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Published Date: December 14, 2018

Published Date: December 14, 2018

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Women Church Planters: A Proud Tradition

Our families shape us. That’s why good premarital counseling asks couples to think about the patterns they experienced in their families of origin. Our families shape how we communicate, resolve conflict, what topics are off-limits, and more. We grow up believing these patterns are normal, even if they’re not. The sooner we learn that our family’s patterns aren’t necessarily right (and may even be harmful), the better equipped we are to have strong and healthy relationships of our own.

In the same way, our Christian “families of origin” shape our attitudes and practices, especially where power and gender are concerned. Suppressing facts concerning the history of women limits our theological imagination and our courage in responding to God’s call and gifting.

Last summer, CBE’s intern, Chesna Hinkley, researched how fifteen complementarian seminaries included women’s legacy as leaders in the required coursework for pastors. She concludes:

Across all fifteen seminaries, history makes up only 10% of the course content, just over half the figure for theology and less than a fourth of that for practical courses. Women’s history makes up only 0.28% of all courses. Women’s history is far more varied and interesting than are the roles women are “supposed” to play. Yet without courses on it or content within survey courses, the men who will produce the next generation of complementarian theology and practice are never asked to interact with the ways in which women have always stepped outside of those roles.[1]

Is it any wonder that for many Christians, the idea of women planting and leading churches seems new and unbiblical? Yet, when we examine history, we find that nothing could be further from the truth. Women were planting and leading churches right alongside Paul and Timothy. No matter the obstacles, they haven’t stopped. Consider just a few examples from over the years.


Priscilla and Aquila are perhaps best known for correcting Apollos (Acts 18:26). But did you know they were also church planters? The couple met Paul in Corinth and then moved with him to Ephesus, where they started a church that met in their home. Paul referred to them as “co-workers,” the same word he used for male church leaders. Other female co-workers of Paul’s included Lydia (Acts 16:14–15, 40), Chloe (1 Cor. 1:11), Nympha (Col. 4:15), Phoebe (Rom. 16:1–2), and Mark’s mother (Acts 12:12). Clearly, women planting and leading churches was not a problem for Paul or the early church.

Early Evangelical Missionaries

In the evangelical fervor of the 1800s, people believed that their goal was to win souls to Christ, regardless of who preached. Fredrik Franson, founder of TEAM, wrote, “If a sister can more easily bring souls to the Savior . . . then she sins if she does not use those gifts that God has given her.”[2]

Franson was not alone. Many institutions that are now complementarian once trained and sent out women to preach, evangelize, and plant and lead churches! Moody Bible Institute and the Prairie Bible Institute are just two examples. Strikingly, Lottie Moon—a prominent Southern Baptist church planter whose legacy is used to raise funds for a complementarian denomination—was part of a movement where women  dominated evangelical missions, outnumbering men two-to-one. In time, and alongside the rise of fundamentalism, institutions began enforcing what they saw as biblical restrictions on women.

Catherine Booth and the Salvation Army

If you’ve seen Salvation Army volunteers ringing bells for donations outside your grocery store around the holidays, then you’ve seen the result of egalitarian church planting. Famous as a humanitarian organization, the Salvation Army is actually a worldwide church as well. Its founders were Catherine and William Booth, both of whom led and taught. In fact, Catherine was recognized as the better preacher of the two! The Salvation Army is an egalitarian success story that has lasted over 150 years.

Today, women continue to plant and lead churches as God calls them. Sometimes as solo pastors, sometimes alongside men, sometimes alongside other women. Following in the footsteps of Priscilla, Lottie Moon, Catherine Booth, and the thousands of missionaries who followed God’s call, these women persist, no matter the opposition. We do well to learn their stories and celebrate the mighty ways that God moves through women.

[1] Chesna Hinkley, “‘Acknowledge Those Who Work Hard among You’: The Absence of Women’s Work in Complementarian Seminary Curricula” in Eyes to See and Ears to Hear Women (Minneapolis: CBE International, 2018).

[2] Fredrik Franson, “Prophesying Daughters,” The Covenant Quarterly 34, no. 4 (November, 1976): 39.