Spiritual giftedness and gender

Bible studyWe’ve been talking on and off about the subject of gender differences since October of last year. I don’t really want to carry over into February, so I’ll offer a few more thoughts and let the matter rest.

One sticking point for many people is the question of giftedness. That is, if men and women are equally endowed by the Holy Spirit with spiritual gifts, are we not resisting the Spirit if we limit the exercise of those gifts?

This, my friends, is a powerful argument, at least in my mind. As Nick pointed out the other day, Peter’s quote from the book of Joel in Acts 2 seems to point to a time when women and men will be receiving and using gifts from the Holy Spirit. And the rest of the book of Acts seems to bear that out, particularly when we see the daughters of Philip who are prophetesses.

But there’s something that troubles me, something that I brought up to Jen in one of my replies to her:

Something I want to discuss in a later post is something that I think very important: I believe that believers in the first century were as transformed by the Spirit as we are. Gifted by the Spirit.
So did the Spirit lead men to stifle the gifts of Spirit-filled women because of cultural concerns? Or did the Spirit wait until culture changed before gifting women for roles the culture wouldn’t accept?
My view is that the Spirit is much bigger than human culture and able to form a Christian community within any culture that transcends that culture. If he chose to use males to lead for centuries before the coming of Christ* and chose males to lead during Christ’s ministry and chose males to lead the church after Christ’s ascension, isn’t it quite possible that he had a plan in all of that? Even if we don’t understand all of the whys?

*Yes, there were exceptions at times when the men weren’t living up to what they were supposed to, but none of that changes what the norm was.

I’m wary of a chronological snobbery that says, “We finally got right what the church missed for hundreds of years.” I’m aware that there are some similarities to the issue of slavery, yet I can’t help but see differences as well. Slavery within the church was addressed even when the church abstained from waging a campaign to eradicate slavery in society. Even if the church wasn’t going to change Greco-Roman societal views toward women, major changes could have been implemented from the very beginning of the church. And they weren’t.

Some claim that any who advocate a difference in the activities of men and women in the church are guilty of sin. I can’t help but note that the early church was guilty of the same sin, if it be a sin. And I’m convinced that they too had the Spirit of God.

I don’t believe that spiritual giftedness is new to the last few centuries. I also believe that God’s Spirit was living and active in the first century church, as he is today.

The argument of spiritual giftedness, compelling though it seems, is not enough to lead us to say that God had a different practice in mind than what we see in Scripture: Active, spirit-filled women serving as missionaries and prophetesses, performing works of service and ministry, building up the church through their work, under the authority of male shepherds.

(Ben Witherington had a helpful post the other day on the subject of slavery, in the context of analyzing N.T. Wright’s work on Paul and The Faithfulness of God)

31 thoughts on “Spiritual giftedness and gender

  1. Nick Gill

    Just a few points to sort of lean back into your thoughts:

    The literature of the post-apostolic church shows a powerful level of resistance to the Jew/Gentile part of Gal 3:28. This is not surprising, as Acts and the epistles (Romans most clearly, but others as well) show that this was a definite problem in the early church, and the expulsion of the Jews from Rome shows that even the satan saw it as an exploitable foothold.

    The command in 1 Tim to let women learn in peace points to a dearth of shepherd-qualified women in the Hellenistic churches to which Paul wrote.

    As a missionary, you know that it can take a generation or more to develop elders when you’re starting from scratch. While the Spirit certainly has the power to form a Christian community instantaneously, the record we have of the Spirit’s work testifies that that is not how that work is done — it isn’t done by overpowering force, but by a participatory reshaping that takes time — more time, on slavery at least, than is covered by the relatively small window of time depicted in the New Testament.

    You raise persuasive points, to be sure, but my thinking is still in the direction of seeing Acts 2 as the Philemon for women’s roles — not a command to force the church’s hand, but a corrective to start a ball rolling towards full inclusion of Jews and Gentiles, slave and free, male and female, (in all their particular uniqueness) in all the different aspects of church life. A ball that, in the Jew-Gentile realm, was resisted passionately by the post-apostolic church, without a powerful corrective movement of the Spirit. If the post-apostolic church could get Jew-Gentile so wrong, why is it not possible that it also got male-female wrong?

