Sermon on the Role of Women in the Church: What’s a Woman to Do?

How women can serve in the church of the Lord

What’s a Woman to Do?

A denominational leader once said this: “As a pastor, a husband, and a father, I have a dread of burying someone else’s talents, particularly those bestowed on women. Accordingly, I have tried to scrutinize my view, the place of tradition, the thrust of theology, and the force of my prejudices. Repeatedly, I have come back to this fact: If the Lord has given gifts, I had better be careful about denying freedom for their exercise. More than that, I need to ensure that the women in my life have every encouragement from me to be what He called and gifted them to be. A major part of my life must be spent as a man caring for, nurturing, encouraging, and developing gifted women because they aren’t the only ones who will give account for their stewardship. As a man in a male-oriented church, I may one day be asked about their gifts, too. I would like to be able to say I did considerably more than burying. A talent is a terrible thing to waste.”

I trust that part of that quote makes you as uncomfortable as it makes me. It’s not tradition or prejudices which have denied women a leadership role in the church—it’s Scripture. “As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church” (1 Cor 14:33-35). “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor” (1 Tim 2:11-14).

However, I—as that gentleman I quoted—often fear that we leave the impression that women must bury their talents. When I was working in Kentucky, I studied with three sisters who all expressed a desire to be baptized. However, they were quite reluctant to obey the gospel, for, in their words, “There is nothing women can do in the church.” Only after I and Tammy talked with them about the wide range of opportunities for women did they consent to baptism. Since that experience, I have been extremely sensitive to make absolutely clear that while women are not leaders, they have many talents to offer the church.

We find many women in Scripture using their talents to serve and to honor Jesus. “We entered the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven, and stayed with him. He had four unmarried daughters, who prophesied” (Acts 21:8-9). “Every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven” (1 Cor 11:5). There were women in the first century endowed with miraculous spiritual gifts.

This morning, we will examine several cases where women served in the New Testament. I desperately wish that we had time to discuss all the examples of the Old Testament. However, we shall confine ourselves to the New Testament, and asks “What’s a Woman to Do?”

A Woman Can Give

Many women in the New Testament gave generously of their means.

“Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means” (Lk 8:1-3). The word “provided” or “ministered” would better be translated “were providing.” The idea is that of a repeated action. These women were ministering “out of their means”—i.e., out of their abundance. These women, in other words, were supporting Jesus and the Twelve financially.

“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae, that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well” (Rom 16:1-2). The fact that Paul refers to Phoebe as a “patron” indicates quite strongly that she was a wealthy woman who sent Paul support time and time again. The fact that she is commended to the church at Rome has led many scholars to postulate that Phoebe was a wealthy businesswoman. These scholars generally believe that Phoebe was gong to Rome with the Roman Epistle, and Paul encourages the church to help her find good business in Rome. If the church helped Phoebe in this regard it would have meant that she could have given even more to the cause of Christ.

When Peter was released from prison, “he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying” (Acts 12:12). Obviously, the church did not have building in which to meet in its earliest days. Wealthy Christians would open their houses so that the church could meet there. Mary, the mother of John, is being generous in this passage by allowing the church to meet in her home.

We need women today who generously support the cause of Christ.

The Corinthian Christians were encouraged to give generously for the support of needy saints in Jerusalem: “Concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come” (1 Cor 16:1-2). Obviously, these instructions did not apply to the women alone in Corinth.

However, there were apparently some women in Corinth who had some wealth. “It has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you” (1 Cor 1:11). These could not have been Chloe’s children, for they would have been named as the household of their father, even after his death. Thus, these had to be either slaves or employees. While it’s conjecture, it’s certainly possible that the man married his stepmother to gain his father’s wealth that she now had.

“Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (1 Cor 9:13-14)—While a woman cannot publicly preach the gospel, she can give generously so that the gospel can be proclaimed.

I never will forget when a wealthy lady in the church where I worshiped in college called and said, “Justin, I don’t want to offend you, but I want to talk to you Wednesday night.” I didn’t know what she wanted, but come to find out, she and her husband had a good bit of money. She gave me her credit card, called a salesman she knew at a nice clothing store, and had me go and buy three suits. She said, “You’re a young preaching student, and we just want to help you out.” No public service. No unbiblical authority. Yet, she served in a way that she could.

Will you sisters give generously that the cause of Christ might prosper?

Women Can Teach

You know, as we have already mentioned this morning, Scripture prohibits a woman’s teaching publicly. That does not mean, however, that women don’t need to teach.

Did you realize that the first witness to the resurrected Christ and the first evangelist of the resurrected Christ was a woman? John 20:14-18. Luke 24:8-11.

