The Apostle Paul provided churches with some ministry directives that which are intended to support the orderly and biblically-grounded worship of gathered congregations. Some of these directives, particularly those which are based on gender, have created some challenges as the church is confronted by the modern, egalitarian culture. There is debate among interpreters of Scripture as to whether Paul’s gender-based directives are applicable in the 21st century. Some say that these teachings are culturally based, reflecting Paul’s rabbinic training, and are not relevant or applicable for the church today. Others view Paul’s instructions as relevant for gathered congregations and a variety of other ministry related contexts. Do Paul’s gender-based ministry directives apply beyond the meeting of the church?
What are Paul’s gender-based ministry directives? Paul instructed Timothy, “A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet” (1 Tim. 2:11-12). In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote, “The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the law also says…for it is improper for a woman to speak in church” (1 Cor. 14:34-35).
What is the meeting of the church? The crucial exegetical question for this discussion is the definition of the church. Christian theologians recognize that Paul uses the word “church” (ekklesia) to refer to the universal body of believers in Christ as well as local congregations of the Jesus’ followers. It is clear from Paul’s letters that his ministry instructions are addressed individual churches gathered in local congregations. This raises the question, “What constitutes a local church?” The New Testament reveals that five activities mark and identify a local church. First, a local church practices the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s supper (Acts 2:41-42, 1 Cor. 11:23-26). Second, a local church practices spiritual accountability and discipline (Matt. 18:15-18). Third, a local church gathers weekly to receive the authoritative proclamation of God’s Word (1 Tim. 4:1-2, Titus 2:15). Fourth, a local church gathers under the leadership and authority of elders/overseers (1 Tim. 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-9). Fifth, a local church shares in a collection to minister to physical needs and advance the proclamation of the gospel (Acts 2:44-45, 1 Tim. 5:3-16, 1 Cor. 16:1-2).
Does any gathering of believers constitute the local church? Not all gatherings of composed of Jesus’ followers constitute a local church as biblically defined. Mission agencies serve the local church, but they are not churches in and of themselves. Bible Study Fellow is not a local church. Christian universities, seminaries and Bible schools may share some features of a local church but are not under the authority of elders, do not gather for weekly worship, and do not observe the ordinances of the Lord’s supper and baptism. These Christian ministry organizations share in evangelism and serve to advance God’s kingdom work, but they are not local churches.
Did Paul distinguish between what is permitted in the meeting of the church and other ministry contexts? Paul recognized that some otherwise approved Christian activities are not permitted in the church. Paul wrote, “I speak in tongues more than you all; however, in the church I desire to speak five words with my mind…rather than ten thousand words in a tongue” (1 Cor. 14:18-19). Paul approves of women “praying and prophesying” (1 Cor. 11:5) and “teaching what is good” (Titus 2:3), but in the gathered congregation, they are to “keep silent” (1 Cor. 14:34). While the Corinthians “have houses in which to eat and drink” (1 Cor. 11:22), but he rebuked those who were enjoying a good meal while others were hungry when they gathered to observe the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:20-22). Paul instructed believing families are to assist their own widows, while the church is to assist those who are “widows indeed” (1 Tim. 5:16). It seems clear that some of the ministries which Paul otherwise endorsed, were not permitted in meeting of the church.
Is there an exegetical basis for applying Paul’s ministry directives more broadly than the church? Paul’s ministry directives concerning women were given in the context of the meeting of the church. This is evident from his words to young Timothy who what been entrusted with spiritual leadership for the church at Ephesus. Paul wrote, “I am writing these things to you, hoping to come to you before long; but in case I am delayed, I write so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:14-15). In his letter to Timothy, Paul explained such important matters as the qualifications of elders and deacons (3:1-13), the care of widows (5:3-16), spiritual accountability and discipline of elders (5:17-22), and women’s participation in worship (2:9-14). It is clear that Paul was instructing Timothy about ministry activities which take place in the meeting of the church. There is nothing in his instructions to Timothy which suggests that he intended an application of these directives beyond the meeting of the church. Paul didn’t envision Sunday school gatherings, home Bible studies, evangelistic organizations, church camps, or denominational conventions. It would be unwarranted, I believe, to extend Paul’s gender- based ministry directives beyond the context of the local church to situations he did not address or foresee.
What avenues of ministry can be sanctioned for women outside of the meeting of the church? Since Paul’s gender-based ministry directives were given in the context of the meeting of the church, that is the only legitimate context in which they can be biblically applied. Beyond the limited context of the meeting of the church, there are many opportunities for Christian women to serve Christ today. Christian women can teach, evangelize, make disciples, provide health care, provide counseling, lead organizations, write books, translate Scripture, exercise hospitality, and serve on the staff of a church or a conference center. Women can serve in mission organizations, teach in Bible schools and seminaries, and minister as a hospital and military chaplains. This list is only suggestive of the many opportunities God provides for Christian women to use their spiritual gifts, serve the body of Christ, and participate in advancing God’s redemptive and kingdom work.
How can we affirm women and their spiritual gifting in the body of Christ? While there is room in the body of Christ for different views on the subject of women’s ministry, we must all acknowledge that women have been given a variety of spiritual gifts and divine enablements to minister in the body of Christ. We can affirm and value women by providing opportunities for them to serve the body of Christ in keeping with Paul’s gender-based ministry directives. I have had many gifted women in my seminary classes who are now actively serving the church of our Lord Jesus Christ’s. It has been a privilege to help prepare these gifted women for doing God’s kingdom work.