Are Women-Only Gatherings Biblical? Thoughts from John Bunyan
The popularity of women-only events has swelled to epic proportions in recent years. Women of Faith and Living Proof Ministries have put on mega-conferences all over the nation. The best-selling religious books are often books by women for women. Women preachers like Beth Moore, Joyce Meyer, Christine Caine and others are among the most sought-after speakers on the Christian circuit. Women-only studies, prayer events, conferences and worship services are anything but out of style.
Sadly, the most proficient false teachers are also women – including Moore, Meyer, Caine and the best-selling, Sarah Young. There are good female teachers out there, however. Godly and non-Scripture-twisting women like Nancy Guthrie, Martha Peace, and Susan Heck all provide stellar ministries to women and are dutiful Bible-teachers in their own right. Certainly there are women that are very, very capable of handling God’s Word (you won’t find those at Women of Faith or Living Proof Ministries).
The question should arise if these gender-segregated events are necessary and profitable or if they are a hindrance to the corporate body. For full disclosure, every other Thursday I teach a women-only Bible study. How I got roped into that I’m not fully sure. I was informed I was teaching it. I suggested a particular, godly woman teach the study and when their schedules didn’t align, I was drafted. It was surprising. “Wouldn’t you want a female teacher,” was the question going through my head. Interestingly, the godly ladies in the group did not want – or I should say, they didn’t require it. It wasn’t a necessity to them. In fact, one woman asked, “Why can’t a man teach us, again? I prefer it.”
To be fair, that may just be the oppressed and abused, submissive women in my church (I kid, I kid). However, I feel that there are a great many women who look back at their husbands as they’re heading off to a women-only weekend event and think, “Why do I have to leave my husband behind? What’s the point of this?”
As a man, I stand back for fear of walking on egg shells and crashing through to some pink and pastel-colored, lace-layered cushion of femininity. Many pastors share in that timidity to tread into the realm of women, but rather to just get out of the way for fear of being stampeded by a loyal legion of Beth Moore fanatics. We definitely do not want to make enemies of the ladies of the church, and so we rarely ask questions. When this happens, teachers like Moore, Meyer, Cain and Young – more times than not – are who is being read rather than quality teachers like Guthrie, Peace and Heck.
So, again I ask:
Whether or not, as the Christian church is concerned, if it is the duty of that congregation, ordinarily and on regular occasion to separate themselves from their brothers and to assemble together for worship or prayer without their men.
Okay, so no. That’s the modern-English version of what was posed to John Bunyan (the famous 17th Century Reformed Baptist, renowned English preacher and author of Pilgrim’s Progress). Bunyan answered the question posed by a certain “Mr. K” in a lengthy and loving reply entitled “A Case of Conscience Resolved,” subtitled:
“WHETHER, WHERE A CHURCH OF CHRIST IS SITUATE, IT IS THE DUTY OF THE WOMEN OF THAT CONGREGATION, ORDINARILY, AND BY APPOINTMENT, TO SEPARATE THEMSELVES FROM THEIR BRETHREN, AND SO TO ASSEMBLE TOGETHER, TO PERFORM SOME PARTS OF DIVINE WORSHIP, AS PRAYER, ETC., WITHOUT THEIR MEN?
Bunyan’s reply (the second hyperlink above will give you a pdf) demonstrates a few things about our elder brother:
- Bunyan was hesitant to address the topic, but was goaded into it by this “Mr. K” character – and in the Non-Conformist days of England, Reformed Baptists didn’t turn down a theological fight and neither did they shrink from providing solid answers when asked.
- Bunyan carefully and tactfully spoke highly of his “sisters” and the godly women of the church, while at the same time not flattering them as Mr. K had done in his advocacy for gender separation. You can tell that Bunyan very much had a high opinion of the ladies of his church and – I believe – felt awkward in his principled stance on account of it. The man’s sensitivity shines in his response.
- Bunyan’s perspective was not women-centered or men-centered. Bunyan’s perspective on this issue was church-centered. His thinking process was guided by what was best for the body, and not individual Christians.
- As the next quotation demonstrates, Bunyan knew that his stance would be unpopular among some. He wrote it anyway. Apparently, it’s never been popular for men to share their opinion on the exercise of female spirituality.
I am not insensible but that for my thus writing, though I thereby have designed your honour and good order; I am like enough to run the gauntlet among you, and to partake most smartly of the scourge of the tongues of some, and to be soundly brow-beaten for it by others: specially by our author, who will find himself immediately concerned, for that I have blamed him for what he hath irregularly done, both with the Word, to you, and me. I look also to be sufficiently scandalized, and counted a man not for prayer, and meetings for prayer, and the like; but I will labour to bear them with patience, and seek their good that shall be tempted to abuse me.
