NEW NOTE: 25 years ago, I wrote the following article about the women’s role, which I delivered in oral form for the Boston Church of Christ and later included as an appendix of my first full-length book, “Prepared to Answer.” The contents of this article marked a definite progression in my own thinking and teaching about the subject at the time. I have purposely left this article on this website as an illustration of my own willingness to continue studying challenging topics and to change my mind when convinced that my former views were incomplete and/or incorrect. While some might compare the older article to my current teaching in some sort of negative way, the comparison is actually quite a positive thing, demonstrating my own willingness to do what I am asking others to now do. See my more recent articles on this website entitled, “Male/Female Role Relationships in the Church” (Parts 1 & 2).
NOTE: This article was originally written long before the newest version of the New International Version (NIV) of the Bible was published. I have substituted the 2011 version for the older version that this appendix originally contained. It is actually more accurate than the older one, although this is not always true in other passages. I have also slightly edited a few other things in the article, but very few.
I Timothy 2:8-15
Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing. 9 I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, 10 but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God. 11 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15 But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.
As we examine this passage, the first thing that stands out is a focus on spirituality. Men were to be holy, without hot tempers and disagreeable attitudes (verse 8). Women were to be modest in dress, adorned by good deeds (verse 8—see also 1 Peter 3:1-6 for similar admonitions). Were these commands intended to be mutually exclusive? That is, were only men allowed to pray in any type of assembly? The word for “men” here is not the one denoting mankind, from anthropos, but a reference to males, from aner. If we take the affirmative, then were only women to dress modestly and to practice good deeds? How could you bind one as law and not the other?
Women did apparently pray in mixed groups, according to Acts 1:14 and 1 Corinthians 11:3-16. We will look at the latter passage in detail later in this chapter. Clearly men were to be the leaders in public services, but that would not necessarily rule out women praying in some type of format (such as a group prayer). Keep in mind that the focus of these directives was on the spirituality of the men and women in the Corinth church and their characteristic areas of need. The men needed to be harmonious in their relationships with one another, and the women needed to be modest in their dress and demeanor.
Next, we see a focus on leadership. The teaching here is not based simply on the culture of that day, for Paul goes back to the creation story to make his point (verses 13-15). The women is to show “full submission” (verse 11), which is a leadership issue that does not in any way demean women. It has nothing to do with value, intelligence or spiritual capacity. Submission is a necessary ingredient of life in many areas, but it demonstrates strength and not weakness!
She is to learn in “quietness” (verse 11). The Greek word is not the one for “silence,” as translated in some versions and even in verse 12 in the older NIV. The NIV2011 gets it right. The word for “silence” is found in 1 Corinthians 14:34, as we will see later. Actually, quietness is the correct translation of hesukia, and it refers to demeanor rather than sound! In 1 Thessalonians 4:11, the same Greek word is translated as “quiet life” in this phrase: “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business…” In 2 Thessalonians 3:12, it is rendered “settle down” in this sentence: “Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the bread they eat.” Then, in 1 Timothy 2:2, it reads: “…that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” It should be clear that being quiet is a matter of character and behavior, not of audibility.
In verse 12, the women are forbidden to teach a man in a public setting in a manner which gives her authority over him. She can do some teaching in more private settings (with a submissive spirit, of course), for Priscilla had a part in teaching the eloquent Apollos (Acts 18:24-26). The real issue is having authority over a man, and in my judgment, she has the freedom to do many things without assuming authority. A wife has the freedom to do many things without assuming the authority of her husband. Why would the role of women in the church be different in principle from the husband/wife relationship?
1 Corinthians 14:34-35
Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35 If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.
To those with the more restrictive view of the woman’s role, this passage seems to be proof positive of their position. Of course, the charismatics think that this chapter is also proof positive of their position on the use of miraculous spiritual gifts. But looking at passages without a consideration of their context produces all sorts of erroneous conclusions. Therefore, let’s look at this text in its context.
Note that women were to be “in submission as the law says.” The law here is likely a reference to the last part of Genesis 3:16, which reads: “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” This desire for her husband is a negative in the context, perhaps a reference to her desire for his position. Compare the use of the word “desire” in Genesis 4:7. At any rate, the submission enjoined in 1 Corinthians 14:34 is enforced with a reference to the Law, the Old Testament.
But just what did the Law allow generally in the case of women? Actually, it allowed a good deal more than the casual observer might think. It allowed Deborah to be a judge, and to lead in battle (Judges 4:4-10). On the latter point, was her leadership allowed only because no man was willing to lead? Probably, but she exercised this leadership in a team situation with Barak, and I am confident it was done with a submissive demeanor! The Law also allowed Huldah to be a prophetess whose advice was sought by male leaders in 2 Kings 22:11-20. It allowed Anna to be a prophetess also, as seen in Luke 2:36-38. Whatever else may be said, the Law did not rule out women leadership, even very prominent leadership. Therefore, it would be risky to make too broad of an application from this passage!
In verse 34, absolute silence with no speaking at all was being demanded. Both the context and the meaning of the Greek word make this idea clear. The word is sigao, and its other usage will demonstrate the point. In Acts 12:17, the same word is translated “quiet,” but the context shows what it means: “Peter motioned with his hand for them to be quiet and described how the Lord had brought him out of prison…” Then, in Acts 15:12, it says “silent”: “The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them.”
