Women In Ministry: What To Do When You're Told What You Can't Do
I've decided it's time for me to approach a topic that has historically brought much debate and controversy in society and in the church, especially in recent years. This is not something I take lightly, nor do I flippantly voice my opinion on topics such as these. My desire is to build bridges rather than burn them, due to my appreciation and respect for many whose hearts I trust, regardless of whether we disagree on certain things. But because the question of what women can door are allowed to doin ministry has been such a big part of my personal journey, and because I've noticed the impact of this question in the church, I've decided to share my personal experiences and study of scripture on the topic.
In no way do I think my viewpoint is free of error, so I ask you to read this with the understanding that I am an imperfect person striving to love and serve God with a pure heart, while helping others do the same. I hope that even if you disagree with me, you will be able to see my heart in the matter and feel free to dialogue with me about it.
I grew up dreaming about big things. I wanted my life to mean something and I wanted to contribute to the world around me in a special way. More than anything, I wanted to preach the word of God with boldness so that the world would know who Jesus is and experience the love and freedom of following him. It wasn't until I entered my preteen years that I realized many people believed I was wrong for that desire, that because of something I had no control over - my gender - I was limited in how I could express my devotion to God.
I've been told it's a "woman's place" to get married and have children. (While I do deeply desire this, it is not the only thing I deeply desire.) I've been told women are more emotional and therefore need the stability of a man in order to operate in a ministry-related leadership position. I've heard that a woman needs to bottle up her emotions in the presence of a man, because, if she doesn't, all credibility she'd earned up until that point will fly out the window, never to be regained.
Probably the most hurtful thing I've been told a woman can't do, or at least can't do as well as a man, is lead in full-time ministry. Apparently, she can teach other women and children. But not men. And she certainly can't call it pastoringor preaching. Thankfully, this was not the only perspective I heard, but hearing it at all was, for me, a strong punch to the gut...especially since I've felt called to ministry from the time I was eight years old.
"I don't want to do it just to be on stage, just because I think I would enjoy it, or that I have a right to it. I want to be obedient to what I feel the Lord is leading me to do."
I'd become accustomed to saying that line every time I talked to people about my desire to preach. I felt compelled to make that clarification about my intentions, as if actually "wanting" or "being eager" to preach somehow proved my motives were selfish, impure and non-submissive. My pursuit of ministry opportunities somehow felt less sincere and admirable than a man's pursuitof the same thing.
I have been told that women are limited in certain ways. I have felt the impact of those limitations. I have had moments of feeling deeply wounded and distrusting of men.
I have also been told by godly men - spiritual brothers and fathers and grandfathers - that they believe I am capable, strong, qualified, and valued. They have entrusted weighty matters to me and welcomed me into their world, allowing me to learn from them and practice the skills and gifts God has given me without fear of failing or falling from their good opinion of me. I have been told by these men and by godly women, who I deeply respect, that they trust my prayers, that they want to hear what I have to say, that they care about the contribution I'm making, and that I can do so much more than I realize.
The Right Response
It's easy to take up the cause of the underdog, the disenfranchised, the marginalized, and spew scathing accusations against people who may be misguided in their approach. While it may be wrong, we must examine our own approach as women of God, to make sure it's balanced. While it is SO important to defend those who can't defend themselves (because justice is the heart of God!), we often forget the command of God to "love our enemies" (or those with whom we have conflict) and to "pray for those who mistreat us" (Matt. 5:44).
It's hard to see the church, the bride of Christ - who I love so deeply regardless of her flaws - critiquing a believer's right to proclaim the kingdom rather than rejoicing that the message of the kingdom is being proclaimed.
At times, I've felt defensive against those who limit and scorn women habitually and perhaps even inadvertently, saying condescending, demeaning things about who we are and what we can and can't do. I've felt defensive for myself and for my sisters who struggle in the same way. But I don't believe defensiveness is the right response to this issue. When I notice myself responding in this way, I know that I've misplaced my trust, because ultimately, it is the opinion of God that validates me, not that of a person or group of people.
That feeling of anger and defensiveness, that feeling of being entitled to and deserving of a certain treatment and respect, comes from the belief that in some way, those who mistreat us have control over us, and the power to limit us.
If any person ever had the right to say, "I don't deserve this," it was Jesus. Yet he didn't. Scripture says that when he was mistreated, he didn't retaliate. Instead, he forgave and did good to his oppressors. When he was misunderstood, rejected by his own and marginalized, he didn't protest. He just went somewhere else where people would be open to what he had to give.
Jesus knew that the mistreatment he received, his enemies' attempts to limit him, could only have that effect if he held unforgiveness and bitterness in his heart. The limits they placed on him didn't limit what he could do - only what he could do for them. He was grieved, not because of the wrong done to him, but because they couldn't receive the good he wanted to give them.
This is the heart I want us to have as women in ministry and women who currently feel called to ministry. There will be people who don't see us as legitimate. Many didn't see Jesus as legitimate. There may be people who limit what they think God can do through us, who think we're wrong or out-of-line. Jesus experienced that too. But the truth is we can't change what other people think. That's their choice. We're accountable only for our response, for our actions, for obeying God and loving people even when we don't feel loved by them in return.
