I received an email last week from a much respected friend. He wanted my opinion about the role of women in the church. Or more particularly, the role of women in the meetings of the church. He had been asked to lead a discussion for a church that’s been wrestling with the issue. He’d accepted the invitation reluctantly, knowing how heated the subject could become. And then he’d settled to some serious study to make sure he knew what he should say. But the more he’s looked at the subject, the more confusing he’s found it. So now he was writing to me to list out some of his uncertainties.
Questions, questions, questions
My friend gave me a couple of days to think about what he’d written and then phoned me. And for the next hour we were comparing notes. Here are some of the issues we talked about. Should women pray aloud in midweek prayer-meetings? Should women pray during times of “open worship” in the Sunday services? Should women be asked to give thanks for the bread and wine at the Lord’s Supper? What about Scripture reading? Should women take their turn on a rota for “doing the reading”? Should they be free to choose what passage is read? And of course, the inevitable, “what about head coverings”? If women pray aloud or read in the services, is it important that they should wear a hat of some sort?
We didn’t discuss the question of preaching. My friend took it for granted that he and I would agree: there’s no place for women preaching or teaching in meetings where men are present. But if we had had time, we might well have puzzled over the problem of what constitutes teaching. We often give opportunity for discussion in our midweek Bible-studies. If a woman chips in a with a comment, is she teaching? What if she just asks a question? By doing that, she may steer the discussion in a new direction. Is that teaching? What if a woman missionary comes and reports on her work? Presumably, if she’s sharing her story, her views on evangelism, prayer, the Christian life, guidance may all come through. Isn’t that teaching? What if a woman were an expert historian and gave a talk on some aspect of church history? What if she were to give a book review?
The church that has asked my friend for help isn’t alone in being concerned about the role of women in worship. Of course, the mainstream Protestant churches all decided long ago that there’s no problem about women exercising any ministry. As far as they’re concerned, whatever men can do, women can do, if not better, at least equally well. So go into any Anglican, Methodist, Baptist, URC church, and you’re as likely to hear a woman preaching as a man. It would be a rare service where the women played no conspicuous role, whether in reading, praying, leading the “worship” (ie singing) or presiding at the Lord’s Supper. But in these last few years it’s become a major issue for folk in churches like our own – independent churches, evangelical churches, churches which think of themselves as “reformed”. Friends of mine, settled in one “Grace Baptist” church, have been bewildered when suddenly, without explanation, it’s been decreed that henceforth, women will give thanks at the Lord’s Supper and distribute the bread and wine. There was equal bewilderment among my friends in another “Grace Baptist” church when it was decided that the midweek meeting would be split into three or four house-groups and that house group leaders might be women. Members of these churches have been left asking, “what next?”
What about us?
Well as I talked with my friend, I began to wonder why such matters have never been issues among us. Those who attend our Sunday services know that any spoken ministry will come from the men. A man will lead the service and preach. If anyone is asked to lead in prayer it will be a man. The only missionaries who are invited to speak in our services are men. Even in the more informal meetings held at other times, male leadership is taken for granted. Every midweek meeting is led by a man. If there is a speaker, it will be a man. We have times of discussion but they are led and directed by men. We have times of open prayer, but they are chaired by men, and it is the men who are encouraged to take the lead. It is only if the men fall silent that the women may take up the burden of prayer. And if anyone is ever asked to pray on behalf of the meeting, that person will always be a man. Men give thanks at the Lord’s Supper. Anyone observing our church meetings would recognise straightaway that we are a male-led church. And nobody – as far as I can remember – has ever challenged that. We’ve never had people demanding that we give more leadership roles to women or more opportunity for them to exercise their gifts in our public worship.
Why not? In a world where it’s taken for granted that women should have just the same opportunities as men, why have we never been put under pressure to move in that direction? When so many churches have been wrestling with these issues, why have they never troubled us? That’s the question I was musing on as I talked with my friend. It’s a question I’ve been puzzling over ever since. It’s certainly not that we have no gifted women. Our church is blessed with a number of very able, very gifted women, women who would be outstanding in any role. It’s not that we’re a church that thinks of women as inferior and would want to discourage them from using their minds, or expressing their opinions. The women of our church aren’t all shrinking violets, afraid to use their initiative, to be enterprising – or to tell their men-folk when they think they’ve got something wrong. And yet none of them have sought or demanded that we rethink our practice when it comes to our meetings. So again, I ask, why not?
