Yesterday, I posted the Mother’s Day message from last Sunday. It has prompted quite a bit of favorable response, so I thought I would go back to Mother’s Day 2012 and post the text of the sermon that I preached then. Possibly it will prove helpful for those who, like me, are working their way through the question of women in ministry and seeking a biblical balance.
This is a lengthy post, so grab a gallon of iced tea, some chips and salsa and settle in for a while. Look forward to your responses.
Esther’s Call: Coming to the Kingdom for Such a Time As This
Then Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not think to yourself that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”
Today is Mother’s Day, and first of all, I would like to wish a Happy Mother’s Day to all mothers, most of all, to my mother, to my wife and to my daughters, for the mothers they shall be, by the grace of God. I pray God’s blessings on all of you today.
Since today is Mother’s Day, I want to preach a message that has been working in my spirit for many months. For several years now, I have been wrestling with the issue of women in ministry and the areas of involvement that women are biblically allowed and encouraged to have. There is no doubt that there are biblical limitations on gender roles and the involvement of women in leading the church. But there also is no doubt that there is a great deal of opportunity for women in ministry that has not been properly defined and facilitated. I want to talk about that today.
Women around the world live in varying degrees of liberty and oppression. We should say from the start that the Christian faith has been the prime force in liberating women from abuse and oppression. But there are still many areas of the world where women are treated as property and as beasts to be exploited by men. This is ungodly and must be opposed by all who worship the Creator. How did we get here? How did we get to the place where women, created in the image of God, should be treated as second class citizens?
It all started at the beginning, which is where most things start. God created Adam and Eve as the expressions of His image in the world. The image of God is revealed in both male and female. The man and the woman worked together as equals, though because Adam was created first and the woman was created for him, the man was the head of the family, the captain of the team. But sin distorted this reality. When Adam and Eve sinned, they were both cursed, as was the serpent. Part of the curse of the woman was that “your desire shall be unto–or, against–your husband, and he shall rule over you.” This was not the way God created them to be, but since the fall, the man subordinates the woman and the woman resists his rule.
Throughout the Old Testament, there were many instances where women broke through this subjection. Some did so in godless ways, such as Jezebel. Others did so in godly ways, such as Deborah and others who led the people of God. These godly women in the Old Testament, and there are too many to name today, were a sign of something greater to come. Just like God told Eve that her seed would bring salvation to the world, thus giving woman a prominent place in the scheme of redemption, so God reminded women now and then that they were not created to be suppressed. The female judges and prophets of the Old Testament were signs of a new age to come when all things would be made new, and women would be free to stand side by side with man again with no fear of oppression.
This dawning reality began to brighten the world even further when Jesus came. Jesus was amazing in how He defied the prevailing attitude of the Jewish leaders, the men who thanked God daily that they were not made a woman. Women were not allowed to give testimony in court. And there were many other limitations on the roles of women. But when Jesus came, He defied many of those oppressive customs, and women began to experience involvement and opportunity in the ministry of Jesus that had been denied them before.
Of course, this is just what the prophets foretold. God promised through Joel–and Peter quoted it on the Day of Pentecost–that “your sons and daughters will prophesy; upon your your male servants and female servants will I pour out my Spirit.” The reality of Pentecost is that a new world is breaking in upon the old. Let me stop and say this here: we are not truly Pentecostal unless our sons and daughters are prophesying! The refusal to permit women to be involved in prophecy–and prophecy is bringing a message from God–is not a Pentecostal attitude. It is a throwback to the curse.
Paul tells us that in Christ we are no longer “Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free.” Of course, Paul knows very well that we still live on this side of the resurrection where marriage and family order still define social order and that gender roles are still necessary. This is why he teaches wives to submit to their husbands. But this submission is set in the context of the coming kingdom when all inequality will be finally broken. Paul says that this submission is set within the larger framework of “husbands, love your wives.” When men love their wives as Christ loved the church, then women will have no problem submitting, for they are submitting to love rather than power.
The reality of the New Testament regarding women is astounding, considering the way the world was then. Jesus sat with the woman at the well, which was scandalous. His ministry was supported financially by women, and He was constantly followed by them. He allowed Mary to sit at His feet and receive instruction, a privilege restricted to men in Jesus’ time. Peter declares that the time has come for both sons and daughters to prophesy, and Phillip’s daughters took this quite seriously, for “Phillip had four daughters, and they prophesied.”
Paul had witnessed the fervor of women for the things of God, with Lydia and others helping found churches and becoming benefactors and patronesses of the church. Paul commends women specifically by name for their work in the kingdom. Romans 16 is a great example of this. Indeed, Romans 16 is an astounding chapter, where Paul lists woman after woman that was involved in the ministry in various ways. Phoebe was a female servant of the church, and that word is “deacon,” though it is not clear whether this was an ordained office or just a recognized function. Priscilla was involved prominently in the ministry of the Word with Aquila, so much so that she is listed first. Adronicus and Junia were apparently a husband and wife team of apostles, or missionaries, as we would say it, that were prominent among the apostles. Again and again, women are constantly involved.
Of course, Paul also restricted the role of women in ministry. This must not be avoided or simply explained away. Those who argue that Paul’s restrictions on women in the ministry are simply outdated products of that time and culture are opening themselves up to explaining away pretty much all of scripture. There is really very little of our Bible that is not culturally conditioned. We could explain away baptism, communion, most of all holiness and modesty standards, and even the prohibition against homosexuality, which, come to think of it, is exactly what is being done.
No, we may not simply ignore what Paul taught. He said that he did not permit women to teach or to usurp authority over men. He also said that women must keep silence in the church, for it is not permitted for them to speak. He said these things, and we must not simply toss them out.
