So I am a woman, who is a Christian, who loves to be a part of women’s Bible studies. I used to think that meant that I should be actively involved in a women’s ministry. But I haven’t always been sure of what women’s ministry should entail. And one theological concern that has been nagging away at me is the whole use of this word “ministry.”

It seems that everyone in the church needs to be a part of some kind of niche ministry these days and women’s ministry is the queen of them all. As Protestants, we believe that Jesus is our only mediator between believers and God and that by grace we are all gifted with his Holy Spirit. And since Scripture tells us that each Christian is given spiritual gifts to serve Christ’s body, we have developed a popular manner of thinking about every member ministry. It seems like a simple matter of stewardship of our gifts, right? So now we talk about my ministry and your ministry, Randy’s ministry and women’s ministry. With all this excitement to serve with our gifts, I’m afraid that we may have lost the value of the ministry.

I am talking about the ministry of the Word and sacrament, administered by particular people ordained in the office of ministry. Michael Horton has written on the topic of every member ministry on occasion in a helpful way. In The Christian Faith he spends some time critiquing some of the newer translation’s of Ephesians 4:11-12:

However, there are good reasons for preferring the older translations (for example, the King James version), which render the verses, “And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.”

Reflecting the actual construction of the Greek, the older translation draws three lines of purpose clauses for the offices given that newer translations obscure. The same officers who are given for the completion (not equipping) of the saints are also given for the work of the ministry and edification of the body. On this reading, Christ has given apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors and teachers for the ministry of the Word that brings the whole body to unity, maturity, and completion in the truth. This is not to say that the body is complete in and through these offices alone, for there are other gifts mentioned elsewhere (esp. Ro 12 and 1Co 12). However, the focus here is restricted to that work of bringing unity and maturity to the body through sound doctrine…

It is significant that the gifts mentioned in Romans 12:3-8 and 1 Corinthians 12:4-28 include hospitality, giving, administration, and other acts of service, but Ephesians 4 only mentions Christ’s gift of officers to his church for the maturity of the whole body in sound doctrine. So the point is that in his ascension Christ has given the ministry of the Word to his people as a gift. This does not mean that those who are not ministers are not gifted and called to love and serve each other, but that comes later in verses 17 through the whole of chapter 5. Before they serve, they are served. This underscores again the remarkable generosity of the church’s victorious head, that he would make his people receivers first and active givers as a result.

While every member and every gift is needed in order for the body to be fully operative, the very life of the body depends on the faithful maintenance of the ministry of Word and sacrament. (887-888)

We downplay the value of this amazing gift, and our need for it, when we call all of our less formal programs and services ministries. Christ, the head, ministers to every member through Word and sacrament: women, men, marrieds, singles, elderly, and children. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have any separate initiatives for these groups, but if every way that we serve others with our gifts is called a ministry, then the gift that we so desperately need ourselves in the ministry of Word and sacrament blend in to look like just another ministry among the many. And it is easy to become so wrapped up in our ministering that we lose perspective. We are first receivers.

So let’s get back to women’s ministry. Women are ministered to by Word and sacrament just like everybody else. That is the formal ministry of the church. Just like there isn’t a special Bible for women and a special Bible for men, both men and women together are built up through the ministry of the Word. As I alluded to in my first post of this series, danger creeps in when we begin thinking of ourselves in a ministerial status. I don’t think that is what is intended when we talk about non formal ministries, but as my balding, British colleague has mentioned before, it isn’t a far step from labeling Christ’s ministry our own when we hijack a word.

These are the main reasons I don’t think it is helpful to use the term “women’s ministry.” When we talk about the ministry, there is clarity about what it entails: particular people, particular means, and particular result. But one thing that has always confused me about women’s ministry, no matter what church I’ve been to or what books I have read, is what exactly that entails. That is what I want to discuss in my next post.

*Originally published July 16, 2015.