This might sound like a strange question, but it is something I have asked myself and something that I have heard other people, both men and women, ask.
I am one of the very few women in Tasmania who are paid full-time to work in Christian ministry. So I have felt the weight of what this actually means. If I am one of those few women who get to devote all their time to ministry and be paid for it, how should I use this to minister to women in particular? Why should I bother with ‘women’s ministry’? Can’t I just keep on working in ministry with male and female students? Why do we even have separate women’s ministry? Surely all ministry should just be to God’s people, regardless of their sex/gender?
Asking these questions before I started working in full-time ministry set me off on a quest to find out why women’s ministries exist in the first place. I had never really been drawn to the idea of women’s ministries as they are so often craft afternoons or cake baking competitions. Don't get me wrong, I love cake and I love crafting, but when I see these things called women’s ministry it makes me wince.
I feel like I should clarify, before I go on, what my position is when it comes to women in the church, particularly women in leadership. Basically, I agree with the complementarian view when I look at what the Bible says about how God made men and women to relate to each other. The complementarian view is that men and women are both created equally in the image of God, but are created to have differing roles of equal value in marriage and in church leadership which displays God’s relationship with his people. I have written a little bit about this already here and here. You can also listen to a conversation I recorded with a friend who disagrees with me on this topic if you want to hear more about what I think about it!
So what does all this have to do with women’s ministry? Here are my current reflections on why women’s ministries are worthwhile, valuable and important.
1. Some women have the gift of teaching. We need to encourage them to teach.
Now, as a complementarian I believe that women shouldn’t preach in the gathering of the church where there are men present as a way of submitting to the leading men’s headship of the church. But that does not mean that I believe women are never to teach at all!
When Paul talks about spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12 to 14 he doesn’t limit any of those gifts to men only. In fact there are many passages which encourage women to teach other women and children (Titus 2:3-5, 1 Tim 5:9-10), as well as contributing to Christian gatherings in other ways such as singing, prophecy and prayer(Col 3:16, 1 Cor 14:26-31). A woman named Priscila was even involved in discipling Apollos who was one of the great Christian teachers around at the same time as Paul (Acts 18:24-28).
God gives women gifts of teaching and so we ought to not only permit them to teach, but encourage them! Women should be encouraged teach whenever and wherever is appropriate, but there is a range of convictions that faithful Christians have about this. The point of this post is not to go into all of those places people draw the line on what is following God's word faithfully in this area, but to point out that often the conversation is around when women can be allowed to teach, rather than when they can be encouraged to teach.
It is my hope that looking at it this way not only empowers women to use their gifts, this also hopefully gives more value to teaching those who they teach most often. Which brings me to my next point.
2. Teaching women and children is not second best.
Often the conversation about how women are included in ministry is all about teaching 'up the front'. To be 'in ministry' is to be giving sermons. But this is simply not the case. There is a lot of ministry that happens away from the pulpit. In fact I would say that most of ministry happens away from the pulpit. I will get into this a bit later.
This attitude towards ministry and serving one another in the church leads to the idea that preaching is the ultimate thing to aim for in ministering to others. As a result of this, I have seen young men who don't seem to have preaching gifts being heavily encouraged into the pulpit. And I have seen children's ministry and ministering to women be treated as a burden. Sometimes even talked about like teaching children means that you miss out on church.
How sad that a valuable part of church life, investing in the spiritual life of the next generation, is seen as missing out! Children's ministry is one area I really value the way the pastor of my church addresses in particular. He often says to the leaders and helpers of the children's ministry that we have an important job in teaching children and that it means that we need to prepare well and be on time when we are serving in this way.
Realising that teaching children and women are not second, or even third rate ways to serve the church gives more weight to the responsibility of these roles. It also gives more value to the ways in women are encouraged to be ministering to their church family, no matter where you draw the line on who women should be teaching the Bible to.
3. Women are uniquely able to minister to women in a way that men cannot.
This is a significant reason why women's ministries are important. Women have a different experience of the world to men. There are of course many areas of life we share in experience with men, but the world is geared towards men in a way it isn't towards women. Women experience the world differently in the ways our bodies work, the ways our hormones and emotions work, the ways sexism affects us, the way the Bible speaks to us. Again, there are many ways in which women have the same expectations as men. The Bible addresses much of its content to all people. But there are significant ways in which the world is different for women. And it can be a profound thing to have another woman come alongside you and help you navigate your spiritual life in an intimate way that it might be inappropriate for a man to be in that role. So it is important to be discipling women who will go on to disciple other women in reading their Bible and living the Christian life well.
Now I want to make a side note here and say that I realise that many women don't have a stereotypically feminine experience of the world. And many men don't have a stereotypically male experience of the world. There are also people who experience difficulties in identifying with either gender, and those who are born with physically ambiguous sex. Sometimes I wonder if having 'men's ministries' and 'women's ministries' are another complication for people who don't feel like they fit the label of woman or man for whatever reason. But we are called to love all people and so all of our ministries need to be places where anyone can feel welcome. This might be a particularly tricky one to navigate sometimes, but I have always felt that stereotypes of masculine and feminine when it comes to dictating interests etc. are often unhelpful. It's for this reason I think that any women's/men's events shouldn't be based around things like craft or cooking meat, but around God's word. But, before I get too carried away with this, I should probably think more about this and maybe write about it another time!
4. If we are truly complementarian, we should empower women to minister.
My final thought about women's ministry, and women in ministry is this. If we really believe that men and women are created with equal value as image bearers of God, with gifts and talents, and the same great commission to make disciples, then women need to be involved in ministry. They should be in paid ministry, they should serve in church ministries, and they should be doing the everyday ministry all Christians ought to be doing.
Let me say it again. If we really believe that men and women are created with equal value as image bearers of God, with gifts and talents, and the same great commission to make disciples, then women need to be involved in ministry.
Now ministry particularly to women is an important part of this because often other ministries are concerned with their particular spheres. These ministries like music, kids, outreach, etc. should be concerned with recruiting both men and women in the church. But when there are women who are dedicated to discipling and growing women, it's not just the outgoing women who are empowered to serve anymore - it's all women. The quiet, the loud, the introvert, the extrovert, the young, the old, all of them. And that is a great thing. Because we are all called to be moving parts of the body of Christ, living for the Kingdom and spreading the Good News.
So there it is. For the moment, these are the reasons I think women's ministries are worth bothering with.
Let me know in the comments if you have any other reasons either for or against!