Thursday, August 5, 2021

Wrestling with Women and silence in the church


Here is a link to an audio recording of this sermon. 

When my daughter Bethany heard what passage I was preaching on she sent me a link to an article on satirical Christian website Babylon bee. It was satirizing the phenomenon of publishing houses producing study bibles for specific targeted audiences, men, women, couples, outdoor types etc. The article was supposedly reporting the launch of a new study bible by a well know publishing house. A new study bible for women, with well over 30,000  well researched notes that would help women understand what they read and live out God’s will for their lives if they simply followed the little numbers after any verse- printed in pink of course. The punch line and why this was relevant to us today was that all the notes said the same thing “Go and ask your husband to explain this[ referencing  verse 35 in today’s reading.  Its satire but it does challenge us about how the passage we had read today is to be understood and applied.

Our Winter sermon series this year is called Her story, Her Voice; Women in the Bible. My contribution to this series, is called Women in Leadership in the New Testament: the Silent Witnesses and Silencing Passages. What we are doing is looking at the issue of Women in Leadership in the church by going back to the New Testament and seeing the evidence, like the names of women in romans 16 and elsewhere, of the involvement and acceptance of women in leadership by Paul. Then seriously looking at the Pauline passages in scripture like 1 Timothy 2:5-11 and the one we had read to us today, that seem to be anti-women in leadership.

I know it’s hard going, we need to acknowledge that there is a split theologically over this issue. There are complementarians who believe that men and women were created in the image of God, saved by Christ, filled with the Spirt and given gifts but have different roles and women’s roles in church leadership are limited. That has been the traditional view. There are egalitarians who believe men and women were created in the image of God, saved by Christ, filled with the Spirt and given gifts and are free to exercise those gifts in any situation and position God calls them to. Both sides want to be faithful to scripture.

With that in mind let’s look at the passage in 1 Corinthians 14, with particular focus on verses 34-35, which call for women to be silent in church.


Paul is writing to the Church at Corinth, one with a particular set of issues and challenges. This passage is the conclusion to a section that starts in chapter 11:1-15 concerning public worship. It started with Paul affirming that both men and women can pray and prophesy in church, this was part of the tradition Paul passed down to the church in Corinth. The issue was keeping the socially understood appearance and relationship for men and women ( we looked at that last time). He then goes on to talk about the issue of poor and rich, free and slave and communion. Making sure when they met that the slaves were waited for and catered for. The last three chapters 12, 13,14 are about spiritual gifts. That all gifts are given by God for the whole body to use for the common good. The way in which they are to be used is in love, and finally in the present chapter that they were to be used in an orderly way which reflected the nature of God- as the God of peace. Prophesy-proclaiming Gods word was the more useful gift as it was good for instruction, correction and revelation. It seems that at Corinth worship was a chaotic affair with people all speaking in tongues and speaking over each other.. It finishes with Paul talking about the fact that his teaching was accepted by all the churches. That sets the context.


Verse 34 and 35 say that Women should be silent in Church, they are not allowed to speak.  Then it goes on to expand on this by saying if they want to enquire about something, affirming once again the theological education of women, let them ask their husbands when they get home. Now in Greco roman society and Jewish society women married early and it was the norm for women to be married. There are reasons for Women’s silence given, the first is they must be in submission according to the law, the second is that it is shameful for women to speak in public.

Blanket ban internal problems

Some have seen this passage as a ruling for then and all time that women should not speak in an official capacity in public worship. However there are some difficulties with that view.  Internally, Paul normally refers to the Old Testament when he uses the word Law, however we know of no such law in the Old Testament. Coupled with the idea of being shameful it may be talking about the conventions of the time, where women speaking in public was not the norm, usually a women would speak in their home or if it was in public usually through their husbands. How are we to understand that with the norms of our own culture and time.

It is difficult to have that interpretation within the context of the passage. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11 that women can speak, they can pray and prophesy. It’s tied into the traditions he, Paul has passed on to the church at Corinth. Also it goes contra to the teaching Paul has just given on the gifts of the Holy Spirit that are for the whole body, he’d even said I wish all of you would prophesy, you’d all proclaim the word of God. Now almost as an afterthought we have this ban on women speaking.

 It does not make sense in the wider context of the scriptures where we have women speak and proclaim. We have the women at the resurrection told to go tell. We have the woman at the well go and tell the people of Samaria that she thinks she has found the messiah, she is named Photini in the eastern orthodox tradition and acknowledged as an Apostle. We have Deborah, Miriam and Huldah women prophets in the Old Testament. The list in Romans 16, Paul actually meets Aquila and Pricilla at Corinth… it’s the only time aquilla is mentioned first, because he is a tent maker like Paul, that is how they form a relationship. Everywhere else Pricilla is mentioned first meaning she would have been seen as the more significant of these coworkers of Paul’s.

A TEXTUAL Interpolation

Some see these verses as a gloss or an interpolation, a later addition to the text. That is rare in scripture but this could be a possibility. We don’t have copies of the book that do not contain these verses. However in some texts they are found after v40. Removing them from the chapter does not impact the flow of Paul’s argument. In the New Revised Standard Version they are put in brackets to acknowledge there maybe this issue and in the NIV there is a foot note which acknowledges that in some texts they appear after v40. On a technical level analysis of the wording and structure has lead some to question whether Paul wrote it.  But as Gordon fee who supports this view says, until that is proven we actually need to take them as serious.

The other view of these verses is that Paul is dealing with a specific issue at Corinth, it is not a blanket ban. The focus of Paul’s argument is order in worship.  The worship at Corinth seems to have been quite chaotic people speaking at the same time. The women are not the only ones told to be silent and in submission in this passage. Tongues speakers are told to be silent unless there is an interpreter in v 28. People are encouraged to keep themselves under control. One person was to speak at a time. Likewise, prophets are told to be silent if another is speaking, they are told a prophets spirit is subject to the control of the prophet. So whatever the disruptive thing that was happening amongst the women Paul gives the same imperatives. Keep quiet, be under control, and be in submission, not to men or to husbands but to yourself. To have self-control which is spoken of in the law…There is an appropriate way of going about things, like for example if you want to know something ask your husband at home.

There are many theories of what the specific issue was.

One thought is because women married early and did not have much formal education they were excited with the new freedom they had in the church and wanted to learn so would ask their husbands questions while others were speaking. Which was a no no in greek public speaking. Added to that they could have been seated separately men and women, like in synagogue worship, so they would have shouted out to their husbands across the room. I went to a Samoan Church one time and was amazed to see women and children seated on one side of the church and men on the other. What maybe more relevant was that a woman sat in the middle of the kids with a stick and when ever the kids whispered to each other or acted distracted she’d tap them with the stick and motion them to come and sit next to her. Keeping this social orderliness. The owmen may also have been disengaged from the worship and simply been chattering and talking. Remember it was a new thing for them to be included as equals in worship. On a practical level People often wonder where were the women in the feeding of the five thousand as it only records five thousand men. Men would sit in ordered rows to listen the women’s section would have all the kids and be a sea of movement and all abuzz.

