How can ecclesias most effectively respond to the new interpretations that are now being promoted in regard to the role of sisters?

Begin by understanding

An effective response calls for wisdom, a combination of insight and practical action. But understanding must come first – an understanding of what is being promoted, and why.

The new interpretations are being promoted by a small group of brethren and sisters who are committed disciples and diligent Bible students, often deeply interested in prayer, spiritual growth, preaching, youth work and service. While their thinking may have been influenced by the humanist ethos which has largely replaced Christian morality in the world about us, there is little evidence that they are deliberately or consciously introducing these ideas into the ecclesia. Rather, they believe that the Bible has been misread for hundreds of years; thousands, in fact.

There is no doubt, however, that intellectually able and spiritually confident people are reinterpreting the Bible quite radically. A passage such as Galatians 3:28 is read in a way that Paul clearly did not intend – as if it were a revolutionary charter for obliterating apostolic distinctions between male and female roles in the ecclesia, an idea which has nothing to do with the context. Meanwhile, the obvious intent of passages such as 1 Corinthians 11, 1 Corinthians 14, Ephesians 5, 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Peter 3 – that God has given different spiritual challenges and responsibilities to men and women – is rejected. What could be motivating this re-think?

We take at face value the writings of advocates for the new interpretations. They assert that they are embarrassed by the disjunction between Western society, with its clear commitment to the total equality of women in all walks of life, and the family of faith, which embraces the equality of men and women in their creation, in their value and significance to God, and in their destiny to have dominion, but steadfastly holds to the apostolic distinction between male and female responsibilities in the home and in the ecclesia. They are frustrated by their experience within the ecclesia, which prevents them from exercising innate leadership and teaching gifts. They feel that many addresses do not speak to sisters’ issues, and are not well constructed or inspiring. They believe that ecclesial culture discourages sisters from learning and growing spiritually, and they feel sidelined, even silenced. They perceive that not a few sisters have diverted their energies and talents into what they describe as trivial pursuits. They report that their needs and interests are not taken into account, that they are not listened to, and that when they do express their views, they have been dismissed as intellectually light-weight.

This is how they report their experience of ecclesial life. Granted, these are matters of feeling, of perception, of personal experience: and we may struggle to understand them, and accept that some of our sisters feel this way, particularly when many others tell us that they do not share these feelings. But we have no reason to think that these sisters are misrepresenting the way they feel, even if we disagree with their conclusions. How should we respond?

Ensure balanced, Christ-like attitudes to all Members

It might be helpful at this point to reflect on the attitude of Brother Robert Roberts. His views were formed by decades of constant daily attention to the Word of God, but no doubt they were also influenced by the character of the women around him – a strong, self-reliant, deeply devout and faithful mother; a deeply satisfying and fruitful marriage to his wife, whose intellect matched his own, and who was a pillar of strength throughout their life together; intelligent, strong-willed and godly daughters. He was widely read, highly aware of social trends, and very independent in his opinions. He also practised what he preached, seeking and valuing the opinions of the sisters around him, encouraging them to write for the Christadelphian magazine, and to lead in appropriate ways.

What did he have to say? It is worth quoting him at some length:

I have heard some speak contemptuously of the sisters as ‘mere women, only fit to nurse babies, and look after the pudding’. Against such a doctrine, every true brother will earnestly protest. It is not only degrading to her whom God has given us for ‘an helpmeet’, but it is inconsistent with the spirit of the gospel which teaches that there is neither male nor female in Christ: that we are all one in Christ Jesus… Sisters are never likely to develop into noble servants of Christ if the door is shut in their face, by a theory which would consign them to cradles, pots and pans… to insist on confining sisters to these, would be to ignore the fact that they have brains as well as bodies; and that men have other needs of help-meetship, besides those of knife and fork. Such a boorish doctrine would destroy companionship, where brethren need it most, and unfit their wives to fulfil the highest function of motherhood, which is to bring up their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. In fact it is a doctrine to be opposed and detested as much as any hurtful doctrine may be. The man who holds, and much more the man who preaches it, deserves to be deprived of every social advantage and be shut up in a cave. This in fact, is his destiny at last.”

Strong words for a Sunday morning exhortation! Here is another quotation from Diary of a Voyage:

“You can no more suppress a wise woman’s influence and a wise woman’s voice than you can suppress the law of gravitation. You may prevent her delivering a public address: but you cannot prevent her giving good counsel, and you ought not. Though woman by divine law is in subjection, she is not to be extinguished… I have seen tyrannical and unsympathetic men wrongly using Paul’s authority to put down and quench godly women more qualified than they themselves to exercise judgment and give counsel. Let women certainly be modest, but let her not be reduced to a cypher, which God never intended… We ought to be thankful when women turn up who are able to help with wise suggestion.”

