by David Couchman
What sort of things do you pray for?
I pray mainly for the people who are close to me and who matter to me. I pray for their:
- physical health
- emotional happiness
- success in what they are doing, whether this is their job, or how they are getting on at school
Now there is nothing wrong with praying like this, and praying for this kind of thing.
But in Colossians chapter 1 verses 9-14, we see an example of how Paul prayed for people. It is really challenging, because his prayer priorities were so different from ours.
The reason for looking at this is not so that we can get into a horrible guilt trip about how inadequate our prayers are, but so that we can let ourselves be positively challenged by Paul's praying, to widen and deepen our own spiritual life.
If you read this prayer quickly, or if you read it in an English translation that obscures the original Greek, you might think that Paul is praying for a lot of different, disconnected things. However, a closer look reveals that Paul has one clear purpose in his praying. His purpose, in the second half of verse 10, is that the Colossian Christians will please God in every way - will be well pleasing to him.
Modern slang can sometimes help us to understand the Bible better! If I give my daughter something that she really wants, she's likely to say 'Yay. I'm well pleased with that!' And that is the idea here: that God will look at the Colossian Christians and say, 'Yes, I'm well pleased with them.'
What would lead God to say this about them? Well, it is here at the beginning of verse 10:
'that you may live a life worthy of the Lord...'
The original says 'walking worthy of the Lord.'
The word used for 'worthy' literally means 'bringing up the other side of the scales.'
It suggests that there has to be a balance between what we believe and how we live: that we have to 'live up to' the Lord who we believe in.
Sometimes when my daughters were younger, if one of them behaved in a way that was not acceptable, I might say to her,
'I don't care what your friends do at school; that is not the way we act in this family.'
In other words, live up to the standards of our family.
You might also hear people being told to live up to the standards of a school or college. In Japan, people have to live up to the standards of the business they work for.
And the point is that we are to live up to the Lord we believe in - to 'walk worthy' of him.
Please notice that you do not live up to the standards of a family or a school or a business in order to become part of it, but because you already are part of it.
This is very important: if you listen to some messages, and especially some children's talks, what comes over is that the Christian message is all about being good: do not get angry, tell the truth, do not steal, and so on. This is how to please God.
Now, this may be useful for turning out well-behaved members of society, but it is not the Christian message. The Christian message does not say 'do this and you will please God.' It says that you are a sinner. You can never do enough to please God. In fact, you are under his judgment. You are under God's wrath. But here is the good news: what you could not do, God has done for you, through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. God accepts you into his family, and he loves you, not because of anything you do to earn it, but because of what Christ has already done.
And now, because you are in his family, live up to the family name, walk worthy of the Lord. There is all the difference in the world between seeking to live in a certain way in order to earn God's favour, to put God in my debt, and seeking to live a certain way out of gratitude for all that God has done for me, and faith for all that he will do for me in the future.
So Paul's goal is that the Christians in Colossae will please God by living a life worthy of him - by living up to the Lord they believe in.
This is why he is praying. And he has one core prayer, so that this will happen. If anyone is going to live a life that pleases God, they need to know what will please him - how he wants them to live. So here in verse 9, Paul says:
For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying and asking for you, that you may be filled with the knowledge of God's will, in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.
There are some things that you can just learn. You can learn mathematics, or French, or the history of Europe. Learning them does not affect you as a person. But knowing God's will is not like that. Knowing God's will implies more than just understanding what God wants. It implies understanding and doing what God wants. Don Carson, in his book, 'A Call to Spiritual Reformation' says (page 106):
In thought, word, and deed, in action and in reaction, I must be asking myself, 'What would Jesus have me do? What is speech or conduct worthy of him? What sort of speech or conduct in this context should I avoid, simply because it would shame him? What would please him the most?' Rightly pursued, these simple questions would transform how we work, what we do with our leisure time, how we talk with our spouses and children, what responsibilities we take on in our churches, what we read, what we watch on television, how we treat our neighbors and what we do with our money.
Knowing God's will is not something that we can just learn about in a detached, academic way, because it affects us as people. It requires a degree of insight and a kind of wisdom that we do not naturally have - that come from God himself. And because of this, we need to pray for them.
So Paul's prayer is that the Colossian Christians will know God's will - in fact, that they will be filled with the knowledge of God's will, in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.
There is a possible misunderstanding here that we need to clear up: knowing God's will is not the same thing as we often mean when we talk about guidance: who should I marry? where should I live? What job should I do? God is concerned about all these things, and he will sort them out for us. But knowing God's will is about how God wants us to behave, whatever our circumstances.
This kind of knowledge is not something hidden or mysterious, that we have to strive and struggle to find. It is something that has already been revealed in the Bible. Sometimes, we seem to be so concerned that God will show us who he wants us to marry or where he wants us to live, but we are not so concerned about living in line with what he has already shown us about how he wants us to live. To quote Don Carson again (page 102):
It is folly to pretend to seek God's will for your life, in terms of a marriage partner or some form of Christian vocation, when there is no deep desire to pursue God's will as he has already kindly revealed it.
The purpose of Paul's prayer is that the Colossian Christians will please God in every way, by living up to the Lord they believe in. For this to happen, he prays that they will know how God wants them to live - in fact, that they will be filled with this knowledge, in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.
This is something that we need to be praying for ourselves, and for the people we know and care about.
Now Paul unpacks what this will mean in practice, in four relative phrases:
- Bearing fruit in every good work (verse 10b)
- Growing in the knowledge of God (verse 10b)
- Being strengthened (verse 11a), and
- Giving thanks (verse 11b-12a)
Let's take a quick look at each of these:
God does not intend us to be sterile! He intends us to be fruitful in good works.
Ephesians chapter 2 verse 10 tells us that he has specific good works lined up for us to do:
For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
This suggests that in any particular circumstances, we need to be asking, 'what does God want me to do in this situation?'
Again, please notice that the good works that God has prepared for us are a result of God saving us, not a reason for God to save us. So Ephesians chapter 2 verses 8-9 says:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Paul prays that the Colossian Christians will live up to the Lord they believe in, knowing how he wants them to behave. In particular, this will work itself out in doing specific good works that God has lined up for them.
We need to be praying, for ourselves and others, that we shall be bearing fruit in every good work.
The original ties bearing fruit and growing in the knowledge of God together very closely: 'In every good work bearing fruit and growing in the knowledge of God.' It is as if the goal of the good works is that we shall grow to know God better. Or as if one of the ways we grow to know God better is by doing good works.
Doing is a way of learning. I'm sure you've hear the saying that we remember about 15% of what we see, 18% of what we hear, 30% of what we both see and hear, but 60% of what we hear, see and do
Paul prays that the Colossian Christians will grow to know God better, through doing good works. We need to be praying, for ourselves and others, that we shall be growing in our knowledge of God.
The New International Version says 'being strengthened.' A more literal translation might be 'being empowered':
In all power being empowered, according to the might of his glory, into all endurance and long-suffering.