The first time I wrote about my concerns regarding Beth Moore on the Pulpit & Pen, I had never been so inundated with hate mail in all my life. Angry emails and phone-calls abounded – and that’s back when P&P first started, when we could expect ten thousand readers a month and not ten thousand readers a day. I just expressed some simple concerns (back in 2010, I believe). The late Ken Silva of Apprising Ministries picked up the article, and I was soon contacted by the editor of a regional Christian newspaper who wanted to run my article. From that single article, he lost so many subscriptions (for example, he lost the subscription of a prominent Southern Baptist Church in Boise, as I recall) the newspaper almost had to close. My single article on Beth Moore almost shut down a long-standing print publication! I feel for Bunyan in his regrettable task. But watch with what care Bunyan begins…
‘Tis far from me to despise you, or to do anything to your reproach. I know you are beloved of God for the sake of Christ, and that you stand fixed for ever by faith upon the same foundation with US. I also know that the Lord doth put no difference betwixt male and female, as to the communications of his saving graces, but hath often made many of your sex eminent for piety; yea, there hath been of you, I speak now of ordinary Christians, that for holiness of life have outgone many of the brethren: Nor can their virtuous lives but be renown and glory to YOU, and conviction to those of US that have come behind you in faith and holiness. The love of women in spirituals, as well as naturals, ofttimes outgoes that of men.
Bunyan then recalls the four arguments of Mr. K in promoting segregation of women for their own study, prayer, and worship. These include:
- If women gather separately (in prayer, worship etc…) to do good for the whole congregation, it is to be encouraged. Mr. K, although not explicit, indicates it would be wrong or unprofitable if the women were gathering for essentially spiritually-selfish motives, but if gathered to benefit the body, it was acceptable.
- Esther and her maidens prayed together (Esther 4:16).
- God has promised the outpouring of his Spirit to women as well as men (Zechariah 12:10-13).
- It appears from Acts 16:31 that women in the New Testament met and prayed together (without seeing Mr. K’s original argument, you’ll have to read Bunyan’s fuller response in the pdf to understand how use of this particular Scripture constitutes an argument at all).
- There was a fifth reason that Bunyan ascribes to Mr. K as a proposal for women segregation, and that is the broad and general notion that if when we are “blessed” by something, it’s acceptable. Take a note of this reason, for you’ll hear it much in our contemporary discussion:
Therefore let not any hinder you from a duty so incumbent upon you in a special manner, in such a day as this is. Cannot many women that have used this practice, by experience, say, they have met with the Lord in it, and have found many blessed returns of prayer from God, both to themselves and the church, wherein God hath owned them? Therefore what God hath borne witness to, and approved of, let no man deter you from. Pray turn to the Scriptures quoted, which I hope will give you full satisfaction (Mr.K).
After Bunyan conveys Mr. K’s basic points, he immediately accuses K. of flattery. The old Non-Conformist wasted no time speaking his mind, accusing Mr. K of appealing to populism and (what we in the 21st century call) feminism. Mr. K’s populist appeal may have played well among the 17th century women, but Bunyan was asked to give a Biblical answer and not a popular one.
These are his arguments, and this his conclusion, in which I cannot but say, there is not only boldness, but flattery. Boldness, in fathering of his misunderstanding upon the authority of the word of God: and flattery, in soothing up persons in a way of their own, by making of them the judges in their own cause: the which I hope to make farther appear anon.
Bunyan continued launching his scathing rejection of Mr. K’s arguments for women-segregation of study, prayer and worship:
And as I will not be confined to an answer in writing: so neither to his methods of argumentation. What scholar he is, I know not; for my part, I am not ashamed to confess, that I neither know the mode nor figure of a syllogism, nor scarce which is major or minor. Methinks I perceive but little sense, and far less truth in his arguments: also I hold that he has stretched and strained the holy Word out of place, to make it, if it might have been, to shore up his fond conceits. I shall therefore, first take these texts from the errors to which he hath joined them, and then fall to picking the bones of his syllogisms.
For the point by point, we suggest reading the pdf. Let it suffice to say, Bunyan argued rationally and logically and from the Scripture that just because the sexes are equal and just because they each are to pray, worship, and study, does not mean that it’s suggested or Scripturally endorsed to corporately pray, worship or study in a segregated fashion away from the male leadership. Bunyan’s argumentation was cold, but it was rational and calculably logical.