I've been blessed to have leaders who empower me to be all God has called me to be, whose voices have overpowered the words of discouragement and disqualification spoken by people who more than likely did not intend harm. If others disagree with God's calling on my life, it doesn't nullify that calling or limit my power to be obedient. It only keeps those people from receiving what God might place in my hands to give. And that's between them and God.
Sisters, we can't live bitter. Yes, there are opportunities for the church to improve. But anger and defensiveness will only deepen the chasm we so sincerely want bridged for the purpose of building a healthier church - not our own platforms. Pray for those who have hurt you, knowing that they are the ones suffering from a loss they don't even know about. And trust that if God is for you, no one else can stand against you (Romans 8:31).
Sisters, we also can't live in less than our God-given purpose.If you know deep down that God has called you to use your voice as a woman to build his kingdom, I want to challenge you to offer that to God and give him an unconditional "Yes," to whatever he wants that to look like in your life. Pray that God will show you his will, and pray that he will show that to those who serve as your spiritual covering.
And I don't suggest you say yes to something that isn't Biblical.
What Does Scripture Say?
Explaining my experiences might be moving, but not authoritative, if I didn't offer a scriptural foundation for my conclusions. I have committed to the Lord that by his grace, I will never let my theology be conformed to my experiences. Rather, I will define my experiences by his word, and trust his word above all else, even if it is beyond the confines of my present understanding.
First of all, I want to highlight two primary scriptures many offer as an explanation for why they believe women have certain limitations in ministry.
1 Corinthians 14:34, Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says.
1 Timothy 2:11-15, Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression. Nevertheless she will be saved in childbearing if they continue in faith, love, and holiness, with self-control.
Let me state clearly about the above scriptures that I do not see these as any less legitimate portions of the Bible. I have a deep and abiding respect for the entire word of God, including these passages. I've learned that any time there seems to be a contradiction in the Bible, it is only that I'm missing a piece of the puzzle. My goal is to see these passages in context and balance them with other scriptures that may appear to be saying something different.
The Apostle Paul was writing a letter to the Corinthian church, a group of believers who are known by scholars to be one of the most carnal churches with which Paul was associated. There was blatant disorder in this church, located in the Greek city of Corinth that was "unsurpassed in its moral wickedness." Because the church was so misguided and had misused their liberty in Christ, rather than pursuing holiness, it is reasonable that Paul would have placed more specific restrictions on them, especially in regard to the women in the church. In his letter to Timothy, the pastor of a church in Ephesus, another Greek city, Paul gives similar instruction about the role of women in that church.
It's important to understand that these two references in scripture relate to two churches in a very similar society - a society that, unlike the Jews, did not have a foundation of morals and holy living prior to coming to faith in Christ. Ancient Greece was a polytheistic society, and many of the deities they worshipped were women. It makes sense, then, that Paul would have felt it necessary to impose certain restrictions and parameters which would teach them specifically to live in a godly manner.
However, there are other instances in scripture where God equips and calls women to positions of influence in his kingdom. Below is a series of truths that I've discovered in scripture about this topic. These scriptures are the foundation for my beliefs and why I, as a woman, am willing to walk through any door the Lord would open for me as it pertains to proclaiming who he is and leading people to him. While there are many examples in the Old Testament, I have - for the sake of time - limited this list to a few examples from the New Testament.
During Jesus's ministry, the gospel was funded by women. They were the ones who provided for Jesus and the disciples out of their own resources. (Luke 8:2-3)
Women were the first entrusted with the message of the gospel - that Jesus had risen from the dead. Jesus chose a woman's voice even in a time and society where a woman's testimony wasn't considered legitimate. (Matthew 28:5-10)
The prophet Joel foretells in the book of Joel 2:28 that both sons and daughterswill prophesy. This comes to pass on the day of pentecost and continues as an essential part of the early church's way of life. (Acts 2:17)
The Hebrew word for "prophesy," used in Joel 2:28, is "naba" (H5012). It means to "speak by inspiration or under influence of divine spirit."
The Greek word for "prophesy," used in Acts 2:17, is "propheteuo" (G4395). It means to "foretell events or speak under inspiration." A more in-depth definition is "to utter forth, to declare a thing which can only be known by divine revelation, to break forth in praise, and under like prompting, to teach, refute, admonish and comfort others."
All of these descriptions are part of the promise God made and fulfilled to women and men alike.
The Apostle Paul said in his letter to the church at Philippi, that some were preaching Christ from pure motives and some from evil motives, yet he said, "What does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this, I rejoice!" (Philippians 1:15-18)
If Paul could permit Christ being preached even from evil motives, how much more should there be rejoicing that a woman is preaching Christ from a pure heart and sound doctrine?
Paul charges the Philippian church in this same letter to help the women who labored alongside him in the gospel. This leads us to believe that women shared in the work Paul was doing, that he welcomed their help and their unique contribution as sisters in Christ. (Philippians 4:3)
Males and females are seen equally in Christ under the new covenant - being one in him. (Galatians 3:28)
Just as Jesus's ultimate goal was to glorify his Father on the earth and finish the work given him to do (John 17:4), we are called to do the same. If you are a woman who feels in your heart that leading in ministry or preaching the gospel is part of the work God has given you to do, I want to encourage you to offer that to God and express your willingness to go where he leads. Then trust him to build you, to work through you and to make a way for you.