Hannah gave thanks to God for his favor and provision. She prayed, “He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.” (I Samuel 2:8)
In many ways Hannah’s prayer was a prayer that looked forward to its fulfillment in the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus lifted the needy and the poor through his completed work of redemption. Among those categories of persons that were lifted, women were given a prominent place in the New Testament Church. For the first time in history, because of the gospel, women were valued.
The New Testament world was a place where women were not valued outside of the role of mother and bearer of children. Even as mothers and wives, the ancient world’s value of the female gender was minimal at best. According to Roman historians there was an “extreme shortage of females” in the ancient world. Historians note that there were around 130 males to every 100 females in the New Testament Roman world.
How could this be?
Social historian, Rodney Stark quotes a first century letter of a man named Hilarion to his wife wherein he reveals the ancient attitude towards females. He writes, “…If you are delivered of a child before I come home, if it is a boy keep it, if it is a girl, discard it…” This practice of selective gender-based child-rearing is a reflection of the devaluing of women in the ancient world. Boys could be raised to be men. Girls were, well, just females.
The ancient world did not value women. Hannah’s prayer that God ‘raises the needy’ found fulfillment in the gospel proclaimed in the New Testament. Even a quick reading of the New Testament shows that the Lord Jesus and the New Testament writers valued the work that women contributed to the building of the Kingdom.
“Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.” (Luke 8:1-3)
Women were among those who contributed to the needs of the Lord Jesus and his disciples. The New Testament does not hide that fact, but acknowledges their provisions.
“There were also many women there, looking on from a distance, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him, among whom were Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.” (Matthew 27: 55-56)
Women ministered to the Lord Jesus in his time of humiliation, passion, and suffering. The Gospel writers do not shy away from acknowledging that ministry, but record it for all time.
Even as the New Testament Church grew, women played a crucial role in the work of the Kingdom. The Apostle Paul, who makes clear statements against women being in leadership in the church, does not fail to acknowledge the valuable role that women played in the expansion of the Kingdom.
“I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.’” (Philippians 4:3)
Paul, even with his views against women in positions of leadership, is not afraid to commend women who have “labored side by side with him” for the sake of the gospel. This is a profound statement given Paul’s views of women in leadership.
Romans 16 is another example. Take time to read the names that Paul publicly thanks and you will find women who are called “fellow workers” and “servants” of the church. It seems that Paul goes out of his way to thank those that the Lord has lifted up. He thanks the women that have labored and served in the building of the Kingdom.
There are many other examples of this in the New Testament. Women are valuable to the work of the church. As confessionally reformed churches, through our ministers and elders, we have stood on the New Testament principle of male leadership. But have we also stood on the principle which acknowledges the valuable role that women play in work of the church? Have we thanked the women of our congregations who invest in Kingdom work and labor? Have we used New Testament language like “fellow worker” or “ministered to the church” or “servant of the church”? These are important questions if we are going to be biblical about the roles of women in the church. It seems that too often we focus on what women can’t do, rather than what they can do in the life of the church.
I have talked with several women about gender roles in the church. Many would like to know how they can be of assistance in the life of the church. The women of our congregations often struggle with finding their place in the overall work of the Kingdom. This struggle does not necessarily mean that they want to usurp authority or desire to be ordained as pastors or elders. Often women struggle with knowing their roles, because pastors and elders fail to acknowledge the vital role that they do play in Kingdom life. As leaders in the church we need to follow the examples of the Lord Jesus and the Apostle Paul and thank them for their work and acknowledge their value in the Kingdom.
If we are going to be biblical about the role of women in the church, we could start by being more vocal in our thankfulness for what they add to the work of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ.
It’s what the Apostle Paul would do. Jesus too.