In the Old Testament, the priesthood was reserved for men (Ex 28:1), but God sometimes called women into leadership positions in other areas, such as Miriam (Ex 15:20, Mic 6:4) and Deborah (Jdg 4:4-5).
But when we get into the New Testament, we can begin by noting that Jesus had many female followers. Women accompanied Jesus and the apostles on their preaching tours in Galilee (Lk 8:1-3). Being a “disciple” in biblical times was more than just going to school with a rabbi and studying theology, you also had to practice your knowledge by imitating your teacher. Learning the theoretical is sometimes called “sitting at the feet of one’s master”, as Paul did when he sat at the feet of Gamaliel (Ac 22:3) and as Martha’s sister Mary did when she sat at the feet of Jesus (Lk 10:38-42).
But even if Jesus allowed women to be disciples, does that automatically mean that they could become apostles or go out and witness to what they learned from Jesus? The apostles didn’t seem to think so, because when the apostles have to appoint a new apostle to succeed Judas, they only choose from among “men” when they appoint a person to be “a witness to his resurrection” (Ac 1:21-22). But Jesus doesn’t seem to have a problem with female witnesses, because the first thing that happens after his resurrection is that Jesus and the angels ask the women at the tomb to “testify that Jesus has risen”!
It should not surprise us, therefore, that in his letter to Rome, Paul sends a greeting to the apostle Junia, a woman (Ro 16:7). And this leads us to Paul’s teaching on the subject.
Paul repeatedly taught that all who believe in Jesus have now become a new people in Christ and that we are equally welcome and equally valuable whether we are “Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female” (Ga 3:28). But in a world where its opposites: nationalism, slavery, and the oppression of women, were considered normal, Paul’s message of liberation was extremely provocative, bordering on revolutionary and dangerous for those in power! If everyone who became a Christian would stop being xenophobic, set all their slaves free and allow women to become equal, it would create a social revolution like no other!
With this in mind, it is no wonder that Paul sometimes appeals to Christians to use their common sense and not to overuse this newfound freedom, but rather to “remain in the condition in which he was” when he became a Christian (1 Co 7:20). In this way, we avoid unnecessarily upsetting the surrounding community, and can instead focus on our main mission: to testify about to Jesus. Gradually, Christian freedom then comes to indirectly challenge the negative structures of society and create a love revolution from within. The more people who become Christians, the fewer soldiers for the nationalist armies, the fewer slaves, the less oppression of women.
So Paul describes in theory the freedom we now have in Christ, but pleads for restraint in practice so as not to upset society too much and thus create unnecessary persecution. This is why Paul sometimes teaches practically how the slave should behave towards his master, even though in theory he teaches that in Christ we are no longer slaves or free. This is why he sometimes teaches in practice that woman should submit to man, even though he teaches in theory that in Christ we are equal before God.
However, this strong message that we are equal in Christ and have equal opportunities to serve the Lord does not mean that the boundaries between male and female are blurred into something genderless. Both men and women are created in the image of God, and we honor God by being what we are created to be. This is why Paul writes that nature teaches us that “if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory” (1 Co 11:14-15).
The Holy Spirit
It is the Holy Spirit who anoints us humans into holy service. And although many offices in the Old Testament were reserved for men, it was prophesied that there will be a new time when God will pour out his Spirit “on all flesh” (Joe 2:28-29), both men and women, free and slave. Jesus therefore urged his disciples to wait in Jerusalem because “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses” (Ac 1:8). This prophecy was fulfilled when the Holy Spirit fell on all believers, both men and women.
So my conclusion is that YES, women can and should be witnesses, leaders, apostles, evangelists, prophets, and all that God calls them to be! When the apostles are choosing a new apostle, they define an apostle as one who has followed Jesus from the beginning as well as “a witness to his resurrection” (Ac 1:21-22). Jesus had women trained by him to be his witnesses, he called them to bear witness to the resurrection, and the Holy Spirit empowered the women to be Jesus’ witnesses. If Jesus trains women and sends them off to bear witness to his resurrection, and if the Holy Spirit empowers them to carry out that mission, who are we to hinder the work of God?