Let me list three factors that I think may have been significant.
1) A simple view of the Bible
As a church, we have a very simple view of the Bible – some would say, a simplistic view. We read it all, we preach it all, we accept that it is all authoritative. All Scripture is God-breathed, and is useful for teaching, rebuke, correction and training in righteousness. And we have tried to approach every passage of the Bible with the same attitude – to ask simply what it says, and then to accept that without question. Never to try to explain anything away, never to try to tone it down, never to be embarrassed by anything it says. We see it as our place simply to relay the message of each passage as clearly and directly as we can.
That applies to everything. When we come to a passage that speaks about the humanity of the Lord Jesus, we don’t try to qualify anything the passage says. If it says that he was ignorant of some things, we don’t add a footnote saying “Of course, that was only in his humanity – as God he actually knew everything”. We insist that Jesus was weak, was tempted, was lonely, was ignorant of many things, and did die. But equally when we come to a passage that speaks about the deity of Christ, we preach his omnipotence, his omniscience, his divine attributes just as boldly. If we’re dealing with a passage that says that God regretted that he had made Man on the earth, we don’t feel embarrassed and try to explain that it doesn’t really mean that. But equally, when we come to a passage that speaks of God planning and controlling everything that happens, we don’t try to whittle that away to make it less shocking (“of course, God doesn’t plan the evil things that happen; he only permits them!”).
If we read that the Israelites were commanded by God to exterminate the Canaanites – even their children, we say, yes, and if God commanded it, that was right and holy. If we read that God set up the institution of slavery within Israel, we say, yes, and therefore slavery can be a right thing. If we read that God created wine to gladden the heart of man, we don’t pretend that that actually means fruit juice. And when we read that the Lord Jesus gave a single cup of wine to his disciples at the last supper, we don’t try to pretend that it means little glasses of Ribena.
So when we come to questions about the role of women, we are all used to taking it for granted that the Bible means what it says.
“As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak but are in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church” (1 Corinthians 14:33-34).
“I desire that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands, without anger or quarrelling. 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, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness – with good works. Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through child-bearing, if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control” (1 Timothy 2:8-15).
Yes, of course, there are things in verses like these which are hard to understand. If the women are “to keep silent”, how far does that silence extend? Does Paul mean they can’t sing the hymns? When he says that women with questions to ask should keep them and ask their husbands at home, what about unmarried women or women with unconverted husbands? When he says that he wants the men to pray, does that mean that he’s forbidding the women to pray? And what does he means when he talks about women being saved through child-bearing? There’s room for debate about all those questions.
And there are also questions about how these verses link with other passages in the New Testament. Paul’s reference in 1 Corinthians 11:5 to a woman who “prays or prophesies with her head uncovered” – isn’t he assuming there that women will pray and prophesy in public? What do we make of Philip’s daughters in Acts: they seem to have had a ministry of public prophesying. And so on.
But when we’ve listed out all the difficulties, we’ve still no doubt about the main thrust of the passages above. Men are supposed to lead, to exercise authority, to teach, to play the prominent roles in public worship. Women are supposed to be submissive; self-effacing (even in the way they dress); listeners rather than speakers; learners rather than teachers. And since those things are clear, we want to put those things into practice, without quibbling or trying to find ways round them. We don’t say, “let’s see how far we can go without actually breaking these commands” (that’s Pharisaism); instead, we say, “let’s do everything we can to make sure we keep not just the letter but the spirit of these commands”.
2) A high view of leadership
What is the Bible’s picture of the ideal worship service? Many Christians assume that the more people make their own contribution, the better. That fits well with the modern “democratic” mood. “We’re all equal and we should all have equal opportunity to speak!” The Bible passage which is often used to justify this approach is 1 Corinthians 14:26, “What then, brothers, when you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation…” So, it’s suggested, Paul’s directive is that every Christian should have opportunity to be on his – or her – feet at some point, to bring his – or her – contribution. The only problem is that Paul doesn’t seem to be giving a directive Rather, he’s describing what was happening in that church. And as we read the whole letter, it becomes obvious that it was a church in chaos – a church where people were competing to show off how gifted they were and how well they could speak. When you read the passage in its context it’s clear that Paul isn’t encouraging this sort of free-for-all – he’s trying to move the Corinthian church towards a more orderly form of worship.
