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Women and the Call of God

Barbara Moulton

I spent the greater part of my formative years believing that most of the Christian world accepted and practiced the ordination of women into Christian ministry. This was my life in a denomination (The Salvation Army) that created an atmosphere in which young girls were encouraged to seek God’s call on their life. From the age of twelve, I never doubted God’s calling into ministry. As I grew older I began to realize that there were many young women who did question whether God could call them into ministry. It was rather a distressing discovery.

In her booklet, Female Ministry, Catherine Booth (co-founder of The Salvation Army) wrote that she believed a time would come when people would look on those who said women should not preach the gospel in the same light as those in her era looked on those who claimed the sun revolved around the earth. It was a shock to me when I realized that despite how I was raised, many still lived in a "geocentric" universe. I also realized that I had not been taught how to justify my calling.

So I began my journey. I really have no desire to enter a debate on this issue. I simply want to show how I can read the same verses that others have and still feel comfortable in pursuing a calling to ministry. It has been suggested by some who oppose women being active in Christian ministry that my doctrinal error is so great that God will withhold His blessing from my life. Yet on the contrary, I have experienced God’s enormous blessing on my life.

One of the biblical passages that many use to prohibit women in ministry is 1 Corinthians 14: 32-35. When I first arrive at this passage I agree that on the surface it seems to be pretty clear.

14:32 And the spirits of prophets are subject to the prophets, 14:33 for God is a God not of disorder but of peace. (As in all the churches of the saints, 14:34 women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. 14:35 If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. 14:36 Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached?)

Women should not speak in church. They must remain silent in church. Yet, I notice that few of those who use this passage to prohibit women in ministry, actually apply the words as they appear to be written. Have their churches completely silenced the voices of women? Usually not. If you entered the doors you would hear the voices of women in conversation. You would see women teaching Sunday School, speaking to women's groups, and involving themselves in counseling ministries.

So how do those who oppose women in ministry allow this? Most would use 1 Timothy 2:12 as the qualifier.

2:11 Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. 2:12 I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.

First, we might raise the question of how a church who takes this passage as a new law of God for the Church today decides when a boy becomes a man? Twelve? Thirteen? Fifteen? Eighteen? When he is old enough to vote in church elections? When he is old enough to drive a car? When he is old enough to serve in the military? When he is old enough to drink alcohol or vote in national elections? Does a birthday or some secular rite of passage prohibit the woman who taught him last Sunday from teaching him this Sunday?

In any case, the conclusion seems to be that a woman may speak but not in a position of authority over men. So in other words, in order to interpret the first verse in 1 Corinthians they have used the second verse in 1 Timothy. Using the principle of comparing Scripture with Scripture, they come to a conclusion that satisfies them. Yet, when those of us who believe differently use the exact same principle to bring other Scriptures to bear on the issue we are told that we have departed from the truth.

So what do I do with all those Scriptures that speak of women actively participating in ministry or that give instructions for women in ministry? What about those passages from both Old and New Testaments that tell us about the role of women among the people of God, even in leadership positions? (See the selected list of Scriptures below.)

If churches took the Corinthian passage literally then all of our churches would be filled with women who sit in silence not commenting on a message or sermon with anyone until they get home. Is that not the instruction Paul is clearly giving? But does this seem like something that God would want for one half of the human race?

Joel 2.28 "After this, I will pour my Spirit on everyone. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your old men will dream dreams. Your young men will see visions. 2.29 In those days I will pour my Spirit on servants, on both men and women. 2.30 I will work miracles in the sky and on the earth: blood, fire, and clouds of smoke. [cf. Acts 2:17 ff.]

I shall pour out my spirit on a woman and she shall prophesy but be silent?

Matthew 28:5 But the angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 28:6 He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 28:7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples, 'He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.' This is my message for you." 28:8 So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.

I shall tell women to proclaim the message of my resurrection but be silent?

Acts 18:24 Now there came to Ephesus a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria. He was an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures. 18:25 He had been instructed in the Way of the Lord; and he spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. 18:26 He began to speak boldly in the synagogue; but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained the Way of God to him more accurately.

I shall tell Priscilla who instructed my servant Apollos to be silent?

Acts 21:8 The next day we left and came to Caesarea; and we went into the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the seven, and stayed with him. 21:9 He had four unmarried daughters who had the gift of prophecy.

I shall tell Philip's daughters to prophesy but be silent?

But take away the preaching ministry. What would most churches today do if women actually did keep silent within the four walls? Imagine that world for a moment!

I believe that the greater weight of Scripture gives voice to women. Combine this with the fruits of the ministry of women down through the centuries and I am compelled to accept that God calls and equips women for ministry. Paul himself pointed to the fruit of his labour as an evidence for his apostleship (Rom 1:1-6, 1 Cor 9:2). Are women not to be given that same privilege?

I believe that the WHOLE of Scripture endorses a voice for women. So I am content to act on the calling that God has placed on my life and rejoice when I see individuals (male or female) respond to the Gospel through the words I speak and the life I live.

As an egalitarian, I believe that we must give priority to Paul’s proclamation in Galatians 3:28.

