The Body With One Part?

In answer to the question, “Why don’t women ever read or pray in Bethlehem’s church services?” John Piper answered in part:

But the real question, I think, they’re asking is about the prayers of praise, the reading of the text, and the preaching, and none of those the women do at Bethlehem. And that is intentional.

My reason is because—not that others have to see it this way—I view  that moment and that place in the worship service as one of pastoral authority. The pulpit stands there symbolizing the word of God preached, and that’s what the elders are responsible to do. The reading of the text is part of that. And the offering up of the prayers of the congregation in an official, formal, representative capacity at the front is pastoral.

If you switched it all around and you said, “I don’t want to view any of it that way,” then the principles wouldn’t apply in the way that we’re applying them. But in my sense, a woman is that moment acting like a pastor or elder, and that’s what we don’t think is appropriate.

It’s a pretty small, little place at Bethlehem. The pulpit is there, and those three things—the prayer of praise, the reading of the Scripture, and the preaching of the sermon—is a very, very small part of the life of this church. It’s big and important. But time-wise and ministry-wise it is a small thing. (Why don’t women ever read or pray in Bethlehem’s church services? by John Piper. © Desiring God. Website: desiringGod.org)

My heart is saddened by the ways we miss the free-flowing presence of Christ by the intrusion of religious ways of doing things that, as Paul warned, “are according to the tradition of men . . . and not according to Christ” (Col. 2:8).

“Preaching” is mentioned in the comments above. The act of the sermon is the high point of the Protestant service. Yet in the New Testament – the collection of books that is said to be the rule of faith and practice by church leaders – there is no evidence concerning one person giving a weekly sermon. Most of the time in the NT “preaching” is an outreach activity among those who are outside of Christ. There is one time when “proclamation” in the setting of saints meeting together is mentioned, but this is a declaration by the whole church, not by the speech of one person (1 Cor. 11:26).

What we do see in the NT is a gathering of believers who are actively expressing Christ in various ways (1 Cor. 14). As William Barclay noted in 1956, “The really notable thing about an early Church service must have been that almost everyone came with a sense that he had both the privilege and the obligation of contributing something to it.”

It is stated above that what happens behind the pulpit is a matter of “pastoral authority.” Where is there anything about “the pastor” in the NT, and where is his “authority” unfolded? Here’s an example of how a bogus tradition becomes the foundation for restricting others in the church. Because of this alleged “pastoral authority” women cannot do anything from behind the pulpit.

But that raises another question. Where is there anything in the NT about the centrality of the pulpit? “The pulpit stands there symbolizing the word of God preached.” And how has it come to be that such a concept has been elevated and inflated without any revelation of Christ about it?

The center point for Catholics was the sacramental table where the Mass was performed. During the Reformation, in places where Protestantism gained power, the sacramental table was pushed aside and the pulpit took its place. Now the preacher, the sermon and the pulpit are center stage.

The depth of fixation on the pulpit is illustrated by the six-picture analysis of Westminster Theological Seminary’s seal, (Winter, 2011, pp. 8-9). Each picture highlights one of the elements of the Seal. Number four depicts the “sacred desk,” and says – “Pulpit: The Word of God Incarnate” (see above). Jesus Christ for sure is the Word of God incarnate. One of his names is “the Word of God.” But to suggest that the pulpit in every church building is where the Word of God is incarnated shows how much heavy infrastructure can be built upon the foundation of religiously-misinformed human thinking.

Again, when that for which there is no evidence is magnified and unduly exalted, the blessings attached to pursuing what Christ has revealed are pushed aside. When the Pharisees multiplied their traditions, and ended up in a labyrinth of complicated rules, the Word of God was nullified.

The answer to the opening question ended by trying to play down the significance of the pulpit. It is suggested that even though women cannot break the aura surrounding the pulpit with their presence, they can participate in many other important aspects of church life. The pulpit is “big and important,” but it “is a very, very small part of the life of this church.” To me, this just points out how a small thing time-wise can become the tail that wags the dog. Statistics show that 90% of people choose what church they go to by who is behind the pulpit and what comes from the voice behind the pulpit. Untold thousands of people drive unbelievably long distances to hear their favorite preacher.

Isn’t reality more along the lines that if you removed the pulpit from most churches, it would be their death-knell and they would go out of business?

We have so elevated the pulpit, the sermon and the pastor that we have no memory of the ethos of what went on in the early church when Christ was expressed by all in a gathering with no one leading from up front. Here’s a good summary by Ernest F. Scott of what we’ve lost through human traditions.

Prayer was offered, as in the Synagogue, but not in stated liturgical form. It was uttered freely, on the impulse of the Spirit, and was presented in the name of Christ, the Intercessor . . . . The Christian faith gave rise to hymns of a new character, often produced in the heat of the moment and almost as soon forgotten; but sometimes short lyrics of real beauty were treasured and repeated . . . . Chief of all these [elements] was the observance of the Supper . . . . This, indeed, was not so much a part of the worship as the vessel which contained all the parts. The purpose of the Christian meeting was to hold the common meal, and to make it a memorial of Jesus’ Last Supper with the disciples . . . . The exercise of the spiritual gifts was thus the characteristic element in primitive worship. Those gifts might vary in their nature and degree according to the capacity of each individual, but they were bestowed on all and room was allowed in the service for the participation of all who were present. “When you meet together,” says Paul, “each of you hath a psalm, a teaching, a tongue, an interpretation.” Every member was expected to contribute something of his own to the common worship . . . . Worship in those first days was independent of all forms (The Nature of the EarlChurchCharles Scribner’s Sons, 1941, pp.75,77,79,87).

If we gathered together to express Christ in participative meetings like this, we would not have concerns about women intruding into the “holy space” behind the pulpit. We could instead then focus on lifting up Christ through the various parts of the body. It is a tragedy that we have sacrificed Christ-centered flood-gates of blessing for letting one person up front be the one mouth that speaks – and no questions are to be asked.

Thanks to

Jon Zens

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