Editors’ note: This continues a series addressing your specific questions related to ministry among women through the local church. We have a team of women eager to respond to a select number of questions. Please send all questions on the subject of women’s ministry to our coordinator for women’s initiatives, Mallie Taylor (mallie.taylor [@] thegospelcoalition.org).
Then make sure to pick up a copy of Word-Filled Women’s Ministry: Loving and Serving the Church (Crossway) [review]. This new book casts a vision for ministry among women that’s grounded in God’s Word, grows in the context of God’s people, and aims for the glory of God’s Son. You can also now register for our 2016 National Women’s Conference, June 16 to 18, in Indianapolis.
Previously in this series:
The Scriptures plainly articulate why and how teachers in the local church do what we do: we teach to glorify God by equipping the saints for the work of ministry (Eph. 4:11–16). This equipping builds up the body of Christ so that together we mature into his fullness, ministering in unity and speaking the truth in love. How can we accomplish such a lofty mission? Only by depending on the Spirit of God and the Word of God in which Christ himself shines. We’ll speak it in various ways in various teaching contexts. But a teacher’s mission of equipping the saints through the Word remains the same whether we speak to children in the nursery, youth in the gym, or women in Bible study groups.
Pastors and women’s ministry leaders regularly ask TGC Women’s Initiatives about the most profitable Bible study resources. Selecting good material to help us teach Scripture is crucial—and hard work. Rather than listing resources, I’ll offer five questions to ask of any material we might use. The good news is we’re not meant to face these questions alone but in the community of God’s people, with the input of brothers and sisters in our local congregations.
1. Will this material equip women by encouraging them to study and teach the Bible for themselves?
I was recently reminded (in Psalm 29) of the power of God’s speech: “The voice of the LORD is over the waters . . . the voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is full of majesty. The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars . . . the voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire.” This very voice is the one that speaks to us in Scripture and by which God transforms us. So if we’re going to equip women for the work of ministry, above all we’ll call on them to know God as he’s made himself known through his Word. Only then can they go about the business of making him known in their various vocations.
Our Bible teaching—and the curriculum we use—ought to train women to listen to God’s Word and share it with others, especially non-Christians. What will this look like practically? Here are some questions to ask:
- Does the material follow the text of Scripture closely?
- Does it help us discern a text’s central thrust and its structure?
- Is attention paid to the literary and theological contexts—of the passages before and after, of the entire book, and of the whole biblical story?
- How about the historical context? Who was the original audience and what was the situation in which the passage was written?
Good teaching (and resources) will train us to ask basic questions of a text so that we’re hearing God’s voice as clearly as possible.
Of course, to encourage others to study the Bible for themselves, we must study it for ourselves. This is one reason I appreciated the discipline of writing my own material for Bible studies when I served in my local church’s women’s ministry. I wanted the freedom to shape the questions and gear them toward that group of women, addressing their specific needs and concerns. The process of preparing questions about the text richly benefited my soul, even as it benefited my teaching. Prayerfully studying a book of the Bible ahead of each semester strengthened my understanding of the book as a whole—and, consequently, all of its parts—and enabled me to teach from the heart as I applied it to the hearts of women. Even though my teaching might be mediocre compared to a more experienced teacher on a screen or page, I was the one who was present with these women; who prayed with and for them; who knew their hardships and joys; who shared the Lord’s Supper with them week after week. Immediate, life-on-life ministry of the Word offers significant advantages over Bible study in which women facilitate discussion based on the work of a remote instructor. (I realize not all will agree on this point. In certain situations, heavily relying on outside material can be a good option.)
Most women who lead Bible studies aren’t full-time, paid ministry staff like I was. Some of my friends in this season of their lives can’t take on the joyful burden of writing Bible study material, or even teaching intensive Bible studies week after week. The power of the gospel is not tethered to a particular Bible study method. But some methods are better than others. We do well to subject any approach or material to rigorous questions to ensure we’re getting into the text (rather than just launching out from the text) and teaching women in the process how to ask good questions for themselves.
I regularly encourage women’s ministry leaders to develop both a short-term and a long-term plan for their approach to Bible study groups. Why not begin taking steps as a church to train women to prepare and teach Christ-exalting expository Bible studies—even if it’d be some time before these women felt ready to take up that mantle? (Here’s an article I wrote about a group we formed for this purpose in my previous local church; Carrie Sandom also offers sound counsel on training new leaders in her chapter in Word-Filled Women’s Ministry.)
