Church 101: Rethinking a Women’s Place

Confession: I am usually barefoot because I dislike shoes (and if I must be wearing shoes, they will usually be of the flip-flop variety–one of the perks of living in Texas); I am pregnant; and I am often in the kitchen for a variety of reasons (some of them even related to cooking).

Confession: I am a conservative evangelical who believes in the divine authorship and infallibility of Scripture.

Confession: I am egalitarian (1).

The Church has struggled with the place and role of women in the church. All agree that women and men come to Christ equally in regards to salvation (or, at least, all orthodox views), but churches disagree as to how and where a women may serve in the kingdom of God. Is it limited to other women and children (and if to children, at what age is it no longer appropriate for a woman to teach male children?)? Are women inherently more suited for more “hospitality” or children’s ministries while men are more inherently suited for leadership roles? Should women be limited because they are more prone to deception (and if this is the case, should they even be teaching other women and our children?)?

I have been hurt by a church who asked someone to teach who was untrained and had no desire to teach, though I had offered to fill the need. Their explanation: I am a woman. I find it odd that some churches will sing lyrics written by women but will not allow a woman to lead the worship, or that they will allow women to teach topically (such as Evangelism) but not through a book of the Bible, or that they will learn from a woman in some settings (such as through books or blogs or in informal dinner settings) but not if she stands in front of them, or that they will report to a capable woman CEO in a business setting but not to a capable woman in a church setting. I find it odd that the early church restricted women less than we do today.

I find it odd that we don’t question learning from Miriam’s, Hannah’s, or Mary’s writings (in song) while we deny women the opportunity to do the same today.

But I have been healed, challenged, and freed in my reading of Luke and Paul as I’ve studied what they (and indeed many writers of the Bible) have written about women.

Luke highlighted women in both of his narratives. Just as he demonstrated the unexpected faith of the antiheroes (the Samaritans and Gentiles), he demonstrated unexpected faith in women. Just as he showed the misfits and socially ostracized ministering to Jesus and the disciples, he showed women ministering to Jesus and the disciples. Women learned alongside the disciples (and often got it before the disciples; i.e. the resurrection story); women taught; and women led.

Some notable examples:

Mary–Obviously. Her theological treatise in the Magnificat sets the stage for the rest of Luke and Acts, which unravel the themes she stated in this overture. Most scholars (complementarian and egalitarian) agree that Luke’s gospel is, in a sense, Mary’s story. She was one of the primary witnesses (Luke 1:1-4). We can see her theological influence in the teachings of Jesus and the writings of James. She remained faithful when many of the disciples fell away. God has used the lyrics (as well as her example) to teach men and women in the Church for 2000 years.

Priscilla–Luke always presents the husband-wife team of Priscilla and Aquila as one unit. Together they ministered alongside Paul, and together they taught. (The fact that Luke lists Priscilla’s name first prompts some scholars to believe that she took the lead in their ministry.)

Lydia–Lydia was a well-to-do business woman receptive to Paul’s preaching. (Interestingly, in Philippi, where Lydia worked and lived, Paul and company went to a customary place for prayer to preach the gospel. Luke notes that they sat down and spoke specifically to the women.) Lydia invited Paul (and company) into her home, which became the place of worship for the first church in Philippi. Also, her entire household believed.

These examples sit alongside other influential women throughout the Bible who taught, led, and saved God’s people, such as Deborah, Esther, and Miriam.

But what, then, do we make of Paul’s writings that seem to restrict women?

For the past several years, I undertook a study of the various passages debated by complementarians and egalitarians. At first glance, many of Paul’s writings seem to limit women in their ministry, but further study of the churches to whom he wrote (and the cultures in which they existed) as well as of the Greek language, showed me that there’s more than meets the eye. As I studied Acts and the Pauline Epistles recently with a group of women at my church, I understood Paul’s heart–and his letters–in a way I had not before.

I used to wonder how this man and I could ever be friends on the new earth. He seemed so arrogant, a man with Napoleon’s syndrome, a man full of himself and his ministry. I couldn’t be more wrong. Now I can’t wait to meet him.

In this study, I got to know a man who loved the Body of Christ, and specifically the people of the churches in which he’d ministered. I got to know a man concerned for the reputation and witness of the Church and for the love of believers for one another. I got to know a man often brokenhearted.

In this way, I came to understand his letters. These letters are not theological treatises but gritty notes addressing real-life situations of real-life people. To know the larger message for the Church, we must first know the specific messages to the churches. This means knowing why Paul wrote: what situation was he addressing?