Another view is that this is talking about the congregation carefully weighing the prophesy that was given. Women could prophesy but could not be involved in the more authoritative process of discerning and teaching. It wouldn’t be right for a women to be involved or to publically question the validity of a message given by their husband.  Again the issue at Corinth was a lack of structure so to impose such a structure is arguing from silence. It also puts discernment on a level above the gift of prophecy which goes contra to Paul’s teaching.

One scholar suggests that because the chapter focuses on prophecy there would have been women new to the Christian faith who would have thought that Christian prophet were like pagan oracles. Where the oracle would only speak in response to questions asked by those present. Often it was on personal matter, to do with life and decisions that needed to be made. Paul is telling them not to do this as Christian prophets speak at the prompting of the Holy Spirit, as one commentator puts it no human needs to prime the pump. The personal things they asked about were better discussed with their husbands at home.

In the end the biblical data is too limited to give a definitive answer. Eugene Peterson in his message paraphrase tried to encapsulate this understanding of dealing with a local issue of disruptive behavior when he translates the passage Wives must not disrupt worship, talking when they should be listening, asking questions that could more appropriately be asked of their husbands at home. God’s Book of the law guides our manners and customs here. Wives have no license to use the time of worship for unwarranted speaking.”

All these ideas have merit and difficulties. It is hard to be dogmatic on eitherside of the argument simply from this passage.

Ok how do we wrap that all up and bring it bear today.

Well I love the positive emphasis about theological education for women and by implication for men as well. Education that goes beyond go and ask your husband... That wouldn’t work in our household which I think reflects todays society well. We both have formal theological training and University education. We both have wisdom and understanding to contribute. I’ll ask kris about stuff and she’ll ask me…In our reformed tradition wanting people to know the scriptures understand them and apply them it is why we focus so much on exposition of scripture, opening it up and explaining it, so we can encounter the living word of God, Christ, in the written word, the scripture theough the spoken word, preaching, prophesy. It’s why in our missional plan we encourage Connect groups they are a great place for men and women to learn together… We are blessed with very good resources online and in print, more than ever before… mind you we need to be careful because we are challenged with a whole plethora of different interpretations and theological understandings as well in our information age, we need wisdom to navigate them. All the heresies and controversies there have ever been are alive and well and living on the internet.  Including the whole spectrum of understanding on the issue of women in leadership.

The second thing is that we need to order in worship. Doing things in a way which focuses on love and allowing people to use their gifts. That’s why I really like seeing people come forward and use their gifts in service and in our services. Affirming the spirit of 1 Corinthians 11 and 14, of allowing men and women to pray and speak and encouraging them not to be disruptive. If there is that disruptive element then like with the passage we read today we need to have church discipline, note its for both men and women… maybe the pendulum has swung too far to the ordered, one commentator said that he thought Paul might think we’d ordered our self to sleep, we do need to have open times for people to use the more spontaneous gifting’s. 

Lastly, while I believe the fight for equality is important and significant, I can’t help but feel the Christian understanding of ministry is mutuality. Working together, using the gifts we’ve been given, being the people, men and women that God has created and recreated us to be.   I’m excited when I see teams working together men and women, intergenerational, multi-cultural like our Alpha team for the furthering of the gospel. In the end the flow of scripture is not about who can or cannot speak but about being coworkers in Christ, to the glory of God.

Thursday, July 1, 2021

this could be fraught, women in leadership and what Paul taught (1 Timothy 2:8-15) in the series Women in Leadership in the New Testament: the silent witnesses and the silencing passages.


While I was preparing for this message on the radio on consecutive days were debates about women in leadership. One day it was about women speaking on the marae at Waitangi, bought about because our political parties both have women leaders. I loved the fact that the prime minister as a woman could speak at the porch gateway to the marae because that was the domain of the God of Peace… a name for our God, the one true God in 1 Corinthians 14. Maori were reluctant however to change their Tikanga to allow for women to have equal speaking rights. Then next day was an interview about women being trained and released into leadership in the rural sector. The issue of women in leadership is an important one in our society and within the Church.

This is the second message in the series Women and Leadership in the New Testament: the silent witnesses and the silencing passages which is my contribution to our wider winter sermon series Her story, Her voice women in the bible. In our first talk we explored the silent witnesses to Paul’s acceptance of women in leadership in the early church. But we also need to look at the passages that seem to be, and have been used, as Anti women in leadership.

The passage that we are looking at today “has been used unrelentingly as a proof text to swiftly and decisively squelch the ministry of women in fellowship” (John Zens, 2012).In one book I read for this sermon today it was noted that this had been used this century to defend the firing of a women Hebrew professor from a very conservative Seminary in the states. She could not have a position where she taught and had authority over men. Likewise it has been pointed to as proof that Paul and scripture are anti-women, and so should be dismissed at best as archaic and irrelevant, and at worst as harmful and dangerous.

The passage is also acknowledged as being difficult at many levels “Contextually, culturally, linguistically, grammatically and conceptually’. Big words, big issues. We need to dig deep and wrestle with it. Because in the end it has a lot to say to us that we might not hear if we simply either write it off or quote it to reinforce our own preconceived ideas … Can I say that there are many different interpretations of this passage, I’ve found that choices about words and meaning are often made depending on which view of men and women you hold.  You will understand which side of the argument I am on as we go through this. 

When it comes to the Epistles in the New Testament we need to realise that the key to understanding is that they are occasional. They are written to a specific occasion a specific time and a specific place, to a context. We need to understand it in that context before we can start to apply it. The context of the whole of Paul’s letter to Timothy is that Paul has left Timothy in Ephesus to deal with false teachers and teachings that are disrupting the Church and its witness. It would be great if we had a comprehensive understanding of what those false teaching were, but we only get glimpses from what Paul tells us, its influence however needs to be kept in mind all the time.

Paul starts dealing with this false teaching by addressing the impact that it was having on public worship and prayer life of the Church. This passage is a continuation of Paul’s teaching which started in verse 1 with a call to prayer for all people, because God’s heart was for all people to come to a saving knowledge of the truth through the one God and one mediator between humanity and God Jesus Christ who gave his life as a ransom for all. There is a universality of that prayer, all people, men and women, Christ died for all, men and women. We come to saving knowledge the same way, men and women. But also a very strong call of the uniqueness of the Christian faith, through the one God and mediator.Then Paul had gone on to deal with the demeanour of the people who prayed, both men and women. He told men to lift holy hands and pray without anger or dispute. He adresses women, that when they pray, again affirming their participation in public worship and prayer, they should not adorn themselves with jewelry, braided hair styles and in appropriate clothes their focus should be on their lives and good deeds. In the worship of the goddess Atrimus in Ephesus women would adorn themselves in their jewelry and finery and with new hairstyles as a way of reflecting their status in society and curry favour with their deity, it seems that this was carried over into the church. Paul is saying it is not about your outward appearance but their heart attitude shown in how they treat others, that what mattered in prayer. Sadly this passage has been applied in ways that are oppressive to women, like the dress code at Gloriavale in New Zealand. On the other hand we don’t often hear of men being told their prayers are invalid if they do not stand with raised hands when they pray. The emphasis in this passage is on the heart attitude of the prayer.

