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Published Date: November 2, 2023

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The Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy and Women in Leadership

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Oral history is crucial. Listening to several women working at CBE’s offices opened a universe of insight on why women’s preaching is often viewed as liberal. Here’s what happened.

Three elderly women were volunteering at CBE in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Seated at a table about fifteen feet away from my desk, I could not help but notice their laughter and animated conversation. Leaning in, I learned that all were graduates of Wheaton College, a prominent evangelical college near Chicago, Illinois. Each shared memories from their youth of women preaching in their churches. Laughing out loud, one woman—Alvera Mickelsen (1919–2016), a founder of CBE—said, “You know, it wasn’t until after 1950 that women preaching was considered liberal!” Mickelsen continued sharing her own story, which I had never heard before.

She told these women, “not only did I study Greek with the famous Esther Sabel (1893–1993) at Bethel Bible Institute, but I was also part of the Bethel Trio—an evangelistic team of women representing our denomination, singing and preaching in Baptist General Conference (BGC) churches throughout the Midwest.” In fact, the trio ended their summer tour by singing and giving “a gospel message on Moody Bible Radio,” which she said, “would never happen today!” I decided more people needed to know this history. Here’s what I learned.

Sabel graduated with honors in Greek and English from the University of Chicago. Soon afterwards, she applied for missionary work in China but was turned down because they believed that, as a small woman, she was in poor health. She lived to be one hundred years old! Sabel became a Greek scholar and taught every course that Bethel Bible Institute—today’s Bethel University and Seminary—offered at the time. According to Mickelsen, no one ever complained about her teaching the Bible as a woman. In fact, the second president of Bethel Bible Institute, Dr. Henry C. Wingblade (1883–1977), was big a fan of women preachers. He said:

When I hearken back to my growing years in Kansas, I remember how proud my brother and I were to be the only ones in our club that could boast a woman pastor. And when at conventions, the pastors were lined up on the platform, she was the bright spot among all the drab ministerial garb.

Gospel-centred and missionary-minded, the BGC ordained its first woman in 1943—the Reverend Ethel Ruff (1910–1962).

Ruff was also a member of the Bethel Trio. She too preached at BGC churches throughout the Great Lakes region with the full support of her denomination and Institute. As part of the Bethel Trio, Ruff also preached on Moody Bible Radio. The three women in my office giggled as each also remembered hearing Stockton and Gould—a female evangelist duo from Northern Baptist Seminary—today’s Northern Seminary.

Stockton and Gould were a prominent example of evangelistic teams of women singing and preaching around the country. Vocalist Rita Gould opened meetings with hymns and songs of praise, after which Amy Lee Stockton (1892–1988) preached the gospel. The power of their ministry led to many invitations and access to prominent evangelical platforms including Moody Bible Radio. In 1913, Stockton was the first woman to enroll in Northern Baptist Seminary (in Lombard, Illinois, near Chicago). She graduated and went on to become one of the nation’s leading evangelists. While women do not preach at Moody Bible Institute today, consider the history of Moody Bible Institute, the most prominent Bible Institute of its day. It was initially the vision of a great female educator and evangelist, Emma Dryer (1835–1925).

In 1870, the evangelist D. L. Moody (1837–1899) was introduced to Dryer, a former university teacher and president of Chicago’s YWCA. An inner-city evangelist, a Bible teacher, and a vocational trainer of young people at the margins of society, Dryer worked tirelessly among Chicago’s homeless women and children after fire devastated the city in 1871. Out of respect for her leadership, Moody invited Dryer to relocate her Bible-discipleship classes to his church in Northfield, a suburb of Chicago. Here she continued to train women gospel workers. Her students became inner-city evangelists of the highest order, serving the poor, caring for the ill, distributing Bibles, and establishing schools throughout the area. For the next sixteen years, Dryer continued to train women (her “Bible Readers”) while praying Moody would open a Bible Institute in the city, closer to those in need. In 1883, she opened her own “May Institute” which eventually merged with Moody’s Evangelistic Society to form the Moody Bible Institute. In 1925, this Institute began offering pastors’ courses, and women enrolled. Three years later, Moody graduates, male and female, filled pulpits around the world, reaching a quarter of a million people. D. L. Moody once said that “Emma Dryer was the best teacher of the Word of God in the United States.” To Mickelsen’s point: women preachers had the full support of evangelical leaders and institutes before the 1950s. But in the aftermath of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy, women preachers were viewed as “liberal” or dismissive of biblical inspiration regarding texts such as 1 Tim 2:11–15 and 1 Cor 14:34–35.

