Why does women’s ministry matter? Not everyone’s faith develops in the same ways, and there are distinctive ways women’s faith tends to develop. Scriptures such as Titus 2:3-5 and Luke 10:38-42 point us to the importance of women’s ministry in the local church. This article explores how we can help women in church find their voice, encourage their faith, and explore what “biblical womanhood” really is.
American culture’s influence on us can be overwhelming, and we may not always recognize its pull. We often do not want to admit it, but we are steeped in a secular system of thinking that’s difficult to escape. This was never more evident to me than when my husband and I were on the mission field. We would return to the States every two years and I would be surprised at the new developments in what was allowed to be shown on TV. It always reminded me of the lessons by Dr. Bruce McLarty about “arms-length Christianity.” This term describes a faith in which the world and its influences are held at arm’s length, but then as its standards move, the same distance is maintained. Ultimately, tolerance levels are changed since the attitudes were based on being different from the surrounding culture, rather than on the Bible. With a little reflection, this trend can be seen in our own lives as well as in our churches. We need to come to terms with the influence the world has on us so we can combat it.
The term “biblical womanhood” can take on numerous meanings and is not readily understood. In one of my women’s ministry classes, I have the students conduct a survey about its meaning. When I first began this exercise, my female students sometimes had to explain to their friends what the term in the survey meant. Then a few years later, the students were asking me how to explain it. In the past few years, I’ve noticed that, without coaching, people do not have any idea what this could mean. Sometimes even when I explain it, it seems foreign. So, what is it?
“Biblical womanhood is a concept of womanhood informed by Scripture rather than the world.”
Biblical womanhood is a concept of womanhood informed by Scripture rather than the world. So, what picture emerges when we look at biblical womanhood? There are actually many different examples of women in the Bible which highlight their influences, use of spiritual gifts, and roles. It has been suggested that there probably is not a single “right” image of biblical womanhood as different examples speak to each individual woman’s gifting and situation. In fact, the examples we find ourselves drawn to may highlight ways God may want to use us to minister to others.
Beyond Unhelpful Cultural Answers
Meanwhile, all around us the world is clamoring to help define what womanhood should be. Many times, those definitions and pictures are unhealthy. Isn’t it time that we allow the foundation of our life and faith—the Bible—to have a say? If the church does not enter into the discussion soon, we will have an entire generation (or more) of people who have had most, if not all, of their major influences on womanhood come from the outside world. That’s a frightening thought! It’s as if our society has taken over so much of our thinking that we have to really stop and ask if it’s possible to have a sense of womanhood that is informed by Scripture itself.
The fact that it is getting more difficult to think about this term makes the need for this discussion all the more urgent. If we are to remain Christian in our approach to life, then we need to stick close to biblical teachings and recognize when the culture around us is infiltrating and dictating our approach and thinking. I’ve heard people talk about the church as if it is uninfluenced by the world. That simply isn’t true. If we look at a history of the types of things our churches have struggled with, we’ll see that often what is going on outside the church also affects what is inside the church.
That can be good from the viewpoint that the church needs to engage the issues the world is discussing and provide perspective. That can be a bad thing if we are working under the false assumption that we can remain unaffected by the surrounding culture. This naïveté opens the door to allowing our culture to influence our decisions without our even noticing. Not considering this possibility is akin to an ostrich sticking its head in the sand. We need to recognize this and face it if we are to retain influence in the lives of our own members, let alone in our communities.
“If we are to remain Christian in our approach to life, then we need to stick close to biblical teachings and recognize when the culture around us is infiltrating and dictating our approach and thinking.”
In the case of biblical womanhood, we need to reopen a discussion about what it means to be a woman according to the Bible. The needed approach is not something limited to references and stories about women from the Bible, even though those can be valuable. Rather, we need to also ask how the Bible informs and instructs women to live even in the twenty-first century.
