• Eric Carpenter

Paul, the Spirit and the Radical Equality of Women (Part 2)


*This is the second in a series of blog posts that discuss the issue of women in leadership. To understand specifically Paul’s outlook on women in leadership, I believe we need to understand three significant perspectives from which he wrote: God’s kingdom, cultural accommodation, and his understanding of the Spirit’s work. These posts are written from a perspective that embraces women in leadership roles of the church.


Fresh out of seminary, Brian and I dreamed of launching a church together. I loved Brian’s authentic faith. He was a unique combination of intellectual rigor and passionate pursuit of the Spirit. Known to fast and pray for long periods of time, Brian had also just completed his second master’s degree.


Based on a dream he had of us fishing together, Brian and I joined forces to plant a church. We agreed on most issues, but women in leadership was not one of them. Not that Brian was “anti-women” – in any sense. But he did believe that the Scriptures are God’s inspired revelation, and wanted to honor them. Based on 1 Timothy 2:11-15[1], Brian didn’t think women should teach or have authority over men. Since Paul also told Timothy that leaders should be husbands of but one wife (1 Timothy 3:2, 12), Brian disallowed women serving as elders or deacons.


To Brian’s credit, he didn’t let these differences prevent him from cooperating in this church plant. (It also helped that we weren’t even close to naming elders and deacons.) We agreed to discuss the women’s equality issue as we moved forward in ministry.


I remember one two-hour talk. We didn’t really argue; we were just two leaders humbly trying to understand the Scriptures together. Neither of us changed the other’s mind. I do remember, however, presenting two perspectives that held Brian’s attention:

1. The work of the Spirit in both Old and New Testaments.

2. The existence of women leaders throughout Scripture.


The Spirit’s Changing Ministry from the Old Testament to the New

I have researched the writings of many leaders and theologians on this particular subject. I’ve heard Pentecostal leaders teach that the Spirit came UPON people with power in the Old Testament (see Sampson, Saul and David) but was not WITHIN them like we see in the New. But when I studied the Old Testament, it seemed clear that there was a close relationship with God via His Spirit. Think of leaders and prophets like Moses, David, Jeremiah and Isaiah.


Some evangelical leaders talk of a greater empowerment[2] of the Spirit in the New Testament compared to the Old. But look at prophet leaders like Elijah and Elisha. Only Jesus surpassed them in terms of power for ministry.


How then is the Spirit’s work different between the old and new covenants? The Scriptures are clear. First, through Jeremiah, when talking of the days of the new covenant, the Lord says:


“No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” Jeremiah 31:34


One of the key differences between testaments is that it is not just the leaders that get to KNOW the Lord (the Hebrew is yada, to know through experience). Every one of God’s children – from the least to the greatest – can walk in personal relationship with Him. This is the SPIRIT WITHIN. Such intimacy isn’t just for leaders like Moses and Deborah, but for all people, both men and women.


In Joel we find a significant passage regarding the difference in the ministry of the Spirit between testaments. Through Joel the Lord says:


“And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days.” Joel 2:28-29


This is one of the key passages that the Apostle Peter used to explain what the people were experiencing at Pentecost. Acts 2 was the fulfillment of Joel’s words. The difference emphasized is not a new level of power from God, but that his power, his SPIRIT UPON us, is now available to everyone. Joel (and Acts 2:17-18) even highlighted the female/male dynamic. His presence and power are not just for the few, but for everyone. Or, as we like to say at our church, “Everyone gets to play.”


Baptism and Empowerment for Everyone (Including Women)

We see the principle of everybody gets to play lived out vividly in the early church. At Pentecost, the Spirit is poured out on both women and men. Listen to the open-wide invitation to receive the promised Spirit:


“And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call.” Acts 2:38b-39


Peter’s invitation reflects the Joel passage he quoted. He understood that this fullness of the Spirit wasn’t just for leaders, or even adult men; it was for all who would respond to Christ Jesus.


We see this empowering baptism for all (see Luke 24:49, Acts 1:8), traced through the story of the early church. In Samaria we read:


But when they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized [water baptized], both men and women. …Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit [Spirit baptized].” Acts 8:12, 17


When the Spirit directed Peter to Cornelius’ house in Caesarea, he spoke to ALL of Cornelius’ household – his gathered friends and relatives. Listen to Peter tell of his understanding and experience:


“I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” …While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. Acts 10:34, 44-45


Yes, the Spirit taught the early church that this gift was not just for the Jewish people, but also not just for male leaders. Spirit Baptism could empower any believer’s life and ministry. It was clear; the Spirit doesn’t play favorites. He wanted to empower for ministry young and old, men and women, Jews and Gentiles. I believe this is still his desire today.

The timeline above pictures how the ministry of the Spirit changed from the Old Testament to the New. In the Old Testament, we see the Spirit’s work primarily in the leaders of God’s people: judges, kings and prophets, including women. Towards the end of the Old Covenant the Lord declared this change: the Spirit would be poured out on all people, from the least to the greatest. As I see it, this was a central part of Jesus’ ministry – Spirit baptism for all people. We find this in the early church. All people were empowered and gifted by the Spirit of Christ for ministry.


Spiritual Gifts for Everyone (Including Women)

With the baptism in the Spirit come the gifts of the Spirit. Within the New Testament Paul lists three major groups of spiritual gifts: Romans 12:3-8, 1Corinthians 12:4-11, and Ephesians 4:11-12. Nowhere, in any of these passages, does Paul distinguish some gifts for men and some gifts for women.


