When it comes to figuring out exactly how women fit into the public worship of the church I have always been dissatisfied with the way I was making decisions. I believe most of my practices were correct, but the way I got there left a bad taste in my mouth. The reason: I had no principle that governed my decisions; rather, I was working with nothing more than circumstances and affinities.
An example of my previous thought processes: Women can’t preach or be elders (that is easy from Scripture). But can women speak? Scripture says no (at least in some respect), but then there are clear exceptions – women sing, women can share prayer requests or make an announcement; women obviously do all the corporate prayers and confessions. And what if Elizabeth Eliot showed up at church? Would I let her share during a Missions Moment? If so, then is it only the non-famous women that must remain silent? Trouble.
You see? I had nothing but circumstances and no guiding principles. On top of that, I was afraid to start studying the women’s issue because I didn’t want my wife wearing head-coverings, nor did I want to feel convicted if she didn’t. Godly stuff, I know. But then came a study I had to do with our elders and, finally, I feel at peace about this. The most helpful article was one by D.A. Carson on the issue (entitled "Silent in the Churches" on the monergism website).
One of the most important things to realize (and a surprise to me) was that many of the early Christian heresies included feminist teachings. The whole head-covering thing was a sign of marriage and submission. So it sounds like those ladies in Corinth were basically burning bras and hiding their wedding rings. Into that fray, Paul asserts that women should remain, well, women. They should remain married and they should keep submitting to their husbands.
But he also says that women are allowed to prophesy and pray in church (1Cor 11:5) but they don’t have the right to judge, expound, or interpret prophecies that have been uttered (1Cor 14:34). This 14:34 comment about silence is made during the discussion about the chaos of the worship service and especially interpreting prophetic speech. I know there are different ways to read these passages but if, read this way, we get a very helpful principle to guide the church as it uses the gifts of our women.
My interpretation of this… Women can be active in the worship service. Women can speak, pray, and even read Scripture in worship. What women can’t do is be the guardians of the gospel message as it is contained in the Scriptures. The women in Corinth could pray and prophesy (reading Scripture?), but they could not comment upon it. God did not give women the responsibility of maintaining and ruling the church and her doctrinal purity. That is why women should not be elders or preach. But that is why women should be allowed to do everything short of that. We should be bold as we involve women. Scripture, not chauvinism, guides us. We have a message of liberation – even though that liberation does not break the created order.
There are many other things to consider in this, not to mention the various other views to take on these and other passages. One thing our elders have decided, is that in certain situations women reading Scripture is great while other times it isn’t. We don’t have women read the call to worship or assurance of pardon – places where the reading is highly declarative. But we do like them to read at times of meditation. Arbitrary? Maybe. But we have to discern the best we can. I might not have it totally figured out, but for the first time I feel more confident in the reason why the Bible says what it says and I feel less haphazard as I try to install those principles in the church.