Indispensable: Women Who Plant Churches

Indispensable: Women Who Plant Churches

This article originally appeared on Missio Alliance’s website and serves as an introductory framing to the series “Band of Brothers: A Case Study of Church Planting in Boston.” To understand Missio Alliance’s commitment to women in ministry, you can read more here.

Church planting is as old as Jesus.

That is to say, church planting is part of historic Christianity’s DNA. In modern parlance, church planting is a core value. I would argue that Jesus’ Great Commission itself provides the marching orders for planting churches. What is church planting if not making disciples?

Somehow along the way, church planting became a man-job.

Articles posted on church planting websites refer to church planters as “guys” or “dudes.” For the most part, women are not viewed as church planters. Instead, references to women typically center on how the church planter’s wife can support her husband’s demanding ministry. Even in denominations that ordain women, the majority of church planters are men. The notion of a female church planter has become an oxymoron. But this was not the case in the beginning.

Apostolic U-Turn

One might easily assume that the Apostle Paul would not be favorably disposed to women serving as church planters. After all, he was a Pharisee by training and a former hardcore religious terrorist. Add in those controversial statements in his letters—“Women should remain silent in the church. They are not allowed to speak” (1 Corinthians 14:34) and “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet” (1 Timothy 2:12)—and it’s a safe bet that Paul was not inclined to advance women. He didn’t even marry one.

It is true that Paul planted churches with “dudes”—Bartholomew, Silas, Timothy, Luke and others. But everything changed when the Holy Spirit disrupted Paul’s second missionary journey and turned his views of women right side up.

God gave Paul a powerful vision of a man imploring him to “come over to Macedonia (Greece) and help us” (Acts 16:9). Expectations had to be riding high when Paul and his all-male church planting team arrived in Philippi. What would anyone expect after such an incredible vision? Yet instead of a stadium packed with Philippians eager to hear the gospel, Paul and his cohort found a group of praying women.

I once heard a pastor describe the scene as “the ultimate letdown.”

Luke’s eyewitness account of the event doesn’t even hint at disappointment or reluctance at the prospect of interacting in public with women. Instead of looking around in search of men, Paul sat down and began speaking the gospel to the women—Gentile women—as though leading a women’s Bible study was normal for him.

The Holy Spirit moved. The women, beginning with Lydia, embraced the gospel. A church was planted, and history made. The first Christian church in Europe was established—with a team of believing women.

There is more.

The Apostle Who Loved Women

Later, from a Roman prison cell, Paul penned a letter to the Philippian church. The power of that letter gets lost when it is disconnected from its historical context (Acts 16). Readers must bear in mind Paul’s remarkable vision, the rerouting to Greece, the women who embraced the gospel, the violent persecution and the church gathered in Lydia’s home. With those historical facts in mind, the letter to the Philippian church reveals a surprising transformation in Paul’s regard for women church planters.

To Paul, women church planters aren’t just permissible. They are indispensable.

Paul’s opening words place his stamp of approval on and indebtedness to the founding mothers of the Philippian church.

“I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now” (Philippians 1:3-5, emphasis added).

Clearly, that “first day” was especially meaningful to Paul.

Paul valued women as indispensable church planting partners because they ministered the gospel with him. Just as things were moving forward, a brutal wave of persecution broke out inflicting physical harm on the apostles and ultimately driving them out of town.

Turns out those church planting women were equal to the task. Not only did Lydia provide hospitality for the apostles, she courageously hosted the threatened fledgling church. After the apostles left town, the women steadfastly carried the gospel mission forward.

Paul singles out two Philippian women—Euodia and Syntyche—and describes them as indispensable allies—“women who have contended [or labored] at my side in the cause of the gospel” (Philippians 4:3). Paul’s words speak metaphorically of gladiators fighting side by side in the arena and imply united struggle in preaching and suffering for the gospel.

The women of Philippi stood with Paul for the gospel in the face of persecution, and he stood stronger in battle because of them.

Paul also valued the women as indispensable church planting partners because they ministered to him. No other Pauline letter is as vulnerable or affectionate. They held a special place in Paul’s heart. Even for Paul, it was “not good for the man to be alone.” They opened the door for Paul to be honest with how he was doing. Without the benefit of cell-phone pings, they doggedly tracked his whereabouts and showed up to care for his needs—something no other church did for Paul.

When he was driven out of Philippi to Thessalonica, they followed him with aid and support. As he writes to them from a Roman prison cell, a Philippian, Epaphroditus, is by his side, sent to Rome from Philippi to find Paul, minister to his needs and deliver gifts.

A Stronger Affirmation?

It’s hard to imagine a stronger affirmation of women as indispensable church planters than Paul gives the women of Philippi. Church planting efforts multiplied because he broke with tradition to partner with his sisters in Christ.

The mission Jesus entrusted to his church is demanding, so demanding that it requires a Blessed Alliance of men and women working together. In this challenging post-Christian world, we are learning afresh of God’s desire for the partnered ministry of women and men in seeing the gospel embodied and advanced through the planting of new churches. We must reclaim the biblical and apostolic conviction of the indispensability of women in church planting!  

This article originally appeared here.

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Carolyn Custis James
Carolyn Custis James (BA Sociology, MA Biblical Studies) thinks deeply about what it means to be a female follower of Jesus in a postmodern world. As a cancer survivor, she is grateful to be alive and determined to address the issues that matter most. Carolyn is the author of Half the Church and Malestrom.

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