Furthermore, in Paul’s biggest discourse on the gifts (woven throughout the whole book of 1 Corinthians, but especially chapters 12-14) he addressed both women and men in their appropriate use. He said, “Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head…” (1Corinthians 11:4-5). So his words regarding these spiritual gifts in the worship service were addressed to both men and women[3].


Paul referred to the leaders of the worship service as “prophets” who were utilizing the different spiritual gifts given. 1Corinthians 14:


Now, brothers and sisters[4], if I come to you and speak in tongues, what good will I be to you, unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction? (Greek didache, root meaning is doctrine, implying teaching) (14:6)


What then shall we say, brothers and sisters[5]? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction (Greek didache), a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up. (14:26)


Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. (14:29)


Presumably, both women and men participated in the worship service. Women not only shared a prophetic word, a tongue, or an interpretation of tongues, but they also shared a revelation, a word of knowledge, or a word of doctrine/teaching. It’s the Spirit who decides who gets what gifts (1 Cor. 12:4). Apparently, he gave all the gifts to both men and women, and women and men freely used them to edify the Body.


The Fabulous Five

Throughout Scripture we find women who served in key leadership roles. Their example should contribute to this subject. Many women were called and empowered to lead within the kingdom of God. I want to highlight five in particular whom the Spirit used in profound ways.


Miriam, gifted as a Prophet[6]. Exodus 2:4, 7; 15:20. She was the sister of Aaron and Moses who, alongside her brothers, provided spiritual leadership to all the people. In fact, the Lord said of her, “I sent Moses to lead you, also Aaron and Miriam.” Micah 6:4b


Deborah, anointed as a Judge [leader] as well as a prophet. Judges 4, 5. Listen to the authority that she had over all the people of Israel: Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lapidoth, was leading Israel at the time. She held court under the Palm of Deborah… and the Israelites went up to her to have their disputes decided. Judges 4:4-5


Phoebe, identified as both a Deaconess (Greek diakonos) and a Benefactor (Greek prostatis). Romans 16:1-2. The interesting thing about Phoebe is that diakonos is the same Greek word Paul used to say that Deacons are to be husbands of but one wife (1 Timothy 3:12). Prostatis is the female derivative of proistemi, which means to rule, to be set over, to preside, to provide aid in support of. Paul used this word when he instructed Elders: The elders who direct (proistemi) the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. 1 Timothy 5:17


Priscilla (and husband Aquila), mentioned several times in the New Testament. Most notably when she and Aquila instructed (Greek ektithemi) Apollos. This is the same word used of Paul in Acts 28:23. Apollos was a prominent early church leader (Acts 18:25-26). They also led a church in their home (1 Cor. 16:19), communicating a level of pastoral leadership and direction. Paul referred to them as co-workers in Christ Jesus (Romans 16:3). This is the same distinction he gave people like Timothy, Titus and Epaphroditus, to name a few.


Junia (and presumably her husband Andronicus). Paul appears to name these two as Apostles when he says “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.” (Romans 16:7) Yes, one can translate this passage a little more unnaturally as “well known to the Apostles,” but consider that they were “in Christ” prior to Paul and imprisoned with him. The Roman authorities imprisoned the leaders, those who influence others, not the ordinary members of a movement.


I have come to think of these women as the Fabulous Five[7]. They raise important questions for us. Was Deborah wrong for assuming the leadership of all of Israel as judge and prophet? Is the New Testament a lesser covenant for the likes of Miriam, Deborah and the other female leaders? Was Paul inconsistent when he referred to Phoebe as a Deacon and a Benefactor in his letter to the Romans, considering his instructions to Timothy? Should Apollos not have accepted instruction from Pricilla because she was a woman? Should we choose the more awkward translation regarding Junia to fit with our theology?


My friend, Brian walked away thinking about these questions. I admit, at that time in my ministry, I didn’t know how to reconcile the work of the Spirit and these important women with some of Paul’s other words, especially in 1Timothy 2:11-15. It is to this passage that we will turn in the final article of this series.


[1] I will talk about this passage extensively in the third article.

[2] For example, the ESV Study Bible explains Pentecost like this, “but now the Spirit was coming to people in a new, more powerful way, signifying the beginning of the new covenant age…” (note on Acts 2:4). Also in Acts 8, when the Samaritans were empowered by the Spirit, the ESV uses the phrase, “…new covenant empowering of the Holy Spirit…” (note on Acts 8:17).

[3] In 1 Cor. 14:34, Paul seems to say that women should remain silent in church. How then, do you reconcile this verse with 1 Cor. 11:5? Although it is beyond the scope of this paper to dig deeply into this important question, I do want to cite Kris Vallotton’s view: “It is very likely that Paul is actually quoting a question the Corinthians posed to him, and that he is answering their concerns in the pre-text and post-text surrounding these verses.” (Fashioned to Reign, Pg. 142) Vallotton’s perspective is supported by the fact that for women to remain silent is not only inconsistent with Paul’s theology of equality found in Galatians 3:26-29, but is inconsistent with the instructions he is giving in the very letter itself.

[4] The New International Translation inserts “and sisters” based on the context of the book, especially 1 Corinthians 11:4-5. Regardless of how one feels about inclusive language, one has to grant the context of men and women.

[5] See footnote 4.

[6] The Old Testament names five women as prophets: Miriam (Ex. 15:20), Deborah (Judges 4:4), Huldah (2 Kings 22:14; 2 Chron. 34:22), Noadiah (Neh. 6:14) and a woman called “The Prophetess” but apparently Isaiah’s wife, (Isaiah 8:3). The New Testament names Anna (Luke 2:36-38) and Philip’s four unmarried daughters (Acts 21:9).

[7] Yes, I am a University of Michigan fan.

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