Gifts and Offices: Gender-Based or Divinely Willed?

spiritual gifts 1 Corinthians 12
Image Credit: El Montecito Presbyterian

One of the foremost debates on women in ministry pertains to the office of Pastor (what the Scriptures refer to as “overseer” or “bishop,” as the KJV translates it). While some churches will argue that women can only teach women and children, others argue that women can preach sermons but cannot pastor, and others allow full inclusion of women into church ministry even in the pastorate. Each church’s theology of women can be different and have its own variations (I recently heard of a church in my community that allows women to preach but won’t allow women to teach the adult Sunday School class), but the variation on the theme of women in ministry shows that Scripture doesn’t give a clear prescription if — and this is the key — women are limited in their ministry offices.

You’d think that the Holy Spirit could clearly explicate the role of women in church leadership (after all, He clearly explicates where men belong), so the absence of any specific limitations and boundaries for female service in ministry should lead to the conclusion that God is for women in all offices. Unfortunately, complementarians have responded by moving in the other direction: rather than unifying around doctrine and affirming women’s full inclusion as equal image-bearers in the Body of Christ, complementarians respond by making each local church autonomous and leaving it up to individual churches to decide how they will maintain “proper boundaries for women.” Of course, local churches are autonomous unless your church is part of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) — in which case, the Tennessee Baptist Convention could throw your church under the proverbial bus after over 140 years of partnership all because you install a woman pastor.

Hence, the need for the question of this post: are the gifts and offices gender-based or divinely willed? Now, some would say here that this seems to be a false dichotomy because, in the complementarian view, “God has willed that the office of Pastor be restricted to men.” And yet, we must ask the question, “Where is this claim in Scripture?” Where does the Bible ever say that women can serve in all other offices, even the diaconate (1 Timothy 3:11), but they are forbidden from the office of Pastor? It’s not there. The only passage that could remotely be used in the debate, 1 Timothy 2, is arguing that certain women are not “permitted” to teach, with Paul giving pastoral advice rather than an all-time divine commandment. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t regard Paul, but it means that Paul is giving a temporary approach to the situation, not a permanent one. Complementarians have taken “I permit” to mean “I forever forbid,” and the application is based on poor interpretation. If someone cannot teach because they don’t know how to distinguish between true and false doctrine, it makes little sense to sit them down forever.

So, let’s return to the question: “Gifts and offices: gender-based or divinely willed?” I think that the answer can best be found by looking at how the spiritual gifts are given. We know that they are given by the Holy Spirit, and we know that they are given to edify the Body of Christ. But Ephesians 4 also says that the gift of Pastor is given to “some,” as are all the other 5-fold ministry gifts listed there. Let’s look at the passage:

11 And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, 13 till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; 14 that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, 15 but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ— 16 from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love. (Ephesians 4:11-16, NKJV)

Notice the word Paul emphasizes in Ephesians 4? It’s the word “some,” the Greek word tous, which is the masculine plural that refers to both masculine and feminine genders. The word tous, based on the context of Ephesians 4, is gender-neutral, since we’re not told a specific gender to which God gives the pastorate, teaching, and preaching gifts. Rather, we see that God is silent here on which gender gets to be pastor, teacher, apostle, and so on.

1 Corinthians 12 is another place where Paul discusses giftedness in the Body of Christ. It also provides a clear statement on how the Spirit gives gifts:

But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all: for to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, to another the word of knowledge through the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healings by the same Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills. (1 Corinthians 12:7-11)

The words “each one,” “one,” and “another” (Greek words allo, hetero) suggest again, that there is no gender-specific or gender-based qualification for spiritual gifts. To whom does the Spirit give gifts? The answer is found in 1 Corinthians 12:11 — The Holy Spirit gives them “as He wills.”

What does the phrase “as He wills” mean? It means that, once again, the Spirit has His own prerogative with regard to gifting; He doesn’t tell us here who He gives them to. This phrase simply says that it’s up to the Holy Spirit who gets what gift. That is, you’d think that between Ephesians 4 and 1 Corinthians 12, we’d get a specific gender qualification, seeing that complementarians insist that 1 Timothy 2 “settles the matter” of women in ministry. And yet, in two places, the Spirit tells us that “some” are given these gifts by the Spirit who gives them mysteriously.

He gives them as He pleases, in a way that delights Him, not stopping in Scripture to reveal the complementarian gender qualification that men are the only ones to teach, preach, and pastor. Something about the complementarian view, in light of these clear texts, sounds off, since, if the Spirit wants us to know how to behave in the house of God, He doesn’t stop and tell women, “Oh, by the way, let the males pastor and you teach only women and children.”

In the end, complementarians will point to 1 Timothy 2 and insist that this one passage (1 Timothy 2) is the definitive end to the debate. And yet, if we take their word that they’re interpreting 1 Timothy 2 as “it should be interpreted,” we’re left wondering why God called Deborah, Miriam, and Huldah as prophetesses, why Deborah was the judge over all men and women in the Israelite theocracy of the Old Testament, why Paul felt the need to add women to the diaconate in 1 Timothy 3:11, why Junia was mentioned as an Apostle in Romans 16:7, why Priscilla taught Apollos correct doctrine in Acts 18:26, and so on.

Are the gifts and offices divinely willed mysteriously or divinely willed according to gender? If we listen to complementarians, we must abandon all the clear texts involving women prophetesses, Deborah as judge, and the woman Priscilla teaching Apollos, a man, etc., in favor of the traditional interpretation of 1 Timothy 2. Would you throw out the preponderance of evidence and prosecute someone if there was only a small slither of evidence that could point to the person’s guilt? Reasonable doubt is a principle we use in the justice system to decide guilt or innocence: if there’s reasonable doubt, we must acquit. If reasonable doubt appears in a criminal case, are we not bound to free the convicted individual?

If we can see reasonable doubt and operate accordingly in criminal cases, why can’t we see that the traditional interpretation of 1 Timothy 2 is in serious doubt here? The preponderance of evidence shows women as prophetesses, apostles, and teachers (Priscilla), though the slither of evidence (1 Timothy 2) suggests to some that women cannot serve in church leadership. And, if women were not to teach, was Priscilla not “out of place”? You can’t believe that Scripture would argue a contradiction.

If 90% of the evidence is in favor of women’s full inclusion, then everything in me says that the traditional interpretation of 1 Timothy 2 is in serious doubt.

The passage is never in doubt (it’s all about false doctrine and not allowing spewers of false doctrine to teach; both men and women are forbidden to teach false doctrine), but the traditional interpretation is. To go with the traditional view is to prioritize the 10% interpretation over the 90%. That’s not rational in any context.