We hear a lot today about empowerment. Just a week or so ago, while I was on holiday, I passed a big hoarding advertising a women's empowerment event. The idea is that women can be hampered and hindered by glass ceilings and old boy networks, and that they need to be released and equipped to progress fairly in their chosen path in life.
Paul prays for the Colossian Christians to be empowered 'according to his glorious might.' In other words, God's power is itself a reflection of his own glory.'
There are two places where the Bible speaks of God's power being revealed. The first is in his works of creation. The other is in raising Jesus from the dead.
Paul's letter to the Colossians and his letter to the Ephesians are parallel in many ways. In his opening prayer in Ephesians, Paul says:
I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms... (Ephesians chapter 1 verses 18-20)
It is this glorious power that we pray to be released into our lives, and the lives of other Christians around us.
What is the purpose of this 'being empowered'? It is in order to have all endurance and long-suffering. Both of these words speak of the ability to cope with trials and difficulties.
One writer defines endurance as 'the capacity to see things through.' It has to do with sticking it out through difficult circumstances that we cannot change.
Long-suffering has more to do with putting up with difficult people that we cannot change. It has been called 'the opposite of wrath or a spirit of revenge. It speaks of even-temperedness, the attitude that in spite of injury or insult does not retaliate.'
There is a kind of teaching around that says that if you become a Christian, you can expect to be healthy, wealthy, and happy. The Bible does not say this. It knows that we will experience all kinds of difficulties and trials, and that sometimes our natural response to these difficulties will be to give up.
But it is God's will that we keep going. This kind of keeping going does not just happen. It does not come naturally to us. It is beyond our human resources. We need empowering by God for it. This is why we need to pray.
Paul prays that the Colossian Christians will be empowered by God's own glorious might, to keep going. We need to pray, both for ourselves and others, that we will be empowered to keep going when we face difficult circumstances and difficult people.
Not only giving thanks, but joyfully giving thanks.
A few months ago, a couple who are friends of ours discovered that the wife has cancer. They are going to find it very difficult to give thanks, in the weeks and months ahead. They are certainly going to find it difficult to give thanks joyfully.
If we look at our circumstances, sometimes we shall be able to give thanks for health, for strong family relationships, and for worthwhile work. But there will be other times when we, or those we love, are seriously ill; when our family life has broken down, perhaps through divorce, or because of a wayward child or an ageing parent; when our work is not worthwhile, but seems like pointless drudgery - or perhaps we have no work at all.
If we just look at our circumstances, we shall find it very difficult to give thanks. Paul is realistic. He knows this, but he says there are some things which do not change, and for which we can always give thanks:
... the Father who has qualified you (literally, has made you sufficient, or competent) to share in the inheritance of the saints in [the kingdom of] light. For he has delivered us from the authority of darkness, and transferred us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.' (verses 12b-14).
Redemption' means buying back. God has bought us back from under the authority of darkness, and has transferred us into the kingdom of the Son he loves. He has done this by paying a ransom - the death of his Son.
This means that our eternal future is secure. We are in the kingdom of God's dearly loved Son, Jesus. We have a share in the inheritance of his chosen and holy people. And this is something to be thankful for, however dark our days may be here and now.
Thinking about this prompts Paul to an outburst of praise in verses 15-20.
Paul's prayer is that the Colossian Christians will live up to the Lord they believe in. This means knowing and doing God's will, and one specific way this works itself out is in being thankful.
As Christians, we should be giving thanks to the Father. We should be giving thanks ourselves, and we should be praying that other people will also be able to give thanks, whatever we - and they - are going through.
To sum up
So the goal or purpose of Paul's prayer is that the Colossian Christians will live up to the Lord they believe in. To this end, he prays that they will know how God wants them to live - in fact that they will be filled with the knowledge of his will. This will be seen in:
- Bearing fruit in all good works
- growing in the knowledge of God
- being empowered with God's own glorious might to keep going in the face of difficult circumstances and difficult people
- joyfully being thankful for their eternal security, whatever happens here and now
We need to be praying these things for ourselves, and for the people we know who matter to us.
As I said earlier, let's not be burdened down with guilt, but let's be positively challenged by Paul's prayer, so that it shapes our own praying.
This article is based on a talk first given by David Couchman at Titchfield Evangelical Church on Sunday 13th June 2004.
It may be that you are going through some horrible suffering, and you’ve seen the title of this article, and you’re hoping that you’re going to find something that will relieve your pain. This may not happen.
Understanding what the Bible says about suffering doesn’t relieve us of that suffering.
What may help us to cope with it is knowing that there are people who love us and care about us, and that they are praying for us. Knowing that there are other people – like Eric Gaudion – who’ve been through what we go through. Knowing that we are not alone.
So – the problem of pain:
“If God was loving, he would not want his creatures to suffer. If God was all-powerful, he could do what he wants. But we do suffer, therefore either God is not all-powerful, or he is not loving… or he isn’t there at all.” This is the problem of pain in a nutshell.
It’s the biggest problem for Christian faith, and the biggest objection to Christian faith. It’s a vital question, and there are important things to say about it.
But in this article, I want to come at it from a different angle.
If we’re followers of Jesus Christ, if we take the Bible seriously, then God really is good and loving and powerful. So when we go through all kinds of pain and suffering, he must have some good purpose in it. There must be something he’s setting out to achieve in our lives. So the question we’re looking at here is: what could this something be?
What is God doing through our pain and suffering?
So we’re thinking about God’s purpose for our suffering, rather than about the cause of suffering.
So what is God doing through our suffering? The Bible gives several answers to this, and in this article we’re going to highlight just two of them.
We’re going to be looking at a range of passages from the New Testament, which touch on this question of what God is doing through our pain and suffering. We’ll only look at each one quite briefly, and I’ll just be flagging up one key thing that it says.
Let’s start by looking at Romans chapter 8 verses 18-39. In the New Living Translation, Romans 8 verses 28-29 say this:
‘We know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. For God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son, so that his Son would be the first born among many brothers and sisters.’
We love to quote these words, don’t we: ‘God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love him.’ We find them very reassuring when we go through tough times – and it’s right that we should.
But what kind of good is Paul talking about when he says ‘God causes everything to work together for good’? Does he mean that we won’t suffer?
Of course not. If you look at verse 35, you’ll see that he talks about trouble and hardship and persecution and famine and nakedness and danger and sword. Clearly, God’s design for our good does not rule out all kinds of seriously unpleasant things happening to us.
So what kind of good is Paul talking about? Well, in verse 29 he says God’s purpose is that we shall become like his Son – like Jesus. This is the good for which God is working out everything.
If you are a follower of Christ, this is God’s destiny for you. To make you like Jesus. It’s where you’re going.
Here's what James says, in James chapter 1 verses 2-4:
‘Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect (or mature) and complete, needing nothing.’
It’s the same idea. Suffering develops character – and the kind of character James has in mind is the character of Jesus Christ.
