This is intended to be an article that organizes my thoughts on why any church, no matter its position on women in leadership, should encourage men and women, equally, to serve in the public roles during corporate worship
Before I get too involved in the discussion of the role of women in the church, I want to set a few parameters for what I am attempting to argue.
First, I believe with all of my heart that every office in the church, every ministry role, every teaching position, is open equally to men and women as God has gifted them. So, yes, I believe that women can and should be Bible class teachers in which adult males are members of the class, I believe women can and can and should lead small groups in which men would be submitted to them, I believe that women can and should be deacons in their own right, I believe that women can and should be pastors in their own right (not just of children and youth), I believe women can and should preach during the corporate worship service, and I believe that women can and should be elders in the church.
But, and this is a big but, I am not seeking to argue for Full Egalitarianism in this paper. What I am seeking to do here is argue for the full participation of women in the public rolesduring the corporate worship service (excluding preaching). So, even those who affirm the strictest form of biblical complementarianism (though I do not think it is actually biblical) can potentially, if their hearts are truly set on the Gospel of Christ and not the power and privilege that comes with being a white male in our society, embrace my position.
Second, I am not attempting to accuse people of intentionally maligning the Gospel. My concern is not with people who are actually sexist. How can I have rational conversation with such people? My concern is for people who, out of good intent and a desire to avoid unnecessary disagreements with people who hold to falsely derived traditions of male hegemony in the Church, have sacrificed what cannot be sacrificed: the Gospel of Christ. To quote R.C. Sproul drastically out of context, “When we disagree doctrinally, that’s bad, but Truth is too important to kill in the streets for the sake of peace.”
Therefore, third, my argument here is that forbidding women any public roles during worship, other than singing on the worship team, opposes the Gospel and therefore warrants decisive and immediate change.
My argument is threefold.
First, I wish to present the evidence that women are totally equal with men, and the places that Scripture appears to limit their role in the church does not even come remotely close to restricting them from participating in public roles during the worship service except for preaching. Though, just to be clear, I think careful exegesis can deal those scriptures which appearto limit the role of women, that is not my aim here. I want to prove that even a strict biblical complementarianist cannot deny that women are not forbidden public roles other than preaching.
Second, I want to prove that, since the Bible neither explicitly commends women to public roles nor explicitly denies them public roles, arbitrarily restricting women from public roles during the worship service opposes the will of the Holy Spirit by denying women the use of the gifts he has given them and betrays a troubling tendency to submit church policy to the dictates of a male dominated culture. Under such a system, the church becomes little more than a tool of the oppressive institutions of the world.
Third, I want to argue that action should be immediate and decisive. The reason for change that moves at the pace of a glacier, as far as I understand it, is to avoid offending very many people. My argument is that the Gospel is offensive and the cross is shameful. The Church of Christ, as his bride, should have more backbone!
And, so, to begin.
1. Women are totally equal with men. This is primarily derived from the doctrine of the Image of God. In the beginning God created people in his image, both men and women (Gen 1:27). While there are gender differences, those differences speak more to the variety and diversity of the traits of the Godhead than they do to superiority or inferiority. One merely has to read the prophets to discover that God is attributed feminine characteristics. Isaiah 66:13 reads, “As a mother comforts her son, so will I comfort you.” Furthermore, despite the Fall and the subsequent curse in which God himself prophesied that men would rule over women (Gen 3:16), the Kingdom of God declares a full equality of men and women before God (Gal 3:28). Women are full members of the Church of Christ by being part of the Church Universal. Moreover, believers cannot be classified as better or worse than others on an intrinsic level because “there is neither Jew nor Greek” (nationality doesn’t matter), “slave nor free” (socioeconomic status doesn’t matter), “male or female” (gender doesn’t matter). All human beings are equal in that they can become “children” and “heirs of God” through faith in Christ Jesus (Gal 4:7).
Addressing the passages which are commonly used to restrict women from public roles during the church service is my next task.
First Corinthians 14:34-35 is the passage I want to start with. It reads “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.” I think this is culturally specific, but even if it is not, most of us have concluded that women do not need to be totally silent at church—they can speak before and after service and during the “fellowship greeting”—and have concluded that by speaking we mean have some sort of public role in which the woman addresses the entire church. This is, as far as I can tell, the biblical basis for preventing women from leading a prayer, reading Scripture, or giving announcements. Clearly Paul did not have in mind the idea that women should never address the church during the gathering because he gives instructions in chapter 11 of First Corinthians for just how a woman who was going to prophesy should look. Specifically, he commands her to have a head covering. If Paul intends women to prophesy during church, then surely he doesn’t expect them to do it silently. In Chapter fourteen Paul tells three groups to shut-up. He tells tongue speakers to be silent unless there is interpretation (v 28), prophets to be silent so that there is order (v 33), and women to be silent because speaking is disgraceful (v 35). If we take Paul seriously that women are to prophesy in the church (chapter 11), then we must understand chapter fourteen as a temporary injunction on a few women from speaking. In fact, my New Testament professor at ACU, Curt Niccum, has argued (as have others) that the women Paul tells to be silent is a specific group of women who are being particularly disruptive. In the context of the tongue speakers and the prophets the concern is orderliness in worship, so the concern is for women who are being disruptive rather than respectful. You can of course argue that all women should be silent for all time during church, but doing so causes Paul to disagree with himself, which is a bad way to interpret Scripture.
