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Women in Leadership in the Kingdom

Felicity Dale received her medical training at Barts Hospital in London, and worked as a family doctor before leaving the medical profession to look after her own family of four children. She and her husband, Tony, were active in the British House Church Movement, helping to pioneer a church in their medical college and later in the East End of London.

In 1987, the Dales moved to the United States where they developed businesses to support themselves, and again jumped heart-first into church planting. Out of these church planting pursuits, the vision and relationships developed that led to the formation of House2House Ministries (primarily a magazine and website which seeks to resource the rapidly growing house church movement in the West). Felicity has authored Getting Started and An Army of Ordinary People, and, with Tony, is co-author of Simply Church and a soon to be published book, Reformation.


By Felicity Dale

The body of Christ in the Western world is hemiplegic. (Hemiplegia is a medical term used to describe paralysis of one side of the body such as occurs after a stroke.) If you look at any gathering of leaders in a Christian context, including that of simple church, the majority of them are male. Women are conspicuous by their absence. Half the body of Christ is, for the most part, not functioning.

Where are the women? Why are we not seeing more women in leadership?

Traditionally, in our Bible-believing evangelical churches, women have not been in leadership. This is because all of us, the women as well as the men, want to obey the Scriptures. So as a result, women may run the Sunday school or a prayer ministry, but when it comes to the leadership of the church as a whole, or anything that might give direction to the body of Christ, women are usually not included because certain scriptures appear to limit their role. So in general, in order for a woman to be included in any kind of "important ministry," she has to be twice as good as a man would be.

There are a number of things that women in the church have been told down through the years. For example, "Of course under God, we are all equal; it is just that we have different roles." (This is the Christian equivalent of George Orwell's "All animals are created equal, but some are more equal than others.") "Women can lead-they do it by exerting influence through their husbands." And, a personal favorite, "God does use women, but only when He cannot find a man available to do the job."

The belief that the Scriptures forbid women from teaching or leading within the church has led to some ludicrous situations. For example, Watchman Nee learned a great deal from a certain missionary lady. But because she was "not allowed" to teach men, she would teach the women of the church while the men sat behind a partition listening in. In their excellent book, Why not Women, Loren Cunningham and David Hamilton describe a wonderful missionary lady named Sophie Mueller who worked in Columbia in the 1940's. She started over 500 churches, but because she was not allowed to teach in the church, she would teach her new converts out in the open air.

Back in the UK, the movement of churches we were a part of subscribed to this philosophy too. During the 70s, we were going through a period of revival and God was doing exciting and extraordinary things all over the country. But I remember so well when Tony used to go off to his men's leadership weekends and come home fired up and abundantly blessed while I had been coping with kids and diapers. It was not that I minded being at home with the family--I loved that, and I was delighted that he had met with the Lord--it was the fact that I was excluded from where it was really happening, where the Spirit of God was really moving, simply because of my gender.

(I would like to add a couple of caveats. Firstly, Tony was always very supportive and encouraged me to do anything I sensed the Lord laying on my heart. It was the system that was oppressive to women. Incidentally, that group of churches in the UK has totally changed and now spearheads a move towards equality for women within the church. Secondly, not all women have the same passions and desires that I do, and that is fine. And please do not think I am blaming the men for this. They were seeking to obey the Scriptures too.)

Part of the problem was that ever since I have known Him, the Lord has given me a passion for hearing His voice and somehow imparting that to the body of Christ. I was told that I could exert any influence through my husband, but that because I was a woman, anything more was prohibited, and that I should be content with this state of affairs.

I came to understand the emotion and helplessness felt by people who are discriminated against in things like race, apartheid and caste systems. Inside I was screaming for justice, and yet the Scriptures themselves seemed to be against me.

But above all, I wanted the Kingdom to be extended, and if this meant I was to take a back seat, that was what I would do. If the Scriptures really were clear that women were not to be involved and if this would somehow further the Kingdom, then I was willing (even through tears) to submit to that.

Then we moved to America, and after nine years of struggling on the backside of the desert, we became involved in house church. And in this move of God, there is genuinely no discrimination against women in leadership. So why are there not more women involved?

