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Contents page of 'Women and Ministry in The New Testament' by Elisabeth M Tetlow

Women and Ministry in The New Testament

by Elisabeth M Tetlow

Paulist Press New York/Ramsey
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions



  Women in Ancient Greece  
  Women in the Roman Empire  
  Women in Judaism  
  Religious Office in the Old Testament  
  Ministry According to the New Testament  
  The Ministry of Women During the Lifetime of Jesus  
  The Ministries of Women in the Early Church  








There are serious questions being raised in the Church today concerning the role of women in ministry. The Second Vatican Council asserted that “since in our times women have an ever more active share in the whole life of society, it is very important that they participate more widely also in the various fields of the Church’s apostolate.”(1) This position was reaffirmed by the third Synod of Bishops, meeting in Rome in 1971. “We also urge that women should have their own share of responsibility and participation in the community life of society and likewise of the Church.”(2)

Yet women are in fact and by law excluded from the official ordained ministry of the Church.(3) What are the reasons, present and historical, why this is the practice of the Church? The Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith attempted to answer this question in 1976. It justified the exclusion of women from ordained ministry on the basis of the constant tradition of the Church, which, it said, was rooted in the practice of Jesus and of the apostles. It summarized the present position of the magisterium in the statement that “the Church, in fidelity to the example of the Lord, does not consider herself authorized to admit women to priestly ordination.”(4)

The crux of the problem is located in the understanding and interpretation of the practice of Jesus and the apostles. The available information on this subject is contained within the New Testament. The tradition of the Church has always accorded a primary place of authority to the word of scripture. In recent times Vatican II reiterated the belief that scripture contains and presents “divinely revealed realities” which “have been committed to writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.” Therefore “the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching firmly, faithfully, and without error that truth which God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation."(5) Thus according to the teaching of Vatican II whatever scripture says about a subject has a normative value for the Church. If a conflict arises between the practice of the Church and the word of scripture, the Church should conform its practice to the revealed word of God.

If the situation were actually so simple, all problems could be resolved by following the letter of the text of scripture. But this is not the case. One complicating factor is the fact that scripture presents the word of God in translation. God did not dictate the New Testament in Greek. The word is presented through the language of the evangelist or epistolographer. This language is conditioned by the history, culture and theology of the historical writer. Thus it is impossible for the reader today to establish exactly what word of God is being revealed in a given text of scripture without the mediation of interpretation. What is important is that the element of interpretation be consciously recognized and be in accord with the most rigorous scholarly standards.(6)

Biblical scholarship is a science which is constantly learning and growing. Thus it is possible that an understanding of a text which was generally held ten years ago may today be viewed as incorrect. Many of the past interpretations of biblical texts on the subject of the ministry of women were filtered through the theological presupposition that Jesus could not possibly have called women to ministry nor could the early Church have possibly permitted women to function in ministry since women are essentially inferior to men and their divinely established role in life is one of subordination to men in all things.

In the present moment in history there is a newfound freedom from the presuppositions of the past. For the first time, scholars are able to look at the question of the ministry of women in the New Testament without being bound by the traditions of women’s inferiority and subordination. Because of this freedom, scholars are beginning to discover information about the role and ministry of women in the primitive Church that had never before been noticed.

This book will seek to reevaluate the question of the ministry of women in the New Testament. In its interpretation of the biblical texts it will employ the results of current biblical scholarship and attempt to remain free of the culturally conditioned presuppositions of other eras.

The journey will not be either short or simple. The ministry of women in the New Testament is a broad and complex question. It cannot be comprehended adequately without some knowledge of its context: the social and religious position of women in the Mediterranean world in the first century A.D. Thus a preliminary question must first be explored. What did it mean to be a woman in the time of Jesus? What were the status and roles of women in Hellenistic Greek society, in Roman society, and in intertestamental Judaism?

There is a second and equally important preliminary subject to be discussed before proceeding to the major question. What is the meaning of ministry? What is the nature of Christian ministry according to the New Testament? What was its background in the history of religious office in Old Testament Judaism? What was the nature of Jesus’ own ministry? What did Jesus teach his followers about the kind of ministry to which he was calling them? What were the earliest forms of ministry in the primitive Church? What were their antecedent models? Were these ministries authentically conformed to the nature of ministry lived and called for by Jesus?

After these two preliminary issues have been clarified, there remains the central task of the book: to examine the New Testament evidence concerning the ministry of women in the time of Jesus and in the first century Church. Did Jesus himself call women to ministry? Were women included in or excluded from apostolic ministry according to the New Testament? Were the ministries exercised by women in the early Church official ministries of the Church? Is there anything inherent in the character of Christian ministry as presented by the New Testament which would give reason for the inclusion or exclusion of women?

The author would like to express her gratitude to those colleagues and friends who helped make this a better book than it would have been without their encouragement, insights and criticisms. First of all, I would like to thank Donald L. Gelpi, S.J. of the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley for the initial inspiration to begin reflecting on the subject of ministry, for the invitation to contribute two chapters on the biblical foundations of ministry to his own book on the theology of ministry, and for his helpful criticism of the manuscript at each stage of its development. I would also like to thank Kathleen M. Gaffney of Xavier University and Gerald M Fa-gin, SJ. and John R. Stacer, S.J. of Loyola University in New Orleans for generously giving of their time to read and criticize the manuscript in its entirety. Any errors or omissions in this work must, of course, remain the sole responsibility of the author. The greatest debt of gratitude is owed to my husband, Mulry, for giving me the freedom of time and space necessary to research and write this book, and for his generosity in taking time from his own busy schedule of teaching and counseling to type the manuscript.

New Orleans

Pentecost, 1979


1. Apostolicam Actuositatem, 9. Walter M. Abbott, (ed.), The Documents of Vatican II (New York: America Press, 1966), p. 500.

2. “Justice in the World” (Washington: United States Catholic Conference, 1972), p. 44.

3. Codex iuris canonici 968, 1.

4. “Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood” (Rome, October 15, 1976), no. 5 (cf. no. 6). Text in Leonard Swidler and Arlene Swidler (eds.), Women Priests. A Catholic Commentary on the Vatican Declaration (New York: Paulist, 1977), p. 38.

5. Dei Verbum, 11. Abbott, op. cit., pp. 118-119.

6. Cf. Pius XII, Divino afflante Spiritu (1943); Dei Verbum 12, 23.

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