Introduction

Those who are familiar with the Bible will admit that the battle for sexes started with the Fall of man, and it still rages on to this day. When Adam and Eve sinned against God, not only was their relationship with God broken, but also their relationship with each other. As a result, a question as to what men can do which women should also do has arisen. And over the years, and particularly in the last forty years or so, a movement known as feminism has come up. This movement advocates for the so-called liberation of women from perceived bondages such as marriage, motherhood, housekeeping, family life, reproductive function, morals and men. With time, this movement has grown so much so as to find its place in the Church. For example, the Minnesota Council of Churches, Presbyterian Church, (PC USA), United Methodist Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the American Baptist Church sponsored a feminist conference in 1993. This conference was held in Minneapolis, St. Paul, USA. 1

When we look at the Protestant Reformation, we notice that one of the tenets which was taught as opposed to Catholicism was the priesthood of all believers. This was intended to remove the unbiblical notion of the ministry of the Word and prayer as a preserve of the priest from the Roman Catholic point of view. However, it must be admitted that it did little to remove the clergy-laity divide that had been created by Rome. The notion lingered that the minister did the ministry, except that now it was the preaching of God’s Word instead of the administration of the mass, and the lay people listened.

Admittedly, the Reformation recovered the idea of calling, that every Christian could serve God in their everyday vocation, whether in the family or in employment. But where did that leave women in the church? And since women could not become “church ministers” (or Pastors), it was sometimes felt that they could not “minister.” Even in our day and age, there are still a lot of women with a real desire to serve the Lord but feeling frustrated because they either do not know, or opportunities to do so are not given. If that were not the case, I would not be writing this article in this periodical.

Two Extreme Views

With this historical background, the evangelical world has had to face a tragedy. Sadly, evangelicals are bitterly divided over the role of women in the church. Two extreme views have arisen. One group advocates for no role distinctions. These are called Evangelical Feminists (also referred to as Egalitarians). Egalitarians regard Galatians 3:28 – “…there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” – as the key to understanding other texts relating to gender. To them, gender distinctions were introduced with sin, but, so they say, because Christ has redeemed us from the effects of the Fall, women can now do everything hat men can do.

The other extreme view is that which advocates for no role for women. These are known as Repressive Conservatives. This group reads the Bible through the lens of the two so-called prohibition or silence texts, namely 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-14. Looking at the whole of holy Scripture through the filter of these two texts has meant that in some evangelical, even reformed churches, women are totally passive.

WHAT WOMEN CAN DO

To avoid the impression that many Christians have that women can either do nothing or very little in the church, I will begin by a careful consideration of what they can do. I will approach the subject matter at hand through a careful but simple examination of Scripture from the Day of Pentecost, the day the New Testament church was born.

Prayer

The first thing we note is that Christian women can and should attend local church prayer meetings. Now this attendance should not be passive, but they should equally pray aloud in prayer meetings. The reason is simple. When God’s people gather together for prayer, they do so as children before their heavenly Father. But do we have biblical proof of women praying aloud in church prayer meetings? Yes we do. In both Acts 1:14 and 12:5,12, we are told of church prayer meetings. Even though it is not stated, the phrases “These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication…” and “…where many were gathered together praying” (Acts 12:12) clearly suggest that women were not passive.

But what about the apostle Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 2:8? Do these words make praying aloud in the prayer meeting an all-male prerogative? Well, to understand these words correctly, we need to look at the purpose of the praying in the given context. From verses 1 to 4, it is clear that the prayer here is for people of all walks of life and for the evangelization of all peoples. If that is the case, and indeed it is, how will the evangelization of all people be advanced if only the men pray? Reading verses 8 and 9 together clearly indicate that women are also to pray for the same cause.

These verses should be understood in the following way. Men should pray for the spread of the Gospel in the spirit of unity. In like manner, women must pray paying attention to their weakness. However, as verse 11 to 15, show, liberty to pray in a church prayer meeting must not be taken as liberty to teach God’s Word (More on this later).

Again in 1 Corinthians 11:5, we read of a time of open worship in which there is opportunity for spontaneous prayer and prophecy. It seems obvious that in this case also, women could participate and the apostle Paul seems to encourage their participation. However, just as in 1 Timothy 2, they had to do so under a condition, with their heads covered. That head covering means that they were to demonstrate submission to their husbands and uphold male-female distinctions. In addition to participation in time of open prayer, women can engage effectively in private prayer. The Bible is full of examples to that effect, and so is church history. Luke the evangelist tells us of Anna’s prayer life “…and this widow was a woman of about eighty four years, who did not depart from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day” (Luke 2:37). Anna’s expression of her fervent and disciplined intercession for the people of God and the long awaited Messiah in that brief public thanksgiving (v. 38), at the sight of the baby Jesus was answer to so many years of prayer.

