What Exactly Did Paul Say about Women and Leadership?

Today’s post concludes my biblical study on women and leadership. This has been one of the most difficult topics I have written on. Last week I wrote about Jesus’ relationship to women and women’s roles in the book of Acts. And the week before that I wrote about the Old Testament perspective on women and leadership.

Today’s post examines the most difficult of the three areas: Paul’s teaching on women and biblical leadership. A 2,000 word blog post can barely scratch the surface of this topic, but in this post I hope to provide you with a brief outline of all the important texts as well as some brief notes about hermeneutics and exegesis.

What Exactly Did Paul Say about Women and Leadership?Rembrandt’s Apostle Paul


A.    A Paraphrase of the Meaning of 1 Cor 11:2-16

Man and woman are dependent on each other. Man did not originally come from woman; woman came from man (Gen 1:26-27; 2:15-23). After woman was created all men have come from women (1 Cor 11:11). In this way, both man and woman are dependent on each other. However, just as the head of every man is Christ, so the head of woman is man (11:3). For woman came from man (11:8-9). Yet, neither are men independent from women neither are women independent of men (11:11).

B.   How to Reconcile 1 Cor 11:2-16 with 1 Cor 14:33-38

When looking at the topic of women and leadership one needs to reconcile Paul’s statements in 1 Cor 11:2-16 (referenced above) with his later comments in 1 Cor 14:33-38 about women being “silent” in church meetings. It appears that it is okay for women to pray and prophesy anything except during a “church meeting.” That term, “church meeting” should be defined further whether it is a formal church service or merely a gathering of believers for a meal. Paul does appear to place a strong emphasis on doing things properly and in their correct order (14:39-40). According to 1 Cor 14:33-38 proper order includes being silent during church meetings of the Corinthian church. In the Corinthian church women were supposed to be silent and if they had a question they were supposed to ask their husbands at home (14:34-35).


The question about Paul’s teaching in 1 Timothy 2:9-15 is if his teaching is local, related to problems unique only to Cornith and Ephesus; cultural, based on the customs of the Greco-Roman world; or universal, being authoritative for churches then and now.  

At first glance, the text of 1 Timothy 2:9-15 appears to be local since this was a letter written to a specific person (Timothy) ministering in a specific area (Ephesus). However, when looking at Paul’s message to Timothy in Ephesus (1:2-3) about women it appears to match up with similar commands that Paul provided in his other writings. This might be because the letters written to Timothy and Titus were to help those men in their ministries as they served many congregations. The letters were meant to aid the pastor in his work no matter where he went or who he ministered to (E.E. Ellis, “Pastoral Letters” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters,” [InterVarsity Press, 1993], 661).

In 1 Timothy 2:9-15 Paul states that women should:

– be moderate in their appearance (v. 9)
– not draw attention to themselves (v. 9)
– make themselves attractive by the work they do (v. 10)
– learn quietly and submissively (v. 11; 1 Cor 14:34; Eph 5:2)
– not be allowed to teach men (v. 12; cf. 1 Cor 14:34)
– not be allowed to hold authority over men (v. 12, cf. 1 Cor 11:10; 11:3; 14:34)

These statements in Timothy appear to be similar to what Paul also says in different letters to people in different regions (1 Cor 11:3, 10, 14:34; Eph 5:2). Based on this, Paul’s stance on women in the church in 1 Timothy appears be be a universal statement for churches and ages.

Paul made the preceding statements about women’s roles in the church yet he also neglected to say anything about men being superior to women. Furthermore, Paul said nothing about women having authority over men in the public arena. Paul’s application to women’s roles are strictly within the context of the church.


Yet, Paul’s teachings (which I’ve outline above) sometimes appear contradictory to his own treatment of female coworkers. For example, Romans 16:1-7 presents several apparent contradictions.

A.   Women in Romans 16

1.     Phoebe

Phoebe is called a “deacon” (New Living Translation) or “servant” (New English Translation) in 16:1.[ref]”It is debated whether διάκονος (diakonos) here refers to a specific office within the church. One contextual argument used to support this view is that Phoebe is associated with a particular church, Cenchrea, and as such would therefore be a deacon of that church. In the NT some who are called διάκονος are related to a particular church, yet the scholarly consensus is that such individuals are not deacons, but “servants” or “ministers” (other viable translations for διάκονος). For example, Epaphras is associated with the church in Colossians and is called a διάκονος in Col 1:7, but no contemporary translation regards him as a deacon. In 1 Tim 4:6 Paul calls Timothy a διάκονος; Timothy was associated with the church in Ephesus, but he obviously was not a deacon. In addition, the lexical evidence leans away from this view: Within the NT, the διακον- word group rarely functions with a technical nuance. In any case, the evidence is not compelling either way. The view accepted in the translation above is that Phoebe was a servant of the church, not a deaconess, although this conclusion should be regarded as tentative” (Biblical Studies Press, The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible [Biblical Studies Press, 2006])[/ref]

2.    Priscilla

Priscilla and Aquilla are called by Paul as “co-workers” in v. 3. Of which, Priscilla, the wife of Aquilla is normally given prominence in Acts and Paul’s writings.