Beyond Timid Church Answers
Because of the historic timidity of many women to explore and voice their opinions about this topic, I would suggest that women need to be the driving force in this discussion. In 1974 Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann proposed the term “spiral of silence” to describe the tendency for people to remain silent when they feel their views are in opposition to the majority view. This theory suggests that people remain silent out of fear of isolation, retribution, or negative consequences. This spiral occurs when someone with a perceived majority opinion speaks out confidently in support of that opinion. Those who hold a differing opinion become less comfortable with sharing their opinion and more fearful of the consequences. This is stifling to discussion and is especially frustrating and limiting to those who already feel isolated. Not infrequently, women struggle with discussions in church settings when their “place” in the church is the topic.
One day in my Bible class when “women’s roles” were being discussed, the women in the room were even quieter than normal. In fact, nearly all of the comments were from men. After the discussion was over, several women came up to me and had plenty to say about the topic. But because they had been left out of the discussion for so long, they did not feel free to speak up in class.
Women’s Ministry: “We need to help women develop their voice and express their faith confidently and clearly.”
We need to help women develop their voice and express their faith confidently and clearly. This is especially important since Jesus’ all-important call to “make disciples” was never meant to be limited to one gender, and there are so many important ministry roles we need men and women to rise to. Moreover, we need women to be able to represent a Christian view of womanhood in our communities as well as become good models to the younger women within our churches.
An Overlooked Problem
In many churches, promising young men receive the lion’s share of attention. Yet our churches are at least half filled with women—many of whom have not had the same resources poured into their own spiritual development. In 2014 as I was conducting my doctoral research, I gave a survey to all the sophomores at my university to try to determine which experiences had been helpful to their spiritual development. Pre-college experiences, classroom experiences, and college experiences outside the classroom were all explored.
On my fifth question, “Before college, who was the greatest encouragement to you to grow spiritually?” I had expected a certain outcome. I was replicating a question from Glanville’s research which shows the importance of models and mentors from the same gender. This question had four options of who had encouraged them to grow spiritually: male example, female example, other with an option to write in an answer, and no one. When eliminating these latter categories and focusing on just the male and female examples, the difference in responses between genders was highly significant.
This disparity showed that women from my tradition (Church of Christ) are strongly influenced by men. The church structure, which has an emphasis on male spiritual leadership, may have affected this outcome as women may be conditioned to look to men for spiritual leadership. It may also reflect some of the strife produced by gender issue discussions within the church, a lack of female spiritual examples, or simply a focus on who is typically held up as examples. All this reinforces the importance of both genders teaming up together to do ministry within the Church. As a priesthood of all believers, where every person plays an important role, we should be cautious of leaving out segments of our church.
Women’s Ministry: “As a priesthood of all believers, where every person plays an important role, we should be cautious of leaving out segments of our church.”
When I consider these findings, I often think of the example of the early church in Acts 6. When the complaint was brought forward to the Jerusalem church that the Hellenistic widows were being overlooked, the congregation took immediate action. Their action took work and intentionality. They went above and beyond, taking the extra mile as Jesus had taught them. They took the time to select a group of seven trustworthy, Spirit-filled men of Hellenistic background to minister to these women. This is a good general principle for us to consider. When there is a group of people that feels overlooked, it can sometimes take focused attention to remedy the problem.
Scriptural Basis of Women’s Ministry
The most foundational scriptural basis for women’s ministry is found in Titus 2. Here the church is given instructions to mentor the next generation. The wording in the original language is not one of suggestion or instruction, but closer to that of a command. Titus 2:3-5 says,
“Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled.” (ESV)
Here we can see that example and character matters, both for the mentor and the mentee. Those that are older are to help equip and prepare the younger women for the job that lies before them. The specifics are focused on a family setting, where many women would expect to focus their attention during their lifetime. However, the call is for more than just doing an adequate job. It is about loving well, developing character, and serving God through their everyday efforts. It is taking their role and profession seriously, and finding ways to glorify God through it.
Women’s Ministry: “Those that are older are to help equip and prepare the younger women for the job that lies before them.”
This Scripture is pretty clear about the expectations put on a church to invest in the next generation of women. Again, this passage is often referred to as the scriptural basis of women’s ministry.
We can also see the importance that God placed on women investing in one another through the provisions he made for Mary, the mother of Jesus. In Luke 1:38, when Mary heard about everything that was going to happen, Mary called herself the Lord’s servant. Surely, she knew the risk this news would be for her personally. It meant she could lose the love of her life, Joseph. People would whisper about her, her future was uncertain, and she may never live a normal life. She could even be put to death by Jewish law. Yet she was fully accepting and obedient of God’s plan.