So what is God doing through our pain and suffering? He is forming our characters. He is making us like his Son, the Lord Jesus. And here’s the crunch: God will do whatever it takes to make us like his Son. If it takes pain to achieve that, he will send us pain.
This could so easily make it sound as if God is a cosmic sadist, who enjoys inflicting pain on his creatures. But this isn’t it at all. God loves us, and longs for the best for us.
When our daughters were younger, my wife and I would take them to the dentist. Sometimes the dentist would inflict all kinds of pain on them – he’d attack them with a drill, or a chisel, or with other instruments of torture!
What was I doing, as a loving parent, standing by while this stranger inflicted such grief on them? Didn’t I care? Couldn’t I do something about it?
Well, of course I cared, and of course I could have done something to stop it – but it was precisely because I loved them and wanted what was best for them that I didn’t do anything.
There was no other way for their teeth to be fixed, than for them to go through this horrible experience in the dentist’s chair.
Perhaps, on a much more serious scale, there are some things in our lives that can only be fixed as we go through bitter pain and suffering.
One of the most important things God is doing through our pain and suffering is to make us like Jesus, to make us ready to live with him in eternity. When we get hold of this, it doesn’t stop the pain and the suffering – it doesn’t stop it hurting, but it does change how we look at what’s happening to us.
So what do we need to do about it? We need to respond in ways that line up with what God is doing. We need to let the suffering do its work of developing our character in the way God intends.
We need to ask what attitude God wants me to develop as a result of this?
Because you see, this being made like Jesus doesn’t just happen. It doesn’t happen automatically. The suffering gives us an opportunity to grow, but how we respond to it makes all the difference. We can respond in two different ways:
We may respond with self-pity and bitterness and resentment. It’s natural, isn’t it? Let’s face it, we’ve all been there. We’ve all done it.
Or we may respond in a way that pleases God, trusting him that although I can’t understand it, although this hurts, and although I hate it, yet somehow, through it all, he is still working things out for my good.
So we can sincerely sing ‘Though there’s pain in the offering blessed be the name of the Lord.’ Blessing his name doesn’t do away with the pain. It takes faith to sing that.
‘consider it pure joy whenever you face trials of many kinds…’
Paul says the same thing in Romans 5 - that we rejoice in our sufferings. Now, it isn’t that we are in love with the pain itself, but we can rejoice that God is doing something in our lives through it.
So this is one thing God is doing through our pain and suffering – forming our characters, making us more like the Lord Jesus. Our response must be to ask: ‘what attitude does God want me to develop in the face of this?’ What trust? What endurance? What joy?
I would like to invite you to pause for a moment or two, to reflect personally on this, and to offer your own individual response to the Lord. Here are three questions that may be helpful:
- What am I going through at the moment?
- What is God doing through what I am going through?
- What attitude does God want me to develop in the face of what I’m going through?
I wonder if you've been following the story of Alan Johnston? He’s the BBC reporter in Gaza who was taken hostage by the Army of Islam, and held for 114 days before he was released. What Alan Johnston suffered was a direct result of the job he had been given.
It was a horrible experience, and I don’t want to downplay it – but at the end, he did walk away from it in one piece.
This story was widely reported in the media – especially by the BBC, perhaps because he was one of their own.
While Alan Johnston was being held captive, something else was happening, which you may have missed, because it wasn’t so widely reported:
In April, two Turkish Christians and a German missionary were tortured and killed.
They had gone to their office to have a Bible study with some enquirers.
Five Muslim men arrived, and when they sat down to start the study, these men attacked them. They tortured them for several hours, and then murdered them in a particularly brutal way.
For more on this story, and a collection of news report links, go here.
Like Alan Johnston, what they suffered was a direct result of the job they had been given. Unlike Alan Johnston, they didn’t walk away from it at the end. And unlike Alan Johnston, their story didn’t get a storm of media coverage.
Like that German missionary and those Turkish Christians, we have been given a job – a job that involves the risk of suffering. Look at what Paul said, in Colossians chapter 1 verse 24:
‘I am glad when I suffer for you in my body, for I am taking part in the sufferings of Christ that continue for his body, the church.’
I’m sure Paul didn’t think he could add anything to Christ’s sacrifice for us – that was a done deal. But because he was willing to suffer for the good news, people were hearing the message about Jesus and coming to faith in him, and in that sense, he was sharing in the sufferings of Christ.
And if one thing God is doing through our pain and suffering is to make us more like Jesus; to make us into the kind of people who can live with him, another thing he is doing is to advance the good news of Jesus Christ in the world.
Just as the price of making us like Jesus is suffering, so also the price of advancing the good news is suffering. And just as God is totally committed to making us like his Son, he is also totally committed to bringing this good news to the world. He will do whatever it takes.
We see suffering as something to be avoided at all costs. Jesus sees suffering as the unavoidable cost of bringing his good news to people. It goes with the territory, just as it did for Alan Johnston.
When we think about God forming our characters, we can see that suffering may be needed, however unpleasant it is.
But when it comes to the advance of the good news, surely the suffering is just a side effect? Surely it would be OK to do without it, if we can find painless ways to advance the good news?
It’s tempting to think like that, but I’d like to suggest that it’s wrong. In a messed up and fallen world, if the good news is going to advance, we as God’s people can’t escape suffering. It goes with the job.
So what do we have to do about it?
I used to travel a lot in the Russian-speaking world. One time, I was visiting a young family of missionaries living in one of the major cities of Central Asia. For the last twenty four hours of my stay with them, we didn’t have any electricity, or any water. This was a family trying to bring up a baby. You can imagine what that was like. To me, it was a small inconvenience during a journey. To them, it was a way of life. They had chosen to embrace this way of life so that the people there would have the opportunity to hear about Jesus. And they were paying the price for making that choice.
When we were talking just now about God using suffering to make us like Jesus, I said that how we respond matters. We need to line ourselves up with what God is doing.
Well, it matters here too. Here too, we need to line ourselves up with what God is doing.
The question then was: ‘what attitude does God want me to develop?’ The question now is:
This is what Paul says in 2 Timothy 2 verses 8-10:
‘Always remember that Jesus Christ, a descendant of King David, was raised from the dead. This is my Good News, for which I am suffering and have been chained like a criminal. But the word of God cannot be chained. So I am willing to endure anything if it will bring salvation and eternal glory in Christ Jesus to those God has chosen.’
Did you get that? Paul was suffering so that the Good news would be advanced. He says, ‘I am willing to endure anything if it will bring salvation… to those God has chosen.’
Paul had a choice. He could have stayed at home, and lived a comfortable life. Perhaps he could even have become a famous rabbi. But he chose to embrace suffering for the sake of the Good News. You can read a list of some of the things he suffered in 2 Corinthians 11, verse 23 onwards – we don’t have time to look at those verses now.
When it comes to the spread of the good news, God gives us a choice whether to embrace the suffering or not.
