The Role of Women in the Church – conclusions
What we have said up till now has been of a negative nature. We have argued that women do not have the role of preaching or leading in the church. It is necessary for us now to turn and to consider what the role of women in the church really is. All we are able to do in a treatment of this kind is to provide indicators of the direction in which women will find their God-given and very valuable role.
Paul, contrary to popular opinion, had a very high view of women. He recognized their work as of great value to the church of Christ. He speaks of some women as his fellow-labourers who labored with him in the gospel (Philippians 4:3). Many of those, in the long list to whom he sends greetings in Romans 16, were women. They stood out from the rest of the congregation because of their work for Christ. It is imperative for us that we study what these and other New Testament women did, and so discover what God requires of women in the church today. There are five areas with which we shall deal.
All Christians, men, women and children, by virtue of their relationship to God, are his witnesses. The Christian is an individual who professes to have been saved by the power of God from the dominion of sin (Romans 6). They are the children of God. The world, to a large extent, knows God by knowing Christians. Christ, who is the light of the world (John 8:12), says to his followers, "Ye are the light of the world" (Matthew 5:14). His disciples are to transmit his light into the darkness of the world. This involves, above all else, the living of a holy life. Thus, unbelievers seeing "your good works" will come to "glorify your Father which is in heaven" (Matthew 516). In this way the recently converted wife will win over her husband for the Lord without even speaking a word (1 Peter 3:1). The statement, "Ye are my witnesses, saith the Lord, that I am God," is addressed to both men and women. This is one of the most important, most demanding, and yet most neglected areas of Christian work, for both sexes today.
Linked to this is the work of Christians in society, "Ye are the salt of the earth" (Matthew 5:3). Salt is a preservative. Christians of both sexes must do their utmost to prevent the decay of society. In the Old Testament we have several examples of godly women who used their gifts for the good of the nation even although the culture of that day strongly repressed women. Miriam is one of the saviours of Israel placed alongside Moses and Aaron (Micah 6:4). Deborah was used by God to save Israel from her oppressors and ruled the kingdom with great wisdom and courage (Judges 4-5). Esther was another woman raised up by God to a position of eminence in the ancient world and thus able to do much for the good of the Jewish people. In today's world too, women must use the gifts God has given them for the good of society. They must not shirk their responsibility. In authoritative positions they can do much to influence their fellow-men for good.
In the New Testament church, both men and women received the Spirit of prophecy. On the day of Pentecost the words of Joel were fulfilled, "I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters will prophesy" (Acts 2:17). All New Testament Christians are prophets, just as they are all priests (1 Peter 2:9). Some were prophets in the sense that they received direct revelations from God e.g. the daughters of Philip (Acts 21:9), but this ended with the writing of the New Testament, and the closing of the canon. All Christians have the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:9), and part of His work is to illuminate the mind so that the truths of scripture are understood. "The natural man received not the things of the Spirit of God for they are foolishness unto him." However, the Christian by the aid of the Spirit can discern all things (1 Corinthians 2:14-15). "Ye have an unction from the Holy One, and ye know all things" (1 John 2:20). Thus women, as well as men, through studying the Scriptures can come to a thorough knowledge of the truth. In this way they know the mind and will of God and are similar to the prophets of the Old Testament. They are to rely on no priest or minister but must, with the help of the Spirit, be fully persuaded in their own mind as to what they believe.
This gift of prophecy is not just for their own personal benefit in "discerning all things," but also provides all with something which they must share with others both inside and outside the church. Older, more mature, Christian women, have a duty and instruction (Titus 2:4). In Acts 18:28 we have an interesting example of a woman teaching a man in a private setting. Apollos, an eloquent man and mighty in the Scriptures came to Ephesus and was teaching the baptism of John. Priscilla, along with her husband Aquila took this man and instructed him full, in the gospel. This gifted woman, mentioned on several occasions in the New Testament, must have played an important part in teaching Apollos, otherwise she would not be mentioned in this context. Thus we see that privately, women are to teach and share their knowledge of the gospel with men. Of course, women are also to instruct children and children must obey and honour both their parents (Ephesians 6:1. See also 1 Timothy 5:10, 14). Women must also realize that they are the prophets of the Lord to a world that lies in darkness. With the authority of the men of God of old, they must announce the good news to their friends, neighbours and workmates, "Thus saith the Lord." The woman of Samaria is a good example of a missionary to her own people. It is interesting too that the first witness to the resurrection of Christ should be a woman (John 20:11-18).
The only limitation upon women as teachers is the public assembly of the people of God (1 Timothy 2:11-12, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35). Thus there are open to women, as well as to men, tremendous opportunities for teaching. They are prophets.
Although the New Testament forbids a preaching or leadership role to women in the Church, it does give a diaconal role to women. This fact is often clouded by the introduction of the question of the ordination of women as deaconesses. The New Testament is not so much concerned with office and ordination as with function and service. And it is evident that women served the New Testament Church in a variety of capacities.
There are three main passages that refer to women serving the Church in a direct or public way. There are, of course, in addition, many other passages which speak of women serving the Church in a domestic or private context. And the immense importance of this role should not be lost sight of in a day of aggressive feminism. However, the three passages are: Luke 8:1-3; Romans 16:1-5 and 1 Timothy 3:11.
