As a jumping-off point for today’s post, I want to tell you a bit about a booklet my mother recently dredged up from an old filing cabinet. It was “The Christian Woman” by Ronald L. Dart (published 2000 by Christian Education Ministries). The first part was about the history of women’s (mis)treatment in the church over the years, contrasting that with the high value Jesus placed on women. After that he moved into more controversial waters of women’s role in the church, which is what I want to dive into today as well.
One of the things I appreciated about this booklet was the distinction Dart drew between personal and public ministries to explain why our churches have traditionally assigned preaching and teaching roles to men. He does not believe that women were not meant to have an active role in the church, but rather that their role should look different than men. It’s basically an extension of the different-but-equal mentality we’ve adapted toward the roles of godly men and women.
Near the end of this booklet, Dart addresses the idea of spiritual gifts in the church. He argues that because “There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit” that no one should be exulted or demeaned based on the gift they do or do not have, i.e. women should not be looked down on because they do have a gift/calling to preach. Quoting page 38, “there are many other gifts that are vital to the church — faith, healing, prophecy, discernment, and especially the greatest gift of all, love.”
This surprised me a bit, because I know of people who wouldn’t include “prophecy” in a list of gifts that women might have. If you go with “inspired speaking” as the meaning of “prophecy” in this context, that’s too close to preaching and teaching for them to be comfortable with the idea of women being involved.
Yet God would not give someone a gift He did not intend them to use, and we can see quite clearly in Acts 21:9 that Philip the Evangelist “had four virgin daughters who prophesied.” This word translated “prophesied” is the Greek propheuo (G4395) and it can either mean “to foretell things to come” or “to tell forth God’s message.” A prophet in this sense is “one who speaks out the counsel of God with the clearness, energy, and authority which springs from the consciousness of speaking in God’s name and having received a direct message from Him to deliver” (Zodhiates). Women may not have been giving sermons in church, but they were not keeping silent about God’s message.
Another example in the New Testament of women prophesying is found on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2. The opening verses say “they were all with one accord in one place” and that “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:1, 4). We know from Acts 1:14 that this “all” included women, which is also mentioned when Peter explains what is going on.
But this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: “And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God, that I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions, your old men shall dream dreams. And on My menservants and on My maidservants I will pour out My Spirit in those days; and they shall prophesy.” (Acts 2:16-18)
I first became interested in exactly what the word “prophecy” refers to several years ago. There was a Bible study in our local church group about discovering your spiritual gifts. A quiz was passed out to help point you in the right direction, and my result was tied between the “cognitive” gift of prophecy and the “emotional” gift of mercy/compassion. I’m starting to see the mercy/compassion side more now as I become more aware of strengths in my personality type. The prophecy part, though, has been terribly confusing for me.
The word translated “prophecy” in the spiritual gifts passage in 1 Corinthians 12 is propheteia (G4394), and it is derived from the word used in Acts. The 5th, 6th, and 7th definitions in Zodhiates’ Complete WordStudy Dictionary of the New Testament help shed some light on what someone is supposed to do with a gift of prophecy.
(V) A prophecy is something that any believer may exercise as telling forth God’s word. …
(VI) Prophecy was a distinctive charisma (5486), gift, distinguishable from that of the apostle and the teacher. While the apostle was a traveling missionary, the prophets and teachers were in general attached to a specific church. … Neither the prophet nor teacher was appointed by the apostles, as were bishops and elders; the gifts were an endowment of the spirit and both fulfilled the function of speaking in the Spirit.
(VII) That which is revealed constitutes a prophecy. The reception of such revelation and its communication did not entail states of rapture or ecstasy accompanied by unintelligible utterances. … Prophecy was a gift exercised with a consciousness of the subject, and it issued in something logically intelligible.
For years I had absolutely no idea what to do with this if it was indeed my gift. This blog has now given me an outlet, but I still wonder if there is something more I ought to be doing. Paul says, “he who prophesies speaks edification and exhortation and comfort to men” (1 Cor. 14:3). By this definition, the role of someone with a gift of prophecy is to build up others, encourage them towards virtue, and to console them. This can certainly be done in writing, and I pray my posts here could be described as words that edify, exhort, and comfort. But that doesn’t quite seem like enough.
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. … Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, let us prophesy in proportion to our faith (Rom. 12:1, 6)
Any one have thoughts on this? What should one do if one has the gift of prophecy? As we grow in the faith, our use of the gifts given by God should become more noticeable and effective, right? How should that look in “women professing godliness” (1 Tim. 2:10)?