The problem in the Corinthian church is that there were no appointed leaders – no elders or pastors to take the lead in the meetings (if there had been, Paul would have been able to appeal to them to sort out many of the problems). And Paul wouldn’t have needed to say in ch 16, “I urge you brothers – you know that the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia. And that they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints – be subject to such as these, and to every fellow worker and labourer. I rejoice at the coming of Stephanas and Fortunatus and Achaicus… Give recognition to such men” (vss 15-18). Paul was telling the Corinthian church that it was time they appointed some elders, and he was giving his shortlist.
In a normally functioning church, there will be elders appointed: shepherds who are responsible for feeding the flock; men whose responsibility it is to teach the church. They may invite others to contribute at times. But the burden of leadership and teaching rests firmly on such appointed leaders. “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you…” (1 Timothy 4:13-14). Timothy had been set apart in a definite way to be a leader among God’s people. He had had hands laid on him. God had given him a special gift to equip him for the work. And now he must take on the work of reading Scripture aloud in services, exhorting, teaching. It doesn’t sound as if Paul thought these tasks were for every Christian, does it?
Even the work of praying in public is one that requires special gifts from God. Yes, there are those times when all the members of the church family may gather around our Father and pour out our hearts. But when someone is praying on behalf of the whole church, calling down God’s blessing on the church, then it has to be someone who understands clearly from the Scriptures what God’s purposes are, what it’s right to pray for, what God has promised. As part of their training, Jesus taught the twelve apostles how to pray. Shouldn’t we expect there to be men in every church who have likewise been taught – trained – to pray?
Worship is a great, glorious, and difficult work. Not everybody is equally equipped to lead God’s people in worship. Not everybody should be encouraged to do so. I think we as a church, understand that. We take seriously the words of James, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers…” (James 3:1). We accept the fact that only a minority of Christians will ever take on the solo parts in the great symphony of worship. It’s not just women who are “excluded” – it’s most men.
For us the dividing line is not between men and women – “Men can; women can’t”. The real dividing line is between the few who have been assessed, trained, and shown to have the qualifications God requires. And the many who haven’t.
And as Paul reminds us again and again, there is no shame in being chosen by God to play one role in the church rather than another. “God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’… God has so composed the body, giving great honour to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another…” (1 Corinthians 12:14-25). Some members of the church have more prominent roles than others, but every member is equally needed.
3) An elevated view of women and their work
Why has God appointed that men rather than women should be the “spokespersons” in the church? Well, there may be many reasons. But one reason is surely this: so that women can concentrate on the work God has for them to do. In this church we believe that there are tasks that only women can do effectively – and those tasks can be more demanding, more difficult than any of the tasks involved in leading meetings! Maybe one of the reasons why women in this church aren’t desperately seeking opportunities to speak in our meetings is because they’ve given themselves fully to the work God has given them to do.
I’ve written before about the work God has given women to do in the home:
“The Scriptures tell us of godly women who devoted themselves to the care of their children, and shaped them for eternity. Rebekah, Rachel, Jochebed, Hannah, Eunice… and at the head of the list, Mary. What greater honour could any woman have than to bear the Son of God, to nurse him as a baby, to tend him as a toddler, to teach him as a child, to train him as a teenager? Could any career compare with that?… Bearing and bringing up children is the most demanding, the most difficult, the most challenging work in the world. (Read Proverbs 31 if you’re not convinced of that). It demands more resilience, creativity, insight, patience, wisdom than any other work to which we may be called. It’s often frustrating, exhausting and painful. But in the long run it can be infinitely rewarding” (Letter from the Manse, March 2010).
For Paul, the home was the most vital sphere of women’s service: “Older women are to…teach what is good, and so train the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind and submissive to their own husbands…” (Titus 2:3-5).
But the home is not the only place where women play a vital role. In the New Testament churches there were women who served as deacons (Phoebe was one: Romans 16:1). As far as we know, deacons had no special role in the meetings of the church, but they did have a special role in caring for the needy. Paul talks about a list of widows who were supported by the churches and who “continue in supplications and prayers night and day…” To qualify, a widow had to have a “reputation for good works, if she has brought up children, has shown hospitality, has washed the feet of the saints, has cared for the afflicted, and has devoted herself to every good work…” (1 Timothy 5:5-10).
Thank God, many of the women in this church have given themselves to such sacrificial service. Their ministry is as demanding and as rewarding as that of any preacher or evangelist. They are not pining for the opportunity to “exercise their gifts” in the meetings of the church. Their gifts are already being fully exercised. We thank God for them.