Most of us probably won’t face torture and death, but are we prepared to endure insult and discomfort, or disruption to our way of life?
Are we ready to suffer people being rude to us – or about us, because of our faith? It’s becoming more and more common in this country.
You may have seen this advertisement in the Independent last year. It’s an advertisement by the Gay Police Associations.
It claims that that in the past 12 months, the Gay Police Association had recorded a 74% increase in the number of homophobic incidents where the ‘sole or primary motivating factor was the religious belief of the perpetrator.’ The advertisement clearly portrayed Christians as violent towards homosexuals.
In a year which saw more complaints than any previous year, this advertisement attracted more complaints than any other, and the Advertising Standards Authority upheld these complaints.
But in the years ahead, we can expect increasing hostility to the Christian faith. Are we ready?
God asks us individually: what suffering will you embrace for the sake of the Good News?
Maybe he asks us the same question as a church.
As a church, what suffering will we embrace so that the good news of Jesus Christ will reach more people? What pain? What inconvenience? What discomfort? What disruption? There are thousands of people outside our doors, and most of them don’t have the least idea what the Good News of Jesus is about. What suffering is God calling us to embrace for them and for the good news of Christ?
We began by asking, what is the purpose of our pain? What is God doing through our suffering?
We’ve seen that:
He is forming our characters. He is making us like his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ; He is advancing the good news of Jesus Christ, in the world.
- The key question is: How will we respond? Will we line ourselves up with what God is doing?
- what attitude does he want me to develop?
- what suffering does he want me to embrace?
In Philippians 2, Paul writes this:
‘You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.
Though he was God,
he did not think of equality with God
as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
he took the humble position of a slave
and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
he humbled himself in obedience to God
and died a criminal’s death on a cross.’
And he says ‘You must have the same attitude that he had.’
You may use this article in print or on a web site, subject to the following limitations:
- The article is reproduced in its entirety, without variation.
- There is a link back to this site.
- There is a copyright notice crediting Focus Radio for this article, and including these conditions.
An outline by Dr J.Packer taught at the 2002 Annual Conference of 'Reform'.
Just as one's God can be too small,
so one's gospel can be too small.
In the Bible the Gospel is the entire saving plan of God, all revolving round the person, place and power of our Saviour Jesus Christ, the incarnate, crucified, risen, reigning, returning Lord.
Preaching or teaching the gospel requires us to show how Jesus Christ relates to every part of God's plan, and how every part of it relates to us who are savingly related to the living Christ through faith. Evangelism involves explaining life in Christ as well as inviting sinners to him. Preaching pastors and itinerant evangelists will have different emphases, but we all must preach the gospel in this same broad and inclusive way.
This means dealing with six main topics, as follows:
1. The truth about God.
The one God who made and rules everything is revealed as three persons through his plan of salvation. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit love us and work together to save us from sin and make us holy. Jesus Christ, God the Son incarnate, is Lord over all the powers of evil, as of all other powers. Any other view is idolatry.
2. The truth about ourselves.
We were made for God, to bear his image and be like him in moral character, but sin controls and has spoiled us, so that we need to be brought back to God to be forgiven and re-made. Jesus Christ, who brings us back, is himself to the model of true godliness. Any other view is deception.
3. The story of God's kingdom.
Step by step, as Scripture tells, God has been working to establish his kingdom in this fallen world. Jesus is the king, and our lives are to be his kingdom. King Jesus is also Judge, and those who have not bowed to his kingship here will not share his joy hereafter. Trusting, loving, and honouring Jesus, and serving others for his sake, is true godliness at its heart. Any other view is error.
4. The way of salvation.
Jesus Christ, our sin-bearer on the cross, now from his throne, reaches out to rescue us who are lost in the guilt and shame of sin. He calls for faith (trust in him as Saviour) and repentance (turning to him as master). He sends his Holy Spirit to change us inwardly so that we hear his call as addressed to us personally and respond whole-heartedly to it; whereupon we are forgiven and accepted (justified), received as God's children (adopted), made to rejoice at our peace with him (assurance), and made to realise that we are living a new life in Christ (regeneration). Any other view is deficient
5. The life of fellowship.
Christians belong in the church, the family of God, sharing its worship, work, witness and welfare, and enjoying its worldwide brotherhood in Christ. Any other view of the Christian calling is sectarian.
6. Walking home to heaven.
Helped by the ministry in the church of word and sacrament, prayer and pastoral care, spiritual gifts and loving support, Christians live in our constantly hostile world as travellers, heading for a glorious destination. Led and inspired by their Saviour through the Holy Spirit, they seek to do all the good they can as they go, and to battle all forms of evil that they meet. Any other view of the Christian life is worldly.
All this is permanently and universally true, transcending all differences of colour, race, culture, age, gender, health, economic standing, social position and political background. As the Father, Son and Holy Spirit sustain us all, so the gospel levels us all, teaching us to know ourselves as great sinners saved by God's greater grace, and to see all non-Christians as needing that same grace themselves.
This then is what we have to tell."
(Taken from Understanding the Bible web site. Used with permission)
There are two parties to this question - us and God.
What can we say about each party in this context of making choices or decisions?
Us ... Let's ask some important questions:
- Is it your sincere desire to seek God’s will and to honour him by your choices, and by your life, whatever is the outcome?
- Are you prepared to pray continually about this issue of guidance, asking God to lead your thinking and over-rule your circumstances?
If this is not true then you need to pull your Christian life together by serious Bible reading and advice from a Christian you respect. Otherwise you shall seek guidance in vain.
What does the Bible say about guidance? Will God guide you? What is God's attitude to you and the choices you have to make? Read what God says:
- Psalm 18:25 (God responds to our sincere desire to serve Him with complete faithfulness)
- Psalm 25:10 (there is a requirement for us to be faithful to the covenant partnership)
- Psalm 31:14-17 (God is to be trusted)
- Psalm 32:8 and 10 (God's unfailing love to those who trust)
- Psalm 33:4,5 (God is faithful)
- Psalm 36:7 (God is a refuge)
- See also:
- Psalms 48:12-14, 52:8 (and 9) 73:24 86:5,15 108:4, 119:105, 139:9,10, 143:8, 145:8,9 John 10: 7-15, John 15:5,9, Romans 8:38,39, 2 Thess.3:3, 1 John 3:1,2a and finally: Hebrews 13:20,21
Can you trust yourself to this God?
If you are a believer, it is because God, in His Grace, has justified you by the death of His Son, through faith. He has declared you not guilty and fully acceptable to Him. Can you seriously think that He will now desert you? He is 100% on your side!
God has not released from the burden of our sin, only to replace it with the burden of guidance! We are free: the truth has made us free.
- From ‘Go Free’ by Bob Horn (IVF, ISBN 0 85110 384 7)
- “God is God and He is for us. He is not a celestial careers bureau, able to help only when we ring Him up. Our whole life is in His hands. We do not have to persuade Him to guide. He has been guiding, every minute - as our justification proves. He is guiding right now. He will guide all through.
