“Where are they? Where are the godly women who are making disciples in the church?” I remember asking myself this question when I became a Christian a decade ago. With a dark past and a hollow, cold heart, I had not the slightest clue as to what a God-fearing, steadfast, devoted, hope-filled, and enduring woman looked like, let alone how to live a life of ordinary faithfulness in a Romans 2 world. “Where are they?” was a question I continually asked in those early years, and even more so as I stepped into local church ministry. Those women were not to be found, or if they were, they weren’t making disciples. There are a multitude of reasons as to why this was so, but that is not the purpose for which this article has been written. There are three purposes of this article. One, to argue that there is biblical evidence that spiritual mothers (and spiritual fathers!) are crucial to the health of a local church. Second, to show that there are a lack of spiritual mothers in the church. And third, to identify who Paul (and through divine inspiration, God) and the New Testament churches qualify as a spiritual mother in the church.
The New Testament does not have a category for a Christ follower that is outside the bounds of familial language. In 1 Timothy 3:14, Paul expresses that the church and its members are to relate to one another as a family: “I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God.” Beginning with the qualifications for elders in Titus 1, pastors teach sound doctrine to men and women in the church. In Titus 2, under the authority of the church older women are to “teach what is good” (Titus 2:3). Paul is assuming that the women who are teaching other women are under the authority of a local church. It is not merely the role of an elder to teach what is good – it is the role of older and wiser women in discipleship relationships with younger women. Women are to teach younger women in the faith in the context of a covenant community. As wonderful and fruitful as many parachurch ministries are, on the Last Day it will be Christ’s universal church that remains standing. For this reason, it is appropriate that local churches be the primary home of women’s formation and discipleship.
There are many parts of the body and they do not all have the same function (Rom. 12:4), but each has a key role in the health of the body. The body is in pain when one or several parts are not functioning in accordance with how the body is intended to work, and nowhere is this more apparent in a local church when there is a lack of biblically literate, wise, and godly women, or a lack of them investing in less mature, younger women in the faith.
Older women are to teach what is right and pure; that which accords with sound doctrine that leads to good works. They are to adorn themselves . . . with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works” (2 Tim. 2:9-10). The “older woman” language in Titus 2:3 means that she is someone older in maturity, wisdom, and godliness, in whose speech and conduct evidences that she is full of the fruit of the Spirit rather than the spirit of the age. If a woman has been a believer for even a short number of years, there is likely a younger girl or woman in the faith for her to invest in and train to be and make fruitful disciples.
God’s Word alone is sufficient to grow us in godliness. but the glorious thing about our great God is that he has given us the Church as an additional instrument in growing us up into spiritual maturity. Men and women purchased by Christ pursue holiness and godliness together and in so doing the Spirit binds their hearts together. Paul uses the binding and personal language of church members being “knit together in love” that they might be encouraged by one another and together “reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding” and “firmness of your faith in Christ.”1
The Life of the Mind in the Life of the Woman
To think rightly about God and to develop the skill of articulating doctrine to other women is a gift that should not only be allowed of women, it should be encouraged and championed by their brothers. How, exactly, are women to teach other women in the way of sound doctrine in discipling relationships and biblical appropriate teaching environments if they themselves have not developed the skill of articulating doctrine and applying it to their own lives? Theological precision matters not only from the pulpit; women do not need less theology, they need more theology worked out in the context of discipling relationships.
The path to being and making disciples is through sound “knowledge of the glory of the Lord” (Hab. 2:14). To be a disciple is be a learner, and because women are called to make disciples, it follows that they are called to be thinkers and contemplators of God. As a fiercely devoted complementarian, I actually don’t believe my desire to study at the PhD level and my desire to be a faithful complementarian to be at odds with one another. Because Jesus Christ has made me his own, he commands me to fulfill the Great Commission and make disciples who make disciples, women who will articulate the sound doctrine that accords with sound living.If women are going to make disciples of women then it is appropriate that there will be women to train them. I would put forth the suggestion that perhaps there is a correlation between 1) the lack of disciple-making women (composed of all life seasons) in local churches and 2) the lack of theological robust and ministerially-prepared women. Women are to be contemplators of the deep things of God that lead to righteous living when applied to their life, and I see the call to train and equip women for their future ministries as an urgent task.
Studying theology and the deep things of God is not a merely a scholarly pursuit, but a Christian one. This is why the trope phrase, “We don’t need all that theology stuff, just give me discipleship,” is an indictment on the goal of forming a whole person into spiritual maturity. Paul is saying that theology and discipleship need one another to develop holistically faithful and fruitful disciples who will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, slowly but surely, after they “come to the knowledge of truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). To be clear, having head knowledge of sound doctrine is not the same as sound doctrine transforming a person holistically. Knowledge of God that is not worked out in real life puffs up “with conceit and understands nothing” (1 Tim. 6:3). Fearing the Lord is the beginning of knowledge and “those who fear God come to know him in such a way that they actually become holy, faithful, loving, and merciful, like him.” A right view of theology is not one that wields it as a weapon against our theological enemies, but one that deepens our understanding of the triune God, “for the living God is so tremendously glorious in all his ways that he cannot be known without being adored.”2
In the words of Calvin, “Can the mind be aroused to taste the divine goodness without at the same time being wholly kindled to love God in return?”3 The goal of theology in and for the church is to raise the bride’s every deepening, adorning gaze to her bridegroom, and she may find life with him as she drinks deep from the theological well of life. Why should theological instruction find its home in the local church? Sound doctrine that accords with godliness will lead to rightly fearing God and so worshiping accordingly.
