The following is an excerpt from Moore College Lecturer Jane Tooher’s latest book, Embracing Complementarianism, co-written with Graham Beynon.
What would people in your church think of as the ministry that really counts—the ministry that brings real growth?
Classically in conservative evangelical churches, the answer is preaching, usually as part of a Sunday service. It’s true that preaching is essential to the health of a church and has a prime function in facilitating its growth.
But if preaching is the focus in a church—if that’s seen to be real ministry, either by design or by default—and if it’s something that only men can do, then we give the impression that ministry can only be done by men. If preaching is the ministry that really counts, then ministry done by women is already in second place.
Of course, your church might make something else the focus of ministry. It could be one-to-one discipleship, small groups, missional communities, or the experience of corporate worship. But whatever your focus is, it’s bound to have some effect on the role of men and women.
So is there a focus, an exclusiveness, to what really counts as ministry in your church, or is there a breadth? How do different ministries in the church relate to each other? And what is the knock-on effect on men’s and women’s contributions in the life of the church and how those contributions are seen? As we’ll see, we should welcome, appreciate and nurture a wide range of ministry from everyone—including women— because that’s how churches grow: “From [Christ] the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Ephesians 4:16).
MINISTRY IN MULTICOLOUR, NOT MONOCHROME
The elders of any congregation (whatever title they have in your church) have a particular role in teaching, in encouraging in sound doctrine and in refuting error (see 1 Timothy 5:17 and Titus 1:9). But it doesn’t stop there: the New Testament is full of what are often called the “one another” commands, which are about mutual ministry. We are to teach one another, instruct one another, encourage one another, correct each other and speak the truth in love to one another. There are both authoritative teaching roles and a one-another mutuality of teaching, in which everyone has a role. While these are distinguishable, there is great overlap—it’s not that when the elders are teaching, something completely different is happening from when two people study the Bible together. When people are studying the Bible together, they shouldn’t think that this ministry is “lesser” than “real” ministry, which happens elsewhere.
This mutual ministry isn’t just teaching either. That is the most common ministry described in the New Testament, but it’s not the only one. There’s also encouraging, exhorting, comforting, rebuking, training, correcting, spurring on, and more. Much of that happens alongside teaching; as you teach, you may rebuke or exhort someone. But much of it happens in spontaneous and organic interactions; someone shares how they are doing, and you respond, and what you say encourages them. You pray for someone in a small-group setting, and your prayer spurs someone on to live for Jesus. That variety of ministries is harder to spot because it doesn’t usually get put on a weekly schedule, where you could identify it; it just happens as a community interacts and its members live life together. And that is exactly the type of mutual interaction, with a variety of dynamics, that should make up ministry in churches shaped by the New Testament.
We need to embrace this multicoloured picture of ministry— both in who is involved and in what is happening—rather than being monochrome. That’s what we see in the image of the church as a body in 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12. The picture of the body represents both unity—since we are one body—and difference—since we are different parts. And each part of the body has a part to play in the building of the whole:
There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. (1 Corinthians 12:4-7)
Paul’s point here is that people make different contributions, but it is all the same God working or the same Spirit gifting, and it is all for the good of the one body.
It’s important and significant to see that there is no gender differentiation in these passages. Rather, they portray mutual ministry within church life where everyone contributes and everyone receives. Taking these passages seriously means we must expect men to be ministered to by women, including through teaching, encouraging, correcting, and so on. I can testify to the helpful teaching and encouragement I’ve received from women in my small group, even as one of the elders.
At this point you might be asking, “But how does this fit with Paul’s prohibition in 1 Timothy 2:12 of women teaching or exercising authority over men?” This is where it is important to distinguish between the aspects of church life that count as “big-T Teaching” (the authoritative teaching of the male elders) and “small-t teaching” (the mutual “one another” teaching that everyone is to do in the church). For example, what about leading services? Leading singing/worship within services? Lead a mixed-sex Bible study or a mixed-sex youth group?
In answering the question “What type of teaching does this role entail?” it is key that we ask what is actually happening in each of the areas listed. We often know what we mean by a particular role in church life—we talk about someone “leading” a service, for example—but we’ve rarely examined it in any detail. And that means we’ve not asked whether the person is acting as an elder in what they are doing or what sort of teaching/authority is being exercised in this role. It may be that you don’t think any of the examples above involve teaching with elder-type authority, and so you are happy for women to do all of them. For others, it might depend on exactly what is happening and how it is done, and this is where different people will probably have differing opinions.
For example, some Bible-study leading is very much about enabling others to see what it is in a passage and therefore be seen as “small-t teaching” and therefore ok for a woman to do, while other forms are much more directive and didactic and are therefore “big-T Teaching” which needs to be done by male elders. However, other relational dynamics are often in play as well: the nature of the group, its regularity, age differential, and so on. This is where we need to admit that some things are a judgement call and we will probably land in different positions. But in order for women never to teach men in any way, men and women would need to live on different planets! Women (small-t) teach men in a variety of ways every day, and this is good and right.