As I shamelessly eavesdropped on our three lovely volunteers, I wondered how women like Dryer, Stockton and Gould, Ruff, and Sabel could be viewed as “liberal” given their ministries and demonstrable commitment to biblical authority. What is more, women among the early evangelicals, on whose shoulders these volunteers stood, championed Christ’s many miracles, especially his resurrection—historical events that modernist theologians like Charles A. Briggs (1841–1913) viewed as fantasy.

Trained in Berlin, Briggs was a prominent advocate of higher criticism, through which he viewed the assertions of historic Christianity as ghosts that frighten little “children.” For him, factual errors in Scripture abound, and trusting in the miracles cited in Scripture is a hopeless, inauthentic endeavor in light of historical and scientific achievements. A professor of biblical theology, he pointed to the failures of inerrancy with its ultimate implication: without factual historic accuracy, biblical absolutes do not affirm moral absolutes like human depravity and sin. His views, referred to as “progressive” or “liberal,” did not go unchallenged. Contra Briggs, theologians like B. B. Warfield (1851–1921) defended the Christian faith by asserting the five fundamentals of historic Christianity, including:

  • The Holy Spirit’s inspiration of Scripture as God’s truth
  • Christ’s virgin birth
  • Christ’s atonement for sin
  • Christ’s bodily resurrection
  • Christ’s miracles in Scripture

As preeminent witnesses of the fundamentals of Christianity, women were a great company of advocates infusing the term “evangelical” with its essential meaning: a high view of Scripture and its miracles, especially the virgin birth and, supremely, Christ’s death and resurrection—historical facts that constitute our redemption from sin. Throughout Christian history we find not frightened children as Briggs suggests, but rather fearless evangelicals: women and slaves, spiritual leaders and living witnesses of Christ’s resurrection power. Historian David Bebbington has identified four theological priorities of evangelicals that were targets of modernist attack:

  • Conversionism: All lives need Christ’s atonement for sin.
  • Crucicentrism: A cross-centric movement.
  • Activism: Redeemed people advance the gospel in word and action.
  • The Bible: All spiritual truth is found on its pages.

These four qualities, “Bebbington’s Quadrilateral,” comprise theological distinctives that have characterized women leaders who have shaped and continue to shape an evangelical history and identity. What is more, men leading evangelical institutions and movements have championed women preachers because of their theological orthodoxy and their social action. One prominent example is William Bell Riley (1861–1947).

Founder of Northwestern Bible and Missionary Training School (1902), Riley became the founder and president of the World’s Christian Fundamentalist Association in 1920. For forty years, he pastored the largest church in the Northern Baptist Convention, Minneapolis First Baptist Church. While attending a D. L. Moody campaign in Boston, he heard one of the greatest evangelists of the day—Frances Willard, president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Her commitment to support women and children abused by alcoholic fathers prompted Riley to advocate for women preaching the gospel and challenging domestic violence. He also decided to train women for public ministry. When Riley founded his Bible Institute in 1902 (eighteen years before the fundamentalist-modernist controversy), he opened the doors to women. After graduating, these women served not only abroad with organizations like the China Inland Mission, but they also planted churches throughout the Midwest in the United States. Local papers published accounts of their accomplishments as they pastored churches, resuscitated “dead churches, united divided ones, repaired church property, paid off old church debts, all while facing strenuous travel and many speaking engagements.” The gifting and calling of women graduates was undeniable, and Riley supported their education and ministries. Women preachers marked an evangelical identity and history especially during the great revivals.            

