A little while ago, we started a series of posts examining the role of women in the life of the church. The posts don’t pretend to say all or even half of what needs to be said on this topic. Instead, the posts represent a wrestling for the joyful, wide, fruitful freedom of women within the complementarian framework the Bible teaches. I’m a complementarian, but it seems to me that sometimes the way we talk about gender roles and the practice of complementarity puts the accent on what women can not do rather than what they can and should do. I think this hurts our sisters, our brothers, and our churches. We’re “benching”–intentionally or unintentionally–a sizable part of God’s family intended to play important God-ordained roles in the Great Commission.
In our first post, we outlined the angst that at least some complementarians feel, especially many of our sisters. In our second post, we talked about the necessity of women being taught and teaching. Our third post explored the role of women as missionaries.
Women and Prayer
I’m a complementarian, but women should pray to God in public. Restrictions in public prayer provides an example, I think, of the protective fences of complementarity being pushed over into our neighbor’s yard. In an effort to rightly protect areas God sovereignly reserves for qualified male leadership, some have began to annex and “protect” anything that looks like “leadership.” In their practice, some have basically reduced the complementarian vision to “never allow a woman to do anything ‘up front’ in the public meeting,” including prayer. In the process, they’ve also reduced “leadership” to up front marquee performance, rather than humble, loving, sacrificial service to all.
But it seems clear to me that women prayed in the public gatherings of the early church. As the disciples waited for the promised gift of the Holy Spirit before Pentecost, they “were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers” (Acts 1:14). Presumably as the Lord added thousands of women to the ranks of the disciples (Acts 2:41), these women were among those devoting themselves to prayer (Acts 2:42). During times requiring fervent intercession, the disciples gathered and prayed together with women–even in the home of a woman (Acts 12:12). The book of Acts generally depicts the female disciples devoting themselves to prayer along with the rest of the church.
Acts 18 records the Apostle Paul’s ministry in Corinth, the church to whom Paul addressed two New Testament letters. In his first letter to that early church, Paul mentions the fact that women prayed in the gathered assembly. He writes:
Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you. But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. … Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered?” … If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God. (1 Cor. 11:2-5, 13, 16).
Note several things about this passage. First, Paul commends the Corinthians for maintaining the traditions he delivered to them (v. 2). At least at this point, Paul does not consider the Corinthian church to be out of step with apostolic teaching, but in fact imitating him (v. 1).
Second, Paul specifically addresses the pattern of headship taught in the Scriptures. He wants them to understand that God is the head of Christ, Christ is the head of every man, and man is the head of his wife (v. 3).
Third, the pattern of headship gets reflected in the cultural practice of wearing head coverings. A wife’s covering honors her head, her husband (vv. 5-7).
Fourth, specific to our point, Paul mentions that women pray in the assembly. Were this a threat to the complementarian relationships of home and church, or were this contrary to the apostolic practice Paul commends the Corinthians for, we might expect Paul to dispense with the cultural preferences for head covering and hair length in order to go to the more fundamental issue of women praying in public. But instead Paul tells the Corinthians they may judge for themselves whether to require head coverings since neither the apostles or the apostolic church have such a requirement (vv. 13, 16). Paul doesn’t so much as clear his throat at the news of women praying the public assembly.
We might summarize the passage this way: When it comes to women praying in the public service, Paul (a) affirms headship in church and home, (b) protects liberty in head coverings, and (c) passes no judgment on women praying. I suspect he passes no judgment on women praying in the assembly because it was accepted practice. Women were free to do so then, and they should be encouraged to do so now.
Personally, I don’t think the instructions of 1 Cor. 14:31-15 prohibit female prayer in the church. In 1 Cor. 14:31-35, Paul again takes up the issue of wives honoring their husbands in the public assembly. They’re not to speak out of turn when it comes to questioning the prophecies. Some argue this passage effectively eliminates any public service by women in the church. I’d be inclined to agree with Jim Hamilton’s view on this passage:
[W]e should pause here to consider the fact that this passage indicates that it is acceptable for women to pray and prophesy in church. On the other hand, 1 Cor 14:34 says, “Let the women keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak …” The best conclusion is not that Paul is contradicting himself. The difference between these two contexts is that in 14:29 Paul had said, “let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment.” Then when he says in 14:34 that women are not to speak but to keep silent, I take it that he is referring to the evaluation of the prophecies.