This command is found in an overall context of orderly worship in 1 Corinthians 14:26-40. Our word for “silence” is found three times in this section, and in each case it means absolute silence without any speaking at all. In verses 26-28, those speaking in tongues were told that no more than three could speak at any assembly, one at a time, if an interpreter were present to interpret. If no interpreter was present, the tongue speaker was told to “keep quiet” in the church (from the word sigao, absolute silence). In verses 29-33, the prophets were told that no more than three prophets could speak at any one assembly, one at a time, and when the next to speak was given a revelation, the one speaking “should stop.” (Again, this is the root word sigao—no speaking at this point.) Finally, in verses 34-35, the women were to “remain silent” in the churches (also from the root word sigao).
If this command were taken literally, with no attempt to determine the context, women would be forbidden to make any sounds at a public assembly. Of course, no one would interpret it in such an extreme way, but the reasoning is normally something like this: “Well, it cannot mean that the women are forbidden even to sing.” Why not, if we insist on taking the passage at face value, with no real attempt to determine the meaning in its context?! The word sigao means exactly that silence. It should be obvious that I do not take the traditional restrictive view, but what is the meaning of this directive in its context? Some questions raised and answered will be helpful in discovering the meaning.
One, who were the women being discussed? They were women who were disrupting orderly worship, acting disgracefully, and not in submission. (Surely all the women present were not guilty of such behavior!) They were married women who could ask questions of their own husbands at home. From looking at 1 Corinthians 7, we know that there was quite a contingent of singles in the church at Corinth. However, only the married women are given the directive in chapter 14. At this point, many people will say “other women are included too.” Of course, they have the liberty to say it, but we should keep in mind that it is their opinion and nothing more. God certainly appears to be addressing women with husbands! The word translated “women” is the Greek term gune, which can be translated either women or wives, depending on the context. This context seems clearly to be directed at wives, and not women generally. Further, these women appear to be a specific group of wives, the wives of the prophets and perhaps of the tongue speakers as well.
Two, what was their wrongful speaking? They were asking questions of their husbands (who were speaking), and thereby interrupting the assembly. In this contextual situation, it was disgraceful to speak in the church. However, to apply the passage more generally would be assumptive, and it would demand absolute silence on the part of women in assemblies if we stuck with the meaning of sigao. Unless the context is taken into consideration, you would have to forbid women even to sing! Therefore, 1 Corinthians 14 is dealing with a specialized situation which has little to do with the role of women generally (except to teach them not to disrupt services by asking questions).
It is tempting for those who want to reach their foregone conclusions without dealing with the context to take a very simplistic view, such as “See, it plainly says that women must remain silent in the churches, and we need to simply accept that statement for what it says!” Those who take that approach often claim that an explanation like the one used in this present article is explaining away the clear and obvious truth.
However, they themselves are accused of the same thing by the Pentecostals even within this same chapter! The Pentecostals quote verse 39, “Therefore, my brothers, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues.” Then they say that all of the explanation about why people do not speak in tongues today is simply a dodge of the obvious truth! The point is simply this: just because a doctrine must be explained contextually and in some detail does not make it wrong! Simplistic explanations of involved issues may sound good, but the conclusions thus reached may also be quite erroneous! Many examples of simplistic explanations which are quite wrong can be cited, including such false teachings as salvation by faith only, the literal thousand-year reign of Christ on earth, and many, many others.
1 Corinthians 11:3-16
But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. 4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. 5 But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. 6 For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head. 7 A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. 8 For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; 9 neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God. 13 Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, 15 but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. 16 If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.
In contrast to 1 Timothy 2, this passage has much to do with the issue of customs in the first century in the city of Corinth. At this time in Corinth, the wearing of a veil signified that the woman was an upright person, but the absence of a veil demonstrated the very opposite. Immoral women went without veils. Evidently, some Christian women were appealing to their elevation in Christ (Galatians 3:28) as an excuse for dismissing this customary dress for women. This connotation of the veil, or the lack of a veil, was a matter of custom at that time in that place, because back in Genesis 38:14-15, Tamar wore a veil, which apparently was the custom of prostitutes, since she was posing as one. Obviously, customs change with time.
What is the veil under discussion? The word for “cover” is from the Greek katakalupto, designating a woman’s artificial covering. The word for “covering” in verse 15 is another Greek word, peribolaion, which refers to the hair as a natural covering. If you tried, as some have, to make the covering of the earlier verses the same as this one, then only bald-headed men could have prayed or prophesied, according to verse 4! Paul’s point in verse 4 is that it is no more appropriate for a woman to refuse to wear her customary attire than for a man to wear a woman’s garment (not that the men were really doing that). He states that if the women were going to discard the veil, then they might as well cut their hair (like the prostitutes) or even shave their heads (like the women accused of adultery).
What about the angels of verse 10? Although the question has little relevance to our discussion, it is a matter of curiosity. One good possibility is that the angels are good ones, who serve Christians (Hebrews 1:14). They would be offended, as would God himself, by the sisters’ rejection of their veils, which were a “sign of authority.” Another possibility is that these angels are bad ones, who lost their lofty positions with God because they did not stay in their submissive roles (Jude 6). If that interpretation is the one intended by Paul, the sisters had better learn from the angel’s example of disobedience!
Thus far, what are the lessons for us in our setting? One, men and women are different by design, and this difference is not to be denied either by dress or appearance. In verses 14-15, the issue seems not really the length of the hair, but the blurring of the sexes. That is always wrong, no matter what the specific customs may be. Two, custom is not to be discarded if the discarding hurts the influence of Christians with those whom they are trying to evangelize. If all prostitutes wore red dresses today, then Christian women should not wear them.
