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Denominations struggle with the role of women in the church. Is it appropriate for women to serve as ministers in God’s church? Are women worthy even to receive ordination as local elders? In some of our churches these questions have never arisen. In others they have long since ceased to be an issue at all. In still others, they are centers of hot debate.
Antagonists on both sides continue to marshal arguments in hopes of convincing the church of “the truth.” Some observers of the strength of conviction on both sides fear that this issue could split the Christian community.
Not to worry—we have a precedent. One of the earliest splits in the church, born of uncompromising convictions, came precisely over the issue of who was worthy to minister, and the body of believers survived it! Looking back, historians and theologians view this split as a blessing for the church in the long run because it doubled the ministerial force.
This sharp disagreement arose between good friends, coworkers, and leaders in the church. Their association spanned several seasons and had been cemented by shared hardships as well as mutual joys.
It began soon after the Jerusalem church had sent Barnabas to Antioch to investigate reports of many Gentiles joining the church there. Satisfied that these conversions were genuine, but recognizing a need to establish these new believers, Barnabas had gone to Tarsus to find Paul. He brought Paul to Antioch, where together they taught for a whole year.
Then prophets from Jerusalem came to Antioch, predicting famine. The Antioch church sent Paul and Barnabas to deliver help to its brothers and sisters living in Judea. After completing their mission, they returned from Jerusalem to Antioch, bringing John Mark with them.
Mark came from a good home and showed promise of becoming a good worker. It was his mother who opened her home for prayer meetings and welcomed Peter there after an angel released him from prison.
Later, the Holy Spirit told the Antioch members to set apart Paul and Barnabas, so they ordained them and sent them off on a missionary journey. Taking John Mark as their helper, the men visited Seleucia and then sailed to Cyprus. From Cyprus they sailed to Perga in Pamphylia, where Mark deserted them and returned to Jerusalem.
The Split Develops
Some time after Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch, Paul suggested a return visit to all the towns they had preached in. Evidently he liked working with Barnabas and valued him as a colleague in ministry. But this is when the dispute arose. Barnabas wanted to take Mark, his cousin, with them again. Paul did not. Apparently Barnabas thought Mark deserved another chance. Paul felt he was unworthy because he had deserted them on the previous journey.
Either could have said, “I disagree with you, but I’ll do it your way to maintain unity.” But apparently these weren’t just opinions; they were convictions. Paul felt strongly that Mark, who had already failed by proving himself undependable, would definitely be a liability to the work of the church. Barnabas, on the other hand, felt that to deny Mark a role in ministry would unnecessarily stifle the growth of the church and of the individual himself, perhaps blocking the will of God for a more complete ministry. As each felt so convicted, the disagreement became sharp enough that these two long-time friends and colleagues parted company.
But what were the results of the parting? First, there were two teams instead of one. Paul chose Silas and headed for Syria and Cilicia to strengthen the churches there. Barnabas and Mark sailed for Cyprus. Paul and Barnabas did not allow their diametrically opposed opinions to create a permanent wedge between them. They kept their principal focus on the spread of the gospel, and each allowed the other freedom to accomplish that goal as he saw best. Neither condemned the other as less committed to the Scriptures.
Many years later Paul and Barnabas went to Jerusalem with Titus to explain their practice of preaching to Gentiles. The leaders there, James, Peter, and John, agreed that Paul and Barnabas should go to the Gentiles. Paul still spoke directly, though, when he thought his colleague was wrong. He stated, for example, that Peter’s hypocrisy had led even Barnabas astray when, in Antioch, he wouldn’t eat with Gentiles.
Second, Mark developed into a seasoned worker. Even Paul admitted this when he requested of Timothy, “Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry” (2 Tim. 4:11 NIV).
In Philemon 1:2 Paul adds greetings from Mark, his fellow worker, and Peter elsewhere in scripture calls Mark “my son.” Obviously, Mark had become a valued fellow minister.
Arguments Paul Might Have Used
Perhaps it would be instructive to take a few moments to imagine some of the arguments that Paul could have used to defend his initial position that Mark, being a mere youth, was unfit to join the ministerial force. (Any similarity to arguments heard today against the ministry of women is purely intentional.)
Paul might have said to Barnabas:
“Mark is weaker, emotionally, and he already let those weaker emotions get in the way and make him undependable.”
“In his youthfulness Mark could hardly fit the representative paternal role that God’s spokesman should uphold. He could neither represent God to the people nor represent the people to God.”
“Mark’s interest in getting involved is really just an outgrowth of the trends among youth in the secular society around him. Over in Greece, they get all excited about running races. In Rome, it’s the army. Youth-libbers feel they have to be doing something. But the church should keep itself wholly pure from any such humanistic ideas.”
“Furthermore, Mark shouldn’t aspire to a higher sphere than God has assigned him. By attempting to climb higher, he will only fall lower. Let him stay at home with his mother and set up chairs for prayer meeting. Maybe the next time Peter is miraculously released from prison, Mark can even answer the door before Rhoda. This, too, is service for God, and he will find a great blessing in performing it. No young person should seek a higher sphere.”
“The fact that other religions use young men as priests is no reason for us to. They also sacrifice infants. If we follow the religions of the world in ordaining young men, we will open the door to sacrificing our babies, sexual promiscuity, and other problems.”
“The precedent was set way back in Genesis, where we read that man was made in God’s image. We all know God is not a youth; he is the Ancient of Days.”
“Jesus chose sturdy, experienced fishermen and even a tax collector for his disciples. If he’d wanted mere kids in ministry, he would have chosen some as disciples.”
“It’s a matter of authority. After all, I received my call directly from God.”
“The older generation was created before the younger generation, and children are commanded by God to obey their parents. Therefore, logically, of course, no young person is fit to usurp authority over an older person. If God had wanted young people ministering in the church, he would have created Adam and Eve as babies (or Cain and Abel first, and then given them parents).”
“It isn’t a matter of education, either, because some young people may have more education than their fathers. It is simply that they are not to have authority.”
“Scriptures support the participation of youth, but not in leadership roles as pastor/evangelists.”
“True, God is no respecter of persons as far as salvation is concerned. But he clearly has assigned differing roles and functions to different ages. I see no tension between this oneness in Christ and the functional subordination of young people in the church.”
“Throughout Scripture there is a special symbolism attached to the ‘firstborn.’ It may seem arbitrary of God to choose age to represent himself, but he has that right, just as he chose the Sabbath as a symbol of creation and sanctification.”
It is easy to see the fallacies in these arguments when they are applied to age rather than gender.
Lessons for Today
Paul’s later full acceptance of Mark in ministry may suggest lessons for us as we seek the full acceptance of women in ministry:
Perhaps today God is waiting for his church to expand its ministry to a dying world by allowing women to prove their calling. We need not wait until each local church around the world is ready to accept women’s ministry. Perhaps all we need is to let women work in those churches that would welcome their service, in some cases alongside established and supportive pastors. Let us all focus on the spread of the gospel, allowing God and time to reveal the results.
—Madeline Johnston is a copy editor for Andrews University Seminary Studies, an associate head elder at Pioneer Memorial Church, and a champion of women in ministry. She retired from twenty years as secretary of the Department of World Mission in the SDA Seminary of Andrews University, and also served as a missionary in Korea and the Philippines.