    That being said, I think one of the most persuasive points you’ve raised is about the diversity of ways in which the spiritual gift of leadership (Rom 12:8; 1 Cor 12:28) can be expressed. You shared Sean Palmer’s convicting article from yesterday about the dangerous desire for positions of control and recognized influence. Elders are HARDLY the only leaders in the church, and the sooner we wrap our heads around that, the better it will be for everyone.

  2. JTB

    The kind of chronological snobbery (great phrase, BTW) is the result of a kind of implicit belief in social/historical Progress, and I’m actually quite suspicious of all that. I don’t think that anyone can claim any sort of advantage over anyone else simply in virtue of the chronotope we inhabit. I would affirm that the Spirit that moves, works, gifts and calls now is the same Spirit of God experienced by people in all times and places. We get some things right, we get some things wrong–true now, true then.

    So that’s not where we disagree. Where we diverge is whether or not there’s a “principle of male headship” to be derived from the biblical text. Whether or not that’s a good interpretation of the text depends on whether or not you see men exclusively designated as leaders, and as a second and further step, interpret this as normative. I disagree with both of these interpretive claims, as we’ve established in previous discussions. I think there are plenty of women who act as leaders within the biblical texts in response to God’s call and in service of the church; and I don’t see that the maleness of the apostles warrants the further interpretive move establishing that as normative. (In order for the maleness of the apostles to be normative, I think you need to argue that they were chosen because they were male, and not for other reasons.)

    So, it’s not chronological snobbery, nor do I see arguing from giftedness as counter to scripture–we actually see the text itself differently in terms of who should be counted among the category of “leader” and who shouldn’t. And, beyond that, I think there needs to be some sort of account for the assumption that maleness is normative that goes beyond “all the leaders [as we define that category] are men.”

  3. Nick Gill

    And, beyond that, I think there needs to be some sort of account for the assumption that maleness is normative that goes beyond “all the leaders [as we define that category] are men.”

    But Jen, one of Tim’s major points throughout this discussion has been precisely that all the leaders were not male.

    There’s a specific subset of leaders, called elders or shepherds, who seem to be all male during the NT era. They’re not the only leaders in the church, nor is eldership/shepherding the only way in which Christians can display the gift of leadership.

    Is the maleness of shepherds incidental or normative? That’s a different question — but Tim has not in any way asserted that all leaders in the NT era were male.

  4. Paul Smith

    Regarding Tim’s post, a fundamental question arises in the definition of “gift.” I know in my own personal experience that 99.9 percent of the time when this question comes up people are using the word “gift” as a synonym of “talent.” Thus, if a person as a tremendous stage presence, a pleasant speaking voice, and the knack of stringing a few sentences together in a coherent paragraph, they are declared the possessors of the “gift” of preaching.

    But is that really what the biblical writers mean when they say, “gift?”

    I would argue that at least in a majority of the cases, the answer is “no.” Amos certainly does not fit the model, nor does Moses, Daniel, Abraham and his brood, nor would Paul, Peter or any of the other apostles, so far as we know. In fact, as a norm, it seems that God delighted in “gifting” individuals *in spite of* their natural talents, not because of them. Exceptions might be Isaiah and Jeremiah, but I would not bet my next paycheck on that.

    And a further question, if the early church got the “Jewish/Gentile” question wrong, at least the early church had Peter’s experience in Acts 10 (repeated in 11 and hinted at in 15) to serve as a solid corrective.

    Where is the sheet from heaven reorienting Paul’s misogynistic theology?

  5. Robert Floyd

    As always, a thoughtful and thought provoking post. Your last sentence caught my eye: “Active, spirit-filled women serving as missionaries and prophetesses, performing works of service and ministry, building up the church through their work, under the authority of male shepherds.” That would seem to indicate you understand that the teaching gifts in the church are given to men and women alike (which seems self-evidently true) and that, therefore, they can/should be exercised in the same way in the church (I’m still working on that one, but my studies are making me question many of my assumptions). Have I misread you? I hope not, because it makes a great deal of sense, as does the entire post.

    Thanks from those of us who don’t comment a lot, but are edified by your thoughts.

  6. JTB

    Nick, not meaning to imply that Tim said that–just trying to articulate a thought in the clearest way I could–I believe it’s more accurate (correct if wrong) to say that his position characterizes women leaders as the exceptions to the rule.