Then Paul moves on to say. “ A woman should learn in quietness and full submission.” The first thing we should note is that Paul wants women to learn. In Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus he had said he wanted the whole body to learn and grow into maturity and fullness to be equipped for every good deed (Ephesians 4). The gospel and New Testament Church was different from its Jewish and some pagan systems in that it saw women learning in religious matters as important. It was important that men and women together knew the scriptures and the gospel and how to apply them in life. The education of women has been at the forefront of the missionary movement in the nineteenth century, and one reason Christianity has had such an impact in many countries. Women’s education is still an important issue in the world today.

The word that the NIV rightly translates ‘quietness’ has been translated in other places as in silence. It has been used to effectively silence women, from speaking and taking part in public worship. The word quietness here is the same as the word “quite life” that Paul had used as the reason why we should pray for people in authority, in 1 Timothy 2:2 so we could live a peaceful and quite life, which were the best conditions for the church to grow into all Holiness and godliness. It’s not about silence it’s about a lack of conflict and trouble, the right environment to learn. Submission here has the idea of not all women being submissive to all men, rather it is the right attitude for learning, like silence in a library,  it’s not to men per se but to the word of God, to the gospel and apostolic teaching. Jewish Rabbi’s disciples needed to have the same attitude when they learned to be quite and also to be in submission to the torah and their teacher. We are going to look at this concept in more depth when we look at 1 Corinthians.

Martha’s sister Mary is the example of what it means to be a disciple and a learner in Luke 10:38-42. She is sitting at the feet of Jesus, a technical term by the way for being a disciple, and engaged in learning. It shows that Jesus was comfortable with Women as disciples and in the public space of the house, which in Jewish and roman society was predominantly the preserve of men. Now it’s likely Paul said this because there were women present who because of the influence of false teachers and were not willing to listen, in fact in 2 Timothy 3:6-7 Paul talks of a group of women who were gullible and under the influence of the false teachers who were always learning but did not come to a knowledge of the truth. They were not willing to accept the apostolic teaching, you can imagine how that would impact public worship.  They would be argumentative and disruptive.

Lets move on… “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man, she must be quite.”

Firstly the flow of scripture in the gospel and New Testament is towards equal involvement of men and women in leadership and the mission of the church.  As we saw last time…The women were the first to hear the good news that Jesus had risen from the dead. Men and women were together in the upper room at Pentecost and received the infilling of the holy spirit which Jesus said would enable them to be his witnesses. Paul’s own ministry practices elsewhere in scripture show us that Paul was in actual fact comfortable with women in leadership. Of importance here is that in Ephesus, Pricilla and Aquilla, had been teaching and had taught Apollos the truth about the gospel. Paul uses the same title co-workers for them, her, as he does for Timothy and Titus. In light of that how do we understand Paul now saying I do not permit women to teach?

The word do not now permit has been argued over as to whether it is a blanket ban or more along the lines of in this situation, or now I do not… It is in the present tense…  had Paul changed his practice?  It also follows in a line of words where Paul had said I want, I want and I now do not permit, none of these is an imperative they are not a command. That’s important and how you interpret that is at the heart of how this passage is applied.

We then need to consider what Paul is not permitting. There are two things here teach and have authority over a man. The word for authority here is unique in the New Testament cannon, it’s not the usual word for authority. It has negative overtones about authority in its uses in other early  literature. It only becomes more common and takes on a positive vibe after Constantine makes Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire in 312 AD. Which may reflect that desire in roman society for order and hierarchy.  The word can mean be dominant or domineering. Paul does not permit a women to teach in such a way that she is trying to get what she wants and dominate men, she needs to be quite, which again is the word not for silent but peaceful, and in order. Women teaching and dominating men would have been looked down upon by roman and Greek society and Jewish society as well and would be detrimental to the spread of the gospel. Just as that dominating attitude towards women is detrimental to the gospel in our day and culture.

We shouldn’t be surprised that Paul would not allow women to dominate men, because in his letter to the church at Ephesus as Paul had addressed the Roman household code his teaching had been Ephesians 5:12 submit to one another out of reverence to Christ.  There is a mutuality about that, that revolutionizes the Roman household code from an imposition of a strict social order into loving service. Perhaps the best way of looking at this idea of authority is the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 20:25 where he tells his disciples not to be like the gentile rulers who lord it over each other, rather they were to learn to be the servant of all. So is it women per sae that Paul is against or is it the way this group of women in Ephesus were behaving contra to the Christian understanding of servant leadership: Co-workers together? The Christian understanding of leadership is service, and in our Presbyterian Church that is a group activity, co-workers together. We are suspicious of the danger of power being in the hands of a single person or even a single group without checks and balances. Robert k Greenleaf published a book called ‘servant leadership’ in 1977 which started the revolution of looking at leadership in society and business, his ideal of leadership came from Jesus and is a flat leadership structure of people committed together to working for a common goal and the common good. This issue of power and dominance is still with us today…Over the Christmas holidays I read a couple of books on issues to do with power and toxic cultures in church, and the idea of leadership being mastery and dominance was seen as resulting in abusive cultures and in particularly sexual abuse from key leaders towards women.

Then Paul goes back to the genesis story… For Adam was formed first, then eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbirth’. The hierarchical understanding of this passage, is that Paul is asserting the primacy of men, because in the second creation story in genesis men were created first, (in the first creation story it simply says God created man in his image both male and female)…and because eve listened to the serpent that women are easily deceived and not as spiritually smart as men, so relegating them to the domestic sphere of childbirth and caring for the family. Again social context is important. Firstly from 1 Timothy 4:3 we see that some of the false teaching was around abstinence and not being married, in 2 Timothy 1:17-18 Paul talks of two false teachers who had said the resurrection had already come, there is a sense here that the group of women were seeing that married life and childbearing were no longer part of that new resurrection life. The other side to this is that the main religion in Ephesus was the worship of the goddess Artimus, or Diane, Ephesus was world famous and dominated by the temple of Artimus, a large portion of its wealth came from that, (you can see that in Acts 19). In that religion priestesses were dominant, it was a religion where women dominated men and Artimus was also the one that women prayed to for safety in childbirth. The hair styles that are mentioned in verse 8-10 were associated with this worship as well… displays of wealth and sexuality were part of their worship and it was said their prayers were wrapped up in their hair. So Paul is working on two fronts here, not to say that women are inferior to men, but probably to remind that group of women that they were not above men, the creation story is used as a leveler. In fact in the myth about Atrimus and Apollos the two twin god children of zeus, much was made of the fact that Artimus the female was born first and here Paul maybe countering that from the bible. The false teachers were very caught up in myth and genealogies.