Deeply influenced by the revivals of the 1800s, former slave Amanda Berry Smith (1837–1915; featured on the cover) received a call to preach. Faithfully, she became a prominent evangelist preaching throughout the United States, India, England, and Africa. Speaking to highly educated leaders in England in 1882, Smith said, “You may not know it, but I am a princess in disguise. I am a child of the King.” Smith’s calling and identity as an evangelist were inseparable from her own conversion, one that was not limited by her gender, race, or social status. God used Smith and lives were changed, even as she faced prejudice all her life. Advancing the case for women evangelists  were the women themselves.

With a holy boldness, the African American Zilpha Elaw (1790–1846?) believed that God alone called her to be a preacher. She “durst not confer with flesh and blood.” Jarena Lee(ca. 1783–1850) was an African American Methodist preacher who embraced her calling through the example of women preachers cited in Scripture. She wrote, “Did not Mary first preach the risen Savior, and is not the doctrine of the resurrection the very climax of Christianity—hangs not all our hope on this, as argued by St. Paul? Then did not Mary, a woman, preach the gospel?” Lee’s autobiography was the first by an African American, but others followed, like Julia A. J. Foote’s (1823–1901), who argued that spiritual experiences give women a “very real sense of freedom from a prior ‘self’ and a growing awareness of unrealized, unexploited powers within.”

Medical doctor and evangelist Dora Yu (1873–1931) is credited for the church’s existence in China. Preaching at revivals throughout her country, Dora introduced Watchman Nee, China’s great evangelist, to Christ.

The long tradition of women preaching the risen Lord reflects not a modernist or liberal view of Scripture, but a historic and evangelical faith. In fact, women evangelists date back to Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the risen Lord at the empty tomb—God’s redemption of humanity promised throughout Scripture. For this reason, evangelicals, women and men alike, were cross-centrists of the highest order. Far from liberal, their passion for the cross and all Christ accomplished on Calvary was evident as they preached on Gal 2:20 more than any group in history: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (NIV). As Bebbington notes, the “Evangelical movement . . . ‘aimed at bringing back, and by an aggressive movement, the Cross, and all that the Cross essentially implies.’”

Among early evangelical women, the most prominent cross-centric leader was the Welsh Jessie Penn-Lewis (1861–1927). For her, only the sanctifying power of Calvary heals the divisions and hostilities that divide and demean humanity. While the cross does not eliminate embodied differences based on gender, race, or ethnicity, Calvary infuses new strength and capacity for empathy, forgiveness, and unity rather than hostility, division, and exploitation. Those who have crossed life’s greatest divide, from spiritual death to life in Christ, are called to make the world better—more just and holy.

As agents of renewal, holiness, and justice, evangelicals insisted redeemed people must advance the gospel not only by preaching but also through social action. Women, so often close to children and other women, were expert gospel activists. Leaders like the famous preacher and inner-city missionary Catherine Booth(1829–1890) worked tirelessly among the poverty-stricken people of London’s East End. An indomitable gospel worker, Booth advanced temperance and anti-trafficking. She lobbied Parliament to raise the age of consent above thirteen.

Like Booth, Pandita Ramabai (1858–1922) achieved global recognition as a gospel activist. Caring for destitute women and children, Ramabai founded the Mukti (meaning “salvation”) Mission to provide housing for eight hundred abandoned babies, unwed mothers, and disabled people. Mukti was called the best example of Christianity in action. Her book, The High Caste Hindu Woman, exposed the horrific plight of women in India: child brides, wife burning, temple prostitutes, and more. At Mukti, women translated, printed, and distributed Scripture in a prominent dialect; this was solely the work of women, demonstrating Ramabai’s commitment to the gospel in word and deed.