2. Will this material equip women by demonstrating the centrality of Christ and his gospel?
Is the material explicitly anchored in the gospel of grace so that its message and method put forward the crucified and risen Christ as supreme? To cultivate Word-filled ministry with the gospel as the cutting edge, we must trust the power of the Word to make people “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15). This requires careful reading of each passage in the context of the Bible’s whole story of redemption through Christ.
How easy it is for us to assume the gospel! And when we only assume the gospel, we soon motivate women with something other than Christ. Not every Bible study resource—even those following the text line by line—majors on the person and work of our triune God. Christ-centeredness doesn’t happen naturally—and it doesn’t happen in some of the Bible study material offered by Christian publishers. Honoring God as the center of our lives must flow into keeping him at the center of our teaching. Of course, the benefit of working within a local church is that we can seek the help of experienced leaders in evaluating the gospel focus of various materials.
Along with studying books of the Bible, it’s helpful to read biblical-theological or topical material to mature our understanding of God’s eternal purposes in Christ. Alistair Begg and Sinclair Ferguson’s Name Above All Names, for example, demonstrates how all the Scriptures culminate in Christ. I’ve found it a helpful resource for women who want to grow in their ability to see how the Old and New Testaments fit together.
3. Will this material equip women by applying God’s Word to real life, showing the Scriptures’ relevance and power to transform hearts?
Sometimes the reasons women seek primary nourishment through popular book clubs and social groups rather than Bible study gatherings have more to do with our (the teachers’) half-hearted efforts to apply God’s Word than we’d like to admit. Yes, sound Bible teaching isn’t dictated by “felt” needs or desires, and we don’t want to use Bible study material that is. Yes, we must determine what the text means before we can determine what it means to me. But when I don’t invest the prayer, reflection, and hard work to show a passage’s burning relevance to the skeptic, the octogenarian on dialysis, the middle-aged professional at the cubical, or the single mom struggling to make ends meet, I’m not offering faithful expository teaching.
We want the material we use for group Bible study to be postured toward real women and to aim for their mind, their heart, their affections, their will. Robust Bible study material will feature application questions that truly grow out of the message of the text, relying on God’s Word and Spirit to mature us in godliness. We want curriculum that helps women view their lives, their relationships, their workplaces, and their world in light of God’s eternal truth.
4. Will this material equip women by supporting the overall discipleship strategy I’ve prayerfully developed for this group?
When I started teaching in my church I designed a long-term (five-to-ten-year) Bible study strategy, considering how God might shape women’s minds and hearts over our years together. It was helpful to consult regularly with our pastors on these plans, and each year I also gathered several women leaders to discern any necessary adjustments to our strategy. Even with the big picture in place, evaluative questions need to be asked often, especially in the process of selecting Bible study curriculum.
As I selected material for various Bible studies and small groups, I pondered questions like:
- What’s the general level of Bible literacy within this group?
- Is there a particular genre or portion of Scripture we haven’t studied?
- What are the burning issues these women are facing? Is there a book of the Bible that deals more directly with these sorts of challenges?
- On what parts of Scripture or topics will my pastor be preaching?
- What are the most common questions women are asking me these days? What cultural issues are most complex for them?
- Are our Bible study approaches and materials helping us accomplish our mission—so that the women we’re teaching are applying the Scriptures to their various contexts?
Sometimes when I felt a woman needed more personalized attention on account of a specific issue in her life, I worked through a book of the Bible one-on-one with her so that we could press into God’s Word more interactively, apply it more directly, and pray it together more intimately.
5. Will this material equip women by coming under the teaching ministry of my pastor(s) and elders. Does it align with my church’s vision and doctrinal convictions?
Ideally, as teachers in the local church, we make these curricular decisions in consultation with our pastor(s) and elders. What a blessing when they support and pray for us in our work! Good partnership with our leaders keeps us mindful that our work doesn’t aim just to build up women in the Word but also to contribute to the life and health of the whole church body. Pastors and elders are called to shepherd the flock (including other teachers) and to exercise oversight after the pattern of Jesus himself. What a gift! Our godly leadership as teachers within Christ’s church calls for our godly submission, not least in areas relating to the study of God’s Word.
May God grant you great wisdom and joy as you make these important decisions about Bible study materials, always with an eye toward your principal mission to equip the saints for the work of ministry. As we continue to listen to God—taking him at his Word, receiving his whole counsel, and growing in our ability to handle his Word in all its parts and genres—he promises to use us for his glory, all by his grace.