Women in the Church: Have We Gone Too Far, or Not Far Enough?
It was a joy this past Sunday to introduce the first ever class of Deaconesses at Christ Presbyterian, the church that I serve in Nashville.
If you’re interested, that 9-minute video can be seen in its entirety here.
You can also read the letter we sent to our congregation on these matters last week here.
In the months leading up to this change, our staff, elders, deacons, advisers, and other leaders had robust dialogue around two questions in particular.
The first question was, are we going far enough in these discussions? There are many in today’s church (and also through parts of church history) who believe that Scripture supports not only women serving in the roles of Elder, Pastor, and Preacher as well as Deaconess. Our belief is in agreement with the Presbyterian Church in America (our denomination), that a complementarian vision for the genders represents our best understanding of what the Scripture teaches on these matters. The Bible study below will hopefully provide clarity on why we remain committed to this view as a church. While we are not certain exactly why God would identify men as his chosen instruments to serve as representative, servant-leader “head of household” in both the home and the church (see Scriptures referenced below) — and while our current cultural climate may regard complementarianism as culturally regressive and disadvantageous to women (For the record, many women would contend that the purest forms of complementarianism demonstrate the highest esteem and empowerment toward women…but more on this below) — what we understand Scripture to be saying on these matters must hold the day.
As Kathy Keller has written in her booklet, Jesus, Justice, and Gender Roles:
The justice behind God’s creation of male and female and his arrangement of the different roles he chose for them may not always be apparent to us. Why one and not the other? But should we expect our finitude to understand the infinite, omnipotent, wise, good, lovely, gracious justice of God? Perhaps some inkling resides in the dance of the sexes, by which we reveal truth about the inner life of the triune God. The rest is clothed in mystery, to which we yield, with full confidence that it is meant for our good.
Similarly, Katherine Alsdorf, founder of Redeemer Presbyterian NYC’s Center for Faith and Work, has gone on record saying that as an egalitarian woman (who disagrees personally with the complementarian view), she has witnessed and experienced much greater levels of respect, esteem, and empowerment of women in Redeemer’s complementarian setting than in her previous, egalitarian church settings. You can read Katherine’s related essay here — it’s short and very well worth your time.
The second question for us leading up to this new initiative has been, are we going too far by adding this new role of Deaconess at our church? Are we on some sort of slippery slope toward liberalism, toward a diminished view of the Bible. Our answer to this is that it is not a diminished view, but in truth an extremely high view of the Bible that has led us to our conclusions. For instance, the Apostle Paul himself refers to a woman named Phoebe as a deacon (Greek, diakonon) of the church at Cencherae (Romans 16:1). Whatever our beliefs about women’s ordination and serving in offices of the church, to refuse women this title of “deaconess” in any and every circumstance in our churches would seem inconsistent at best, and dismissive at worst, of the very God-inspired terminology used by the Apostle himself.
There are scores of other reasons, both theologically and historically, in support of women serving their churches in a diaconal role. This essay by pastor J.A. Medders provides an excellent summary of these reasons. Most notably, Medders points out the fact that unlike women elders who don’t show up anywhere in the historic record until sometime after the first three centuries A.D., women deacons appear in historic texts as early as 111 A.D. (the generation immediately following the Apostolic, New Testament age) — as well as in other texts from the first, second, and third centuries.
As for slippery slopes, there is a traditional conservative “slip” we should be just as cautious about as we are the modernist liberal “slip.” We dare not willingly and knowingly become more conservative and restrictive than Scripture, in the same way that we dare not become more liberal and permissive than Scripture. The Reformation “first principle” of Sola Scriptura — Scripture Alone — must be our only rule of faith and practice. This applies even (and especially) when Scripture is at odds with the norms and dogma of modernist secular culture. It also applies when Scripture is at odds with the norms and dogma of traditional church culture. As Scripture itself attests, it is a dangerous thing to either add to or subtract from the Word of God (Revelation 22:18-19).
The question, “Are we getting too close to the line?” seems inadequate, if not fear-based. If the so-called “line” is Scripture itself, our view is that we want to be squarely ON the line at all times. The only safe and viable place for a tightrope walker is on the line…how much more so with the Scriptures in all that we believe and all that we practice?
We at Christ Presbyterian are by no means the first church to commission Deaconesses. Notable pastors and theologians like John Calvin, Benjamin Warfield, John Frame, Jerram Barrs, CEB Cranfield, James Montgomery Boice, Philip Ryken and Tim Keller have all taught and practiced their own versions of this. The same could be said of familiar, like-minded PCA churches Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City and Christ Community Church in Franklin, plus many others.
