by Al Maxey

Issue #113 ------- March 19, 2004
The hand that rocks the cradle
is the hand that rules the world.

William Ross Wallace (1819-1881)

Women in the Church
Reflecting on the Nature of their Role

The great theologian Mathew Henry (1662-1714) once observed, "The woman was not made out of man's head, to rule over him, nor out of his feet, to be trampled on by him, but out of his side, to be equal with him, under his arm, to be protected, and near his heart, to be loved." I have used this quote many times when uniting a man and woman together in a covenant of marriage. Although our God created man and woman to be distinct from one another in countless ways, nevertheless the male and female of our species were divinely designed to complement and complete one another ... indeed, to become "one flesh." Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) stated it well in The Song of Hiawatha --- "As unto the bow the cord is, So unto the man is woman, Though she bends him, she obeys him, Though she draws him, yet she follows, Useless each without the other!"

There has always been a natural tension between the sexes, however. This is evidenced in all areas of life, and thus it is no surprise to find it among the disciples of Christ as well. Throughout religious history women have been both deified and vilified, honored and harassed, allowed to serve, on the one hand, and forced into submission and silence, on the other. Needless to say, this has not helped relieve the natural tension between the two. The beauty of the Christian faith, however, is in the special spiritual leveling that has come to the children of God the Father. "There is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28). Yes, there are natural distinctions that are still evident; men are still men, and women are still women, after all. Paul is not suggesting a unisex scenario; the sexes still are to be distinct, and that includes responsibilities unique to each. Nevertheless, the superior/inferior dichotomy that too frequently characterizes the secular and spiritual interaction and interrelationship of the sexes is forever abolished in the sacrifice of our Savior, who broke down those walls of distinction and demarcation. Slave and free, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile, male and female "are all ONE in Christ Jesus!"

As one might expect, this has led to some degree of chaos and confusion as to the roles of both men and women in the work and worship of the church of our Lord Jesus Christ. Although we are all one, are there nevertheless areas that are "male only" with regard to spiritual service? Are there roles women are forbidden by God to fulfill? There are passages in the NT writings which seem to suggest this, at least to some interpreters, and these have been debated with great fervor for centuries. It is also one of the great questions and challenges facing Churches of Christ today (as well as many other faith-heritages), and may well be "the big issue" leading to even further division and fragmentation of the Body in our generation (as, indeed, it is already beginning to cause). Notice some of the requests I have received recently from readers of these Reflections ... they are very representative of the concern in the brotherhood of believers today:

The apostle Paul confessed to the brethren in Corinth that his ministry among them had on occasion been "in weakness and in fear and in much trembling" (1 Corinthians 2:3). I must confess to the same when seeking to address such difficult challenges as the above. I freely admit that I have not yet fully come to a full, final or settled conviction with regard to the matter of women's roles in the public work and worship of the corporate Body of Christ. I am still studying the matter, and my own "comfort zone" is still being challenged (at times with some degree of personal discomfort, I must admit). I was raised in a segment of our faith-heritage where the public assembly of the saints was MAN'S domain, and women, while expected to be there, were expected to "keep their place." Yes, we were "a gracious lot" in that we permitted them to speak out in class (as long as they didn't try to dominate the discussion, in which case they would be taken aside later and "talked to"), and they could be secretaries for ministers and teach the little kids, but that was about the extent of their involvement. After all, "God said so!" ... as we were frequently told.

In my study I have come to believe that, to some degree, we have misunderstood God's teaching, and in so doing have wronged our women! Indeed, I hate to think where some of our congregations would be today (if indeed they would exist at all) were it not for the godly women whose spiritual strength held them together. We have not given these saintly sisters their due! On the other hand, I fear many have, in an effort to right the wrong, swung to the opposite extreme and have placed women in positions of service and responsibility never intended for them by our God. Like the preacher in Virginia, I am opposed to women serving as shepherds of the flock. My understanding, from my study of the relevant Scriptures and the overall intent of my Father for spiritual leadership of the church, is that this position is male only.

