Women in the Field: The Biblical Basis for Female Church Planters
by Jessica Brooks
In a community primarily governed by men, women in the church often feel lost trying to find their place. Matters are further confused for women when trying to discover how to faithfully accomplish the Great Commission in an appropriate way. The core missionary task of the church is to proclaim the Gospel to all peoples, make disciples, gather them into healthy churches, and launch them to join in God’s mission. A natural aspect of this process is church planting, which opens the question of women’s role within church planting.
Due to historical and biblical restrictions upon women serving in leadership, much of the church has become hesitant to employ women in a large portion of the church’s work. In relation to forming new churches, some believe there is overlap between the role of the church planter and that of elders. The question, then, is this: is it biblically sound for women to be church planters or does this encroach upon regulations given for church leadership? Based upon biblical evidence, women can serve as church planters without contradicting their God-given role because the whole church has been filled with the Spirit and sent on mission to see God’s glory fill the earth.
SITUATING THE ISSUE
To draw this affirmative conclusion of women as church planters one must consider three components to the issue: roles of the genders, the role of elders, and the role of church planters. Regarding gender roles, Scripture outlines that males and females are unified as God’s image bearers; further, they “share a common calling (to Christlikeness),” though each fulfills it differently. Both sexes are equal in creation, access to Spirit, and value, “yet God gave men a special responsibility to lead in the home and in church” – still encouraging women to teach in many ways, “but not in the same authoritative way as male elders in a local church setting.”
The author of “Coworkers: a biblical study on women in missions” outlines five commonalities between men and women in the church: 1) they have equal access to power and gifts of the Spirit; 2) they have power for evangelism; 3) they are fully involved members; 4) they are equally accountable for obedience by leaders; and 5) they are to know and teach God’s Word. Nevertheless, each gender is given a different role “so they reflect something of the nature of the triune God.” This diverse image-bearing is accomplished “with men reflecting the leadership of the Father and women the submissiveness of the Son, and with self-giving love binding them together.”
Second, the role of elders is significant in this discussion due to the connection between establishing and leading a church. Undeniably, “there is a consistent pattern in Acts of male leadership in the church.” The epistles continue with this standard, as found in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 where Paul outlines the qualifications of leaders, including authoritative teaching; the conclusion that has been drawn is that this passage “prohibits women from functioning as elders in the local church.”
Some have used the words found in 1 Timothy 2:11-12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34 to argue that women should not even be able to speak or participate within the church; however, Paul is referring to a peaceable spirit, “encouraging [women] to participate in an orderly way that [honors] male leadership.” Jesus has radically restructured the broken order of this world so that men and women within the church can now live in a renewed family structure: one that is fundamentally “brother/sister equality.” While maintaining God’s design of the man serving in the role as the head, the church body can still express comradery and unity in their service to the King.
Third, the role of the church planter should be differentiated. Church planting is defined as “that ministry which through evangelism and discipleship establishes reproducing kingdom communities of believers in Jesus Christ who are committed to fulfilling biblical purposes under local spiritual leaders.” J.D. Payne asserts that Scripture depicts a church planter as one who: 1) walks with the Lord; 2) maintains an outstanding character; 3) serves the local church; 4) remains faithful to the call; 5) shares the gospel regularly; 6) raises up leaders; 7) encourages with speech and actions; and 8) responds appropriately to conflict. Church planters are used in a special way in God’s mission to see His church multiply, and it takes the above characteristics and practices to see this happen.
The role of church planter can be fleshed out in three ways: pastoral, catalytic, or apostolic. Only the first two consist of the church planter remaining as the elder or at least as an essential resource. Paul followed the apostolic model: planting a church, establishing leaders, and then traveling to “other unevangelized areas rather than becoming local pastors and elders.” Following this model would remove the conflict of women serving as church planters because it does not necessitate the role of elder.
Now having a foundational knowledge for the issue of women in church planting, the primary question of the validity of this practice can be addressed. Three perspectives exist as potential answers to this question.
