The Ministry of Women
Increasingly, in the secular world, women are becoming more and more prominent—in government, in commerce and many other public spheres. Their equality with men is now generally taken for granted. Sadly, the professing church has long since ceased to determine or even affect the affairs of the world. Indeed, the influence is now in the opposite direction with clerics and laity bowing to worldly edicts. Men (and women) change, God does not. Hence His Word remains the same as it has been for nearly two millennia. Disciples of Christ follow Him, not the Church or the world and its trends. Our knowledge of Him is in the Scriptures, not in books, magazines and newspapers. Rome, Canterbury or other theological centres carry little weight with the world and, in any case, with Christendom virtually apostate, such centres should not determine the pathway of the true disciple.
“From the Beginning”
This phrase occurs many times in the NT. The Lord Jesus said “Have ye not read that he who made [them], from the beginning made them male and female” (Matt. 19: 4) quoting one of the earliest of Scriptures (Gen. 1: 27; 5: 2). This distinction between male and female is maintained throughout the Bible. The role of the woman is quite different to that of the man. Christianity does not weaken that distinction but maintains it to the full.
In relation to woman, the headship of man is clearly stated by the Apostle in 1 Cor. 11: 3 with its visual symbolism argued from the beginning by the facts of the creation in v9. Again, when Paul insists that a woman is not to exercise authority over a man, he goes back to the beginning, basing his argument on Adam’s prior creation (see 1 Tim. 2: 8–15). Hence in Christianity while both men and women are to serve, the difference between man and woman is carried over into their service.
NT Greek employs several words that may be translated service. The two dominant ones are douleia and diakonia. The former means to serve a master as a slave while in the latter the emphasis is more on the work done and the persons served. Yet even when diakonia is used, the thought of divine authority is not absent. For example, Paul says to Archippus “Take heed to the ministry (diakonia) which thou hast received in [the] Lord, to the end that thou fulfil it” (Col. 4: 17). Thus ultimately we always serve the Lord and our service is received from Him alone. Our service is not of our choosing but of His dictation. A true servant accepts the service that is given by the Master. It may be not what I want to do but it is what He alone knows that I am best suited for. If women (or men) seek to serve in an area forbidden by the Lord, then it is not service but rebellion, for the cardinal feature of all true service is obedience.
One Unique Service
That women should serve the Lord just as much as men should go without saying. Indeed one of the greatest pathways of service was given to a woman to tread—a service that no man could ever perform. Yet even though it lasted for some twelve years, the Bible gives no detail about it. I refer to Mary being given to be the mother of the Lord. Not just to bear Him and give birth to Him as a virgin, but to tend and care for Him in those early years on which Scripture is silent. Indeed this service, stamped by such unique greatness, gives the clue to the whole character of woman’s service in general. It is one that is largely behind the scenes, as we say, and unseen. What is known of Mary’s service to the Lord in those early years? The answer is absolutely nothing. But God knows, has recorded it and in due time she will receive her reward. Mary’s greatest service was performed in private and in the home, for this is the woman’s proper sphere. Hers was a service that was neither prominent nor public, but private and often personal. One word holds the key to a woman’s service—headship. Her divinely given service never challenges the headship of the man. Hence the service of women is always private and never public.
It must strike even the most careless of biblical readers that the twelve apostles appointed by Christ were all men, and that the seventy sent forth in apostolic service were again all men. Not a single woman among them! Later when the apostles needed to choose seven to serve tables (diakoneo the verb from diakonia), surely this was just the area in which women excel? Yet the apostolic word was “Look out therefore, brethren, from among yourselves seven men” (Acts 6: 3, my emphasis) and the word used is aner, that is, men as distinct from women. The seven were duly chosen and so that there can be absolutely no doubt, their names are given to us, and not one is a woman. Why? Because as in the other two examples the sphere of the service was public and not private and involved the exercise of authority over men. To argue from these instances, as some would, that this was just to fit in with the social standards of the day just will not do, for the Lord Himself upset those criteria on more than one occasion, when He used that telling phrase “But I say unto you …” in His teaching on the mount (Matt. 5–8). Of course the Gospels and the Acts cover a traditional period—so is the teaching any different in the Epistles?
