This summer has brought a break from seminary classes, a bit of mental clarity, and the opportunity for some deeper study around the role of women in the church. So far, more often than my questions have been answered, they’ve produced more questions— What do we do with passages like 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 or 1 Timothy 2:11-12? But, what about women like Deborah, Phoebe, Priscilla? Why did so many theologians write the way they did about women? Was John Calvin actually a jerk? How did we get around this bit about head coverings? In this essay, I will answer none of these questions.
Discussions around the role of women in the church can be quite discouraging, often starting and ending with what we aren’t allowed to do. But I believe there’s a place for you in the local church, that the gifts you’ve been given are for the full family of God, that “God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division” (1 Corinthians 12:24-25). Which is why I got a little teary when I came to Romans 16.
In this long list of closing greetings in the last chapter of Romans, we find Phoebe, a servant and patron of the church, Prisca, who risked her neck, Mary who has worked hard, Junia, a kinsman and fellow prisoner well known to the apostles, Tryphaena and Tryphosa, workers in the Lord, Rufus’ mother, who was a mother to Paul as well, Julia, and Nereus’ sister, named among the saints.
In his parting words to “all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints” (Romans 1:7), Paul greets women by name, includes them among honored members of the church, and in commending Phoebe, a servant of the church and patron of many including Paul himself, appeals to the believers in Rome to “welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints” (16:1-2). Paul speaks of these women with affection and affirmation, as sisters and co-laborers and fellow saints. While it isn’t uncommon in certain Christian circles to see participation in church work for women as a new frontier—a task for progressives or dissenters, depending on your position, it seems that rich and meaningful work for women in the church has been accepted and affirmed from its earliest beginnings.
Our denominational parameters around women in church work might not be the same and our interpretations of difficult passages like those in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy may differ (more on that someday, maybe), but I think this scriptural precedent for welcoming women into the life and work of the church in a way worthy of the saints is for all of us.
Through Scripture, through history, and in the life of my own local church, women like Phoebe and Katie Luther have worked diligently and given what they have to support the Church. Women like Prisca and Corrie Ten Boom have risked their lives for the sake of the Gospel. Women like Mary, Tryphaena and Tryphosa, and my friend Autumn Kern model what it is to serve God and neighbor in the tasks of daily living. Women like Junia, Elisabeth Elliot, and Leslie Bustard have been well known for their faithfulness among God’s people. Women like Rufus’ mother, Augustine’s mother Monica, and Emily Meneghini have mothered not only their children, but also their friends and fellow believers in all kinds of quiet, consistent ways. Women like Julia, Nereus’ sister, and Lauren Timmins have been named among the saints and active in the life of the church.
Jesus spoke directly to the woman at the well, had compassion on the woman who suffered from twelve years of bleeding, honored his mother, commended the widow who gave generously, protected the woman caught in adultery, wept with Mary and Martha at their brother Lazarus’ death, and did not dissuade Mary from sitting under his teaching. Jesus’ incarnation was brought about through Mary, his ministry was supported by Joanna and Susanna, his resurrection first announced by Mary Magdalene. While it would be a mistake to read the Bible as primarily a book about women, it would also be a mistake to read it as if they aren’t there. God created women in His image, and by His grace, has used them to accomplish His purposes and reflect His character to the praise of His glory ever since.
If we’re treating the Bible as a consistent whole and allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture, there’s no legitimate case for the abuse, exclusion, or devaluing of women in the community of faith. In fact, in The Triumph of Christianity, historian Rodney Stark writes, “Women were especially drawn to Christianity because it offered them a life that was so greatly superior to the life they otherwise would have led.” These women experienced more acknowledgement of dignity, more protection, more respect and opportunity than they would have found elsewhere. And doesn’t that make sense for us who believe women are made in the image of God and are ones for whom Christ died?
While Twitter tells me the whole church is arguing about women’s ordination, misogyny in the writings of Paul, and varying distorted definitions of “Biblical manhood and womanhood,” my lived-in local church experience tells a better story. I’m learning that questions about what the Bible says about women and what it means to welcome them into the life of the church in real and meaningful ways are often best answered in the context of the local church— real pastors, real elders, real women with real gifts, real brothers and sisters in real congregations. I believe that the particulars of what it looks like to welcome women into the life and work of the church will be different in different denominations, congregations, and communities. I’ve found that women are gifted and equipped to serve God and their neighbors in so many different ways, and that’s impossible to affirm or encourage this unless we actually know each other.
I still have more questions than answers, both in theory and in practice. But, I know that God’s design both for men and women and for the church is good, that He has equipped you to make disciples in the particulars of your life, whatever they may be, and that when we’re united to Christ, we’re also united to one another. I’ve known what it is to be welcomed in a way worthy of the saints + I want you to know it too.