While there is some debate over the childbirth part, saving her is not the being saved in terms of being put right with God, which is only by faith in Christ, that does not make sense and on a different pastoral level a misunderstanding of this passage can have horrible and damaging impact on childless couples. The wider understanding of the word saved is in play here to mean physical safety. There may have been a fear for women who had been part of the Artimus worship, as most pagans in Ephesus would have been at facing pregnancy without that reliance on pagan prayer… kind of like in modern times facing pregnancy without modern medicine… and one of the main reasons women died in that time and culture was in child birth, but it is God who is with them in that situation.   At the same time Paul is addressing the fact that this normal God given role of the women is not to be abandoned.

In the end Paul’s hope for women is that they may continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety. The same thing that Paul wishes for all the church. Faith that invisible relationship with God, made possible for all through Jesus Christ, reflected in love, how we treat those around us and holiness a life that is consistent with the one God whom we worship, very relevant if Paul is dealing with the remnants of Artimus worship for pagans recently converted to Christ. Propriety gives the idea of self-control, which is one of the fruit of the Holy Spirit.

After this passage Paul goes on to talk to Timothy about setting up elders in the Church. He says they are to be the heads of households. Which in Roman times were more usually men, although we have a few example where this is not the case like Lydia’s in Phillipi, and also Chloe’s people in Corinth and even Martha and Mary who invite Jesus round to dinner. This reflected the society of Paul’s day. Today however, our western society and its understanding of the place of women is very different than it was in Paul’s day. How we understand and apply Paul’s teaching has been and is still hotly debated and can and does have an impact on the gospel.

Paul’s focus is on the mission of the church, God wanting all people to come to a saving knowledge of the truth. The gospel has been welcomed in to many places because Christians were and are prepared to teach women. In many places round the world there may be good reason for caution in the speed of which women are welcomed into public leadership, as in Paul’s day, having many women teachers is a society that did not permit women teachers would have been counterproductive, today it may still endanger them and the church. But in the west as Philip Towner finishes his commentary on this passage says “too little too slow could neutralize the church’s impact on society just as effectively.” In the end we are called to be co-workers in the gospel, working together not looking to dominate each other and have our own way.

much of this material comes from two sermons I gave back in 2018 

on verses 8-10

 on verse 11- 15 

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

One gift for all ( Acts 2) A pentecost message

A Message which was preached at the combined service of HopeWhangarei at Pentecost. A large part of this message is a reworking of an older sermon... 

here is the link to an audio recording of this message 

Today we celebrate Pentecost, A Jewish harvest festival but also the time when as the Church we celebrate the coming of the third person of the trinity, the Holy Spirit on those first believers on what is often called the birthday of the Church. What we want to look at today is the fact that God has given all who believe in Christ a gift. The gift of the Holy Spirit to dwell with in us and fill us with the presence of God. You see you and I are God’s spirited people. The very presence of God dwells within us. I love stain glass window art. I really like the dove in this window over here, which is a symbol of the Holy Spirit, from the gospel narrative where at Jesus baptism it tells us the spirit descended on Jesus in the form of a dove.  I love the way the light shines through that window in the late afternoon and puts this wonderful kaleidoscope into the body of the church. The spirit of God poured out on us all, on all who believe in Christ.

 Over the period between Easter and Pentecost we’ve been working our way through a series looking at the gifts of the Holy Spirit in the Bible and the Church Today. The gifts of the Holy Spirit are the ways in which God is present with us to empower us and enable us and equip us as the church to bear witness to Christ through word and deed in the world.  We did that by looking at the passages in the Epistles which have a list of Gifts of the Holy Spirit. Each list different and each list telling us something about the purpose and use of the gifts. No list definitive but showing us the breadth of God’s gracious enabling of his people. Not shopping lists or wish lists of things that could make us appear more spiritual but to be humbly used for the benefit of all.  We looked at Romans 12 and saw that all the different Gifts were given so that we could effectively serve God and love one another, many gifts one service, in 1 Corinthians 12 we saw two list of the gifts and saw that while there were many Gifts they were given by the same spirit, they were he way in which God was able to act and speak to and through his people,  Then we saw in the second half of that chapter that there were many gifts but one body, we are all given different gifts and they are to be used together for the common good. In 1 Corinthians 14 we saw that these gifts were to be used in love to build up the church, and given some practical love soaked guidelines for their use in public worship.  In Ephesians four we saw that God had given ministry gifts apostles, prophets, evangelists, and teachers and pastors so that the church could grow into maturity in Christ, lacking in nothing and being about the kingdom of God. In 1 Peter 4 we were encouraged to use these gifts more and more for the glory of God.

sometimes I think that our understanding of the Holy Spirit and the gifts the Spirit gives is like one of the stain glass windows at St John’s in Rotorua, where I worked. The gifts of the gifts of the Holy Spirit were represented by triangles of different coloured glass in the windows at the top of the church. The sun was supposed to shine through the upper windows and through the glass triangles and down on to the congregation, symbolising that the Gifts the Holy Spirit were for everyone, not just what was happening up the front. The problem as that the sun never shone through on a sufficient angle for that to happen. There was a disconnect between them and the congregation, which I felt was symbolic for a lot of us of a disconnect between the gift of the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the Holy Spirit and our own lives. What I want to do today is use Acts 2 as a way of addressing a lot of the issues around that disconnect. I want to do it in a very 21st century way.  If you go on to websites you’ll often see a FAQ page or frequently asked questions page and I want to provide us with that today.


Let’s have a quick look at Acts 2 first. It is the story of the coming of the Holy Spirit as promised and the start of the mission of the church as witnesses to Jesus. Basically it is split into three parts. the first details the events that took place as the spirit came upon those first believers gathered together.  It outlines what happened and peoples response. The central part of the narrative is Peter’s sermon where he explains what is happening and preaches about Jesus. The third section of the narrative is the peoples response, about three thousand were saved and then a concluding description of how this new community, God’s Spirited people, lived together being lead and empowered by the Holy Spirit.


The first frequently asked question is ‘Do all Christians need to be filled with the Holy Spirit? Is the Holy Spirit for every one or just the certain chosen few? Is it essential or is just an optional extra like leather upholstery and racing strips on a car?

While we’ve been addressing that throughout this series, it is good to look at it again. The answer is yes it is for everyone. Look at the flow of things in Acts 2 it starts by says all the believers were gathered together (About 120), all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit, men and women, in this case all of them spoke in tongues. When the crowd gathers it is the apostles, Peter and the elven that stand up to speak, that is the gift that they have been given, so they use it. They have been training for this moment with Jesus, the narrative ends with people living in a way that reflects the Holy Spirit’s presence in their midst, in all of them with the love they have for each other.

The other important answer to this question comes from the passage that Peter quotes from the prophet Joel, that he says is being fulfilled that day. That God would put out his spirit on all people, and it is a comprehensive list… men and women, regardless of socio-economic status ‘on your men servants and women servants as well, all would speak God’s word or prophesy… and regardless of age… young would see visions and old would dream dreams, and you can choose for yourself which category you are in. 