While Mary was in a position that would be very difficult to relate to, in God’s amazing grace and planning, there was one who would understand her. Elizabeth, her cousin, was also miraculously pregnant. While joyous that she finally was able to have a child, she had the stigma of being pregnant while she was very old. She was out of sync with her friends, who were grandmothers and possibly great-grandmothers rather than mothers. She was happy but felt different. However, she was blessed by God himself to be a part of a bigger plan. If Elizabeth’s story had been different, Mary would not have had someone whom she could run to. She would not have had a soul who could have identified with her. But instead, Elizabeth became Mary’s mentor, her lifeline to process all that was happening to her. God knew Mary would need someone, and he provided her with a mentor who was able to process this with her with greater perspective.
Women’s Ministry: “God knew Mary would need someone, and he provided her with a mentor who was able to process this with her with greater perspective.”
In Luke 10:38-42, we read about the story of Mary and Martha. Martha was busy making preparations for her guests, fulfilling what would have been considered an honorable and appropriate role for a host. Instead of helping her sister, Mary instead sat at the feet of Jesus in the position of a disciple. When asked, Jesus defended Mary’s choice saying, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41-42, NIV). With this statement, Jesus defended Mary’s desire to learn about her faith.
Women’s ministries should strive to give women the space to learn about the Bible and explore their own faith. In the Old Testament, every time covenant renewal was underway, everyone was expected to hear the law. Deuteronomy 31:12 says, “Assemble the people—men, women and children, and the foreigners residing in your towns—so they can listen and learn to fear the Lord your God and follow carefully all the words of this law.” Similar instructions are seen in Joshua 8 and Nehemiah 8:2-3.
These scriptural examples illustrate that God takes this seriously. Women often find themselves organically linked to many different organizations. Due to proximity, they are also often the first ones to field a spiritual question from a child. When we invest in women, we are investing not just in them but in their families, communities, and the next generation. We need to make sure we are providing them with the tools that they need by allowing for and creating opportunities for deep, meaningful spiritual growth.
Women’s Ministry: “When we invest in women, we are investing not just in them but in their families, communities, and the next generation.”
In 1 Corinthians 12:12-20, we see the analogy of one body made up of many parts. This particular passage is highly applicable to women’s ministry because it informs our understanding of value and role. One issue that can be seen in our churches, which actually affects both genders, is the value placed on public positions and roles. When we think about where most of the focus often goes, it is often to a public event such as Sunday morning service. But how many people can actually participate in something like that? Compared to the number of available people in most congregations, it’s actually very few. Yet we tend to value that type of service as higher than someone who is working behind the scenes. For the sake of both genders, churches need to consider emphasizing a broader view of service that appreciates greater diversity.
This passage from 1 Corinthians 12 broadens the conversation about the importance of all roles, which is actually helpful to both genders. When it comes to theological views on women’s roles in leadership in the church, women’s ministries in churches exist on different points on the theological spectrum. Renew.org holds to a “soft complementarian” perspective. But regardless of where a church stands, there is a need and place for women to help one another grow and serve. In a women’s ministry, we need to take this passage from 1 Corinthians seriously, helping women discover their spiritual gifting and try out places of service until they find something that fits.
Women’s Ministry: “We need to take this passage from 1 Corinthians seriously, helping women discover their spiritual gifting and try out places of service until they find something that fits.”
If women’s ministry were a stool, these passages provide us with the three legs. First, a women’s ministry should mentor. Second, a women’s ministry needs to help women learn about their faith. Third, a women’s ministry need to help women discover their gifts and find a meaningful place of service. When these three legs are in place, a women’s ministry has the opportunity to help women grow spiritually.
Differences in Women’s Faith Development
Although there are exceptions, it’s helpful in framing women’s ministries to consider typical differences between men and women when it comes to faith development. If you read this and say, “That doesn’t describe me,” I totally understand. We’re dealing with statistics here, which are limited in their applicability, whereas each person is unique and irreducible to the categories we’ll be exploring.
