© Rosemary Bardsley 2017


A.1 References to various women in the roles of prophet, leader, judge, etc [Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, as chief examples]

Complementarians, affirming patriarchy as God’s design, generally hold that when women occupied these roles it was the exception to the rule.

Some complementarians suggest that women occupied these roles only because men defaulted.

The fact that women held these roles in an obviously patriarchal culture, and that their holding such positions was accepted without question, challenges any thought that this was against what God prescribed. Their advice was sought by kings, they were held in esteem by both their contemporary and subsequent generations.

The fact that God tolerated patriarchy does not mean that he approved it; he also tolerated polygamy and slavery, both of which the church outlaws today.

Some roles held by women were more authoritative than those from which they are restricted today.

It is fairly easy to see weak points in both arguments. Complementarians err in their ‘by male default’ concept. [Barak defaulted regarding the battle, but Deborah was leading Israel before this.]

Egalitarians fail to consider that Miriam, although a leader of Israel, was herself under Moses, the male leader, and that the kings who sought advice from female prophets were the male leaders.

A.2 The male-only priesthood
Complementarians make much of the fact that only males could serve as priests, concluding that this sets a precedent for only males in pastor roles in the church.

The relevance of this to the debate is questionable. Not only females were excluded from the priesthood but also all males except those descended from Levi. If we apply the argument about male priests we must also exclude all non-Levite males from ministry or leadership positions in churches. In addition, priests were neither rulers nor primarily teachers: their key role and function was mediation and representation. Their New Testament equivalent is not the person who preaches or teaches the word of God, nor the people who run the church, but Jesus Christ, the Great High Priest.
Further, the cross of Christ has made all who are united to Christ, regardless of gender, ‘priests to serve his God and Father’ [Revelation 1:6; 5:10; see also 1Peter 2:9].

A.3 The kings of Israel and Judah
The complementarian use of male kingship to confirm male headship in the New Testament has the same kind of problems as using the male-only priesthood: [1] the legitimate kings were limited to the descendents of David [tribe of Judah]; [2] their New Testament fulfilment is Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Lion of Judah, the eternal King, not people who lead or speak in the church; and [3] all believers, both male and female are ‘kings’ [same references as priests above].

A.4 The woman Proverbs 31:10-31
This passage about a praiseworthy woman appears to attract only superficial comment by either side of the debate. Yet it may hold important keys to a resolution of the debate.

[1] Verses 11 & 12 state ‘Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value. She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life.’ This very closely parallels the relationship between Jesus Christ and God the Father. It is surely an example of what biblical ‘submission’ looks like.

[2] So great is her husband’s confidence in her that she goes about her life in the home and the community with an extreme liberty, engaging in actions and operations that are traditionally male tasks. [Which parallels the Father’s entrusting the Son with divine prerogatives – see below on John 5:19-30.]

[3] This woman’s life brings honour to both herself and her husband [verses 23,32]. Again, this parallels the impact of the submissive life of Christ [John 17:4]. It also provides a basis for understanding Paul’s comment that ‘woman is the glory of man’ in 1Corinthians 11:7.
Here we see a woman so totally trusted by the man, and so totally committed to the man’s well-being, that she lives and acts with an incredibly broad liberty that could easily be mistaken for usurping authority! This woman, not a weak, subjugated, dominated woman, brings honour not only to herself but to the man.


B.1 Women in the Gospels

1. (mild complementarian) The songs of both Mary and Zachariah are included by Luke, putting them on an equal footing. [Luke 1:46ff; 66ff]

2. (mild complementarian) Anna and Simeon are paired together by Luke, putting them on an equal footing.

3. Jesus appointed only male disciples/apostles. This sets a precedent for church practice.

Jesus was not bothered by cultural considerations; his appointment of only male apostles, was not because it was too radical in that culture, but because it was a male only role.

4. John 4: Jesus treated women with dignity and respect in a world that often mistreated them.

5. Luke 10:38-42: while Jesus commends Mary for her desire to learn from him, this says nothing about authorising her to teach or lead.

1. No specific comment

2. Luke 2:36-38: Anna, the prophetess, spoke about Jesus to people in the temple.

3. While the 12 were only male, females were included in the 72. [Found in written church traditions dating from Ambrose (4th century) to Lombard (12th century).]

Jesus excluded women from the Twelve because female teachers and learners were a rarity in Judaism; their inclusion would have been too radical.

In addition ‘many’ women are reported to have accompanied Jesus [Luke 8:1-3]. This was quite counter-cultural. Yet, in restricting the Twelve to free Jewish males, Jesus avoided the radical counter-cultural move of including slaves, females or Gentiles.

4. John 4: The Samaritan woman evangelised the people of her town.

5. Jesus’ approval of Mary’s desire to learn was quite counter-cultural. Traditionally only males were educated and only males were teachers. Sitting at a teacher’s feet was the posture of a disciple, a male role. Jesus defended this against Martha’s preoccupation with a traditional female role.