  7. Robert Floyd

    Thanks for the clarification, Tim. That ties in quite nicely with the RM principle (too often observed in the breach) of congregational autonomy. For those of us who grew up in a RM congregation and who still love being there, what’s happening these days is an interesting demonstration of what happens when our understanding of Scripture collides with our traditions (including our exegetical and hermeneutical traditions).

    Something I haven’t seen discussed much is that, regarding elders/shepherds and deacons, there’s another criterion that seems just as important as gender: marital status. Elders, according to Paul, must be married and have believing children. Deacons must also be married. No matter how spiritual a man is, or how gifted a teacher or counselor he is, if he was never married (I don’t want to get into a discussion about widowers here), he can’t be an elder. I wonder why we don’t focus more on the rationale behind being a married man instead of a married man. Shepherding, clearly, is about much more than being the right gender.

    I see nothing in Scripture that puts limits on the exercise of gifts outside the assembly, so I think we have to go with the principle of the silence of scriptures (which I take as permissive, not proscriptive) and not try to limit the exercise of gifts outside the assembly. Of course, that raises the question of what constitutes an assembly. Based on my study, I consider a gathering to be a “1 Corinthians” assembly when God’s people gather to share in the Lord’s Supper. In those other settings, I can’t find anything that would absolutely prohibit people from exercising their gifts, as long as it results in edification and not confusion/division. Again, that is a decision each congregation has to make.

    That last paragraph was not easy for me to write, as it reflects some pretty major changes in how I’ve looked at our practices and our way of reading Scripture. Right now, it’s subject to modification as I continue my studies. But I think that’s OK: as I get older, I get dumber. I used to have all the answers. Now, I’m starting to understand the questions.

    And, regarding Peter in an earlier comment, as I recall, his experiences with the heavenly buffet did not prevent him from Paul having to give him another corrective (Galatians 2). Wow…if even an apostle had to struggle with a teaching God himself gave him, there may be hope for the rest of us yet.

  8. Jay Guin


    I’ve tried to stay out of the conversation, since my Buried Talents has been the subject of several posts, and I’ve pretty much said what I have to say there. However, I would like to insert a thought at this point.

    You seem to address female giftedness very abstractly — as a concept. I think of it more in terms of women I know — Peggy, Linda, Sandy, and many others. Let’s consider Sandy.

    When Hurricane Katrina wiped out nearly everyone south of Tuscaloosa, our hotels and gyms filled with refugees from across the Southeast, and many of the churches in town worked together to help provide relief.

    In my church, a woman named Sandy was appointed to oversee our part of the effort. She interfaced with the other churches and ran our relief effort. She proved so adept that she was appointed to the city-wide oversight board for disaster relief among the churches in town.

    She spoke in public. She exercised authority over men and women — including hundreds of volunteers. And she was excited and thrilled to be able to serve. She did a remarkable job.

    We knew she would be the best choice in advance, and experience proved that the elders’ well discerned the Spiritual gifting within her.

    So is that sin? She answered to an all-male eldership, but we did not have time or availability to run a 24/7 relief effort as she did. She did not come to us for permission but rarely; rather, she exercised the authority we gave her with wisdom.

    I don’t know how anyone reconciles this reality with the traditional interpretation of 1 Tim 2:11-15, because she really did have authority over men — unless I suppose you argue that delegated authority is outside of Paul’s command, meaning that Paul is really only saying that women can’t be elders. Is that your conclusion?

    Because it seems to me that you are arguing either that Sandy (and the elders) sinned by letting her oversee men or else we’re good so long as we have all-male elders and women don’t act in rebellion against them (and may receive delegated authority as the elders choose).

    PS — No, there was not a single man as well qualified as Sandy who had the time available and was willing to take on this huge responsibility.
    PPS — I would consider Sandy gifted by with the Spirit with the gifts of leadership (Rom 12) as well as wisdom (1 Cor 12), especially the subset of wisdom you might call organizational wisdom.

  9. Tim Archer Post author


    I very much believe in giftedness among women. I in no way mean to imply that I doubt that it exists.