Admired by world leaders, Sojourner Truth (ca. 1797–1887)and Harriet Tubman (1822–1913) set a gold standard for gospel action. Truth was greatly esteemed, for example, by Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and William Lloyd Garrison. A brilliant theologian and speaker, she said that to deny women the privilege of voting or preaching because Christ was male ignored the fact that it was Christ’s humanity—not his gender—that made him the perfect sacrifice for all people, including women. A leading voice of abolition, women’s preaching, and suffrage, her influence was inseparable from her intimacy with the risen Lord.

Similarly, the extraordinary activism of Tubman was fueled by her mystical intimacy with Christ. The bravest and most innovative conductor of the Underground Railroad, she also led the Union’s espionage network. As the only woman to lead an armed expedition during the U. S. Civil War, she freed nearly one thousand slaves through her leadership. A devout Christian, abolitionist, and suffragist, it was said that as “God guided Tubman, Tubman guided the nation!”

Upending entrenched oppression and abuse guided the activism of the WCTU, the largest women’s organization, with activists serving worldwide. Its president, Frances Willard (1839–1898), led countless women in confronting the powers and principalities driving the sex industry, slavery, and patriarchy. It was to Scripture that they appealed when addressing crucial issues—especially the abuse of girls and women. Between the years of 1808 and 1930, evangelicals from different branches of the church published more than forty-six biblical treatises on the value and purpose of women and slaves. These documents reflect the emergence of the first wave of feminism—a deeply biblical movement.

Their belief that God speaks to each generation through Scripture led to a new assessment of human identity (ontos) and purpose (telos) as they asked: how does our rebirth in Christ as women or slaves expand or limit our service as Christians? Their biblical inquiry uncovered translation and interpretative errors that devalued women and slaves and drove patriarchy and slavery. They also developed a Christian biblical worldview that gave dignity to women and slaves as human beings and accorded them positions of service and leadership aligned with an evangelical view of Calvary. The exegetical work of the early evangelicals became a prominent challenge to centuries of biblical teachings supporting demeaning assumptions regarding slaves and women that had given license to exploiters.

The most extensive, systematic, biblical assessment of women’s value and purpose was published by Katharine Bushnell, MD (1856–1946). The youngest woman to graduate from medical school at that time, she served briefly as a physician in China but returned to the States to lead the WCTU’s anti-trafficking initiative.After twenty years of exposing sex-traffickers, Katharine discerned that until Christians recognized women’s value in Scripture, perpetrators would take license to exploit them as supposed inferiors. A gifted linguist and historian, she identified and expounded on three hundred biblical texts on women. She published her critique in 1919, titled, God’s Word to Women.

Starting in Genesis, Bushnell showed that woman and man are equally created in God’s image—an ontological identity that determines their teleological purpose as God’s representatives governing Eden side by side (Gen 1:26–31). She showed that Eve was not the source of sin and that God does not curse women because of Eve. Male rule is a consequence of sin (Gen 3:16), and God extends leadership to those who do what is right regardless of their gender, birth order, nationality, or class.

Turning to Paul the apostle, Bushnell drew attention to the passages that support women’s authority and leadership, provided women were neither domineering nor abusive (1 Tim 2:12); that show women as advancing the gospel (1 Tim 2:11–12; Acts 18:26; Rom 16:1–5, 7, 12–13, 15); and that locate women in public gatherings (1 Cor 11:5, 14:34). She located women’s ontological value and identity not in the fall, but in Calvary. Calling for consistency, Christians must value women the same way we value men—through Christ’s atonement. She wrote, “[We] cannot, for women, put the ‘new wine’ of the Gospel into the old wineskins of ‘condemnation.’”