 WE are all to be filled with God’s Holy Spirit. As Paul says ‘ he anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.’ 2 Corinthians 1:22

The second FAQ is ‘was it just for the people then, just to get the church kick started you know and it’s not for us today. I mean we have the New Testament?’… when it comes to the gifts of the Holy Spirit the church is split along those lines, those who believe the gifts of the Holy Spirit were for then and there but they’ve stopped now and those who believe that it is for all people at all times.

Focusing on what we have read to us today, Peter finishes his sermon by saying that those who repent and believe in Jesus will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. That it is a promise for you and your children and for all who are far off- for all whom the Lord our God will call.’ Some have seen this as saying it’s for the first couple of generations of Christians, which is a literal interpretation, but it is more likely a way of talking about it being for all generations to come. For all who God shall call.

People who talk of the gifts not being for today often point to the second half of 1 Corinthians 13 where Paul talks of tongues ceasing and prophecy ending… when the perfect comes. They see that as meaning the New Testament scriptures. It is hard to write back into Paul in one of the earliest letters which is included in the New Testament canon that he would see a time when we had such a collection.  He was writing to a church that had people who believed that the kingdom of God had come in its entirety and they were like heavenly spiritual beings and he has to remind them that this is not the case; they are to look forward to a greater fulfilment when Christ returns.

The fullness of the Holy Spirit, its presence and the gifts are for us today.

Another FAQ is … when you talk about the Holy Spirit we are bit worried you mean all the weird and wonderful stuff that seems to go along with it at ‘those churches’. do we have to become like them?

In Acts 2 there are very real manifestations that go along with the coming of the Holy Spirit. The wind, the tongues of fire everyone speaking in languages of all the nations gathered on that day. This was an important event an epoch changing event. The wind and the fire are symbols of the Holy Spirit from the Old Testament, the speaking in a language that all could understand was   a sign that this was God pouring out his spirit so that the people of God could and would witness to all the nations of the world, this was the revolution of God grace for all, so it was appropriate. We do tend to forget that the focus of the narrative is on what happened to God’s people and we see they had boldness to preach about Jesus. The majority of this passage is about peter explaining the scriptures and pointing people to Christ. The other thing is that it ends with a summary of the life of God’s Spirited people in Jerusalem.  The signs of the presence and moving of God’s holy Spirit are not really all the weird and wonderful stuff, but people repenting and turning to God, a hunger for God’s word, an increase in a dedication to worship and prayer, unity and love; shown in generosity and hospitality, a genuine and practical concern for the poor, a renewed passion for people to come to know Christ, and yes that God does move in signs and wonders.

I think we’ve just gotten to a point where we are not used to God being God in our midst… in one edition of the voice of martyrs magazine, one Syrian pastor who has stayed in Syria during the war there, talks of the church being full, and many Muslims coming to faith 80-90% of them because they have had a vision or a dream… one man asked to become a Christian after a dream where he was drowning in a river and a man came along and hauled him out, he wanted to become a Christian because he just knew it was Jesus… Closer to home.. My Mum, who was about seventy at the time,  shared a vision she had in church one day, she was in vast fields of the most beautiful wild flowers, and she saw a man in the middle of them, that she just knew was Jesus, and he looked at her and said, ‘I know all these by name’. Affirmation that we are all known. But can I say that the most common thing I experience when I pray for people to be filled with the Holy Spirit is an overwhelming sense of God’s peace and love, which I think is the most amazing and awesome thing… God presences himself with his people as he has promised. Christ is with us to the end of the age as he said he would be.

Ok let’s move on our next FAQ is ‘Is being filled with the Holy Spirit a one off experience that you need to be prayed for to receive or is it an ongoing day to day relationship?”  

In Acts chapter 2 it is a new experience a new encounter with God. We don’t know what the experience of the three thousand who came to faith that day. There are others like that in Acts, when the gentiles receive the spirit in acts 10, and throughout history as well times when God has met people and poured out his Holy Spirit in a new and fresh way, the Pentecostal movement, look back to the Azuza street revival in 1906 as the place where the renewal of the gifts of the Holy Spirit happened for them. You could look at the welsh revival… there have been times of great revival and outpouring of the spirit in our own Presbyterian Church as well. In fact one church historian talks of the Presbyterian Church being born in the fires of revival. However We receive the Holy Spirit when we become followers of Jesus Christ. It is what brings transformation God comes and dwells within us. Paul talks of walking with the Holy Spirit, an ongoing day to day encounter with God through the Holy Spirit as the way in which the Christ-like fruit of the Holy Spirit are produced in us. Even when he says ‘be filled with the Holy Spirit, in the Greek it is in a tense which means be filled and keep on being filled by the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps it’s best to leave the last word on that to Jesus. We are so used to his words on Prayer ‘ask and it will be given, knock and it will be opened, seek and you will find’ that we forget that it finishes in Luke’s gospel by saying ’How much more will God give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him’. When we pray for people to be filled with the Holy Spirit it is that we want them to know that presence more and more and have their lives filled more and more by God’s presence. When that happens in our own prayer life or in a meeting or gathering, it is God’s good grace to give it to us. In fact when we pray for that it is not the manifestations that happen that are the important thing But that we can trust God keeps his promise.

So I think the answer is yes, it can be an experience and it is an on going relationship, ask and you will receive. Keep on asking and receiving…

Lastly ‘How may I be filled with the Holy Spirit?’

The answer is that if you love Jesus Christ then Ask and you will receive. AS we’ve looked at the scriptures the amazing thing about the New Testament is that because of what Christ has done for us , God wants to live in us, God wants to fill us with his presence by the Holy Spirit, it’s simply a matter of asking him and believing that he will do what he has promised.  God will give us a fresh touch of his love, empower us to witness for him, fill us so much with his presence and reveal his word to us that it will flow out of us. WE will be so filled with God’s love and presence and joy that our vision of what is and what should be will be shaped by that, our dreams filled and directed by Christ. Our actions and reactions become more and more Christ-like, more and more Spirit enabled and gifted, and Christ’s vision of the Kingdom of God will be our vision.

When I was preparing for this message I came across a white dove in the guttering of the Church. Sitting right above the stain glass window there. They fly round the street here all the time. Maybe we are happy with the Spirit out there, but God wants to pour out his spirit more and more on his people on us so we will know his presence and  to enable us to live and witness to him in the world he loves.

 I’m handing back to Lorne now and we are going to respond to what we’ve heard by bringing our tithes and offering to God, and praying for the world. Then I am going to lead us in a prayer for ll off us. That we may be filled afresh with god’s Holy Spirit, to enable us to live as God’s spirited people in this world and to be about Christ’s mission in the world he loves. All of us. 

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Many Gifts, One Spirit in Public Worship (1 Corinthians 14:1-40)


I'm catching up with putting sermons on my blog...This is part of a series  preached at HopeWhangarei between Easter and Pentecost on 'the gifts of the Holy Spirit' looking at the passages in the Pauline epistles that have lists of the gifts.

here is a link to an audio of the sermon 

here is the written script (which differes from the spoken version...)

