Vision in the Maelstrom (May 1993)

By Matt Dabbs

by Anna M. Griffith
May, 1993

12

The Maelstrom

When a visiting speaker recently addressed a large Christian audience regarding challenges facing today’s churches, the listeners followed him thoughtfully, sometimes nodding in agreement, occasionally jotting down a note, or whispering a word here and there. But when he began discussing the current issue of the role of women in the church, some left, while others responded with enthusiastic “Amens.” After the lecture, one of his hosts demanded angrily that he never mention that topic there again, while some guests asked him how soon he could speak to their congregations. This author knows of no other topic so emotionally charged or divisive. And I know of no other period within my lifetime when the church has faced so many challenges or change agents.

But I also know of no other time as exciting as this. Because individuals and institutions possess more capacity for growth in times of change and challenge, Christian leadership today has an unprecedented opportunity to inspire unparalleled Christian growth in the unsettled milieu of churches and society.

Above the Maelstrom

In earlier articles1, I have presented a broad range of female activity in the church. The most pervading functions include card-sending, communion preparation, custodial maintenance, women’s and children’s education, nursery facilities, missionary communications, hospitality for church functions, and various visitation ministries. The “ministry system” has widened service opportunities immensely, both in having a separate class of “women’s ministries,” and occasionally finding a woman in charge of a ministry, as well as participating in, and occasionally chairing, various types of task forces.2 The para-church ministries – nursing, children’s and maternity homes, marriage and family services, journalism, Christian education – are often staffed, and occasionally chaired, by women. Reflecting deeper involvement still are women in paid staff positions, where they most often oversee benevolence, counseling, and education ministries; although we now have a handful in youth ministry as well. At least two Christian colleges presently offer a major in ministry structured for women.

Several churches have rotating committees in which women serve in worship planning. Several have special mixed singing groups in which the whole group leads in praise. For all responses except baptism at the Richland Hills congregation, the leadership asks those responding to go to the chapel. Often a woman will want to talk and/or pray with a woman, so godly men and women accept responses at the end of services.

While much of this may seem controversial to some, the churches reporting these various activities assure us that all are proceeding smoothly. But these areas lie on the fringes of the controversy.

Into the Maelstrom

The heart of the present turmoil centers around two issues – what a woman can or cannot do in worship, and whether a woman can or cannot have authority over a man. We have traditionally circumscribed the first by First Corinthians 14:34, 35 and the second by First Timothy 2:9-15.

In the late years of the nineteenth century and early years of the twentieth, we formed our policy of women’s role based heavily on traditions inherited from the Reformation, which in turn inherited them from Catholicism; but in our search for scriptural blueprints, we turned to the two texts mentioned above. However, in the last 15 years, as our scholars have been leading more of us in reading the whole text, in setting these passages into their contexts, and in reconstructing the occasions for the writing of the biblical documents, we are becoming increasingly aware of the breadth of the roles of all of the early Christians. Who Christians were and what they did was less often tied to gender and more often anchored in their status as redeemed children of God. A straightforward reading of Acts shows women in a multiplicity of roles.

The women Paul addressed in Romans 16 were probably leaders or co-leaders of house churches. Priscilla (Prisca) and Aquila together taught Apollos. When this couple is mentioned, her name is usually listed first, prompting some scholars to suggest that she was probably the more influential of the two, Euodia and Syntyche, Paul’s “fellow-laborers” (sunergon), were wielding sufficiently disruptive leadership that their rivalries were threatening the unity of the otherwise successful Philippian church (Philippians 4:2,3).3 In its early years, Lydia likely was a strong leader in that church, but Paul reserved his highest praise for Phoebe (Romans 16:1,2), a “servant” (diakonon, deacon) of the church in Cenchrea, and a “helper” (prostates) of many. Prostates appears only here in the New Testament, but contemporary Greek sources use it to describe a legal person who spoke for the rights of aliens. While this word does not denote the title of any kind of leader within the church, it definitely described a person with influence in society “who could intervene with clout on behalf of people in precarious situations.” Of her, Paul wrote two directives to Rome: Welcome her as a recognized leader sent on an important mission; and help her in any way you can. She could well have been the bearer of Paul’s letter to them. At any rate, this female church leader carried Paul’s mandate giving her the authority to request their collaboration in fulfilling a ministry, partly because she was highly respected in society.

