Some people accuse evangelicals today, who are egalitarian, of being influenced by the modern-day feminist movement and culture of the late 20th century. They say we have sadly let culture influence our interpretation of the Bible. Is this accurate?
Did you know that around the turn of the century before last (19th moving into the 20th) that there were conservative Christian institutions that were egalitarian? Major evangelical schools such as Nyack, Gordon, Moody, and Northwestern trained women to preach, teach the Bible, and enter the pastorate – while still being committed to a high view of scriptural authority.
Moody Bible Institute led the pack! Moody women openly served as pastors, evangelists, pulpit supply preachers, Bible teachers, and even in the ordained ministry. I was very surprised when I first learned this awhile back! Perhaps you too? In 1927 the Moody alumni news highlighted the ministry of a Mabel Thomas who had graduated from Moody in 1913. She was the pastor of a church, preached, taught Bible classes, and baptized dozens of converts.
Churches in the Wesleyan holiness camp were utilizing their women and giving them freedom to serve from the mid-19th century onward. Some may emphasize that only that camp was doing so, and consider them off-base and an exception. Yet influential Moody was clearly not in that camp! As Hassey states:
“Although MBI [Moody] leaders may not have always explicitly encouraged women to preach, pastor, or seek ordination, their implicit endorsements of women in those authoritative roles for over 40 years cannot be denied. MBI offers the clearest documentation of a turn-of-the-century evangelical educational institution outside of the Wesleyan holiness camp that actively promoted public church ministry for women.”
Of course, some may also attribute this to the influence of the early feminist movement of that time. But again, we can go back farther in time before any “modern day feminist movements” and find women given more freedoms to serve.
Did you know that the earliest Baptists during the time of the Reformation gave women surprising liberties? Early English Baptist congregations elected women for service. Although most were not ordained, they could teach, preach, serve as deacons, and shared in their church’s congregational decision making.
Reed and Prevost note: “Early Baptist women experienced more freedom than their counterparts in most other religious groups for four reasons. First, their doctrine was based on the Bible, which contains many examples of women in ministry. [Ahem. Emphasis added.] Second, John Smyth was serving as minister to an Anabaptist congregation exiled in Amsterdam when he organized the group that became known as English Baptists. Third, congregational polity encouraged at least the possibility of female participation. Finally, women constituted over half of the membership in many English Baptist congregations. By their sheer numbers, Baptist women held an advantage.”
I suppose some will still cry “exception” and certainly there is truth in that. Patriarchy seems woven into the very nature of our fallen world and limiting women in the church is the unfortunate and common historical tendency.
The Bible itself seems to have an awful lot of exceptions too. While a couple of passages (in Timothy and Corinthians) may be used to restrict women, many more verses show women serving in broad ways…ways that are surprising for the very patriarchal times of the first century.
Women were among the first witnesses of the resurrection, and were sent by the risen Lord Jesus to proclaim the good news to the men. In a patriarchal society where the testimony of women carried little weight, the irony and affirmation of this was huge. As the early church grew, women worked right along with the men. Philip’s daughters prophesied. Lydia was the prime mover in getting a church started. Phoebe served as a deacon. Priscilla taught theology to Apollos. Although there is some dispute, many respected scholars believe that Junia was a female apostle (Rom.16:7). Verses in Corinthians use inclusive language for participation in the early house church services. In Romans 16, Paul greets nine women. Five of the nine are referred to as co-workers and some are praised for working very hard.
Creation has been renewed and is being renewed in Christ…setting women free for service in God’s kingdom. The “exceptions” are actually the way things are meant to be! Reflective of the redemption of humankind and the reversal of the effects of the Fall through the work of Jesus Christ. I long for the day when the “exceptions” will be the norm…
Bibliography: Quotes and facts in this post from the following sources: A History of Christian Education by Reed and Prevost, -and- Discovering Biblical Equality by Pierce, Groothuis, Fee (eds.)