Women Pastors? Its Time to Get it Right

The ordination of three women at Saddleback Community Church has raised the issue of women in ministry in new ways. The recognition of the gifting of women to teach and pastor has long been a point of contention in the American evangelical church. Stemming from Western Christian cultural practices which viewed women as the helpmate to men as well as their subordinate role to male headship, the ordination act of the largest Southern Baptist Convention church has drawn the ire of the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Albert Mohler, who unequivocally stated the practice’s incompatibility with the Baptist doctrine. In a recent blog, he wrote,

Simply put, the only way to affirm women serving in the pastoral role is to reject the authority and sufficiency of biblical texts such as 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2.

Many evangelical theologians and pastors who hold the position that women are restricted from the office of pastor in the church do so from a misunderstanding of the Apostle Paul’s instructions to Timothy in 1 Tim 2:8-15. Taken from a Western presupposition that women are to be subordinate to men, Paul’s instructions are frequently misinterpreted as limiting the role of women in the leadership of the church. An accurate understanding of the historical and cultural context of Ephesus leads to an interpretation that is as applicable in the first century as it is for the 21st century. For, as proper biblical exegesis demands, a text of Scripture cannot mean for us what it could not mean for the original recipients.

To that end, this article will address the cultural practices associated with sexual immortality that appears pervasive in the city of Ephesus in the first century. It is in this context that we might come to a new appreciation for Paul’s admonition both to men and women. As we will see, his primary concern is for the moral actions of those who profess godliness. To understand this context, we begin with the obscure group known as the Nicolaitans.

The Nicolaitans

Just as Jesus commended the church in Ephesus for its stance against false apostles, so he commended the church as it stood against the Nicolaitans (Rev 2:6). Very little is known of this obscure group, nonetheless, Jesus denounces their practices which appear to be associated with divination practices along the lines of Balaam (Num 22:5-7; Rev 2:14-15). The magical practices taking place in Ephesus are well noted in Luke’s history (Acts 19:19) and it is reasonable to suspect that some Christians either reverted back to those practices or Christianity syncretized with the magical practices. John also mentions those who acted like Jezebel who supported the work of Balaam (Rev 2:20). Ostensibly, these were women who had the reputation of being prophetesses likely associated with the temples and symposia, those Greek parties where intellectual conversations were combined with sexual promiscuity.

Whatever the case, while John uses Balaam and Jezebel as examples of what was happening in Pergamum and Thyatira, the same might be said for the Nicolaitans. That is, something was going on in Ephesus, Pergamum, and Thyatira that looked similar to what John knew as the practices of the Nicolaitans. These three churches wrestled with the ongoing religious practices that incorporated sexual immorality (specifically adultery), divination, and theophagy. It is notable that of the three churches wrestling with these ongoing practices, only Ephesus is commended while Pergamum and Thyatira are warned.

The first we learn any details about the Nicolaitans is in 180AD when Irenaeus makes note that,

The Nicolaitanes are the followers of that Nicolas who was one of the seven first ordained to the diaconate by the apostles. They lead lives of unrestrained indulgence. The character of these men is very plainly pointed out in the Apocalypse of John, [when they are represented] as teaching that it is a matter of indifference to practice adultery, and to eat things sacrificed to idols. (Against Heresies 1.26)

There are several other early church references to the Nicolaitans, but they mostly draw from Irenaeus. If we take what we can discern from John’s Revelation, as well as references from Paul (1 Tim 1:10; 3:2) and Peter (2 Peter 2:14) regarding the issues of sexual immorality and adultery, and assume a grain of truth from Irenaeus, then the situation we see in Asia Minor fits with what we know about the worship of Artemis and Dionysus, and Greek symposia in relationship to the prominence of women in the region. It also lends color to how we might understand Paul’s direction for Timothy with regards to women (1 Tim 2:8-15), and Peter’s specific instructions to women (1 Peter 3:1-6). 

Those practicing the works of the Nicolaitans were a group of men and women who regularly participated in eating of the gods and goddesses (theophagy) associated with temple worship and in adulterous affairs at symposia frequently held in Ephesus as well as other cities in Asia Minor. These cultural practices made their way into the church where John explicitly addressed them in Revelation 2-3 and Paul in 1 Timothy. To better understand such adulterous practices, we turn to the courtesans.

The Courtesans

Outside of those who characterize Paul as a misogynist, others have claimed that Paul’s instructions concerning women emerged due to the practice of temple prostitution in Ephesus. Perhaps due to an interpretation based on a misunderstanding of Strabo’s observation of temple prostitution in Corinth, the custom was not a part of the practice in the temple of Artemis (Baugh 1999: 446). Instead, the prominence of women came in the fact that Artemis was the goddess of childbearing and of maidens. The poet Callimachus writes in Artemis’s voice in the third century BC,

On the mountains will I dwell and the cities of men I will visit only when women vexed by the sharp pang of childbirth call me to their aid even in the hour when I was born the Fates ordained that I should be their helper, forasmuch as my mother suffered no pain either when she gave me birth or when she carried me in her womb, but without travail put me from her body. (Hymn III to Artemis, 1)

Artemis, the lady of maidenhood as Callimachus wrote, ensured the salvation of all creatures in childbearing, including women (Hymn III to Artemis 109). Paul briefly touches on this cultural issue in 1 Tim 2:15 as he juxtaposes Artemis’ promise of salvation with God’s promise, “Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.” In other words, just as one might say you will be saved through good works, a proper biblical understanding of those good works bearing on salvation must be conditioned on a person’s faith, love, and holiness. It is not the good works or childbearing that secure salvation. Rather, Paul is clear: it is remaining in “faith and love and holiness, with self-control.”