I am convicted that God has established a clear order of authority in our relationships, both in the home and in the church, and that chain of authority, in descending order, is: God - Christ - Man - Woman - Child. "Now I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ" (1 Cor. 11:3). "Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church" (Eph. 5:22-23). "Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right" (Ephesians 6:1). Does this mean men are superior to women? Of course not. Paul even hastens to dispel such a notion from their minds -- "In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God" (1 Cor. 11:11-12). This is not even remotely about superiority, it is all about authority. When people dwell together as communities, whether family, church, organization, city, state or nation, there must be clear understanding among all as to the "chain of authority." Otherwise, there is chaos and anarchy. God has established that authority in both family and church. To set it aside, or to alter it, invites disorder in both institutions. Thus, I oppose the setting aside of this divine chain of authority, both in the family and the church. When women assert authority and assume leadership over men, I find this just as abhorrent as when children do the same over parents and adults. It is in violation of God's design, and we will suffer for it every time!

Having said that, however, let me share my growing conviction that there is far more women could be, and probably should be, doing in the work and worship of the local congregation of believers. I personally support neither extreme on this issue of women's roles in the church. I believe they are both misguided. Truth, as is almost always the case, falls somewhere in the middle. Some of the restrictions placed on women in the NT writings are cultural in nature, and were merely reflective of current societal norms with respect to evidencing God's chain of authority. This would include matters such as a covering for a woman's head while she prayed (1 Cor. 11:4-10) and the forbidding of women braiding their hair and wearing certain types of jewelry (1 Tim. 2:9). These are purely cultural restrictions, and were never intended to be universally and eternally binding LAW. Paul's concern remains constant throughout -- that there be no challenge, or even the appearance of challenge, to God's decreed order of authority. In 1 Timothy 2:12 Paul made it clear that women were not to "exercise authority over a man," and he links this with teaching a man!

Let's get practical. What exactly can a woman do in the public work and worship of the church that would not fall under "the ban" of exercising authority over men? Let me throw this out for consideration, as an illustration of what is being considered, and even tried, in some congregations of Churches of Christ (and perhaps in other conservative faith-heritages as well) -- women are serving at the Lord's Table. In most cases, they are not leading the congregation in one of the prayers (for the bread or wine), nor are they giving the "devotional talk" (a tradition in some congregations) prior to the passing of the elements. They are simply, and silently, passing the trays. Is this sinful? If so, how? Is this exercising or usurping authority over men? If so, how? After giving this idea some thought, one elderly gentleman in Hawaii winked and quipped, "You know, that might be even more 'Scriptural' than the way we now do it. After all, shouldn't women be serving men, and not the other way around?!" Of course, the argument of those who oppose such a practice, is that the women would be "standing before the congregation." This implies "authority" over the congregation, it is suggested. Nonsense!

Consider this -- if a group of Christians is gathered together, and an elder asks a woman to pray, is she usurping authority by complying? If the teacher of an adult Bible class asks a woman to do some research on some aspect of the study, and to present her findings to the class the following week, has she exercised authority over men by complying with that request? We can actually become rather "silly" about all this, and I'm sure the readers can give countless examples like the following. An elder in a congregation believed it was his duty to be aware of what was being taught by one of the ladies in the Ladies' Bible Class. However, he would not actually enter the classroom while she was teaching, because then SHE would be "teaching a man," and HE would be allowing himself to be "taught by a woman." Thus, he secretly set a chair outside the door to the classroom and listened to her through the door. Good grief!!! In another small congregation, where there were no men capable of leading singing (none could carry a tune), a man, or even a young boy, would stand in front of the congregation and beat the air with his arm, while one of the women "led" the song from her pew. As long as she wasn't standing up, and some man or boy was, she wasn't viewed as "leading singing!" Legalism would almost be funny at times, if it was not so pathetic! Oh, the games we play!