Bushnell published her book just as William Bell Riley led 6,000 pastors, theologians, and evangelists in Philadelphia in calling the church back to the fundamentals of historic Christianity. Strikingly, whereas he once exuberantly welcomed women at his Bible and Missionary Training School, preparing them as evangelists and preachers, he now began to distance himself from practices that resembled the “liberal” high-brow intellectualism of modernists at Union Theological Seminary. As a result, his Missionary Training School no longer offered courses on Greek and Hebrew, preferring instead the plain reading of the English biblical text—the very methods used by proslavery Christians. To “disinfect” the germs of higher critical methods, he poured bleach on the vigorous biblical engagement evangelicals harnessed in upending slavery and women’s subjugation. As other institutes followed this logic, a scandalous and disastrous anti-intellectualism distanced fundamentalists not only from modernists, but also from an earlier generation of evangelical scholars and activists leading crucial gospel and humanitarian ministries worldwide.

In distancing themselves from liberal theology, fundamentalists like Riley retrenched from rigorous engagement with Greek and Hebrew that had once supported women leaders, while also pressing them into support roles at Bible institutes, mission organizations, and denominations. In the aftermath of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy, women no longer preached at schools like Moody Bible Institute. Students of Christian colleges and universities today are often surprised to learn the history of their institute’s founders and the women graduates who outnumbered men two to one as missionaries, shifting the density of Christianity from the West to regions throughout Asia, Africa, and the Americas! This history demonstrates God’s favor on women missionaries and activists who exposed abuse and flawed Bible translations. These were translations that demeaned and marginalized women as morally inferior, and they, in turn, furthered male authority and gender roles that researchers today link with higher rates of sexual abuse.

Thankfully, Bushnell’s scholarship continues to inspire today’s egalitarians. She gives us insight into a long trail of translation errors that devalue women and provides strategies to better represent the teachings of Scripture and to prevent abuse. Given the rise of #MeToo and #ChurchToo, her work is needed more than ever. Consider the following examples.

Bushnell demonstrated that Junia (Rom 16:7), Euodia, and Syntyche (Phil 4:2–3) were made into men in Chinese and English Bibles. She also showed how the words connoting strength for men, when used for women, were translated not as “strength” but as “chastity” or “purity,” as was the case for chayil in Hebrewand kosmios and hagnos in Greek.

Stunningly, she showed how “authority” (exousia) in 1 Cor 11:10 was interpreted as “veil,” meaning man’s authority over woman, contra the Corinthian culture’s understanding of veiling. Further, the more than one hundred examples of exousia in the NT were most often translated as “power,” “authority,” “right,” “liberty,” “jurisdiction,” and “strength” in relation to men, “but in one single instance [1 Cor 11:10] when used exclusively of woman’s power . . . here at once its sense is called into question.” Had the passage been translated correctly to mean women have authority on their heads, Paul’s text would represent a reversal of male rule—a consequence of the fall (Gen 3:16). These errors may be just “straws,” Bushnell said, “yet they all point in the same direction.”

As Riley leaned away from vigorous biblical interpretative disciplines, in contrast to Bushnell’s, he “cut off the nose” of biblical scholarship to spite a cohesive theological face. Other fundamentalist leaders followed this interpretative trajectory. One example is the ETS, which was established in 1949 as an academic society for scholars committed to the inspiration of Scripture. ETS has been led by presidents such as Roger Nicole (1956), Stan Gundry (1978), Alan F. Johnson (1982), Richard Pierard (1985), and others who were instrumental in founding CBE—an organization committed to Scripture’s support of women leaders.