To be a growing disciple is to grow in a knowledge of God and his works, to have the mind stretched, the heart affected and the life devoted. Who will be the ones teaching women how the sound doctrine exposited in the corporate gathering is to work itself out in their own lives? It is other women. A few months ago I heard a pastor and professor in a SBC seminary say, “The highest place you can be in the SBC is the local church.” In my early years as a Christian, women such as Elisabeth Elliot mothered me from afar, but she did not know me and my sin. She never wiped the tears from my eyes, radiated the tenderness of Jesus in the form of a hug, rebuked me in gentle love or embodied the loveliness of Jesus in her selfless conduct before me.
Paul is at pains to show that missiology is central to a Christian adorning their life with the gospel: teach and live in accordance with these truths, so that you will model to a world how you are unlike the world as you do good works. “Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech” (Titus 2:7). Lady Wisdom in Proverbs 2 is not quarrelsome, slanderous, self-seeking, or foolish but fears the Lord, patiently endures trials, corrects in gentle love, and pursues the holy living purchased for her in Christ. There is a great need for older women in the faith to be equipped to articulate doctrine who will declare the gospel to other women with their lips and display and adorn the gospel with their conduct, ready to defend the faith to a godless age.
Single Women And Maternal Instincts
Titus 2:4-5 raises a question. Is being a spiritual mother reserved for married women with children? In verse 4 Paul writes that the young women are to “love their husbands and children” and to be “working at home . . . submissive to their own husbands.” Being a biological mother and a homemaker is a glorious and often thankless task, and one to be stewarded and lived out with great care and diligence. But let’s think about which human author is penning these words about women being homemakers. It is written by a single Apostle. Clearly the apostle Paul is aware that there are single women. Single women may have been a minority as Paul was penning these words, but Scripture does provide a category for them.
A woman is not only a woman in biological makeup, but also in sociological categories: a woman is born with maternal instincts, whether she ever physically bears children or not. Just as our physical bodies are the same yet different, so are we sociologically similar but different, in ways that complement one another. 4
“Now consider a woman who is biologically unable to have children, but who, with her husband, welcomes foster children into her home, pouring love and nurture into their lives? Is such a woman a mother? In the biological sense, no; but because the meaning of motherhood is nurture and sacrificial, self-giving love she is more truly a mother than someone who bears a child before neglecting it until it leaves home. Thus, a woman who never bears a child does not cease to be a woman. Nor is her womanhood diminished, even if she never cares for children, for she maintains the capacity and freedom to live in a maternal way toward others in need of maternal nurture. In this larger sense, ‘all women are called to motherhood’ and all men are called to fatherhood.”5
Reaching mature womanhood is not attained when one gains an earthly husband or bears a child; child-bearing and homemaking are not requirements to qualify as a godly woman. Marriage and child-bearing are roles in which the Lord grows women in godliness, displays the gospel, and in which maternal instincts are deepened, but because all women have been created by God with the same physical and sociological traits, all women, whether single or married, have innate, distinct maternal traits. The foil to biblical womanhood, feminism, shouts that a single woman is free to do as she pleases; she is responsible to no one and owes no one anything. Yet the single Christian woman, committed to a local church body, knows that her life is not her own. Her singleness allows her to be wholly devoted to the Lord in body, mind, soul, and time and she longs to please him by utilizing this stewardship he has given to her. The ministry of a single woman’s household is a unique privilege to be received with gladness, not begrudging slothfulness as it it often is. Being a single woman does not mean a woman has no “household” by which to provide a welcoming and nurturing environment, nor does it mean that she lacks the opportunity to make disciples. The covenant-Creator has wired women to have distinctly maternal traits including both biological and sociological.
The purpose of emphasizing this is to say that both single women and married women are called to being spiritual mothers just as the single apostle was made a spiritual father through the gospel. “I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (1 Cor. 4:15). Paul loved young men in the church, using deeply personally terms of endearment such as “my beloved child” and “my true child” to refer to Titus and Timothy. He yearned and burned with affection for actual people in actual churches whom he wanted to invest in, not simply the idea of them. Not only did Paul see this as his call, but his words in Romans 16:13 reflect that he had a spiritual mother, the mother of Rufus, “who has been a mother to me.”
Paul swelled with gratitude for Timothy’s theological astute maternal heritage in Lois and Eunice, along with the faithful and fruitful ministries of Phoebe, Junia, and Lydia, of whom Paul considered partners in the gospel. The call to ministry is “demanded of us all, lived by not a few; not, indeed complete in any one; complete only in Him Who is the Head and Life of all, and in His Body, which is the Church.”6
Married and single women, divorced and widowed women, homemakers, students, missionaries, evangelists and women in the workplace: when these unique and crucial ministries of women are considered, “we’ll find that the ministries available to women are part of the lifeblood of a local church’s witness to the world.”7 The Bible and over two thousand years of church history are full of both single and married men and women who have been used by the Lord and of whom the world is not worthy. Amidst blazing complementarian debates in our current moment, perhaps a question that should be emphasized more is, “What are we doing to raise up spiritual mothers in the church who will teach younger women the Scriptures, of which ‘will teach you to live, and learn you to die’?8
1 c.f. Col. 2:2-5
2 Reeves, Rejoice and Tremble, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2021), 137.
3 Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. By Henry Beveridge (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2008), 1.1.3.
4 Schreiner, “Man and Woman: Toward an Ontology,” in CBMW Journal (Eikon 1.2, Nov 2019), 72.
5 Budziszewski, On the Meaning of Sex (Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2014), 55-56
6 Charles, Sketches of the Women of Christendom, (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co), 1880, 333-34.
7 McCoy, “Why Women are Critical to the Mission of the Church,” (Biblical Woman), 2018.
8 Actes and Monuments of these latter and perilous dayes, touching matters of the Church, Vol. 6 Book X, “Beginning with the Reign of Queen Mary,” (London: R,B, Seeley and W. Burnside), 1838, 422.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published at Credo.