There has been a great deal of upheaval among Christians in the west regarding the question of women in clerical leadership over the course of the last few decades. This question has been easily avoided for a long time due to the fact that the church has largely been dominated by males for centuries. But now, it is unavoidable. When you get right down to it, there are two main passages in the New Testament that people have often appealed to in order to keep women out of leadership. Based upon my own study of this topic, I think these passages have been largely misunderstood and misinterpreted.
The first verse that people often cite is 1 Timothy 2:12, which reads “I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man.” This letter was written to a community in Ephesus, and there was a popular religious movement called the cult of Artemis. In this religious cult local to the city of Ephesus, only women could serve as priests, and they would enslave men to be subjugated under matriarch-like authority. Many women were likely converting from this cult and joining Christ communities. The writer (whom I think was probably a disciple of Paul, not the historical Paul) is most likely speaking to this specific situation rather than making a timeless, universal claim and explaining to these women that men cannot be dominated in the way that they were previously accustomed to. It was understood that the only way to subvert patriarchy is not through matriarchy, but through egalitarian conviction that produces equality.
The second verse that people will usually refer to is 1 Corinthians 14:34, saying that Paul instructs his readers that “Women are to remain silent in church meetings.” Many scholars think that verses 34-37 of this chapter were not written by Paul, but inserted later by a scribe who sought to institutionalize Paul’s passion and tainted his work with sexism. This is certainly possible, as these verses do seem to break the flow of what is written before and after. More importantly, it starkly conflicts with what is said earlier in 1 Corinthians 11:5, Paul gives guidance for women to pray and prophesy in church meetings. To state the obvious, this involves speaking, and a person could not do this in silence. Why did Paul instruct women to pray and prophesy in one chapter and be silent in another? I do not think anyone knows for certain. Perhaps there were disruptive questions frequently being asked, or random outbursts that interrupted everything. Or it very well could have been inserted later. There are many possibilities. But the baseline that I would return to is that if Paul instructs women to pray and prophesy and that is authentically considered to be Paul’s writing, and there is a questionable passage that is disputed as to whether or not it was written by Paul, the best approach is to let the authentic Pauline writing take precedence over what is questionable or doubtfully Pauline.
Following this, I often hear people say that there are no instances of women leading or holding positions of authority in the New Testament. However, upon closer inspection, this is not actually correct. One of the last places you would probably look for an example of this is Romans chapter sixteen, in which St. Paul essentially just sends greetings to a great number of people. If you have ever read the letter to the Romans, you probably stop paying attention by this point, because it is generally viewed as the “credits” of the letter. Yet, in Romans 16:7, Paul makes mention of a woman named Junia, and states that she is “prominent among the apostles.” The Greek word used to describe Junia, “apostolois” is the same word used to address the original twelve disciples of Jesus (Matthew 10:2), as well as other figures of authority (Acts 11:1), and the same word that Paul uses in reference to himself (Romans 1:1). This example is small, but the language is clear: Junia, a woman, served as a leader in the church. There are nine other women mentioned in Romans chapter sixteen who are mentioned as benefactors, ministers, and other roles similar to these. Paul did not challenge the concept of women in leadership; it seems obvious that he affirmed it.
It should not be seen as a radical or “liberal” idea for women to be in leadership positions within the church. It seems that this was normative in the days of Jesus and St. Paul. Likewise, there are many recent conservative scholars who have supported women in ministry for some time, such as N.T. Wright, Greg Boyd, Scot McKnight, Ben Witherington III, Stanley Grenz, as well as many others. Women can and should be pastors. Myriads of people have not been able to examine this more thoroughly for themselves, and many congregations consider this to be "off limits." The only way religious lies can be maintained is through insulating people from the outside world. What must be done is that conversations need to be started and people need to be exposed to ideas that will break them free from their retention. That will be the task for this generation if we are to rediscover what it means to follow Jesus.