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Of course, this broad, general statement occurs in a discussion on God’s work in salvation and does not deal directly with church practice. However, it reflects the impact of the Gospel on the standing of men and women, Jew and Greek, slave and free. Link this with Paul’s numerous endorsements of women in ministry and I come to the opinion that the texts that some take to be restrictions cannot be considered as universal rules or absolute laws. Do we follow the guidelines for worship outlined in Corinthians? Do we insist that women remove their braids and gold necklaces when they come to church as Paul says? Probably not. We don’t regard these as universal. But when we come to verses that restrict women’s participation in ministry just a few verses later some suddenly view those verses as binding on all generation, for all cultures and for all times. Why?

Much of 1 Corinthians is dealing with decency and order. That’s why there were specific instructions given for how they should be worshipping. And presumably that’s why Paul gave instructions to the Corinthians on how their women should be behaving in church. Much has been written about Corinth and I won’t go into it (see Voice Bible Study, Corinthians, Lesson 1: Introduction). But Corinth was a church dealing with many issues which threatened to cause havoc and disorder. These verses must be read in that light.

Under times of war a country will place limitations on its citizens that are not meant for all time or for universal application. Were they necessary at the time? Blackouts? Rations? Conscription? They were viewed that way. Were they intended to last when the war ceased, when the immediate circumstance that evoked them changed? Of course not.

Years from now my children might find letters I wrote to my husband when we were courting. There were things that I wrote to him concerning our faith, our love and our future together which are timeless. They will be edified in reading it. But there are many things I wrote which will have little application because they were written to him at that time and for a specific reason.

Now I know that the Epistles are far grander than my old love letters. I know that God has inspired Paul. But they are still letters. Surely we can discern what is meant to apply for all time and what was written to address specific situations (see New Testament Letters). This is what I do with many of the instructions found in the Corinthian letters. We certainly do it with Paul’s instructions to slaves!

Now often when we come to the 1 Timothy passage we jump right into 12 and forget about 11.

2:11 Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. 2:12 I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.

There is something remarkable in that verse that we lose because we look at it through the eyes of our culture, as well as our biases and prejudices. My point is that we jump on the "silence" and "submission" and forget about the first part: the learning!

Here is a radical injunction itself! Women should be given the opportunity to learn the things of God. Could it be that there is a simple concern for unlearned women enjoying their freedom in Christ, deciding that they are going to usurp the authority of those currently in leadership without having the grounding? Stanley Grenz points out that "silence" simply means quietness and stillness which is the attitude of a learner. Paul says a woman should learn in quietness and full submission.

What was in Paul’s mind as he wrote to the pastor at Ephesus? We can take some of his words in isolation and assume that they are the only truth. Here Paul says that he doesn’t allow a woman to teach. But the facts are that he did. He commended them for their teaching in other passages, called them "coworkers (Rom 16:3), and allowed other men to receive instruction from women (Acts 18:26). That suggests that there is more to what Paul is saying than isolated verses read through our own cultural set of lenses.

It has been suggested that Paul is saying that He does not allow a woman to usurp a man in teaching. Do women want to usurp men? Of course not. We only want what Jesus offered and Paul gave to women in other Scripture texts: the opportunity to be co-workers in the spread of the Gospel, a role that was filled in the New Testament by both men and women.

The opening narrative of Luke’s Gospel recounts the announcement of the birth of John the Baptist to Elizabeth. The message was first given to her husband Zechariah. I see a delightful truth when I compare the response of Zechariah to the angel's message with Mary's response to the announcement that she was to bear the Messiah. The man doubted the message the angel brought and his voice was silenced (Luke 1:20). The woman believed and she was given a voice. That silent man had a wise wife. Elizabeth was the first woman to proclaim the fact that Mary was carrying the Lord. And Mary’s response to the announcement of the birth of Jesus is remembered as a model of faith and commitment to God:

"Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’" (Luke 1:38).

Was there something about the family of Mary and Elizabeth that prepared these two remarkable women to respond to God's voice? By contrast, have centuries of male domination and demands for silence created an atmosphere in which a woman finds it difficult to understand the calling of God on their lives?

To women who accept the calling that they receive, God gives a voice. "Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished." (Luke 1:45).

Scriptures for consideration:

1 Samuel 25:2-35 Matthew 25:1-13
1 Samuel 2:19 Luke 7:36-50
2 Kings 4:8-10 Mark 12:41-44
2 Samuel 20:14-22 John 4
Luke 2:37 John 11:27
Exodus 15:20-21 Matthew 28:27
Judges 4-5 Acts 2:16-17
2 Kings 22:14-20 Acts 12:12-17
Luke 8:1-3 Acts 18:24-26
Matthew 9:18-26 Acts 21:8-9
Luke 15:3-10 Phil 4:2-3
Luke 18:1-18 Romans 16:23
   (Who does Paul mention first?)

May I recommend the book Women in the Church: A Biblical Theology of Women in Ministry by Stanley Grenz with Denise Kjesbo, IVP, 1995

Barbara Moulton is an ordained elder in the Wesleyan Church and serves as both pastor and a hospital chaplain in Orangeville, Canada.

-Barbara Moulton, Copyright © 2013, Barbara Moulton - All Rights Reserved
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