The most relevant issue in this text for our study involves the praying and prophesying of the women. In what context were they doing these things? If you were to take 1 Corinthians 14 out of its context, as many do, you would be forced to assign 1 Corinthians 11 to a setting where only women were present. Difficulties are readily apparent with such an assumption. For one thing, 1 Corinthians normally places the use of these particular spiritual gifts in a context of corporate worship (see 1 Corinthians 12:7-11, 28; 14:3-4). For another thing, the passage speaks of both men and women praying and prophesying. By what principle of interpretation can you limit one and not the other? The principle of assumption? Finally, why would women praying and prophesying need a “sign of authority” on their heads if the authorities to whom they were to show submission were not even present? Surely women did not have to wear veils with other women in a private setting.
I have no problem in assuming that their practice was based on the presence of supernatural gifts in the church and that women are no longer divinely directed to preach to a mixed audience (especially in view of 1 Timothy 2). But this passage strongly militates against the highly restrictive interpretation of 1 Corinthians 14 which would prohibit the sharing of a personal testimony. She cannot teach men the Bible in a public setting, thus taking an authoritative role, but sharing with a submissive demeanor is another matter, and I think a permissible one.
Several other areas of judgment about how to apply the principles of the woman’s role need to be briefly addressed before closing this appendix. Can women serve as ushers and distribute communion to the assembly? It seem clear that such actions are issues of serving, not of exercising authority, unless a woman were the appointed leader in one of these functions and had to assume leadership over men. Our practice is mainly to use non-leader brothers for serving communion, as a way to encourage them as good disciples of Jesus. To use women for the same reason is an excellent practice. The lead usher should be a man, but women can surely serve as ushers.
Is it permissible for women to participate with men in chain prayers in devotional settings? As long as a man is in charge of the overall session, giving the instructions regarding procedure, then the women would not be in a leadership position. If they can comment in a Bible class setting with men and women present, then they can direct their comments to God in the presence of brothers and sisters. If men never hear women comment or pray, they are missing some very special spiritual encouragement.
How about women baptizing other women—is that permissible? For some reason, this question stirs up a lot of emotions for some people when they first hear of this practice. But the reaction rises from an emotional concern more than from a Biblical concern. Matthew 28:19-20 commands disciples to make other disciples, baptize them, and to train them after baptism. In the past, women have been able to do only two of the three things mentioned here. Why? Tradition! We have always said that any disciple can baptize, in contrast to the denominational practice of allowing only the clergy to baptize. But what we evidently meant is that any male disciple can baptize! It is time we followed our own statements. The Bible is totally silent on the subject, which allows us some freedom to choose. The practice does not necessarily give a woman authority, but even if it did, the authority would be over another woman. Can a woman baptize a man? Since the act can bond us in a special way, as seen in 1 Corinthians 1:14ff, it might not be an expedient practice. If men are present when women are baptizing women, a brother should be in charge of the overall activity. This will eliminate misunderstandings. But the practice of women baptizing those with whom they have studied is a very good one indeed!
Let us begin by making it clear that doctrine is very important to God. The basic Greek term for doctrine is didaskalia, and is translated in the more modern versions simply as “teaching.” With either translation, the word most often refers to God’s teaching, to teaching or doctrine that is inspired by the Holy Spirit. For our purposes, several quotes from the New American Standard Bible (NASB) will make the point well that doctrine is indeed important to God and following it as written is necessary to pleasing him:
Matthew 15:9 – “But In Vain Do They Worship Me, Teaching As Doctrines The Precepts Of Men.”
Ephesians 4:14 – “As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming…”
1 Timothy 4:6 – “In pointing out these things to the brethren, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, constantly nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound doctrine which you have been following.”
1 Timothy 6:3-4a – “If anyone advocates a different doctrine and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness, 4 he is conceited and understands nothing…”
2 Timothy 4:3 – “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires…”
But What About Holding Differing Beliefs?
In spite of the Bible’s emphasis on holding to sound (healthy) doctrine or teaching, men have always had differences in interpretation. How should we view that phenomenon? The best answer is perhaps, “It all depends.”
It Depends on the Teaching Itself
The Bible itself makes it clear that we will have variations in areas of beliefs, convictions and conscience. Romans 14:1 speaks of “disputable matters” and mentions two such matters, the observance of certain days as special and avoiding certain foods out of convictions (likely based almost entirely on one’s pre-conversion background practices). Paul’s bottom line directives regarding these differences are that we shouldn’t condemn those who differ with us in such matters and we shouldn’t violate our own consciences in what we believe and decide to practice regarding them.
Moses made a remark in Deuteronomy 29:29 that has application to our present discussion. He wrote: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.” In other words, God did not address some things at all, while he revealed other things that are important for us to know and to guide our relationship with him and others. In-between these two ends of the spectrum are things that are mentioned but not fully explained. Among these topics would be the exact nature of heaven and hell, for example. When topics are not fully clarified, differences in how we view them will obviously occur.
The church has always been striving to find the balance between which topics are essential to pleasing God, thus demanding unity in both belief and practice, and which are among those disputable matters or incompletely explained ones. On a personal and practical note, I have always thought that when good brothers who believe in the inspiration of the Scriptures disagree on a given topic, then that topic was thereby shown to be a matter of judgment or opinion.
