Teaching session on role of women in church
A teaching day on the role of women in church 'Women Walking in Freedom' was held on March 14. Mark Sims reports on the event which was both challenging and thought-provoking.
by Mark Sims
What with International Women’s Day on March 8th highlighting ladies’ achievements and the respect and encouragement still needed for them in a world where females are still used and abused through religious suppression, it is encouraging that, at least in the church, women are generally regarded as equal to men. Libby Lane’s recent appointment as the Church of England’s first female bishop is a prime example. Other church organisations are not so forward thinking, as some evangelical churches do not allow women to become elders, for example.
On Saturday 14th March, Jill Gower, Director of House of Prayer, led the teaching day, ‘Women Walking In Freedom’ at the House of Prayer, Fishergate, Norwich. Bookended by times of worship and prayer ministry, her three roughly one-hour teaching sessions, spread across the day from 10am-4pm, aimed to help women experience freedom through exploring the roles of women in the Bible, including difficult passages such as 1 Timothy 2, which seemingly rank women below men, following Genesis’ example.
Jill began by giving some very general context of how women are treated in certain areas of society in today’s world. Mutual respect, she told us, is paramount. ‘God glorifies in difference’.
Several important biblical women were mentioned, including Old Testament prophetesses Deborah (Judges), Huldah (2 Kings) and, of course, the first woman, Eve, whom Jill stressed, had equal standing with her husband Adam and whom God blamed first for the Fall, not Eve, as some prevailing thought would have it.
If we fail to see Adam’s fault, Jill thinks that, ‘we’ll never understand why Jesus came as the second Adam.’ In my understanding, though, God blames and punishes Adam, Eve and the snake, with the latter being the first to receive punishment.
This challenges some of the accepted wisdom of influential – male - figures of Church history. Tertullian, an early theologian, said, ‘God’s sentence hangs still over all your (female) sex and His punishment weighs down upon you. You are the devil’s gateway; you are she who first violated the forbidden tree and broke the law of God.’
German Protestant Reformer Martin Luther was not much kinder, saying that women, ‘…should remain at home, sit still, keep house, and bear and bring up children.’ Small wonder, then, that the church has long seen women as secondary to men.
‘We have to view the Bible through the prism of Jesus and the gospels.’ Said Jill. Jesus always ‘raises women up’, whether it be the Samaritan woman at the well, Martha, Mary, her sister, or Mary Magdalene, Jesus always encourages and honours the ladies. Magdalene is ‘lifted above her lowly status’ by being the first person – a woman, no less – to see the newly-risen Lord.
Certain passages within Paul’s New Testament Epistles have been used to enforce complementarianism, where men have ‘headship’ over their marriage, home and church meetings. Jill argued that Romans is the only proactive letter Paul wrote, in which he lays out his doctrine, containing ‘nothing whatsoever that any woman should find controversial or difficult,’ according to Jill. In other letters, such as 1 Timothy, however, Paul’s words regarding the fairer sex get a little trickier. When reading these, Jill said, we must remember that Paul was ‘addressing specific issues in those churches.’
For 1 Timothy, which focuses on the church in Ephesus, Paul is writing to a culture that worshipped the ‘Great Goddess Diana (or Artemis)’ as referred to in Acts 19:35 (NKJV). Women, particularly prostitutes from Diana’s temple, brought some of their ‘Pagan background’ into the Ephesians church, which was ‘a mess’, with ‘a lot of false teaching’ leading to Paul’s strict commands regarding women in his letter to Timothy that seem harsh out of context.
1 Timothy 2: 11-12 says: ‘Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence.’
Taken literally, this would mean women would not even be allowed to prophecy, as churches that forbid female leadership still allow them to do, let alone become bishops in the Anglican Church. Jill’s response is that Paul refers to ‘a woman’ in these verses, whereas he addresses ‘the women’ in v. 8-10, when dictating the dress code. Could it be that he was singling out a particular woman whom Timothy told him of who was creating trouble?
Clearly this was not Phoebe, a Deacon (or ‘servant’ in the NKJV) no less, whom Paul commends in Romans 16:1; or his ‘fellow worker’ Priscilla in Romans 16:3. Jill thought that, given Paul’s attitude toward such specific women, he was unlikely to order the silence of their whole gender. Jill pointed out that, when talking about women having no authority, Paul uses the Greek word ‘authentein’ – to undermine authority, particularly using sexual means (as a prostitute might), rather than ‘exousia’ – the actual exercising of authority.
‘Things have been lost in the church.’ Jill said. ‘There’s something about a woman that has a natural ability to birth things, that’s what we do…If you don’t have women in roles of leadership, maybe that’s one of the problems (of why) things aren’t getting birthed in the right way, because it is our gifting.’ Quite what these things are, exactly, was left for us to ponder on.
‘Women Walking In Freedom’ was challenging and thought provoking. I had hoped for more context regarding changing attitudes in the contemporary church toward women, including the prejudice inspired by the early church that still exists within it, to a lesser degree. However, at a time when women in leadership is still a controversial issue for the church as a whole, it is encouraging to hear a woman from an evangelical background tackle this subject with a mixed-gender audience.
Jill’s overall intention for the day was to help women break free from their own and others’ wrong-thinking, as well as whatever abuse they may have suffered due to their gender, by empowering them through Biblical example. Given the response to her end prayers, including us men, too, she achieved this.