He argues passionately that the minds of sisters are very important. It is not only degrading to speak of or treat sisters as spiritually inferior; it is also a wrong and hurtful practice that is inconsistent with the gospel. It undermines the spiritual growth of sisters, and frustrates God’s purpose in creating woman as a complement for man. The wise influence and voice of a woman is not to be suppressed, for God never intended women to be extinguished, nor to be ‘cyphers’ – ‘persons or things of no importance’. Rather, their input is to be highly valued in ecclesial life.

If, dear reader, you are a brother, I ask you to pause and reflect at this point on your own practice, and the culture of your ecclesia. Are we speaking of and treating our sisters with the respect they are entitled to? Are we nurturing their minds and encouraging spiritual growth? Are we listening to them, actively seeking out and valuing their thinking, welcoming their proposals, responding to their needs, asking their counsel? The Lord Jesus, whose daughters they are, would expect nothing less than the best treatment at the hands of his children.

Ensure relevant, high quality teaching

A second critical focus for action is the ecclesia’s teaching program. Only some of our teaching comes from the platform. Much of it happens in Sunday School, during instruction for baptism, informally during conversation – and most critically of all, around the dinner table or the lounge room with open Bibles every morning or evening.

But the formal presentations that come from our platform on Sunday mornings, or in the course of preaching, or at Bible Class, play a very important role. These addresses ought to be Biblically sound; well-prepared and substantial; positive, constructive and encouraging even when they are addressing problems or faults; spiritually nurturing and practically relevant for all members; clearly and directly communicated in terms that a wide range of members can grasp. Like the prophets, we should speak “to edification, and to exhortation, and to comfort”. To build up, to urge on, to strengthen – these are the three goals of the platform, according to the apostles.

Furthermore, our teaching ought to cover the canon. In the Bible God has given us an extraordinary wealth of characters, stories and circumstances, of doctrinal and practical subjects, of ceremony, type, prophecy and fulfilment, of faith and failure, of promises and warnings, of proverb and prayer, of illustration and example. Should we not deploy them all? Isn’t that what the Lord Jesus meant when he said, “Every scribe which is instructed unto the kingdom of heaven… bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old” (Matt 13:52)? Isn’t that what Paul meant when he urged prophets to “prophesy according to the proportion of faith” (Rom 12:6)?

Man, male and female, is a classic example. We have Eve, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah, Tamar, Jochebed and Miriam, the daughters of Zelophehad, Rahab, Achsah, Deborah and Jael, Manoah’s wife, Naomi and Ruth, Hannah, Abigail, Bathsheba, Jehosheba, the great woman of Shunem and the widow of Zarephath, Huldah, Esther, Elizabeth, Mary, Mary Magdalene, Lydia, Priscilla – and more. We have singleness and marriage and widowhood, barrenness and mothering, youth and ageing – all of them pressing issues for women. We have folly and wisdom, Jerusalem and the bride of Christ, all personified as women. We have the mother of Lemuel presenting her son with “the virtuous woman”, worth far more than her weight in rubies (Proverbs 31), with her many outstanding qualities, her diverse activities, and the response of her family and community in trust, respect, blessing and praise.

Again we speak directly to our brethren. Where are the exhortations and the Bible classes on these great themes? They are heard, to be sure, although we have a natural tendency to focus on the male characters we can more readily relate to. But as we go about to fulfil our responsibilities to the Lord Christ as teachers and shepherds, whether in our own homes or in the ecclesia of God, it is critical that we understand these women of faith and their life issues in dialogue with the women in our families and our meetings, and represent them in our teaching work. That requires a commitment to research, reflection and dialogue, but the investment will pay off handsomely in sound, well-pitched, relevant, positive teaching that speaks to the needs of our sisters, and indeed, all present: for the same principle applies across the gamut of ecclesial membership.

The issue of male and female roles being a present focus, we should ensure that our ecclesial program devotes adequate time to it. A Bible class series over four or five nights, covering Genesis 1–3, the Old and New Testament women of faith, the practice and teaching of Jesus and his apostles, with plenty of opportunity for questions and discussion, would be very helpful. In Youth Group, also, we need to ensure that young men and young women alike hear what the Bible has to say about the complementary value and distinctive contributions of male and female in ecclesial and family life.

Maximise opportunities for sisters to use their Talents

A third critical focus is service. The consistent teaching of the apostles is that God has deliberately endowed the members of the body with a diversity of gifts, no less the sisters than the brethren. And the gifts are there to be used! Only when they are used can the body function properly, mature spiritually, grow up into Christ the head, glorify God (1 Cor 12; Eph 4:1–16; 1 Pet 4:10–11).