May a woman serve the church in some capacity involving some degree of responsibility? Be careful in how you answer this, because the reality is that in most every congregation women are already doing this! We may not give them an "official title" -- like "deaconess" -- but they are "serving" nonetheless. Does your congregation have a church secretary? Is this person a woman? Then your church has a "servant." Many congregations have women overseeing the teachers' workroom and resource room, the church library, the food pantry, the pre-school programs and classes, even the elementary level Sunday School. Women quite often head various works like coordinating meals and flowers for the sick and for funerals, Bible Bowl, church sponsored Ladies days and retreats, and the list goes on and on. In some congregations the women serve as bookkeepers, as those who prepare the communion, as custodians, as special assistants to the ministerial staff, and the like. In all of these cases, and more, these are responsible "servants" of the church ... which, by the way, is the meaning of the term "deacon" (diakonos). Thus, does the church have female deacons? According to this definition, yes we do. "I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant (deaconess) of the church which is at Cenchrea" (Romans 16:1). Women, and men, can serve under authority, and without usurping authority, in a variety of ways (some of which have been mentioned above).


So, just how much, and in what areas, should our women be allowed to serve in their congregations? It is my judgment that the answer will vary from congregation to congregation. What might be deemed acceptable in one congregation, another may not yet be ready to embrace. As in all things, our choices must bring glory and honor to our Father, edification to the body of believers, and the furtherance of the gospel of grace to those who sorely need to hear and embrace it. A good thing can become a bad thing if it divides disciples. Our unity, harmony and oneness should never be sacrificed for the sake of some change that only a portion of the saints support, even if that change is inherently good. Too often, good intentioned disciples rush reform!! Needed reformation does not often come quickly, and rarely painlessly; it requires the wisdom of Solomon and the patience of Job! If a group is not yet ready, but is willing to study the matter, then "preach the Word ... with great patience and instruction" (2 Timothy 4:2). No, don't allow the "hard-heads" to hold the congregation hostage to their own will, and to hinder any forward progress (which they will do if they can); Paul forbids yielding to them for even an instant (Galatians 2:4-5). But, if genuine brethren are genuinely concerned about some proposed change, then be patient ... as long as all parties are willing to continue to study the matter with open Bibles and open minds.

Never .... I repeat: NEVER .... be party to division in the Body of Christ. Some division, of course, is unavoidable. When we preach Truth, some will simply not tolerate it. They want their ears tickled, or they want tradition elevated above Truth. We dare not yield to such coercion, even though our stand for Truth will cause some to no longer walk with us. But, in other areas involving the normal growth and development of a body of believers, we must recognize that not all progress at the same rate. Thus, be patient ... but be persistent. Stagnation is not an option; we must move forward; we must also grow and progress; but let us do so in such a way that we may all advance together, as much as is humanly possible.

Yes, change is coming to the church of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is coming more quickly in some locations than others ... but it IS coming. Much of this change is long overdue. Most all of it will be met with resistance on the part of those who simply can't tolerate leaving their personal comfort zones. We must love these brethren and be patient with them and continue to instruct them -- up to a point. Reform must never be retarded, however, because a handful refuse to budge from their ruts. Bring them along if you can, but move along if you can't! In all things may LOVE be our guide, may UNITY be our motivation, and may CHRIST be our focus. If this be true, we will not go too far astray in our spiritual journey!

Reflections from Readers

From a Minister in Mississippi:

Al, I have had all good intentions to write you a note just to say thanks and to commend you for the great job you're doing with Reflections. I owe you an apology for being too lazy to actually get said note off to you! Tonight, when I checked my email and found the issue on The Nature of True Worship, I thought, "I'm gonna write that note NOW!" Brother, you need to know that I deeply appreciate the clarity, specificity, and spirit with which you write. I always enjoy the articles, even if I manage to find a minor point or two on which I don't totally agree with you. That's rare, however. Thanks for pointing out that worship is much more a matter of heart than structure. Our churches are dying because we're so determined to get the form right while ignoring the function. We're satisfied with assemblies that follow an orderly process, but we don't seem to be as concerned with what's happening within those who are assembled. Thanks, too, for reminding us that worship is far broader than assemblies. What a revolution could occur if believers understood that their lives Monday through Saturday give far more opportunity to praise, honor and show love for God than any amount of Sundays could ever do. So, just know that, while I seldom write, you are greatly appreciated, deeply loved as a brother, and highly respected for your faith and service to the Lord. I'm grateful for the opportunity to get your input through Reflections.