1 Cor. 11–14
Having argued for the headship of the man in relation to the woman in the first 16 verses of 1 Cor. 11, Paul now turns to the public gathering of the assembly from verse 17 through to 1 Cor. 14: 40. The words “come together” occur seven times in this section of Scripture (1 Cor. 11: 17, 18, 20, 33, 34; 14: 23, 26) indicating a spiritual completeness in the teaching. In the public sphere the woman is to be silent and take no individual part: “Let [your] women be silent in the assemblies, for it is not permitted to them to speak; but to be in subjection, as the law also says. But if they wish to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is a shame for a woman to speak in assembly” (1 Cor. 14: 34, 35). This Scripture is explicit and universal. There is no ambiguity in the expressions and no doubt as to the intended meaning. Women are to be silent, not even to ask a question—that is to be done at home in their proper sphere. Yet in many Christian gatherings this injunction is ignored. Women read the lesson, pray audibly and even preach and teach.
The Lord’s Commandments
The Bible is the Word of God and current conditions were fully anticipated by the Lord through His Apostle. The word is “Let [your] women be silent in the assemblies, for it is not permitted to them to speak; but to be in subjection … If any one thinks himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him recognise the things that I write to you, that it is [the] Lord’s commandment” (1 Cor. 14: 34, 37). Those who claim to love the Lord but ignore these verses nullify their claim. The Lord Jesus himself said “If ye love me, keep my commandments” and again “He that has my commandments and keeps them, he it is that loves me” (John 14: 15, 21). Obedience to the Lord is not only the hallmark of genuine service but also of love. It is the proof of one’s love for Him. God knew that men would challenge the Apostle’s word in 1 Cor. 11–14 and so inspired him at this point in his Epistle to state that the things he wrote is, not are (according to the better critical Greek texts), the Lord’s commandant. That is, viewed as a complete entity, as one whole, what he wrote in its entirety, is the Lord’s commandment. There is no picking and choosing in the Word of God as to what I will accept and what I think I can disregard!
Wives and Widows
It is normal, though not of course obligatory, for men and women to marry. Indeed, the only career open to a women in NT days was marriage. Both Peter and Paul have exhortations for husbands and wives. The one feature in every case that is to mark the wife is subjection (see 1 Tim. 2: 11; Tit. 2: 5; 1 Pet. 3: 1; see also Eph. 5:22; Col. 3: 18). Peter supposes the difficult case of a wife with an unconverted husband: “Likewise, wives, [be] subject to your own husbands, that, even if any are disobedient to the word, they may be gained without [the] word by the conversation of the wives …” (1 Pet. 3: 1). Is she to preach to him? Yes, but her preaching is not to take her out of her own proper sphere. Her preaching is “without [the] word” by her “conversation”. This word conversation means manner of life, demeanour, behaviour, conduct. Here is a potency of preaching that is continual and unrelenting. Again, her adornment is not to be that which would call attention to herself in public but that which is seen by God in private “in the incorruptible [ornament] of a meek and quiet spirit”. And the divine valuation of this service?—“which in the sight of God is of great price” (v4).
Paul’s exhortations in 1 Tim. 2 are similar to Peter’s. “Men” (aner), as distinct from the women, can “pray in every place” (v8)—and hence in public, clearly implying that the women cannot do so—their sphere of prayer is limited. When he comes to the women, he says nothing about prayer but speaks of what is becoming to her in “deportment and dress” (v9). Why? Because her dress and deportment is her public testimony and, I might add, one that can carry more weight and power than the word of many a man. Again, as already stated, she is to “learn in quietness in all subjection” (v11).
In 1 Tim. 5 we have the detail of past service required for an elderly widow to be accounted as worthy of the Assembly’s care—service that does not take her out of the private sphere: “if she have brought up children, if she have exercised hospitality, if she have washed saints’ feet, if she have imparted relief to the distressed, if she have diligently followed every good work” (1 Tim. 5: 10). What does Paul enjoin to younger widows? “I will therefore that the younger marry, bear children, rule the house, give no occasion to the adversary in respect of reproach” (v14). All this shows that the house is the prime sphere of the woman’s rule and service.
