“Unity” called for by many people and congregations in “women’s roles” discussions is unbiblical. “Unity” is sometimes given as a reason not to lift prohibitions on women and girls in a congregation or not to consider it in the first place. It is sometimes given as a reason to “let things be” or not to discuss the harm done to girls, women, and others. Or “unity” is encouraged after announcing a decision, often after announcing at least some continued prohibitions.
This two-part article introduces part of the problem by describing how such “unity” normally does not comport with the unity for which Jesus prays before his arrest and how such “unity” can harm parts of the congregation.
The unity for which Jesus prays emphasizes unity between (a) future believers — i.e., current and future non-believers who will believe in the future, all who will believe — and (b) current believers and (c) Jesus and the Father.
In stark contrast, the “unity” sought by many relative to women’s roles focuses exclusively on a relatively narrow set of people, e.g., on people currently in a particular congregation (often on not losing members of a congregation to other congregations) or on people who are part of a denomination or denominations (to facilitate interaction, cooperation, and more, for example).
Sex and Race Discrimination Repulses and Repels Future Believers
Sex discrimination against women and girls, like racial discrimination, repulses.
Sex discrimination — prohibiting women and girls from various ways of serving God in the church, having young girls watch their moms and all women be discriminated against every Sunday for years, refusing leadership positions to women, …. — repels future believers from unity with the church, with other believers, and with Jesus.
Thus, prohibiting women and girls from speaking, leading, and actively serving in the church is contrary to that which Jesus asks because doing so repels future believers from unity. Prohibiting them is contrary to the Biblical unity for which Jesus prays.
Jesus prays that they—not just a congregation, not just a denomination or denominations, but all, including those people who are today non-believers and those people who will be born in the future who will be non-believers—- “be brought to complete unity,” “may become perfectly one.” (John 17:17-23)
Current congregants are in a position to do something about this, to lift such prohibitions, to facilitate the unity Jesus asks for.
Scripture Calls For Women to Speak, Lead, Teach, Exercise Authority
A common claim in the Churches of Christ is that there are 3 verses that completely prohibit women from speaking, leading, teaching, and exercising authority in the assembly.
Often ignored are the more than 20 passages in the Bible asking women to speak to, lead, teach, and exercise authority over men, in an assembly and elsewhere, and that at least about 97% of Christianity rejects this common claim in the Churches of Christ. The Churches of Christ is virtually alone in so claiming.
Other churches claim that there are a few verses that completely prohibit women from preaching and serving as an elder. They, too, ignore, misinterpret, or misuse those 20 passages and others, maintaining harmful sex discrimination against women and girls.
If we follow Jesus’s example and seek unity for future believers with the church and him, and we follow scripture, then complete elimination of prohibitions against women and girls in the church is necessary.
A growing number of congregations, after studying scripture, are realizing such a prohibition is a tradition of man and not scriptural. Calls of “unity” focused on current congregants is one of the ways a tradition of man is maintained.
Continuing to maintain any such prohibition one more day opposes that for which Jesus prays.
Jesus on Unity: Unify with Future Believers
Jesus, after praying to God the Father for his disciples, said,
“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.
May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:17-23)
Jesus prays that may those who will believe in him — may non-believers who come to believe in Jesus — be brought to unity with those who believe and with him.
He emphasizes that the unity that deserves our attention is not the unity that is just for present believers, but also for those who will believe in the future—those who are now unbelievers but will believe, children who are not yet believers, the people who are not yet born and will become believers, etc.
Jesus asks “May they also be in us.” — “May they,” Jesus asks — those now and future unbelievers who come to believe — “also be in us.”
PLEASE Jesus prays— “May they also be in us.” May they also be united with the believers and me.
He prays that all of this is for the purpose of “so that they may be brought to complete unity.”
PLEASE For “complete unity.”
Those future believers also.
Some on “Unity”: Drive Away Future Believers With Sex Discrimination in the Church
And what are we doing? Driving away those future believers — those now and future unbelievers who will come to believe — by sex discrimination, by insisting on a tradition of sex discrimination, out of fear, out of neglect, out of pride, out of tradition, out of … ?
When church leaders speak of “unity” regarding women’s roles in the church, they are normally referring to unity among families currently attending the congregation, not to future believers not currently attending. And they are typically referring to a desire for those families currently attending to get along, be happy, and not depart the congregation. And the focus is often on the members and the long-time members in decision-making.
Such “unity” — unity focused on current members and long-time members of a congregation, not on unbelievers or other future believers — is often given overriding value, provided as a reason, for example, not to consider removing prohibitions on women and girls in the church. “Unity” is sometimes given as a reason to continue prohibiting women from certain roles, such as preacher and elder.