The first time I heard the gift of tongues used was in an evening service at the Church I grew up in at Titirangi, way back in the 1970’s. It happened in a very Presbyterian way. In a quite time after the worship songs set aside for the use of the gifts, an elder in our church said he believed God had a message for us in tongues. He then spoke that message out. A woman elder on the other side of the church then gave a message in English. The minister who was running the service asked if the first elder felt that was the interpretation. Which the elder, said yes he did. Then the wife of another of our elders spoke up and said she had been a teacher in Tonga for over three years and while the language was not Tongan, it was a pacific language and she recognised many of the words as sinmilar, which she said appeared in the right positions for her to agree that it was an interpretation. It was a message of encouragement for the church. It was intelligible, in order, weighed by the Congregation and it built up the church. It fits into Paul’s teaching in the passage that we had read us today from 1 Corinthians. A passage about the use of gifts of the spirit in public worship. A difficult passage and one which has been used and in some cases misused to justify different practices in different churches.

Between Easter and Pentecost we are looking at the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, we are doing that by working our way through the passages in the epistles which have lists of gifts; Romans 12, Ephesians 4, 1 Peter 4 and 1 Corinthians 12, 13 &14. Hopefully as we do that, we will be encouraged as a church to use the gifts that God has given us and be more open to the Spirit’s presence and activity in our midst. We are God’s Spirited people he has equipped us and empowered us to embody Christ together in the world.

The passage that we had read today focuses on two gifts, tongues and prophesy, and very practical ways in which they are to be used and why. It is the conclusion of Pauls teaching on gifts to the Church in Corinth.  A church where there seemed to be an overemphasis on the gift of tongues, as a sign of having arrived spiritually. Where this gift seems to have been used in a chaotic way, with no consideration for other people. Before he deals with this practical day to day stuff in the preceding chapters Paul had gone back to look at some first principles. That there were many gifts and they were given by the same spirit, Enosa spoke on that a couple of weeks ago. That there were many gifts but one body, we belonged together and the gifts were given to use in unity and equality for the common good. Which I spoke on last week. Then he focused on the most important thing: the way of love. In my daily devotions this week 1 Corinthians 13 came up and Adrian Plass commented that we need to focus on love and realize that the gifts were like helpful pots and pans in the Christian kitchen. Utensils that enabled us to love one another. 

Paul’s teaching here starts by reinforcing for his listeners that they should follow the way of love. The sign of Christian maturity was not spiritual gifts, not speaking in tongues, but love for one another. He reiterates the fact that people should seek the gift of prophecy. Speaking God’s word in a timely manner. Then he reinforces that by comparing tongues and prophecy and their uses, particularly in public worship.  Tongues unless it is with interpretation seems to be for personal private use, prophecy is a gift to use in public worship.

In verses 1-5 he articulates the fact that speaking in tongues simply edifies the one who is speaking while prophecy edifies the body: It strengthens, encourages and brings comfort. Paul actually wishes everyone spoke in tongues because it is of personal benefit, but he would rather everyone focused on Prophecy and spoke God’s word because it builds up others. Tongues becomes prophecy and can edify the body when it is interpreted.

Then in v6-12 Paul backs this up by saying that it is important that the words being brought in public worship are intelligible. They can be understand. As the clear use of the gifts is to bring revelation, or knowledge or prophecy or instruction. What good is it if no one knows what is said. Last week as part of our service we commemorated ANZAC day and Phil Cullen played last post and reveille for us. It sturred our hearts because we know the meaning of those calls. Paul uses that sort of illustration here to bring this idea of intelligibility home to the church. What good is a bugler that does not know the signals and the calls? It’s just noise, You could imagine an army in disarray trying to answer the bugle call.  What good is a harp player Paul says that does not know the tune? Maybe here is an echo of his words in 1 Corinthians 13 about gifts being used without love, they are a clanging gong. Even Prophesy needs to be intelligible. In pagan worship and temples, oracles would bring words from the diety they served, but usually they were vague and mysterious and obscure, A sign that they did not come from the living God. The church in Corinth needed to know the difference.

In v.13-18, Paul continues to talk about tongues as being a person’s spirit praying or singing. In Romans 8:26-27 Paul had said in our weakness the Spirit intercedes for us in groans to deep for words. Tongues as a prayer language fits that it enables us to cry out to God from the depth of our being. Likewise Paul speaks of singing in tongues, that he is praising God from his very spirit. Often this passage is used to justify time of singing in tongues in a service. However again Paul goes on to say that in public he wants to pray with his mind as well as his spirit. When he gives thanks to God he wants people to be able to say Amen. To agree and see the wonder and greatness and goodness of God. Everyone else kind of finds themselves in this situation of feeling like an idiot they don’t understand. By the way the word Idiot is used in the Greek here, and it means the uninitiated, those not in the know. Paul finishes this section by saying he speaks in tongues more than any of them, he is affirming it as a gift, and this would have actually shocked the church at Corinth who saw Paul as rather unspiritual. But in Public worship he would rather speak 5 words that were understood than ten thousand that were not.

There is a stage in the development of infants and children as they are starting to learn to speak that they learn to make sounds, and Paul starts his next section by saying the Corinthians are like that they think they’ve got it when all they are doing is go go-ing. He follows that up by quoting the book of Isaiah where it says that even if the people were to be spoken to in a foreign language that there would not turn and repent.

Then in verse 22-25 he speaks about the impact of the gifts of the Spirit on non-believers. He says that tongues is a sign for unbelievers. That has been interpreted in many ways as a positive thing. In Acts 2 it is a sign that the gospel and the promise of the Holy Spirit is for all people. But again notice there that the people heard everyone speaking in their own language. Here Paul says for the unbeliever or the inquirer about the Christian faith, they come in and everyone is speaking in tongues it is a sign that they are all mad. However if they come in and the word of God is being proclaimed and spoken then they will be convicted of their sin and come to repentance. They will turn to worship God. I remember Jim Wallace, my senior pastor at St john’s in Rotorua told the story of man who came to the Lord. Jim had met him at a party and the man had said ‘I don’t need God, I have everything I could want. I’m alright’. Jim felt the spirit say ask him why he sleeps with a gun under his pillow. Which Jim did and the man turned white and asked how did he know that. Well soon after the man came to Christ. Good use of the word of knowledge.

Then at verse 26 Paul turns to start telling people about how to act in worship. That it needed to be in an organised manner. People prepared things and bought it to worship. if tongues were to used there needed to be someone who could interpret there. Then only two or at the most three.  Even with prophesy there should only be two or three at the most speak. Then they should only speak once and not interrupt each other. In pagan worship people would  speak weird words etc as they were caught up in mainic behaviour, where they had worked themselves up to a certain fever pitch. Not so with you says Paul, the Holy Spirit does not possess or override people. Rather the spirit of the prophet is subject to the prophet. The Holy Spirit is gentle. So people need to do things in Order. Public worship should reflect the character of God which is peace not disorder.

Then he finishes it off by giving some instruction about women in worship. In June we will start a series on women in the Bible and my contribution will be looking at challenging passages like this one in v.34-35, which are often called the silencing verses. Because I believe they have been wrongly used in the past to stop women from taking their place in leadership in the church.

