Preaching from the Pulpit
by Todd Elder
One of the common doctrinal debates is whether or not women should be allowed to preach at the pulpit. Most denominations would acknowledge and agree upon various roles for men and women within a congregation. However, there can be much disagreement within groups when the issue of the pulpit is included because the pulpit connotes authority. When dealing with this situation, it would be better to start by asking if there should even be a pulpit. If not, then one can look into the roles of men and women in a fellowship without the hindrance of that form of authority.
From the Pulpit
The Form of the Pulpit
Within a modern church, the pulpit tends to be the area of focus during a worship service and is primarily used for a message or sermon. Sometimes the pulpit is placed front and center. Other times, the pulpit shares the front with a lectern used by the laity for the reading of Scripture or for announcements. A couple of centuries ago, the pulpits often had three levels with the lowest level for announcements, the middle level for reading of Scripture, and the top level for the main message or sermon. Before the Protestant Reformation, the pulpit was usually a single elevated level.
History of the Pulpit
During the first couple of centuries AD, believers would often meet in homes. The first reference to a pulpit does not appear until a letter in the third century AD. During the Middle Ages, pulpits became commonplace, but were not typically used much for sermons because the sacraments were more important to the Catholic Church. The preaching of the Word at the pulpit became more important with denominations after the Protestant Reformation. Since then, the authority of Scripture, the church, and the preacher became closely connected with the pulpit.
The Authority of the Preacher
The pulpit is generally considered the place where one has authority over a congregation. To have authority over a person or a group is a form of covenant and there are bonds, both physically and spiritually, within a covenant. For one person to have authority over a large or mixed group of people is inappropriate. One of the great problems associated with a regular preacher (whether a priest, pastor, reverend, or minister) is that the position lends itself to the idea of a spiritual superman. This person is expected to have a special relationship with the Almighty and then dispense what he has to offer to the entire group. Preaching of this type stifles the growth of everyone involved and only helps a few in any given message. It is much better if each individual in the group is learning the techniques for studying Scripture and developing the disciplines of worship so that each person can have that relationship with the Almighty. This enables each person to become mature in the Messiah and allows each to pass that on to their children and to other people as well.
Within a Fellowship
Defining a Fellowship
One way to define a fellowship is a group of believers who interact with each other for the benefit of each other. This interaction requires a relationship with one another not just on a physical level but on a spiritual level as well. This functions much better in smaller groups since this allows individuals to know each other more personally and be more responsive to what is happening in their lives. They are able to listen to the needs of another, take the time to pray, encourage people in difficult times, and care for each other in ways not possible in large groups or while under the authority of one person.
Authority within a Fellowship
The authority within a fellowship usually stays within the limits of a family unit. The man has authority over his wife and children. The wife has authority over her children. However, it is possible for a person to submit to another person's authority outside of the family unit when there is a need for ministering or discipleship. Keep in mind, this type of situation should not be entered into lightly and should only be done with a mature believer who has shown themselves to be solid in their faith. In such a situation, a man should not be an authority over a woman who is not his wife and a woman should not be an authority over a man. It is best for men to work with men and women to work with women when authority is involved.
Men, women, and children can come together as a group to worship the Almighty. The different forms of worship such as singing, praising, reading Scripture, and sharing testimony are appropriate within a mixed group. The people in that group all come together on an equal level without one being an authority over another.
Sharing and Advice
A large percentage of the help that one believer needs from another believer comes in the form of asking for information and advice. This can be done in a small or large group and even in a mixed setting because no authority is involved. In this form, one person can ask a question and a few others, men or women, who are able to answer may do so because they are sharing their experience or wisdom. This is vastly different from preaching where the preacher teaches what he or she thinks is important and expects the listeners to follow or obey.
Ministering to another involves caring for an individual through a singular problem or difficult time and often deals with spiritual issues. During this process, it can become appropriate to give someone authority so they are able to help. The one given authority now has a responsibility in helping the person in need. This comes when the person in need is unable to do something for themselves. One example of this is when giving another person authority to pray over them for healing or for casting out a demonic influence. Because of the spiritual bonds involved, the influence one person can have over another through such authority can be deep and immense, especially when dealing with issues of prayer.
Discipleship, by definition, is a long term relationship that involves teaching another to follow the ways of the Almighty. This involves prolonged contact between the teacher and the student and should focus on the individual needs of that student. Therefore, a large group for discipleship becomes inappropriate because the individualized focus becomes lost. Discipleship focuses on education and, therefore, tends to be more physical than spiritual. However, there is still authority involved because of the submission of the student to the teacher.
Ultimately, the pulpit form of worship lends itself to placing one person in charge of a group rather than letting each individual grow in maturity and ability to help others. This type of authority, from either man or woman, should not exist and instead should be replaced by letting those who are mature in faith be examples to the others. Discipleship and ministry should be done men with men and women with women because of the authority involved. By following the appropriate boundaries, everyone can benefit.