- We do not have to ask God to step in. He is IN already. We need rather to ask for discernment to grasp His will and grace to do it. We may not always be able to see His way, but without doubt He has His way and is leading us to it. It is preposterous to think that He went to the length of justifying us, only to leave us to our own devices.”
So how do we exercise discernment?
How in practice does God guide us?
By the teaching of the Bible
(Psa 119:105 ‘Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.’)
- is what you are thinking about against its teaching?
- is it likely to dishonour the name of God?
- will it harm your (or anyone else’s) witness or growth as a Christian?
- is what you are thinking in line with what you understand God’s general will to be?
As we pray, by the conviction of our minds
- does it make sense, at this time?
- why do I want to do it?
By the considered advice of Christians we respect
- do they think it is right or advisable?
- we should never make serious decisions alone
- is God showing the way?
- is He opening or closing doors?
If the answer ...
... to all these questions supports what you are thinking - then take a first step, praying that God will open or close the door to further action in that direction.
God is far more concerned that we live as convinced and witnessing Christians, than where or in what capacity we do it!
Let’s close with Joshua’s words to the Israelites just before they were to cross Jordan into the Promised land
- Joshua 1:7-9
- “Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to act in accordance with all the law that my servant Moses commanded you; do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, so that you may be successful wherever you go. This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth; you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to act in accordance with all that is written in it. For then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall be successful. I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord you God is with you wherever you go."
(Taken from Understanding the Bible web site. Used with permission)
An extract from an article by Sharon James. Used with permission
The New Testament does not portray a situation in which the 'ministry' only takes place in the context of church 'programmes.' The great bulk of its exhortations concern everyday life; this is where real service occurs.
All Christians, both men and women, are to regard their employment as a 'calling' to be done as unto Christ. Many women are engaged in paid employment, as well as voluntary or community work. This is a major means by which we spread Christian influence throughout society. We cannot wait for people to come into the church - we have to go to them, where they are, and do our everyday work in such a way as to make the Gospel attractive.
Women have been liberated from the assumption that 'all' they could do in life would be to stay at home and they are free to enter virtually all occupations.
There are many areas of employment in which Christian women make an outstanding contribution. Women today spend a far shorter proportion of their life in childrearing, due to increased life expectancy and the availability of contraception. And many women find that even while they are fulfilling their role as mothers they are able also to work outside the home (for some, this can be a helpful antidote to the depression that can accompany staying at home when the majority of one's peers are out at work).
The Bible never forbids economic productivity, (cf. Prov. 31). But it is stressful at best and destructive at worst if, as wives and mothers, we find a career to be our primary source of fulfilment and satisfaction. Our core responsibility is to our husbands and children. While we would support 'equal opportunities' in terms of giving women the choice to enter the work place, it is totally unrealistic to expect 'equal outcomes' in terms of 50% of every profession being female. This ignores the choice that the majority of women still make to put their families first. It is disingenuous to argue that discrimination is going on when so many women genuinely prefer to stay at home to care for their families, or else to work part time.
Christian women who are single mothers, divorcees or widows may have no choice but to work full-time alongside bringing up a family. Such women will need especial encouragement and support from the church family.
There can be enormous ethical and moral challenges in the workplace today, and as Christian women we need to study closely what the Scriptures say about purity, modesty and propriety. True femininity consists of fulfilling our helper design, and cultivating inner beauty (i.e. a gentle and quiet spirit ). We will be kept safe in this world from Satan's attacks if we remember that we are women and fulfill our helper design however and where ever God has placed us.
Christian women with homemaking responsibilities have as high a calling as any other church member. What the New Testament says about this could not stand in sharper contrast with the propaganda of some in the feminist movement. The fundamental fact that '
. . . doomed women to domestic work and prevented her from taking part in the shaping of the world was her enslavement to the generative function ...'
wrote Simone de Beauvoir. She believed that women should be liberated, forcibly if necessary from the subservient roles of wifehood and motherhood. For Betty Friedan, home was the,
'comfortable concentration camp' in which women suffered a slow death of mind and spirit, housewives being by necessity 'nameless, depersonalised, manipulated ..'
For Germaine Greer, the wife was a slave:
'If women are to effect a significant amelioration in their condition, it seems obvious that they must refuse to marry. No worker can be required to sign on for life ...'
Despite later recantations by Friedan and Greer, they and their like utterly discredited the idea that a woman could find her main fulfillment in life as a wife and mother. So pervasive has that message been that even Christian women find it necessary to apologise for staying at home. 'I'm only a housewife' is after all the ultimate admission of defeat. Or is it?
Titus is instructed to encourage the older women in the church to train the younger women 'to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no-one will malign the word of God' (Titus 2:5). This being busy at home is nothing to do with being frantically house-proud. We glimpse something of how the Christian woman was to be busy at home in 1 Timothy 5:
'No widow can be put on the list of widows unless she . . . is well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the saints, helping those in trouble, and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds . . . I counsel younger widows to marry, to have children, to manage their homes' (1 Tim 5:9-10, 14).
In the Jewish culture of the day this would have been unsurprising. John MacArthur points out: The Jewish laws were clear: the woman's priority was in the home. She was to take care of the needs of her home, her children, her husband, strangers, the poor and needy, and guests. The wife who faithfully discharged her responsibilities was held in high regard in her family, in the synagogue and in the community.
Christians have a great opportunity to prove that homemaking and motherhood need not be the boring, mindless drudgery portrayed by many feminists. Mothers do not have to escape into another (often boring) paid job in order to find fulfillment and purpose.
Seventy-six per cent of respondents to the British Social Attitudes Survey (1988) said they thought it best for mothers of under-fives to be at home all the time, but over the past twenty or so years many mothers have been pushed out to paid work by economic pressure. The burden of taxation has increasingly been shifted onto married parents to the benefit of the single and the childless; the most heavily penalised are one-earner families with children.
Betty Friedan drew a picture of the bored and frustrated housewife of the 1950s but now we see stressed and exhausted exhausted women rushing from job to creche to school to home. In a recent survey, 86 % of British women in work complained that they 'never have enough time to get things done' In an article tellingly entitled 'Go Home, your job is wrecking you', it was stated: 'employers are realising that women cannot balance family and long hours at work . . . jobs were designed for full-time working men with full-time wives at home.'
It is not just economic pressure which denies women the freedom to choose to be full-time mothers; it is also peer pressure to keep up a career. Moir and Jessel call it a tragedy that:
'just at the moment when women are freest to enjoy and exploit their natural, superior, skills in motherhood, a stern sisterhood tells them that this is an unnecessary, low-value, and socially regressive role ...'
With an increasing number of non-Christian writers advocating at least the choice of a return to full-time motherhood, surely Christian women should be demonstrating that this can indeed be a high calling. Above all, there is the great privilege of bringing up the next generation with spiritual values. (Paul recognised the significant contribution of Lois and Eunice to the ministry of Timothy, 2 Tim.1:5).