You can find Jim’s full sermon here: https://www.cbmw.org/Journal/Vol-9-No-2/Gender-Roles-and-the-Glory-of-God. I think his solution harmonizes the passages rather well. The Bible does not seem to anticipate public prayer offered by women as a threat to the basic structure of relationships in the church and home.
What Really Threatens Complementarity?
One thing we ought to ask ourselves in our discussion and practice of complementarity is: “What truly threatens a healthy complementarian vision of church and family?” Many people act as if any public activity by women represents a significant threat to gender roles and qualified male headship in the church. So, everything that involves standing before men gets branded “out of order” or “unsubmissive.”
I’m reminded of the trajectory I’ve seen my mother’s church take on this issue. When I was a boy, the church maintained a pretty strong stance on male leadership (in this case, all the deacons were male; there were no elders). In addition, the church would not permit a woman to speak from the pulpit. Even the announcements–read by the church’s female secretary–were read from a small podium on one side of the church.
On the other hand, the church also had a number of extra-biblical offices that women filled. There were the “mothers of the church,” older women sometimes dressed in white who were honored like… well, mothers. I’m not really sure what clout they had. But I did recognize early on that you didn’t mess with the mothers of the church! The committees of the church were generally headed by women. So, whatever shots were called in that part of the church’s life were called either by those women or by the pastor with strong consultation from the women. In short, there existed these facsimiles of leadership in the church, carved out intentionally or unintentionally for women.
A generation later, the church now has a female “minister” who preaches from time to time. Announcements are read from that same podium off to the side, but the task of regularly preaching God’s word now includes women. The mothers of the church are still there, and the committees are still chaired mostly by women.
What happened? Was it the slippery slope? Did the church finally slide uncontrollably down the egalitarian cliff once women were allowed to read announcements? Probably not.
There always seemed to be a kind of unrest in the church when it came to women’s roles. There were women like my mother, who sometimes growled, “Women should not be preachers.” I’ve heard my mother say on more than one occasion, “I don’t care for no woman preacher.” Then there were other women in the church, who equated the entire discussion with civil rights. They felt women were being unnecessarily restricted and oppressed. They didn’t accept a biblical notion of gender roles, at least not as those roles were currently practiced. And in fairness to them, it’s highly doubtful that the Bible’s teaching was ever carefully explained.
Here’s my hypothesis: When the Bible’s teaching isn’t carefully explained–fencing in appropriate spheres of leadership and teaching, while fully encouraging women to be on mission and involved in meaningful ways in the church–all that’s left for understanding and acting on gender roles is a secular framework like civil rights or women’s liberation. Here’s the kick in the head: If the practice of the church is not biblical and unhelpfully restricts women, then such a framework is not only attractive to some people, it’s right. It’s right to resist oppression wherever we find it and however benevolent in its intent.
The greatest threat to a complementarian vision of the home and the church is an uninformed and restrictive practice of “complementarity” among those who champion it. In the end, the overwhelming majority of conservative evangelical women I know support the Bible’s teaching on gender roles. They long for strong male leadership. They don’t have ungodly ambitions for usurping authority. But they also long to enjoy every freedom Christ gives, and to serve the Savior as fully as possible in every green field of opportunity. If we place the fences of complementarity out to far from what the Bible truly restricts, do we not run the risk of fencing out our sisters altogether? Does the church not run the risk of becoming a bastion of male dominance? And would we not become our own worst enemies, fueling by our malpractice a legitimate protest for inclusion? And might we be vulnerable to mistaking those female voices for inclusion as voices of egalitarian and feminist unrest?
May our sisters pray for us–publicly!