-toned emotional nature, this argument would carry weight. But the issue is one of biblical role distinctions and spiritual qualifications, not natural abilities or physical appearance. Despite the many wonderful graces and abilities God has given to women, our only concern here is whether or not He has given her the right to preach.

3) Mrs. Booth's comment that "we cannot discover anything either unnatural or immodest in a Christian woman, becomingly attired, appearing on a platform or in a pulpit" misses the point. The question is whether or not the practice is biblical, not whether it's natural or modest.

4) Even among men, natural abilities do not determine the right to preach.

Key Principle:

The right to preach is not based on natural abilities, but on biblical authority and God's sovereign design for His church.

2. Argument from Superior Ability

a. Summary of the argument

Some female preachers are more effective communicators than some of their male counterparts. Therefore, it makes no sense to silence the more effective for the sake of the less.

b. Our response

While it may be true that the communication skills f some women preachers are superior to some male preachers, the right to preach isn't determined by superior performance. God can use weak and faltering messengers like Moses (Ex. 4:10-16), as well as eloquent messengers like Apollos (Acts 18:24). The Holy Spirit's power and blessing are the keys to truly effective preaching, not superior communication skills.

Key Principles:

  • Biblical guidelines, not superior communication skills, must decide the question of a woman's right to preach.
  • The Holy Spirits power and blessing are the keys to truly effective preaching.

3. Arguments from Intellectual and Moral Pursuits

a. Summary of the argument

"Why should woman be confined exclusively to the kitchen and [to other domestic duties], any more than man to he field and workshop? Did not God, and has not nature, assigned to man his sphere of labour, ‘to til the ground and to dress it?’ And, if exemption is claimed from this kind of toil for a portion of the male sex, on the ground of their possessing ability for intellectual and moral pursuits, [women] must be allowed to claim the same privilege for some; nor can we see the exception more unnatural in the one case than in the other, or why God in this solitary instance has endowed a being with powers which e never intended her to employ" (Booth, Female Ministry, p. 5).

b. Main points and responses

1) Women should not be restricted to domestic duties any more than men should be restricted to the field or workshop.

Response:

Writing more than 100 years ago, Mrs. Booth addressed a social climate in which women's roles were considerably more narrow than today. Therefore, her comments about women being confined exclusively to domestic tasks, or being restricted in their intellectual and moral pursuits, do no necessarily apply to our modern culture.

However, even in Scripture women aren't confined exclusively to domestic duties. The Bible portrays domestic duties as woman's primary role, but not her only role. It gives examples of godly women whose pursuit went beyond the home–in some cases augmenting her domestic duties (e.g., the Proverbs 31 woman); in others no direct correlation between her work outside the home and her domestic duties is evident (e.g., Deborah: a judge, Lydia: a business woman). Similarly, Scripture gives examples of a variety of roles for men beyond farming or shop work (e.g., educators, pastors, fishermen, businessmen).

2) Whether a woman works inside or outside the home, God expects her to develop their natural capabilities fully

Response:

We wholeheartedly agree. We're simply clarifying the parameters within which those capabilities are to function within the local church.

3) Intellectual and moral pursuits are as appropriate for women as for men.

Response:

Mrs. Booth's contention that women, like some of their male counterparts, have the right to break out of their original sphere of labor and pursue intellectual and moral interests, relates more to a woman's role in society than to the pulpit. Many intelligent and morally refined men aren't gifted, qualified, or called to preach. The freedom for intellectual and moral pursuits is a separate issue from the right to preach.

4) Why would God give women the intelligence and ability to preach if He never intended her to do so?

Responses:

a) Mrs. Booth's question of "why God in this solitary instance has endowed a being with powers which He never intended her to employ" implies that preaching is the only expression available to a woman for the intelligence and communication kills God has given to her. Clearly that is not the case. Many opportunities are available for godly women to minister their spiritual gifts and natural abilities.

b) It is not a woman's communication skills that God limits, but only the context in which she can exercise them.

c) Having the ability to do something doesn't guarantee the right to do it.

Scripture is replete with examples of people who had the ability to do things God didn't permit them to do. For example:

  • Saul had the ability, but not the right, to offer a sacrifice (1 Sam. 13).
  • Women had the ability, but not the right, to pray and prophesy with their heads uncovered (1 Cor. 11).
  • The Corinthians had the ability, but not the right, to exercise their spiritual gifts freely in the corporate assembly (1 Cor. 14).
  • Many men have the ability, but not the right, to serve as leaders in the church (1 Tim. 3).
  • Similarly, a woman may have the ability and opportunity to pursue a public preaching ministry, but that doesn't guarantee her God's permission or authority to do so. God gives every good and perfect gift and has the right to govern them as He pleases. That's why His Word, not natural abilities or opportunities, must be the final authority in this matter.

Key Principles:

  • We do not deny a woman's intelligence or her ability to preach.
  • However, having the ability to do something and having God's permission to do it are two different things.
  • Only when women minister within their God-given parameters can they truly develop their capabilities fully (both for the glory of God and the benefit of their fellow Christians).

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