Book Review: Word-Filled Women’s Ministry, ed. by Gloria Furman and Kathleen Nielson
Word-Filled Women’s Ministry: Loving and Serving the Church. Edited by Gloria Furman and Kathleen Nielson. Crossway, 2015. 272 pps. $15.99.
I wonder if you’ve ever been delighted at a “bait and switch”? You buy a middle seat on the airplane, only to switch to a window in an exit row. You reserve a sub-compact rental car, only to show up and find a convertible instead. Your low-budget vacation bungalow delivers stunning ocean views.
I felt a similar bait and switch as I read Word-Filled Women’s Ministry, edited by Gloria Furman and Kathleen Nielson and published by Crossway with an imprint from The Gospel Coalition. The title of the book—and the opening descriptions of women’s ministry in chapter 1—would suggest a book about event-driven women’s ministry. And that would be worth the read, given the dearth of solid books on the topic currently available. But the book turns out to be about something much more fundamental to the health of a local church: not about event-driven women’s ministry but about ministry among women. I’ll summarize the book chapter by chapter, and then give you my assessment of its strengths and weaknesses and how it might be put to use in your church.
Part 1 (“The Heart of Women’s Ministry”) contains chapters on how the Word is the center of all ministry, on the distinctiveness of women in a complementarian framework, and on training new leaders. I found the first chapter refreshing in its insistence that all ministry depends for its lifeblood on God’s Word (26). In other words, we must design ministry—including women’s ministry—such that apart from the Bible’s life-giving power it will fail. Another useful section is in chapter 3 where Carrie Sandom constructs a complementarian framework from Scripture that undergirds the rest of the book. Her explanation of 1 Corinthian 14’s teaching on the role of women in church gatherings (56) was especially clear.
Part 2 (“Contexts for Women’s Ministry”) draws ever wider circles for thinking about women’s ministry, starting with the context of the local church, then thinking about women’s ministry as local evangelism, and finally considering the role of women’s ministry in global evangelism. Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of this chapter is the description in chapter 6 of how women’s ministry fits into the community of the local church. Cindy Cochrum makes a few important points here: first, the church neglects the giftedness of women at great peril (100). After all, the body needs every part to function well. Second, women’s ministry works best when it fits into the larger covenant commitment that believers make to each other when they join a local church. She writes, “When women’s ministry is rooted in the context of the local church, the commitment among believers that permeates the church will flavor the ministry among women” (106). And third, church leaders must “shepherd and affirm their sisters in Christ who are involved in ministry in the congregation” (109).
Part 3 (“Issues in Women’s Ministry”) describes what ministry among women should look like. It starts by examining the relationships between older and younger women as described in Titus 2 in the form of letters written between Kristie Anyabwile (a younger woman) and Susan Hunt (an older woman). Then it narrows its focus to consider ministry to women who have suffered from the sexual sin of themselves and others. And finally, the section pans out to consider practically what ministry among women might look like in a church.
Part 4 (“The End of Women’s Ministry”) uses Jesus’ teaching about the Last Day in Matthew 24-25 to consider that our ultimate goal in women’s ministry is to prepare our sisters for that great day of judgment: “As we do ministry among women, we should never presume that a woman involved in our church, or a woman who uses spiritual or even ‘Jesus-y’ talk, has come from death to life spiritually” (242).
HOW TO USE THIS BOOK
To use this book well, you’ll need to understand what it means to be and what it doesn’t mean to be.
What this Book Is Not
This book is not about what to do with your women’s ministry. That is, if you have an event-driven women’s ministry this book is not going to give you new ideas that fit inside your present framework. There’s nothing in this book that necessarily works contrary to that kind of ministry—but the book is more about ministry among women than “women’s ministry” as commonly conceived.
This book is not filled with practical details. There are some places where I wish it was more practical. For example, in chapter 4 (“The Local Church: Finding Where We Fit”) the book makes a strong call for pastors and elders to support, shepherd, and affirm those sisters ministering to women. But from the perspective of a pastor, I didn’t find much description of what that might look like. For the most part, however, the book seems wise to avoid practical details and instead paint a broader portrait of ministry among women in the local church. After all, if ministry among women is not mainly about “women’s events” but about relationships between women, practical details are going to look different from church to church and relationship to relationship.
What this Book Is
Biblical. You will be delighted with the sheer volume of sound Bible teaching in these chapters. It is Word-filled just as the title advertises. As such, it works from the Bible out to describe what ministry among women should look like, and it ends up with something quite organic and relational. As such, this will be a great book to give to those in your church who are interested in women’s ministry. It will help them think biblically about what ministry among women should look like. It might even change or augment how they conceive of women’s ministry in your church. My hope is that, having read this book, most people will be less concerned about events and attendance, and more interested in how to foster relationships between women in the church.
Relationship-Focused. Perhaps the highlight of the book for me was the letters written back and forth between an older and younger woman in chapter 7. Anyabwile and Hunt discuss what makes a woman an “older woman” in Paul’s framework of Titus 2 (166). They very helpfully hypothesize why would-be older women aren’t engaged with younger women and what we should do to change that. You might find that chapter 7 would be a great chapter to hand out to members of your congregation prior to a discussion of the opening verses of Titus 2. They do a great job of bringing Paul’s words to life.
That said, the authors of the book do not seem to share a single interpretation of Titus 2:3-5. Some see Paul as instructing Titus to teach the older women, who in turn will be the primary teachers of the younger women—where an elders’ main role in shepherding younger women is to shepherd older women. Others see Paul as instructing the elders to teach the whole congregation, with some specifics on what various groups within the congregation should hear. The authors in this book seem to come from slightly different perspectives when they explain and apply these verses.
Complementarian. The book teaches confidently from a complementarian perspective, both in how it values male leadership in the church and in how it celebrates the distinctiveness of women. It makes the excellent point that, if the Bible gives us a complementarian framework, we must consider women’s ministry differently than we do ministry to men and women, though there will be great points of similarity (204). If you’re looking for a positive, biblical defense and description of complementarianism, chapter 3 (“The Word on Women”) is a great starting point.
Thankful for the local church. The book claims to be about “loving and serving the church,” and it delivers. Here is where the denominational diversity of the book’s authors is at the same time a great strength and a limitation. It is a strength because it reminds us that women’s ministry should be focused on the local church no matter what structure and polity your church might have—from Sydney Anglican to Presbyterian to Baptist. But it also limits the book’s ability to practically flesh out what it looks like for women’s ministry to fit snugly into the context of the local church—simply because the authors have such different conceptions of what it means to be a church.
Does this book fulfill the expectations of a typical evangelical reader once they’ve read the cover? No: it’s much better. If you have struggled in your church with a women’s ministry that seems more interested in events than relationships, more interested in Christian books than the Bible, more interested in the ministry than the church, then this book will be a wonderful force for good. It reshapes our view of “women’s ministry” toward a more biblical “ministry among women” for which we should all be deeply thankful.