From a Reader in Oregon:

Great article on The Nature of True Worship. This seems to be another area where tradition carries more weight than it should. "Truth" in this passage, as you have stated, refers to something that is real or genuine. Could it be that Jesus is simply contrasting a form of worship that was a type or a symbol with something that would be real or genuine, and be of greater significance than the rituals and rites of old? Substance rather than shadows? HE is known, real, genuine, and the Father seeks the kind of worshipers who strive to conduct their entire lives with an appreciation of HIM, and don't reduce their worship to a finite number of "acts."

Here is an interesting excerpt (from Mike Root -- Unbroken Bread) regarding proskuneo and latreuo. In reference to proskuneo, he states, "...does it matter that over one-third of the occurrences are in Revelation and referring to false or incorrect worship and things that take place in heaven? Does it matter that over half of the uses are in the Gospels, before the church is established and the New Covenant is even in effect? Does it matter that of the seven times left when proskuneo is used it refers to idol worship, Jewish temple worship, worship of man, worship of angels and Jacob in pre-Law days? The only other time it is used is in regard to the visitor to an assembly ... The point is that it's irrelevant whether proskuneo is used 58 times, or 1000 times. Not once is it used in connection with Christians and the Christian assembly." Mike goes on to show clearly that latreuo (worship or service) is more applicable to the life of a Christian, and quotes several passages to support his conclusion. I once found it very easy to be involved in proskuneo (the "five acts"), and even felt a sense of accomplishment. I find it to be far more of a challenge to be involved in latreuo, which is never ending, but more meaningful and rewarding. It's a shame that when we try to be involved more in latreuo, at the expense of patternistic proskuneo, the tar is warmed up and the feathers start flying!! Thanks again for your work for us in Him!

From a Reader in Texas:

Al, I just read Reflections #112 -- "The Nature of True Worship" ... it is excellent. I have several people I am going to share this with. Thanks for the good work. Thanks for all you do to help struggling Christians like me. I was wondering if you have read Traditions, Opinions, and Truth: The Emerging Church of Christ by Fred Peatross, and, if so, do you recommend it?

From a Reader in Colorado:

What a delightful surprise to see the latest edition of Reflections released! Thank you so much for responding to my request in such a timely manner. I wasn't expecting to see such a fast turn around. It makes me feel like I've "cut in line" by having my questions answered so soon. Once again, your insights into this passage were very edifying and encouraging. It is so sad that the basis for so many foundations of our faith are built upon twisted interpretations of God's Word. He is truly so patient with us all!!!!! I hope to share this piece with a few that I have been studying with recently. Please pray that they will receive it with an open heart and mind. I do truly appreciate the time and the effort that you devote to this wonderful work. May God continue to richly bless you and your family. The family at Alamogordo is so very lucky to have a minister like you.

From a Deacon in Illinois:

Preach on, Al. I just received your web site from a young friend who attends the ----- Church of Christ in -----, Illinois. I agree with you completely on your study of baptism and grace. I am a deacon at this same congregation and teach the Sunday morning assembly class. I believe with all my heart that I must get them to believe that GRACE is what our salvation is all about. I have a number of things that I would like to discuss with you at a later date, but this is very encouraging.

From a Reader in (Unknown):

I appreciate receiving your Reflections. I agree with what you say (not that my endorsement is worth anything), and especially appreciate your message of fellowship and unity in Jesus. As I have reflected on the subject of worship, I have thought of worship under the Mosaic Covenant. If I were a God-fearing Jew living in Dan or Beersheba, as I understand it, I would go to Jerusalem three times a year for feasts and sacrifices. The rest of the year, I would worship God in my home. It also seems to me that the most frequently mentioned sacrifice in the Old Testament is the fellowship or peace offering, which I believe could be made anywhere. As I move into the New Testament I understand Jesus became our Passover Lamb and our sacrifice of Atonement. Beyond that, I don't find any replacement for fellowship or peace offerings. Except that I am to be a living sacrifice. If I don't have to go to Jerusalem anymore, it would seem that my "acts" of worship would be where I live and what I do. May God continue to bless you and your ministry.

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