That said, I have found the book Women’s Faith Development: Patterns and Processes by Nicola Slee helpful in explaining some of these tendencies. The book is based on a study exploring women’s spirituality and faith development. A group of thirty women belonging to the Christian tradition were studied. Slee’s goal was to record their stories. In her study, she uses a structure inspired by a four-fold theological method: experience of faith and spirituality (context), exploration of women’s faith (critical analysis), reflection (dialogue between experience and tradition), and response (committed action).
Women’s Ministry: “Women’s spirituality tends to be relational in character, based on a connectedness with others which is seen by showing care and responsibility to others.”
One difference Slee notes between women’s and men’s spirituality is that women’s spirituality tends to be relational in character, based on a connectedness with others which is seen by showing care and responsibility to others. For men, however, the focus tends to be on becoming separate and individual. Thus, women’s self-concept and moral development shows an ethic of relationality which men’s development does not. Unfortunately, developmental theory has historically been largely based off studies involving men, emphasizing male thinking patterns such as the abstract and impersonal, often including the interpersonal in the realm of emotions. When female ways of constructing knowledge are considered sub-standard, women begin to internalize the belief that they cannot think as well as men.
Historically, women have sometimes been viewed as weaker because their connectedness with others is seen as opposite of the goal which is rooted in separateness. Certain skills, such as abstract reasoning and management, tend to be highly valued. Other skills tend to be devalued, such as those involved in taking care of others, a place where women often find themselves. Yet long-term care and relationship with others requires a high level of personal sacrifice and maturity. Women often need to be supported through these times and encouraged as they walk through them.
Women’s Ministry: “Women often need to be supported through these times and encouraged as they walk through them.”
Six processes have also been identified that women use to discern “pattern, meaning and coherence in their life experience.”
- First, is “conversational faithing.” Conversation, and even interviewing, positively impact women by giving voice to their faith and helping them see the structure of it. Conversation has this effect because of its importance within relationships and women’s faith.
- Second, in “metaphoric faithing,” many women use “metaphor, analogy and image” to make sense of their faith. These help them communicate and process their faith which can be transformational.
- Third, “narrative faithing” utilizes the power of story. Unlike metaphor, which is limited in its expression of meaning, story incorporates a breadth of meaning.
- Fourth, “personalized faithing” involves using examples of others to represent faith. Although parental figures were often most influential, grandmothers also provided a strong early faith presence as well as mentors.
- Fifth is “conceptual faith,” which is an abstract way of reflecting on one’s faith. It employs contextual analysis and reflection, rooting concepts in personal experiences.
- Sixth is “apophatic faithing,” which focuses on giving non-examples of faith and spirituality. When women have oppressive or negative experiences with religion, this helps them note what faith is not and develop new ways to express their faith based on these negative examples.
It is important to have a variety of tools as women are helped to voice and describe their faith. By utilizing these processes, women can become better equipped to understand their faith.
Women’s Ministry: “It is important to have a variety of tools as women are helped to voice and describe their faith.”
Slee also identified three themes which reveal typical patterns of women’s faith development. The first is alienation. Some experienced it after a specific phase of their life ended, which incited reflection and decision. Experiences such as alienation and marginalization may give women a new experience of God, which allows new growth to occur. The second is awakening, a breakthrough in understanding oneself and connecting at a deeper level to God, a key component in women’s spiritual development. This part of the journey has risks for women as they often experience rejection when choosing new roles and begin developing strengths. The third theme is relationality. Slee points to the embeddedness of female spirituality in relationality and connectedness. Women need to understand themselves before they can establish healthy relationships with others.
To add to this, there are also a few other important ways women’s faith tends to develop differently from men. First, many women display concrete, visual, and embodied thinking instead of abstract or analytic thought. Second, personal and relational forms of faith tend to be preferred over abstract and impersonal. Third, when a woman describes her faith development, it often takes a distinct shape which gives further insight into her story. Fourth, negative preparation and experiences actually contribute toward a woman’s faith development.
Differences in Women’s Leadership Development
An important study on women’s leadership development was done by Elizabeth Loutrel Glanville at Fuller Theological Seminary. As a result of her concern that women’s leadership development remained overlooked in church settings, she explored patterns of leadership development among women. The goal of her study was to expand Robert Clinton’s Leadership Emergence Theory to include the needs of women. She identified women’s unique patterns of development, especially those involving choices about marriage, family, career, ministry, and education.