But as concerns over a perceived secularism undergirding egalitarian theology grew, complementarians gained a majority voice and vote within the ETS and the Southern Baptist Convention. As a result, both organizations offered limited content on women leaders in church history. In doing so, ETS afforded two percent of its presentations and publications to women’s contributions in church history in thirty years of journals and papers presented (1988–2018). Further, like Riley, complementarians at ETS retrenched on the vigorous biblical scholarship that shaped ETS and an earlier evangelical tradition. Past ETS president (1999) and prominent complementarian Wayne Grudem critiques egalitarians as secular feminists clothed as biblical lambs in his books titled, Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth (Crossway, 2004, 2012) and Evangelical Feminism: A New Path to Liberalism? (Crossway, 2006). For Grudem, those committed to biblical inerrancy by definition oppose women preachers and leaders. But notice that, rather than aligning with the fundamentals of historic Christianity, complementarians take us in a different direction. Like Riley, they cut off their scholarly nose to spite a cohesive theological face.

Under the leadership of Grudem, the English Standard Version (ESV) translation of Scripture obscured the leadership of women like Phoebe and Junia. Phoebe, who carried Paul’s letter to Rome and explained its contents, is the only woman the NT names as holding a church office. As deacon (diakonos) in the church of Cenchreae (Rom 16:1), Phoebe is also called a leader (prostatis) in Rom 16:2. The corresponding verb is used in 1 Thess 5:12, again signifying leadership. Even so, the ESV minimizes Phoebe, calling her “a servant” and offering the alternative “deaconess” in a footnote. At Phil 1:1, in contrast, the ESV translates this same word “deacons” and gives the alternatives “servants” and “ministers” in the footnote.

Similarly, while Junia is described in Rom 16:7 as an apostle and celebrated as such by Origen and Jerome, the ESV refers to Junia and her husband, Andronicus, as “kinsmen.” The ESV says they were “well known to the apostles” with a footnote citing the masculine for “Junia”—“Junias,” an invented male name that cannot be found in antiquity. An additional footnote refers to the couple as “messengers” instead ofapostles. Cutting off our biblical nose leads us to spite a perceived liberal face, which in turn leads us away from historic Christianity with its support of the inspiration of Scripture.

But there is more. In support of male-only leadership, complementarians often assign moral superiority to men and, in doing so, come dangerously close to blurring the Creator-creature divide foundational to historic Christianity. By ascribing an innate moral superiority to men, complementarians also further men’s critique of and authority over women, which can lead to a sense of impunity and dominance that is characteristic of abusers. As Mary Daly noted, “If God is male, then the male is God.” What is even more tragic (dare I say, scandalous) is that some complementarian Christians blur the Creator-creature divide by insisting that maleness—and thus sex—is part of God’s being. According to John Piper, for example, Christianity “has a masculine feel.” Thankfully, the Cappadocian theologians of the fourth century made clear that while Jesus was male, it was Christ’s humanness, not his sex, which was integral to his salvific work. Jesus referred to himself as the “Son of Humanity.” “Humanity” here translates anthrōpōn (“humans, people, humankind”) not andrōn (“men, males”). He was Savior of both women and men alike (Rom 5:12–18). The early Christians did not absolutize the maleness of Christ, for they recognized his sacrifice as universal.

Though Jesus was male, God is Spirit (John 4:24), and Scripture forbids the worship of any earthly form (Exod 20:4; Deut 4:15b–18). Scripture uses metaphors for and to understand God, yet as Søren Kierkegaard wrote: “Language bursts and cracks under the weight of expressing God’s greatness.” Thus, all language for God is analogical.

While Jesus called twelve male disciples, more importantly the twelve were Jewish, demonstrating God’s faithfulness to Israel. Yet, the twelve male disciples consistently failed where Christ’s female disciples more often succeeded. In this way, Scripture memorialized the moral and spiritual leadership of both men and women who followed Christ.

The OT supports not a male gender essentialism but an image-of-God essentialism. This means that men and women share an ontos, that is, “identity,” with a corresponding telos, that is, “purpose”—as God’s representatives governing Eden, not each other (Gen 1:26–31). In the NT we find a remade-in-Christ essentialism as Christian women and men are both endowed with spiritual authority through the telos shared by those reborn in Christ, who is their ontos (Romans 8:29, John 20:16–23).