Often these areas are simply matters of preference, such as the choice of music types in our church assemblies. Sometimes they are strongly held beliefs, and yet others do not hold the same beliefs. For example, we have among us those who are non-resistant in terms of the military (conscientious objectors or total pacifists), based on Jesus’ command to love our enemies, and others who see using force as an obligation to protect the innocent. It is a complex subject to be sure.
When it comes down to deciding what essential beliefs are, the ones necessary to salvation that thus demand absolute unity among disciples, certain teachings have historically found their way onto lists. With no attempt to be exhaustive, some things consistently on lists of orthodox beliefs would include the following: the virgin birth of Christ; his literal death, burial and bodily resurrection from the dead; the Deity of Christ; his substitutionary death for mankind; salvation by grace accepted by our faith response to that substitutionary death; the reality of a final Judgment and eternal salvation for the saved; and many more. Failure to accept such essential beliefs would result in a failure to please God and would bring one’s salvation into serious question.
Although these fundamentals have been accepted for centuries by most groups and individuals claiming to be Christian, we now live in an age where liberalism has disavowed many of them as being necessary to pleasing God. One of my high school friends was once among those who accepted the Bible as the inspired Word of God, and was very dedicated to those truths as a teenager. He later attended a liberal theological Seminary (one I would call a “cemetery,” a place where faith is buried). In talking to him as an ordained minister in the Methodist fellowship, he explained away not only the truths of the Bible, but the very existence of absolute spiritual truth. When I questioned him about the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead, his answer went something like this: “It really doesn’t matter if Jesus was raised literally from the dead; what matters is the resurrection spirit.” Although 1 Corinthians 15 flatly denies any such fanciful interpretation, to those like my friend who don’t accept the Bible as God’s inspired Word in the first place, they think nothing of rejecting its truths. That conversation produced one of the saddest memories stored in my memory banks.
It Depends on the Stage of the Believer
All believers must begin their journey of faith at the beginning. This means that they have to learn many spiritual truths one step at a time. It also means that they will be ignorant of vast amounts of truths while they are learning, and will in fact hold some beliefs in the earlier stages of their faith development that they will later reject as they continue to learn. That being true, hearing someone state a belief that is contrary to the Bible’s teaching is not overly concerning if they are simply growing, learning and open to being mistaken about some things in the process.
The real concern comes when they have spent much time studying a given subject, but have come to an erroneous conclusion about it and are no longer open to considering alternatives. The very definition of a disciple includes being a continual learner. All of us, even long term serious students of the Bible, will find ourselves altering our beliefs as we continue to learn and grow.
Some subjects, as we have already established, are within the realm of disputable matters. Other subjects are not discussed in detail in Scripture and any conclusion we reach is an opinion, which we should just accept and state as such. But dogmatism and close-mindedness, particularly when dealing with subjects that would be included on those fundamental, essential lists, is yet another matter. Those fall into the area of salvation issues. When we reach unorthodox conclusions in these areas and are unyielding in our conclusions, we have ceased to demonstrate the attitude of disciples and have entered dangerous territory indeed.
It Depends on What the Believer Does With Variant Beliefs
Even if our beliefs are questionable or unorthodox, what we do with them is a fundamental issue regarding church membership. In any church fellowship, some members will have beliefs that vary from those held by the majority of members and even by the leaders. If these beliefs are simply held privately, the issue is between them and God. On the other hand, if they attempt to spread these variant beliefs, then the possibility of divisiveness enters the picture and poses a threat to church unity. This would certainly be true if the beliefs were in the essential, orthodox category. But even if they weren’t, making any teaching an issue or “hobby” could affect the unity of the church. Romans 14 addresses that possibility quite clearly.
Years ago when I was a ministry staff member in Boston, a man who had been studying with some of our members asked to meet with me. He explained that although he had learned much in the studies and agreed with almost all of it regarding the plan of salvation, he had a different view of Revelation and the “end times” than he had heard me teach to the whole church. He asked if he could be baptized and be a member of our congregation if he didn’t agree with our generally accepted view of this subject. My answer was, “It all depends on what you do with your differing beliefs. Can you hold them in private, or will you feel compelled to share them with others in an attempt to convince them of your views?”
By the way, although I have written many articles and even a book on this subject, I do not view it as a salvation issue. But I was concerned about the possibility of him being divisive with his views, since for many, the “end times” teaching becomes an obsession. His answer was that he would not share his views in an attempt to persuade others, and I was fully satisfied with the answer. He was baptized into Christ and has been a very faithful and outstanding member of that congregation for decades. Plus he has been a very good friend of mine during almost all of those years, until this very day. I have no idea if he has changed his views of this subject during the intervening years or not, nor do I care.
On the other hand, I have seen church members make some peripheral issues matters of discussion and debate, thus producing disharmony and disunity. That is another matter entirely and must be dealt with directly. Turning any disputable matter into a “hobby” simply cannot be tolerated because of the disunity it produces. Keeping what might well be viewed as variant and generally unaccepted beliefs between us and God is our personal choice. He will judge us in this regard. Making those same beliefs issues that affect relationships within the church is where the problem comes in. Thus the question of what someone intends to do with their variant belief is the ultimate issue.
The Bottom Line
Doctrine is important to God, to us as individuals and to us collectively as a fellowship. In Paul’s letters to evangelists (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus), he speaks of “sound” doctrine. That term in Greek means simply “healthy.” Correct doctrine or teaching makes us healthy spiritually and false doctrine makes us unhealthy. Sound teaching is about helping us go to heaven, not helping us major in intellectual discussions and debates. Being truly disciples will keep us on track in our teaching and in our living. We are followers of Christ and we are learners, both of which qualities demand copious amounts of humility. Humble people stay on track as they learn about Christ and follow his example.