As a calling, the aim is to glorify Christ. Yes, the home and family can become an idol and this should be resisted. The energetic compassion of the ideal wife of Proverbs 31 and of the godly women of 1 Timothy 5 point away from self-absorption.
Women who are not married may well be able to use their homes as a base for good works in keeping with the above passages. Indeed the New Testament regards singleness as an opportunity for greater devotion to the Lord (1 Cor. 7:32-35). A similar perspective may be brought to bear on childlessness (cf. Isaiah 56:3-4).
When Paul speaks of his fellow labourers in Romans 16, and of his co-workers in the gospel in Philippians 4 (Euodia and Syntyche) he is speaking of women who worked alongside him in the task of spreading the gospel. The New Testament assumption is that women and men work together in evangelistic ministries.
There are suggestions that women in the early church were particularly concerned to reach other women. For example, Clement of Alexandria (c.150-215AD) comments:
'The Apostles, giving themselves without respite to the work of evangelism...took with them women, not as wives but as sisters, to share in their ministry to women living at home: by their agency the teaching of the Lord reached to the women's quarters without raising suspicion.'
The apocryphal work, The Acts of Paul, confirms this pattern:
'So Thecla went in with her and rested in her house for eight days, instructing her in the word of God, so that the majority of the maidservants also believed; and there was great joy in the house.'
In the New Testament women were converted, served, witnessed and were persecuted alongside the men, but there were some who were especially gifted at the work of evangelism. Similarly today, all Christian women are to be involved in the work of evangelism in a general way while some will be particularly suited for specific ministries.
In the broad sense Christian women evangelise as they live as salt and light in the world. Women who are joyful, contented and fulfilled rather than complaining, covetous, and dissatisfied; women who are willing to serve, actively looking out for the needs of neighbours and the needy in the community; women who are 'focussed' in the true sense of having purpose in life; women who refuse to waste time on the all-too-often poisonous trivia of TV or women's magazines; women who refrain from gossiping or backbiting; wives who are loyal to their husbands rather than running them down as part of a perpetual power struggle; mothers who are committed to their children but not so family-orientated that they are insensitive to the needs of others; employees who work cheerfully as for Christ: surely all such women are a shining testimony to the power of the gospel. Such lives mean that words of witness when spoken, tracts when given, books if lent, invitations when extended, may by the grace of God be effective as non-Christians see that 'it works!'
In the more specific sense, some women are particularly suitable for evangelistic ministries. There are numerous ways in which this gift can be used.
Door-to-door work is an essential means of presenting a friendly invitation to hear the gospel and visit the church. People often respond better to women than to men on the doors. At the very least a man-woman team is less threatening than two men knocking on the door and for safety reasons a man-woman team may be preferable to a two woman team. Alongside a friendly invitation and offer of literature, if there is any interest in spiritual things a one-to one Bible study can be suggested. If it is a woman who is interested it should be a woman who conducts these studies.
One-to-one Bible studies for seekers are an important way of answering questions and going through the basics of the gospel. This is increasingly necessary as many are ignorant of the very fundamentals of the Christian faith.
Ideally there should be several women in the church who are competent and confident to do this important work with women seekers. Similarly these women should be able to conduct discipleship studies with new converts and lead one-to-one studies to prepare women for baptism. Such studies can take place in the context of a prayer-partnership; a valuable means of discipling young believers.
Many churches have found parent and toddler groups to serve a vital need, and numerous opportunities for evangelism can arise from these meetings such as morning Bible studies or evangelistic supper parties. Women can host evangelistic coffee mornings in the home and lead evangelistic Bible studies.
Ideally there should be women gifted at speaking who can share the gospel on such occasions; it is a sad reflection of the lack of training, opportunities and encouragement for such women that men are very often called on to minister at such women's meetings for lack of practised and accomplished women speakers.
There are many other opportunities for evangelistic outreach: to seniors; to young people; children; hospitality to overseas students; outreach to ethnic minorities (here more than anywhere it will be women who must reach women). The whole field of cross-cultural mission (in this country or overseas) opens up a vast range of possibilities. The opportunities are numerous and diverse: from directly evangelistic work, to translation, marking correspondence courses, support ministries such as medicine or administration etc. But female involvement in cross-cultural mission should take place in such a manner as to preserve the biblical principle of male leadership in the family and the church. If women are excluded from authoritative leadership positions in the worshipping community, this must be applied whether at home or abroad.
Honesty demands that we admit that there is often a double standard, and that evangelical churches sometimes encourage women to engage in ministries abroad which they would prohibit at home. On the one hand this reflects the failure of conservative evangelical churches in this country to involve women in the variety of ministries which the New Testament demonstrates.
There are few opportunities for women in recognised or full-time Christian ministry in conservative evangelical churches 'at home.' There are many areas of diaconal and mission work which could well occupy numerous full-time women workers in our churches, but many devoted and godly women have to go abroad to serve in a way which should be possible here. On the other hand the double standard also reflects the failure of conservative evangelical churches to be consistent. If a woman is performing authoritative eldership functions, as long as it is a few thousand miles away, few if any questions are asked. As in so many areas of modern evangelicalism, pragmatism rules. If women missionaries have been successful, then debate is disallowed. But surely there should be one, biblical standard for ministry. The office of elder (or its functional equivalent) is not open to a woman, but all other serving, witnessing, and evangelising ministries are open to both men and women, and this should apply at home and overseas.
The truly great Christian women have been women of prayer. The glorious prayers of Hannah and Mary, for example, demonstrate an overwhelming concern for the glory of God, and the whole life of Anna was spent in prayer and fasting (1 Sam 2:1-10; Luke 1:46-55; 2:36-38). The work of God is only spiritually effective when advanced by the Holy Spirit himself and we acknowledge this in prayer.
The greatest ministry any of us can engage in is labouring in prayer for the gospel, and any fruitful activity will only flow from that. The qualities of empathy and compassion with which God has especially equipped women enables them to intercede in a unique way. The prayers of both men and women can be offered up in a complementary way which is very beautiful. It is sad when the voices of women are rarely heard, but equally in some contexts women being more articulate, may be tempted to dominate prayer times.
There needs to be balance. Women may engage in public prayer in the services, prayer in the church prayer meetings and other occasions when there is open prayer (1 Cor. 11:5).
When women minister in prayer they are to do so in a way that signals two things: first their submission to their own husbands, and second that they maintain the male/female distinction. These two points were signified by the wearing of a head covering in New Testament times. Women today should wear a head covering if that still communicates these things (as it still does in some cultures). In modern western society the wearing of a head covering is more likely to confuse than clarify these issues.