With these and other examples, it is difficult to see why Paul would permit women to serve dramatically, sacrificially, and powerfully under his watchful eye, but forbid them in his letters from doing so for the remainder of eternity. In the first Corinthian letter, he forbids their chatter in the assembly (1 Corinthians 14:34,35), but apparently accepts their prayer and prophecy as a matter of course, as long as they are suitably attired (1 Corinthians 11:5f). In First Timothy, he forbids their teaching and exercising authority over men (2:9-15), but lists qualifications for women for some unknown, but specific, function (3:11). When one adds to these the activities of Dorcas (Acts 9:36-43), the qualifications and duties of, and provisions for, widows (1 Timothy 5), the responsibilities assigned to older women (Titus 2:3-5), and the persecutions leveled against both sexes (Acts 8:1-3; 9:1,2), one begins to see that “church” is not simply what happens in some building twice a week. The primitive church had no buildings, and their gatherings were not the total of Christian practice. Christianity was “daily,” with women doing as much as men. If we would cease programming the men to think that their involvement in leading corporate worship is the apex of Christian service, perhaps fewer women would adopt this erroneous view. However, in the actual practice of today’s church, the assembly is the primary public function in many congregations. Thus, by being limited there, many women lose almost all avenues of participation.

There is some discussion as to whether First Thessalonians or Galatians is Paul’s first letter; both are early. But it is accurate to say that very early Paul penned God’s inauguration of Christian freedom in his Galatian letter: “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither bond nor free; there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (3:28).

Volumes have been written on this little verse, probably far too much. But both in Paul’s world and in ours, each person is, in fact, either Jew or Gentile, slave or free, and male or female – and Paul wisely never tried to change a Jew or Gentile into being the other. He never sought to abolish slavery; her never tried to persuade husbands and wives to abandon their traditional roles. But he did seek to show that in Christianity’s blazing crucible, baptism confers a new identity on all believers – an identity transcending racial distinctions, class distinctions, and sexual distinctions. Thus Paul could become “as a Jew” (1 Corinthians 9:20) in order to win Jews. He encouraged Philemon to accept Onesimus as a brother. And he spoke of Euodia, Syntyche, and some of the women in Rome as his fellow-workers in the Lord.

Likewise, Paul’s rebukes honored no distinctions. For the Corinthian assembly, he rebuked the disorderly prophets and tongue-speakers as well as the chattering women. In addition to chastising younger widows and disruptive women in his first letter to Timothy, he rebuked Demas and Alexander, the coppersmith, in the second. Modern church leaders seem to be concerned about women being dictatorial, but men are just as guilty. Selfish ambition among men is as old as Christendom (Philippians 2:1-4; Ephesians 4:1-3).

A Course Out of the Maelstrom

Acknowledging that, at all times in Christian history, God has equipped his saints for the task set before them (2 Corinthians 3:4-6), church leadership today needs to take a fresh look at what constitutes a spiritual gift. Their task is to help their followers find their spiritual gifts, refine them for use in significant ministry, provide them with opportunities, and then support them in that ministry.5 Hopefully, we will not be guilty of limiting God only to first-century gifts, if twenty-first century situations call for new – or additional – tools.

I also know few women who want to “run the church” or “take over the church.” I do know numbers of highly qualified women who want to use their talents and expertise for the Lord. Some say that no woman may have authority over any man. But some who know insist that First Timothy 2:12 refers to husbands and wives: I may not exercise authority over my husband. Others point out that in Paul’s recourse to Genesis 3, it was Eve, the less-informed, the late-comer on the scene, who initiated the mistaken course of action. Adam had been the teacher; Eve, the learner. Yet here, even though ill-equipped, she acted as teacher and fell into the trap. Her mistake was to exercise an authoritative function for which she was not prepared. But lest we place an eternal onus on Eve, Paul states forcefully that the responsibility for the Fall rests squarely on Adam’s shoulders (Romans 5:12-14). In First Timothy 3, he likewise cautions that no recent convert (specifically males here), should be in a position of leadership (v. 6), but receive training until they can show evidence of maturity and competency6.

