Women in Ministry: Starting Something You Can’t Finish

This is a “blast from the past,” originally written 20 July 2006 between the Episcopal Church’s General Convention in Columbus, OH and the Church of God General Assembly in Indianapolis, IN. I’m reproducing it to make it more accessible; thanks to Jonathan Stone for his interest in this; Jonathan Martin also made a strong statement regarding a related issue at the 2008 General Assembly.

The Episcopal Church’s election of a woman as its Presiding Bishop has created quite a stir inside and outside of the Anglican Communion. Women ministers are generally associated with liberal churches, but on the other end of the spectrum they’ve been in ministry for a good deal longer. But there are still debates.

When the whole subject of women in ministry is chronicled, usually it starts with “Main Line” churches, such as the Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, etc. But the reality is that these churches are “Johnny (or Janey) come latelys” to the whole business of women ministers. This year is the 100th anniversary of the Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles which proved to be the “kick-off” (but not really the beginning of the game) of the modern Pentecostal movement. From the very start Pentecostal churches have had women ministers in a wide variety of capacities. One Pentecostal denomination (Foursquare) was founded by a woman (Aimee Semple McPherson.)

However, this has not come without restrictions. This coming week the oldest Pentecostal denomination in the US, the Church of God, is considering allowing women to be “ordained bishops,” which is the church’s current parlance for ministers with the highest level of ministerial credentialing the Church offers. (Officials at the international and state/regional level are referred to as the Presiding Bishop, Administrative Bishop, etc.)

Pentecostal churches came into the world without many of the benefits of other churches. No Pentecostal church, for example, has ever had state support, or is a “descendant” of a church with state support. This takes away from some of the respectability that Main Line churches generally have accrued. They also drew (and to a large extent still draw) their membership from the poorer parts of society. So they had none of the “enlightenment” (if it can be seen in this way) that the “upper reaches” of society always claim, and this includes the business of “women’s liberation” as a modern phenomenon.

So why did they leave their Main Line counterparts in the dirt on this issue? There are two reasons for this.

The first is that Pentecostals read parts of the New Testament that others didn’t. This wasn’t restricted to Acts 2; it included Romans 16, where many women are listed in very responsible positions in the church. We also should note that Peter’s repetition of Joel 2 about sons and daughters prophesying is instructive. We will leave the rest of the exposition of a Pentecostal view of the subject to our friends in the Assemblies of God, which produced this document on the subject.

The second is that early Pentecostals at least were generally not a product of an industrialised society. Put another way, they lived in a world where the family was an economic unit, where everyone—father, mother, children—worked for the survival of the family. This alone puts a whole new balance of things; it makes everyone responsible, which is one reason why women stepping into ministry wasn’t such a shock. (It also explains why Pentecostal churches have produced so many “child ministers” as well.) With industrialisation came the father leaving home to earn a living and the children incarcerated in schools, which left mother “high and dry,” to rebel in the 1960’s.

Women in ministry in Pentecostal churches thus came out of an entirely different idea than that in the Main Line churches, whose admission of women into ministry was largely a manifestation of modernity. Those of us who have known “old time” Pentecostal women ministers know that they were an entirely different kind of person from those who pack the pulpits of withering Main Line churches.

But societal progress affected Pentecostal churches as well. In the Church of God, for example, the percentage of women of the total number of those in ministry peaked in 1950, declining after that until recent years. Industrialisation and the need for respectability took its toll. And of course there were debates on how far women could go in ministry and what they could do, bringing different results in different denominations.

With all of this, we need to say a few things about women in ministry that our friends in various persuasions might find of interest:

  • For a Christian church to have women in ministry, it first must have a “Protestant” view of the role of the church. Catholics and their friends object to women “priests” as they feel a woman cannot represent God to the people. In their context, this is correct. But this overlooks the fact that whole Roman Catholic concept of the church as a formal mediator between man and God—complete with a priesthood—is basically unBiblical.
  • A Christian church with women in ministry must also have the operation of the Pentecostal gifts and manifestations. This is because of the link in Joel 2 and Acts 2 between women and the prophetic gift, which in a New Testament context only takes place with the full complement of Pentecost. Since many Anglican (and other) churches are cessationist, this leaves them out for women ministers as well, but it also calls into question whether they are really in conformity with the New Testament.
  • One of the great evangelical objections to women in ministry is the issue of headship. Women who go into ministry thus need to be servant leaders, but in reality any Christian minister needs to be a servant leader: “But Jesus called the ten to him, and said: ‘Those who are regarded as ruling among the Gentiles lord it over them, as you know, and their great men oppress them. But among you it is not so. No, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to take the first place among you must be the servant of all; For even the Son of Man came, not be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’” (Mark 10:42-45) (Update: I deal in more detail with the subject of Authority and Evangelical Churches here.)
  • Anglicans who object to women in ministry on headship grounds ignore the fact that the mother church—the Church of England—has as its “governor” a woman, Queen Elizabeth II, and that the Church was set aright largely under Elizabeth I. Although the Queen is not a minister of the church, headship is headship, secular or ecclesiastical.
  • Churches that set women in any kind of “authority” position cannot deny them the rest. It does not make sense that the laity can be under “authority” of a woman while the ministers cannot.
  • Women in ministry are frequently connected with “feminisation” of the church. But Pentecostal churches are, ironically, the best example of the contrary. Most Pentecostals are under male pastors, and they in turn under entirely male officials, if their church is denominational. But Pentecostal church memberships typically run a female:male ratio of 2:1, and this extends to other evangelical churches as well. There are deeper reasons why “men hate church,” and churches that plan to expand need to figure out why and do something more effective about it than exclude women from ministry. (Update: see my review of David Murrow’s Why Men Hate Going to Church here.)

In a Pentecostal context, women in ministry is an unfinished work. While other churches wrestle with the novelty, these churches need to either finish the work—and do it on a Biblical basis—or repudiate this part of their spiritual heritage once and for all.

2 thoughts on “Women in Ministry: Starting Something You Can’t Finish”

  1. Thanks for this Don. It is a helpful post.

    Ironically, the COG, and other Pentecostal denominations, have become mirrors of a certain American sub-culture (Evangelical middle-class, etc.) rather than a contrast society. In that, we have upheld a middle-class ideal: the woman’s place is in the home. The luxury of staying at home was not one afforded most early to mid-century Pentecostals. Rodney Clapp’s book, Families at the Crossroads, is helpful on this as is an article by David Roebuck and Karen Mundy.

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