    It’s interesting to note that when Paul talks about elders, for example, the question of giftedness doesn’t enter the conversation. Paul does talk about a gift of administration in Romans 12, but he doesn’t tell Timothy nor Titus to be looking for that gift. I’m not sure that we are discussing the same sorts of things.

    So yeah, I guess if I had to define my “line in the sand” today (and it’s not where it was when I began this series), it would be the eldership. I have no problem with the situation you described with Sandy. If Sandy had decided to start a new congregation with the volunteers, then I would be concerned about a departure from a biblical norm. If Sandy had been designated as the sole Bible teacher for a group on a permanent basis, I wouldn’t see it as fitting what I see taught in the New Testament.

    What you describe doesn’t seem that different from what a Phoebe or Euodia probably did in the early church. Sounds like the work of a deaconess to me.

  10. Wendy Cayless

    But then you have Lydia, who seems like an elder to me… as does Priscilla and the elect lady of John’s second epistle. Paul calls Phoebe a “prostratis”. It does seem as if the HS gifted many early Christian women with leadership abilities. And this synchronises with how Jesus elevated women.

    And the history of the early church (first few centuries) has many women leaders.

  11. JTB

    Also, the history of the Restoration Movement itself has many (forgotten) women preachers and leaders. (This is often overlooked, and, since we are by and large an ahistorical bunch, doesn’t carry a whole lot of weight, but just thought I’d throw that in there.)

  12. Tim Archer Post author

    You’re going to have to help me, Wendy. Do you have any basis for calling Lydia an elder? All that I know of that we see post-conversion is her inviting Paul and his companions to stay at her house. Is there something I’m missing somewhere?

  13. Wendy Cayless

    One more comment, Tim… You end your blogpost with “under the authority of male shepherds”. Is there anything inherently different between men and women with regard to leadership or spiritual discernment or whatever other qualities are necessary for shepherding that prevents women from being shepherds? If so, what?

  14. Wendy Cayless

    Tim, Acts 16:40 implies that the new church in Philippi was meeting in Lydia’s home. I can’t imagine another man coming in over her and running the church in her house. Can you?

  15. James Tolbert

    So, if we define leadership broadly, women have been and continue to be leaders in the church in a general sense, under the authority of male shepherds. If we define “leadership” as synonymous with being shepherds/elders, then women cannot be leaders in that specific sense.

    Further, the call to this specific leadership role of shepherd is restricted to men not because men are inherently gifted to this in a way women aren’t or can’t be, but because that seems to be the pattern/example in the biblical text, and we are obliged to follow it as God’s demonstrated intent for the church–even if we don’t fully understand why.


  16. Tim Archer Post author

    A church that had existed for such a short time wouldn’t have named elders, in all likelihood. To present Lydia as an elder is to insert an agenda into the text.

  17. Christine Mason

    Hello, I’ve been lurking a while and finally decided to say something.

    Tim, I must say I find the trajectory of this whole discussion disturbing. You started out sounding like you were pretty open to changing your mind about some things. Yet here we are apparently at the end of the conversation–an ending point you have chosen–and we find the intelligent women interlocutors here accused of eisegisis when they argue for a different interpretation of the scant evidence in Scripture.

    This is not even to mention the possibility that your understanding of example and normativity as it relates to Scripture might be dead wrong, as I happen to think it is.

    In what sense do you think of this conversation as finished?

    I get the impression here that primarily you are done blogging about it. Why? Because it’s hard to think through and people really seriously disagree about it? Why not just mention you want to keep hearing from people? Why not, even as a gesture of goodwill, invite some of the women you’ve seen commenting to write a guest post or two discussing rival points of view?

    Maybe you even think you’ve come to the end of your investigation, in which case…in which case I’m not even sure what to say to you. I will say that this whole exchange has wound up feeling depressingly familiar to me.

    Here’s my main point: this may be your blog, but it’s not your struggle. A little more explicit recognition of such would be welcome.

    Anyway, baby just took a big bite of crayon, so apologies for any proofreading lapses on my part.

  18. Christine Mason

    Looking more carefully at this thread I guess we can say for sure that you’re done responding to JTB.

  19. Tim Archer Post author

    Yeah, I realized that I really needed to come back and explain my comment to Wendy. Her response shows that mine merely sounded insulting.