  He lets people know that the instructions he is given are the same for all the other Churches. And reiterates his main point. Seek the more useful gift of prophecy and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But remember to do all these things in Order.

So what does that means for us today?

Firstly, this whole series is to encourage us to use the gifts God has given us and this passage gives us some very good insights and guidelines about their use in public worship. In fact this really is some of the only teaching on public worship that we have in the New Testament. As I said before it has been used down through the ages in many different ways. Traditionally brethren and Quakers would worship by being silent until someone was ‘moved by the spirit to sing or to speak. It was organised behind the scenes. Pentecostal and charismatics have seen it as encouraging things like speaking and singing in tongues, but in a way that is in order. That it opens the door for people to bring words, that prophecy is a more spontaneous occurrence. Traditionally reformed people and other denominations, Presbyterians are reformed, have seen that prophecy and people brining their gifts to worship means that they prepare them before hand and bring them to build up the whole Church. Those bringing prophecy are seen as the people set aside for the study and preaching of the word.  Preaching is hopefully prophetic, making the timeless word of God timely. God is more likely to speak to us in the hours put into studying the word and weighing words for a sermon. It strengthens, encourages, reveals, instructs, points to what God is doing. They are all ways that this passage has been applied.

SECONDLY, There is this tension between those who want the more spontaneous and those who want the more thought out. One of the things that the rediscovery of the gifts of the Spirit has meant is that more people are actively involved in public worship. Which is great… It’s what we are trying to encourage here.. I think there has been a pendulum swing also between the spontaneous understanding and the more planned and organised understanding of this passage. We need to embrace both… To let God speak through the well thought out and the sense of speaking to us now.

Likewise we have a tension between people who want to focus on the more spirit idea of worship, emotion and feeling the presence of God and those who want a more cerebral thinking worship. There has been a pendulum swing between those two things. The age of enlightenment, where to worship was a matter of thinking, the Romantic Movement where anthems stirred the very soul, that is where our hymns come from, there was a rediscovery of wanting to be up-lifted in song.  The charismatic movement, with an emphasis on songs that connected with the heart… on personal expression of praise and worship, more than corporate. Even being chant like, you know all that repetition so people could forget about the words and just concentrate on God. At the same time the other large movement in the church was a new liturgical movement where we rediscover the power of words and well thought out prayers and reflections and neo-hymns.  Personally I like both extremes and find myself wanting to embrace the best of all parts of the spectrum if it will build up the church. 

In the end Paul’s words are as real and as important and relevant to us all today.  The key is the way of love. Christian maturity is that we are able to love one another. Love one another across the same kind of issues the Corinthians had. Because we too can fall in to the trap of seeing this way of worship, that we understanding of the way gifts are to be used in public worship as the more spiritual way.  That God only moves and speaks in the way we prefer. Like the Corinthians  need to seek to allow Gods word to be at the centre of all we do, so it may be told forth and strengthen and instruct and convict and reveal and even forthtell, point us to the future. We all need to seek the gifts that will be of more use to building up the Church, not denigrating or writing any of them off. In public worship that they are used in a way that   promotes peace and in an orderly way. So we can lovingly work together to build up the church to the glory of God.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Women in Leadership in the New testament: the silent witnesses and the silencing passages (part 1) the silent witnesses (mark 16:1-8, Romans 16:1-15)


This winter at HopeWhangarei we are preaching a sermon series called her Story, Her Voice: women in the Bible. explore the stories of women in the bible and what they have to say to us today. using their inspirational stories and allowing them to speak to us and inspire and encourage us in our Christian walk.

my contribution to that series is going to be preaching a series looking at 'women in leadership in the New Testament: The Silent Witnesses and the Silencing Passages'. Looking at Paul's practice of acknowledging both women and men in ministry and leadership (the silent witnesses) and then wrestling with  the so called silencing passages in his writing. verse which have been used and  in my humble opinion misused to keep women out of Church leadership. 

here is the link to the first message in that series... giving and introduction to the whole series and looking at Mark 16:1-8 the ressurection narrative and Romans 16:1-15 to look at the silent witnesses to women in leadership in the New testament. 

here is the script for the message  

Today is the start of our winter sermon series here at HopeWhangarei. The series is called her story her voice: women in the bible. Looking at the lives and faith journeys of women in the biblical narrative. There is a tradition of doing character studies in sermons looking at this biblical character or that person in the scripture as a way of encouraging and inspiring our own life of faith. Over the next three months we will be looking at women in the New and Old Testament and allowing their stories, their journeys, their lives, their experience of God and their voices to speak to us. AS well as our normal preaching team I’ve invited our women lay preachers to share those women’s stories with us. To give them voice. My hope and my prayer for this series is that the Spirit may speak anew and afresh to us through the lives and faith of these Women. Often overlooked or not heard, but who are an intricate part of God’s story and ours.

My contribution to this series is going to be looking at Women in Leadership in the New Testament. Looking at the silent witnesses to women in leadership within the early church in Paul’s epistles, that’s what we are going to do today, and then wrestling with the difficult verses in Paul’s writing which some have called the silencing passages that seem to be anti-women in leadership.  That’s where I’ll be going over the next few months.

Why do that you ask? Isn’t it really a non-issue? You have to realise that in our Presbyterian church women have only been able to be ordained as elders for the past 65 years and as ministers for the last 55. One of the thy kingdom come videos that really spoke to me over our season of prayer was the first black women bishop in the Anglican church Rose Hudson-Wilkins whose message of being open to saying yes to God was inspirational. At the same time online a facebook friend posted a meme from a professor in a conservative university in the US which said…’if you go to a church that has women regularly preach or preach even once… go somewhere else it’s not a proper church’. I know women who have not been allowed to exercise their leadership and teaching ministry because of interpretations of Pauline passages we are going to be looking at. 

There is a divide theologically over the issue of women in leadership, one side of the argument calls themselves complementarianism, that men and women are of equal value and can have equal access to God but are created to complement each other and so there are certain ministry and leadership roles that women cannot have. The other side of the argument is egalitarianism that men and women are created equal, with equal access to God and equally able to serve and use the gifts God has given them in any and every role. Both sides can point to biblical texts and examples to back up their position, both sides claim to want to be faithful to God’s word.   I don’t think you’ll take long to work out which side of the divide I’m on. But I’ll try and provide a balanced view on scripture and its interpretation.

Some people have suggested that the Christian faiths change of stance of women in leadership is a result of the changing understanding of women and men in our society, they see it as walking away from scripture. Yet equally the changing role of women in society I believe has caused us to go back and re-examine the biblical texts and strip away some of our cultural bias and see afresh what was in the texts all along, women in leadership in the early church.

When NT Wright is asked about women in leadership he says he starts by looking at the two passages we had read out to us today. The resurrection narrative and the passage where Paul brings greeting to his Christian brothers and sisters in the church at Rome. Because in these two passages we see both Jesus attitude and Paul’s practice of having women as co-workers.