Furthermore, historic Christian teachings do not place God the Father in authority over God the Son. While Christ prayed to God as Father, it was fathers who bestowed inheritance, identity, and protection to children in Christ’s human culture. Advocates of a masculine Christianity have often supported an eternal functional subordination of Christ the Son to God the Father to legitimize women’s subordination, insisting this does not compromise an ontological devaluation in the Trinity or humanity—though it certainly does. The eternal subordination of Christ is a gross distortion of historic Christianity. It robs humanity of our redeemer promised throughout Scripture, who represents the climax of human and sacred history. It’s an ontological distortion with teleological implications such that sinful humanity has no redeemer. For only Christ, “eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, of one Being (ontos) with the Father,” equal in authority with the Father, can atone for human sin.

Whether it is members of the Trinity, male or female, slave or free, Jew or Greek, how can someone be equal in function but eternally unequal in authority? To do so renders the word “equal” meaningless. If U. S. history teaches us anything, it shows that “separate but equal” rhetoric leads to separate and unequal realities. Perceiving God as mostly male elevates maleness. Therefore, to select leaders based on gender overlooks qualities that parallel the fruit of the Spirit listed in Gal 5:22–23. These theological failures with their social consequences give insight into the vast numbers of women leaving churches today. It also explains why Christians have lost respect in the public square, as Charles Malik, in his 1980 address inaugurating the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, predicted would happen.

A Lebanese ambassador to the United States,Malik drafted the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A devout Christian who could not utter the word Jesus without tears, Malik challenged the anti-intellectualism of American evangelicals, warning it would take many decades to recover the respect we once enjoyed. Malik’s admonition that day moved historian Mark Noll to write The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Eerdmans, 1994, 2022), which was followed by Ron Sider’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience (Baker, 2005). Like Noll, Sider also traced the link between failed theological and historical reflection and its impact on social justice and American politics—a failure further critiqued by historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez in her book, Jesus and John Wayne (Liveright, 2020).

Consider the poor response of evangelicals to the #MeToo and #ChurchToo scandals, when an earlier generation led anti-trafficking efforts, pressed for legal rights for girls and women, and exposed male dominance, impunity, and abuse. Rather than examine their theological failure around power and women, many recent and current evangelicals press for gender essentialism and hierarchy in the Trinity to secure male supremacy and female subordination. In contrast, evangelical egalitarians strive to hold the course on women’s rights and equality, exposing power imbalances, impunity, strict gender roles, and a lack of empathy—the four horse-riders of sexual harassment. While evangelicals aligned with male-only leadership rarely address abuse, it remains a key topic for evangelical egalitarians who consistently research, publish, and address abuse and related issues. In fact, it was evangelical egalitarians that led the Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern that inaugurated advocacy organizations—Evangelicals for Social Action and Christians for Biblical Equality.

Crucially, evangelical egalitarians recovered the history of women’s leadership throughout the history of the church, launching movements, planting churches, leading translations of Scripture, and upending exploitation and abuse. Created in God’s image and renewed by Christ, women on every continent preached the gospel in word and deed. Their legacy represents God’s power in history—one that must always be revered.