In Titus 2 Paul speaks of elder men and women, the word elder referring to age and not office as in chapter 1. The first exhortation for the elder sister is regarding deportment—referring to what is external, how one carries oneself (see v3). Next her teaching is limited to the schooling of the younger sisters. What is this schooling? That “they may admonish the young women to be attached to [their] husbands, to be attached to [their] children, discrete, chaste, diligent in home work, good, subject to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be evil spoken of” (vs 4, 5). Here again the sphere of service is clearly the home, with a view to the young wive’s service supporting the public service of their husbands so “that the word of God may not be evil spoken of”.
However, a woman’s service is never regarded as unimportant. Even in days when a woman’s role in the world was one of distinct subservience, God sees fit to take account of her service. Time and again, when we have the history of the kings of Israel given, we read “and his mother’s name was …” (see 1 Kings 14: 21, 31; 15: 2, 10 etc.). Why is this? Because in those early years of upbringing the influence of the mother moulds the character that comes to light in later years. Such service, whether producing good or bad fruit, carries great weight.
Aquila and Priscilla
Six times in the NT we read of the married couple, Aquila and Priscilla. Three times the order is Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18: 2, 26; 1 Cor. 16: 19) and three times the order is Priscilla (or Prisca) and Aquila (Acts 18: 18; Rom. 16: 3; 2 Tim. 4: 19). This is a beautiful example of “fellow heirs of [the] grace of life” (1 Pet. 3: 7). Yet careful study of these six references will show that when the service is that suited to a man, such as correcting the learned Apollos in private (see Acts 18: 26), Aquila is named first; when more suited to a woman (care for her husband and Paul on a voyage) then Priscilla is named first (see Acts 18: 18). Incidentally, the expounding of the Scriptures by Aquila and Priscilla in Acts 18: 26 was done privately, as also in Acts 11: 4 and 28: 23 (the only two other occurrences of this form of the word ektithemi). This is the very opposite of the public ministry of the Word.
Women of Note
Dorcas was “full of good works and alms–deeds” (Acts 9: 36) but made the garments in the home. In Acts 12: 12 we have “the house of Mary, the mother of John who was surnamed Mark, where were many were gathered together and praying”. Again it was in the home. Eunice, the mother of Timothy, gave her instruction to her son (see 2 Tim. 1: 5) in the home as his father seems to have been an unbeliever (see Acts 16: 1). Lydia provided hospitality in her home (see Acts 16: 15) and accordingly invited Paul and Silas there.
When Phoebe took her letter of commendation from Paul to the saints in Rome, did she realise the extent of the service she embarked on? Servant of the assembly in Cenchrea in the past (see Rom. 16: 1) but now a servant to the universal Church down the ages. Why? Because she was to be the carrier of the inspired document that finally sets out the answer to Job’s question “but how can man be just with God?” (Job. 9: 2).
How did sin come into the world? Through a woman. The responsibility was that of the man but the means that the Serpent used was the woman. Accordingly, the risen Lord in His grace “appeared first to Mary of Magdala, out of whom he had cast seven demons” (Mark 16: 9). To her that unique word was given “go to my brethren and say to them, I ascend to my Father and your Father, and [to] my God and your God” (John 20: 17). Such was the distinct and privileged service given to a woman.
Just as the nature of the woman is different to that of the man, so the service given to the woman is different to that given to the man. Public service belongs to the man; private service is for the woman. The latter is every bit as important as the former in the sight of God who values everything “according to the shekel of the sanctuary” (Lev. 27: 25). Sisters who seek to serve within their own sphere may be classed as old fashioned and even have to face ridicule and contempt, not just from the world where it is expected, but sadly also from those who claim to be the Lord’s in a day of increasing apostasy. That need not trouble them, for they “serve the Lord Christ” (Col. 3: 24).