Engaging with Aimee Byrd’s Recent Book: Selected Points (#3: Prophesying)

Posted by R. Fowler White

In Part 1 and Part 2 of our interaction with selected themes in Aimee Byrd’s new book, we reviewed 1 Tim 2:12 and Acts 18:24-28 and Col 3:16 (with others) as representative passages related to teaching in the special and general offices. From those texts we gleaned that laymen and laywomen were exhorted to be coactive in the general teaching office, but that the special teaching office was limited to qualified men. From our interaction with Byrd to this point, then, we gather that, since reciprocal coactivity in teaching was not a mark of the special office or of the public meetings of the church, the coactive teaching of those in the general office need not diminish or undermine those in the special office.

Along with texts related to teaching, however, there are also texts related to prophesying, and from them Byrd and many others (including denominational study committees) have argued that women were permitted to prophesy in the church’s public assemblies. As plausible and as widely accepted as this view is, it is pertinent to ask this question: how is it that, when the NT churches gathered in their public meetings, only men were teaching but both women and men were prophesying? To answer this question, it is worth asking if the premise of the question was true: were men and women in fact coactive in prophesying in church? Or was it the case that the same standards regulated teaching and prophesying? Before we comment further on the question of standards, let’s examine the observation that both women and men prophesied when the churches came together.

First, to the extent that Scripture speaks of the prophethood of all believers, we should grant that men and women both did prophesy in church. For instance, in Acts 2:17-18 Peter declares that, insofar as Christ pours out His Spirit on all believers, they all share the prophetic anointing and thus all “prophesy.” That being the case, they all occupy the general prophetic office (e.g., 1 Cor 12:13; 1 John 2:20-27). In this light, the focus of our attention has to shift. Now we must ask, what did the activity of the general prophetic office look like?[1] With Peter’s citation of Joel as an interpretive backdrop for his readers, Luke portrays general prophesying throughout his narrative in Acts as a coactivity of household members, regardless of their sex, age, class, or race. But his narrative pushes us to be more specific. Indeed, Luke describes that activity almost exactly as the Chronicler describes the liturgical prophesying of selected male and female Levites under David (e.g., 1 Chron 25:1-7). That is, those Levitical liturgists are said to have “prophesied” according to their assignments in certain (but not all) elements of public worship,[2] namely, as they offered intercession, thanks, or praise (1 Chron 6:31-48; 16:4-7). Interestingly, in Acts we see that under David’s greater Son, male and female believers are said to have “prophesied” as they offered prayer, thanks, or praise. Specifically, as we follow Luke’s narrative, we are struck by the fact that, wherever Christ poured out His Spirit (in Jerusalem [Acts 1:14; 2:11], in Caesarea [Acts 10:44-46], in Ephesus [Acts 19:6], in Corinth [1 Cor 12:13], and beyond), the coactivity of men and women in many acts of public worship bore witness to their fellowship in the prophethood of all believers that the Spirit of Christ was forming.

Second, in addition to the general prophetic anointing of all believers, Scripture describes the special prophetic ministry of some believers (1 Cor 12:28-30; Eph 4:11). Upon closer examination of the prophetic activity in 1 Corinthians 11–14, it becomes clearer that, as they prophesied, men and women were coactive in certain elements of public worship, but not in all elements. For example, remembering that the Chronicler and Luke tell us that men and women “prophesied” as they were offering intercession, thanks, or praise, we need not be surprised when Paul tells us in 1 Cor 11:4-5 and 14:15-19 that men and women “prophesied” in those very same acts of worship. Other elements of worship, however, come into view in 1 Cor 11:2–14:26 (cf. Acts 2:42; 1 Tim 2:1-15; 3:14-15; 4:13). From this wider context, we realize that Paul’s overriding concern is to see all elements of public worship regulated by love of others (1 Cor 12:31–14:1). Strikingly, according to 1 Cor 14:26-40, love requires that during the public ministry of God’s word (14:26), anyone contributing to that ministry must follow the Apostle’s directives (14:36-38) on when to speak and when to be silent (14:27-35). In fact, in light of the question of whether prophesying was regulated by the same standards as teaching, it is critical to notice that the Apostle’s directives applied whether God’s word was brought in the form of “a psalm, … a teaching, … a revelation, … a tongue, … [or] an interpretation” (1 Cor 14:26b NAS95). Clearly, insofar as teaching and prophesying contributed to the public ministry of God’s word, Paul regulated them both by the same standards. Thus, 1 Cor 14:34-35 is an awfully close parallel to 1 Tim 2:11-15 (we will have more to say about this parallel in Part 4). In that light, it is remarkable to notice that, consistent with the distinction we saw between the general and special teaching offices, we also see a distinction between the general prophetic anointing and the special prophetic ministry. By all appearances, when God’s household came together (1 Cor 14:26a), men and women were expected to be coactive in the general prophetic office (e.g., 1 Cor 11:4-5; 14:15-19), but the special prophetic ministry of God’s word, like the special teaching ministry of God’s word, was limited to men (1 Cor 14:34-35). In other words, contrary to what Byrd and many others have argued, the Apostle’s policy on prophesying was, in “all the churches of the saints” (1 Cor 14:33b), coordinated with the general prophetic anointing of all and the special prophetic ministry of some. That is, Paul limited the element of worship devoted to the special prophetic ministry of God’s word to men; and, consistent with the general prophetic anointing of all, he approved of women and men being coactive in prophesying during those other elements of worship not devoted the ministry of God’s word. In short, in all the congregations of Christ’s church, the principles that regulated teaching and prophesying were the same.

In what has preceded, we have sought to show how Paul correlates the coactivity of women and men in prophesying and in teaching with the general and special offices. We have also sought to highlight that the Apostle cites love as the standard that shapes his directives for participation in the elements of public worship. We can understand even better where Paul anchors his policy on women and men in teaching, however, by taking one more step. We’ll take that step in Part 4.

[1] The trajectory of the following comments was first suggested to me by Dr. R. Laird Harris. Recently, essentially the same trajectory has been suggested independently by Iain M. Duguid, “What Kind of Prophecy Continues? Defining the Differences between Continuationism and Cessationism,” in Redeeming the Life of the Mind: Essays in Honor of Vern Poythress, ed. John Frame, Wayne Grudem, and John Hughes (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 112–28.

[2] By “elements of worship” I mean reading and preaching God’s word, singing psalms and hymns, offering prayer, presenting offerings, confessing the faith, and administering Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

3 Comments

  1. July 30, 2020 at 4:09 pm

    […] our discussion of selected points in Aimee Byrd’s recent book in Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of our review, we are hopefully clarifying the points on which we can agree and disagree about the […]

  2. August 4, 2020 at 5:08 pm

    […] this is best summarized in a set of affirmations. From the points we’ve studied in Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4, we would believe and […]

  3. August 7, 2020 at 11:32 am

    […] To this point in our interaction with Byrd’s book, we’ve pulled together representative passages related to teaching the church in its public meetings, and we’ve found that the fruit of discipleship is seen in both the general and the special teaching offices. Though the task of teaching the church in its public meetings is fulfilled only by men aspiring to and qualified for the special teaching office, Scripture clearly expects laywomen and laymen to be coactive in the general teaching office according to their ability and maturity. As Byrd points out, however, good and relevant questions about these conclusions do understandably arise when we compare Paul’s regulations for teaching with his regulations for prophesying. His statements oblige us to deal with the question, was it the case or not that, when the church came together, women and men were both prophesying and only men were teaching? We plan to take up that topic in our next post (Part 3). […]


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