In addition to the relationship between leadership and authority, we need to rethink the relationship between leadership and office. We do not really know if the first century church had offices, as we understand them, or if some people merely functioned in those capacities. Our traditional view is that the church in Philippi had the offices of “elders and deacons,” but that Phoebe was “just a servant.” On the other hand, some scholars insist that at this early time, the “offices” had not yet been codified – that Philippians 1:1 can just as well be translated, “leaders and servants.” Indeed the Catholic church itself elevated the concept of office to its highest expression with its hierarchy of priests to pope. A great deal of evidence is surfacing that prior to the development of this full-blown all-male hierarchy, both men and women served the Lord’s Supper and fulfilled various kinds of other sacred functions.7 It appears that if we are truly interested in restoring the first-century church, we must go back to before Catholicism established an all-male hierarchy!

Of course, today we do need capable men of vision to be our elders, a completely biblical term, and they need to be married. But today’s church, with the immense challenges before her, needs all the leadership she can muster – formal and informal.

Recently I was accused of “usurping” because I was leading a ministry with both sexes serving in it. My only answer was, “If an elder asks me to do a work, and I refused, wouldn’t that be ‘usurping’? You’d just have to ask one of my elders about that.” So they called my elders, asking, “Isn’t she usurping?” They answered, “No, we asked her to do it; she is qualified; she’s doing a good job and we are going to support her in it.” The church has a better chance of making an impact in this world if all of her members are given an opportunity to serve according to their gifts.

Taming the Maelstrom

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul whipped out his sword and began slashing at the many issues in which the shallow-minded Corinthians were wallowing – “preacheritis” (1 Corinthians 1:10-17), pride in worldly wisdom (1:18-3:23, and elsewhere), arrogance (chapter 4), immorality (chapter 5), lawsuits (chapter 6), divorce and remarriage (chapter 7), uninhibited freedom (chapters 8-10), corruption of the worship (chapters 11, 14), abuse of spiritual gifts (chapters 12-14), and women’s role in the church (chapters 11, 14). But at the end of his letter, he essentially says, “Now I’m going to tell you what is of first importance – the death, the burial, and the resurrection of Christ” (15:3-5). If we preach this, if we concentrate on this, if we live and breathe this, and if we grant full partnership in this effort, then God will bless our efforts beyond our imagination. In our enthusiasm for restoration, I fear that we have focused primarily on modeling the divisive Corinthians with their emphasis on issues rather than on Christ. No issue is worth a church split. If we become so skewed in our focus over women’s role that we fracture – because either we want women to do everything regardless of how many churches split, or we are so determined to preserve the status quo that our young women either leave or suffocate – we will die a slow, agonizing death while our world is being lost.

We have no other choice than to renew our intensity in preaching Christ. And in this we must allow the Holy Spirit to work dynamically in the congregation. He loves our churches more than we do. He can foresee their directions, compensate for their weaknesses, and understand their potentials, far better than we can. He is able to guide the individual gifts that he has given, to open doors at the right time, and to allow the spirit of love to prevail. Thinking that the congregation may be “out of (our) control” may be scary, but even more frightening is to imagine that if we are “in control,” then God is not! With him at the helm, we all win.


1 Image Magazine, May-June, 1991, and Christian Woman, May-June, 1991.

2 Richland Hills, Ft. Worth; Woodmont Hills, Nashville; Highland, Abilene; Preston Road, Dallas; and Central, Wichita, Kansas are a few of these churches.

3 See Phil Ware, “Paul and the Women of Macedonia: Women in Ministry,” paper read at the Christian Scholars Conference, Abilene, TX, 1985.

4 Gilbert Bilezikian, Beyond Sex Roles (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985) p. 205f.

5 George Barna, User Friendly Churches (Ventura, CA; Regal Books, 1991), p. 163.

6 Bilizekian, p. 180f.

7 “Doing research in the Vatican Library, Dr. [Ann Rossi, honorary research fellow at the Women’s Studies Research Center at the University of Wisconsin in Madison] Rossi discovered the fascinating work of Italian scholar Georgio Otranto, director of the Institute for Classical and Christian Studies at the University of Barra in southern Italy. Otranto’s analysis of correspondence, art frescoes and other evidence document the existence of women priests and bishops in early church history” (Patricia Aburdene and John Naisbitt, “Transforming Religion,” The Dallas Morning News, Sunday, January 3, 1993, Sec. J, pp. 1f.)Wineskins Magazine

Anna M. Griffith

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1583 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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