Women in the Church: A Biblical Theology of Women in Ministry

By Stanley L. Grenz, with Denise M. Kjesbo
Downers Grove, IL : InterVarsity (1995). 284 Pages.

Reviewed by Thomas Halstead
10.2 (Fall 1999) : 295-297

“Whom does the Holy Spirit call to leadership ministries in the church?” This is the central question of the book. The authors’ belief is that the sovereign Spirit calls both women and men to positions of leadership in the church, and that both women and men are gifted to fulfil those responsibilities. “Consequently, to deny women the opportunity to obey the Spirit places us in the position not only of acting unjustly toward women but, more important, of standing in opposition to the work of the sovereign Holy Spirit” (16). In order to clarify their position, the authors address the question of women in ministry from three perspectives: church history, Scripture, and Christian theology.

In the first two chapters D. Kjesbo seeks to show that history demonstrates a pattern that when church renewal and revival came, the Holy Spirit gifted women as well as men for leadership positions. It is only over time when the church became institutionalized that women became excluded. “Women served together with men in the early years until the institutionalization of the church transformed leadership into the sole prerogative of men” (39). A. Köstenberger in his review of this book (JETS [September 1998]) states, “At this point Kjesbo provides no evidence but merely assumes an egalitarian reading of the NT” (516). She states that prior to the 300s and 400s the leadership was essentially patriarchal; however, with the advent of a number of revival movements, such as the monastic movement, the Wesleyan revival, or other North American revivals, women have played a key role in leadership. Women also played a key role in the formative years of a new denomination, later to be replaced by men as the denomination became more organized.

In the next two chapters S. Grenz focuses on the biblical data from both the Old and New Testaments. It is unfortunate, though, that he begins his study w ith God’s relationship with Israel, and not Genesis 1–3, which is the formation of man and woman. He acknowledges that “taken as a whole, the Old Testament bears witness to a strong patriarchal social order, where males dominated public and private life” (64). Yet to prove his point that egalitarianism existed, he emphasizes the few women who were exceptions in the OT, i.e., Deborah and Miriam. In the Gospels, Grenz notes that because Jesus countered the cultural norms of the day and talked with women, healed women, and seemed to be close to several women (Mary, Martha, and Mary Magdalene), the assumption must be that women were also involved in the leadership community. In the early church he mentions several women, such as Tabitha, Priscilla, the four daughters of Philip the evangelist, and Phoebe, but applies the same assumption: “The fundamental egalitarianism of the new reality Jesus established means that in principle every aspect of the church’s ministry is open to believers without regard to these long-standing distinctions” (97). Therefore, according to Grenz’s interpretation of G al 3:28, which is the theological center of his teaching, all believers enjoy an equal status, and the expression “in Christ” transcends racial, socioeconomic, and gender distinctions. Grenz spends a great deal of time (15 pages) discussing the foundational passage related to women, 1 Tim 2:11-15, and though mentioning several views, he concludes with the statement, “Even though scholars have not come to a consensus on the issue, the discussion of the biblical texts to date has led to one significant conclusion. In view of the practice of the early church, the burden of proof now rests on those who would bar women from full participation with men in all dimensions of the gospel ministry” (140-41).

The last three chapters emphasize the theological aspect of women in ministry. In these Grenz notes that “a biblical understanding of creation, the community of Christ and the ordained offices all lead to the conclusion that women ought to be full participants with men in all dimensions of church life and ministry” (143). His conclusion is that both male and female concepts form the picture of God, indicating both men and women in partnership in all aspects of ministry. Grenz also expresses the conviction that the Persons of the Trinity are mutually dependent on one another, that the Father is dependent on the Son and the Spirit. However, the Scriptures strongly state a subordination, that the Spirit is subordinate to the Son and the Son is subordinate to the Father. Finally, regarding ordination, he states that ecclesiology results in an egalitarian view of the ordained offices because pastors are not a special class of Christians who mediate God’s grace to the people. Rather, they “are persons chosen by God and recognized by the church as having the responsibility to lead God’s people in fulfilling the mandate Christ has given to the entire church” (186).

Grenz’s and Kjesbo’s development of an egalitarian theology of women in ministry will prove significant in the continuing debate. Yet their research relies primarily on secondary sources in the historical section, and in the biblical and theological sections they seem to survey others’ views rather than expressing their own. Köstenberger offers the following conclusion: “Although the authors attempt to give their work an inductive flavor, the procedure is actually deductive. In fact, the book may best be described as an effort to provide an apologetic for the egalitarian position. . . . Overall, the authors’ effort to impose an egalitarian grid of gender roles on the entire sweep of biblical history and teaching must therefore be judged a failure” (518-19).