As an unmarried, female missionary, I am often asked to share my views on both singleness and women in ministry. Both marriage and singleness are upheld in Scripture as good (Gen. 2:18, Prov. 18:22, Prov. 31:10, 1 Cor. 7:8-9, 34). I have a good deal to say about singleness in my book published in 2015 entitled Disappointment: a subtle path away from Christ. Here is a small excerpt:
“The Apostle Paul refers to the ability to remain unmarried and undividedly devoted to God as a “gift” (1 Corinthians 7:7). The tragedy is that the church reacts to ALL singleness as a problem that needs solving. In fact, singleness can be a gift from God and the will of God, if only for a season. If it is, in fact, the will of God for a time, then it is to be embraced and lived out for the glory of God.”
After all, Jesus was single, the Apostle Paul was single, as were many other women and men greatly used of God mentioned in Scripture. I want the focus of this article to be more on the role of women in The Great Commission. The reason being is that “women in ministry” has been a topic shrouded in confusion in Christian circles. That being said, I want to address a more specific topic than women in ministry, namely, did God intend for women to be used to spread the gospel, to be evangelists and missionaries? I write this because, obviously, married women serve alongside their husbands in missions and ministry, but what about single woman (unmarried and widows)? I hope to shed light on this important topic and inspire unmarried woman specifically to see their potential in gospel ministry.
Was Jesus’ Great Commission in Matthew 28 for Men Only?
It seems from the text that the eleven (male) disciples, or apostles, were the ones gathered that day to receive Christ’s commission. Was the call to go and make disciples specifically for male disciples of Jesus? If so, am I out of line as a woman?
Christ promised to be with those obedient to The Great Commission “until the end of the age,” so clearly the command was not only for those present that day. So, who did Christ intend to take up the torch after them? Spoiler alert: the answer is any one of His followers.
1. Jesus called the whole crowd.
Firstly, let us look at another “call” or “commission” given by Jesus in Mark 8:34-38. On this occasion, Jesus called the whole crowd of some 4,000+ people. Matthew 15:38 lets us know that there were women and children in the crowd, beyond the 4,000 men counted. Keeping in mind that there were women and children present, note the words of Jesus: “And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it’” (Mark 8:34-35, ESV). The offer to follow Christ was extended to ANYONE in the crowd: man, woman, or child.
2. The Holy Spirit came upon men and women.
Secondly, we have the promise in Acts 1:8: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Upon whom did the Holy Spirit come on the day of Pentecost? It is beyond clear from Acts 1:14 that it included both men and women. The power to be Christ’s witnesses is given along with the gift of the Holy Spirit.
How Jesus Included Single Women in Ministry
Even though it seems Dorcas, or Tabitha, is the only female referred to using the term “disciple” in Scripture (Acts 9:36), it was the female followers of Christ who were by His side when He needed them most. We know that Judas betrayed Jesus and the other eleven deserted Him (Matthew 26:56). Yet, who was present before, during and after the crucifixion? Women. Female followers were the last at the cross and the first to the empty tomb. The truth is that some of Jesus’ closest friends were women, including single women.
Mary Magdalene, for instance, followed Jesus and the twelve, ministering to their needs. She was at the crucifixion and at the empty tomb when the male disciples were absent (Mark 16:1-11; John 19:25, 20:1, 11, 16, 18). Mary was single. She was also mentioned at least 12 times in the gospels. Mary and Martha of Bethany were also very close friends of Jesus and likely single women as well, at least at that time.
The Role of Women in Jesus’ Day
During Jesus’ earthly life, men were at the forefront of Jewish culture and women were in the background.
According to Zhava Glaser’s 1988 article, “Jesus and the Role of Women,” at JewsForJesus.org:
“By the time of Christ, the role of women had drastically changed for the worse. In theory, women were held in high regard by first-century Jewish society, but in practice, this was not always true. The concept of tzenuah, or the private role of the woman, was based on Psalm 45:13: “The king’s daughter is all glorious within.…” While a man’s primary responsibility was seen as public, a woman’s life was confined almost entirely within the private family sphere.... Women were separated from men in private, public and religious life. They could go to the Temple, but could not venture beyond the confines of the Women’s Court (there was no such court found in the Biblical descriptions of Solomon’s Temple). Women were not allowed to participate in public prayer at the Temple, although they were encouraged to have private prayer lives at home. The few rights of a woman included her right to go to the House of Study to hear a sermon or pray (Vayikra Rabbah, Sotah 22a). Also, it was her basic right to attend a wedding feast or a house of mourning, or to visit her relatives (Mishnah Ketubot 7:5).”
I, personally, was once denied acceptance into a theological seminary because it trained only men. Similarly, the rabbis of Jesus’ day did not accept female students. Jesus encouraged Mary and Martha to sit at his feet and learn (Luke 10:38-42). He also engaged women, such as a Samaritan woman, in conversation (John 4). I find it awesome too that this same Samaritan woman turned into a female evangelist! “Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman's testimony…” (John 4:39, ESV).
What Paul Said about Women in Ministry
Perhaps the most compelling passage of Scripture when it comes to a biblical view of women in ministry is Romans 16. There are ten women mentioned in that chapter.
1. Phoebe – a deacon of the church at Cenchreae (a position of authority) and a generous benefactress to Paul’s ministry (Rom. 16:1-2).
2. Priscilla – hostess of a house church, risked her life for Paul and the gospel, a co-worker of Paul’s along with her husband Aquila (note that Priscilla is mentioned first) (Rom. 16:3-5).
3. Mary – a hard worker in the church (Rom. 16:6).
4. Junia – Paul refers to her and her husband as his “kinsmen and fellow prisoners” (Rom. 16:7).
5. Tryphaena – worker in the Lord (Rom. 16:12).
6. Tryphosa – worker in the Lord (Rom. 16:12).
7. Persis – a woman beloved to Paul, another hard worker in the Lord (Rom. 16:12).
8. Rufus’ mother – a spiritual mother to Paul (Rom. 16:13).
9. Julia – a woman called out in a list with other believers or saints (Rom. 16:15).
10. Nereus’ sister – another woman called out as an exceptional believer or saint (Rom. 16:15).
These ten women were deacons, prisoners with Paul, and his close female friends and co-laborers/ministers in the gospel. Many of these women are also named individually, without reference to a husband. This is proof that Paul, like Christ, upheld the value of women in gospel ministry, and not just in leading women’s Bible studies, teaching Sunday School, and working in the nursery.
Married or single, women are gospel witnesses.
I recently had the privilege of speaking to a dorm of female Bible college students about this very topic. This is what I told them: According to Acts 1:8, you are powerful and unstoppable forces for Jesus Christ! You have received power, God has literally empowered you, to be His witnesses to the end of the earth! Married or unmarried, women have unlimited potential to CHANGE THE WORLD.
May we be inspired by those who have gone before us: women who have sat at the feet of Jesus, ministered to and with Him, testified about Him, evangelized communities, made disciples, taught the Scriptures, been delivered from demons, been raised from the dead, served as deacons and co-laborers with the Apostle Paul, been imprisoned for the gospel, left all to follow Jesus, been His witnesses all over the globe, and lived fulfilling, self-denying, victorious, devoted lives for the glory of God. No matter your station in life, live out your potential for Jesus!
Kristi Walker has been a missionary in Berlin, Germany for over 15 years working with an international church as the Director of Student Ministries. She is the author of two books: Disappointment: A Subtle Path Away from Christ and Convinced. Applying Biblical Principles to Life’s Choices.
Photo Credit: Unsplash/Nik Macmillan