In relation to this matter of private prayer by women, we need to recognize that women are endowed with the capacity to feel deeply for the needs of others. It is therefore right and proper that that is directed towards intercessory prayer. That is why throughout church history, beginning with Old Testament times, godly women experiencing joy or sorrow have used that experience to identify more deeply with others and then prayed for them. Many can testify that “when Christian brothers and sisters join together in praise and intercession, there is a complementarity in the way that they pray that is beautiful.” 2

Evangelism

Women should be involved in evangelism. From observation, we learn that the membership of the average local church is more than fifty percent women. And since two thirds of those outside the kingdom of God are women and children, if we do not mobilize women in our churches for evangelism, we will not do much. When we go back to the book of Acts, we read that on the day of Pentecost when the disciples received the gift of the Holy Spirit, “…there appeared to them divided tongues as of fire, and one sat upon each of them” (Acts 2:3). Many Bible scholars in the Reformed tradition are agreed that this speaks of each having the ability to share the gospel, including women. But explicitly is the text related to the persecution that broke out in Jerusalem. There we are told that “…those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word” (Acts 8:4).

Now here, our English translations are a bit misleading by the use of the word “preaching” because that is not the word used in Greek. The Greek word translated “preach” in this verse is the word “euangelizomenoi” or transliterated as “evangelizo” from which we get the word evangelize. It is the same word used in Romans 15:20 and 2 Corinthians 10:16. Literally the word means announcing good tidings of the word. 3 So then, the believers who were scattered following the persecution in Jerusalem were evangelizing or sharing the gospel of Christ with everyone they met in the areas beyond Jerusalem. In other words, they were not so much “preaching” in the formal sense in which we use the word today.

This teaches us that the task of reaching out to lost souls, evangelizing, cannot be limited to men. That is why the apostle Peter is able to tell us all, male and female to “…always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you to a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and prayer” (1 Peter 3:15). Much as it is true that the New Testament gives a model of the church commissioning male apostles and evangelists to take the gospel to unreached regions, it is also clear that women were used as co-workers. For example, the apostle Paul speaks of “…Tryphena and Tryphosa, who have laboured in the Lord…” (Romans 16:12). The word he uses translated “laboured” is the Greek word “kopiao” (kopiao) which means to toil and has the idea of hard and painful labour. That being the case, we can conclude that these two women served the Lord at great personal cost, and would appear to have been involved directly in the spread of the gospel.

Similarly, the language of Paul in Philippians 4:3 about Euodia and Syntyche – “…those women who laboured with me in the gospel…” is far too strong to allow them to be dismissed as mere bystanders in the work of evangelism. The point here is that even though confusion has arisen because of the use of the word “preaching,” this proclaiming or evangelizing is a much broader activity than the teaching of the word to the gathered church by those called and ordained to the pastoral ministry, and broader still than “evangelistic preaching.” This evangelizing of the lost souls should be distinguished from the regular teaching of the Bible in the meetings of the church. That is why the New Testament often uses the Greek word “didaskalia” for this activity as opposed to “evangelizo.” This teaching ministry and evangelistic preaching which is an extension of the pastoral ministry together with the work of pioneer evangelists like the apostles is work done by men. Cleary then, the New Testament points to the fact that “proclaiming” and “evangelizing” are activities open to all Christians male and female, young and old.

Teaching Fellow Women and Children

Here, the term “teaching,” it must be admitted, covers a range of activities. It is from the everyday interaction that goes on in the home (see Proverbs 1:8), to more formal teaching undertaken in the church or elsewhere. From the book of Proverbs, we get the picture of husband and wife both actively engaged in teaching their children. It must be noted that in those ancient days, households included a variety of relatives and workers. And so such teaching would include others too. In our day, at the very least, we can apply this to the duty of Christian parents to teach their children. This goes far beyond the individual home in terms of is relevance and impact. That is why teaching roles of parents need to be reviewed with the utmost seriousness. Parents in all our local churches must be admonished to take this role very, very seriously.

Not only should women teach within the confines of the home, but there is room for suitably gifted and trained women to teach at church level. No doubt there are numerous opportunities for women to engage in teaching women, young people and children. The main sphere of teaching many women will be among other women. Women with spiritual experience and giftedness are better placed to be “…teachers of good things…” (Titus 2:3-5). Here, there is scope for teaching both by word and example. All of us know that it is just common sense that it should be women to teach fellow women with regard to matters of especially female concern. Those of us that are pastors need to learn that we cannot disciple or train the younger women better than older, spiritual women can do. So just as Titus was exhorted, we should find mature and godly women to whom we can teach sound doctrine, so that they in turn can disciple the younger women.

