The Life of a Leader
Women Who Lead
March 25, 1996
Sermon by Dr. Robert Creech, Pastor of University Baptist Church of Clear Lake, TX.
Texts: Gal 3:28; Rom. 16:1-2; 1 Tim 3:11; 1 Cor. 11:5; Acts 21:8-9; Acts 2:15-18; 1 Cor. 1:11
Jesus chose two powerful metaphors to describe the role of His church in human society. He used the metaphors of salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16). He said, “You are the salt of the earth. Don’t let your salt lose its saltiness, or you will lose your influence, your ability to transform the world around you into conformity with the principles, truths, and vision of the kingdom of God.” He said, “You are light to the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden but is placed on a lightstand, so that it gives light to all in the house.” The role of the church and of the followers of Jesus Christ is to permeate the world’s darkness with truth and light.
The fact is that over the last two thousand years of Christian history and a good bit of the previous history of the people of God in Israel, the institutional form the church takes - or that Israel took - has been far more a conservator of tradition than a transformer, an agent of conservation rather than an agent of transformation. Most often we have been the tail in social change and the changes which ought to take place in society that have their roots deep in the truths of God and the gospel; and we have come along reluctantly at best.
It happened that way in the early days of the church. There was an issue on the table for the early church: “On what basis does a person come into Christian faith? Do you have to first become a Jew in order to become a Christian? Do you have to submit to the rites of circumcision and submit to the demands of Jewish Law in order first to become a Christian if you were a Gentile?” There were two parties in that debate. There was a group called the Judaizers, who waved their scrolls and said, “The Law has always required that those who would be part of Israel must first submit to the Law and to circumcision; and that is what the Word of God requires.” There was another party, led by Paul, Simon Peter, and others, who said, “That does not seem to be what God is doing. It seems that in the work of God in the world, He has made a way for people - Jews and Gentiles alike - to come to faith in God through Christ alone only through the cross, without any Law, without any circumcision, without any rites or rituals, without becoming a Jew first.”
The very first Christian business meeting was held over that issue (Acts 15), called the Jerusalem Council. One side got up and waved its scrolls and said, “This what the Law of God says, this is what is demanded, this is the way we have always done it, and it has to be this way!” The other side got up and said, “This is what the prophecy of God says in the books of Hosea and Amos; and this is what God seems to be doing, and this is what we have seen.” The church decided to hear the voice of God, as He was speaking and leading, to say, “It’s more like God to take in people on the basis of faith alone, apart from the works of the Law.”There was another controversy the church and society faced only 130 years ago. It has not been that long; it is really hard to imagine that it was that close to us. It was a controversy over whether it is proper and right for one person to own another person as property. Even Christian people held strongly to an institution which said it was entirely appropriate for one human being to own another human being as property. There were voices that did not come from the institutional church, although they came often from followers of Jesus Christ, that said, “That is contrary to what the Scripture teaches. The Scripture teaches that all people are created in the image of God.” The others waved their Bibles and said, “But there was slavery in the Old Testament, and the Law provided for slavery. Paul never told slaveowners to set their slaves free; he told the slaves to submit to the owners;” and they waved their Bibles and used that as a way of being conservators of a tradition and practice which ran contrary to the gospel of God. We sit here 130 years later in judgment on that and say, “How could our forefathers have ever thought that that was the will of God? It seems so contrary to everything Scripture teaches.” Yet, the institutional church held onto that for 1,800 years without rebelling against it.
I want to invite you to a portion of God’s Word in Galatians 3. Galatians is a book which has been labeled, “The Magna Carta of Christian Liberty,” and for good reason. It was penned during that first controversy I mentioned, about whether Gentiles should come into the kingdom as Jews came into the kingdom. Paul, the champion for Christian liberty, wrote this word to say to the Gentile churches, “Don’t let anyone cause you to submit to a yoke of slavery again. You are free in Jesus Christ, and God has accepted you fully and freely on the basis of faith in Christ alone.” In the process of exploring Christian liberty, Paul let that gospel principle permeate other areas of life in society as well. “(26) You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, (27) for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. (38) There is neither Jew nor Greek [being Gentiles, we say, ‘That’s right! He had that right.’], slave nor free [being people of the United States of America and our Constitution and 130 years post-abolition, we say, ‘Boy, that’s right; there is neither slave nor free.’], neither male nor female...”