There are not many ancient references to courtesans – those women who accompanied men in a symposium – in Ephesus, but they certainly were a part of the culture of Asia Minor. For instance, after the death of Attalus III in 133 BC, Asia Minor was ceded to Rome. His ostensible half-brother, Aristonicus, whose mother was an Ephesian courtesan, attempted to retain his father’s kingdom yet failed (Head 1880:65). Similarly, Plutarch (46-120AD) tells us of a prominent courtesan, Aspasia, from Asia Minor whose house in Athens attracted influential Greek poets and philosophers, including Socrates. In Life of Pericles, he describes her, “this may be a fitting place to raise the query what great art or power this woman had, that she managed as she pleased the foremost men of the state, and afforded the philosophers occasion to discuss her in exalted terms and at great length.” (Life of Pericles, 24).  He continues,

And so Aspasia, as some say, was held in high favour by Pericles because of her rare political wisdom. Socrates sometimes came to see her with his disciples, and his intimate friends brought their wives to her to hear her discourse, although she presided over a business that was anything but honest or even reputable, since she kept a house of young courtesans.

These courtesans had tremendous influence in their communities. Lucian, the second century AD author of Dialogues of the Courtesans, describes these companions of the participants of symposia:

In the first place, she dresses attractively and looks neat; she’s gay with all the men, without being so ready to cackle as you are, but smiles in a sweet bewitching way; later on, she’s very clever when they’re together, never cheats a visitor or an escort, and never throws herself at the men. If ever she takes a fee for going out to dinner, she doesn’t drink too much—that’s ridiculous, and men hate women who do—she doesn’t gorge herself—that’s ill-bred, my dear—but picks up the food with her finger-tips, eating quietly and not stuffing both cheeks full, and, when she drinks, she doesn’t gulp, but sips slowly from time to time….Also, she doesn’t talk too much or make fun of any of the company, and has eyes only for her customer. These are the things that make her popular with the men. Again, when it’s time for bed, she’ll never do anything coarse or slovenly, but her only aim is to attract the man and make him love her; these are the things they all praise in her.

In Alciphron’s Letters of Courtesans written in the third century AD, Thais, the courtesan of Alexander the Great, recounts the influence of women on the education of men by contrasting them with sophists.

But possibly we seem to you inferior to the sophists because we don’t know where the clouds come from or what the atoms are like. I myself have gone to school to see them and have talked with many of them. No one, when he’s with a courtesan, dreams of a tyrant’s power or raises sedition in the state; on the contrary, he drains his early-morning beaker and then prolongs his drunken rest until the third or fourth hour. We teach young men just as well as they do. Judge, if you will, between Aspasia the courtesan and Socrates the sophist, and consider which of them trained the better men. You will find Pericles the pupil of one and Critias the pupil of the other. (4.7.5-7) 

The strong influence of the courtesans in Asia Minor and in Greek society in general directly contradicted the expectation of those women “who profess godliness” (1 Tim 2:10). The response of the early Christian leaders against these acts of ungodliness was equally strong. In this context, Paul writes, “likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire” (1 Tim 2:9); a description contrasting the apparel portrayed by Lucian. In distinction from the courtesan, Paul states, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet” (1 Tim 2:12). This was as much an admonition to Christian women to not be like the courtesans as it was for Christian men who enjoyed their company. In other words, it was a cultural paradigm shift impacting the social fabric of both men and women in Ephesus.

It is no wonder that Paul required the overseer and deacons to be the husband of one wife. Rather than addressing polygamy which did not play a prominent place in Greek culture, 1 Tim 3:2 and 12 address divorce and adulterous relationships, which were more common in Greek culture. That is not to say the NT promotes plural marriage, it just simply is not addressing it. The point that Jesus is raising in Revelation 2 with the church in Ephesus was that they did not settle for the culturally acceptable practices leading to sexual immorality and promiscuity. In fact, they combated it and raised the dignity of women by rescuing them from the immoral pleasures of men.

Additionally, Paul is not suggesting that women have no role in teaching in the church. The entire tone of 1 Tim 2:8-15 is focused on morality and not the gifting of women. Paul knew very well that women were effective communicators of Scriptural truth (2 Tim 1:5; 3:14-15). He viewed women as important ministry partners (Acts 16:40; Rom 16:1, 7; Phil 4:2; 2 Tim 4:19) who held leadership positions in the church (1 Tim 3:11). To take 1 Tim 2:8-15 out of its historical and cultural context has led the church to marginalize women in a patriarchal hierarchy that is absent in the New Testament.


In Ephesus, cultural practices were addressed soon after the start of the Christian movement. As I have argued, Paul wrote Timothy just three years after the movement began to ensure that he took proper measures to address the moral integrity of the church. While there were certainly those who continued in promiscuous relationships, the church was largely successful in living to a high moral standard. If a movement will sustain its growth, it must take moral integrity seriously. The devaluing of women, as we see in the cultural practices of Ephesus and around the world, will be a clear deterrent to growth if for no other reason than the fact that women make up the majority of many societies. If a church or denomination does not lift the dignity of women, then it simply becomes a pawn in propagating a misogynic culture foreign to the NT church. 

If one argues that women are not permitted to teach in the church from 1 Tim 2:8-15, then they are arguing from a position that is not supported by proper exegesis. From this perspective, Saddleback Community Church should not be prohibited from affirming the right of women to hold the office of pastor. The greater concern, however, is the continued professionalization of those in ministry through the act of ordination. The risk to further marginalize the priesthood of believers through bestowing titles on a few who are ordained will continue to be an existential threat to the growth of Christianity in the West.

Note: This article is adapted from Ephesiology: The Study of the Ephesian Movement (William Carey Publishing, 2020).