This coming Sunday’s sermon (July 15) at our church will cover this very subject with as full a treatment as we can give it. If you are part of Christ Presbyterian, come join us for that!! If you are part of another church, we welcome you to dial in to iTunes or the Sermons page at christpres.org to hear our thoughts on these important matters.
Below is a fuller teaching and Bible study, with Scriptures to consider, regarding the proper and biblical elevation of women in the economy of Jesus.
As always, your comments are welcome, including disagreements. It’s important to say, in closing, that we could very well be wrong on some things — as these matters have been disagreed upon for centuries, including our own, by some of the best and brightest biblical scholars.
The only thing I ask is that restraint be exercised by anyone tempted to comment in a way that’s mean in spirit.
JESUS, CHAMPION FOR WOMEN
AS WELL AS MEN
(Reflections and Practices of Our Church)
SUMMARY OF OUR PRACTICE
All positions of teaching and leadership at Christ Presbyterian Church shall be open to non-ordained women and men, except for the unique preaching, governing, and guarding functions that Scripture assigns to elders. Aside from the elder function, non-ordained women and men are encouraged to seek out all avenues of leadership and service, and by all means fully exercise their gifts to the glory of God and for the benefit of the body of Christ.
Specifically, under the authority and oversight of CPC’s elders, and with activities not reserved uniquely for ministers and elders (i.e., preaching, officiating the sacraments, formal church oversight) non-ordained women and men may teach when men are present. Furthermore, and in line with what the PCA permits, CPC shall add an elder-commissioned and led, non-ordained leadership position of deaconess to serve alongside CPC’s deacons.
Pivotal and often misunderstood texts related to the issue are 1 Timothy 2:12-13 – “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve” and 1 Corinthians 14:33-34 – “As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says.”
Some err grievously by dismissing these texts as mere cultural artifacts. Others err by interpreting these texts without regard for the broader context of Scripture, thereby limiting non-ordained persons—especially women—in ways that Scripture does not. In so doing, they bring harm to the church. We must allow Scripture to be its own interpreter.
WE WILL RELY ON SCRIPTURE ALONE FOR GUIDANCE ON WHAT THESE TEXTS DO MEAN, AS WELL AS WHAT THEY DO NOT MEAN. RELATED SUBJECTS INCLUDE…
Men and leadership in the church. The word “authority” in 1 Timothy 2:12 (Greek, authentein), relates specifically to the roles of formal governing and preaching, both of which are reserved for elders. In Scripture, Jesus’ twelve disciples who were the first to be entrusted with “the keys to the kingdom” were men. Where the author is known, each book of Scripture is written by a man under the Spirit’s inspiration. Passages concerning the office of elder are always written with men in view (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9). There are no Scriptural examples of women serving as elders in the church. Also significantly—unlike the role of deacon which included women from the earliest days of church history—there are no known examples of women serving as elders for the first three centuries of church history.
Rooted in creation versus culture. When Paul speaks of a male eldership in the church, he appeals not to his cultural context but to the creation order—“Adam was formed first, then Eve” (see also Genesis 2:18-25; Ephesians 5:22-33). Man and woman were created equal in dignity and as God’s image-bearers (Genesis 1:27; Galatians 3:28). Scripturally, men are given the task of leading as “first among equals” in the family (Genesis 2:15; Ephesians 5:22-24; 6:1-2) and the church (1 Timothy 2:12). Eve is tasked with coming alongside Adam as his partner and “helper” in a shared mission. Lest we mistake the word “helper” as a demeaning or belittling term, we mustn’t forget that in Scripture, GOD is also our “helper.” Biblically, a helper is one who comes alongside to add strength, wisdom and perspective that is otherwise lacking. As Adam’s “helper,” Eve completes the image of God.
Preaching versus teaching. As we will see below, gifted women are encouraged to teach in many ways. So what is Paul getting at when he says he does not “permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man?” 1 Timothy 2:12-13 relates specifically to the elder office, which includes a specific type of teaching that carries unique weight and authority in the church—the authority of those whose office includes preaching (1 Timothy 3:2). Outside of this kind of teaching, and this kind of teaching alone, gifted women are encouraged to use their teaching gifts liberally within the church.
Women teaching theology to men. Alongside her husband, Aquila, Priscilla taught theology to Apollos, a man and a preacher (Acts 18:24-26). Most scholars concur that because Priscilla’s name is mentioned first in the biblical text, that she was also the primary teacher to Apollos in this less formal, yet significant setting. Clearly, then, in certain contexts women may teach Scripture to men. Just like a non-ordained man who is gifted to teach, a woman is free to exercise her teaching gift in the church, never contradicting or usurping, but rather complementing, reinforcing, and serving as an extension of the elders’ teaching and leadership.