The resurrection narrative in all four gospels has the women who went to Jesus tomb being the first to know the good news that Jesus had risen from the dead and being the first to be commanded and commissioned to go and tell. Before we have the great commission we have this commission. It’s often used as part of the argument for the validity of the resurrection narrative because in Jewish society women were not considered to be reliable witnesses they were seen as too emotional. If it was a made up story the women would not be the first on the scene. In mark’s narrative this could be why his story of the resurrection Sunday finishes with the women being afraid. In Luke’s gospel we find them not being believed, peter has to go and check for himself, and on the road to Emmaus Cleopas tells the man who turns out to be Jesus that the women had some amazing news but they were sceptical. It is hard to think that Jesus entrusting the good news of his resurrection to these women was only for the one trip to the disciples to let them know. That they were then to be dropped from the great commission of going and telling everyone and making disciples. AS my friend New Testament scholar Mark Keown says ‘there was a time when the church was only women, as they were the only ones who knew of his resurrection. It says something of Jesus attitude towards women and their role in his Kingdom. At Pentecost the spirit of God fell on all 120 people present, both men and women, to empower them to be Jesus witness to the nations, as it had said in Joel, that they would all declare forth God’s word, prophesy.

The passage at the end of Romans contains a list of names of people who Paul brings greeting to at the Church in Rome. Many of whom he acknowledges as actively involved in the leadership, working for the Lord. Reading it in the Good News Version we might miss the fact that in that list of names are ten women. Who are acknowledged who are described in different ways as working for the Lord, being active in ministry and leadership. They are the women along with some others throughout the epistles that Gordon fee calls the silent witnesses to an acceptance of women in leadership in the early Church.

In verse 1 and 2 Paul commends Phoebe to the church at Rome, he calls her a servant of the church at Cenchrea, which is on the Corinth peninsula, and a benefactor to many. I know I may sound a bit pretentious here but the Greek word translated serves is diakonos which literally means to wait on tables. Some have suggested that it has the meaning of our word deacon or in our church polity manager. So Phoebe could have a leadership role but more of a servant limited one, that maybe reading back into the scripture our understanding of offices in the church. Our English word minister comes from this word… to be a servant. Being a benefactor show us that she was a wealthy independent woman, she may have travelled to Rome on Business.

Having her mentioned her and being recommend also has been taken by many to postulate the fact that phoebe was the person who Paul entrusted with his letter to the Romans. He is asking them to acknowledge her in that role. That does not mean that she was just the mailman. Letters would have been read by the people who delivered them and they would have been the ones who would be asked to explain this and that. What did Paul mean by justification by faith and righteousness. It is quite probable that the first ever expositor of this great letter to the Romans, this letter that sparked the reformation, was a women. Phoebe.

Then we have Pricilla and her husband Aquila, who Paul calls his co-workers in Christ, a title he uses for people like timothy and Titus.. We know they fled Rome with the expulsion of the Jews under Claudius, Aquilla worked as a tent maker with Paul, they taught Apollos in Ephesus and from this section we see they had suffered imprisonment for their faith. Five out of the six times that Pricilla and Aquila are mentioned in the scriptures Pricilla is mentioned first which may implies she is seen as the more prominent of the two. However they were both seen as involved in leadership and teaching. We see also that they have a leadership role in the church at Rome  a house church meets in their home.

Then in verse 6 we have Mary who is said to work very hard for you. I’m sure its not just in the kitchen making  the sandwiches, likewise in 12 Paul greets three other women who are equally said to work hard for you in the Lord. Tryphena and Tryphosa and Paul’s dear friend Persis.   These are women’s names and they are said to be actively involved in leading the church and spreading the gospel.

In verse 7 we have a couple of people who are mentioned Andronicus and Junia. Who are said to be outstanding amongst the apostles, and who were in Christ before Paul.  There are some issues with translation here, as outstanding amongst the apostles as the NIV and NRSV and KJV translate it could also be translated as well known amongst the apostles, which is what the good news bible says. The challenge is that while Andronicus is a male name, Junia is a woman’s name, so for her to be acknowledged as outstanding amongst the apostles, which is the more natural translation, is to say that she was considered by the church to have an apostolic ministry, to be a church planter and missionary. Some translations have circumnavigated that by translating Junia as Junias (like in the good News translation)  which is a masculine name. However of the over 200 inscriptions in the city of Rome where the name Junia occurs there are no instances where the masculine is used. None, Junia is the more natural reading. Problems with this seem to be a more modern occurrence. We have from amongst the church fathers early Christian writer’s reflections on this Chrysostom, the bishop of Constantinople in the 300’s says ‘the women of that time were more zealous than the men sharing with the apostles in the labour of preaching’. Origin also acknowledged this greeting as reason why women should be seen as ordained into leadership.

We also have Rufus mother and Julia mentioned in this passage possibly in roles which we might be more used to seeing women. Rufus mother, whom Paul acknowledges is a mother to him as well. He values the contribution she makes to him and his ministry. And Julia and the sister of Nereus are also mentioned as being part of the church and known to Paul. If the other women were not seen in leadership roles then you could expect that they may have simply warranted a mention here at the end of the list.

Outside of Romans 16 we have other silent witnesses to women in leadership roles. In the church in Corinth Paul speaks of Chloe’s people, who bring to Paul concerns about what is happening in that Church. The implication is that Chloe was the prominent woman and leader. In Phillipi the first convert is Lydia, whose household is baptised and opens her house to be the first church in Europe. She is the head of that household. Then in Paul’s letter to the church at Phillipi he writes concerning two women who are in conflict with each other.  Euodia and Syntyche, who Paul speaks of struggling with him for the gospel and calls co-workers along with male leaders such as clement. Again that word co-worker is applied to the likes of Timothy and Titus. So a strong affirmation of Paul's acceptance of women in ministry. The way he calls for there to be mediation between the two also reflects the respect he has for them as co-workers. Because of their position in the church their conflict has the potential to cause great harm.

These are the silent witnesses to women in leadership in the New Testament. We don’t know their stories or anything much about them, they do not speak, but by looking at the people that Paul greets and the way he addresses them we can see that Paul was open to a church where both men and women were actively involved in leadership and working together for the spread of the gospel and the Church. That is important when we come to look at the so called silencing passages because it provides a picture of what the early Church was like, its practice.

I was talking with Elaine Holwell on Tuesday morning before she went out as our Central City Chaplain which is a very missionary position to our context here and I was in preacher mode so going through all the stuff that I’ve just gone through with you and Elaine said well that’s the information Howard, but what is the revelation, what is there for us. And I was challenged by that. So here is what I think is the revelation for us it’s short and its simple.

That Paul seemed to respect and value the ministry and leadership of women and men, in a whole lot of different ministry and leadership roles. And Romans 16 paints for us a picture of a church at the heart of the empire that was vibrant and multifaceted using the gifts of both men and women to further the spread of the gospel and of the Church. That picture I believe is a vision for us today as the church as well. To be co-workers valuing each other’s gifts, leadership and ministry equally, male and female, young and old to fulfil our churches vision of being a flourishing Christian community that connects people to God and one another.