Ways to Teach
I just quoted part of 1 Timothy 2 where Paul speaks about the conduct of women in the church. Reading on, we come to one of the (in)famous verses about women keeping silent in church.
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. For Adam was formed first, then Eve.(1 Tim. 2:11-13)
The focus of these verses seem to be about not upsetting God’s ordained order, much like in 1 Corinthians 14. Because husband and wife relationships model the relationship between Christ and the church, husbands are the head in a marriage (Eph. 5:22-32). It would be indecent for the church to try and take over Christ’s roles, and it would be similarly unseemly for women to “usurp authority over a man” (as the KJV reads). While the conduct of unmarried women is not mentioned directly, I think we can infer that they should also behave in a respectful manner toward men in authority in the church, though no specific man has the authority of a husband over them.
This does not mean women could never teach under any circumstances. The word “teach” here in 1 Timothy 2:12 is didaskalia (G1319). Like prophecy, it is a spiritual gift (Rom. 12:7). Zodhiates says that “Prophecy was a specialized form of teaching,” and has the following to say about differences between the two.
The differences between the two apparently lay in the fact that while prophecy was the utterance of a revelation received directly from God, teaching was the utterance of what one had gained by thought and reflection. The teacher must be led and guided by the Spirit to be a true teacher and have genuine spiritual teaching, but what he said was in a real sense his own. Some prophets were able also to teach, but not all teachers were able to prophesy.
I’m not exactly sure which scriptures he uses to arrive at this distinction, so I quote it as “food for thought” and to segue into connecting teaching and prophecy as what I’ll call “gifts of meaningful instruction.”
We can find several examples of godly women in instructive roles. Both Priscilla and her husband were involved in teaching Apollo (Acts 18:26) and Paul calls them his “fellow workers in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 18:3). There’s the aforementioned daughters of Philip who prophesied (Acts 21:9). We can assume Timothy’s mother and grandmother both taught him (2 Tim. 1:5). Paul instructs older women to be “teachers of good things” and in particular to “admonish the young women” (Tit. 2:3-4). Women are described as praying and prophesying (1 Cor. 11:5). Miriam (Ex. 15:20), Deborah the judge of Israel (Judges 4:4), Huldah (2 Kings 22:14; 2 Chron. 34:22), Isaiah’s wife (Is. 8:3), and Anna (Luke 2:36-37) are all called prophetesses.
Decently and In Order
The important thing to remember if we want to teach as women in the church is that we must still hold to the instructions for godly femininity. If we are not adorned with a “a gentle and quiet spirit” while teaching, then we’re doing something wrong (1 Pet. 3:4). If our teaching challenges proper godly authority or is inconsistent with instruction that believers submit “to one another in the fear of God,” then something’s wrong (Eph. 5:21). We must not contribute to confusion in the church, but “Let all things be done for edification” (1 Cor. 14:26)
Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others judge. But if anything is revealed to another who sits by, let the first keep silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, that all may learn and all may be encouraged. And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets. For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.
Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church. (1 Cor. 14:29-35)
Both the booklet I referenced at the beginning of this post and Zodhiates’ commentary in my study Bible agree that this instruction of silence for women is specific rather than general. The church at Corinth apparently had a problem with maintaining order in church gatherings. The phrase “keep silent” is also used in verse 28 to instruct a man who speaks in an unknown tongue to stay silent if no interpreter is present.
The word “to speak” used in this chapter is laleo (G2980) which, depending on the context, can simply mean to utter words or “to talk at random.” In the context of verse 34, Zodhiates says it should be interpreted as “uttering sounds that are incoherent and not understood by others.” It is less an instruction for women to never speak, than it is a warning not to babble meaninglessly just for the sake of being heard.
I also find the emphasis on asking their husbands “if they want to learn something” interesting. That seems to indicate some women were interrupting the church meeting to ask clarifying questions or to debate something they really didn’t understand. That would conflict with Paul’s wrap up for this chapter: “Let all things be done decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40)
But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, for that is one and the same as if her head were shaved. (1 Cor. 11:3-5)
I’m not going to get into the head coverings discussion. I just want to point out here that Paul was discussing “God’s ordained order” (as my study Bible titles this section) and the fact of women praying and prophesying was mentioned rather casually. It is not the subject of this passage — it’s simply accepted as one of the things both men and women were doing in the church. There is a right way and a wrong way to pray or prophesy, but both men and women were speaking about God’s message. As far as I can tell, we should be doing this still.
I don’t know for sure what this should look like in the churches today. I’m not ready to advocate women giving formal sermons, but women are studying their Bibles and many of us are learning things we feel like we should be sharing. There have to be more ways for us to serve than by supervising the snack table.