There is a growing understanding of the role of women in leadership. Let's look at some of the thinking behind it.

Jesus died to bring us freedom, not captivity. The whole trend of the Bible and of the New Testament in particular, is towards freedom and emancipation. Jesus epitomized this in His attitude towards women. He treated them as equals. Some of His most important theological conversations were with women (the woman at the well and Martha.) Women supported Him in ministry. A woman anointed Him for burial; the women did not desert Him as He died. The very first person He chose to show Himself to after His resurrection was Mary Magdalene.

Throughout the rest of the New Testament, women were beloved co-workers. Of the 21 specifically mentioned people in Romans 16, seven are women of whom one, Junia, was an apostle.

Christians have always been in the forefront when it comes to issues of emancipation. It was Christians like William Wilberforce in the UK, or Harriet Beecher Stowe in the US who fought for the abolition of slavery. (Incidentally, it was Christians misinterpreting the Scriptures who argued that God had created slavery and that therefore it should continue.)

In the modern world, the average woman who is often holding down a responsible job in secular society would be insulted by a church that believed that women were not allowed to do anything God called them to.

Frequently, God uses society to speak prophetically to the church. For example, currently the business world is demonstrating values of house church in its emphasis on the importance of everyone being heard. The Internet is a prophetic picture of flat leadership and of inter-related groups. The book The Starfish and the Spider: the Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations by Ori Brafman, and Rod Beckstrom, a secular business book, gives a great description of how simple churches function.

Galatians 3:28 says that there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. In the West, racial issues are being dealt with, open slavery has gone, and now it is time for women's equality. This is happening in the workplace, and it is prophetic to the church. I am not here talking about a militant feminism-merely the fact that women are being recognized as of equal value and able to play a strategic role in the church.

Back in 1983, we had the privilege of an interview with Dr. Paul (David) Yonggi Cho, pastor of then the largest church in the world. He had a number of things to impart to us on the importance of prayer, but one of the things he said was, "You people in the West will never see a move of God until you use your women. Women have been the key to what has happened in Korea."

Throughout the world God is using women in incredible ways. In China, it was women and teenagers who spread the Gospel and saw the greatest move of God the world has ever seen. The men were all in prison. In countries like India, women are being used to start churches. For example, a friend of ours, a housewife in her sixties, has trained over 8,000 women, many of them illiterate, who have seen more than 6,000 churches start. Another American friend, a young woman in her thirties, moved to a village in North India where she has seen over 700 churches start within a year. And what about Heidi Baker, a true example of a female apostle, who, with her husband Rolland, a friend of Tony's for many years, has been used by God to plant more than 8,000 churches, mostly in Mozambique and the surrounding countries of Africa.

Has God only used these women because men were not available? I think not! The Holy Spirit does not go against God's principles. Then how do we explain some of the more difficult passages in the Bible that seem to indicate that women have a lesser role to play?

Let's take one of the problem passages in question as an example. At first glance, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is perfectly plain--women are to keep silent in church.

"Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home, for it is shameful for women to speak in church?"

The first indication of a problem is nowhere in the law does it say women are to be submissive. Also, we know from 1 Corinthians 11 that women can speak in church. They are told to pray and prophesy with their heads covered.

1 Corinthians 7:1 says, "Concerning the questions you asked in your letter." It is obvious that certain questions are about to be addressed, and the next few chapters are devoted to various topics, presumably in response to questions the Corinthians had posed to Paul.

The word meaning "to be silent" (sigao) is used three times in chapter 14. In verse 28, it is used in relation to speaking in tongues, in verse 30 in relation to prophecy and in verse 34 in relation to women. The first two times, a problem is mentioned, the relevant people are told to be silent, and then a solution is presented.

The first difficulty addressed is that people are speaking in tongues when there is no one present who can interpret. Paul tells them to be silent (sigao) and to speak to themselves and to God. The second dilemma they ask about is that sometimes more than one person has a prophecy at the same time. The first one prophesying is to hold his peace (sigao) because the prophets can prophecy one by one. (Don't forget Paul is answering questions. You can imagine their letter, "What should we do if there is no one to interpret?")

