Don’t Be Sidelined by the Gender Debate

I am a woman with gifts. God has given me gifts to serve others, gifts to love others. But I haven’t always thought or lived with that conviction.

When I became a Christian one of the first things I began to learn about was spiritual gifts. Prior to becoming a Christian anything I was talented in was really for me and about me. So I was academic—it was to get good grades. I was athletic—it was to exercise to feel better or look good. Whatever it was, it was for me.

When I joined my church I was given a list of ways I could serve. But I did not initially respond with eagerness. I remember my friend telling a worship pastor that I could sing. “No!” I pleaded. “Don’t make me sing!” Then one Sunday a pastor announced a need for children’s ministry. I had time to serve in this area, but again I just wasn’t all that excited because the commitment would take away from “my time” in the service.

As I grew in Christ and my understanding of the church, ministry, service, and love it became increasingly evident that my gifts weren’t about me at all. I began to develop a theology of service and a conviction, thanks to the apostle Paul’s example, to count any gain as loss and rubbish compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ (Philippians 3:7-8).

Piper on Spiritual Gifts

In 1981, John Piper preached an instructive sermon on spiritual gifts that explains my conviction. He shares:

If you were reading through the New Testament, the first place you would run into the term “spiritual gift” is Romans 1:11, 12. . . . Writing to the church at Rome, Paul says, “I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you, that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.” The translation “impart to you some spiritual gift” is misleading because it sounds like Paul wants to help them have a gift, but the text actually means that he wants to give them the benefit of his gifts. “I long to see you, that I may use my gifts to strengthen you.”

The first and most obvious thing we learn from this text is that spiritual gifts are for strengthening others. This, of course, does not mean that the person who has a spiritual gift gets no joy or benefit from it. . . . But it does suggest that gifts are given to be given. They are not given to be hoarded. “I desire to share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you.” What does strengthen mean? He’s not referring to bodily strength but strength of faith.

Piper goes on to explain how to strengthen one’s faith and the general purpose of spiritual gifts. Point is, they are not our own. Spiritual gifts are the gift of God to the body of Christ for building up and strengthening others. Ultimately we glorify God by exercising spiritual gifts.

Piper concludes:

And there is nothing more thrilling, more joyful, more meaningful, more satisfying than to find our niche in the eternal unfolding of God’s glory. Our gift may look small, but as a part of the revelation of God’s infinite glory it takes on stupendous proportions.

Anything I have I count as loss, yet I still have the opportunity to strengthen others. What a kind God! But for some of us there appears to be a potential stumbling block to serving—we are women.

Everyone Serves

Until recently it never occurred to me that I was a woman serving. I simply thought of myself as a person attempting to be a servant. I have never felt sidelined as an active member in the worship team, children’s ministry, and campus ministry and evangelism.

I realize my experience may not be shared by all women. Perhaps you not been able to serve for various reasons. Maybe you desire to serve as a pastor and chafe against passages such as 1 Timothy 2:12, where the apostle Paul says, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man.”

No matter your interpretation of this much-debated passage, Scripture also teaches us that if God has put you in a church, he wants you to serve. It is no small thing that God has gifted you for the benefit of the whole church! Paul’s description of the body and its various parts shows you are a valuable, and dare I say, needed part of the church (1 Corinthians 12).

The debate over gender roles can distract women from serving with all their might in the church. It’s tempting to focus on one aspect of church involvement closed to women rather than rejoice over the hundreds of ways we can and should be serving. If I am not a pastor, does that mean my service means less? Not so, according to Paul, who teaches us to take joy in working hard for God in every way he has gifted us, for the benefit of the body and to God’s glory.

God helped me put to death my selfishness and go hard with everything he has enabled me to do in the church. My ministry is important, but not because of my gifts or because I mostly serve women and children. No, it’s important because my gifts come from God to bless others.

Don’t be distracted by the debate. Serve. Serve the church. Serve God. The workers are few, so let’s be among those few.

If you need some ideas and inspiration for how to get involved, check out the helpful and extensive list compiled by Piper.

  • Rebecca

    Thanks for this encouraging word today!

  • Hannah Anderson

    I wonder if some of the hesitation to serve comes because we practice a very confusing view of service and greatness. As a Christian culture, we have yet to truly embrace Christ’s teaching about being the least in the kingdom of God–instead we encourage a very celebrity-based Christianity and often pastors and public speakers are the focus of that celebrity. And, more often than not, they are men because of our complementarian values. The result is that this combination can lead women (and men without teaching gifts) to feeling confused and less certain of the significance of their work to the kingdom.

    I’m not in any way discounting what you’ve written–it’s very good and very true–just trying to add a dimension to the discussion. Do women struggle with serving because we as a culture have said one thing (all service and roles are equally valuable) but with our time and money and attention, we have said another? When we deal with this issue–with celebrating the worth and contribution of all servants of God–the other issues will resolve themselves.

