When I speak on the topic of biblical equality, I look out at the audience and wonder why each person has chosen to come. Some may be women who feel restricted in their church circles and not given opportunity to use their gifts, who hope to find help. Some may be men who want to understand more clearly the biblical basis for God’s view on gender and who need help in being able to give an answer to the many who hold a gender bias. Others may be women seeking guidance on how to juggle home, family, and marriage responsibilities more effectively with their church or business leadership positions.
I can imagine many reasons. For myself, I am happy to be connected with the movement and with Christians for Biblical Equality. As a Christian denomination, The Salvation Army (TSA) has been on the front line of gender equality with a strong biblical foundation for our position. It is still an active issue and continually developing.
I am a retired general of TSA. The general, and there is only one at a time, is the world leader and administrator of this global church and humanitarian agency. Succinctly, I had three roles: (1) spiritual head of a denomination of the Christian church, giving spiritual oversight, ensuring that the Army remain true to its foundational principles, theology, and doctrines; preaching the gospel and teaching the faith worldwide; and being responsible for the deployment of spiritual leaders around the whole world; (2) the responsible director of a vast humanitarian organization, including its administration, programs, and financial integrity, centered at our international headquarters in London, England, where TSA first began; and (3) head of the international family of TSA, which has strong bonds of love and loyalty that cross national and cultural boundaries. Hence, I traveled constantly around the world to spend time with our people of every color, race, and language. As a South American Salvationist said, “I think of you as the ‘holy mother’ of The SA!” I preferred the comment of an African Salvationist, who said in a little speech to thank me for my visit: “Dear General, you are our global parent.”
Actually, to be elected to the generalship is something similar to the Roman Catholic College of Cardinals electing the pope in the Sistine Chapel—except no white smoke up the chimney! Our cardinals, whom we call commissioners, gather outside London as the High Council. We are locked in, and, through spiritual exercises, prayer, and secret ballots, the general is elected. At my election, there were forty-six members, of whom only five were women. So mainly men gave me their spiritual vote. Things have developed further in TSA over the last twenty years regarding the leadership of women, as there will be about one hundred members at the High Council to be held early next year, and more than half will be women.
World leadership is an onerous but glorious responsibility, which I held for seven years. If you didn’t believe God had put you there, you wouldn’t take it on! When I was elected, a friend sent me a card to encourage me. It stated, “A woman has to do twice as well as a man to be thought half as good. Fortunately, it isn’t difficult.”
However, the gender issue can be challenging sometimes, even in TSA. When I became commander of TSA in Australia, a woman Salvationist, meeting me for the first time at the door of the church where I had been the preacher, said, “I am pleased to meet you, Commissioner Burrows. When I heard that we were to have a woman as our new spiritual leader, I was shocked, dismayed, and anxious. But when I heard you preach this morning, I said to myself, ‘Now there’s a man of God.’”
The Salvation Army had a significant celebration in 2010. It was 150 years ago, on Pentecost Sunday 1860, that Catherine Booth, wife of our founder, stepped into the pulpit of the Methodist Church in Gateshead, England, where her husband was the minister, and preached the word of God. We recognize her move to the pulpit as foundational to the ministry of women within TSA. So let me tell you how she found the courage to give that first sermon and step out in full commitment to women’s ministry.
Her defense of women in the pulpit came from her defense of the American woman revivalist preacher Phoebe Palmer, who was with several American evangelists moving around England in the mid-nineteenth century. Phoebe Palmer spoke to the needs of the women in the church. She once said, “The church in many ways is a Potter’s Field, where the gifts of women, like so many strangers, are buried. How long, O Lord, how long before men will roll away the stone that we may see a resurrection?”1 Encouraged by Palmer’s actions, Catherine Booth didn’t wait for men to roll away the stone—she got on with the work herself.
