While Scripture teaches that God has given the responsibility of the pastoral role to men (1 Timothy 2:12; 3:1-13, Titus 1:6-9), there are a myriad of meaningful ministries for women. Unfortunately, many women culture mistakenly associate being “out front” or “in charge” with being more valuable. However, when we shift our focus away from the few roles God has reserved for men, we’ll find that the ministries available to women are part of the lifeblood of a local church's witness to the world.
A Long Legacy
From its earliest era, Christianity gave meaningful ministries to women. Women like Pricilla were fellow-laborers in the faith (Romans 16:3). Women like Lois and Eunice nurtured future leaders in the church (2 Timothy 1:5; see also Acts 18:2). Phoebe was a trusted and valued helper (Romans 16:1-2) Junia was a pioneer missionary (Romans 16). Women struggled for the cause of the gospel (Philippians 4:2-3), provided house churches and hospitality (Acts 16:40), and were known in their communities for acts of kindness and charity (Acts 9:36-42).
The trend continued in the following centuries. Ancient Christians in eastern cultures like Syria and Persia assigned substantial responsibilities to female deaconesses––women who served other women in concrete, tangible ways. Their ministries included evangelism to other women, teaching and discipling new female converts, caring for women who were ill, and assisting in the baptism of new female Christians.
These significant ministries are among the reasons Christianity drew so many women in ancient cultures. Michael Kruger, an expert on early Christianity, explains that the number of women who converted to the Christian faith in the early church was disproportionate to the gender ratio of the Greco-Roman world, so much so that the pagan philosopher, Celsus, mocked the Christian faith as a religion of women. Among the reasons for Christianity's popularity is that the church gave women opportunities for honorable and dignified ministries. Kruger notes the presence of women in even the earliest source of Christian history, with ministries of caring for the poor and imprisoned, missions, hosting home churches, and funding the work of the kingdom. And all of this happened in harmony with 1 Timothy 2:12.
But there’s something about these facts that is easy to miss, and it just might turn the conversation about what women can and can’t do in the ministry on its head.
A New Perspective
The ministries in which women participated are among the markers of genuine Christianity in a community and these ministries led to the growth of the early church. Whether carried out by males or females, these ministries are the boots-on-the-ground assignments for any body of believers. They are at the heart of the church's mission––meeting spiritual, physical, and material needs in our communities!
Consider how important these ministries were to the New Testament church:
- Evangelism and Discipleship – Three words to sum this one up: The Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20)!
- Serving the poor – The Jerusalem council charged Paul to serve the poor in his ministry to the Gentiles, the very thing he was “eager to do” (Galatians 2:10).
- Caring for the sick – Historically, caring for the sick distinguished Christians from pagans. Jesus even made caring for sick and imprisoned believers synonymous with caring for Him personally (Matthew 25:35-40).
- Meeting material needs – Paul praised the believers in Macedonia for sacrificially giving to the work of the kingdom despite their material lack. Meeting the material needs of other believers also demonstrated unity in the church (Acts 4:34-35).
- Hospitality – The ministry of hospitality, or “love of a stranger,” was deeply valued; both Peter and Paul commanded all believers to practice hospitality (1 Peter 4:9; Romans 12:13).
This is the ministry of the church.
Some Practical Suggestions
Now, to clarify, this is not at all to devalue or downplay the priority of the preached Word or the high calling and responsibility of a pastor. Not in the least. Yet, like all other spiritual gifts, the role of a pastor is only one (albeit vital) part of the body of Christ, and it is a calling given to a relatively few number of Christian men. The church's mission, on the other hand, is the task of every member of Christ’s body, and it is carried out not only during corporate worship on Sunday, but at all times.
Women, consider some practical ways you might join in this critical work:
- Evangelizing and Discipling. – All other ministries provide opportunities for these two. Ask your neighbor or co-worker how you can pray for her, and look for opportunities to initiate spiritual conversations. Join in the evangelistic efforts of your church or go on a mission trip next summer. Find a younger Christian woman, pick a book of the Bible, and study it together (also, see Titus 2:3-5). Teach a Bible study for women. Memorize Scripture with a group of friends and talk about how God is using it in your lives. Be the listening ear for a younger mom who’s in tears over raising her toddler and share your wisdom. The possibilities are endless!
- Serving the poor and vulnerable. Volunteer at a pregnancy center, where so many women considering an abortion are in poverty. You might serve in organizations that help women cultivate life skills or find jobs, or ministries that help women rescued from human trafficking. Or, you might speak up for the unborn by advocating for certain legislation.
- Caring for the sick. Make a hospital visit or take a meal after a surgery. Clean the house of a woman recovering from chemo treatment or take care of her kids so she can rest. Drive her to an appointment or pick up some groceries. You could even bring a younger woman with you and teach her how to take care of others who are ill.
- Meeting a material need. Help a college student go on a mission trip or fund a ministry of the church. Help a single mom buy school supplies for her children. Pay a month’s bills for a family whose father just lost his job.
- Showing hospitality. Host a Bible study in your home or have your neighbors over for dinner. And Christian hospitality doesn’t just happen in the walls of your house. It can happen when you help a new family in your church find their way around town, or when you help a family of refugees learn and adjust to American life, or when you help children learn to read in an after-school program.
Our spiritual foremothers transformed their communities doing the very ministries that grew the church. And so can we.
In their book, Misreading Scripture Through Western Eyes, E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Books, 2012) explain that Paul’s prohibition likely refers to the cultural value of primogeniture. This idea meant that “the firstborn child received a larger inheritance, and with it greater responsibility, than all other children – not because he or she was preferred or more deserving or better qualified in any way, but merely because she or he was firstborn.” (13) Thus, man’s firstborn status at creation refers not to his personal ability or worthiness but rather to his responsibility. As Richards and O’Brien explain, “Paul’s original readers may have understood him as saying that men should be pastors not because they are innately better qualified or more deserving but simply because they are the ‘firstborn.’” (13-14) Since man was created before woman, God holds men responsible for the spiritual leadership in both the human and church families.
William Weinrich, “Women in the History of the Church: Learned and Holy, but Not Pastors,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, eds. John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton: Crossway, 2006), 264.
Rodney Stark approximated that women comprised two-thirds of the Early Church. See Stark’s Rise of Christianity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 101.
Michael Kruger, “Was Christianity Hostile to Women?” Canon Fodder, April 18, 2016, available at https://michaeljkruger.com/was-early-christianity-hostile-to-women/. Kruger serves as the Professor of Early Christianity at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Stark, Rise of Christianity, 73-94.
Karen Ehman, A Life That Says Welcome (Grand Rapids: Revell, 2006), 185. “After all,” says Ehman, “kindness knowns no limits, welcome has no bounds. We can seek to be the kind of Christian who makes others feel comfortable, loved, and wanted simply by being with them.” (185)
One important note: If you’re a woman with spiritual gifts such as teaching, shepherding, or leading, then by all means, use them . . . just use them according to Scripture!