The Mystery Solved!
I first met the group of churches in 1981 that was later to be called the ICOC movement (International Churches of Christ). I was highly impressed with their evangelistic effectiveness and level of commitment, and figured out almost immediately that those two things were a result of discipleship. Bottom line, our lives should be all about discipleship, from both the vertical and horizontal perspectives.
Up, Down, and Sideways
Vertically, we are Christ’s disciples, totally committed to him and his purpose for our lives. To help people climb that lofty pinnacle, we not only have to preach commitment, but also love for Jesus. We cannot obey just out of fear or duty, but out of love for him because of his ultimate sacrifice on the cross for us.
Then we have the horizontal discipleship – our “one another” relationships within his Body, the church. This “discipling” relationship is also focused on Jesus – helping each other to become more and more like him and working in his power to carry out his mission to seek and save the lost. We have to not only teach it, but leaders must expect it, which means that we must have a return to clear expectations and accountability – applied in the right ways this time. The Bible has become an ideal for far too many, rather than a standard of what God actually expects of us.
Getting Off Track
When the challenges of 2003 came, for those familiar with our history, I knew immediately that several things would be discarded, and quickly. One of those was the practice of discipling and all that makes it function effectively. This one biblical concept and practice (even though it was too often practiced wrongly) was what drew me into this movement. I wrote a lengthy book about the topic back in 1997 and the book was later condensed in order to make it easier for younger Christians to use. It is still available after having gone through several revisions, and now carries the title, “The Power of Discipling.”
When the majority of our people stopped practicing discipling, I understood that a big part of the reason was because they had experienced wrong applications of it and been hurt. I was almost immediately hoping, begging, teaching and praying that we would return to what was a clear biblical teaching and expectation of God. You simply cannot dismiss the large number of passages that speak of our “one another” responsibilities. Yet, that is what many did and continue to do. But why?
Why, Why, Why?
The common answer, of course, is that people have been hurt and simply don’t seem to be able to get past their hurts and associated fears. I confess that I bought into that excuse too readily, especially when it kept being held up for so long as the main reason that people were not practicing what I believe the Bible clearly teaches. I recently read an article by a retired Methodist minister that jarred me. Keep in mind that the Methodist Church is not known for its evangelistic outreach with the concept of discipleship driving it. However, this one minister in that group makes his case strongly – more strongly than most of us who claim to still believe in the concept would make it.
So what is the real issue behind our all but missing ingredient of discipling? Is it the fact that we have been hurt and can’t get over our fears of a repeat experience? No, that’s not really it. The same people who cling to this excuse have also experienced wrong applications of marriage dynamics, parenting dynamics, and other interpersonal dynamics. Yet, they have worked through those challenges to try and correct these wrong applications and find smoother sailing in healthy applications of these other human relationships. They are not dumb folks; they realize that humans are imperfect and “bumps” between them in all types of relationships are a part of life that will take ongoing work to keep correcting. They handle those situations pretty well.
The Honest but Painful Answer
Why won’t they apply these same principles of seeing relationships to be an ongoing, learning process when it comes to discipling? The old Methodist preacher nailed it. Listen to what he wrote: (See his full article at: (http://www.transformativechurch.org/2013/02/25/why-arent-christian-churches-more-committed-to-making-disciples-2/)
We don’t like being disciplined. The word “disciple” comes from the same Latin word discipulus as does the word “discipline.” The dictionary defines a “disciple” as one who is a pupil or an adherent to the teachings of another. Discipline is defined as the “training to act in accordance with rules.” It also means “behavior in accord with rules of conduct; behavior and order maintained by training and control.” Do you see the problem? We don’t like to discipline ourselves, much less submit ourselves to the discipline of others. We Americans are radical individualists. We don’t want anyone else telling us what to do or when to do it. We avoid accountability like the plague.
It is not rocket science, but people must have real convictions about what following Jesus is really all about. As interested onlookers outside of our movement have said of us, we are now a nicer, gentler, more comfortable version of our former selves. We are enjoying our comfortability, and enjoy no longer feeling the need to be radical in our religion. We have for the most part become just another nice little church on the corner of Main Street, USA. We thus have fallen prey to the American view of church and Christianity. We may not be fully engaged in the race to catch that “American Dream” of materialism and worldly success, but we are almost fully invested in the race to catch the “American Church Dream.”
Rather amazingly, the old Methodist bard sees this one pretty clearly also. Listen to him:
We have an unregenerate church membership/culture. The quote above comes from Bonhoeffer’s book, The Cost of Discipleship. Many leaders in today’s church are so concerned about attendance numbers they lower the cost, hoping more will be willing to buy. The results have been that with each new generation the American church culture has become less and less “disciplined” with fewer experiencing genuine spiritual regeneration. Once the church culture makes this transition it is extremely difficult to restore an environment where lives are truly being transformed… Making disciples is a process that takes a great deal of time and personal investment. Accountability is more important than entertainment. It requires submission and vulnerability and sacrifice.
Is this us? Are you getting defensive reading this? If yes, I have one word to describe it – Bingo! If it doesn’t describe you, you wouldn’t be getting defensive, now would you? The idea that past hurts are behind the loss of discipling one another is merely a smoke screen. The real reason is that we like having the freedom to pick and choose what we will and will not do as church members. We don’t like having people in our lives spiritually who have expectations of us and are willing to hold us accountable – even if those expectations are God’s!