There has been much error taught because of these truths for many years. It has been said by some that Mary was an apostle; others have said that since Mary was both the first witness to the Resurrection and the first one to tell of the Resurrection, women may serve publicly; I have personally known folks who have held these positions. I trust that such teaching is so erroneous that we don’t need to spend time this morning refuting it. But let’s not allow that error to diminish the fact that it was a woman who went and told the disciples that Jesus had been resurrected.

After Jesus talked with the woman at the well, we read: “So the woman left her water jar and went away into town and said to the people, ‘Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?’ They went out of the town and were coming to him” (Jn 4:28-29). This woman certainly seems not to have known much about Jesus—she says to her fellow Samaritans, “Can this be the Christ?” Even though she didn’t know much, she was willing to go and tell others what she did know.

Women have been instructed to teach. “Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the younger women to love their husbands and children to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled” (Titus 2:3-5). That is a tall order for older women—teaching what is good and training younger women in the way of righteousness.

Are you sisters teaching women? Do you share the message of Jesus with your friends and neighbors? Sometimes women are better suited for that work than are we men. Are you sisters teaching younger women in righteousness? Are you teaching your children? Are you serving by teaching?

Women Can Serve the Needy

Scripture contains many examples where women were serving the less fortunate.

Think of Dorcas: “Now there was in Joppa a disciple named Tabitha, which, translated, means Dorcas. She was full of good works and acts of charity” (Acts 9:36). After her death, the brethren called for Peter. When Peter arrived, “all the widows stood beside him weeping and showing tunics and other garments that Dorcas made while she was with them” (Acts 9:39).

In 1 Timothy 5, Paul instructs Timothy about how the church is to care for widows. Notice the type of women the church is to help: “Let a woman be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband, and having a reputation for good works: if she has brought up children, has shown hospitality, has washed the feet of the saints, has cared for the afflicted, and has devoted herself to every good work” (1 Tim 5:9-10). Paul also counsels Timothy to free the church as much as possible so that the church, with its limited resources, could help those who truly needed help. That counsel includes these words: “If any believing woman has relatives who are widows, let her care for them Let the church not be burdened, so that it may care for those who are truly widows” (1 Tim 5:16).

Part of serving the needy includes hospitality. We typically misunderstand the call for hospitality in the Scriptures. You see, we think of hospitality in our culture as having someone in our homes for a meal or something quite similar. In biblical times, hospitality meant something quite different. In Greek, the word “hospitality” literally means “love of strangers,” and the first century Christians had many opportunities to demonstrate love to strangers. Christian missionaries would travel from city to city, never knowing where they’d stay. Inns were notorious as places for people of disrepute, so Christians could not really stay in such places. Local Christians would often open up their homes to these missionaries so that they would have a place to stay.

We find some women in Scripture who were quite hospitable. After Lydia “was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.’ And she prevailed upon us” (Acts 16:15). Priscilla and Aquilla opened their home to the church: “Greet Prisca and Aquilla, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks but all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks as well. Greet also the church in their house” (Rom 16:3-5).

Will you sisters serve the less fortunate in our day? We have so many opportunities to care for the less fortunate in today’s world—from the homeless to orphans to the seriously ill to the bereaved to those struggling with addictions—you name it. Shall we serve, however we can—providing meals, a shoulder to cry on, and a listening ear? Shall we serve?

Women Can Serve the Church

In Romans 16, Paul mentions several women who were serving the church. “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae” (v 1). “Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you” (v 6). “Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa. Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord” (v 12). The New International Version does a good job of translation here: “Greet Tryphaena and Tryphosa, those women who work hard in the Lord. Greet my dear friend Persis, another woman who has worked very hard in the Lord.” The Greek brings out that these are feminine names and even reads in the second half “that woman who toiled much in the Lord.”

Interestingly, Paul doesn’t give details about what these women did. Of course, the Roman Christians needed no explanation of these women’s work. Apparently, they didn’t know Phoebe, but they were well acquainted with the others. In fact, the Romans are instructed to greet them.

It’s likely good for us that we don’t have the specifics of their service. All we know about them is that they were serving the Lord and serving his church. Without doubt they had different talents, different strengths, and different interests, for they were different women. Women—and men—aren’t bound to serve the Lord and his church in a set way. We have different talents, different strengths, and different interests, and the Lord expects us to use what we have to serve him.

Are you using what you have to serve the Lord?

This sermon was originally preached by Dr. Justin Imel, Sr., at the Alum Creek church of Christ in Alum Creek, West Virginia.

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