    • Mel

      We struggle because of the sin of wanting the greater portion.
      We struggle because from the time of the garden we have wanted to do it our own way and discount what God says is the better way.
      Women let satan deceive them into thinking that we are only important if we are just like a man. That just isn’t true.
      Imagine if Mary had insisted on being a priest instead of the vessel that gave birth to Jesus.

      • Hannah Anderson

        I completely agree that the root issue is misunderstanding what it means to live as a servant, but I also believe that we can create contexts that either help us fight the natural inclination toward sinful self-aggrandizement or we can create contexts that encourage it. Our current context tends to undermine the truth that “all service is equally valid” by elevating those leadership roles that are filled by men. I’m not questioning the validity of women’s roles by any means, simply questioning a context that creates celebrities out of preachers and not mothers.

      • EricP

        Imagine if Zechariah had wanted to be a priest instead of the father of John the Baptist. (Luke 1)

  • autumn

    In my experience, men are far more distracted by the “gender wars” when they insist that we serve according to gender rather than giftedness. There are women who are gifted teachers, but many churches want only devotions and crafts for their women. So, we serve where there is a need, but not according to the gifts which God has given.

  • LAteach

    Great words. I think that most women (that I know) are more concerned with not having “hundreds of ways” to serve in their own churches. It’s not necessarily a matter of needing more programs–goodness, no, lol–but one of needing more ministry opportunities. Churches need to get creative; WOMEN need to get creative! That many churches cannot get beyond Sunday school teaching, prayer groups (usually aimed at praying for husbands/children), and “theology lite” studies for the women is an aspect of the gender debate that gets little attention, in my opinion. (None of those ministries are bad or unneeded, of course!) And both men and women are responsible for the lack of creativity in growing areas of ministry that utilize all of the gifts God has placed within their congregation. An unawareness of those gifts is yet another issue at the heart of the matter.

  • Courtney Joy

    I have seen that it can be damaging and confusing to say that women don’t “lead” in the church. In the churches (including quite conservative churches) that I have been a part of, every aspect of the church function other than the main Sunday morning service would slow to barely a crawl if it weren’t for women taking initiative and making things happen. It is unrealistic to not recognize this as leadership. I don’t know of a church that doesn’t have significant female leadership, even when they don’t preach to men or have a position as an elder. Serving effectively becomes very difficult if elders fail to recognize this leadership element.

  • EricP

    I disagree with the idea that 1 verse in Timothy prevents women from teaching. 1 Tim 2:12 appears to be in the same vein as 1 Cor: 7:12: “To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord)” 1 Tim 2:8 starts with “I desire”, not “The Lord commands” Between 2:8 and 2:12, Paul also forbids pearls, gold, braided hair, or costly clothes.

    The article itself implies that if a woman is gifted in teaching she should teach to her full ability and not be limited by men.
    “But it does suggest that gifts are given to be given. They are not given to be hoarded”
    “No matter your interpretation of this much-debated passage, Scripture also teaches us that if God has put you in a church, he wants you to serve. It is no small thing that God has gifted you for the benefit of the whole church!”

    According to 1 Cor 11 & 12, women can prophesy and prophecy is greater than teaching.

    “The debate over gender roles can distract women from serving with all their might in the church. ”
    Change distract to prevent and you get a more accurate point. It seems unreasonable to say “we disagree, let’s compromise on my interpretation.”

  • Red

    ‘Maybe you desire to serve as a pastor and chafe against passages such as 1 Timothy 2:12, where the apostle Paul says, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man.”‘

    I’d like to share my brief thoughts.
    Paul does not want a specific woman to teach, that is, 1 woman. He was only stopping 1 woman. Literaly, there is no way to contextualy, and grammaticaly get more than one woman out of his usage of “a woman” and that he stopped 1 woman IS the plain meaning.
    Is it possible that Paul was trying to stop more than 1 woman from teaching and dominating? Yes, he could have been trying to do that but it cannot be proven that he was trying to do that from the text he wrote, therefore, highly unlikely. It is literaly impossible to prove from the text that Paul was stopping “women” from teaching and dominating. Paul could no doubt get his message and point across. I trust that he meant what he wrote, and I personaly don’t go beyond what is written.
    Without crossing biblical boundaries, that is what is actualy written down by Paul, it can only be said then that he may have been stopping “women” from teaching. It cannot be said that it is a fact that he was stopping “women.”
    The complementarian interpretation of 1 Timothy 2 cannot be said to be biblical since it is only a possiblity that he was stopping “women” because the interpretation crosses the line of what’s written. And anything is possible outside of what is written.

  • Andrew

    Trillia – I’ve seen some of your articles here and over at DG. It’s clear that you have a gift for writing with grace and insight. Thanks, and keep it up!

    • T.Newbell

      Thank you for the encouragement, Andrew. It is a joy to write (and serve) in this way. Blessings!

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