The Bottom Line
Here’s the real bottom line of this issue, and it’s not a pretty thought. We have missed the very foundation of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. “Then he said to them all: ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it’” (Luke 9:23-24). So there we have it; a refusal to deny self and embrace whatever Jesus asks of us, including even a cross – and certainly including the goal of becoming as much like Christ as possible in order to carry out his Great Commission of trying to help save a lost world.
Of course about now, I can just sense someone asking, “Are you saying that we are not disciples?” Listen, I’m just quoting Scriptures and sharing obvious observations; that’s my job. Your job is to examine yourselves, if Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 13:5 are going to receive due consideration. “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you–unless, of course, you fail the test?”
I’m also reminded as a preacher of Paul’s words to Timothy, when he commanded him to “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage–with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Timothy 4:2). Finally, as Jesus concluded his very strong admonition to a church that he described as being “lukewarm,” and about to make him vomit (the literal translation), he said this: “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent” (Revelation 3:19).
The ball’s in your court; what will you do with it? What do you need to do with it? What does God want you to do with it? What are you going to do with it? Enough questions; you and God must provide the answers.
Most Bible readers assume that Apollos was re-baptized as a part of being taught the way of God more adequately by Priscilla and Aquila. Let’s begin by reading the end of Acts 18 and the beginning of Acts 19.
24 Meanwhile a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. 25 He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. 26 He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately. 27 When Apollos wanted to go to Achaia, the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples there to welcome him. On arriving, he was a great help to those who by grace had believed. 28 For he vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ. (Acts 18:24-28)
1 While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples 2 and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” 3 So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?” “John’s baptism,” they replied. 4 Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” 5 On hearing this, they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. (Acts 19:1-5)
In spite of the normal assumptions, much discussion has occurred about whether Apollos was in fact baptized at this point. The text does not say so, nor does it say anything more generally that would necessarily imply it. A related question is whether the apostles or even the 120 in Acts 1 and Acts 2 were re-baptized. If they had come into a saved relationship during the ministry of Christ (and they had – John 15:3), then his dying would not have made them become unsaved. John’s baptism was for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4), called in Acts 19:4 a “baptism of repentance” which had to be followed by belief in Jesus. Since the Israelites were born into a covenant relationship with God, the forgiveness through John’s baptism was not the forgiveness of initial salvation, but rather the forgiveness of repentance for those in the covenant, much like prayers on the part of Christians accomplish today (1 John 1:9).
My opinion is that those who had experienced John’s baptism before Christ died and maintained faith in him were not re-baptized. I don’t think the 3,000 baptized on the Day of Pentecost included the apostles. If the principle is true that those receiving John’s baptism before the cross and remained faithful would not need a re-baptism, then Apollos would not have needed another baptism. However, John’s baptism would have been invalid if experienced after the cross, for it was superseded by Great Commission baptism, and that was likely the case of those described in Acts 19:1-5. The probable scenario is that Apollos was baptized with John’s baptism before the cross, but then taught and baptized the dozen men in Ephesus with John’s baptism after the cross, which was no longer valid. Hence, Paul re-baptized them with the baptism of the Great Commission. The whole issue is mostly a moot point, for it cannot be applied in any way to those living today. Even if John’s baptism remained valid for men who were baptized before the cross and who maintained faith in Jesus, no such person is alive today! Therefore, while such discussions may be interesting, they tend to produce more heat than light, and have no direct application today. However, in the interest of honest inquiry, I am glad to provide the answer that seems to me most likely correct.
The Indwelling Spirit of Promise
Ezekiel 36:26-27, in an apparent Messianic prophecy, gives a wonderful promise of the Spirit’s presence in our hearts and lives as Christians. “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” (Ezekiel 11:19 uses the term “undivided” heart instead of “new” heart.) In the Old Testament, people did not have the indwelling Spirit, and as a result, did not consistently follow God’s decrees and laws. Now, however, we have the Spirit to move us in the right direction.
Paul describes this impetus of the Spirit in Romans 8:1-4 in powerful ways. Through Christ, the law of the Spirit sets us free from the law of sin and death. Jesus was our perfect sin offering to take away both the guilt and power of sin in our lives. The righteous requirements of the law can be fully met in us, who live according to the Spirit, which is not sinlessness on our part, but absolute faithfulness and consistency plus God’s continual forgiveness as we walk in the light (1 John 1:7) with the aid of the Spirit.
The Spirit and the Message of Salvation
The Holy Spirit and the Word of God are closely associated in the salvation of mankind. First, the message was inspired by the Spirit in the OT prophets, as they foretold the message of salvation by the Spirit (1 Peter 1:10-12), and in the NT apostles and prophets who had their message revealed to them by the Spirit (Ephesians 3:2-5; 2 Peter 1:20-21). Since the Spirit expresses spiritual truths in spiritual words (1Corinthians 2:13-14), they can only be understood by spiritually-minded people (See also Ephesians 5.17-18). Such a person readily accepts what is written, rather than looking for and praying for an “understanding” which fits his preconceived ideas and desires (2 Timothy 3:2-4). Refusal to accept the Spirit’s inspired message leads to God sending those who refuse a powerful delusion which leads to their condemnation (2 Thessalonians 2:10-12)!
