by Jefferson David Tant
Sentry Magazine, December 1999
I have not seen much discussion on the question of whether or not the church can have a part in supporting women who may go into a mission field to teach women or children's classes, or assist in individual and private teaching. I realize the Scriptures do not have much to say on this matter, but there are a few principles that I have considered which may help clarify the question.
"'You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing,' and 'The laborer is worthy of his wages'" (I Timothy 5:18). While the ox and the laborer mentioned are in the male gender, we would agree that the females of the two species would also be worthy of support for the work they would be doing in the harvest. These passages are from the Old Testament and were not only cited by Paul in claiming the right for workers in the gospel to be supported, but Christ used the same reasoning in Luke 10:7 when he sent out the seventy on the "limited commission." If one points out that the seventy were all men, to this we readily agree. But remember that they were sent out to make public proclamations, and we are aware that such roles were not permitted for women (I Timothy 2:12ff).
As we look to the Old Testament for the background of the injunction against muzzling an ox (Deuteronomy 25:4), we note that women were serving in the tabernacle in some fashion. "Moreover, he made the layer of bronze ... from the mirrors of the serving women who served at the doorway of the tent of meeting" (Exodus 38:8). And in I Samuel 2:22 we find Eli's sons committing adultery with the same "women who served at the doorway of the tent of meeting." The K.JV uses the word "assemble" where later translations use "serve." The Hebrew word literally refers to those who assemble "by troop," or "by rank," indicating that there were various duties assigned to designated groups of women. The Pulpit Commentary notes that the sins of the sons of Eli "were greater because the women whom they corrupted were those dedicated to religious service (see Exodus 38:8). The order of ministering women instituted by Moses probably lasted down to the destruction of the temple, and Anna may have belonged to it (Luke 2:37); afterward, it appeared again in a more spiritual form in the widows and deaconesses of the Christian Church. The word rendered assembled means "arranged in bands," and shows not merely that they were numerous, but that they had regular duties assigned them, and each one her proper place and office. The frequent sacrifices, with the feasts which followed, must have provided occupation for a large number of hands in the cleaning of the utensils and the cooking of the food." (Comments on I Samuel 2:22).
Now come back to I Corinthians 9, where Paul is defending his right to receive wages from the church. "Do you not know that those who perform sacred services eat the food of the temple, and those who attend regularly to the altar have their share with the altar?" (I Corinthians 9:13). In view of this, is it unreasonable to think that these women received wages for their work in the service of the tabernacle? Consider Anna, who was referred to by the Pulpit Commentary: "And there was a prophetess, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with a husband seven years after her marriage, and then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. And she never left the temple, serving night and day with fastings and prayers." Since it is obvious that she did not work at secular labor, and there is no indication that she had sons to support her, how was she sustained while she served the temple? Would not I Corinthians 9: 13 answer this?
If one were to reply that this is an Old Testament practice, which does not necessarily authorize a New Testament practice, we must remember that the submission of women has not changed from the Old to New. Paul's teaching of the proper role of women in I Timothy 2:12-15 states a principle that goes back to Adam and Eve. Therefore, whatever role the Law of Moses gave women in serving and being supported for such service would not violate the principle that God had given from ancient times. Thus if women being supported for service in the tabernacle did not violate that principle, then women being supported for service in the gospel would not violate that principle today.
Another passage that comes to mind is Romans 16:1-2, where Paul encourages the support of Phoebe. "I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea; that you receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and that you helper in whatever matter she may have need of you; for she herself has also been a helper of many, and of myself as well." We notice that she was a servant of the church. Some have suggested that it is the individual saints that were being told to support her. I don't know that the context demands that, but whatever the case, she was recognized as having served the church at Cenchrea in some special way.
Consider some questions. Can the church pay wages to a woman? Can the church hire a woman to provide nursing care to a saint that is in need? Can the church pay wages to a woman to provide secretarial work for the congregation? Can the church pay a salary to a woman to provide janitorial services in maintaining the church building? Can the church give support to a "widow indeed?" We would agree that the church can do all of the aforementioned. Then the next question is, "Can the church provide wages to a woman to teach the Bible to women and children?" If not, why not? Is the problem that the church can pay wages to women to do secular work, but that it cannot pay wages to do "religious" or "spiritual" work? If that is the point under dispute, then we run into other problems. If a Christian, who happens to be a nurse, is employed to care for an ill saint who has no family or financial resources, is that simply secular work? According to Matthew 25:34ff, it seems to me that there are some spiritual implications in this, as well. And if a church secretary is asked by the elders or preacher to compose a letter to a sister in Christ who is discouraged and needs some words of encouragement from a woman's point of view, is she merely performing a secular task, or are there some spiritual considerations there?
Consider again. We pay the wages of a man who goes overseas to do mission work. If he takes a wife with him, we pay the man a greater salary in order to supply her needs. And it is almost always the case that his wife does much work in the teaching of women and children. Could my wife and I take along an adult daughter who will also be teaching, and expect extra support for her needs? Can we take along another woman who will be teaching, and expect support for her needs, as well? Or is the extra support justified only if she is related by blood to me?
Back to Phoebe. When Paul referred to her as "a servant of the church," I would suppose that he did not mean that she was just a janitor. And when he told the brethren to "help her in whatever matter she may have need of you," I think that statement would include any monetary help that might have been needed. Otherwise, would he not have said, "Help her in whatever matter she may have need (except for money) ."I don't know just what she did as the church's servant, but if the Roswell church determined that there was a particular need in Montego Bay, Jamaica, among the women there (where we have done so much work) and that a godly woman might be the best one to address the situation, could the church send her there as a servant? I believe that would be in keeping with the teaching of Titus 2:3-5. In no way do I perceive that a church giving support to a woman would violate the principles set forth in I Timothy 2:12, for it is understood that it is forbidden for a woman to teach a man in an authoritative or public manner.