Report of PCA Study Committee on Women in the Church (5): the ministry role of washing saints' feet...

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...if she has washed the saints' feet (1Timothy 5:10)

(This is the fifth in a series of ten posts critiquing the Report of the Presbyterian Church in America's Study Committee on Women Serving in the Ministry of the Church: first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventheighth, ninth, and tenth.)

Talking about this Report with my wife Mary Lee, I picked up my laptop and did a search for "wash" or "feet."

Nothing, and the absence of these words is damning. But first, a few sentences about a word the Committee loves...

The Committee gives Chapter 2 of their Report this title, "A Biblical Foundation for the Roles of Women in the Church," introducing the chapter with this statement:

The Old Testament, New Testament, and church history provide a robust foundation for the roles of women in the ministry of the church.

The title speaks of "roles of women in the church" and the first sentence refers to "roles of women in the ministry of the church." In their Report, the Committee never stops talking about women's "roles." They use the word more than seventy times. So what are "roles?"

Roles aren't duties. Duties are hard. Roles are soft and pliable. We take roles on and off as it suits us. Actors play roles. Roles are so malleable that male actors can play female roles and female actors can play male roles.

Role is to doing as "like" is to speaking: in their respective spheres, each is inserted to communicate a certain tentativeness. You can have a discussion and write a report on which "roles" are proper for women to play, but it wouldn't work with "duties."

Let's try it.

A Biblical Foundation for the Duties of Women in the Church

The Old Testament, New Testament, and church history provide a robust foundation for the duties of women in the ministry of the church.

If we're willing to speak of "duties" rather than "roles," Scripture does indeed "provide a robust foundation" for the sex-specific "duties of women." Here is the classic text:

9 A widow is to be put on the list only if she is not less than sixty years old, having been the wife of one man, 10 having a reputation for good works; and if she has brought up children, if she has shown hospitality to strangers, if she has washed the saints’ feet, if she has assisted those in distress, and if she has devoted herself to every good work. 11 But refuse to put younger widows on the list, for when they feel sensual desires in disregard of Christ, they want to get married, 12 thus incurring condemnation, because they have set aside their previous pledge. 13 At the same time they also learn to be idle, as they go around from house to house; and not merely idle, but also gossips and busybodies, talking about things not proper to mention. 14 Therefore, I want younger widows to get married, bear children, keep house, and give the enemy no occasion for reproach; 15 for some have already turned aside to follow Satan. 16 If any woman who is a believer has dependent widows, she must assist them and the church must not be burdened, so that it may assist those who are widows indeed. (1 Timothy 5:9-16)

It was an honor for an older widow to be placed on the church's "list" of widows and that honor was bestowed only if the widow had fulfilled the duties of a godly woman. This list of duties is sex-specific because it wasn't a list for widowers, but widows. And yes, we have to say these things today: widows are always women.

What are these duties?

  • She must be at least sixty years old
  • She must have been the wife of only one man
  • She must have a reputation for good works
  • She must have brought up children
  • She must have shown hospitality to strangers
  • She must have washed the saints' feet
  • She must have assisted those in distress
  • She must have devoted herself to every good work

And if the widow is excluded from the list because she is younger than sixty, she still has duties to fulfill:

  • She is to get married
  • She is to bear children
  • She is to keep house

Finally, all Christian women share this duty:

  • Women are to assist the widows of their own family so they will not burden the church

Not wanting to speak of humble duties like childbearing, hospitality, and washing feet, the Committee never mentions them. The list is reduced to a passing Scripture reference listed secondarily after the phrase "proper gender relations in the church." 1 They only make a couple other glancing references to this classic text, carefully avoiding childbearing or childrearing, hospitality, assisting those in distress, or washing the feet of the saints:  

[T]here may be a hint that women have special, recognized tasks elsewhere in the Pastoral Epistles. For example, Paul takes note of exemplary widows in 1 Timothy 5:9-10. 2


Calvin viewed deaconesses as enrolled widows, based on 1 Timothy 5. 3

The thrust of the Committee's report is to open up more "ministry roles" in the church to women. So, for the sake of argument, let's grant them their major premise that the church's officers haven't promoted leadership roles for women as we ought. If we agree the church has been needlessly stingy in its openness to women's leadership, would we not turn our attention to 1Timothy 5:9-16 for Biblical precedent for women's leadership in the church? The church has always turned to this passage for support of any formal leadership of women in the church, yet this is the Committee's single mention of the historic church's grounding the office of deaconess in 1Timothy 5: "Calvin viewed deaconesses as enrolled widows, based on 1 Timothy 5."

That's it, and if you blinked, you missed it.

How can this be?

Reading the Report, it's clear the Committee was opposed to teaching the woman's duty to her husband, children, dependent family widows, and her home—especially to teaching that these are the duties forming the basis of the church's judgment of any woman's qualification to serve in any expanded "ministry role" in the church.