The first perspective is a negative answer: women are not able to serve as church planters because of the issue of authority and are, instead, given heavy restrictions. People of this opinion use restrictions on women regarding leadership to argue against women being allowed to teach or lead in any capacity. Some of the scriptural examples the proponents cite are Paul’s command for women to be silent in church (1 Corinthians 14:34-35, 1 Timothy 2:11-15), the inclusion of “husband of one wife” as a qualification for elders and deacons (1 Timothy 3:2, Titus 1:6), the lack of women within the 12 disciples, and the historical tradition of male leadership.
Instead of serving in significant positions within Kingdom work, women have often been “relegated to teaching in church schools, Christian education, Sunday Schools, cooking in church kitchens, joining women’s service-orientated groups, washing the altar linen and supplying priests with all manner of personal services.” In an effort to maintain what they see as biblically mandated order, followers of this first view impose heavy restrictions, which often exclude women from participating in works such as church planting. The intent is to remain faithful to biblical mandates; therefore, the strictest precautions are taken to protect from illegitimate practices.
On the other end of the spectrum, the second perspective consists of no restrictions, providing unobstructed grounds for women church planters. Proponents of this outlook advocate for the high view within Scripture of women’s usefulness, as seen in the following: the presence of prophetesses in the Old and New Testament; the significance of Jesus teaching women, unlike other rabbis; the inclusion of women in Paul’s list of coworkers; and the fact that women were the first witnesses of the resurrection. Supporters conclude that the evidence supports “the position of full access” for women to ministries of preaching, teaching, sacraments, and leadership.
Another key component of this affirmative argument is the nuance of Christ’s transformation of the church community – one that consists of a brother-sister relationship among members who stand in equality. These advocates proclaim that a woman can still “remain in submission to her husband’s authority in the home, yet function in the church as an elder/leader, his ecclesiological equal or, perhaps, an authority over him.” Without any restrictions upon women in the realm of leadership, there is no reason, in this perspective, for women to be restrained from the work of church planting.
The final perspective is more of a mediating position: women are released to obey the Great Commission through serving as church planters, but the differing roles bestowed upon men and women are still taken into consideration. Those who hold this view argue that “women being used by God to take the gospel to unreached peoples and places – alongside husbands or as single women – is clearly validated and commended in Scripture.” Since the entire church has been commanded to make disciples of all nations, women are included in this call and are enabled to pursue this process to its natural end: church planting.
Nevertheless, those who hold this stance recognize that “inherent in creation…there exists a divine order that precludes a woman from being called to “teach or have authority over a man” in the church.” However, since being a church planter does not require adopting the role of an elder, those who align with this perspective find it to be biblically sound to allow women church planters. Indeed, they would say “women make up an important part of the church planting force, whether they are unmarried or work alongside their husband;” though, due to the different experiences of the genders, women “all face unique challenges.” Though women are empowered in this view for the work of church planting, they should be aware of the obstacles they will likely have to overcome that are absent from the experience of men.
With the full matter in view, my theological position is that women have been endowed with the right to serve as church planters. It is true both women and men are designed with unique roles which God has given them to reflect His image more fully through the genders; therefore, church planting may look a little different for a woman than it would for a man, but the work is still entrusted to both. The three main pieces of evidence which support this argument are the common commission of the church, the unity of the Body of Christ by the Holy Spirit, and the biblical examples of female church planters.
First, the entire church has received the commission of the Lord, as found in Matthew 28:19: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations.” As the church body gives her “commitment to God’s command to take the gospel to unreached peoples,” the divine result is “male and female missionaries engaged in bold gospel proclamation and church planting work even in the face of persecution.” Through the salvation of Jesus and His empowerment for the missionary task, Jesus has supplied a new identity to His people, both male and female, which is rooted in “following his example, that is, through life-in-community.” We share in our identity as ambassadors of Christ and we are all empowered by the Lord to do the work He has commanded us to do.
Second, and connected to the above idea, the church is bound in unity by the Holy Spirit – each member receiving the same access to His presence and power. Upon examining the later chapters of 1 Corinthians, the author of “Coworkers” asserted, “there is no biblical reason to think that women didn’t have access to all the gifts of the Spirit. Women were praying, prophesying, and fully participating in the early church.” God’s gift of His Spirit is comprehensive across the church, and because of His power for Gospel proclamation, He “can now use any believer to lead any non-believer to salvation.” Even if women hold no office within the church, “God may speak and work through those gifted by the Spirit who are not official leaders.”
