The issue of women’s ordination, and more generally women’s involvement in the church, is a modern issue which continues to generate numerous books, articles, and even supporting societies. The worst thing we in Reformed communions can do is ignore the issue simply because we do not ordain women to the special office ministries. There are some excellent discussions in print on the issue of women in the church, and while I do not claim to have read that deeply on the subject, I have yet to find one that begins from what is a fundamental category for our Reformed understanding of the matter: the general office of believer.
The General Office of Believer
The origin of the term and concept “the general office of believer” probably arose from the Reformation’s key notion of the priesthood of all believers derived particularly from passages like this:
Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him. For God's temple is holy, and you are that temple. (1 Cor 3:16–17; cf. 2 Cor 6:16)
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. (Eph 2:19–22; cf. Eph 4:7–16)
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Rom 12:1–2)
But the general office of believer extends beyond priesthood to the “prophet-hood” (Acts 2:1–4 and Joel 2:28–29) and “kingship” of all believers (Rev 1:4–5; 5:9–10), because Christ redeemed us all that we may all serve him now and forever in his royal service.
It is true that Christ calls some to particular, focused service in this life to equip his saints in special ways (e.g. Eph 4:11–12; 1 Cor 12:4–29). But this does nothing to discount the dignity and critical importance of the service of those who hold the general office. The Form of Government of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church puts it this way:
The power which Christ has committed to his church is not vested in the special officers alone, but in the whole body. All believers are endued with the Spirit and called of Christ to join in the worship, edification, and witness of the church which grows as the body of Christ fitly framed and knit together through that which every joint supplies, according to the working in due measure of each part. The power of believers in their general office includes the right to acknowledge and desire the exercise of the gifts and calling of the special offices. The regular exercise of oversight in a particular congregation is discharged by those who have been called to such work by vote of the people. (FOG III:1; cf. Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 31-32)
Now this teaching on the general office is particularly helpful when thinking about the way in which women serve Christ in his church. Given that our churches do believe that God does not call women to special office, people in our churches often wonder what women can do in the church. We read the following passages, for example:
I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. (1 Tim 2:12) . . . 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 14:34–35)
As a result, questions come up about whether the Bible allows women to teach Sunday school or participate in Bible studies where men are present.
What Can Women Do in the Church?
The best approach to these kinds of questions about women’s involvement in the church is a principled one sprinkled with a heavy dose of wisdom. And the main principle is that all women, by virtue of being redeemed daughters of God created and renewed in the image of Christ, do hold office in the church just like non-ordained men: the general office of believer. And as such, they have certain far-reaching rights and responsibilities for service in the church. This is the principle underlying any answer to the question regarding how women can serve in Christ’s church.
Hence, as a starting point, one should say that a woman can do anything in the church that a non-ordained man can do. There is no principled basis for saying otherwise. We must apply this principle with wisdom, but that is the starting point nevertheless. Let me first illustrate the principle with examples of situations where questions could arise, and then discuss situations where the session or consistory may need to apply prudence in deliberating particular situations.
In many of our churches, women take the lead in organizing, teaching, and writing materials for the education of our children and young people in Sunday schools. Is this not “teaching in the church”? Does it compromise the Bible’s teaching on women? Yet non-ordained men who hold the same general office as do women are also fully involved in these Sunday school activities. So if a non-ordained man can and should do this in the church, then on principle a non-ordained woman can and should be able to do these things also.
The issue of Sunday schools is qualified by another biblical idea in my opinion. The teaching and discipling of covenant children is the particular responsibility of parents with direct involvement of the minister and elders through the ministry of the word and catechism. While the Bible often focuses on fathers teaching and training their children “in the Lord” (e.g. Eph 6:1, 4), mothers are directly involved in the Christian discipleship of children as well: “Listen to your father who gave you life, and do not despise your mother when she is old. . . . The words of King Lemuel. An oracle that his mother taught him. . . . She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue” (Prov 23:22; 31:1, 26; emphasis added). Children are to be instructed in the word of the Lord “when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deut 6:7), and this must involve mothers to a very significant degree.
Now given the primary responsibility of parents in Christian instruction, I believe we should see Sunday school instruction where non-ordained women and men are teaching as delegated parental instruction. These women and men are, for an hour or so each week, standing in for parents with extra instruction in the faith under the special oversight of the session or consistory. As such, then, the Sunday school teachers and curriculum developers function in the general office of believer as do parents who disciple their children in the faith.
But what about an adult Sunday school? Well, here is where the practice in our churches will vary considerably. It is my opinion that these classes should be taught by the pastor, pastoral intern, or possibly an elder who is “apt to teach,” as a part of the special ministry of the word. This seems to me to be part of the special instruction in the word to which these men are especially called, for the building up of the saints in doctrine and life. In the congregation of which I am a part, this is our practice and the catechisms of the Reformed churches play a prominent role as our curriculum.
Even given my opinion, I can still conceive of valuable situations where women could participate legitimately as teachers of an adult class. For example, let us imagine that a pastor has led his church through the catechisms and Bible books over the course of the years and now wants to branch out for a time into instruction in issues that have a “day to day” focus. (This relates to what the Bible calls “wisdom” and is the special subject of Proverbs.) He wants to lead discussion on issues such as “The Christian and Modern Medicine” or “The Christian and Law.” In the course of deliberating on the Bible’s teaching relating to the issues of medicine and law, he wants to include presentations over several weeks by members of the church who are a medical doctor and a lawyer, who have thought deeply about how their faith impacts some of the tough decisions they face in their professions every day. And he wants them to bring Bible passages that they have found particularly relevant to these issues. However, both the doctor and the lawyer that the pastor has in mind for the adult classes are women. Does this compromise the principle in 1 Tim 2:12 that a woman should not teach a man in the church? Again, we should approach the issue that these women hold the general office of believer. If the pastor were to involve a male doctor and a male lawyer in this class, these men would hold no special office superior to the women by virtue of being male: both are holders of the general office of believer and thereby should be engaged in “teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom” (Col 3:16; cf. Eph 5:19).
These examples illustrate that the general office of believer gives women certain proper opportunities to teach and admonish in the church alongside non-ordained men who hold the same general office. Both are created on the image of God and renewed in the image of Christ for such service as priests and a kingdom (e.g., Rev 1:6; 5:10) in Christ’s kingdom. But in our day, sessions and consistories must apply the principles discussed here with special wisdom. Nowadays, non-ordained men sometimes are given roles that may be proper really for the ordained ministers and elders in the church. As such, non-ordained women could easily and understandably aspire to the same tasks. Furthermore, people are particularly sensitive to the differences between men and women in our culture, and we will have to work hard to explain why we do not ordain women to the special offices. But we must work equally hard to create opportunities for the general officers of our churches to serve Christ in the proper ways to which he has called them, so that through their service, they bring to him, the Head of the Church, the tribute of their lives of gratitude for his high calling.
First published in Evangelium, Vol. 4 No. 4
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