I will not endeavor to go case by case through his letters every time Paul referenced women. I will say that he addresses men and women leading churches to encourage them in their ministry (2). He commended some men and women for their ministry and chided others (3). Paul did not limit women because they were women but addressed situations in which false teaching infiltrated the churches. In fact, Paul encouraged women, as he did all believers, to use their gifts to serve the Church–the whole Church. As men and women in Christ, we live victoriously over the Curse, reclaiming God’s original intention for humanity to serve, man and woman, in God’s image as God’s stewards over creation.

As I come to this conclusion, I reflect on what this means for me personally. I don’t feel called to pursue ordination or lead a church, but I feel called to teach in whatever opportunities God gives, whether with youth in our church, other women, or–gasp–even a mixed group of men and women. And I feel called to encourage called, gifted, and trained women to use their gifts to serve the Church–the whole Church–in whatever capacity God has for them.

I believe the Church limits itself when it restricts women from certain roles, and like Paul, I want to see a transformed Church transforming the world–healing the hurt, ministering to the brokenhearted, and freeing the oppressed. I want to see God’s truth redeeming his creation through the Church, and while I would never argue that complementarians intend to limit God’s work or the service of men or women, I believe that this often becomes the case when men are expected to take certain roles (despite talents, training, or calling) because they are men and women denied certain roles (despite talents, training, or calling) because they are women.

So I look to Luke and Paul, who encouraged the women around them and shared the stories of women who led the way in faith and ministry, and I hope to do the same.

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(1) To borrow from the journey of Philip Payne (a fellow conservative evangelical who believes in “both inerrancy and the equality of man and woman” [Man and Woman, One in Christ, p. 27]):

In 1973 at a New Testament Seminar in Cambridge, England, my assumption of male headship was challenged when a scholar stated that no passage of Scripture properly understood in its context excludes women from any form of Christian ministry…I read 1 Timothy in Greek daily for several months. Soon I felt with Paul the urgency of counteracting the false teaching that was threatening the life of the church in Ephesus. Key word studies in 1 Tim 2:12 and some shocking discoveries (such as how English translations have introduced a dozen or more masculine pronouns into 1 Tim 3′s list of qualifications for overseer and deacon, where the Greek text has none), convinced me that 1 Tim 2-3 is not a solid foundation for restricting women’s ministry (pp. 28-29).

(2) I.e.: In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul addressed men and women who were prophesying and praying (i.e. leading worship services) to make sure that they did so in a way distinct from cultic practices to preserve the witness of Christ.

(3) Including Junia, whom Paul calls a fellow apostle (Romans 16:7). Many scholars believe she is Johanna, who ministered to Jesus (Luke 8:1-3), was among the group of women who were the first resurrection witnesses (Luke 24:1), and may have been one of Luke’s witnesses.

In Which I Eat My Hat (and hope it’s made of chocolate)

I swore it would never happen. I would not get involved in women’s ministry. After all, I’m egalitarian. I’m not always sure we need a separate women’s ministry, as if women can and should minister only to other women, as if women can and should connect only with other women simply because we are women.

Historically, I believe women’s ministry rose out of necessity: it gave women a place to learn and it gave women a place to serve, to use their teaching gifts in a church culture where they were otherwise silent.

But now? Current archaeological finds in places such as Ephesus help explain Paul’s difficult teachings on women. Historical studies of the church show how God has used women for his kingdom work for millennia. Throughout the Bible, God’s chosen people led the way for women and provided training and opportunities for them to use their gifts, and when necessary, protected them from the culture.

I’m not sure the church does this today in our culture, but I didn’t sit down to write that post.

I sat down to write a post about why I’m teaching a women’s ministry Bible study though I swore it would never happen.

In short, I met the women who attend said Bible study. I met a group of women of different ages and life stages, with different interests and talents, from different countries and cultures, and I loved them. These women love God and want to know him and serve him. They dedicate time from their week to study the Bible individually and corporately, and the carry these lessons into their lives, into the ordinariness and the hecticness, into the mundane and the life-changing events. I wanted to get to know these women, to be a part of them, to learn from them.

Which means that I now teach in the women’s ministry at my church, and I’m thankful to be able to use my training and spiritual gifting with a group of people whom I admire and with whom I enjoy fellowshipping.

This is why all hats and words should be made with chocolate.