Third, multiple biblical examples exist in support of women serving as church planters. Hospitable women often hosted church within their homes, such as Mary, the mother of the apostle John Mark, and Lydia. In the case of both women, a husband as a spiritual leader is not mentioned; this does not mean the women led the church bodies, but it does emphasize their significant role in maintaining the health of the churches. In addition to using nurturing gifts such as hospitality to assist in the establishment of a church, women were also commended for their proactiveness in the full work. Paul mentions a list of women, such as Priscilla, who were his “coworkers, doing the same types of missionary work as Paul – traveling to unreached places, preaching the gospel, discipling new believers, forming new house churches, and moving on to new places. (Acts 18:1-28)” The indispensable role which woman have played, and continue to play, in the work of church planting cannot be overlooked.
Two objections may be made against this position. First, some may argue that the role of church planter is too closely tied to the role of an elder for a woman to legitimately practice church planting. However, as it has been shown in the background information, church planters are not required to serve as church elders. The major example of church planting seen in Scripture is apostolic. In this model, “after initial evangelism, the apostolic church planter will make the developing, empowering, and releasing of local believers a priority, will be ever cognizant of the temporary nature of her or his ministry, and will have a view to multiply.” Therefore, a woman – as it is with a man – can be a church planter without being the elder of the church, leaving no conflict regarding biblical roles of the genders.
The second objection is more of a feministic cry for a complete relinquishment of power rather than allowing any sense of differentiation to remain. Those of this persuasion call women to “refuse to play the game man’s way” to “subvert the structure and uncover the original cornerstone.” A movement of women are beginning to cry out “to expose many inequalities in the church” through women’s exclusion from participation in the life and work of the church. Though women have often been oppressed and unnecessarily restrained, maintaining that men are to hold the role as head within the church does not devalue women; each gender is simply commanded to live out their identity as followers of Christ in their God-designed way. In fact, Paul’s works of Romans and 1 Corinthians contain “indications of Paul’s conception of the usefulness of women in ministering “ which “qualify those passages where he seems to restrict their activities.” The system of male leadership does not need to be completely abandoned; rather, the church should devote herself to faithfully upholding it in the God-honoring fashion prescribed in Scripture.
INTEGRATION AND CONCLUSION
The church should not hesitate to send and support women church planters; God has fully released women to participate in His mission, even including them in the work of church planting. This simple declaration has significant nuances for the body of Christ. For instance, the church should be devoted to empowering all believers, including women, to do the work. As Jesus taught, “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore, pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” If we restrict half of the body from participating in kingdom work which results in the multiplication of churches, the work will be severely hindered. We, the church, must enlist all members to be obedient to Christ’s commission because “foundational to our corporate existence is a vision of the whole human family reconciled to God, one another, and creation.”
Another implication is that the church should recognize the giftings of the whole church and utilize them. The body has frequently been stunted because only a portion has been allowed to fully exercise its abilities and responsibilities. Just as men possess unique qualities in leadership, so women offer precious additions to the church and her work. Shanee S. provides five truths regarding women in missions which help to envision the usefulness of women: 1) women serve as coworkers on mission teams; 2) they are to be valued and cared for by male leaders and coworkers on mission teams; 3) they should be hard-working, bold, and effective in the work; 4) mothers should teach their kids God’s Word and be willing to send them as missionaries; and 5) life season – married or single, parent or not – does not determine a woman’s usefulness to God in mission work. The church must capitalize on the valuable contribution of women.
Lastly, the church must constantly inspire a missional vision within the church that includes multiplication. God’s desire is for His glory to fill the whole earth; this mission is accomplished by the Holy Spirit working through His people to preach His Gospel to the ends of the earth, cultivate disciples who will follow Jesus obediently, gather believers to thrive as a unified body, and raise up leaders who will continue the work God has set before us. By God’s grace, “the church is God’s primary instrument in this age to advance his kingdom as a sign and witness to the kingdom that will one day come in fullness.” The church must first know this fact which is so essential to our identity and then must be released to pursue the work faithfully. The only way the ends of the earth will be reached is through the multiplication of God’s church. Women and men are God’s means to accomplish His mission for His glory. Let the work proceed through this unified, Spirit-empowered task force.
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