There are two important but limited areas for which God has made brethren responsible – teaching from the Word of God in the gathered ecclesia, and, under the Lord’s own authority, oversight of the ecclesia. Even then, only those brethren with the appropriate combination of gifts will carry out these responsibilities. But outside these two areas of ecclesial life, God is clearly honoured by the diligent and fruitful exercise of the gifts He has given to both brethren and sisters, and indeed He expects us to use them as widely as possible.

There is perhaps a natural tendency at pressure points to react, to exert more authority and take more control. But it would be wrong to react to the promotion of new ideas on male and female roles by imposing restrictions on sisters that go beyond the examples and teaching that God has presented to us in His Word.

In the first century, for example, there are many diverse examples of service, such as:

  • the personal care of the women who accompanied Jesus, and tended to his needs
  • the generous hospitality of Martha (Jn 12:2) and Lydia, a successful businesswoman in her own right (Acts 16:15)
  • Tabitha’s practical care for the poor and needy (Acts 9:36, 39)
    the hospitality, prayer and service provided by older widows (1 Tim 5:3–10)
    the faithful child-raising and Biblical instruction of mother Eunice and grandmother Lois (2 Tim 1:5; 3:14–17), which Paul emphasises as an important focus for young mothers (Titus 2:3–5)
  • the ecclesial benefaction and service offered by Mary (Acts 12:12), Phoebe (Rom 16:2) and Nympha (Col 4:15)
  • the practical involvement of Tryphena and Tryphosa, Persis, Euodia and Syntyche, Paul’s “co-workers” (Rom 16:3,12; Phil 4:2–3)
  • the prophetesses – Elisabeth (Luke 1:41–45), Anna (Lk 2:36–38), Philip’s four daughters (Acts 21:9), and more broadly in the ecclesial community (Acts 2:17–18; 1 Cor 11:4–5)
  • the teachers – Priscilla as a co-teacher in her home alongside her husband (Acts 18:26), and
  • the older women (Titus 2:3–5)
  • the preachers – Anna (Luke 2:36–38), the witnesses of the resurrection, much quicker to believe than the apostles themselves (Matt 28:5–10), and Junia (Rom 16:7).

These activities suggest many opportunities for service today, including personal care, welfare, hospitality, the raising and instruction of children and young people, counselling, ecclesial support and committee service, praise and worship.

And although there might be some restrictions in teaching, preaching and ecclesial administration, there are sound Biblical reasons why we should be maximising the opportunities available to our sisters to contribute to the work of God in Sunday School, sisters’ classes, youth work, discussion and reading groups, correspondence with those in isolation, the authoring of articles and books, personal testimony, preaching committees, preparation for baptism, mission work and a host of other administrative and practical tasks.

Ecclesias may differ here and there in practice, but all, without exception, should be looking to maximise the involvement of brethren and sisters alike, according to the gifts God has given them. Only this approach will realise God’s purpose in “setting the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him” (1 Cor 12:18).

Make opportunities for sisters to have input to ecclesial decision-making

Finally, we should be looking to utilize the input of our sisters to ecclesial decision-making. The most important decisions are made by the ecclesia as a whole; many more are made by dedicated committees, such as preaching, Sunday School or hall maintenance committees. Sisters should be integral to these processes, playing an active role in ecclesial decision-making, and serving on ecclesial committees. Relatively few decisions are made by the Arranging Committee, which after the first-century pattern is made up of “serving brethren”; and even these should be made after consulting with members to understand their views and take their personal needs and spiritual interests into account.

Again I speak directly to brethren. “Behold, the Lord Yahweh will come with strong hand… He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young” (Isa 40:10–11). That is the pattern for the Son of God and all good shepherds, family leaders and ecclesial leaders alike. There are good reasons for us to actively seek out the views of our sisters, ask their opinions, invite their ideas and practical suggestions, respond positively to their proposals, encourage their input in every way possible. That will undoubtedly result in better decisions that meet the needs of all.

The fact that new views have been aired about the roles of brethren and sisters in the home and in the ecclesia is a blessing in disguise if it moves us to re-examine our attitudes, our teaching and our practice in the abundant light shed by the Word of the living God. If we can focus on using our gifts in the way God intended, our ecclesias will be positive, fruitful places of light and joy in the gathering darkness, where male and female, brethren and sisters, old and young are walking and working and witnessing together to the imminent return of the Master of the Household, our Lord, dearly loved and looked for, and his Kingdom of righteousness and peace. May God empower us to realise His wonderful vision for His people in these latter days.