The command [to pray], says Mr. K., is general to all. But I answer, yet limited, and confined to order and manner of performance. Women may, yea ought to pray; what then? Is it their duty to help to carry on prayer in public assemblies with men, as they? Are they to be the audible mouth there, before all, to God? No verily, and yet the command is general to all to pray. Women of the respective churches of Christ, have no command to separate themselves from the men of their congregations, to perform prayer in their own company without them, and yet the command is general to all to pray.
Bunyan’s first numbered objection was that even the act of appointing meetings – like organized Bible studies, for example – was a matter of authority. It appears to me that Mr. K is a fellow Non-Conformist and well-meaning fellow who was generally agreeable with Bunyan on other doctrinal matters. It also appears that even though Mr. K appealed to the feminist instinct, he would deny that women should have authority in the church. Even Beth Moore (laughably) would give verbal ascent to this Biblical directive (as she preaches…behind the pulpit…to men), but would argue that what she does doesn’t really relate to authority, necessarily. JD Greear – YRR and popular Southern Baptist pastor – would take the same position as Beth Moore and Mr. K, that even preaching doesn’t necessarily invoke authority (worthless preaching typically does not, so they’re not entirely wrong). Bunyan’s point is that even calling for a meeting of the women without elder support or notice or directive is a matter of authority.
Virtually every pastor I know would agree with that reality. A number of years ago in my church, a woman with an atrociously toxic marriage organized a Bible study – on marriage, ironically – without our elder body knowing (the woman has since proved herself toxic to the entire Body, and not just her own home). Thankfully, a number of the godly women who were invited quickly disengaged because of the fact that it was organized without the knowledge or support of the church’s leadership. But what followed were accusations of “Who do you think you are” and “you have no right to tell me what I can and cannot do in my own home” and so-forth; a general ungodly and rebellious attitude toward shepherds commissioned to protect the flock from threats. For her, organizing that study was a matter of authority and she was angry she didn’t have it.
A town twenty miles west of my own had a fairly-orthodox church unfortunately split over the same issue a number of years ago – in that scenario, the elders made the same call, but the woman took off with the majority of female members like a demonic pied piper. A great many of you have heard the same tale from your own local area. What causes the disruption to church life in these scenarios is not whether or not it’s good to pray or read the Bible (obviously it is). At its heart is a matter of authority. And in a godly church where doctrine is closely checked and the pasture dutifully guarded, the calling of studies or prayer meeting or conferences – and their oversight – belong to the men commissioned for the office of pastor.
Bunyan makes this point by beginning with the citation of Moses and Aaron calling the assembly together for worship and the power to do so belonged – not of the elders – but of the church body as a whole and not to runaway Bible teachers (regardless of their gender). Bunyan was prepared for the critic who may say, “So does the entire church always have to be present when there’s prayer or worship or Bible study?” Bunyan responds to that question…
Nor do I question the lawfulness of this or that part of the church’s assembling together for prayer: though the elders, and greatest part of the brethren, be absent. If, first, such MEN that call such assemblies are countenanced by the elders, or church, to do it (1 Tim 2:8; 2 Tim 2:22). But that the sisters of this or that church, may call their own sex together to perform such worship by themselves to God (for this is the thing in debate) I find no warrant for.
In terms of corporate but gender-segregated prayer, Bunyan gives an objection that I’ve honestly never thought of. Scripture teaches in places like Matthew 18:19 that there should be agreement about what should be prayed for as the church gathers. Apparently during the days immediately following the Reformation and during the Non-Conformist days as the congregational model of church was being re-established, this was quite a big deal. Before the church prayed together, they first discussed and agreed to what they should be praying for (apparently, they believed so much in the power of prayer that they didn’t want to risk praying for something that was not in accordance to God’s will or allow a loose-lipped, foolish brother or sister ask for something unbiblical or out of agreement with the rest of them). This notion is probably lost on our entire generation, but that was the methodology of the Non-Conformist church. So who is to decide what should be prayed for as a corporate body? Of this, Bunyan writes…
Now, I say, if things prayed for in assemblies must first be jointly agreed upon, then must such things, by some one, or more of that assembly, be first propounded, expounded, and proved to be good by the word. Good for such persons, seasons, or things, for which such prayer is made. And, besides, the gifts required to do this, if this is not teaching I am out. And yet this must first be done to instruct all present, to help their faith, and to quicken their spirits to, and in that worship. That they may as one man have their eyes unto the Lord (Zech 9:1). But that this power is given to women, to ordinary believing ones that are in the highest account in churches, I do not believe.