“Whoa! Are we sure we want to listen to the gospel all the way through?” In fact, Paul uses a phrase there which is very powerful. His language in the Greek is not that smooth - ”neither male nor female;” it reads roughly as, “and not male and female.” That catches your attention when you are reading in the original language, because that is the very same phrase which is used in the Greek version of the Old Testament in Genesis 1, “And God created them in His image, male and female He created them.” Paul says, “There is no more male and female.” That is, in the kingdom of God, the old systems we used to classify people as superior and inferior do not stand. There is no such thing as Jew superior over Gentile in relation to God. There is no such thing as slave being inferior to free man. There is no such thing as male and female as categories of privilege and relationship before God; they do not exist anymore. It does not mean that men and women are all alike, but it does mean that they are all the same, all of equal value in God’s sight and in His kingdom. Paul said, “There is a principle of liberty at the heart of the Christian faith which cannot be denied.” Isn’t it interesting that that first part percolated up to the surface there in the early days of the church but took 1,800 years and more before the second one came to the surface and the Christian church came to terms with what it means to say, “There is neither bond nor free”? And isn’t it interesting it has taken another 100 years before the other one has made its way to the surface and the church finally began to deal with the question, “What is the relationship and role of men and women in the kingdom of God and in society?”We are living in one of those times when the liberty of God has made its way to the surface; and over the past thirty years our society has been wrestling with that. As a consequence, the church has had to wrestle with it, not because the church said, “Look what the gospel says. Let’s deal with that,” but because the church was forced to by other voices. Some of those voices which have been raised have been misguided, some have been angry, and some have been unChristian. Nevertheless, the voices have been raised. It is as if to say that God’s justice and God’s gospel are going to find its way to the surface; and if the church will not be a conduit for it to make its way to the surface, God will see to it that it rises from some other quarter. The likelihood that the church would listen to and cooperate with some of the misguided, unChristian, secular, angry voices which have screamed out for justice is very, very slight. We are not likely to cooperate. For one thing, the church does not want to be identified with such movements as that - and probably rightly so. But there is also the truth that the church does not want to be challenged about the way we have done things for a long, long time; and it is even more true that those who have vested interests in a system - you could read there “men” - are going to be much more supportive of the status quo than open to change.
That does not change the fact that we have to allow Scripture to be the moral compass that points God’s people in the direction He calls us, a compass which calls us to disregard, not only contemporary voices of culture that would push us in one direction, but also past and ancient voices of human culture which would call us in another. It is God’s Word which has been given to His church as the inherent self-correcting agent in the church’s life. No one human being is ever the reformer of the church. It is always the Word of God that does that. It keeps calling us back to what God is doing and who God is. The more important question for the church is not, “What have we always done?” or “What are they saying we should do?” The important question for the church is always, “What does God’s Word say?” and “What does God’s Word teach?”
What did ancient Israel believe and practice, and what did Jesus do? What about the early church? How did they respond to issues that we wrestle with, as best we can tell? I want to set this question in a very clear context. The context is not women’s issues; the context is leadership. The context is, “Who leads among the people of God? Whom does God call into leadership and to what roles?” That is a question the church has, inescapably, to deal with.