The other relevant New Testament passage is First Timothy 2:12 which reads, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man;she must be quiet.” I dispute that this passage means women cannot have equal access to all roles in the Church, but that is not the point of this paper. What is often taken from this passage is that women shouldn’t have authority over men. A woman saying a prayer, serving communion, baptizing someone, or giving the announcements is hardly “assuming authority over” men. Even the staunchest complementarianist can see that.
And, so, it is clear that women are equal to men in the eyes of God and that, even if we concede that women can’t assume authority over men and that that means preach or be elders, the scriptures do not forbid speaking to the entire gathering.
2. Since Scripture does not forbid women from public roles during worship, arbitrarily forbidding them these roles denies the gifts they may have been given by the Holy Spirit and caves to a culture dominated by male hegemony. Since we have concluded that men and women are on equal footing as regards public roles during worship, the way the decision is made as to who should fill those roles should largely be left up to the giftings of particular people. I would be astounded if someone who cannot carry a tune was both sought out and was selected to sing on the worship team. Singing is not his or her gift. Nor should someone teach who is incapable of teaching. Basic logic would tell us this. By the same token, equally gifted people should not be preferred to one another according to gender if there is not a clear biblical mandate to do so.
Additionally, much of what is accomplished by those serving in public roles during the worship service does not require specific giftings. The only qualification for passing a communion plate is possessing working limbs. But, to demand that those who serve in these functions be male arbitrarily prevents females from functioning in any of the roles that are perceived to have influence. Someone giving the announcements doesn’t have the spiritual gift of giving announcements, but giving announcements is very public. The person is noticed and approached by others later. If the message a church wants to communicate to people is one of formality, all the church has to do is make sure that anyone who is doing something that can be seen by others is wearing a tie. Despite the relative lack of depth to the public roles, they necessarily communicate an impression about the church generally to other people. Arbitrarily deciding that all people doing anything remotely public (other than singing) should be male communicates an impression of strength, stability, and conservatism. Rather than affirming that men and women are equal by allowing both men and women to serve in public roles, allowing only men to serve in public roles diminishes, in the eyes of those who are watching, the value of women. While behind closed doors women may be the most valued members of the staff or of their particular ministries, out in the open such a policy affirms the cultural assumption that women are worth less than men. If this is the message the church is interested in communicating, then it has surrendered to a society in which women are still consistently paid a third less than men for the same job, turned into objects of sex and desire, and prevented from climbing the corporate ladder.
3. Therefore, action should be taken immediately and decisively to affirm women as equal and valuable. In First Corinthians Paul makes clear that there are some truths that should be sacrificed for the sake of peace. One example might be alcohol. There is nothing wrong with a Christian who drinks alcohol, but there are plenty of Christians who think there is a problem. The strong brother, the one who feels free enough to drink, should not do so in the presence of the weaker brother, the one who feels bound to not drink, if doing so would cause the weaker brother to stumble. Some issues are not worth raising a stink about, and raising a stink about them would only cause division. But, there are some things, some truths, that cannot be compromised on. Let me be clear. This is not a weaker brother/stronger brother kind of thing. What we are talking about is whether we, as the church, affirm the equality of all people who are members of the Kingdom. Do we look down on, discriminate against, view as inferior, or otherwise oppress those whom the world views as worth less? I know some are tempted to say that they agree that women should be active in public roles but that we shouldn’t disturb the peace over this issue and that we should move slowly.
Would that still be the position if the church was forbidding a man to give the announcements because he was black? What if he was told that he could not baptize someone he had mentored for years because he was black?
There were clergymen who replied to Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail asking Dr. King to hold off on his protests because the time wasn’t right. When will the time be right? When every member in the church is ok with it? I’m sorry, but the justification that the church should move slowly to recognize the equality of women because we don’t want to offend anyone is preposterous. The Gospel is offensive. It is offensive because it challenges the powers, principalities, rulers, assumptions, and -ism’s of the world. It says, first, that you cannot love God without loving others. It says that you are to love your enemy. It says that those who are downtrodden and spat on by society are just as valuable as the richest person in the world. The Gospel says that victory is not through force of arms but through sacrificial death on a cross. It challenges the assumptions of this world and turns them on their heads. The cross is so inclusive that even the worst of sinners can come to know God.
The Gospel offends everything the world is about—money, power, sex, self, pride—and declares that Jesus is triumphant. And yet, we are scared to offend someone by declaring, unequivocally, that men and women are equal. That in the Kingdom of God, at least, the power structures of this world are submitted to the lordship of Christ.
The Cross is shameful to many. It is a disgusting execution device. Those who were crucified were weak in the eyes of the world because they lost their challenge to the empire. The world fails to understand that Christ was victorious on the cross by winning for himself a people that cares nothing for the opinions of this world and, instead, sees everything with Kingdom eyes.
If the church will not, despite convictions to the contrary, permit women equal access to the public roles of the church during worship, then the church is caving, on this issue, to the world. God’s glory, his name, his renown is more important than whether we fill our pews. Being true to the Gospel matters far more than being culturally savvy. May the Holy Spirit give us boldness.