If the Committee were questioned concerning their avoidance of 1Timothy 5's qualifications for a woman being given a ministry role in the church, one could easily imagine them defending their exclusion of these requirements by pointing out the subject they were assigned was "women serving in the ministry of the church," not the home. 

Still, the classic text for women serving in the ministry of the church is 1Timothy 5. Calvin recognized this and historically the church has recognized it, also. The Committee claimed "the Old Testament, New Testament, and church history provide a robust foundation for the roles of women in the ministry of the church, yet they never included the one text everyone everywhere and always has pointed to as this foundation.

So what texts does the Committee use to provide their "robust foundation" for larger roles of leadership in the church?

Here are the texts the Committee uses instead of 1Timothy 5:9-16:

Women are invaluable assets to Christ’s church. From Huldah the prophetess to Mary the theotokos and Phoebe a diakonos, co-laborer of the apostle Paul, their ministries are breathed into holy writ as examples of faithful service to God and His people. Paul praised women for their assistance as he planted churches. Euodia and Syntyche contended at Paul’s side in the cause of the gospel. He lauded Mary, Junias, Tryphena, Tryphosa, and Persis for their singular aid. Paul commended women for teaching children, urged older women to instruct younger women, and noted their prophetic ability during church services. Women have served for thousands of years in Christ’s church. 4

In Exodus 15, Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, is the first Old Testament prophetess. As an older sister, she helped save her brother’s life. In adulthood, Miriam emerged in conjunction with her brothers’ leading. Miriam praised God for Israel’s deliverance from suffering, slavery, and oppression... 5

At both a high point (i.e., Miriam) and at a low point (i.e., Huldah) in Old Testament history, a prophetess rose to interpret events and lead Israel's response to it. 6

Priscilla and Aquila were a husband-wife team who labored with Paul occasionally for years. They hosted a house church in Rome and Corinth. These faithful Christians received Apollos, a gifted expositor, but they noted the deficiencies in his preaching. After hearing him, "Priscilla and Aquila invited him into their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately". Just as people puzzle over the decision to consult Huldah before Jeremiah, they wonder why Acts usually mentions Priscilla before Aquila. Did she speak more or have greater gifts? 7

In Romans 16:1-2, Paul commends Phoebe, a “servant” (NIV, ESV) or “deaconess” (RSV) of the church. The Greek term in question, diakonos, ordinarily means a servant or helper, but it can mean deacon. When Paul calls Phoebe a servant, or deacon, of the church in Cenchrea, the close connection of diakonos to a particular person may indicate that she holds an office. 8

In Romans 16:12, Paul mentioned three women, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, and Persis, who also “worked hard” in the Lord. Paul further mentioned Andronicus and Junias. They were probably married, since Andronicus is a man’s name and Junias is a woman’s. In a sentence that is difficult to translate, Paul called them prominent either “with” or “among” the apostles. If “with” is correct, Paul means the apostles held them in high regard. If “among” is correct, he means they are prominent among the people called “apostles.” 9

[Women] did serve as gifted leaders and teachers. Some had an exceptional ability to navigate situations wisely and train others to do the same. Huldah, Zipporah, Miriam, and Esther testify to the God-given talent and leadership ability of women in the Lord’s church. 10

Women instructed men, but often in limited and private settings. They advised and rebuked men, great and small. Women counseled men, who listened and adopted their ideas. They taught and prophesied, giving messages with theological content.  11

...women held vital roles in Jesus’ ministry. Wealthy women not only supported his ministry, but they accompanied Him. ...Women were the first to witness His resurrection and to carry His instructions to His disciples. A woman witnessed to the goodness of God in Christ to her townsmen. 12

Jesus' willingness to ignore custom is part of His resolve to minister to all, regardless of gender, ethnicity, social status, or personal moral history.  13

How have we arrived at the point where hospitality and washing the feet of the saints no longer qualify as women's ministry roles? Also that no weighing of the character of women wanting leadership roles in the church is spoken of or required? Also that women who do not have a reputation for good works, have not brought up children, have not shown hospitality to strangers, have not washed the saints' feet, have not assisted those in distress, and have not devoted themselves to every good work are not judged as disqualified for leadership in the church?

This Committee never stops embarrassing itself with what they omit from their report.

Start with washing the feet of the saints.

  • 1. P. 2416:16, 17.
  • 2. P. 2430:5-7.
  • 3. P. 2445:24, 25.
  • 4. P. 2406:12-20.
  • 5. P. 2406:38-41.
  • 6. P. 2408:17, 18.
  • 7. P. 2409:1-9.
  • 8. P. 2409:28-32.
  • 9. P. 2409:32 through 2410; 5.
  • 10. P. 2410:18-21.
  • 11. P. 2411:23-25.
  • 12. P. 2411:33-37.
  • 13. P. 2412:7, 8.
Tim Bayly

Tim serves Clearnote Church, Bloomington, Indiana. He and Mary Lee have five children and big lots of grandchildren.

Want to get in touch? Send Tim an email!