Second, the message also was sent by the Spirit. Once the Spirit came to usher in the Kingdom of God on earth, the apostles had the task of being witnesses to all nations – Acts 1:1-8. The Spirit was to testify about Jesus (John 15:26); the apostles were to testify about Jesus (John 15:27); and, all other disciples were to do the same (Matthew 28:19-20). Through this preached message, the Spirit offers the invitation to salvation; the church does the same, and every individual who accepts the invitation must pass it on (Revelation 22:17). Obviously, the Holy Spirit loves to preach! But He can only preach through those whom he indwells. How fired up is he about dwelling in you? Does He find you exciting or boring?
Third, the message was directed by the Spirit, as he opened doors of opportunity for evangelism. These doors were to individuals (Acts 8:26-40, especially verse 29) and to entire areas (2 Corinthians 2:12). This being true, Paul admonished us to pray for such open doors (Colossians 4:3). Sometimes, the Spirit directed some doors closed in order to lead to more open doors (Acts 16:6-10). Therefore, we must take advantage of every opportunity (Colossians 4:5-6) as we trust the Spirit to direct our paths to fruitful service! When your evangelism does not seem successful, do not get frustrated nor discouraged. Keep on sowing the seed, and trusting the Spirit’s direction. You will bear fruit!
The Spirit and Initial Salvation
When we find God, it is because he has first found us, seeking us through the Holy Spirit. In Acts 8:29, the Spirit sent Philip to meet a non-Christian (who had an openness to God). The Spirit is definitely involved in divine providence, both before and after we become Christians. Our being met and taught is never an accident – it is the plan of God brought about by the Holy Spirit.
The Spirit draws us to God initially by convicting us of sin, righteousness and judgment (John 16:7-8). Because we are blinded by sin, we must first deal with this malady if we are to appreciate and accept the abundant grace of God. But how does He bring about this conviction? First, he inspired the Word of God (1 Peter 1:20-21; Ephesians 3:3-5). This explains why the Word of God is called the “sword of the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:17), for through it he brings people to conviction.
Look at this convicting process in Acts 2:36-41, as the people were convicted of the sin of crucifying Christ (verses 36-37), convicted of the way to righteousness with God (verse 38) and then convicted of judgment (verse 40). In Acts 24:25, Paul reasoned with Felix about righteousness, self-control (sin), and the judgment to come, which left this hardened ruler convicted (afraid) but not obedient. Thus, the Spirit convicts the world through his Word, whether shared individually, preached publicly, or read privately.
The Spirit and Continual Salvation
When we are baptized into a saved relationship with Christ, the Spirit comes to indwell us (Acts 2:38; 5:32). According to Galatians 4:6, he is sent into our hearts by God because we became children of God, thus signifying this new relationship (tie this in with Galatians 3:26-27). Back in John 7:37-39, Jesus had promised this indwelling. Several truths are connected with this indwelling. One, the Spirit is our seal (2 Corinthians 1:21-22; Ephesians 1:13). A seal was an official sign of ownership. When we become Christians, God stamps us as his property! The world may not be able to tell who is a child of God simply by looking, but the spirit world now can.
Two, the Spirit is the deposit of our inheritance (2 Corinthians 5:5; Ephesians 1:14). The deposit here carries the idea of earnest money put down for a purchase as a pledge that the full amount will be paid at the proper time. Therefore, the Spirit is God’s deposit in us, guaranteeing our future blessings with him (Philippians 3:20-21).
Three, he strengthens us (Ephesians 3:14-21), which is more than being strengthened by the Word (which definitely strengthens us). He also helps us to follow through with our convictions. Of course, he will not force us to do right against our will to do otherwise, but he will strengthen us to do what we really want to do for God. Once I was jogging a much longer distance than I ever had before, and near the end of the run, I came to a formidable hill. When I was tempted to give up, a friend ran behind me with his hand in the middle of my back pushing me. Had I quit running, he could not have helped me, but because I was trying, he could assist me in completing the run. Similarly, the Spirit assists us to complete what we could not complete without his helpful and vital “push.”
Four, he aids us in godly living. Just knowing that he dwells in me keeps me from wanting to sin (1 Corinthians 6:19-20), for where I go, he goes! Galatians tells us that we “live” by the Spirit in a number of ways: by refusing to gratify the desires of the sinful nature (verses 16-17); by being freed from a legalistic works orientation (verse 18); by avoiding a life directed by the sinful nature (verses 19-21), by developing the fruit of the Spirit (verses 22-23); by crucifying the sinful nature (verse 24); by keeping step with the Spirit (verse 25); and by maintaining loving relationships with our brothers (verse 26).
Romans 8 also promises that as we set our minds on spiritual living, the Spirit helps us control our minds and lives for God. We have life and peace (verse 6); our spirit is alive (verse 10); life is given to our mortal bodies (verse 11); we put to death the misdeeds of the body (verse 13); we are led by the Spirit (verse 14); we have a Spirit of sonship, not fear (verse 15); we have the assurance of salvation (verse 16-17); and he intercedes for us (verses 26-27). The Holy Spirit is vitally concerned about every aspect of our lives and needs. He loves us. He cares how we feel. He intercedes because he is an Encourager (Acts 9:31) and a Counselor to us (John 14:16-18). In that latter role, he joins Jesus in speaking in our behalf (1 John 2:1).
