10 things women can do in churches (according to 1 Corinthians)
There’s a couple of passages in 1 Corinthians where Paul talks specifically about how women (more specifically wives) are to participate in the life of the church because of their relationship with their husbands (1 Corinthians 11:2-16 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35). We say ‘wives’ because this is explicit in Paul’s instructions in 14:34-35, and implied in the issue of wearing the marriage veil or not in 11:2-16 (see our earlier blog post on this passage). These particular passages do show that our relationships with each other should help shape how we relate together as the body of Christ — the church — but there are some pretty clear parts of 1 Corinthians that should also help us understand what women can do (and are expected to do) in the life of the body of Christ in this body’s mission in the world.
Here are some clear texts that help us understand the tricky ones — most of these 10 points come from chapters 12-16, which we’re looking at together this term, one dips back into the beginning of Paul’s letter to the church.
1. Be Christlike
“Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” — 1 Corinthians 11:1
This is an instruction for all Christians; and the basis for our life together as the body of Christ and for our role as those who live for Jesus surrounded by people who do not. This instruction links what Paul has said in previous chapters about his own example — becoming all things to all people to win some, while preaching Christ and him crucified (chapters 8-11) — with what he’ll now say about some issues in the life of the church. The Corinthians know what Paul’s example looks like because he lived with them for a time, but this is a call for all Christians — men and women to be like Jesus.
2. Confess Jesus as Lord
“Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.” — 1 Corinthians 12:3
As Paul moves into helping the Corinthian church understand the unity they have in Jesus — with an extended metaphor of the body — he gives this simple test for people — men and women — to see if they belong. Do they confess Jesus as Lord? That’s the basic function of members of the body and what we say and live together. This is a confession that isn’t just a once off thing but a new way of life that replaces the idol worship they’ve left (12:1-2); it’s about making a declaration with how we live and speak together that we belong to Jesus — and we’re all called to do this.
3. Exercise her gifts for the sake of the body
“Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good”. — 1 Corinthians 12:7
“Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.” — 1 Corinthians 12:12-13
Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? Now eagerly desire the greater gifts. — 1 Corinthians 12:27-31
Paul paints this vivid picture of our life together. It’s a metaphor. And the thing about metaphors is that they don’t exaggerate reality, they make reality simpler — our unity in Christ is more than not less than the unity enjoyed by parts of the body. We’re all in this together; whatever one part of the body does in our function as the body of Christ in the world, we all do. When one person speaks in public as the ‘mouth’ we are all speaking; the mouth requires the lungs, the lungs require the heart, the heart — and when it comes to the body and its function we’re all brought together by the Spirit exactly as God intends. Our job as these parts of the body is to serve each other and this purpose, but also to honour one another and the unique parts each of us plays as gifted by the Spirit. Spiritual gifts aren’t just skills, they’re people, so women are called (as men are) to be spiritual gifts to the body, working for the common good, and the body as a whole has the job of ordering itself so that these gifts best achieve this God-given purpose.
The bigger a ‘body’ is — in terms of number of people — the more specialised each body part becomes, but also the more these body parts have to collaborate and intentionally co-operate. This is one of our challenges at Creek Road — but some examples of ways we’ve sought to benefit from and promote the gifts of women is by making Growth Groups a vital part of teaching and pastoral care (as we speak the Gospel to each other), by having women praying, leading music, and reading the Bible in our services (and featuring women in videos that accompany our Bible talks), by including women in the process of putting together teaching material (through our staff team planning weeks and team preaching), by listening to women as talks are prepared, by having a woman in our senior executive team (Andrea), and by having women on our church board. There are definitely improvements we can make in all of these areas, but we are committed to this process.
4. Love people, and be loved
“And yet I will show you the most excellent way.” — 1 Corinthians 12:31
“Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.” — 1 Corinthians 13:8
Paul speaks about spiritual gifts in terms of people and roles in chapter 12; but brings a different perspective to the church from how they might think of these roles (and status) by pushing towards the ‘most excellent way’ — the way of love; which he fleshes out in 1 Corinthians 13. This way of love is not really a guide to marriage (though it gets read at lots of weddings), but a guide to life together following the example of Jesus; a few years ago when we started our Love My Church journey through 1 Corinthians we talked about how you can replace the word ‘love’ with ‘Jesus’ in this chapter to really understand what this love looks like. We’re all called to love this way (and hopefully will then be loved this way).
