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Sisters in the Congregation

Sisters in the Congregation.doc

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Sisters in the Congregation

Last week’s Postconfession class generated a discussion about the place God gives the sisters in the congregation.  For the sake of further reflection I take the liberty to pass on via this paper the drift of what I said at that Postconfession class.


The Bible is emphatic that the woman is in no way inferior to the man.  God created both male and female in His image (Genesis 1:27).  Both fell into sin and stand guilty before God (Genesis 3:16-19).  God has sent His Son to redeem man and woman like (John 3:16).  Those who embrace the gospel of redemption in Christ stand on equal footing before God; in Christ “there is neither male nor female” (Galatians 3:28), for both are equally saved by grace alone.

Different Roles

Emphatic as the Bible is about the equality of man and woman before God, the Bible is equally empathic about the different tasks the Lord has assigned to the man and to the woman.  In His good pleasure the Lord first created the man by himself, and instructed him to “tend and keep” the garden in which God placed him (Genesis 2:7,8,15).  Thereafter the Lord determined that “it is not good that man should be alone,” and set out to “make him a helper comparable to him” (Genesis 2:18).  The woman God created from the man was not to be simply a companion-and-no-more, just a female copy of the man with identical rights and privileges; rather, the Lord created her to be a “helper” to the man-who-was-tender-and-keeper of the garden.  God gave the man, then, a function as head and leader, and gave the woman the function of being helper.  This head/help relation was not intended for marriage alone or for matters spiritual, but was intended for all matters across the spectrum of life – as is evident from the fact that God gave the keeper of the garden a helper.  God Himself, then, established a hierarchy in the genders back in Paradise already.

The fall into sin did not alter God’s ordinance about a hierarchy, nor did it change the mandates God gave to man and woman as leader and helper respectively.  In keeping with His creation ordinance God called Abram away from his country and his family, with as result that Sarai followed (Genesis 12:1-5); the Lord did not call Saria so that Abram followed her.  When God set about to deliver His people from Egypt, He described Himself as “the LORD God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob” (Exodus 3:16), and not as “the LORD God of your mothers, the God of Sarah, of Rebekah….”  Similarly, God commanded that the male offspring (not the female) receive the sign and seal of His covenant (circumcision) – not because the sign of the covenant had to be circumcision, or because circumcision of females is impossible, but rather because of the hierarchy God established in the genders; in marriage the sign the one carries is valid for both.

Not Office-bearers

Consequently, when the Lord appointed leaders and priests in Israel at Mt Sinai, He did not appoint female elders or priests, but appointed men only.  The Lord Jesus Christ chose twelve apostles, and all of them were men.  In neither instance is this simply an echo of the culture of the day.  The Lord God is not bound by cultural suppositions and norms (see John 4:27), and is also mighty to change culture to suit His standards.  Rather, in both the Old Testament and the New Testament the Lord appointed no women to the position of leaders amongst His people because this is the standard of Genesis 2.

It is for the same reason that the Old Testament repeatedly uses the masculine pronoun ‘he’ to describe the person who brings a sacrifice (see, for example, Leviticus 1-4).  It is not so that the woman does not have to bring sacrifices for sin or for thanksgiving, and it is not so either that the use of the masculine pronoun ‘he’ is simply culturally determined.  Rather, God includes His instruction to ‘her’ in the instruction He gives to ‘him’.  The modern habit to use the designation ‘he/she’ does not do justice to the norm of the Bible.  ‘She’ is included in ‘him’; ‘he’ is not included in ‘her’.

In a culture that did not respect the differing positions and roles God intended for man and woman, Paul makes a point of reminding Christians of God’s revealed will.  When the brothers of the Corinthian congregation permitted the sisters to give leadership in church through their speaking, the apostle corrected them.  “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” (1 Corinthians 14:34).  Paul repeated the point to Timothy, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence” (1 Timothy 2:12).  He makes a point of insisting that this is an ordinance of God for all times and places:  “for Adam was formed first, then Eve.  And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression” (vss 13, 14).

Because of this principle as found in God’s Word, the churches have historically not ordained sisters of the congregation to offices in the church.  For the same reason a culture stamped with Christianity has historically encouraged men, not women, to take up roles of leadership in public life (be it political, educational, business, etc).  It has nothing to do with chauvinism or even with gifts, but has everything to do with humble submission to the revealed will of God.

Active Contribution of Women

Still, Scripture is very conscious of the fact that the sisters of the congregation can and must play a vital role in the well being of the congregation of Jesus Christ.  Paul instructs Timothy not to “let a widow under sixty years old be taken into the number, and not unless she has been the wife of one man, [is] well reported for good works: if she has brought up children, if she has lodged strangers, if she has washed the saints’ feet, if she has relieved the afflicted, if she has diligently followed every good work” (1 Timothy 5:9-10).  The phrase “taken into the number” in all likelihood refers to a designated group of sisters in the congregation whose task it was to labor in some way in the congregation.  Notice that the qualifications a widow must fulfill has many similarities with the list that potential elders and deacons must fulfill according to 1 Timothy 3.  We receive an indication as to what sisters as these had to do from Paul’s words to Titus.  Titus must ensure that “the older women … be reverent in behavior, not slanderers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things – that they admonish the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, chaste, homemakers, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be blasphemed” (Titus 2:3-5).  As “teachers of good things” these older women were to visit in the homes of the younger women of the congregation, discern the situation in the home, and admonish, instruct, encourage the younger sisters as the case might require. 

We need to note: in those days too the temptation and the trend was for mothers to be out and about, to focus on things other than loving husband and children (and ‘love’ means self-emptying for the other’s benefit; see 1 John 4:9-11), and to be negligent in making the home an attractive place for the family to be.  Yet inasmuch as the Lord God gathers His church primarily through families (for He entrusts His children by covenant to the care of believing parents), good family atmosphere is an extremely fundamental component of kingdom life; how else shall children learn the ways of the Lord!?  So important is healthy family life that God gave the older sisters in the congregation the responsibility to guide the younger sisters.  No, the sisters are not hereby ordained to an office of leadership in the church.  Yet the Lord does give them a distinct and vital task.

In our age of individualism and mind-your-own-business, this is a principle we do well to relearn.  It means concretely: let the older sisters of the congregation, as health and means allow, take up contact with the younger sisters in the congregation (their children in the generations first of all, of course), in order to “admonish the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, chaste, homemakers, good, obedient to their own husbands.”  Flip side: let the younger sisters in the congregation receive the older readily and humbly, and perhaps even seek out their instruction and guidance.  Were this to happen in our congregation, our families would (under God’s blessing) be stronger still.  And that can only be good for the church.

C Bouwman
9 November 2006