By Adam Brown –
As a complementarian church, we believe that men and women are created by God and are equal in every way. Both men and women are made in the image of God. Both men and women are to exercise benevolent dominion over the created order. And, perhaps most importantly, Jesus Christ died equally for both men and women. Yes, both men and women will share in His inheritance without any discrimination based on gender (Galatians 3:28).
At the same time, equality does not mean sameness. God created men and women to be equal but different. God’s creation of humanity in two genders differentiates the functions inherent to men, in their maleness, from women, in their femaleness. Together, men and women are to co-labour in a mutual, yet differentiated, partnership that aims to glorify their Creator.
As part of this differentiated partnership, God created men to lead and to teach in the local church. Thus, the Word of God plainly states, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man” (1 Timothy 2:12). This is controversial. Indeed, it is anathema in our culture. And yet, it is the Word of God.
The governing and teaching responsibility given to men by God is important to uphold. After all, the church is God’s house and He decides how we are to behave in it (1 Timothy 3:14-15).
It is equally important to uphold the high calling that God has given to women in the local church. Though this can be done in a number of ways, one very important means of doing this is to ask women to share in the public reading of Scripture.
The public reading of Scripture is the vocalization of God’s Word. This means that when a man or a woman stands up, opens the Bible, and reads Scripture from it, he or she is speaking God’s Words to God’s people. Put another way, God is speaking to the church when His Word is being read.
Keeping this in mind, it is very important for complementarian churches to share this profound honour among qualified men and women. This is not an honour that ought to be withheld from women. Nor is it a task that has been given exclusively to men.
Having said this, there are a couple of Scriptures that are regularly marshalled to argue against the public reading of Scripture by women:
1 Timothy 2:12
I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man.
1 Corinthians 14:33-35
. . . As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.
What Should We Make of These Verses?
In the first case, 1 Timothy 2:12 does not address the public reading of Scripture. It addresses the governing and teaching authority of the male elders. The public reading of Scripture is neither teaching nor the exercising of governing authority. The authority of Scripture rests in the Word and not in the reader, though a preacher speaks with authority when he explains and applies the Word in and for the church.
First Corinthians 14:33-35 does not address the public reading of Scripture either. It addresses the evaluation of contemporaneous prophecy in the local church in an era before the church possessed the infallible Word of God in written form, namely our New Testament.
In such times, male elders were to evaluate every act of prophecy in order to deem it to be authentic or counterfeit. Moreover, men would then explain the prophecy to the church, much like we explain the Scriptures in our preaching and teaching. According to 1 Corinthians 14:33-35, women were not to participate in the judging or teaching of such prophecy.
Yet, Women Did Prophesy
In spite of the leading role that male elders were to take in the judging and teaching of prophecy, women were not prohibited from actually prophesying. See, for example, 1 Corinthians 11:5:
. . . every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head. . .
Leaving aside the issue of head coverings for the moment, notice that Paul expected women to publicly pray and publicly prophesy in the gathering of the local church. The issue for Paul in 1 Corinthians 11 was not if, but how, a woman ought to publicly pray or prophesy. The answer Paul gives is this, women are to publicly pray and prophesy with a submissive posture.
In the Corinthian cultural context, this submissive posture was achieved by wearing a head covering. Head coverings do not usually communicate the biblical concept of submission appropriately in our culture, and so are not required. Nevertheless, the submissive spirit of a women in public prayer and public prophecy is upheld in all places, at all times, by the Word of God.
Prophetesses in the Old and New Testaments
Before the Old Testament was written down, prophets delivered the Word of God to God’s people verbally. Likewise, before the New Testament was written down, prophets delivered the Word of God to God’s people verbally. In both instances, they were called prophets and their act of speaking the Word of God was called prophecy.
Old Testament prophetesses include: Miriam, Moses’ sister (see Exodus 15:20); Debora, during the time of the Judges (see Judges 4:9, 17-21), Hannah, the mother of Samuel (see 1 Samuel 2:1-10); and Huldah, of Jerusalem (see 2 Chronicles 34:22). There may have been others not listed in the Bible.
New Testament prophetesses include: Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist (see Luke 1:41-45); Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ (see Luke 1:46-55); Anna, in the Temple (see Luke 2:36-38); Philip’s daughters (see Acts 21:9); and certain Corinthian prophetesses (see 1 Corinthians 11:5), as well as many other unnamed women in the early church.
Complementarian churches would do well to recognize these biblical prophetesses and give opportunity for women to prophesy in the local church by publicly reading the Scriptures.
The Public Reading of Scripture is Equivalent to Prophesying
We no longer embrace contemporaneous prophecy because we believe that the complete Word of God has been revealed and recorded in Scripture.
Therefore, today every Word that comes from God can be found in the Christian Bible, both Old and New Testaments. The public reading of Scripture, therefore, is the closest we can get to the act of prophesying. That is, we speak the true Words of God, to the people of God, when we read the Scriptures aloud.
This act of prophesying, which, in our case, is the public reading of Scripture, is the central act of the church and is not to be taken lightly. Indeed, it is a tremendous honour for any creature to speak the Words of his or her Creator out loud.
Our Creator has wonderfully extended this honour to both men and women equally. Therefore, in keeping with God’s good design for men and women, and in keeping with God’s instructions for how we are to behave in His household, the church, it is right and good to invite women to magnify their Maker by speaking His Words to His church through the public reading of Scripture.
It is not enough for complementarian churches to say that we uphold the equality of men and women. We must demonstrate our convictions of equality by giving women every biblical opportunity to serve God according to His revealed design and purpose for women.
The public reading of Scripture – the speaking of God’s Words to God’s church – does more to affirm our belief in the absolute equality of men and women (even while we uphold the differences in our God given design and function) than any other thing we could say or do.
For who can deny the incalculable value of the one who speaks the very Words of God? Indeed, speaking the very Words of God is of infinitely greater value than preaching about the Word of God, even though the latter constitutes the greater exercise of authority in the local church. Matters of office and authority aside, publicly reading the Word of God is the supreme honour bestowed on any creature.
Of course, this blessing is an undeserved gift, whether the reader is a man or a woman. Yes, this act of reading Scripture glorifies God in heaven and does not glorify the one who is reading. Indeed, let us keep all of that in mind as necessary context for what I am about to write. . .
In the moment that she, Woman, publicly reads Scripture, we subtly but truly declare to one another, “Behold, Woman. She is publicly speaking the Words of God. Let us listen to her voice so that we might hear God.”
Now that affirms something profound about the equality of men and women, and that is why women should publicly read Scripture in the local church.