Why I Can No Longer Defend the Ministry of Women in the Church
Steve Holmes is a Baptist minister, currently teaching theology at St Mary’s College, St Andrews, Scotland. He blogs about theology and culture from an Evangelical perspective at Shored Fragments. The following column is posted with permission from his blog.
I have defended the ministry of women in the church in public for a while now, including on my blog. I don’t think I can do it any longer. Not because of any lack of calling or gifting in their ministry, but because of a lack in mine.
Take Phoebe Palmer. She began to be involved in leading a Bible study in New York around 1830. She soon received invitations to preach across the USA and in the UK. Something like 25,000 people were converted by her ministry. 25,000 people. Converted. Does that need defense? Really?
She visited prisons regularly, ran a society helping poor people in need of medical attention, and was involved in an ambitious project to challenge the new problem of urban poverty through the provision of low-cost housing, free schooling, and employment. She had a particular concern for orphans throughout her life. Challenging injustice on a grand scale. Do you want me to defend that?
In The Promise of the Father, and 20-odd other books, she stressed the idea that God could and would give the blessing of holiness in an instant to a believer, and taught that holiness would be gained by faith. This teaching gave rise to the Holiness Movement, which by 1900 had changed the beliefs and practices of almost every evangelical church in America and Britain. Her ideas shaped the early Pentecostal movement, and the modern charismatic movement.
She formed the spirituality that formed me. She changed the world. Who am I to even think of defending her? By any standards, she was one of the most powerful preachers, and most influential leaders, of nineteenth-century American evangelicalism. For me to try to defend her ministry would be as ridiculous as a worm trying to defend a lion.
She did not often encounter criticism for presuming to preach as a woman, but eventually she wrote a defense of the ministry of women, The Promise of the Father (1859). She argued that it was a clear mark that the gift of the Holy Spirit had come that women as well as men could “prophesy,” which to her meant preach powerfully and evangelistically to spread the gospel.
In the face of so evident a work of the Spirit as was seen in her life, who am I to even consider the question of whether God had called her to preach? It would be offensive, presumptuous—approaching blasphemous—to even accept that the question can be asked.
And then there’s Catherine Booth. And Mary Dyer. And Catherine of Sienna. And Mother Julian. And Rose Clapham, all-but forgotten, whose first sermon, preached when she was 18, saw 700 miners converted to Christ. Defend that? Why?
There’s a thousand stories like it that I know. Ten thousand times ten thousand that have gone untold, no doubt.
And I think of women who I have the privilege to know, who I sit in awe of, some of whom graciously allow me to call them friends. If I could preach one tenth as powerfully or effectively as Ness Wilson, or Bev Murrill, or Miriam Swaffield, or if I had a tiny portion of the vision and capacity to inspire change of Cathy Madavan or Natalie Collins, or if I had some little echo of the pastoral wisdom and visible holiness of Pat Took or Ruth Goldbourne, or if I could even once in my life make something happen the way Wendy Beech-Ward or Ann Holt do every day—then I might think the question of whether these women are permitted by God to lead and preach was worth thinking about.
As it is, no. I can’t defend their ministries. I am not worthy to.
I will continue to fight sexism and bad teaching wherever I see it. I will continue to explain, as well as I can, the truth of Scripture, that it is a crucial mark of the Kingdom that God calls women and men indifferently to every ministry. I want to give more time in coming months and years to tracing the real harm that bad theologies of gender do. I might even write my big book on a theology of gender one of these years. (The story roughly runs: Augustine meets Judith Butler and they get on surprisingly well…)
But I’m not going to try to illuminate the sun. And I’m not going to try to dampen the sea. And I’m not, any longer, going to try to defend the ministry of women in the church.
Do you agree? Disagree?
This article is reprinted from CBE's weekly Arise column.