I want to ask you to visit with me for a few minutes those places in Scripture which are clear examples of how God has worked among His people in the past. What has God done, and how has God used women to lead His people and help accomplish His redemptive purposes? One of the things you would find as you started turning through the pages of Scripture is that women have been used by God to lead His people in worship, to lead them into His presence. In fact, one of the very first worship experiences described in any detail at all is the one which followed the big redemptive event of Exodus, that momentous event in which God set His people apart as His own and bought them. He took them through the Red Sea; and, safe on the other side, Miriam, Moses’ sister, who is described in Exodus 15:20 as a prophetess, stood and led the people in singing praises to God. I want you to recall, if you have read Exodus and Numbers recently, as some of us have who are working on that on Wednesday nights, that was a time in the history of the people of God when it was not all that uncommon for people who displeased God publicly to find lightning falling from heaven and consuming them or the earth opening up and swallowing them. Miriam stood and led in a worship service, and the people joined in praise; and it seemed to please the Lord.God has used women to lead His people in worship. You can find references in the Old Testament to the women who ministered outside the tent of meeting and help facilitate the worship of the people of God. God has used women in His work through the ages to speak the Word of God to His people, both in the Old Testament and the New Testament. Miriam, whom I just mentioned, is described there as a prophetess.
Let’s work on that word for a little bit. A prophet is a person who speaks for God - in the Old Testament and the New Testament - roughly, a preacher, one who declares the will and mind for his people. A prophetess - now follow this; this is complicated - is a woman prophet. Got that? That would mean a woman who speaks to God’s people and declares God’s mind and message and will and heart. The Old Testament and the New Testament are both full of those. God gives the gift of prophecy to men and to women. They are those who proclaim His mind and His truth to the people of God. In fact, in Micah 6:4 God is rebuking the people of Israel through Micah, one of His prophets, about their failure to respond to Him over the centuries. One of the things He says is, “I sent Moses to lead you, and also Miriam the prophetess and Aaron.” (“I sent Miriam along with Moses and Aaron, two brothers and a sister, to lead you and to be prophets to you.”)
Deborah was a prophet. Her story is found in Judges 4. She was more than a prophetess; she was also judge or ruler over Israel for a time. The armies of Israel went to her for their instruction. In fact, Barak, the leader of Israel’s army was going to go to battle against a man named Sisera and said he would not even go to battle unless Deborah went with them, because she was the representative of God among them. Deborah said, “O.K., but if I go, all the glory is going to belong to a woman. Are you comfortable with that?” He said, “It’s better than being dead.” So they went to battle. Deborah was a prophetess, and the people of Israel went to her to hear the word of God and to find God’s judgments.
Huldah (2 Kings 22:14) was a prophetess. The king of Israel sent the priests of Israel to go to Huldah to find out what the mind of God was and what God was saying and doing. Isaiah’s wife (her name is not given) is referred to as the prophetess (Isaiah 8:3); they were sort of a clergy couple in the early days of Israel. Joel 2:28-29 is a prophecy of the coming time when God would pour His Spirit out in the last days when Messiah came, a prophecy fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost. Joel says, “‘In the last days I will pour my Spirit out upon all human beings, all flesh. Your old men will dream dreams, and your young men will see visions, and your sons and your daughters will prophesy. They will be spokesmen for God among the people of God and to the world. They will be prophetesses.’”
Peter stood on the Day of Pentecost and said, “That has all been fulfilled now. God’s Spirit has been poured out upon all flesh.” In Luke 2:26-28 there is introduced a woman named Anna, who ministered in the temple of God in Jerusalem and who awaited the birth of the Messiah; she is described as a prophetess, a spokesman of God to His people in Israel. Philip was an evangelist in the early church and one of the early seven whom we sometimes refer to as deacons. He had four daughters who never married; and all four of them are described as prophetesses (Acts 21:9). Even Paul (1 Corinthians 11:5) encouraged women who prophesy in church to see to it that their heads were covered, a cultural practice then; but they were to prophesy. God has used women to speak to His church the mind and heart of God. They have been spokesmen for the Word of God all through the ages, both the Old Testament and the New Testament. God has also used women as models and teachers of devotion to Jesus Christ. Their stories keep cropping up in the New Testament, even more so than stories of men, about what it means to have your heart given over to following Jesus Christ.Southern Baptists have been wrestling with issues of women’s roles in the church and in church leadership and ministry for the last couple of decades. There was a statement made publicly in a sermon some years ago to the effect that, “Women were last in creation and first in sin,” as if that were to demonstrate an inferiority. “Last in creation” -- somebody suggested she is the updated model - ”and first in the fall.” There was a young preacher in a little rural area who was preaching something along those lines and pretty much blaming the problems of the world upon the failures of women. After church was over, people were coming by and shaking his hand. One of the ladies, who had been working on the farm for a long time and was fairly stout and pretty strong, came by and squeezed his hand until he got a pained expression on his face. She held onto it and said, “Pastor, you talked about Genesis today and the Garden of Eden and all that. Do you know the phone number for the Garden of Eden?”