A diligent private prayer ministry may be extended into the practice of praying together with other women on a regular basis, either in a prayer partnership or in a small group. In the past women's groups for support of missions (in prayer and practical ways) have been features of church life. Their decline may be indicative of a decline of enthusiasm for missions; revival of missionary passion may result in renewal of such groups. If there are Christian women with a similar concern to yours, whether it be a concern for the local school, concern to reach out to ethnic minorities in your area or concern for the homeless, why not meet regularly to pray specifically for that concern?
The Lord may well then use you as part of the answer to those prayers by opening up some practical field of service.
An ever more fruitful ministry in prayer can be a positive accompaniment to increased physical weakness or immobility. The greatest in the Kingdom are not the most vigorous, energetic, active or vociferous. How much that is of lasting value has been achieved in answer to the secret prayers of godly women.
There is a distinction between the authoritative teaching ministry to be exercised by elders only and the teaching of 'one another' that characterises an 'every member ministry' church (Col. 3:16). Stephen Clark draws an enlightening contrast between the modern concept of teaching (transfer of information) with the Jewish/Early Christian concept which saw teaching as an activity involving peronal direction and an exercise of authority.
'The teacher did not just give his views. He laid out what he expected the student to accept . . . teaching took place within a relationship in which the teacher had authority over the student . . . In other words, Scripture views teaching primarily as a governing function.'
Given this understanding, the authoritative teaching of the Word is entrusted to elders (1 Thes. 5:12; Heb. 13:7, 17; 1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:59).
Women were expected to participate in the worship of the early church, in that they could pray and prophesy (I Cor 11:5). Some argue that prophecy effectively equals preaching/teaching, and thus women can engage in preaching to the church. But prophecy was a direct and spontaneous revelation directly given by the Spirit. Thus, for those who believe in ongoing exercise of prophecy, women may participate.
There are strong arguments for the cessation of prophecy. If these arguments are accepted then the closest equivalent of New Testament prophecy might be the public reading of inspired Scripture, or the giving of words of testimony, encouragement, or admonition. Non-elders (women and men) can participate in all these ministries.
Some have used the two so-called 'silence' texts to bar women from all teaching. But we have to interpret Scripture by Scripture, and women in the New Testament exercised teaching gifts. Priscilla and Aquila together explained the way of God more clearly to Apollos (Acts 18:26). This instruction took place in their home. There are many situations in which such teaching can take place, ranging from informal discussions in the context of hospitality to Bible study groups, marriage preparation sessions, and evangelistic studies. Often it will be appropriate for a husband-wife team to conduct such studies. Titus was commanded to teach the older women so that they would be qualified to teach the younger women. The content of such teaching is specified (Titus 2:5). This teaching will be by example and by informal encouragement. But it may also take place in the context of women's meetings or women's retreats.
Today more than ever with the assault on the womanly virtues set out by Titus, it is imperative for churches to take on board the necessity of biblical teaching vis a vis manhood and womanhood. Some women are particularly gifted at teaching children and young people. Their gifts are used in Sunday Schools, Bible Clubs and other ministries. By real love, prayer, and concern for children, by God's grace they may be saved and used wonderfully in the Kingdom (2 Tim.1:5). Christ's teaching and example (for example Matt. 18:5) forbids us to regard children's work as of secondary importance, or to take the teaching of children less seriously than any other teaching.
Mature women should be qualified and trained to engage in pastoral visiting where counselling is required for other women. If this is not possible then a husband-wife team visit is called for. Women do have a different capacity than men for empathy, sensitivity and understanding; such God-given qualities are sorely needed in a deeply hurting world.
For all of these ministries to take place more effectively there must be a serious effort to train those women who are gifted at teaching. In North America it is more common than here for Christian women to have at least one year of formal Bible schooling. There the responsibility of teaching Sunday School (often in the context of an all-age Bible school) is taken more seriously.
Ideally there should be several women in the church with such training; a good grasp of doctrine is necessary to lead one-to-one or group studies. Even if full-time training is not an option, correspondence courses can be utilised to prepare both women and men to teach others.
Any form of teaching from the Scripture should be regarded with the utmost seriousness. The Bible is abused when a passage is simply taken as a springboard for pious thoughts; it is abused if a group study degenerates into a sharing session of 'what this passage meant to me.' Women (and men) involved in teaching or leading studies should have at least some training in how to find out what a passage is actually saying and then how to open it up and apply it.
Women can also exercise their gifts through writing; many of the best loved hymns and songs are written by women, and so are many helpful Christian books. On a less formal level, a real ministry of encouragement can be pursued through letter writing.
All Christians are called to a life of service, following in the footsteps of the Lord Jesus Christ who did not come to be served but to serve. The home is to be a focus of active and outgoing service and Christian women can be engaged in service as they go about their everyday duties. The Lord clearly lays out the criteria for acceptance into the Kingdom on the last day (Matt. 25:31-46). The qualifications are: feeding the hungry and providing drink for the thirsty; welcoming strangers and clothing the naked; visiting those who are sick and in prison.
The New Testament gives practical examples of ministries of mercy that are particularly appropriate for women. Jesus was accompanied by a group of women who supported him and his apostles out of their own means and cared for their needs (Luke 8:1-3; Mark 15:41). Tabitha (or Dorcas) was engaged in the good work of providing clothing for the poor (Acts 9:36-43). The characteristic lifestyle of the godly women described in 1 Timothy 5:10 involved being 'well known for good deeds, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the saints, helping those in trouble and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds.'
There is ample scope for women to engage in all manner of service ministries based from home, the local church, or in a para-church or mission organisation. Equally it is the case that women with particular gifts in the area of service to others may find that these gifts are utilised in certain areas of paid employment.
Such a myriad of opportunities are open that only a few may be listed: visiting and helping the elderly, lonely, or handicapped; hospital visitation; helping new mothers; counselling opportunities with an organisation like LIFE; involvement with CARE (e.g. campaigning against pornography; writing to MPs and others on ethical/social issues; extending hospitality to the needy; getting involved with the local school); supporting an organisation such as Jubilee or Christian Solidarity International by writing letters on behalf of persecuted Christians, and publicising the plight of the oppressed for prayer and action.
Setting up small prayer groups for specific needs or ministries can be a preliminary and an essential support in such action.
There are other areas of service within the local church too numerous to list exhaustively, but women may be used in music ministries, administration or church hospitality and their creativity may be exploited in ensuring tasteful and comfortable surroundings for the various activities of the church.
Should we reinstate a recognised Female Diaconate?
Comparatively few conservative evangelical churches recognize women deacons today. Why?
In the New Testament there is an expectation that all Christians will serve others, yet there were those who were formally set aside for this practical and compassionate ministry. It is widely accepted that we see a foreshadowing of the diaconal role in Acts 6:1-6 where seven men were set aside to administer food distribution. The qualifications for deacons are set out in 1 Timothy 3:8-10; 12-14. There is no evidence that deacons were involved in 'governing' the church. The elders\overseers\bishops were those to whom the Christians were to submit (Heb. 12:17).
