Distinctions in Service
Stephen Arbuthnot, Glasgow, Scotland
Distinctions due to gift
God loves variety. We see so many examples in creation: whether it’s the amazing number of species of animals, birds, insects, or plants on this planet, or the huge number of different types of galaxies with their billions of stars, where ‘one star differeth from another star in glory’, 1 Cor. 15. 41.
It is the same in the spiritual realm, and particularly in the local assembly, where there are varieties of gifts, administrations, and operations.1
God believes in both diversity and equality. As regards our moral and spiritual state, we were all equally ‘dead in trespasses and sins’, Eph. 2. 1; we all needed to exercise ‘like precious faith’, 2 Pet. 1. 1, to obtain, by grace, all spiritual blessings. No believer gets more, none gets less, of these.
But God then gives to each a gift.2 There is a diverse range of gifts that He grants, so that the variety of tasks He wants undertaken can be done. This becomes clear from the ‘gift passages’ in Romans chapter 12, 1 Corinthians chapter 12 (where many are ‘sign gifts’ and not permanent for the whole of the church age), and Ephesians chapter 4. These are given respectively by the Father, the Holy Spirit, and our Lord. All three Persons of the Trinity are involved – just as They were in our salvation. There is also diversity in the way the same gifts can be expressed, as different measures of faith are given to each believer.3
One great practical consequence of this is that we should seek to develop the gift God has given us, and not try to imitate another of the Lord’s servants. We should recognize that God does not expect us to do what he has not given us the enablement to do. We should not copy another servant’s ‘style’ realizing that God does not want clones in His assemblies, but individuals working together in unity yet with diversity. This also means we do not play one off against another, but value the contribution that each brings to the collective service of God. In 1 Corinthians chapter 12 verse 12 Paul demands that we never despise another member‘s role in the assembly because everyone and the function they fulfil is needed.
Another vitally important consequence of the scriptural insistence on variety in God’s assembly is the unacceptability of any form of ‘one man ministry’. No one person can ever be singled out and described as ‘the pastor’, ‘the minister’, or ‘the teaching elder’ of an assembly. No such term is ever used in the New Testament, for the pattern clearly is one of plurality in both government and public service of every kind.4 An assembly needs to allow for the expression of all the gifts that God has given to it. So it is imperative that any arrangements for meetings do not shut out vital gift that God has given. I remember well the ministry of a brother who would rarely be heard speaking at the arranged ministry meeting for the usual 45 to 50 minutes, but in ten minutes or so at an open ministry session you’d get teaching from him that would lift your heart to heaven and give you an encouragement that you could go in the strength of for many days!
Distinctions due to gender
Let me take you back to when I was at Primary School. One of my teachers for a couple of years was Miss Boggs. She was a good teacher who taught the class well, had a good sense of humour, and was firm but fair. I listened to her teaching the usual subjects for 9 to 10 year olds, including the telling of Bible stories with relevant explanations. Mondays to Fridays I heard her teach. Then I saw her again at the weekends, on a Sunday morning at the Breaking of Bread meeting in the Gospel Hall my parents took me too – but there I never heard her speak a word! She sang the hymns with everyone else, but never prayed audibly, taught, read from the Bible, or even gave out a hymn. Miss Boggs was silent! What a contrast to what she was like at school! So I learned at a young age the difference between the ordering of things in the world, in contrast to God’s assembly.
But is it still right in the 21st century for capable, spiritual, and responsible women not to be allowed to take part in church gatherings? Let me answer the question by referring to the Baptist pastor, Steve Chalke, who has recently shocked the evangelical world by coming out in favour of same-sex relationships. In his attempt to justify this stance, which so clearly is contrary to scripture, he describes, in an article available on his Oasis website, how many churches have accepted women in leadership, and public teaching roles. He writes:
‘There are several New Testament texts that are very clear about the role of women in Christian communities. 1 Timothy 2:11-15 says: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.” The text appeals to Genesis 2 and the very nature of creation as its source of authority for the silence and submission of women . . . In 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, Paul writes: “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to enquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.” . . . in 1 Tim 3, where it is noted that women can fulfill this ‘secondary’ role (v. 11), the qualifications for the post of overseer/elder (vv. 1-7) are very male indeed! The absolute and universal character of the Epistles’ instructions about women is not easy to escape’. (My emphasis)
Mr. Chalke continues, ‘The vast majority of Christians now recognise that women can, and should, teach and lead. So, how have we got there when, on the face of it, the New Testament prohibits it?’
He supplies the answer to his question, ‘”It’s cultural”, we say’.
Now Mr Chalke’s purpose is to use the way people in Christendom have avoided the clear teaching of the Bible in relation to the role of women to justify, along with other arguments, his newly declared stance on same-sex relationships.
In the course of doing this he very helpfully affirms the clarity of scripture about the silent role of women and how it is based on creation. There is also a clear indication in what he writes that plain scripture has been wilfully set aside in favour of current cultural practice in the world. But it is the fact that God’s order in the creation of man and woman is the basis of the teaching about roles in the church that means that irrespective of the culture believers are living in, God’s rules about the distinctive responsibilities of men and women apply throughout the church age. It is also the case, of course, that the wickedness of same-sex relationships is the same today as it has ever been, as sexual relations, too, are based on creation principles.
Now the Bible never hints that women are inferior or less able than men, because they are not. It is simply that God has assigned different roles to the different genders. It must, of course, be strongly stated that while women have to be in silence in an assembly gathering, the men have a positive responsibility to take part audibly. In the matters of prayer and thanksgiving this is incumbent on all the male members, not only those recognized as having some type of speaking gift. Younger men should be particularly encouraged so that they get used to it early, but it’s never too late to begin, if any have not been doing so!
Distinctions due to God’s sovereignty
It is God who has decided what our gender and gift should be. So, we must submit to how God has made us and gifted us, and fulfil the roles assigned to us by Him with humility and zeal. We should avoid the stress that comes from trying to do what God has never intended us to do, and therefore hasn’t gifted us for, as well as the complacency or laziness that leaves God’s gift and purpose for us unrealized. There should never be any envying of others, neither any pride of ourselves, as all that we are, or have, comes from the Lord. Let us not neglect the gift God has given us but stir it up, and use it to His glory and for the blessing of others.
- 1 Cor. 12. 4-6.
- 1 Pet. 4. 10.
- Rom. 12. 3.
- See, for example, Acts 13. 1; Phil. 1. 1.