A minister at the nearby town of Sunderland had made a scathing attack on Phoebe Palmer and all women presuming to have the right to preach the gospel. Catherine Booth was incensed. She even wrote to her mother saying, “Can you believe it! How could a congregation half composed of women sit and hear such self-depreciatory rubbish?”2
This led Catherine Booth, as powerful with her pen as with her voice, to write the pamphlet Female Ministry: Women’s Right to Preach the Gospel.3 It is still as relevant today as it was 150 years ago because it was not a diatribe, but an entirely biblically based statement. Catherine was first of all a great Bible scholar. She had read the Scriptures through five times before she was twelve years old and delved deeply into God’s word. In this pamphlet, she answers all the texts that are still being argued over today, such as the verses in 1 Corinthians, 1 Timothy, and Romans. She convincingly answers them all, explaining the Greek meanings of certain significant words, quoting from the outstanding Bible commentators of the day, including those arguing against her position of women’s right to preach. She highlights Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” The final words of her pamphlet center on the Holy Spirit and his constraining power that leads women to exercise their God-given gifts.
This pamphlet was a significant stage in the evolution of her thinking on women’s ministry. Years before, when only twenty-one years of age, she had listened to her minister preach a sermon on the moral and intellectual inferiority of women. She had fired off a long letter to him, denouncing his views as “derogatory to my sex, unscriptural, and dishonouring to God.”4
Nine years later, after she published her pamphlet, the Lord revealed on Pentecost morning her disobedience to the Holy Spirit in not herself preaching Christ’s message. As her husband concluded his morning sermon, she walked forward and whispered to him, “I want to say a word.” After she gave her testimony, and much to his credit, the astounded William Booth announced, “This evening my wife will be the preacher.” And she was: she preached that night on the text, “Be filled with the Spirit” (Eph 5:18).5
That sermon was preached only a few months after the birth of her fourth child, and she went on to have eight children altogether. There followed thirty years of preaching ministry, and many church historians state that no male preacher of her era exceeded her in popularity and spiritual results, even her charismatic preacher husband.
Following a period when William and Catherine were itinerant preachers, The Salvation Army was established, and Catherine Booth won for women two great privileges—to be ordained and commissioned as ministers of the gospel and to have any position of leadership and responsibility equal with men in the church. Soon, there were women everywhere in The Salvation Army, both from the aristocracy as well as the working class, who followed in her train.
Catherine Booth never saw women in competition with men, but complementing them, having their own God-given gifts and talents which were their responsibility to use. We are glad that among her own gifts of preaching and teaching and interpreting God’s word was her piercing, logically minded intellect and her debating skill. Just read her sermons.
There is a story about an Anglican bishop, minus his clerical robes, who slipped in to hear Catherine preach. He was astonished and afterward commented to a friend, “If I ever have to go to court, don’t bother with a lawyer, get me that woman!”6
Certainly, she was a great role model as an awe-inspiring preacher, yet warm and feminine, a wonderful lover as evidenced in her love letters to William (now held in the British Museum alongside those of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning) and a mother of eight outstanding children.
For these and other reasons, it is certain that Catherine Booth would be a supporter of Christians for Biblical Equality. With the word of God in her hand, she would agree with the idea that men and women minister better together and would fearlessly defend this biblical ideal and challenge those with ecclesiastical power who set boundaries on women in ministry. Catherine Booth would support women who doubt their ability and their right to take leadership roles, encouraging them to take the risks of faith and break through the barriers both in the world and in the church.
Perhaps we all need to do a personal check to see whether we carry any prejudices, any gender bias, in our hearts or in our church’s corporate heart. The world and the church need the feminine touch as never before. This object-centered, technologically minded, depersonalized world needs the influence of those gifts with which God has graced women, and that women, standing beside men in leadership, together accept their shared responsibility. We will not only be better together, but the world and the church will be better, too.
- Rebecca Price Janney, Great Women in American History: 23 Women of Faith and Principle (Camp Hill, PA: Horizon, 1996), 149.
- Catherine Bramwell Booth, The Story of Her Loves (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1970), 181.
- Available online at http://www.cresourcei.org/cbooth.html.
- Roger Green, Catherine Booth: A Biography of the Co-founder of The Salvation Army (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996), 118–19.
- Booth, The Story of Her Loves, 186.
- Christine Parkin, “Pioneer in Female Ministry,” Christian History Magazine 26 (1990): 13.