But what did he mean by these things? It is true that he commanded the women to keep silent in the church, but then he also said that they may pray and prophesy as long as their head is covered. And it is obvious from the context that he is speaking about a public worship service when men are present. How do we reconcile this seeming contradiction in Paul’s teaching? Simply by looking closer at the context of the restrictive texts.
In I Timothy 2, where he says that women cannot teach or usurp authority over men, Paul is simply saying what he said: women may not teach in a way that exercises authority over the church. And the key word is “over.” They may not teach or exercise authority over men. But as 1 Corinthians 11 makes clear, they may pray and prophesy under authority. As long as they minister under the proper headship, they are free to minister.
Of course, this is also true of men. Kingdom authority flows down from God to Christ to man to woman. We are authorized to lead the church in prayer and prophecy (declaring the Word of God) as long as we stand under the canopy of biblical authority.
Women may pray and prophesy, but they may not teach in a ruling office where men are compelled by God to submit to their rule. This is confirmed by the fact that Paul moves immediately from discussing women teaching to a discussion of the office of the bishop and his qualifications to rule the church. The rulers of the church are the elders of the congregation, the heads of households, the fathers of Israel. So, women may teach and exercise authority as long as it is not over the church in the sense of ruling the congregation, binding and loosing, remitting and retaining, judging and enforcing. Those who “have the rule over you” are men. The church is a household of households ruled by the heads of the households, the elders of the church. (How can a man rule the church well if he does not rule his household well? See 1 Timothy 3.) This is what Paul restricts in 1 Timothy 2.
What about 1 Corinthians 14 where Paul commands the women to be silent in the church? Here, Paul addresses a specific situation. In the context, the prophets are speaking “by two and by three” and the others are judging. When something is revealed to another that sits by, the first prophet must hold his peace and allow the second prophet to speak. There is a “school of the prophets” thing going on here where men are allowed a great deal of latitude in interrupting and correcting one another. This is high-powered prophetic discussion! Paul does not want the women jumping in the middle this. To do so would be confusion and cause great insult to the male ego.
This reminds me of the commandment in the Law of Moses that forbade women from intervening in a fight between two men.
I have taught for many years that Paul was not saying that women cannot speak at all, for they may pray and prophesy. But Paul was saying that the women may not get involved in this sort of speaking, when the prophets are having a back and forth interaction. The women may not interrupt the preaching to offer judgments, objections or to ask questions. Let her do this at home with her husband.
Now, we do not permit this sort of thing at all these days, for men or women. In our day, custom requires that both men and women keep silence in the church while the preacher is preaching. I am not sure what to think about all of that, and whether we should be allowing more prophetic give and take, but regardless, this sort of interruption seems to be what Paul restricted.
I recently read a book called Roman Women, Roman Wives that strengthened my opinion on this. The author states that the “law” to which Paul refers in 1 Corinthians 14 is a Roman law that allowed women to serve as attorneys but prohibited them from interrupting two or more men in court when they were having an argument. This writer thinks that this is the law that Paul has in mind when he restricts the women from interrupting the prophets and requires them to “ask their husbands at home” if they have an opinion, a question or an objection. I think this is just about exactly right.
So, women may not occupy ruling offices and teach men in an authoritative way that requires men to submit to their rule in the church. Women are also prohibited from interrupting men as they speak back and forth in prophecy, though at other times they may pray and prophesy. When these texts are seen in the larger context of the New Testament, there really are very few restrictions on women in ministry. God poured out the Holy Ghost so that sons and daughters would prophesy. We must encourage this to happen.
My goal today in this message is two-fold. First, I do not want to lose the biblical teaching of the headship of men in worship according to 1 Corinthians 11. But on the other hand, I think we have restricted women in ministry far too much for far too long. Our fear of women who have been pushy and aggressive has caused us to overreact in the opposite direction. If we were writing our own Romans 16 today, where would our list of prominent women in ministry be? Where are our Lydia’s? Where are our Phoebe’s? Where are the daughters of Philip prophesying?
I have four girls, Alaina, Natalie, Ana and Ella, and I want to see them have every opportunity for ministry that God will permit them to have. I look around here today and I see a room full of women, from older women and to young girls, that have limitless potential for the kingdom of God. I see Esther’s in this room, women that God has poured out His Spirit upon you so that you may be powerfully used in the kingdom of God. I see Esther’s who have come to the kingdom for such a time as this.
I see untapped potential that has been capped off because you have not felt that you could be involved in ministry, in praying and prophesying, in missionary work and helping found churches. I have come today to tell you that God wants to use you. He wants to anoint you in praying and prophesying, in the gifts of the Spirit. There are some of you girls that want to be missionaries. God wants to raise you up to take the gospel to distant lands. No doubt, the churches you establish will have to be ordered according to the New Testament and the men that God saves will have be ordained to rule the churches. But there is no reason in the world why you girls cannot take the gospel to those who have never heard.
I am reaching today for those who want to be used in the kingdom of God. This is Mother’s Day, but I am preaching to all women. In fact, I am broadening the call right now to include everyone, both women and men, who desires to be used of God in the kingdom of God. I am reaching for those who are tired of living a life with no meaning. God created you to serve Him. What better day than Mother’s Day to turn your life over to God?
I am reaching out for anyone who feels the call of the Spirit. If you believe that God is calling to work in His kingdom, to help advance the rule of God in the world, then I am calling you today. Girls, mothers, wives, sisters, if you feel that God has called you to the kingdom for such a time as this, then come now and make yourself available for His service.