5. Be wise.
“Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” — 1 Corinthians 1:26-31
The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for, “Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. — 1 Corinthians 1:15-16
This one is a bit obtuse; but Paul opens the letter to the church in a city obsessed with wisdom to talk about how in the Gospel we find the wisdom of God. Wisdom is a big theme from the Old Testament, where wisdom is personified as a woman. The Greek word for Wisdom, Sophia, is feminine too. The Bible consistently sees part of the way women and men work together as being about men listening to (and pursuing) the wisdom of women. Wisdom without love is worthless (13:2), but coupled with love and grounded in the wisdom of God revealed in Jesus, speaking (and walking in) wisdom is a powerful way women can contribute to the work of the Gospel.
6. Be prayerful (in public and private)
“But every woman who prays or prophesies…” — 1 Corinthians 11:5
This seems self-evident; like many of the examples above. But prayer is a pretty potent part of life together as Christians, and it’s clear that in 1 Corinthians 11, Paul is envisaging a situation where women are praying in public; if what these women he writes to are doing is somehow scandalous there’s an implication that people are able to see it.
Corporate prayer is a form of leadership and participation in our life as the body of Christ in relationship with God; it shapes the way we participate in God’s mission and how we pursue life in the world (that’s why any sense of scandal around prayer is so damaging to the work of the church in the world). Prayer works, it’s important, it’s not a small thing tacked on as an afterthought in Christian gatherings — any group of people can gather around a leader giving an impressive speech (and this was a Corinthian problem — and sometimes we place worldly value on the bits of our gatherings and so get them all back to front), but prayer is a distinctly religious activity, and prayer to the living God is a direct connection to and acknowledgment of the divine reality we gather around. Prayer is really important; not an afterthought or a token way of contributing to the body.
“But every woman who prays or prophesies…” — 1 Corinthians 11:5
Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy. — 1 Corinthians 14:1
“But if an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all, as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare. So they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!” — 1 Corinthians 14:24-25
What prophecy is is a whole other blog post; but it’s clear from this rule about how women are to prophecy (if they’re married), that women are to prophesy; and that prophecy is an important and desirable gift and a central part of our gatherings and of what convinces an unbeliever of the truth of the Gospel and God’s presence with us.
Prophecy is, from the data in 1 Corinthians 14, public speech about God, revealed by the Spirit, that is to be weighed up by the hearers. It has the twin results of convicting unbelievers of sin and God’s worthiness (14:24-25), and of “strengthening, encouraging and comforting” the church (14:3). It sounds a lot like some of what we call preaching, we’re figuring out what that looks like in our context and our denominational structure; but it’s important to remember that our gathering together isn’t limited to Sunday, but includes Growth Groups and all sorts of other opportunities we have to prophesy to one another.
8. Be listened to
“The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” — 1 Corinthians 12:21-26
Part of being a body with tasks that integrate and overlap; and part of being wise, praying, and prophesying, is being listened to. Church — the body of Christ — should not be predominantly defined by the ‘mouth’ — the parts of the body that speak (that the world might think worthy of honour), but by how honoured the parts that aren’t prominent are; and part of that honouring looks like the love of 1 Corinthians 13; and the acknowledging that each part played by each member of the body is important. Which all seems to suggest that women can expect to be, and should be, listened to when they speak up as part of the body. At Creek Road we’re committed to the idea of being a listening community; creating opportunities for people (men and women) to speak and be heard — whether that’s reactively in Growth Groups, via feedback forms in Series Companions, at Ministry Dinners where we have Q&As, or just by making sure people are available to listen to questions or feedback — or proactively in ministry teams and the planning process for putting together our teaching series — we want to be a church that listens.
9. Be fellow workers
“Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain.” — 1 Corinthians 15:58
“Aquila and Priscilla greet you warmly in the Lord, and so does the church that meets at their house. All the brothers and sisters here send you greetings. Greet one another with a holy kiss.” — 1 Corinthians 16:19-20
“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.” — Romans 16:1-2
It might seem a bit odd to see that reference from Romans in the mix of a post about 1 Corinthians — Paul writes the letter to Rome from Corinth; Cenchreae was one of the ports of Corinth, so when Paul talks about Phoebe — his fellow worker — he’s praising a woman from Corinth who has been very involved in the ‘work of the Lord’ he’s just called everyone to give themselves to at the end of chapter 15 of 1 Corinthians; and as he sums up his letter to Corinth, he mentions another woman who is a fellow worker — Priscilla. Women are deeply involved in Paul’s missionary work and in the churches he plants and supports around the world.
On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made. — 1 Corinthians 16:2
Part of being fellow workers and members of the body who give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord is being fully invested in the mission of the body. Paul seems to see giving as an act that all of us are to participate in, according to our capacity.