There are several hard-to-understand texts in which Paul seems to imply that the man should be in charge and lead, while the woman should keep quiet, stay at home and be mostly concerned with bearing children. To understand these biblical passages, it is important to remember the cultural context in which the Christians found themselves.
1 Tim 2
1 Timothy was written by Paul to Timothy to help him in his new task as leader of the church in Ephesus (1 Ti 1:3). In Ephesus at this time there was a religious cult of women around the temple of Artemis, where the female goddess Artemis (or Diana as the Romans called her) was worshipped and where women ruled the religion and only women were allowed to be priests. Against such a religious background, it is not surprising that Paul assures the Christians in Ephesus that this will not be the case in the Christian church.
Instead, Paul writes that both men and women should have the opportunity to receive teaching without, like the priests of Artemis, ruling over the men. The reason Paul uses Adam and Eve as examples is to show that both men and women need to be taught the Word of God. Look how stupid it got when Eve was tricked by the devil. It’s not enough for just the man to be versed in God’s word.
1 Cor 11
In Corinth there was a situation where the only women who did not cover their hair with a veil when they were outside were prostitutes. Against such a background, it is not surprising that Paul urges the women of Corinth to cover their hair so that the people of the city do not think that all Christian women have suddenly become prostitutes. Although in Christ we have been set free from all kinds of oppression, we should not use our freedom in such a way as to arouse the disgust of the surrounding society and make the proclamation of the gospel impossible. What responsible parent in Corinth would dare send their children to church if they thought all Christian women were prostitutes? It would therefore be unloving to use our freedom in such a way that it closes the door to more people hearing the Gospel and being saved.
In our society today, it is not only prostitutes who do not cover their hair, so in our cultural context this is not a problem. However, the principle can be transferred. In our culture, prostitutes often wear short skirts and necklines. Therefore, it may be good to think about not dressing too short or sexually provocative even if it is not forbidden because as Christians we possess a great freedom. In love for our fellow human beings, it is sometimes good not to use our great freedom if it risks hindering our primary mission: to bear witness to Jesus.
“1“Then bring near to you Aaron your brother, and his sons with him, from among the people of Israel, to serve me as priests—Aaron and Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar.” (Ex 28:1)
“20Then Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women went out after her with tambourines and dancing.” (Ex 15:20)
“4For I brought you up from the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery, and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.” (Mic 6:4)
“28“And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. 29Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit.” (Joe 2:28–29)
“36And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin,” (Lk 2:36)
“38Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. 39And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. 40But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” 41But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, 42but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”” (Lk 10:38–42)
“9Now when he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. 10She went and told those who had been with him, as they mourned and wept. 11But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it. 12After these things he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. 13And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them. 14Afterward he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were reclining at table, and he rebuked them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen.” (Mk 16:9–14)
“5But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you.”” (Mt 28:5–7)
“21So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.”” (Ac 1:21–22)
“8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”” (Ac 1:8)
“1When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. 4And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.” (Ac 2:1–4)
“28There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Ga 3:28)
“40So they went out of the prison and visited Lydia. And when they had seen the brothers, they encouraged them and departed.” (Ac 16:40)
“7Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me.” (Ro 16:7)
“33For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. As in all the churches of the saints, 34the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. 35If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” (1 Co 14:33–35)
- Why were only men allowed to be priests in the Old Testament?
- Why did Jesus choose twelve men as apostles?
- How should we practice Gal 3:28?
- Is it more important to use your Christian freedom than to testify about Jesus?
- Are women allowed to be pastors and church leaders according to the Bible?
- Is there a difference between women’s opportunities to be witnesses before and after Jesus’ resurrection?
Additional Bible Verses
Luke 24:1-12, John 20:17-18, Acts 22:3, 1 Corinthians 7:17-24