Case Study: Women in Ministry

Written for Drs. Al Mawhinney and Reggie Kidd, Senior Seminar, Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, May 2003.

The role of women in ministry is a significant issue in our day which deserves careful consideration in the churches. As a result of our discussion on this topic I realized that there are still quite a few issues that I need to consider on this subject. I had believed that the main issue for me (at least in my denomination) was whether I felt comfortable in a church with women elders or not. From what I have gathered so far, there do not appear to be any churches with women pastors, but there are a number who have opted for women ruling elders, especially in the western presbyteries. I believed, and still do, that Scripture supports a unity among men and women before God as persons created in his image (Gen. 1:27; Gal. 3:28), but assigns different functions under God.

Men and women are fellow heirs of the promise (Gal. 3:29), yet the creation ordinance and the teaching of the New Testament assign them different roles. Man’s role is one of authority while the woman’s role is service. God placed man in authority over woman in the family and in the church (Gen. 2:18; 1 Cor. 11:3,8,9; Eph. 5:23-24; 1 Pet. 3:1,5-6; 1 Cor. 14:34; 1 Tim. 2:12). In contrast, woman’s role is that of service (Gen. 2:18; 1 Cor. 11:9). Therefore, I conclude that Scripture does not seem to warrant women elders who would exercise authority over men (in the sense of authoritative, binding ecclesiastical teaching), based especially on 1 Tim. 2: 12. However, there may be warrant for the role of women deacons since their function is one of service. I had already concluded that I would not feel comfortable serving in a church with women pastors or elders. Yet now I am asking myself if I am wrong to serve in a denomination that allows such diversity, or whether it is permissible as long as I serve in churches who think as I do. I am also asking myself what I would do if I was serving as an Associate Pastor and the church called a woman pastor to serve as the Senior Pastor. I would not want to make a scene by leaving in anticipation of her arrival, but I would find myself in a compromised situation if I stayed. I plan to attend the EPC General Assembly this summer in Brighton, Michigan and will try to gather more information on these questions while I’m there. I noticed that the featured (female) speaker for the Women’s Ministries luncheon, Jan Juday, serves as an elder and Pastoral Associate at the host church. Her responsibilities, according to the brochure, include congregational care and oversight of the women’s ministries. She previously served the GA Office as the national Director of Women’s Ministries for seven years. (Incidentally, I look forward to seeing Mike Glodo there too!) However important this one question is, it seems from our discussion that the question of eldership is just the tip of the iceberg.

Three other issues we discussed that I noted for further study, consideration and discussion include the question of women deacons, women in other leadership roles in the church, and the issue of dignity and recognition of women in the home. Our presenter, Bruce Benedict, brought out the question of women deacons as discussed in Clowney’s The Church: Contours of Christian Theology. He noted Paul’s reference to Phoebe in Rom. 16.1 “who is a servant (diakonos) of the church which is at Cenchrea.” The passage does not make it crystal clear whether or not she holds the office of deacon or is simply a servant (diakonos) of the church in the same way as Epaphras and Tychicus are servants (diakonos) “of”, or “in” the Lord in Col. 1:7 and 4:7. It is notable, however, that she is explicitly called a diakonos “of the church.” Most other references in the Epistles associated with a person’s name like those of Epaphras and Tychicus use the designation diakonos “of the Lord” or “in the Lord” which seem to be much less likely a designation of a church office. Second, Clowney notes that 1 Tim. 3:11 is an ambiguous reference either to women as deacons or wives of deacons. The NAU translates Gunai/kaj w`sau,twj semna,j( mh. diabo,louj( nhfali,ouj( pista.j evn pa/sin as “Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things,” while the NIV prefers “In the same way, their wives are to be women worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.” The NAU seems to be the better translation since the Greek lacks the possessive indicated in the NIV. The passage’s appearance in the middle of a discussion about deacons also leaves it ambiguous. It could refer to women deacons or the wives of deacons. One factor that mitigates the possibility of it referring to women deacons is the following verse which specifies that “Deacons must be husbands of only one wife, and good managers of their children and their own households” (3:12 NAU). Obviously, women deacons cannot be husbands. In summary, the Scriptural evidence for women deacons seems plausible but sketchy and may or may not warrant the role of women deacons in the church. This leaves the question open. I do not know whether my denomination allows for women deacons or not. That is something else I’ll need to check on this summer.

Another issue brought to the fore in our discussion is the role of women in other leadership roles in the church. Given the prohibition of women serving as elders which flies in the face of our egalitarian culture, there is a need to clearly communicate the biblical viewpoint, lovingly help people to understand, and then fling open the door for women to serve in a wide variety of leadership roles under the authority of the elders and pastors. As Dr. Mawhinney commented, many of our churches have exhibited a “restricted view of the office of believers” and therefore a restricted view of leadership under ecclesiastical authority. A broader view would allow women to teach not only children and younger women, but also men and women in mixed classes and in certain instances, from the pulpit; to lead worship through music and prayer; to prophesy (however that is defined in various settings); to exhort; to heal; and to administrate, in addition to serving in more traditional ways. Such a broader view of the office of believers would facilitate the extension of the kingdom of God. The apostle Paul, rather than restricting Phoebe, instead, commended her to the Roman church and asked them to offer their assistance in her ministry among them: “that you receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and that you help her in whatever matter she may have need of you; for she herself has also been a helper of many, and of myself as well” (Rom. 16:2).

This leads to the final point. One of the participants in our discussion said something like, “Men need help to give their wives the dignity they deserve in the family. Women are crying out for recognition.” It is likely that women are suffering as they are both because of the restricted view of the office of believers in the church described above, but also because of the restricted view of the office of “wife” among many husbands. Many men, including myself, have attempted to neutralize their wives, either out of fear of losing control in the current feminist-driven atmosphere of our culture, or simply out of personal insecurity. Instead, husbands should give their all for the sake of their wives, just as Christ did for the church. As Eph. 5:25-28 says, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless. So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself.”

Pastors need to teach men to follow the example of Paul when he commended Phoebe (Rom. 16:2 above). First, Paul recognized her character. By asking the Roman church to “receive her in the Lord” he implicitly commended her faithfulness. His letter of recommendation implied his trust in her faithfulness to continue in the manner she had served in the past. Second, Paul recognized her accomplishments. He acknowledged what she had done. He called a “helper of many” and of himself. Third, he recognized her publicly. He acknowledged her accomplishments to the entire Roman church in the form of an open letter. Fourth, Paul recognized her worthiness. He asked the church to “help her in whatever she may have need of you.” Granted, Phoebe was not married to Paul. But how much more should the men of our churches build up their wives in a similar manner. Paul serves as an example of how men can build the self-esteem of their wives by granting them the dignity they deserve in the family and in the church.

Categories: Pastoral ministry, Seminary writings

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