This week's question comes from David of Georgia, a faithful reader. He asks, "Why are women allowed to be preachers/pastors?" (He was specifically referring to my wife the Rev. Kris Tenny-Brittian.)
Historically, from the second or third century, the traditions of the church have indeed excluded women from holding holy orders (ordination). The pronouncement that women were excluded from these offices stems from passages written by Paul. These passages are found in two books, 1st Corinthians and 1st Timothy. In Corinthians we read, "Women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church" (14.34-35). And the primary passage in 1st Timothy reads, "I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent" (2.12). Another related passage is found in 1st Timothy 3 where the masculine gender is used to describe the offices and requirements for elders (or bishops) and deacons.
Certainly the passages cited seem rather black and white, when removed from their contexts and used to "prove" a viewpoint. However, it is clear Paul's writings were not applied to the wider church in the first century, and further, when taken and applied broadly, are contrary to the tenor of scripture as a whole.
According to Paul's list of spiritual gifts in 1st Corinthians 14.1-5 the gift most useful in the church is the gift of prophesy. The act of prophesying, as defined in this passage, is to preach. That is, prophesying is not fortune-telling or seeing events of the future, rather it is speaking to edify, build-up, encourage, and console the church exactly what we call "preaching" today. And, according to several books in the New Testament, there were a number of prophetesses (women who prophesied or preached) in the early church. Indeed, Philip had four daughters all of whom were prophetesses (Acts 21.8-9). Further, although Paul writes that women should be silent in his first letter to the Corinthians, he also acknowledges women called of God to be leaders in that very church. He writes, "Any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head" (1 Cor. 11.4-5). Though this verse speaks primarily to respect in the house of God, the fact that women are mentioned as prophetesses here indicates Paul's fuller understanding of the role women have in the church even in Corinth.
But these aren't the only instances of women as spiritual leaders in scripture. In the New Testament, Anna, a Temple prophet, recognized Jesus as the Christ in Luke 2.36 and proclaimed it in the Temple. In the Old Testament, Deborah was called by God to be the Judge of Israel the spiritual and political leader of the nation. And Huldah in 2nd Chronicles 24.22-28 is sought out by the King for a word from the Lord and to authenticate the discovery of scripture! Thus she too was a recognized and important spiritual leader.
The final text, indicating God's ability and privilege to ordain whomever God chooses to ordain as leaders of the church, is found in Galatians 3.28. There Paul (!) writes, "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3.28). The elimination of gender exclusivity (and race and class) by Paul in this passage is by far the best indication of God's blindness to those prejudices/traditions that we (you, me, and even the church) may hold.
So, what did Paul mean in his diatribe against women speaking in church? The reality is this: we don't know. We do know the letter to the Corinthians was just that a letter to the Corinthians. It was specifically written to deal with their church, and as such contains instructions particular to that church. The letter to Timothy deals with an issue in his church at Ephesus. What issues either of these were, we cannot tell, but to lift these verses of exclusivity from their settings and to apply them universally to all churches in all times does violence to the whole tenor of scripture. God calls whomever God calls to do the work of the Kingdom. I, for one, do not profess an ability to second-guess the wisdom of God. To those whom God has granted the gifts and graces of ministry, especially prophesy, let the church embrace and enable to do the work God has called them to do.