Women speaking God’s Word when the church is gathered. Women were encouraged exercise the gift of prophesy (Joel 2:28-29; Luke 2:36-38; Acts 2:17-18, 21:9; 1 Corinthians 11:5). This gift was commonly exercised during the public worship gatherings of the church (1 Corinthians 11:16, 14:1-19). Modern parallels could include reading the Scriptures, leading in prayer, offering encouragement around the communion tables after a Minister has properly officiated and administered the sacrament, sharing wisdom about a specific need or situation, facilitating liturgy in parts of the service where a Minister’s leadership is not required by Scripture or denominational guidelines, and/or giving testimony to the Lord’s work during Sunday services.
Gifted women should be encouraged to teach and lead. Some have wrongly used 1 Timothy 2:12-13 and 1 Corinthians 14:33-34 to restrict women from ever speaking in the church setting. Neither passage may be taken to prohibit women, in any context, from teaching men about the Christian way of life. To make this prohibition is to do an injustice not only to women, but also to the intent of Scripture and the dynamic of the Holy Spirit. Scripture encourages women to pray and prophesy in the worship assembly (1 Corinthians 11:5). In view of 1 Corinthians 11:5 and other passages (i.e., Acts 2:17-18, 21:9), whatever the prohibition in 1 Corinthians 14:33-34 means, it absolutely cannot mean that women should never teach or lead in the church. Examples include but are not limited to…
- Women teaching women. Older women are encouraged to teach younger women in Titus 2:3-5.
- Women teaching children. Timothy had known the Scriptures “from infancy” (2 Timothy 3:15). As a young child, Timothy was taught Scripture by his mother and grandmother (2 Timothy 1:5).
- Women teaching men by example. The example of the “wife of noble character” in Proverbs 31 causes her husband to “rise and call her blessed” (v. 28), and her works “praise her at the gates” (v. 31). Also notable is the fact that she is an industrious businesswoman. See also 1 Corinthians 7:16; 1 Peter 3:1-2.
- Women sharing the gospel with men. The Samaritan woman (John 4) shared the gospel with an entire town, including the men. And many of them responded (vv. 39-42).
- Women giving testimony and exhorting publicly. Women are encouraged to share with the church their experience of God and His grace, specific Bible verses and what those verses have meant to them, etc. For example, many women testified of Christ’s resurrection to the apostles and other believers (Luke 24:10). Such sharing would also fall in line with women being permitted to prophesy – to speak God’s truth in the assembly of believers (cf., Joel 2:28-29; Acts 2:17-18, 21:9; 1 Corinthians 11:5).
- Women serving and leading in multiple ways. Scripture is filled with leaders who are women. Miriam the prophetess led Israel in worship (Exodus 15:19-21, see also Psalm 68:24-25). Deborah served as a judge of Israel (Judges 4). Queen Esther became a hero to all of Israel (Esther 1-10). Mary composed and sang a theologically rich song that became part of Scripture (Luke 1:46-55). Women are chosen as the first witnesses of the resurrection of Christ and became the first evangelists, the “apostles to the Apostles,” so to speak (Mark 16:1-8). Junia was “outstanding among the apostles” (Romans 16:7). Women assisted in diaconal work (1 Timothy 3:11), and Phoebe, a woman, is identified as a deacon (diakonon) in the church of Cenchreae (Romans 16:1).
There have traditionally been two errors made with respect to the interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12-13 and 1 Corinthians 14:33-34. The first is the modernist / liberal error, which favors cultural and/or emotional considerations over the plain meaning of the text. The second is the traditionalist / conservative error, which, for fear of “getting too close to the line,” prohibits women from teaching and leading roles that Scripture actually encourages (We should always aim to be right ON the line of Scripture, versus somewhere to the right or left of it). The traditionalist / conservative treatment of the text is equally as disturbing as the modernist / liberal treatment, as the whole of Scripture supports women leading and serving in a multitude of ways. The biblical (and therefore the only valid) limitations placed upon women in the church appear to be those related to the following, each of which is the unique responsibility of ministers and elders:
- Preaching: Teaching / preaching in formal and “authoritative” (but NOT “authoritarian!) capacity that is unique to the office of elder.
- Governing: Exercising formal spiritual and directional oversight of the church.
- Guarding: Admitting people to / removing people from church membership, and administering / officiating the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
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