Truth for Today

More Truth for Today articles from past issues of the Presbyterian Standard are available online here.

Women in the Church

by Rev. John Harding

A sad sign of spiritual declension today is the abandonment of Scripture norms regarding the role of women in the church. The church seems increasingly willing to follow the world's lead in this, closing her ear to the voice of her Lord and incurring His displeasure. In question and answer style the following item presents some basic, needful teaching; we are grateful to the Rev. John Harding (formerly of Shettleston Free Church of Scotland) for permission to use his original material which has been slightly adapted for use here.

This article was published in the Presbyterian Standard, Issue No. 13, January-March 1999.

Is there any need for us to discuss this subject?

It is important to understand the duties that God has given us, so that we may know how to serve Him (Deut. 10:12, 13; Mic. 6:8).

But is it not narrow to talk in terms of 'duties'?

No. The Bible is not shy of speaking of our duties. It describes true spirituality as serving God according to His own holy Law – in the way that He Himself teaches us. This is not 'narrow' and 'mean-minded', for God's leading in our lives sets us free (John 8:32, 36).

Why fasten on the duties of women only?

All biblical duties are important, including those of women.

(a) There is much ignorance in the Church today about how we should live;

(b) false, worldly ideas about the relation of the sexes tend to leak into the Church.

If we wish for God's glory and revival, every thought must be brought into obedience to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5; Psa. 139:23, 24).

Surely, trivial points about women's duties are irrelevant to the Great Commission of the Church?

The Great Commission of the Church is the chief consideration: spreading and teaching the Gospel. But it is a fallacy to say that this rules out study of the smaller matters. Christ commands us to teach ALL THINGS that we have received (Matt. 28:19, 20; Acts 20:27).

It is only a weak Christianity which likes to ignore God's revealed will. Also, worldly disobedience in one sphere – such as family life – weakens us in others – such as evangelism.

The Bible shows that the differences in the sexes are irrelevant to our spiritual life.

The Bible teaches that all Christians are equally priests and kings to God (1 Pet. 2:5, 9). Women are in no way inferior in dignity and spirituality. They can serve God as much as men in the Church.

But this does not deny that God made men and women different in secondary respects. They are to contribute to the Kingdom each in their own special way.

If there is no spiritual difference why does the Church keep women from many forms of service?

God has appointed men to rule; they are to be His 'glory' (1 Cor. 11:7). Thus, men are to rule their families and in the Church. Teaching is also an aspect of ruling. Women serve by backing up their husbands (Gen. 2:18, 22), learning in silence (1 Cor. 14:34, 35), rearing children, managing their households (1 Tim. 5:14; Tit. 2:5), ministering to the needy and helping one another (1 Tim. 5:10).

Why is this distinction applied so firmly in the Church?

It cannot be said that the Church is too firm. In fact, we appear to be rather lax on the matter. The Bible is firm on the moral duty of observing God's arrangement within mankind, often repeating the duty for women to be quietly obedient (1 Tim. 2:12; 1 Pet. 3:1). Surely, if God's Word so emphasises this, it must be important.

We must be specially careful of our behaviour in the House of God and in our own families, for there we have the most influence.

Why must women remain silent in the Church?

"Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law." – 1 Cor. 14:34;

"But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence." – 1 Tim. 2:12.

It does not mean that they may never open their mouths, but rather that they ought not to intrude upon the work of teaching and leading which God has assigned to men. The command is based upon the created order (Gen. 3:16; 1 Tim. 2:13, 14), not mere conditions in some churches when Paul wrote.

But how is that consistent with the fact that women 'prophesied' and 'prayed' in Paul's time?

"But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven." 1 Cor. 11:5.

Since it was Paul himself who mentioned women prophesying and praying, he must have seen their doing so as consistent with their accepting a quiet and teachable position. They could give a prophecy by direct inspiration (not possible today), or join in the prayers, without taking over the duty of leadership which men ought to accept (1 Cor. 11:3).

That may prove a woman's preaching to be unbiblical, but not her leading in prayer.

It is true that a woman's teaching the church is clearly forbidden; but the reason is added that she must learn in a subordinate attitude (1 Tim. 2:11). For women to lead the Church in prayer transgresses the same point of order.

Paul, guided by the Holy Spirit, instructs us that in the congregations the men are to pray (1 Tim. 2:8); he uses a word which can only mean males. There is no example in the New Testament of a woman praying aloud in public worship.

This does not prevent a woman's joining silently in prayer, nor her giving private advice to younger wives, for instance.

So your rule will prevent intelligent women from teaching even children.

No. That is just what the Bible commands women to work at. A mother is in authority over her children (1 Tim. 5:14). She has a teaching-office to them given by God Himself. God does not limit women's ministry, but, as also for men, directs it in special paths.

We should note that usually, when a woman strays into the man's sphere, she neglects her proper area of work. (Tit. 2:4, 5). Many prominent women activists are shoddy mothers.

That may sound biblical, but, in practice, prevents women serving the Gospel.

In some churches, women may indeed be barred from some proper avenues of usefulness, as men often are. (Note that the usual problem is that people are unwilling to serve in any way, not that their zeal is thwarted!) This is not biblical; but we must begin with the principles. Trying to reform our practice without obeying the Word ends in confusion and lack of spiritual success (1 Cor. 14:37, 40).

Some people are more interested in petty rules than people's immortal souls.

That is true. But it is wrong to identify one's impatience against clear biblical teaching as concern for the good of the Kingdom. The whole of God's own pattern for our service is perfectly suited to the advance of the Gospel. It is His programme for success in the Church (Acts 2:41-47).

Even though some of our traditional restraints upon women's public work are justified, our lack of evangelism is not. If we return to the Bible and the practices of the Reformation, we will find ourselves with much more to do, and better able to reach the unconverted. Why are Christians so resentful of God's own directives?

What can I do, if I am prevented from speaking and praying publicly?

You may do what the great women of the Bible and church history have always done. Their service was vital and of greatest value (Rom. 16:1-4) but it was often inconspicuous (like 99% of all useful service). Because their contribution was based on domestic and private service that did not mean it was not mighty under God's hand. Half the strength of the Church lay in their work.

Mere tradition cramps the Church in its worship too.

We must distinguish between tradition that is scriptural and that which is not so. If it is biblical, it is good (1 Thess. 5:20, 21).

Why do some churches hate everything new?

It is absurd to say 'everything'; but bitter experience has shown the folly of most popular innovations (Jer. 6:16).

The wonderful new "hymns" and "choruses" of Moody and Sankey were welcomed by the shallow and careless in the Free Church. They seemed to liven up a dull church-life and make revival and prayer easy, but, in fact, they were a disaster, spreading confusion, and aiding the spiritual decline of the time.

Time has proven that the derided 'traditionalists' were right – though many people are now so ignorant of church history that they are ready to make the same mistake again. Bright new innovations which are not biblical may seem effective for a while, but ALWAYS contribute to decline. Pure worship and practice seems unattractive to the superficial, and often does not produce immediate 'results', but it is what God has ALWAYS mightily blessed and used in the long run.