First in an occasional series.
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams,
your young men will see visions.
29 Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days.
God’s vision for the church, proclaimed centuries before Pentecost, was that this body would exhibit radical equality. Discrimination on the basis of gender, age, or social status would be completely dismantled. Even young girls would prophesy, that is, proclaim the truth. (Kind of like in this video:)
In the Old Testament, God makes a promise through the prophet Joel. Israel, exiled, cried out to God. God responded with a call to repentance, and a promise of restoration.
Through Joel, God promised to restore them as a nation, and to bless them, abundantly enough to “repay you for the years the locusts have eaten.”
Verse 28 says “and afterward…” After what? After repentance, rescue, and all that blessing, God will pour out the Spirit, not just on a few, but on “all people.” Not just on men, but women, not just on sons, but daughters. Not just on old people, but young.
This ancient prophesy was fulfilled, the Bible says, at Pentecost. This is not just our interpretation of the text, but the Bible’s interpretation of itself. In Acts 2:17-21, Peter quotes the prophet Joel, saying that the coming of the Holy Spirit was the fulfillment of that prophesy.
So based on the prophesy and fulfillment of it, what does the Bible say the church should be characterized by: hierarchy, or equality? And what does the Bible say about who can prophesy or preach?
Where, exactly, in the words “your daughters shall prophesy” do we find rules restricting the roles of women? We don’t. To prophesy means to proclaim, to preach, to speak truth. (Despite this, authors like Wayne Grudem have attempted not only to oppress women but to do so in a systematized way, by creating a list of 83 things women can’t do). Marg Mowczko has an excellent critique of Grudem’s (wacky) proclamations here.
The Bible does not elevate one gender above another but calls every person to full participation in the body. It calls us to unity that bridges every divide: gender, race, class, even religion. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28, which seems to echo the refrain of Joel’s prophesy and Peter’s affirmation of it.) The verses about spiritual gifts and the metaphors comparing the church to a human body make no mention of gender. So why has the church, which this passage in Joel and Acts refers to, continued to restrict the participation of women? (Not all churches, but many.) Roles within the body are to be based on spiritual gifts, not gender.
Perhaps it is because of faulty logic. If men allow women to flourish, does that require them to diminish? Is the relationship between the sexes a zero-sum game? (Author Carolyn Custis James says no in this excellent article The Rise of Women and the Manhood Crisis.)
The word for prophesy in the biblical Greek of the New Testament (propheteuo) means
- to utter forth, declare, a thing which can only be known by divine revelation
- o under like prompting, to teach, refute, reprove, admonish, comfort others
That sounds very pastoral. It sounds like preaching, or teaching, under the influence of the Holy Spirit.
So why do “bible believing” churches restrict women from preaching? Are they worried that if women fully use their gifts, men will have to step down, or feel slighted, or diminished?
That’s not what the Bible says. This verse in Joel (and in Acts) says that when women flourish, men flourish too. That the Spirit is on all people, not just some. The Holy Spirit is not limited, but abundant. If I am filled with the Spirit, that does not mean there is less Spirit for everyone else. it means the Spirit is flowing freely, among all the people.
What’s been your experience? Are you a part of a church where both young and old, men and women, can speak God’s truth freely?