Opportunities where formal teaching can take place will involve women’s meetings, such as seminars, conferences, rallies, retreats etc. In these fora, women can help one another to grow in the knowledge of Scripture and discuss how to apply it to the day-to-day Christian living. In order for all these ministries to take place more effectively, there must be a serious effort to train those women who are gifted at teaching (it is in recognition of this fact that the Kitwe Bible College also enrolls women. Apart from Pastoral Theology which is exclusively for men, they take all the other courses). The point is that if the women in our churches are going to be good teachers of the Word of God to their fellow women, young people and children, they should have a good grasp of doctrine, and its application daily Christian living.

Well, there is much scope for women teachers. We can talk about a woman conducting baptismal preparation classes with female candidates, leading a discipleship group for women who are young in the faith, and also husband-wife teams to teach on courtship, marriage and parenting. Women who are gifted can teach as part of their ministry in church in a restricted sense.

Ministries of Service

These are practical activities of ministering to other believers. All of us as Christians are called to a life of service. That is so because even our Lord Jesus Christ did not come to be served but to serve (Mark 10:45). As we read the New Testament, we cannot fail to observe several women engaged in works of service. Even before we come to the book of Acts, we see that our Lord was accompanied by a group of women of whom we are told “…provided for [Jesus] from their substance.” (Luke 8:1-3; cf Mark 15:41). As we get into the book of Acts, we read of one Tabitha who was engaged in the good work of providing clothing for the poor (Acts (9:36-43). That is why the characteristic lifestyle of godly women in the New Testament is described as those who were “well reported for good works:…lodged strangers, washed the saints’ feet, relieved the afflicted, and diligently followed every good work” (1 Timothy 5:10). So then we larn that there is ample scope for women o engage in works of service. This writer is of the view (along with many of kindred mind) that it is in that sense that Phoebe is called “a servant of the church in Cenchrea” Roman 16:1) even though the same word for deacon (diakonos) is used.

Other Areas of Service

Women may also be involved in other areas of service, like hospitality, counseling, encouragement and even administration. We read of Lydia in Acts 16:15 who offered hospitality to the apostle Paul and his companions. Others like Nympha opened their homes for meetings of the church (Colossians 4:15). Women can also encourage and build others up by the word or actions. Encouragement is something that every believer can do. However, there are situations which call for more specialized counselling. In this area, there are cases which require a woman to handle. Male consellors may not always be ideal for every case at hand. For example, a man may find it hard to identify with women suffering depression due to infertility or miscarriage, single teen mothers, women who were abused as children, etc. The biblical principle for us here is clearly laid down in Titus 2:3-5).

Pastors and elders should therefore ensure that their women are being equipped to serve others. And within each of these areas we have looked at, there may be scope for women to exercise leadership gifts. This is not, however, leadership in terms of office, but designated leadership in women’s, children’s or youth ministries, with a willingness to submit to the leadership of their local church.

WHAT WOMEN CANNOT DO

There are some areas where women are categorically forbidden in the Bible. First, Scripture prohibits women from taking the role of elder. This role is one of teaching and having governing authority over the whole congregation. The Bible clearly states that the regular teaching of the Scriptures in the meetings of the church should be properly undertaken by the elders. In 1 Timothy 5:17, the elders are to receive double honour if they “…labour in the word and doctrine.” That is why the New Testament often uses the Greek word “didaskalia” for this activity. And it is this activity that the apostle Paul tells Timothy not to permit a woman to do (1 Timothy 2:12). This includes evangelistic preaching in the presence of the gathered church, because such is an extension of the pastoral ministry which should be the province of pastors/elders/teachers (2 Timothy 4:5). All the qualifications elders stipulated in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, clearly show that elders are to be male members of the local church.

Without labouring the point in great detail, women are not also to take up office as “women deacons” or “deaconesses.” That is primarily because “according to the New Testament, deacons hold an official position of authority, in close association with the overseers.” 4 (I leave the elaborate arguments to the article on “Deaconesses” in this same periodical).

Conclusion

We must never dwell so much on what women are not allowed to do in church. There ate a lot of things that they can, and should in fact be doing. It is sad to note that those who go to the extreme view of “no role distinctions” look at the Bible as deliberately or unconsciously conforming to the customs and standards of its time. That is cultural relativism. On that basis, they say we should also allow the church of our day to conform to the standards of time. Well, the danger with an appeal to cultural relativism is that if the Bible is conformed to the culture of its times on this issue of the role of women in church, then it will surely also be on every other issue. And ultimately that will undermine the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture as stated in 2 Timothy 3:16,17.

There are many roles women can play in church, but there are also those the Bible explicitly forbids. May our women be submissive to the teaching of the Bible on this matter. Amen!

Sources

  1. James, Sharon. God’s Design for Women, Evangelical Press, 2002, p 27
  2. Ibid., p 120.
  3. Perschbacher, p 178.
  4. Strauch, Alexander. The New Testament, Lewis and Roth, 1992, p 114

Others

Masters, Peter. The Power of Prayer Meetings, A Sword and Trowel Booklet, 1995.

Weeks Nowel. The Sufficiency of Scripture, Banner of Truth Trust, 1988