The ministry carried out by men deacons involved the collection of money, food and other supplies, and the organisation of distribution. But the practicalities of this distribution seems to have been carried out by women, such as Tabitha and her circle of widows (Acts 9:39), and the widows of 1 Timothy 5:3-16.
The passage on the appointment of deacons contains the sentence: 'Likewise the women are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers, but temperate and trustworthy in everything' (1 Tim. 3:11 - author's translation). It makes most sense to take this as referring to women deacons; the qualifications are parallel to those for the men deacons. The reference to Phoebe as a 'servant' or 'deacon' (same word) in Romans 16:1, though not in itself conclusive, points in the same direction. So Haldane comments: 'As deacons were appointed to attend to the poor, so deaconesses were specially set apart in the churches in order to attend to the wants of their own sex.'
There is very clear evidence that the early church did appoint female deacons and widows for practical ministries and intercession.
To summarise this evidence: during the New Testament period women appear to have fulfilled the function of deacons, and many believe it to be significant that Phoebe was named as a deacon. At Ephesus there was a list of widows who not only received alms but were expected to practice prayer and good deeds (1 Tim. 5:5,10).
During the second century there is ecclesiastical evidence for positive duties performed by appointed widows (Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna) and secular evidence for a group of women called deaconesses (Pliny, Governor of Bithynia).
During the third century there was a formalising of the functions of widows and deaconesses. The church at Carthage followed detailed instructions for the appointment of widows, while the church at Rome formally named them for a ministry of prayer. At Alexandria the widows were listed as a distinct category with other clergy; their function was visiting the sick, prayer, and good works. Widows performed similar functions in the church in Syria.
By the mid third century in Syria the deaconesses were a distinct and honoured group with a pastoral and practical ministry to other women.
In the following century there are many more references to deaconesses in the Eastern churches. However, the growing emphasis on a formal liturgy and on the authority of 'bishops' meant a shift in the function of the diaconate. Instead of being a service ministry devoted to ministries of mercy, the deacon was seen as a 'priest in training' and was involved more and more in liturgical functions. The New Testament emphasis was forgotten and so the appointment of deaconesses and widows died out. This quickly led to the situation, which still pertains in the modern Anglican Church, where being a deacon is simply a stepping stone to becoming a 'priest'.
The Reformation saw something of a revival of the true concept of diaconal service. Calvin defined the diaconate as 'a permanent ecclesiastical ministry of care for the poor and sick, the ministry of the church as a body to the physical suffering of human beings.' He envisaged a two-tier diaconal system, of men deacons collecting benevolence and women deacons (such as the widows of 1 Tim. 5:9-10) distributing benevolence.
Since then there have been a few notable examples of a diaconate devoted to good works. Chalmers in Scotland was famous for his comprehensive diaconal coverage of his parish. More recently the Lutherans and the American Methodists have had outstanding female diaconates.
In non-conformist churches today it seems rare to find a diaconate functioning primarily for the relief of the poor and needy. In many churches the diaconate functions as part of the church government.
Even where there is the more biblical situation of a plurality of elders fulfilling the functions of church government, the diaconate functions primarily for the upkeep of church building and other non-benevolent, albeit practical, tasks. Often elders and deacons together are regarded as being part of the church government and that sits uneasily with the appointment of women deacons. In such contexts women could be formally appointed to carry out ministries of mercy but given another title if the title 'deacon' was going to cause confusion.
If there were to be a revival of the true concept of diaconia, and a corresponding reformation in practice, then it seems likely that there would be a return to the New Testament and early church practice of actively involving women in such a diaconate. This is a matter of urgency. It is urgent that we open our eyes and our hearts to the poor and needy of our contemporary society: the socially estranged, alcoholics, drug abusers, prostitutes, abused children and women, homeless teenagers, prisoners. At a personal level we may, like the Samaritan, be presented with individual cases of immediate need. But surely as evangelical churches we should be more proactive than that and be going out to those who are suffering. A well-functioning male and female diaconate may be used by God to give leadership in this fundamental area.
The teaching of Paul concerning the body could not be clearer. Each member is to play its part without grumbling and comparing itself with others. The Bible has a most high and exalted view of woman, but her dignity does not lie in grasping the role of leadership. Rather it lies in fulfilling her helper design.
Scripture gives many examples of women joyfully, energetically and willingly serving God to the utmost. They are labourers for the gospel, servants of the gospel, martyrs for the gospel. Then as now the fields are white to harvest. There is no shortage of avenues of service for Christian women; there is more than enough work to be done. As the Danvers Statement so eloquently expresses it:
'With half the world's population outside the reach of indigenous evangelism; with countless other lost people in those societies that have heard the gospel; with the stresses and miseries of sickness, malnutrition, homelessness, illiteracy, ignorance, aging, addiction, crime, incarceration, neuroses, and loneliness, no man or woman who feels a passion from God to make His grace known in word and deed need ever live without a fulfilling ministry for the glory of Christ and the good of this fallen world.'
But God's work is to be done in God's way. God himself has designed us for different roles and set out these roles in his word. There is no relegation in obeying our Lord.
'Be Still my Soul' was published in 2010 by IVP at a cost of £7.99. It has been edited by an American lady - Nancy Guthrie, who a number of years ago lost 2 of her children to a rare and fatal condition - Zellweger Syndrome. Her daughter Hope and son Gabriel both lived less than 6 months.
Since losing her children Nancy has written a number of books that reflect her compassion for hurting people and her passion for applying God's Word to real life. She feels very strongly about digging deep into God’s word and is currently studying for a theological degree. She speaks regularly at women's retreats and evangelistic events nationally and internationally. She says of herself-
“God has been preparing me my whole life for teaching his Word.”
'Be Still My Soul' is a collection of 25 classic and contemporary readings about God’s purpose and provision in suffering.
Nancy is obviously well read, and includes authors such as; St.Augustine, Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, and more contemporary writers like RC Sproul, Philip Yancey, Helen Rosevere, Joni Eareckson Tada and John Piper.
The 25 chapters are grouped into 3 sections:
- God’s perspective on suffering
- God’s purpose in suffering
- God’s provision in suffering
Most chapters are 3 or 4 pages long, making it quite manageable to read a chapter a day.
I found many of the chapters very challenging and encouraging. A couple especially stood out- Os Guiness’ chapter on ‘When we don’t know why, we trust God who knows why’ and Helen Rosevere’s chapter on ‘When cost becomes privilege‘. Here is a short quote
‘Could I see that God wanted to transform my life from a somewhat ugly, useless branch to an arrow, a tool usable in His hands for the furtherance of His purposes? ….. To be thus transformed was I willing-am I still willing- for the whittling, sandpapering, stripping process necessary in my Christian life? My willingness will be a measure of the sincerity of my desire to express my heartfelt gratitude to Him for His so great salvation.’
In her preface, Nancy says that she hopes the readings will shape our thinking, steel our resolve and still our soul.
I found the book immensely helpful, and would thoroughly recommend it.