Ecclesiology and Womanhood by Rebecca VanDoodewaard
The following article is a guest post by Rebecca VanDoodewaard, author of Uprooted: A Guide for Homesick Christians, Your Future ‘Other Half’: It Matters Whom You Marry, and Reformation Women: Sixteenth-Century Figures Who Shaped Christianity's Rebirth.
I love your Kingdom, Lord! The house of your abode; the Church our blest Redeemer saved with his own precious blood! For her my tears shall fall; for her my prayers ascend; for her my cares and toils be given ‘till toils and cares shall end.
Our culture tells women that we are to pursue our dreams, our goals, our careers. In the church, that’s more sanctified: we pursue our ministries, our spiritual vision, our goals.
But Scripture tells us something else. Individualism is antithetical to Christian living. And in the many discussions about biblical womanhood, I think that one essential principle is missing: Christian women are to be devoted to the Body of Christ. Because Jesus loved the Church and was willing to die for her, Christlikeness means a similar, sacrificial commitment to the church visible, particularly the local expression of which we are a part. Jesus was incarnated, lived a perfect life, paid the full penalty of sin, and died in service to the church. This lays a call on us to similar devotion. And while this is true for every believer, thinking about womanhood through this principial lens clarifies a lot of practice: God’s perspective on the church orients us.
The Church is Christ’s Body, made up of all God’s elect—every human being who ever has, does, and will trust in Christ alone for salvation (Eph. 2:19, 1 Cor. 4:1). The Church is not committees, or parachurch organizations, or programs, or even ministries. The Second Helvetic Confession calls the Church, “the assembly of the faithful;” the Augsburg Confession says that the Church is “the congregation of saints” (article VII). We can’t see the whole Church now, but we can see expressions of it, especially in our local congregations where Christ is faithfully preached.
If we are increasing in sanctification, which is God’s will for us (1 Thess. 4:3), then the Church will become increasingly important to us. It is the Church, says the Westminster Confession of Faith, that has the “ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints” (chapter XXV). The Church is the reason for the incarnation, for God’s work in the world, for the whole narrative of salvation in Holy Scripture. God loves the Church, and so must we. The more like Jesus we are, the more we will be willing to sacrifice for the Body. The more like Jesus we are, the more we will commit to the Church—especially our local congregation—as the primary source of our spiritual growth and the primary recipient of our service.
It’s difficult to overstate the significance of the Church. Scripture gives us two main principles so that our lives reflect this reality.
Attendance of public worship. We are not to neglect meeting together (Heb. 10:25). This is especially important for public worship. The Westminster Confession reminds us that the preaching of the Word, sacraments, and prayer in public worship are the primary means by which we receive the benefits of union with Christ (Q 154). When we stay away from public worship, the Augsburg Confession warns us that we “despise true religion” (chapter XXII). Tiredness, business, babies, sporting events, bridal showers, teaching Sunday school, or anything else that we use as excuses for missing corporate worship are excuses that put our souls in danger. They are in a very different category than serious illness or unusual weather that might physically prevent us from worshipping. We can come up with reasons for staying home that are uncomfortable for pastors or elders to challenge us on simply because they do not experience many diffidulties that women do. But when worship with God’s people is our weekly priority, many other things will fall into place.
Fellowship with the rest of the church body. Today, fellowship can feel like an extra—something great, but not always possible. Large congregations, commutes to church, and busy schedules have put a squeeze on fellowship. This is in such contrast to the New Testament pattern, where believers were not only devoted to preaching, but also to fellowship (which included prayer: Acts 2:42). Fellowship with other believers is simple a reflection and overflow of believers’ fellowship with God (1 John 1:3). This is why the Apostle’s Creed states that we believe in the “communion of saints”—it’s an essential element of Christian belief. The Second Helvetic Confession states that true Christians live “in fellowship of all good things” and that “we esteem fellowship with the true Church of Christ so highly that we deny that those can live before God who do not stand in fellowship with the true Church of God.” (chapter XVII). Fellowship—and thus service—is hard if we only see other church members on a Sunday morning, which is why the New Testament church’s practice of hospitality is so relevant and prescriptive (Rom. 12:13). This is why women need to spend time together so that organic mentoring can happen from older women to the younger (Titus 2:3). This is why corporate prayer is vital (Acts 2:42, 6:4, 16:13).
Notice that none of these ways to serve and connect involves programs or committees or institutionally orchestrated hospitality. Those are optional, and can even distract from essentials. Grassroots, homegrown, non-professional, skilled, loving, devoted commitment to Christ’s people is not optional.
This means that as women, our lives need to be ecclesiastically oriented. And yes, that’s true even though Scripture allows only men to hold ordained office. Whether we are mothers, raising the next generation, or childless wives, opening our peaceful homes for fellowship, or single women giving our time, energy, or money to the church, these doctrinal principles challenge all of us.
Regular attendance of public worship and organic fellowship are essential to a right practice of biblical womanhood. When we wisely apply these standards to our lives as women, we get practice that blesses others and honours the Lord. Different life situations, stages, etc., will express these principles in slightly different ways, but if they are biblical, they will all have the same motive and outcome: building up the church as a body.
Here is a sampling of real life examples:
- A medical doctor uses her training not only to work in her community, but also to serve in a denomination hospital in the Middle East. Her singleness frees her to periods of time away from home, while her obstetrical skills help her serve women whom male doctors cannot. When she returns home, she is involved in hospitality and helping with congregational singing.
- A young mother decides that since there is a good school in town, sending her children there during the day frees her up to practice a lot of hospitality, help her busy husband, as well as take her children to the Sunday services and weekly prayer meeting.
- Another mother believes that educating her children at home is the best way to equip them for future service. Allowing for hospitality on the weekends makes it possible to fulfill her calling of motherhood as well as the command to welcome the stranger.
- A childless woman uses her time to read widely and mentor younger women in the church with her knowledge, passing along useful books, and opening her home as a place of learning and encouragement.
- A woman with older children strategically works part time, making connections between her community and congregation, in addition to parenting, hospitality, and corporate prayer.
- Another woman chooses not to seek employment. Instead, she budgets more carefully and has the time and energy to practice hospitality, attend worship, and bring her children to the weekly prayer meeting. She recognizes that involvement in her congregation is not in competition with motherhood, but an essential part of Christian parenting.
- A grandmother decides to reorganize her time. With no young relatives in town, she volunteers at a mission thrift store and the community soup kitchen with other church members, hosts out of town guests, and attends prayer meeting.
Being ecclesiastically centered is limiting. When we arrange our lives around any one thing (and we all do), we must say no to other things. Perhaps, as Christian women, being church-focused like Jesus means that we must say no to certain other work and activities. Maybe some relationships will suffer because of our orientation. There will likely be less chill time on Sundays and Wednesday evenings. Putting self to death will take on very real and clear forms.
But being ecclesiastically centered is glorious because it draws us closer to Christ. His goals become ours. As we worship and fellowship with, serve and sacrifice for the church, we “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Eph. 4:15–16). That Body enjoys God’s special care and government, protection and preservation (Westminster Larger Catechism, Q. 63). That’s something worth reorganizing our lives for. It’s something that will give us solid direction as we seek to live as wise women in a darkening world. It draws us closer to Jesus because it makes us like Jesus as we live and die for the church, following His lead.