Female leaders are on the rise in Protestant churches, from the Episcopal Church USA's election of its first female presiding bishop to the celebrity status of evangelical ministers such as Joyce Meyer and Paula White. In many Christian quarters, however, debate continues over appropriate roles for female ministers.
While a recent book from theologian Wayne Grudem specifies limits for women in ministry, the latest offering from the professor, preacher, and activist Tony Campolo, Letters to a Young Evangelical, devotes a chapter to arguing for more robust leadership roles for Christian women.

In an interview with Beliefnet, Campolo explained why Jesus was a feminist, why women should be free to preach, and how his mother helped him understand the potential power of women in ministry.

What is your position on women preaching in the church, and how do you connect your position to the Bible?

Women have the same privileges and opportunities as men, given the New Testament. Relegating women to second-class citizenship was abolished when Jesus died on the cross. As it says in Galatians 3:28, “In Christ now there is neither bond nor free, Scythian nor Barbarian, male nor female; all are one in Christ Jesus.”

As far as women being in the pulpit, in the Book of Acts, you will find that Philip had three daughters who were preachers. The apostle Paul in the Book of Romans, the last chapter, the seventh verse, alludes to two people, Andronicus and Junia. Junia is a woman. And then, he refers to them as “fellow apostles,” which in the life of the early church was the highest position attainable in leadership and in preaching.

When they translated the NIV, the men changed the name Junia to Junias. [Editor's note: Read more about the centuries-old Junia/Junias debate.] They made it into a male name. When fundamentalists start changing the Bible to agree with their theology, they have to ask themselves some serious questions.

When the Holy Spirit falls upon the church on the day of Pentecost, Peter says, “This is what was spoken of by the prophet Joel when he said, ‘The day will come when the Holy Spirit comes upon His people, God’s people, and young men”--and then it says--“and young women shall prophesy, (i.e., shall preach).” There is a gift of the Holy Spirit that is given to both men and women in the New Testament. This is what makes the New Testament a New Testament rather than the Old Testament, in which women did not have such privileges.

In your book Letters to a Young Evangelical, you say that Jesus was a radical feminist. Could you go into that a little more?

There’s one instance that would validate that claim that Jesus was a radical feminist. It’s the story of Mary and Martha. He goes to visit the home of these two women. Martha takes her assigned role taking care of the kitchen, taking care of preparing food. Mary, on the other hand, decides to go and sit at the feet of the rabbi as only men were allowed to do in those days. Here is a woman breaking the social morés of the society, sitting, learning Torah from a rabbi with other men. Martha complains. At this point, Jesus says, “Martha, Mary has chosen the better thing to do.” Jesus is affirming a role for women that violates the prevailing morés of the day. What a radical thing to do. One other instance, and I could cite many, is when he goes to Samaria and meets this woman at the well. In the ancient days, women did not speak to men without their husbands being present. It was a violation of Jewish law. Jesus says, “Look, I don’t care about the law. Here is a woman that’s in need. I’m going to minister to her.” He speaks to her, person-to-person. He wants to affirm the equality of women and minister women just as he would minister to men.

Many evangelicals would cite verses from Timothy and Titus, scripture verses about women not being allowed to talk in the church.

I believe that the historians and the church fathers who wrote about these things are in agreement. Certain things happened in the early church. Women who had never had any freedom suddenly have the ability to stand up and speak and be treated as equals within the life of the church. Like most people who have been limited, who have been in a sense imprisoned and set free, there is a strong propensity to abuse that freedom and, indeed, that’s what happened. These women were abusing their freedom. They were standing up and they were lecturing their husbands about what was going on in their homes right in front of the whole congregation.