In contrast, Jesus fervently prays a prayer right before the betrayal he knew was coming, immediately before that fateful kiss from Judas and his arrest. (John 17-18)
For what does he ask? For something different than the “unity” often focused on by a congregation when discussing women’s roles.
Jesus asks for the unity of future believers — people who are now unbelievers (and people yet to be born) who will believe in Jesus — with the church and with Jesus.
Jesus’s prayer is a call to action. A call to take affirmative steps to include those future believers in unity with the church and with Jesus, to take affirmative steps to include those beyond a congregation or denomination and to include those beyond the present when seeking unity.
Time for Unity, Time to Lift All Prohibitions Against Women and Girls
But discriminating against women and girls in the church does the opposite of unifying future believers with current ones and with Jesus.
Sex discrimination in the church stands between many of those future believers and current believers, blocking unity between them, as well as between many of those future believers and Jesus.
Indeed, keeping prohibitions on women’s service in the church is the opposite of the kind of unity Jesus asks for.
Elimination of such sex discrimination is necessary to eliminates a major barrier to the unity Jesus asks of us.
And the current believers are the ones who can do something about it.
That is, the status quo of maintaining complete prohibitions on women from speaking may be preferred by traditionalists —- people who are already believers, long-time members of the church — but it is repelling and adverse to that which Jesus prays for: that those who are not now believers but who might or will believe in Jesus in the future and who may be brought to complete unity with those who believe and with Jesus.
Jesus’s desire that we welcome future believers into unity calls for lifting all prohibitions against women and girls in the church as soon as possible.
Does This Mean Change Everything to the Way Future Believers Might Like?
Does this mean we should stop a cappella music, too, and everything that anyone, anywhere might not like? No.
A cappella music does not generally repulse people from unity with the church or with Jesus. Sex discrimination and race discrimination by Christians, on the other hand, repulses people from unity with the church and with Jesus.
And people’s revulsion from Christians’ engaging in race discrimination and sex discrimination and being repulsed from unity with a group that engages in such actions is reasonable and rational. That it is rational and reasonable for a person not to be unified with a group that engages in sex discrimination or in race discrimination seems undeniable. Sex discrimination and race discrimination are not simply questions like the color of the drapes in the classroom.
It is past time for church members to ask their elders to revisit the scripture on this issue. Jesus’s prayer seeks action.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with desiring that current congregants be nice to one another, love one another, remain part of the congregation, be happy, etc. A problem arises, though, in thinking and acting as if that is where our desire should begin or end.
Hopefully, the unity desired — by any church in any situation, including situations involving consideration of women’s roles — is a unity around the gospel that brings eternal life and having love for one another and a unity around the love of Christ and a unity around doing what Jesus asks of us, not just for the current attendees, but for, as Jesus asks, future believers, as well.
Any form of sex discrimination in the church impairs what Jesus prays for, the unity of those future believers and for the world to “know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 20:20, 23)
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Sources & Notes
(for more on scripture, see sources in Sources & Notes)
“Unity” called for by many churches in “women’s roles” discussions contradicts the unity for which Jesus asks.
Unity for which Jesus prays shortly before his arrest calls for lifting all prohibitions on women and girls in the church because he asks for unity of *** future believers *** — those now and future unbelievers who will believe — with the church and with him.
In stark contrast, *current congregants* are the focus of “unity” typically emphasized by church leaders in refusing to re-consider prohibitions on women and girls and in continuing prohibitions.
Sex discrimination against women and girls, like race discrimination, is repulsive, and such discrimination in the church repels future believers from the church and from unity with current believers and with the church and Jesus. Such prohibitions against women and girls oppose unity Jesus prayed for. It blocks unity Jesus asks for.
Current believers can do something about it or can continue blocking what Jesus asks for, Biblical unity.
A common claim in the Churches of Christ is that there are 3 verses that completely prohibit women from speaking, leading, teaching, and exercising authority in the assembly. But there are more than 20 passages in the Bible asking women to speak to, lead, teach, and exercise authority over men, in an assembly and elsewhere, and ~ 97% of Christianity rejects this common claim, as does reading the 3 cited verses in context instead of isolated.
The Churches of Christ is virtually alone in following the tradition of this common claim. And a growing number of them, after studying scripture, are realizing it is a tradition of man and not scriptural. Calls of “unity” focused on current congregants is one of the ways a tradition of man is maintained.
At the end of the day, prohibitions on women and girls in the church, following this tradition of man, and most calls for “unity” associated with it stand in opposition to what Jesus prays: unity, for the future believer, for those who will believe.
On the “unity” emphasis, also see Ephesians 4:11-13 (“So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”); Col 3:12-14 (“as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”); 1 John 4:12 (“No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”). Paul says “be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4). He says, right before, “I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” (Ephesians 4). That was the primary thrust. He was not urging patience and unity to the point of doing nothing.
