Is it biblical to hold separate gender meetings within a church, especially on a regular basis? I believe not, apart from the meeting of elders, and yet it is the practice of many churches.
Except for the meetings of male elders for church business or prayer, I cannot find scriptures that support the practice of regular separate gender gatherings of church members for worship or for any other business. Indeed, scriptures written post-Pentecost, when the Church came into being by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, (Acts 2:1-4) nowhere advocate the assembling of separate gender meetings. On the other hand there are scriptures that reveal the occasional meetings together of some women for specific purposes, such as when Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome gathered at the tomb of Jesus to anoint His body. (Mark 16:1-2)
The teachings of Paul in his letters to Timothy preclude women from holding positions of eldership and authority over men; therefore Bishops, deacons or elders – all such ‘overseers’ were men. (1 Timothy 3:2, 8) When they met to discuss particular issues, there was no reason why they shouldn’t have invited women to attend, particularly if an issue being discussed related to women.
Because single gender meetings were not the norm in the early church, I believe we should follow that same practice today. Furthermore, I can find no mandate, command, or even a hint that single gender meetings should take place.
The fact that Christ’s twelve Apostles were all men had no bearing on the mixed gender composition of the Church. Jesus called the Apostles at that time to preach the Gospel and to be His witnesses. (1 Corinthians 15:7) They were to participate in founding the Church, with Him as the Chief Cornerstone. (Ephesians 2:20) Of course, the Holy Spirit was instrumental in giving birth to the Church at Pentecost. (Acts 2:1-42)
It is my contention the practice of holding separate gender meetings is one of tradition, but traditions can be dreadfully wrong, and we should test them to see if they conform to Scripture. (1 Thessalonians 5:21)
Scriptural Support for the Proposition
I’ll support my proposition that separate gender meetings within a church are non-biblical by consulting books of the New Testament only, because the Church did not exist in Old Testament times. The first mention of Christ’s church comes in Matthew 16:18 when He said He would build His church on ‘this rock’ . Apart from that text and Matthew 18:17 there are no other mentions of Christ’s church per se in the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. We therefore have to turn our attention to the other books, four of which have texts providing information on the matter.
The Acts of the Apostles
As we read through Acts we find that after Christ’s ascension, both men and women ‘continued with one accord in prayer and supplication.’ (Acts 1:14)
Shortly after the coming of the Holy Spirit, Peter stood up and addressed the Jewish men of Judea saying that he had a message for them and all who dwell in Jerusalem, i.e., both male and female. (Acts 2:14) He quoted Joel 2:28-32 which said God would pour out His Spirit on ‘all’ flesh and ‘sons and daughters’ who would prophesy. (Acts 2:17, 18) The pouring out of the Spirit would be on both men and women, and both would prophesy. Indeed, in Acts 21:9 we read that Philip the evangelist had four virgin daughters who prophesied. Peter said the promise of the Holy Spirit was for ‘all’ whom the Lord will call. (Acts 2:38, 39) Three thousand souls were added that day. They, both men and women, continued in the breaking of bread and in prayer. They had all things in common, selling their possessions and goods. Believers were increasingly added to the Lord – multitudes of both men and women. (Acts 5:14)
Several years later, Barnabas sought and found Saul at Tarsus and took him to Antioch where for a whole year they ‘assembled with the church and taught a great many people’. There, the disciples were called Christians, a derisory term. (Acts 11:25, 26) The church was composed of both men and women who met together to worship God and receive instruction.
Herod, after killing James the brother of John, imprisoned Peter, but the Lord’s angel released him, and he went to John Mark’s mother’s house where many were gathered together praying. They were astonished at the miracle that had taken place. (Acts 12:1-17) Both men and women were gathered together in prayer (v 12) at the house, where Peter was greeted by Rhoda. (v 13)
The next significant mention concerning the meeting together of men and women can be found in chapter 14:34 of 1 Corinthians. There Paul describes how women are to conduct themselves during worship. He says, “Let your women keep silent in churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says.” Clearly this verse supports the principle of men and women being together during church worship and the relationship of submission of the women to men. By extension it is reasonable to apply this principle to all male/female relationships within the Church. Indeed, Paul clearly presents the argument of submission in Ephesians 5:17-27.
In Colossians 3:15-17 we find Paul emphasising that the church is ‘one body’ whose members are to teach and admonish one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. By way of Paul’s teaching, it would appear that women, even though submissive to men, can admonish both men and women; therefore the keeping of silence required in I Corinthians 14:34 must refer specifically to ‘prophesy’ mentioned in verse 31. They were not to prophesy at church gatherings. Today, there is no prophesy, since all prophecy ceased with the completion of Scripture. (Revelation 22:18)
Paul desired that men and women should worship together; the men praying and the women dressed in ‘modest apparel’. (1 Timothy 2:8, 9) He said women should learn in silent submission, and he did not permit them to teach or have authority over men. (v 12)
Having diligently searched relevant scriptures, i.e., the whole of the New Testament, I have not been able to find any that are contrary to my proposition. Indeed, I’ve found the above mentioned texts support it. My purpose in presenting this article is not to bring division, but to promote unity in the body of Christ, which is one in Him. (Galatians 3:26-29) Therefore divisions of gender, colour, race, or of any kind do not accord with those who have ‘put on Christ’. We are ‘free’ to have separate gender meetings, but as Paul said, all things are lawful, but not all things are expedient. (1 Corinthians 6:12)