The difficulty with verse 34 is that the problem is not discussed. Maybe Paul felt it was self-evident from the answer that he gave. Some women were being disruptive by asking questions in the middle of the meetings. They were to be quiet (sigao) and ask their husbands at home.

In neither of the first two situations would anyone assume the silence was to be permanent and in every meeting. It was only for a certain set of circumstances. Yet for women, this verse has been used to keep them silent in church for centuries. There are some churches who literally forbid their women to speak (even to pray aloud) in their services.

When we first moved to the United States, I wondered if the issues facing women were just European. But wherever I have spoken on the subject, which I rarely do, women come up to me afterwards in tears. The vast majority have been hurt in some way by the attitude of the church to women.

Recently, I have been at several very strategic gatherings when this subject has come up, and on each occasion, the men have been in deep repentance over the way that women have been treated down through the centuries. These have been healing times. The men have gone on to validate the women by declaring over them their freedom to do anything the Lord calls them to.

God is doing something new. Yes, I know that not all women have longings like mine (just as not all men desire leadership roles). Many are more than content just to look after their homes and families, and that's fine-it is what God is calling them to. For most women, as there was for me, there needs to be a season when children are their primary focus.

However, for many women there does need to be healing. And, even then, there are barriers to break, but this time, the barriers are only in our minds. It's as though there's a stronghold in our thinking that says that anything important has to be done by a man, and that the role of a woman is to be supportive.

We have a dog, a chocolate Labrador wannabe, named Sugar. She is pure mutt, but the lab part of her loves to wander. Our home has a fence around it with an automatic gate. Sugar used to lie in wait for a car to exit, and then, just as the gate was almost closed again, she would make her bid for freedom. For various reasons, we decided that the time had come to stop her going AWOL, and so we installed an invisible fence across the driveway in front of the gate. An invisible fence works because the dog receives a jolt of electricity from a battery on its collar if it crosses a certain boundary.

Now Sugar is not normally renowned as being a fast learner, but it only took a couple of, shall we say, shocking experiences before she learned not to go out of the gate. From that time onwards, she would sit in the driveway, looking longingly out of an open gate, without ever attempting to cross the line. Long after the battery in her collar had totally died, she would not go out the gate. She had become conditioned to stay within her boundaries. But the problem was between her furry ears.

As women, we have become conditioned to boundaries because of our gender. Even though our invisible fence is no longer in existence, we are still not free to exercise the liberty that we have in Christ. Let's ask God to give us vision and courage to go beyond the limits of church convention and do all that He would have us do.

What about the men? Do they have a role in freeing women into their destiny? Tony is a very gifted communicator, but he came to realize that the only way I would speak out is when he kept quiet. And he did that willingly. For many husbands, the only way their wives will ever take their rightful place as equal ministers within the Kingdom is when they are willing to stand down and joyfully promote their wives. Sure, at first the men would have done it far better. After all, they have had far more practice. But in the long run, it will make for a far fuller- orbed body of Christ.

Women, let's rise up and take our rightful place in the body of Christ. I'm not talking about reaction or rebellion, or "I've been hurt and I'm going to get back at the system." This is not a militant feminism. We don't have to prove anything.

We have seen how men do leadership down through the centuries-rivalry and competition, grabbing for position, ego promoting, delighting in the limelight. Let's learn from this. As we have opportunity to take strategic positions, let's deliberately opt for the path of humility and service.

As women, we are now faced with some choices. We can decide the church owes us some status and we deserve position and authority; and then we can strive to take what is legitimately ours. Or we can willingly choose to lay down our rights and to serve with humility whatever the Lord is doing. We have the advantage of centuries of learning how to serve and lay down our lives for others. The body of Christ will be richer as we willingly embrace that same calling as we move ahead into whatever the Lord would have us do.

Felicity invites you to visit her new web site at women2womenconnect.com and to subscribe to her monthly e-letter at this link.

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