John 17:20 as referring to future believers (of course, are non-believers before becoming believers): See generally https://biblehub.com/commentaries/john/17-20.htm; Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers (“All the best MSS. read, “but for them also which believe;” but the sense is not affected by the change. As we have again and again found in these chapters, the future of the Church is so immediately in our Lord’s thoughts that it is spoken of as actually present.”); MacLaren’s Expositions (“The remainder of this prayer reaches out to all generations of believers to the end.”) Benson Commentary (“in whatever age”); Matthew Poole’s Commentary (“2. That by persons given to Christ, cannot be understood believers as such; for Christ here prays for those that were not actual believers, but should believe.”); Meyer’s NT Commentary (“ shall believe on Him (πιστευόντων, regarding the future as present)”); Expositor’s Greek Testament (“Prayer for future believers.”).
Do we have to affirm same-marriage, too, for the sake of unity? I’m still thinking about this but my initial reaction is no. It is not our “failure to affirm” women and girls speaking that repulses. What repulses is that members of the church are barred from speaking due to their sex — they are discriminated against based on their sex. Our failure to affirm is not what repulses. That a member of the church holds a different opinion on a matter is not what repulses, generally. The unity to which Jesus refers does not mean believers must agree on everything. It at least means those believers are together, in each others’ lives, as one. Current members go beyond not affirming women and girls speaking. They demand that they not speak. They prohibit them from speaking. That is what repulses those future believers from unity with the church and Jesus. That is what acts in opposition to what Jesus prays for.
I have looked at the same-sex marriage question under scripture enough to know that those who take the Bible seriously but who affirm same-sex marriage as consistent with scripture are not simply ignoring scripture. I see the ambiguities to which they refer. I have not come to rest on the question. I have looked through quite a bit of it, but still have some to go. I have spent enough time on it, and it has taken me a long time, that I am quite dubious when people they have spent a few hours on it or less and have come to rest.
I will also say that I do not think it is current congregants’ failure to affirm same-sex marriage that repulses—-in other words, it is not their standing up and supporting it that repulses. It would be current congregants’ insistence that the gay person be kicked out of the church, insistence that “their” church not host such a wedding, and the discrimination against the gay person that repulses.
Like I said, I am still working through this question. I am not in the mode of discriminating against people and of being so confident, regardless.
Of course, people who thought that the Bible called for a prohibition on women speaking are also at risk and much be considered when speaking of such “unity,” as well. A call for “unity” after making substantial changes to allow women to speak normally involves a call and wishing for them to remain and stay with the congregation. Eyes are normally on people with such concerns are normally given attention. The congregation must be careful, nevertheless, to be sensitive and careful to go about the encouragement to “unity” in a sincere manner and not in a manner that makes it out as if those persons are the “defeated” parties. Sincerity is paramount.
Update: 12/14 — some relatively minor clarifying improvements
For more on the scripture relating to this issue, see:
Start here for a discussion regarding scripture on this issue: Steve Gardner, “20 Passages Asking Women to Speak, Teach, Lead, and Have Authority Over Men, In the Assembly and Elsewhere,” AuthenticTheology.com (September 3, 2018).
For a discussion regarding 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, see Steve Gardner, “Most Church of Christ Colleges No Longer Exclude Women From Leading in Worship Services: … 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 …,” AuthenticTheology.com (May 22, 2018).
For a discussion regarding 1 Timothy 2:12, see Steve Gardner, “10 Churches of Christ Where Women Speak in the Assembly: 1 Timothy 2:12, “Teach or Usurp Authority” (Part 3),” AuthenticTheology.com (April 9, 2019).
For a discussion regarding 1 Timothy 2:11-15, see Steve Gardner, “Most Church of Christ Colleges No Longer Exclude Women From Leading in Worship Services: … 1 Timothy 2:12 …,” AuthenticTheology.com (May 30, 2018).
For a discussion regarding female elders, see Steve Gardner, “10 Churches of Christ Where Women Speak in the Assembly: Female Elders (Part 2),” AuthenticTheology.com (April 3, 2019).
For scriptural discussions from various Churches of Christ, see these two articles: see Steve Gardner, “10 Churches of Christ Where Women Speak in the Assembly: List and Links (Part 1),” AuthenticTheology.com (March 26, 2019); and Steve Gardner, “Another 10 Churches of Christ Where Women Speak in the Assembly: Their Reasons & a Quiz,” AuthenticTheology.com (April 24, 2019).
Picture is by Stevepb from Pixabay.
Steve — you mention a few verses are used to say women/girls should be limited in roles but 20ish say the opposite. What are those verses?
Thank you for your question.
Those are the passages quoted in this article:
I hope you find them helpful.
Scripture relative to female elders is discussed here:
Thanks much, Steve