The Female Voice and the Local Church

The night before Jesus was crucified he washed the disciples’ feet (John 13:1-17) and served them bread and wine (Luke 22:14-23). Jesus then patiently taught them that those who are great serve others (Luke 22:25-27). The disciples struggled to get their heads and hearts around this lesson (Mark 9:33-36; Matthew 18:1-4; Luke 9:46-47, 22:24).

On that symbol and service filled evening, Jesus was somberly preparing the disciples for the hell storm that was about to break. He was hours away from the cross where he would complete his most loving act of service. The next day Jesus would suffer to death and a few days later he would have a story that would need to be shared. 

To whom did Jesus first entrust this story? It wasn’t one of the disciples. The resurrection account that gave life to the gospel (1 Corinthians 15:14) was first communicated to women (Matthew 28:5-7; Mark 16:1-7; Luke 23:55-24:10; John 20:1-2). Female voices carried the finale of Jesus’ supreme act of service back to the disciples. Women were the perfect choice. 

Women understand the beauty of service. When we hear from women in Scripture it is often while they are in service to others. Shiphrah and Puah risk their lives to save Hebrew baby boys, which unfolds into the more personal narrative of Moses’ mother risking her own safety to keep him safe (Exodus 1-2). Ruth lovingly commits herself to Naomi’s care (Ruth 1). Abigail pleads with David to let her take the punishment that her husband deserved (1 Samuel 25:24). Jehosheba saves her nephew and preserves the royal line of David (2 Kings 11:2-3; 2 Chronicles 22:11). Esther places herself in peril by standing in front of the king in order to save the Jewish people (Esther 4:11). Tabitha was full of good works and acts of charity (Acts 9:36).

In many of the biblical accounts women are speaking up for the oppressed, a service they are well equipped to perform. Women have a long history of being marginilized. They know what it is to have their experience and voice neglected. This is one reason why the Me Too and Church Too movements emerged so quickly. Platforms finally existed that amplified the voices of women who were suffering. 

Unfortunately, the church often struggles to be a sanctuary where women find refuge from marginilization. In Prophetic Lament, Soong-Chan Rah writes, “In recent years, the American evangelical community has attempted to silence the voices of women.” Thabiti Anyabwile comments on this silencing. “I’m a complementarian, but women should pray to God in public. Restrictions in public prayer provides an example, I think, of the protective fences of complementarity being pushed over into our neighbor’s yard. In an effort to rightly protect areas God sovereignly reserves for qualified male leadership, some have began to annex and ‘protect’ anything that looks like ‘leadership.’ In their practice, some have basically reduced the complementarian vision to ‘never allow a woman to do anything ‘up front’ in the public meeting,’ including prayer. In the process, they’ve also reduced ‘leadership’ to up front marquee performance, rather than humble, loving, sacrificial service to all” (read full article here).

Loving service is designed by God to be the fundamental principle that drives leadership. Yet, few church leaders have inherited a local church culture where female voices are sought out. In response, church practice often moves along with limited reference to the female experience. In Co-Laborers, Co-Heirs: A Family Conversation, Jessica Ribera provides this example, “Subtle messaging comes across every time someone in front of the congregation says, ‘If you have any questions or needs, please feel free to speak to one of the pastors, elders, or deacons.’ The implication: there aren’t any women you can talk to. For many, I’m convinced this is a major barrier to women receiving help and spiritual care. Some things are just too hard to say to a man, especially a man you don’t know very well, no matter how much you love his preaching…”

When we, the church, repress the voice of women we compromise the expression of our service. I think this is true in two senses. First, when women are not fully exercising their gifts and voices the church is not fully displaying the Christ-like qualities that are expressed in unique ways by women. Second, if men aren’t regularly seeking to hear women men won’t know how to sacrificially serve them well. 

Commenting on the practice of servant leadership, Tim Keller writes, “Christ’s headship of man is clearly one of authority (there is submission), and yet his authority is expressed through sacrificial service. He discovers our needs and meets them…A ‘head’s’ job is to use authority to please, to meet needs, to serve.” Keller’s counsel is that any man who has a leadership role needs to be actively seeking to learn how to serve everyone who is under his authority. 

How prominent is the female voice in your local church? How often are their experiences and opinions sought out? Do the insights and perspectives of women significantly shape your preaching, teaching and practice?

Here is the primary point. If God manifests himself by the Spirit through the lives of his children then the church can’t reflect the full voice of God until all of his children's voices are harmonized. The voice of the church is Christ-centered, biblically grounded and expressed uniquely by each gender. When the male voice is not fully complemented by the female voice the church’s expression of Christ’s greatness will be compromised.  

By B. Bouton

*One way to become more attuned to the female voice is to read, quote and teach books by female authors. Here are a few recommendations to get you going:  United: Captured by God’s Vision for Diversity or anything by Trillia Newbell, A Practical Theology for Women by Wendy Horger Alsup, 1 Peter: A Living Hope in Christ or anything by Jen Wilkin.