I’ll never forget the first time I heard a woman pray in a public setting. I stood in a large room at a kid’s event with my young family and, without warning, a woman who had been giving instructions for the day begin to pray for our meal. I barely heard a word she said. I was in shock that a woman had the audacity to pray in front of my husband, my sons, and the rest of the group. I quickly bowed my head and silently prayed over her. I prayed for her soul and the souls of those in the room and that she would learn and respect Scripture. I left that event disgusted and saddened that we had been subjected to such. I wanted to write her and explain the truth more clearly but I was too angry. That was nearly twenty years ago and somehow, without even realizing it, she became my hero.
I was still reeling from the prayer when I learned of an incident where a little girl in a Bible class setting was told she couldn’t pray because a three year old boy sat across from her. It stirred my soul and kept me awake at night. How could this be? I went to Scripture to find an answer.
If we were to take Paul literally in I Corinthians 14:34, then Scripture would forbid this child from praying in class. It would also restrict her from ever speaking in class. Not only would it seal her silence, it would seal her teachers and every woman who spoke in class or sang in the assembly. A woman couldn’t greet another or confess she believed Jesus is the Son of God before her baptism. Silence means silence. Something was amiss. I knew the Lord too well to believe he would cast this precious three year old to Hell for talking to him. So why did the prayer weeks earlier bother me so badly? I delved deeper into the Word.
First Corinthians eleven told me the church in Corinth had women praying and prophesying. Paul even gave instructions on how they should present themselves when they did. Why was it happening in 1 Corinthians 11 but not in 1 Corinthians 14 or the Ephesian church? It didn’t make sense for Paul to so quickly change his mind on something so important. Although, it made no sense to me, Paul’s readers knew exactly what was going on in Corinth and in Ephesus (as they worshipped in the shadow of the temple of Artemis). It was during this time of study when I accepted the fact that the Bible wasn’t written to me but for me. Since Paul’s letters weren’t always written to set rules for eternity but to solve their current problems, there must be more to this story. And it isn’t always for us to know so why do we cling so tightly to a verse that calls for women to be silent but explain away lifting holy hands (I Timothy 2:8), wearing jewelry (I Timothy 2:9), braided hair (I Timothy 2:9), or being saved in childbirth (I Timothy 2:15)?
I started to comb the Bible looking for something that would help me through this spiritual dilemma. I needed to know how God felt about women. I saw Miriam, along with her brothers leading the children of Israel out of Egypt. I was intrigued as wise Deborah ruled over God’s people as a prophet and military strategist. I became acquainted with Huldah who prophesied at the same time as Jeremiah and Zephaniah.
My relationship with the Father grew as I got to know his Son. I watched Anna weep over the newborn Jesus and take another opportunity to praise God in front of all those around her. I saw the look on the face of the woman at the well when Jesus revealed his identity. I have always been told she tried to distract Jesus with religion from her broken life when he mentioned her many husbands. But what if her heart had been inclined to God? What if wanting to please him kept her up at night? What if she ached for self worth and knew only God could fulfill her desire? What if this is why Jesus sought her out and gave her the opportunity to serve as a missionary to her entire town?
Why was Mary Magdalene the first gospel preacher? God knew her news of the resurrection wouldn’t hold up in a Jewish court. Why would he grant this beautiful act of servanthood to a gender that had no rights and little value unless he was taking a divine moment to show them how much they matter? Did Phillip’s daughter pray and prophesy only to women? If so, wouldn’t Scripture make this very clear? What can we learn from Phoebe, Junia, and Priscilla and their fervent desire to serve the God of Heaven and Earth?
And then other questions came to mind. Why can a woman speak while singing from the pew but not from the pulpit? Why can a women ask questions in Bible class but not teach a Bible class with men present? Why is a woman permitted to speak at a Ladies’ Day to men as long as they’re sitting in the audio booth or listening in the foyer? Why can a man read articles written by women but if she were to read them to him, she would be in error?
How is praying, a supplication to our Father in his name combined with gratitude for his favor, having authority or leading over others in the room? Was the woman who prayed that day usurping my husband’s authority? When I dissected the moment, I had to admit that she was not. Tradition had told me one thing. Scripture another. My view of God was tainted with tradition, fear, and a lack of knowing who he is. I had so many questions and was confused by what seemed to be many inconsistencies. I had to ask myself what kind of god I served? Is it a god who delights in confusing us with his Scripture, saying one thing in one chapter and something else in another, just to keep us out of Heaven? Or is it a God who is for us? A God who deeply loves us? A God who wants his children, men and women, to speak his name and proclaim his praises to all who will listen? A God of the entire Bible, not just a verse?
The woman who prayed didn’t attend the same kind of church I did but I had seen her do good things in his name. I had watched how she cared for others. I had heard her speak of hope and Heaven before. She was a godly woman. I thought of the disciples in Luke and could hear myself whining, “Lord, she prayed to you thanking you and lifting you up but she’s not a part of our group! Do you want me to stop her?” You can almost hear him sigh, “If she’s not against you…” (Luke 9:50).
God is not inconsistent. Neither is his Word. But we, as his people are, and accepting our faults is not shameful. It’s realistic. We need him. We can seek comfort in the fact that his grace covers our moral failures as well as our doctrinal ones.
If we are living in the last days, preached by Peter quoting Joel in Acts 2, as I believe we are, then women and men of God have not only have the opportunity but a responsibility to pray and proclaim the praises of the one who called us out of darkness.
The lady who prayed in front of my family that day, many years ago, proclaimed Jesus in her prayer and ended it in his name. She spoke gospel but it wasn’t good news to me then. As a wise friend once said, “Anytime someone is proclaiming the gospel and it is not good news to me, I am the one with the problem, not the speaker.”
Looking back on that event, I no longer see what I thought was her sin but I do clearly see mine wrapped in my self-righteous, judgemental, false view of God and his Holy Word. I’m glad I no longer see God through those lenses.
To the spiritual women who continue to call on the name of the Lord for their families, their communities, and the lost, those who so gracefully lift up their voice and speak light and hope into darkness, I thank God for you. You changed me, you encourage me, and you give me hope for the future.