Scripture clearly teaches that Christian women are to be actively involved in the local church. They are part of the body of Christ and as members of that body they are to help it grow ‘for the edifying of itself in love’ (Ephesians 4:16). Women are to depend upon God as they serve: they are to minister ‘as with the ability which God supplies’ (1 Peter 4:11). Jesus emphasized that we could do nothing of value in His kingdom without the power which He supplies: ‘He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing’ (John 15:5).
- Freedom and Boundaries: A Pastoral Primer on the Role of Women in the Church by Kevin DeYoung
- Women’s Ministry in the Local Church by Ligon Duncan & Susan Hunt
- Women in the Church: An Analysis and Application of 1 Timothy 2:9-15 by Andreas Kostenbergera & Thomas R. Schreiner
- Leadership for Women in the Church by Susan Hunt & Peggy Hutcheson
Women are given gifts by the Holy Spirit to be used in the work God has given them to do. These gifts are varied: all of them are needed. As we read in Ephesians 4:16, God places believers in a local church in order to work out His purposes. In Romans 12:6-8, we find a list of gifts: prophecy, serving, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading, and showing mercy. In 1 Corinthians 12:4-10, the ‘diversities of gifts’ include the word of wisdom, the word of knowledge, faith, gifts of healing, the working of miracles, prophecy, discerning of spirits, kinds of tongues, and interpretations of tongues. Are these gifts distributed among all believers in all centuries without differentiation? Are certain gifts limited to men? Is a woman free to use any gift that God has given her in any way that she chooses?
Certain ministries of women are never questioned because they are specifically mentioned in the the Book of Acts and the Epistles. For example, in 1 Timothy 5:9,10 Paul describes the activities of widows who have been well involved in the work: they have offered hospitality, they have responded to the needs of the saints, they have helped those in trouble, and have devoted themselves to all kinds of good deeds. Dorcas who helped the poor (Acts 9:36), and Lydia who offered hospitality to Paul and the men who were travelling with him (Acts16:15) are examples of women who served in these ways. Women had teaching responsibilities. Titus was told to exhort the older women to teach what is good, particularly to the younger women (Titus 2:3,4). Timothy was taught as a child by his mother and grandmother. Priscilla and her husband Aquila were used to instruct Apollos.
Other ministries are not so plainly delineated. In 1 Corinthians 11, women are described as praying and prophesying: we understand praying, but what would be the equivalent of prophesying in our day? Paul highly commended the women who worked with him. He described Phoebe as ‘a helper of many and of myself also’ (Romans 16:2). He spoke of other women who laboured with him in the Gospel: Mary (Rom.16:6); Tryphena, Tryphosa, and Persis (Rom.16:12); Euodia and Syntyche (Phil.4:2,3). We are not told what they did specifically, but it is evident that their contribution was substantial and that Paul recognized its value.We do notice, however, that there are no female apostles and no female elders. The apostles were the authorities in the New Testament church. Elders were to rule, and to labour in the word and doctrine (1 Tim. 5:17).When Paul wrote to Timothy to instruct him concerning how affairs should be conducted in the house of God (1Tim.3:15), he stated that women were not to teach men or to have authority over them (1Tim:2:12). Evidently, the useful, necessary, God-given abilities of women were to be exercised within the divine order that God had established. Women were not to be the spiritual leaders of the church.
Our churches today are very different from the churches in apostolic times. The early believers met in homes; we usually meet in buildings constructed for that purpose. Our main worship service is different, usually more formal, with a pulpit for the preacher and a set order of service. 1 Corinthians 11 and 14 indicate that there was more participation of believers in their services. Moreover, we have many activities, positions, and departments that are not mentioned in the New Testament: consider children’s clubs, Sunday School Superintendents, and Financial Committees. In order to find out how women are to use their gifts in these new structures, we must look for principles to guide us. The divine order established by God at creation, reinforced throughout Scripture, and emphasized by Paul to Timothy is still to be maintained until Jesus returns: there is no indication that it has been removed. This means that certain men are called to be elders, a position of ruling and teaching, an office that is not open to women. Women may participate in all other areas as long as they are qualified, as long as they are not exercising the wrong kind of authority over men, as long as they have the right motivation, and as long as they are not neglecting family responsibilities. Men also, of course, must be qualified, must have the right motivation, and must not neglect their families if they are to be involved in different areas of ministry.
Consider the variety of activities open to women. Women who have a good understanding of the Scriptures, and a sound theological background can have an effective ministry in teaching and counselling. In our day, godly and committed teachers are still essential for teaching younger and older children in the Sunday School, an investment of time and energy which will pay permanent dividends in the life of the teacher and in the lives of her students. Teachers are needed for home Bible studies; speakers are needed for women’s groups and chapel services in senior citizens’ homes and hospitals. Certain women may be well informed in particular areas such as time management, methods of teaching, the challenges of translation work, or activity on a specific mission field – to identify only a few important topics. They may have done an in-depth study on a certain theme in the Bible. Scripture does impact the lives of women; a women’s perspective on the daily living out of biblical truth can be valuable. With the support of the pastor, they can share what they have learned with women and men, and contribute to the understanding of their fellow believers. The teaching of English as a second language is a vital outreach ministry in our multicultural society, one that is certainly open to women. In fact innumerable teaching opportunities are open to women who are prepared and called by God to their task.
God richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment (1 Tim.6:17) which includes music, art, and literature that honour Him. Women who are gifted in these areas have much to contribute to the local church. Those who are musical can sing, lead a choir, or play an instrument to the glory of God. Some may be able to compose songs or hymns. One lady at Jarvis Street Baptist Church used to put the memory work verses of the Primary Department to music: the children found them so much easier to learn and remember when they could sing them. Writers are needed for newsletters, church bulletins, church papers, and possibly for Sunday School curricula. Special programmes often require writers, a place where poetry writers may be able to find an outlet. Computer and layout skills are invaluable in all these areas. When bulletin boards are attractive as well as informative, when flower arrangements are pleasing to the eye, and when women share handicraft ideas to satisfy their yearning to create and to beautify their homes and the local church, the ministry of the church is enhanced.
In God’s eyes, practical skills are as important as intellectual and creative abilities. Contrary to the narrow perspective of a few, some women are good carpenters, painters, and ‘fixers’ of broken furniture and equipment. Such a woman is a definite asset on a maintenance committee particularly since women often have had more experience in creating a comfortable, safe, and clean environment. Women who handle money well, who are good stewards of financial resources, belong on the finance committee. The faithful labour of women who use their cooking and baking expertise in providing refreshments, special luncheons, and banquets during the church year is significant: they add so much to the enjoyment of special occasions. The Toronto Baptist Seminary kitchen benefits from the work of women who preserve or pickle vegetables and fruit which they grow in their garden.
Witnessing to the saving gospel of Jesus Christ is a responsibility of women as well as men. Often women meet individuals on a regular basis who aren’t so likely to hear the gospel from a man: the next door neighbour, the mothers of her children’s classmates at school, the teachers of her children, the cashier at the grocery store, the mailman, the doctor, and the pharmacist. Women can be very helpful in visitation, particularly in our dangerous age when a strange man at the door can be a threatening figure for a woman on her own. A woman can go into a home to counsel another woman where it would not be wise for a man to do so because he might harm her reputation and his. Single mothers need the comfort and support of other women to encourage them not to seek an abortion when they are pregnant and to help them in raising the child once he or she is born. Women have a significant ministry in prisons for women, in shelters for women, and in programmes to help women who are addicted to drugs. Sick people, at home or in the hospital, welcome a friendly visit, an occasion that can provide an opportunity to proclaim the gospel. Obviously, women are able to minister effectively to other women since they are more likely to understand their needs and their problems.
What are women to do who have leadership and organization abilities? These skills are needed in the management of the home. They are also needed in the management of many areas of the church’s ministry: Sunday School Departments, women’s groups, conferences, camps, and Daily Vacation Bible Schools. Church libraries have an important role and they need administrators. In the past, women organized to promote universal suffrage, to support the abolition of slavery, and to resist the alcohol trade. Now new issues have emerged in the public arena. Women can give leadership in speaking against pornography, abortion on demand, and abuse in the family.
Every church needs those who strengthen the network of believers, who encourage the knitting together of hearts in love (Col.2:2,19 KJV). This requires friendly phone calls, sympathetic listeners, reassuring notes, helpful visits, practical contributions in times of need, and open homes where hospitality abounds. Our society is full of fragmented families and detached individuals. As wives and mothers, women have a unique role in nourishing and confirming their own families. Both married and single women can help to stabilize and unify the church family. In prayer meetings, in smaller groups, and in her own private place, a woman can intercede for fellow believers and for the lost. In these ways she contributes to the growth and harmony of the whole church family.
But, you say, all of this is unofficial ministry, work behind the scenes. Is there no place for women in public ministry in the church? It is true that the majority of women and men in the church work ‘unofficially’ for the Lord, but all work is important when it is done for Him. Some are called to be elders: they are the ones who rule and teach authoritatively. God is also looking for faithful servants to work in His Kingdom. Any activity of service is open to a woman. If the diaconate has not taken on some of the functions of elders in a local church, then women can be deaconesses. Ushers serve the congregation; women could be ushers. In the worship service, a woman could pray, could read the Scriptures, could give her testimony, could give a missionary report, could direct the singing, without violating biblical principles. Attention, however, must be paid to the traditions and sensitivities of the membership. Destructive division would result in some churches if women did these things. Women should support and complement the leadership of the men whom God has appointed.
Suppose no women were allowed to participate in the ministries of a local church. Would the church be able to continue? Yes, it would – but not in the balanced, complete, powerful way that God intends. The body would have inactive members: the ministry would be disabled. When women do not use the gifts that God has given them, when a local church stifles women, God is not pleased. When all believers, women and men, serve the Lord sacrificially, and use the gifts that God has given them, the church flourishes. God has given us, not a narrow and restricted life, but an abundant life in Christ Jesus. Let us live fully, men and women together, in the local church and in the world, to His glory.
This is an article originally published in the Gospel Witness by Miss Sheila Evans, B.A., M.A., Professor of English and Christian Education at the Toronto Baptist Seminary and Bible College.