    OK, if someone said, name some elders in the New Testament, I’d be hard pressed to do so. I can think of Peter, and my list pretty much ends.

    We see Lydia’s story. She was obviously the leader of a group of women before she became a Christian. I’d guess that she continued in that role, though it isn’t stated in the text. All we know is that a group of believers was gathered at her house when Paul and Silas got out of prison. To say much more than that is to insert something into the text. Why would we want to do so? I said it was because of an agenda. That’s where I overstepped the line. Not because of the word itself, but because of the connotations the word has.

  20. Nick Gill

    James, the Lord’s brother.

    John the Elder.

    I think that reading Lydia as an elder in Acts 16 violates the principle that no new converts should be appointed as elders.

  21. Tim Archer Post author


    Thanks for stepping out and speaking up. Let me offer one bit of defense: “we find the intelligent women interlocutors here accused of eisegisis when they argue for a different interpretation of the scant evidence in Scripture” is overstating what has happened. I called Wendy on one statement that she made, not every argument offered. I’d like for us to TRY to discuss this as Christians, not just men and women. Every time I say something negative to one of the women, it seems to get overblown. I appreciate the way Jen has avoided such.

    As for whether or not I continue writing on this, I feel like 3-4 months is a lot of time for me to spend on one subject. No, the conversation isn’t finished. There are lots of points to be made on both sides. I may get back to it. I may not. I’ve got other series that never reached closure; I’d love to touch on them, as well.

    Christina, I’ve changed my mind on several things along the way. Just because I didn’t arrive where you wanted me to arrive, doesn’t mean nothing happened. In what ways has your opinion changed by reading what’s been said?

    I don’t do guest posts. Sorry. When I finished my series on alcohol, I linked to other sites that offered different views. I want to do something of the same with this series. I plan to offer links to Jen’s sites as well as Kristin’s. What others would you have me include?

  22. JTB

    Tim, thanks for the offer of a future link to gal328.org! There is a treasure trove there of biblical, historical, theological and practical theological resources there that represents years of labors of love by scholars and preachers. There are also essays and narratives by women archived there that everyone (IMO) should read/hear as a crucial part of framing the discussion. As Jay hinted above in his comment about abstraction, it’s helpful to hear firsthand from women what it has meant to them to be a woman in the CofC; and, unfortunately, it’s a little difficult to get these perspectives into the discussion, since the issue itself is in some sense whether or not women’s voices are supposed to be heard in the first place…#conundrum.

    I want to try to say something now that may be a little difficult. It’s my policy when engaging in these online discussions regarding women in our churches to programmatically ignore hurtful things, give myself adequate time to absorb the hurt, and then when able, comment solely on ideas and arguments without acknowledging anything personal or hurtful. These discussions here in your space have not been as difficult as some (I’ve been called “vaginal-retentive” online before, so, there’s that), but there have been times that I have felt frustrated, dismissed, and even ignored. I have, as is my personal policy, not pointed out any of the things that caused these feelings, though others have from time to time.

    I say this now not to make you feel terrible, but because I think it might be helpful to you to realize that despite my non-defensiveness throughout, I have worked very hard to maintain this, and that’s a pretty big burden to bear. So while I appreciate the fact that you’ve noticed and appreciated my non-defensiveness, I also want you to understand that it’s not easy.

    To conclude, I am going to link to a wiki doc over at gal328.org with some observations about patterns of behavior that are largely unconscious and not deliberate, but which contribute to making spaces difficult for women. Some of them apply to discursive spaces, like classrooms and discussions and blogs.


    Thanks for listening. Peace.

  23. Tim Archer Post author


    I don’t doubt that I’ve been guilty of many of these discussion sins (I read the wiki and skimmed the articles). As I say, I respect your ability to avoid defensiveness. I need to learn that trick.

    I have tried. I understand the idea of engaging in a discussion and reacting to an entire history of discussions with multiple people. That happens to me as well. It’s a communication barrier to be overcome. I’ve tried not to react to some things you’ve said, but probably reacted to too many.

    I have read everything you’ve posted. I haven’t always responded, as I find it impossible to respond to every point made in every comment. We have serious disagreement as to what to do with what isn’t recorded in Scripture, but I respect your faith and desire to follow God.

    Blessings on you and your ministry.

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