“I don’t believe I do.”
She squeezed a little harder. “You don’t know the phone number for the Garden of Eden?”
“No, I don’t.”
She squeezed a little harder. “It is ADAM-8-1-2.”
Some have suggested that it may be true that women were last in creation and first in the fall but is equally true that in the New Testament that they were last at the cross and first at the empty tomb. The very first person to whom Jesus appeared after His resurrection was one of His devoted women followers, while the men were cowering in guilt back in their dens. It was not women who betrayed Jesus nor denied Him; it was men. The women in the New Testament are portrayed as followers and devotees of Jesus, people such as Martha, who served Him, and Mary, who sat at His feet and learned from Him and violated the cultural standard of a woman’s learning from a rabbi. There was the widow who placed her gift there in the Temple; Jesus commended her above all others and held her up as an example. Even His parables were replete with stories of women who symbolized the kingdom of God, along with stories in which men did that. Jesus said, “All of those who come to the cross come as equals and as people to whom God will issue a call and use in His work.” They are models of devotion, more often than not, in the stories of Jesus.
In addition, you find God using women through the history of His work with people as prayers, as intercessors. Listen, there is a very important piece of data we cannot let go of; we have to hold onto it and work it out. For more than four hundred years, we Baptists, along with other believers, have held onto a very important principle; Baptists have had it as a central tenet. It is a doctrine we call “the priesthood of all believers.” The priesthood of ALL believers. In the Old Testament the priesthood did not belong to everyone. In order to be a priest, you had to be Jewish, to begin with, not Gentile. In the Old Testament in order to be a priest, you had to be a free person; you could not be a slave and be a priest. You had to be, more specifically, of a certain tribe and all that. And you had to be male, not female. Galatians 3:28 comes along and says, “In Jesus Christ those distinctions do not hold anymore. There is neither Jew nor Greek; both Gentile and Jew can be priests before God now, as faith in Jesus Christ permits them. Both slaves and free people are accepted by God as priests, and both male and female. It is the priesthood of all believers. God has made us all, the Book of Revelation says, to be priests before our God and Father.The only ordination which took place in Scripture is the ordination of priests. One was not ordained as a prophet. One was not ordained as a king. One was ordained as a priest. And the only ordination which takes place in the New Testament is the ordination of priests, and that belongs to all of God’s people. Jesus Christ is the great High Priest under which we are His priestly people, male and female. One of the chief roles of a priest is intercessor of prayer. You frequently find in the New Testament women in that role of leadership. In Acts 1, as the early followers of Jesus - 120 of them in all - gathered in an upper room and began, in obedience to Jesus, to pray for the coming of God’s Spirit upon the church’s life (answered on the Day of Pentecost), Luke specifies that the followers of Jesus were there, as were the women who had been followers. They were part of that prayer meeting, beseeching God to fulfill His promises.
When Peter was locked up in jail and was about to lose his life, it was a prayer meeting called in the home of John Mark’s mother which became the instrument God used to set that man free from jail. The priesthood of all believers indicates that God intends to use male and female as intercessors, as prayers. In 1 Corinthians 11:5 Paul says, “In the church, women who pray should have their heads covered (in that culture), but they should pray.”