On #1 and #2:
While these suggest equality, neither contributes anything about male headship.
They do, however, show women engaged in verbal/speaking activities whose audience included men. [Mary’s song instructs every man who reads it!]

On #3:
The women in Luke 8 are not reported to have preached, only to have accompanied and supported him. But neither is it stated that ‘the Twelve’ did any preaching in this context.
It is also important to note that the Twelve were under the authority of Jesus Christ. They were not autonomous.
Jesus’ exclusion of slaves & Gentiles from the Twelve, as well as women, may be an important point. If the Church includes slaves & Gentiles as leaders/teachers, on what basis does it not also include women? All feature in Galatians 3:28.
[The two sides of the argument re cultural appropriateness indicate the difficulty of resolving the issue from the perspective of culture. Both sides try to use it to defend their viewpoint.]

On #4 & #5:
Both complementarians and egalitarians agree that Jesus lifted the status of women and obviously acknowledged their capacity to learn theological truth.

If we understand Jesus’ instructions here to the eleven disciples to apply to all believers, which most Christians do, then women are here obviously commanded teach ‘all nations’, regardless of gender. This raises the question: do we modify our understanding of Jesus’ commission so that it reflects the traditional understanding of 1Timothy 2:12? Or, do we understand 1Timothy 2:12 in the light of Jesus’ commission, and therefore give Paul’s ‘teach’ a restricted meaning?

B.2 Women in Acts

1. No specific comment.

2. Mild complementarians believe that Acts 2 confirms women in mixed-audience public speaking roles.

Some who recognize that both OT and NT report women prophets deny that prophecy is exposition of God’s Word.

3. Priscilla taught Apollos in the home, not in a church meeting.

1. Acts 1:14: the 120 disciples included women. Assuming that the whole 120 spoke in languages in Acts 2 [‘all’ in verses 1 & 4], This affirms women teaching men.

2. The quote from Joel in Acts 2:17-21 speaks of both men and women enabled by the Spirit to ‘prophesy’. This affirms women in mixed-audience public speaking roles.

3. Priscilla clearly taught Apollos, who is described as ‘a learned man with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures ... instructed in the way of the Lord ...’ [Acts 18:24-26].

On #1:
This is a questionable argument. It is the ‘eleven apostles’ [1:26] who are mentioned immediately prior to the ‘all’ of 2:1, not the 120. In addition those who taught in languages are referred to as ‘Galileans’ [2:7], and verse 14 states ‘then Peter stood up with the Eleven’, which suggests that it was only the apostles who were involved, not the 120.

On #2:
It is necessary to define ‘prophesy’. It is to speak forth the word of God, and clearly includes a significant teaching element. It of necessity includes also an element of authority derived from the fact that it is God’s truth. [This innate authority is present regardless of the gender of the speaker or the recipients.] In Acts 15:32, Judas and Silas, who were ‘prophets’, ‘exhorted the brethren’ – which clearly indicates that prophecy included exhortation/ encouragement. And in Ephesians 4 ‘prophets’ are included in the gifts given to the church for its instruction and growth towards maturity and unity and its protection against false doctrines.

Additional comment:
That the above [and Philip’s four daughters who were prophets] gives a fairly clear indication that women engaged in public speaking in the presence of men is acknowledged by contemporary complementarians as well as egalitarians. However, this has nothing clear to say about [1] women speaking in church meetings, or [2] women in positions of authority over men in the church. Complementarians tend to make it exclusive of these; egalitarians understand it inclusively.

On #4 & #5:
The differentiation between teaching a man and teaching men in church gatherings is rather arbitrary. Probably more to the point is that it seems Priscilla taught Apollos with the approval of her husband.

B.3 Women in the apostolic letters

Women filled roles of prophet and deacon, and were fellow-labourers with Paul in the Gospel [most likely in evangelism].

Some complementarians hold some restrictions on the ministry of women in these roles.

The egalitarian position re Junia [Romans 16:7] is questioned. Those who believe Junia is a woman, believe that Paul used ‘apostle’ in the sense of ‘missionary’ or ‘messenger’ [as in Philippians 2:25; 2Corinthians 8:23].

Women were deacons, evangelists, prophets and apostles. Junia is understood to be a female apostle, of the same kind as Paul and the Twelve.

There is debate over ‘Junia’ in Romans 16:7. Some complementarians believe this is a male name, but there are clear references to Junia as a woman and an apostle in early church writings.

It is probable that there is a distinction between the foundational Twelve, plus Paul, and others who were called ‘apostle’. The word means ‘one who is sent’. Regardless, Junia was some kind of apostle, and therefore engaged in a speaking role.

On the basis of the NT records:

Traditionalists maintain that when women occupied these roles it was in women-only contexts. This is difficult to sustain on the basis of the NT records.

Complementarians hold a range of positions, some maintaining that women occupied these roles in mixed contexts, others excluding some roles, especially those with authority, in mixed contexts.

Egalitarians see no restrictions on women in these roles.