There were a few insights she discovered that are highly applicable to this discussion.
First, the “Sovereign Foundations” subphase of Leadership Emergence Theory is of particular importance to a woman’s identity and vision of herself as a leader. This covers her developmental years with her family. During this time period, if a woman is able to imagine herself in a ministry role, especially when it comes to receiving encouragement from her family to do it, then this helps her develop as an active member in the church. When this does not occur, someone will later have to help her imagine her possibilities if they are to materialize.
Women’s Ministry: “If a woman is able to imagine herself in a ministry role, then this helps her develop as an active member in the church.”
Second, a woman’s theological environment and social support impact her choices, as well as the opportunities she needs for development.
Third, marriage tends to have a greater impact on a woman’s ministry choices than it does for men. Women generally make more significant changes in their life goals than their spouses do.
Fourth, a woman’s call to ministry is different from that of a man. When a woman is considering getting involved with ministry, she tends to have to answer extra questions as to what type of leadership she can show in a church and decide whether it’s even an option.
Glanville also suggests adding another phase to Leadership Development Theory called the “Motherhood Season” for those women who set aside dedicated time at home to raise their children. This time period is not devoid of development and can cause some women to develop more rapidly. Additionally, since women tend to cycle in and out of formal and volunteer positions, it can make it difficult to place all they experience on a timeline.
How a Woman’s Ministry Can Help
A women’s ministry can help women’s faith develop in several ways.
First, it can help women develop a vision for where they fit into the church. A woman who is reading her Bible and notices the need for an active growing faith may need assistance in developing a vision on how that can happen. It is not uncommon for me to be approached by a woman who is heart-broken because she knows that she needs to be active in the church, but does not know how to do that. Especially since women tend to grow better experientially, if she’s not able to get plugged in, it can have a negative impact on her faith. When a woman realizes that she needs to actively exercise her faith but cannot figure out how to do that, she may feel like she’s being unfaithful. This makes this matter even more urgent, because it puts her at risk for leaving the congregation or having faith issues.
Second, women’s ministry can give women a place to voice their faith. The process of putting it into words in front of others helps define her story and herself as a Christian.
Third, a women’s ministry can assist in mobilizing women for service.
Fourth, a women’s ministry can encourage women as they grow spiritually. This is especially important during those seasons when a woman’s faith development is different from the men in her church. I’ve heard it said that a woman can “have it all,” but it comes in seasons. This is often a different experience from that of men, and it’s important for us to encourage the women in the congregation who may be struggling in a particularly difficult season or perhaps wondering how everything will fit together.
Women’s Ministry: “A women’s ministry provides a place for women to grow, learn from, and encourage one another.”
The role of a woman’s ministry is important to any congregation, especially since women may experience spiritual development differently from men. Regardless of where on the theological spectrum your church is, a women’s ministry provides a place for women to grow, learn from, and encourage one another. Whether you are someone who’s interested in starting one, or in a leadership position trying to understand how to advise one, I hope that you’ll take the time to prayerfully consider how a women’s ministry can help women in your context grow.
 [Chi-square (df=1)=22.96, p=.000]
 Nicola Slee, Women’s Faith Development: Patterns and Processes (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2004), 1-6.
 Ibid., 9.
 Ibid., 23.
 Mary Field Belenky, Blythe McVicker Clinchy, Nancy Rule Goldberger, and Jill Mattuck Tarule, Women’s Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind (New York: Basic Books, 1997), 7.
 Ibid., 16.
 Jean Baker Miller, Toward a New Psychology of Women (Boston: Beacon Press, 1976), 21-23.
 Slee, Women’s Faith Development, 62-78.
 Ibid., 81-83.
 Ibid., 107-115.
 Ibid., 136-137
 Ibid., 165-167.
 Elizabeth Loutrel Glanville, “Leadership Development for Women in Christian Ministry” (diss., Fuller Theological Seminary, 2000), ii, 1-6.
 Ibid., 31-34.
 Ibid., 259-260.