It is in Bunyan’s high view of prayer that he takes this view against not only women’s Bible studies, but women’s prayer groups. Essentially (again, read the pdf for Bunyan’s own words), his argument is that prayer is – at its heart – doctrinal. Corporate, public prayer should contain doctrine (it does contain doctrine, in fact, no matter what) and teaches doctrine. I have to agree with Bunyan on those two facts. Those two facts lead Bunyan to suggest a question, which is “So why are women teaching doctrine?” We might say, “It is only prayer.” A high view of prayer might say otherwise, that if it is doctrinal, it is teaching – and there’s no way to teach doctrine without authority.
Again, it is the high view of prayer that Bunyan takes this position. A 21st century, typical prayer service may not invoke such opinion, but in Bunyan’s day, prayer was serious business. Because it was serious business, it should not be led by whom the Holy Spirit calls the “weaker vessel.”
There are also many temptations that attend the duty of praying in assemblies, especially those that are immediately employed therein. These temptations, they awake, are aware of, are forced to wrestle with, and greatly to groan under. Wherefore we put not the weak upon this service; not the weak, though they be men; not they in the presence of the strong. How then should the weakest of all be put upon it, and that when together by themselves. Men, though strong, and though acting by lawful authority in this, are not able, but with unutterable groans, to do it: how then shall all those that attempt it without that authority, perform it as acceptable worship to God?
Bunyan puts it in even sterner words…
Also our elders and watchmen covet, if we have unbelievers to behold, that our worship be performed by the most able. How then shall it be thought that they should be so silly, to turn a company of weak women loose to be abused by the fallen angels? Can it be thought that their congregation, since they have it without a command, shall fare better among those envious spirits than those that are lawfully called shall fare before the world? Watchman, watchman, see to thy duty, look well to the manner of worship that is to be performed according to thy commission.
After making his own points in regard to the separation from men by women for their own spiritual services, Bunyan turns his attention to the four points of Mr.K, which are thoroughly exegetical and expositional in nature. Whatever you may think of Bunyan’s opinion on this subject, should you read Bunyan’s full and Biblical response on those four main points, you will feel sympathy for Mr.K in regards to Bunyan’s utter ‘schooling’ of him concerning those specific scriptural texts. It was not a fair fight, in my estimation. Piece by piece, Bunyan lays out the fallacious use of Scripture on the part of Mr.K and charges him with an appeal to emotion rather than Bible.
Take heed of letting the name, or good show of a thing, beget in thy heart a religious reverence of that thing; but look to the word for thy bottom,12 for it is the word that authorizeth, whatever may be done with warrant in worship to God; without the word things are of human invention, of what splendour or beauty soever they may appear to be. Without doubt the Friars and Nuns, and their religious orders, were of a good intent at first, as also compulsive vows of chastity, single life, and the like. But they were all without the word, and therefore, as their bottom wanted divine authority, so the practice wanted sanctity by the Holy Ghost.
Even the anti-Christ Roman church, Bunyan argues, probably began their apostate practices through good intentions and testimony of blessing. And please notice as harsh as Bunyan argued, he began to wrap up his treatise with tender compassion for his sisters, saying…
Yet by all that I have said, I never meant to intimate in the least, but that believing women are saints as well as men: and members of the body of Christ. And I will add, that as they, and we, are united to Christ, and made members of his mystical body, the fulness of him that fills all in all, so there is no superiority, as I know of, but we are all one in Christ.
Of course, there are also a few lines in there that even (as the chauvinist Neanderthal man that I am) set my teeth on edge, as Bunyan argues women should have longer hair not as to display their beauty, but to cover their shame, inherited from Eve. Yeah. I’m not sure about that.
You gotta love those 17th century Non-Conformists. There’s something about being imprisoned for your faith that makes you bold in what you want to say (I mean, after all, what were they going to do – put Bunyan in prison? He was already there).
As with all the men of that great (and according to Spurgeon, greatest) generation of preachers, Bunyan was offensive. And yet, he was extraordinarily sensitive in a way no one asked him to be. That was the fruits of the Spirit shining forth in his response to Mr.K. But sensitivity aside, Bunyan displayed one mark of a true Non-Conformist – he was offensive. And yet, Bunyan also displayed the other mark of a true Non-Conformist…he was thoroughly dutiful, rational, and serious in his exposition and exegesis of the pertinent Scriptural texts. If his arguments were wrong, they were at least rational.
My goal in putting together these thoughts for you isn’t to make a judgment call on the appropriateness of all women’s studies, prayer events, or conferences. I haven’t even made that call myself. Rather, I would like you to ask the question: “Why? Why do we feel like women-only gatherings are obligatory or essential to our spiritual growth?”
If Bunyan hasn’t convinced me women-only gatherings are unbiblical, he at least has convinced me that they’re not required in the life of the church.
What do you think, sisters? I’m eager to hear your opinions on the matter.
[Contributed by JD Hall]