The Ministry of Women

J. H. Large

Part 11 of 13 of the series When Thy Son Asketh Thee

THE MINISTRY OF WOMEN
THE MULTIPLICATION OF RELIGIOUS ORGANIZATIONS outside the ordinary scope of church life has been accompanied by the increasing activity of women in public gatherings and this has led to the revival among the rising generation of old controversies with regard to the silence of women in the church. We think it good when long-held convictions are challenged, because it is by this means that truth is kept free from accretions and elders should be willing to deal con¬vincingly with genuine inquirers, by appeal to the Scriptures. There must be subjection to Scripture unless we are to be left at the mercy of anybody's opinion.
The Question Defined
We must make it clear at the outset that the present question is not whether women have their proper gifts from the Lord and God-appointed spheres for the exercise of those gifts, but whether they should be silent in the church. It seems to us that the answer given by the under-mentioned passage is as clear and emphatic as it could be.
'Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church', 1 Cor. M- 34, 35-
A Genuine Difficulty
There have been devious attempts to make this Scripture mean something different from what it clearly says, but the only difficulty which merits sympathetic attention arises from an earlier passage - "Every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head', II. 5. We must not encumber our discussion with problems associated with prophecy in the early church, although it may be worth while to notice that although there were in Paul's lodging at Caesarea four women who prophesied, the Holy Spirit's message to the apostle was specially brought to him by Agabus, a prophet from Judaea, Acts 21. 8-11. Since 1 Cor. II. 15 contemplates a woman taking some audible part it has been argued that the later passage (1 Cor. 14. 34) enjoining silence cannot refer to praying and prophesying. Since it is manifestly difficult to see how silence can be preserved whilst audibly praying and prophesying, some have invented a special explanation which we will notice later. The true explanation is surely quite simple. Since 1 Cor. 14. 34 so plainly enjoins silence upon women 'in the churches', then the earlier passage must have reference to situations which do not amount to church gatherings. Those who are unwilling to accept this view sometimes temporize by pleading the difficulties of defining a church gathering. We do not relish the role of casuists, but we do not see that there is any real difficulty in practice. A 'church gathering' is surely simply a gathering convened for the normal functioning of the church in worship and service, at which it would be appropriate for all members of the church to be present. Sticklers for exact definitions and hard and fast rules which automatically provide for every situation can be relied upon to raise difficulties where none need exist. Given the desire to submit in the right spirit to the general tenor of Scripture, border-line cases need present no great problem to those who, having sufficient grace and dis¬cernment to know what is fitting, are willing to accept the guidance of godly and experienced ciders who can be relied upon to seek the Lord's mind in special cases. Sympathy must be felt for those who hesitate to yield, for all too often seemingly justified concessions are unfairly used to force the issue still further.
The Meaning of Silence
Those who are unwilling to accept what strikes us as the obvious and only way of reconciling the two passages are under the necessity of finding some special interpretation of 'silence', and we are asked to believe that Paul is simply rebuking the tendency of women to chatter in the church. To avert any indignation at this reflection on decorous sisters, we are informed that it was probably a tendency which marked the women of Corinth and would not apply to well conducted gatherings. This will carry no weight with those who remember that the epistle embraced 'all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord' and that in the very context we are considering we get the expressions 'in all churches of the saints' and 'in the churches'. If 'to speak' means 'to chatter' then Paul, according to his own words, conceives the possibility of 'chattering' five words to profit. Moreover he would permit two or three men to 'chatter' if an interpreter be present; in the absence of such, a man must be content to 'chatter' to himself and to God. Reverence prevents us taking the absurdity still further by applying the same interpretation to v. 21, where the word is applied to God. This ignoble evasion does not deserve to survive, but it is sedulously kept in circulation.
The Tables Turned
When we refuse to have 'silence' thus explained away objectors try to saddle us with the dilemma that if silence is to be under¬stood strictly, then sisters must not even join in congregational singing! It is strange how people who one moment try to explain away something, can the next moment become strict literalists if it suits them. The passage has only to be read in 3 sane way for the meaning to become perfectly clear - 'for it is not permitted unto them to speak'. If it means that sisters must not sing, then the men who would fain speak in tongues, and are told to be silent, must therefore refrain from joining in the singing. Paul explains what he means by silence - such men must be content to speak to themselves and to God.
Apostolic Prejudice!
Only the fact that we have heard it in unexpected quarters induces us to notice the reckless and ignorant protest 'This is only Paul's opinion, and he was a woman hater'. The seriousness of such a rejoinder is by no means diminished by the playful manner in which it is disguised. We say it is reckless because it involves a disregard of the inspiration of the Scriptures, an evasion which Paul himself apparently anticipated when in this very connection he wrote 'If any man think himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him acknow¬ledge that the things I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord', 14. 37. We say it is ignorant, because such a retort could be made only by one who is not sufficiently acquainted with the apostle's writings to know of the generous tributes he was always ready to pay to noble women who laboured with him in the Gospel.
Women serving the Lord
We believe that many who oppose the exclusion of women from the public ministry in the church are actuated by kindly but misplaced sentiment. They are at pains to remind us of the many valued services rendered by godly women down the ages and specially their ministry to the Lord. Such a reminder is quite unnecessary because we find as much pleasure in this wonderful theme as anybody -but what has it to do with our subject? Nothing. We are concerned with women's place in the church and in this context such arguments are pure irrelevancies. We have known cases where brethren, swayed by sentiment, have been in favour of encouraging women to take audible part in church gatherings, only to find to their surprise that resistance has come from godly women, whom they thought they were 'liberating', but who, in fact, had a better spiritual insight and realized that there was more involved than met the eye. We may not be able to appreciate all the reasons behind the scriptural injunction but there can be no doubt that godly women who bow, not to brethren but to the Word of God, honour God in witnessing to a truth, the importance of which is hinted at in the expression 'because of the angels', 1 Cor. 11. 10. We resist the temptation to pursue this point, beyond suggesting that it be pondered in association with Eph. 3. 10. If, as is undoubtedly the case, God has entrusted many Christian women with valuable gifts and talents then He must also have provided suitable spheres for their exercise. How a Christian woman should employ God-given gifts in spheres proper to her, is a matter she must settle before the One who is her Lord and ours. There are avenues in plenty without going beyond the bounds of the Scriptures (particu¬larly in the important work among women and girls) and it would be more to the credit of those who decry the proper ministry of women if they were humbled at the devotion of godly sisters who labour, often against considerable odds, at the call of God. For our part, we pay them unstinted tribute. Single sisters whose freedom from home ties gives them special opportunities, often amaze us by the courage with which they quietly and modestly serve the cause of Christ, not infrequently single-handed. Moreover married women, and mothers of families, have often shown themselves tireless servants of Christ without neglecting their homes. If their opportunities for public service are fewer, they can rejoice that one of the most blessed and influential spheres can be the home. By this we do not mean absorption in household chores, much less house-worship, but rather being a spiritual partner, a trainer of children and a lover of hospitality. Ft would be a thousand pities if pre-occupation with public service involved neglect of a sphere which accomplishes so much for God. Though faithfulness here is not always properly valued by others, it does not escape the eye of God, and it will receive its reward in the day to come. J. H. L.