God used women in the early church as leaders and servants in a variety of ways. One of the things you might want to note is that, in the many places where the apostle Paul discusses spiritual gifts, he never discusses giftedness as a gender issue. It is not that there are male gifts and female gifts, so that men get gifts such as apostle, prophet, teacher, and pastor, and women get gifts such as helps, mercies, etc. He does not do that. They are just the gifts of the Spirit, and God gives them as He wills to men and women who make up the Body of Christ. The gift of prophecy, specifically, in the New Testament was given to men and to women alike. You begin to look through those portions of Paul’s writings, which are usually the parts we skip, because they are near the end, where he says “Hello” to everybody. There is not any heavy doctrine or anything there, so we read them sort of like genealogies, turn them quickly, and go to the next chapter.
Look at some of those, particularly Romans 16, “(1) I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchrea.” If you have a New American Standard Bible or a New International Version, you might want to look down at the footnote: “Or deaconess.” The word translated “servant” is the same word that is translated “deacon” in other places in the New Testament. I can almost promise you that if this had said, “I commend to you Claudius,” it would have been translated as “a deacon at the church in Cenchrea;” and there would have been a footnote that said, “Or servant.” Most modern interpreters understand that Phoebe’s role was deaconess at the church in Cenchrea; and she is the person to whom Paul entrusts the Book of Romans - the scroll he has written - to take it from Corinth over to Rome. The most important document written in Christian history is placed in Phoebe’s hands, a deaconess from the church of Cenchrea. He says, “(2) I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a great help to many people, including me.”He mentions Priscilla in verse 3. She and Aquila are an early couple who have their names crop up a number of times in the New Testament, always together. Usually - I think there is one exception - it is “Priscilla and Aquila;” only once, I think, is it “Aquila and Priscilla.” She was sort of the lead person in that couple and the more dominant personality. There is an interesting story when they first appear (Acts 18). Paul leaves them in Ephesus. He says, “I’ll be back, and I want you to get the missionary work started here.” So they are left there as early missionaries. While Paul is gone, a man named Apollos comes to Ephesus, a brilliant scholar and orator who is well familiar with the Old Testament and with the preaching of John the Baptist; but he has not yet heard the gospel of Jesus Christ. When he preaches in the synagogue, Aquila and Priscilla hear him. Acts 18 says that after the service was over, they invited him to their house, where they instructed him in the ways of the Lord. They instructed him. Priscilla, along with Aquila, taught Apollos. When Paul writes later to Timothy, who was working in the city of Ephesus, in 1 Timothy 2:12, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man...,” you need to understand that in some kind of cultural context that is the exception rather than the rule, because the practice was otherwise, even in Paul’s missionary work.
In Romans 16:6 he mentions Mary, who is a hard worker in the church, then an interesting couple in verse 7, “Andronicus and Junias,” (a man and a woman) “my relatives who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.” Apostles. A woman with the gift of apostleship. It is kind of hidden away in the back of Paul’s letters but, nevertheless, present. Verses 12-15 mention other women who played prominent roles in Paul’s life. In 1 Corinthians 1:11 we read that there was a church in Chloe’s household, meaning probably a church that met at her house; and she was most likely the leader of the group. Nympha is mentioned in Colossians 4:15 as one who has a church in her house and probably is leader of that group of Christians which gathers together. You have Euodia and Syntyche, who are mentioned in Philippians as being Paul’s fellow workers; and Lydia, the first convert in Philippi, was the person who opened her home up as the place where the church had its early beginnings in Europe.
What you find is that the way God has worked is that even in the early church women played prominent roles of leadership in a variety of ways. If God uses women to lead in worship and to speak His Word and uses them as intercessors, priests, and prayers, uses them as models of devotion as to what followship of Jesus Christ ought to look like and preserve those stories in scriptures for us, to teach us and help us, and if they played roles of prominent leadership, then what kinds of ministries are women prohibited from participating in? There are a few passages in the New Testament which appear to restrict the roles of women, and they are often the ones waved around in discussions about that. One is in 1 Timothy 2; one is in 1 Corinthians 14. There are some passages related in 1 Timothy 3 and 1 Corinthians 11; those are the main ones which are waved around, and they are heavily laden with cultural contexts in the strained situation of the church in Corinth and in some problems which had arisen in the church at Ephesus which Paul addresses in 1 Timothy.