In Luke 8:1-3 we are told that some women traveled around with Jesus and the Twelve and they "ministered unto him of their substance" (A.V.), or "were helping to support them out of their own means" (N.I.V.). The point is that, if we can regard the Lord and his apostles as the embryo New Testament Church, women served the Church in a diaconal and practical capacity.
In Romans 16:1-5 there are two points to notice. First, Phoebe is called a servant (diakonos) of the church in Cenchrea. Second, Priscilla is called a fellow-worker (helper, A.V.) of the Apostle Paul. From this it is clear that women served the church and the work of the gospel in public, though unspecified, ways.
In 1 Timothy 3:11 reference is made to women in the middle of a passage dealing with the office of deacon. In both A.V. and N.I.V. this is interpretated as referring to the wives of deacons (which are mentioned in the next verse). However, there is no word for "their" in the Greek of verse 11 as one would expect if the reference was to deacons' wives. Without the pronoun the normal translation would be "women." But why should the Apostle refer to women in general in a passage dealing with the qualities of deacons? The answer may be that he is not referring to women in general but to either female deacons or deacons' female assistants. If the former are excluded by virtue of deacons being in some sense "leaders," the latter possibility still remains. However, it is possible to be too sensitive to the concept of leadership and not sensitive enough to the concept of service. After all, deacons (diakonoi) are literally servants.
When we combine these indications with what the New Testament has to say about the members of Christ using their gifts for the benefit of the body of Christ, the church, it becomes clear that there is a very positive role for women in serving the church. In Romans 12:7-8 and 1 Corinthians 12:28 the gifts of serving, encouraging, contributing, healing and administration are mentioned as abilities which members of Christ have been given for the welfare of the Church. These are all gifts which women may exercise as legitimately as men. Indeed, the only roles forbidden to women are the preaching and leadership roles. Some tend to major on these two negatives, rather than emphasize the many positive possibilities.
There are several ways in which our church at the present time utilises the gifts of women. The most obvious examples are women employed by the church as nurses, teachers or other professionals in missionary work, and as typists, secretaries or assistants in the administration of the church, and as Sabbath School teachers. But there is a whole host of other ways in which women are involved at present or can be in the future. Women can write articles for the church magazines or local newsletters. Indeed they can be editors of congregational newsletters. They can be ministers' secretaries, part time or full time. They can organize and contribute to women's meetings. They can take part in a scheme approved by the Kirk Session for providing hospitality to students or visitors, visiting the elderly housebound, female students, nurses or those in hospital and providing social or diaconal help for the handicapped or the disadvantaged.
There is tremendous potential for the good of the whole body of believers in the members, both men and women, utilizing their God-given gifts for the glory of God and the service of their fellow human beings. All that is often required is for ministers and Kirk Sessions to encourage such a development and to suggest means whereby this potential may become effective.
Christians are priests of God as well as prophets. A large part of their priestly work is intercession. Faithful and earnest prayer is a tremendous source of blessing to the Christian church and the perishing world. One feels that there would be no Free Church or any other church but for the payers of godly women. Here we all have a great role to play. The age in which we live is one characterized by spiritual coldness and deadness in the church and ineffectiveness in ingathering sinners. We need to repent and plead earnestly with God for his blessing.
This is another area in which women can do an enormous amount for the Lord. Many of today's finest Christians owe their faith to the training they received from godly mothers. Paul, amongst the good works in 1 Timothy 5, mentions bringing up children (verse 10). He also speaks of guiding the house (verse 14). Here he refers to women's work in ordering family affairs. A beautiful and vivid description of this is given in Proverbs 31. Among other things the virtuous woman is businesslike, charitable, hardworking, caring for her family and fearing God. She has no time at all for idling about. Thus, "Her children arise up and call her blessed; her husband also praiseth her" (Proverbs 31:28).
Many conservative writers on "The Role of Women," lay great emphasis upon the woman's role as wife and mother. For example, in a recent publication we find the words, "Her main function is maternal within the context of marriage" (Hold Fast Your Confession, Ed. D. Macleod, p. 165). One of the immediate problems which arises from such a view is the position of the single woman. Scripture clearly teaches that believers should not marry unbelievers (e.g. 2 Corinthians 6:14-18). There are more Christian women than men in Scotland. Thus, it is impossible for all the Christian women to marry "in the Lord." Are we then to argue that many women are placed by God in a world where they cannot fulfil their "main function"? This type of reasoning tends to make single women feel worried and frustrated not knowing what to do with their lives. Further, this approach fails to take 1 Corinthians 7 into account. In New Testament times, to be unmarried can be the gift of God for greater usefulness in the church. "The unmarried careth for the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit; but she that is married careth for the things of the world, how she may please her husband" (1 Corinthians 7:34). This point is seldom emphasized in our churches today. "Marriage is honourable in all and the bed undefiled" (Hebrews 13:4). There are tremendous blessings in marriage. Being not married does not automatically make one better than being married. However, if approached in the right way, the state of being single leaves one free to do far more for the Lord. The married person, of necessity, has many cares and burdens which the unmarried has not.
The single woman can spend all her time, all her talents, all her money, her house, etc. in the service of God, and no husband or children are left to suffer from her commitments. Her not being married, instead of restricting her, gives her more freedom to cultivate holiness and good works.