3.    Mary

Mary is greeted by Paul in v. 6 where Paul says she “worked so hard for your [Romans] benefit.”

4.    Junia

Junia (a feminine name) is “highly respected among the apostles” (v. 7). The question is whether she too was an “apostle” or if her reputation was simply known among the apostles.

B.   Implications for Women and Leadership

A careful Bible student cannot say that women were not leaders in the first century church. There appears to be authority given to women because of their God-given gifts. And, the first century church definitely benefited from the ministry of women.These women in the New Testament appear to be first under the authority of a man in leadership. They were not acting alone starting their own churches and being entrepreneurial aside from everyone else. They were actively ministering with coworkers in the faith. Furthermore, these women appear to be co-workers that are ministering because of their strengths. In other words, these women were not filling a quota of having women in roles simply to say that women were serving. They made significant contributions to the work of the ministry.


I believe that there are enduring principles in Paul’s instruction for how women should be treated within the church and what their roles should be. I should like to show a specific principle for several of the main Bible texts relating to women and their role of leadership within in the church.

A.   1 Cor 11:2-16

My basic observation from this passage is that men and women are equal (see Gen 1:26-27). They each were created to live together and are not meant to be separate.

B.   1 Cor 14:33-38

This passage features Paul’s strongest language to a church that already had several sins that it was struggling with (see 1 Cor 1:11). I think it is hard to see that Paul might make such a strong statement against women speaking in the church. The argument that is common here is that these women within the Corinthian church were being very disruptive and causing chaos in the church gatherings; therefore Paul wrote these words to combat that conflict. That view might be correct; however Paul appears to say a similar thing to Timothy as far as women’s speaking role within the Corinthian church.

C.   1 Tim 2:9-15

This text is difficult. Verses 9-10 are very applicable to modern day life. I believe that many women would agree that they should dress modestly (v. 9), not draw attention to themselves (v. 9), and should make themselves attractive by the good works that they do (v. 10). The difficult part of this passage starts in v. 11 with Paul’s statement, “women should learn quietly and submissively” (v. 12). This letter was directed toward Timothy who was ministering in Ephesus (1:3), and in the letter Paul addresses several important elements of Timothy’s ministry. The role of women speaking, teaching, and learning in the church is one of the issues Paul wanted to provide direction to Timothy about.

As far as I can tell, there are four options for how to interpret this difficult passage:

1.     Do not let a woman by herself teach men.

2.     Do not let a woman who is not under the authority of a man teach men.

3.     Do not let women by themselves have authority over men. 

4.     Do not let women teach who are not under the authority of men. 


This has been a long blog post because I have attempted to not just focus on a few of Paul’s statements in the New Testament but instead I have attempted to show the view of women in the entire Bible. I have tried to show you how women were viewed in the Old Testament, Jesus’ interaction with women, what the role of women was in the book of Acts.

My conclusion on this topic is that the Bible does appear to limit women’s leadership roles within the church.

A.   What Women Can Do

1.    Women Can Teach in the Church

The ministries of women in Acts and the New Testament show that some women had roles of teaching and instructing.

2.    Women Can Lead in Some Contexts

Women can have some leadership roles in the church. Our church recently held a Vacation Bible School for about 60 kids in our community. This effort was led by a woman who also teaches Sunday School for the elementary school children. This level of leadership by women in the church is allowed and should be encouraged.

3.    Women Can Lead Outside of the Church

An important element of women and leadership that is often forgotten is that the Bible focuses on the role of women as leaders within the church. The New Testament writings were intended to help local churches and communities of believers to live together in a way that God intended and that honored God. Many of the writings of Paul and other NT writers (dealing with the topic of women and leadership) were not telling 21st century people how to function outside of church in a capitalistic, democratic system. Therefore, I believe it is perfectly fine for women to lead men in business, parachurch ministry, etc.

B.    What Women Cannot Do

1.     Women Cannot Teach Only Men

Based on the material above I think the Bible is clear that women should not have a role which places them in authority over men teaching men in church.

2.    Women Cannot Lead Without the Authority of Men

Biblical teaching states that men should have authority and be leaders of the church. As a result women can lead and teach but that always needs to be under the authority of men.

Some good websites discussing the topic of women and leadership in the Bible

Some good books discussing the topic of women and leadership in the Bible

Question: It is impossible for me to present every Scripture relating to the topic of women and leadership. What other Scripture verses should be considered and why are they important? 

By Christopher L. Scott

Christopher L. Scott serves as senior pastor at Lakeview Missionary Church in Moses Lake, Washington. Through his writing ministry more than 250,000 copies of his articles, devotions, and tracts are distributed each month through Christian publishers. Learn more at