Yet, there are clear and frequent passages in the Old and New Testaments which cut across the grain of human culture and say, “God has a different vision for human society from what is practiced, generally, among even those who call His name, in which there is no male and female, just as there is no bond and free and as there is no Jew and Greek.” Paul’s vision for the kingdom of God is best expressed in Galatians 3:28. It has to be lived out in a very real culture which was more heavily patriarchal than ours ever thought about being. Even there, the yeast of the kingdom of God begins to permeate and affect. It takes a long time before it comes to the surface, but it comes to the surface.“Pastor, are you saying, then, that roles of ordination belong to both men and women?” Let me back up on that and just give a brief, humble, and accurate opinion about ordination in general. As I said earlier, ordination is something that belonged to the priesthood in the Old Testament. There is nothing in the New Testament about ordained and unordained people. It is a vestige of our attachment previously as Christians to what developed in the Roman Catholic church after the Reformation. One of the seven sacraments of the church was orders; and after the Reformation, the Reformed Church continued to ordain people to ministry. Basically, ordination bestows no grace or authority. Among Baptists, all it is, is a union card, that says, “We have known this fellow or this lady and have seen them live out their call of God; we acknowledge the gifts
which are there, and you can trust them.” It is the way you find recommendations from one church of like faith and order to another. It is the way that institutions call chaplains and the military affirm people as legitimate candidates that a church has ordained them and said, “We have seen gifts of ministry in this person;” but it bears no authority, and it bears no grace. It is only a way of saying, “God has called you, and we second the motion.” But it is no affirmation of authority.
So if we are going to ordain anybody, we ought to ordain anybody God calls. It is likely that there were deaconesses in the early church. 1 Timothy 3 further affirms that as Paul talks about the qualifications for overseers, likewise deacons, and the King James and the New International versions say, “and their wives likewise.” There is a footnote: “Or deaconesses,” because the word translated is not wives - it is just women. It says, “pastors, deacons, and the women likewise, ought to have these qualifications.” Most likely, Baptist interpreters as well as others understand it probably meant deaconesses who served in the early church’s life and who did for the first four centuries of the church’s existence.
How do we practice the truth? We do it in our church in a variety of ways. One is, in our church women occupy positions of authority. They are on committees which make decisions regarding the church’s life. They are part of every council and every decision-making body we have. Our women exercise authority. In our church we affirm that God calls women to teach; and there are those who teach both men and women in their classes, because God has called them and given them gifts of teaching. Women exercise roles of decision making, leadership, teaching, authority. The place where that has not been carried out further is in the areas of positions of service. The role of deaconess is not a role which has been adopted by this congregation, but it is this congregation’s call to decide what it does about that. I do not intend to cause a conflict or controversy with these words but only say that there is an inescapable issue that you and I have to respond to as the people of God. That is, what does God’s Word say, and what is the gospel, and what has been the practice of the people of God? What we want is a biblically faithful response which ignores the loud voices of contemporary culture, as well as the loud voices of ancient culture, and says, “What does God teach us to do, and what is the truth of His Word?”
These words call the women of this church to consecration of lives, to holy living, to service and devotion to God, and to an openness to His call upon your life. It calls men to holy living and to devotion to God and to an openness to His call upon your life and to affirm the call God extends to all His children. And it calls those who have allowed attitudes or the accretion of tradition and things to hold you back to repent of those if necessary and say, “I want to affirm where God is at work in His world and be a part of that.” We want to be a part of a church in which all people are allowed to come to God on the basis of faith in Christ alone, Jew or Gentile, and in which no person is less valued than another person because of race, national origin, language. There is no bond or free. The gospel has broken through that. [We want to be] a place in which both our sons and our daughters can prophesy.
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