Five, the Spirit acts providentially for us, often leading in ways that are very delightful to us as we are led directly into the blessings of God. However, he also leads us into the desert of trials (Matthew 4:1)! In this gospel context, Jesus was thus led right after a time of great commitment to God’s will. Don’t be surprised when spiritual mountaintops seem to be followed by some rather intense valleys. Passages like Lamentations 3:38 inform us that everything which happens to us is either directly caused by God, or at the least allowed by him.
But why does a loving God allowing such painful testing in our lives? The Bible supplies abundant answers to that question. It develops character (Romans 5:1-5; James 1:2-4); it breaks us of self-sufficiency (2 Corinthians 1:8-9; 12:7-10); it makes us into Christ’s image (Romans 8:28-29; Galatians 4:19; Hebrews 5:7-9; 12:4-13). However, knowing why we suffering doesn’t remove the pain! Suffering is tough, producing what men call stress (the difference between our agenda for our lives and God’s agenda for them!). It may lead to our questioning God, as did the Psalmist on many occasions (Psalm 13:1-6). Such struggling with God is natural at first, but if we don’t work it through, we can end up like Job, who found himself facing a God who had worn thin on patience!
Rest assured that God is not sentimental. He gives us what we need rather than what we think we need. We especially struggle with accepting testing through people (who make mistakes), but following Jesus in the way of the cross is still the only answer (1 Peter 2:18-25). The key is to trust God no matter what occurs (Romans 8:31-39) and to decide to be thankful in (not necessarily for) all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). Note that nine of the ten lepers cleansed by Christ were not even thankful for the good things in their lives. We seem to expect the good, thus taking it for granted, while being shocked and dismayed at the not-so-good. Shedding the idea that we are somehow God’s gift to creation would help us be more thankful and more accepting of the challenges of life! Only Spirit-filled disciples can be thankful for the hard times in their lives. Bottom line, God is allowing you to be tested in order to become more spiritual and more prepared for deeper spiritual service in the future. Trust him and trust the Spirit who leads you through both the storms and through the sunshine (and each has its own inherent danger!).
The Holy Spirit and Conscience
We often speak of conscience, but what is that? Biblically, it is an inner voice which sits in judgment over our attitudes and actions (Romans 2:15). It is not infallible, for it is only as good as it is trained. Since we all receive worldly training as non-Christians, the conscience must be retrained, by the Scriptures. Two vital lessons regarding the conscience must be kept in mind.
One, we must always strive to keep our consciences clear before God and men (Acts 24:16; 1 Timothy 1:15,19). However, a clear conscience does not guarantee our innocence (Acts 26:9; 1 Corinthians 4:4). It can be weak (accusing us inaccurately – 1 Corinthians 8:7, 10); seared over (1 Timothy 4:2); corrupted (Titus 1:15); and guilty (Hebrews 10:22). Two, in the situation where conscience is not trained properly, it nonetheless must not be violated in the process of retraining it (Romans 14:22-23). Although religion per se cannot clear the conscience (Hebrews 9:9), the blood of Christ, properly applied, can (Hebrews 9:14).
But having said that, how do our consciences and the Spirit work together? Paul said that his truthfulness was confirmed in his conscience by the Holy Spirit (Romans 9:1). Since a clear conscience does not guarantee innocence (it is the Lord who judges – 1 Corinthians 4:4), to be approved by the Spirit has to mean that our actions or thoughts are based on God’s Word (which the Spirit inspired). The real danger comes when trusting our emotions and attributing them to an inner prompting of the Holy Spirit. Emotions and conscience are not the same thing. Emotions can be very selfishly directed, leading us to violate our own consciences (with the help of our rationalization process).
In making decisions, conscience should move us to stay surrendered and open-minded, and to get plenty of advice. Emotionalism moves us to be very independent and untrusting of others. Bottom line, if you feel like making a decision without wanting advice, Satan is using your emotions. If you want advice to insure a godly decision, God is using your conscience. This line of reasoning does not rule out prompting by the Spirit, but it does raise a proper caution. The Spirit will never prompt us in a direction which violates biblical principles, and such prompting must then be confirmed by advice from mature spiritual people (Proverbs 12:15;13:10;14:12; 19:20; 20:18; Romans 15:14).
The Holy Spirit, the Word, and Spirituality
The Holy Spirit works very closely in conjunction with the Word he inspired. Note the following parallels:
- We are born again by the Spirit (John 3:8) and by the Word (1 Peter 1:23).
- We are sanctified (set apart) by the Spirit (2 Thessalonians 2:13) and by the Word (John 17:17).
- We live by the Spirit (Galatians 5:25) and by the Word (Matthew 4:4).
- We are strengthened by the Spirit (Ephesians 3:16) and by the Word (Acts 20:32).
- We are filled with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18-19) and in a parallel passage, indwelt by the Word (Colossians 3:16).
Being full of the Spirit (Acts 6:3, 5; 11:24) is to be full of desire to love and serve God, and to be directing that desire in accordance with the Word of God. One can be knowledgeable without being spiritual. One can be pious in heart, yet deficient in knowledge, and still not be spiritual. The need is always spirit and truth – to possess both zeal and knowledge. When we are truly Spirit-filled, Spirit-led disciples, we live in the very atmosphere of the Holy Spirit! As Paul put it in Romans 14:17, the kingdom of God is a matter of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. We are to pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers (Ephesians 6:18). We love one another in the Spirit (Colossians 1:7). In spite of severe suffering, we have joy given by the Holy Spirit (1 Thessalonians 1:6).
In conclusion, with Paul let us say: “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit by with you all” (2 Corinthians 13:14).
—Gordon Ferguson (May 1998)