Women's Ministry in the Local Church: Part 2 - "Ministry?"

(This is the second part of a series of posts on the topic of Women’s Ministries in the Local Church)
Read Part 1 here: Introduction and FAQ.

Two important doctrinal legacies of the Reformation are the concepts of vocation and the “priesthood of all believers”. The Reformers rejected the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) narrowly defined view of vocation which was limited to full-time church work primarily ascribed to priests. Ordinary occupations such as farmers, maids, soldiers, or bakers could not be acknowledged as legitimate vocations by the RCC, because these were seen as too worldly (1). In this view, the vocation of the priest (or perhaps to a lesser extent the monk, nun, or anchorite) as a full-time, spiritual commitment to the Lord was considered the only holy vocation(s) available to believers. Because women have always been banned from the priesthood in the RCC, the only holy vocational option to a woman in that system was to essentially take to heart the infamous advice of Shakespeare's Hamlet to Ophelia: “get thee to a nunnery”.  

As Dr. Gene Veith has written in his book “God at Work: Christian Vocation in All of Life”, the Reformers (especially Luther and Calvin) found that the scriptures supported a far more expansive view of vocation for all believers that includes all the various spheres of our lives: the workplace, the family, as citizens of our communities, and in the Church. All believers serve in callings in all of these spheres. The calling of ordained ministers of the church collapses two into one, the workplace and the church, just as full-time politicians or homemakers do as well. Once we admit that all Christians have vocational callings in each area of life, we can avoid extreme views that would limit certain spheres entirely, such as the home to wives and children or the church to men only. Vocation frees us by acknowledging that our work in all of these places matters immanently to God and also exhorts us to embrace our present station in all of these areas by seeking His glory and our neighbor’s good(2).  Veith, writing for Modern Reformation Magazine, states, "Every kind of work [including fathering and mothering] . . . is an occasion for priesthood, for exercising a holy service to God and to one's neighbor."(3)

Similarly, the RCC teaching on the doctrine priesthood limited the role of priest to a select and elite class of Christian, which was considered by the Reformers as a return to Old Testament shadows and a lack the understanding that the reality had come in Christ (4).  In contrast, the three main implications of the Reformed view of the priesthood of all believers are: 1) that we all have equal access to God the Father through our mediator and High Priest Jesus Christ which includes forgiveness of sins and prayer (contra the RCC understanding of priesthood, where the human mediator was required); 2) as previously mentioned, that every vocational calling in each sphere of life is of equal worth and value in the Kingdom; and 3) that every believer has an equally important and valuable role as ambassadors of the Gospel and as agents of reconciliation.

One of the common mistakes made in Young, Restless, and Reformed circles is to view the priesthood of all believers as meaning that all believers should have equal access to pursuing ministerial vocational roles in the local church. That simply is not the case. Yes, our pastors and teachers equip us for works of service and good works in the body of Christ, but the ministerial offices of teaching and preaching and ruling are specific vocational callings not given to all believers. Also, important to note is that simply having a leadership aptitude or speaking ability does not equate to calling.  A man must be called by Christ and confirmed by the leaders of the Church. For women, we are prohibited from exercising authority over men in the church, so our leadership roles are always going to be limited by God's Word to only that which He permits.

The Reformers held that women and the majority of men were not called to the ordained ministerial offices of elder, pastor, or deacon, but recognized the clear teaching of scripture whereby all Christians have a form of vocational calling in the Church as lay church members.

 As an example, James Bannerman in “The Church of Christ”, specifically refers to “the ordinance of the ministry” and the “office of the ministry” as an “ordinance of Divine appointment”. He further describes the office of ordained pastors and teacher as men commissioned to expound the word and administer the sacraments, and instituted by Christ in His Church for dispensation of Word and Sacrament in the public ministry (5). The gift of the public ministry, as Bannerman sees it, should "not be apart and contradistinguished from the members of the Church. He further writes:

There is a certain office or duty with all Christians must discharge in the way of teaching, exhorting, and admonishing one another, distinct and separate from the teaching of ministers set apart to the work. There are many passages of Scripture which lay upon private believers the duty of ministering in the way of doctrine and instruction to all whom they can so profit, which yet come very far short of enjoining that all private Christians should take upon them the work of public ministry……. The private teaching of the truth by individual believers is wholly different from the official teaching of the truth by public ministers; and the passages of Scripture which enjoin the one are not to be held in countenancing the other. The Apostle Paul, in his Epistle to Titus, exhorts even “aged women” to be “teachers of good things;” but the same apostle in his Epistle to Timothy and to the Corinthians, declares that he “suffers not a woman to teach in the Church” (6).

I present all of the above in order to lay the foundation for understanding the concepts of formal or public ministry (given only to the ordained ministers) and the informal or private forms of ministry (works belonging to believers generally).  I hope these points will serve to help some folks understand that informal ministries of the church, which fall under the headship of Christ ultimately, also require conformity to and submission to the leaders of the church. Any informal ministry should always be leading and preparing folks to more readily participate in the corporate worship service – the formal ministry of the Church.  This is especially true for Women’s Ministry, where one of the chief purposes is to equip women to fulfill our distinctively feminine helper design as “ezers” in the church, in our homes, in our communities, and in all of life.  

I hope to address this focal point for women's ministry more fully in the next post. Stay tuned!

(1)    Challies, Tim. “Ordinary Christian Work” http://www.challies.com/articles/ordinary-christian-work (June 1, 2015)
(2)    Veith, Jr., Gene Edward. “God at Work: Your Christian Calling in All of Life” (Crossway, 2002) pp. 47-54.
(3)    Veith, Jr., Gene Edward. “The Doctrine of Vocation: How God Hides Himself in Human Work.” Modern Reformation, May/June 1999 Vol 8 No. 3, pp: 4-7.
(4)    Horton, Michael . “What About Bob?” http://calvaryurc.org/what-about-bob-the-meaning-of-ministry-in-the-reformed-tradition/ Modern Reformation, March/April 1997, pp. 8-15.
(5)    Bannerman, James. “The Church of Christ”. First Edition. Kindle location: 4920.
(6)    Ibid. Kindle location: 6740.


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