  1. This article was first presented at the 2022 Evangelical Theological Society in Denver, Colorado. Much of this content is also available in “History Matters: Evangelicals and Woman,” ch. 1 in Discovering Biblical Equality: Biblical, Theological, Cultural & Practical Perspectives, ed. Ronald W. Pierce, Cynthia Long Westfall, and Christa L. McKirland (IVP Academic, 2021) esp. 22–28.
  2. Kenan Heise and Tribune Staff Writer, “Bethel College Professor Esther Sabel,” Chicago Tribune, November 19, 1993.
  3. Ethel Ruff, When Saints Go Marching (Exposition, 1957) 57.
  4. September 2017: Fifty Years Ago – The Memorial Service for Dr. V. Raymond Edman,” The Archives Bulletin Board, Billy Graham Center, last modified September 1, 2017.
  5. Janette Hassey, No Time for Silence: Evangelical Women in Public Ministry Around the Turn of the Century (Christians for Biblical Equality, 2008) 38.
  6. Emma Dryer,” Archives, Moody Bible Institute.
  7. Gary Dorrien, The Making of Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion 1805–1900 (Westminster John Knox, 2001) 358.
  8. Dorrien, The Making of Liberal Theology, 358–60.
  9. Marc Lloyd, “What the Bible Says, God Says: B. B. Warfield’s Doctrine of Scripture,” Ecclesia Reformanda 1.2 (2009).
  10. Brian Harris, “Beyond Bebbington: The Quest for Evangelical Identity in a Postmodern Era,” Churchman 122.3 (Autumn 2008): 201-219.
  11. Mark Noll, The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield and the Wesleys (IVP Academic, 2003) 19.
  12. William Bell Riley, as quoted by Hassey, No Time for Silence, 23–24.
  13. William V. Trollinger Jr., God’s Empire: William B. Riley and Midwestern Fundamentalism (The University of Wisconsin Press, 1990) 105.
  14. Walter B. Sloan, These Sixty Years: The Story of the Keswick Convention (Pickering & Inglis, 1935) 91.
  15. Paul W. Chilcote, The Methodist Defense of Women in Ministry (Cascade, 2016) 86.
  16. Jarena Lee, The Life and Religious Experience of Jarena Lee, a Coloured Lady (self-published, 1849) 11.
  17. William Andrews, Sisters of the Spirit: Three Black Women’s Autobiographies of the Nineteenth Century (Indiana University Press, 1986) 12.
  18. Alexander Chow, “The Remarkable Story of China’s ‘Bible Women,’” Christianity Today, last modified March 16, 2018.
  19. David Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (Baker, 1989) 13.
  20. Gladstone as quoted by Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, 14.
  21. Jessie Penn-Lewis, Thy Hidden Ones: Union with Christ as Traced in the Song of Songs (Marshall Brothers, 1899) 30.
  22. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain,5.
  23. Charles O. Knowles, Let Her Be: Right Relationships and the Southern Baptist Conundrum Over Women’s Role (KnoWell, 2002) 85.
  24. Katharine Bushnell, God’s Word to Women: One Hundred Bible Studies on Women’s Place in the Divine Economy, 39ff.
  25. Bushnell, God’s Word to Women, 39, 48.
  26. Bushnell, God’s Word to Women, 68, 75.
  27. Bushnell, God’s Word to Women, 169.
  28. Bushnell, God’s Word to Women, 169.
  29. John Henry Hopkins, “The Bible View of Slavery,” The Confederate Reprint Company. See also Willard M. Swartley, Slavery, Sabbath, War and Women: Case Issues in Biblical Interpretation (Herald, 1983) 31–64.
  30. Dana L. Robert, American Women in Mission: A Social History of Their Thought and Practice (Mercer University Press, 2005) ix. As I teach or preach at Christian colleges and universities, few are familiar with their founders and female graduates.
  31. See William Wan, “What Makes Some Men Sexual Harassers?,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Dec 31, 2017). See also Mimi Haddad, “#MeToo and #ChurchToo: The Perfect Storm,” Mutuality, CBE International.
  32. John Chrysostom, “Epistolam ad Romanos, homilia 31, 2,” in Patrologia Cursus Completus, Series Graeca, vol. 60, ed. J. P. Migne (Imprimerie Catholique, 1862) 669ff.
  33. Bushnell, God’s Word to Women, 233ff.
  34. Bushnell, God’s Word to Women,229.
  35. Bushnell, God’s Word to Women, 228.
  36. Bushnell, God’s Word to Women,229.
  37. See “About the ETS,” The Evangelical Theological Society.
  38. Mimi Haddad, “History Matters,” in Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy, ed. Ronald W. Pierce and Cynthia Long Westfall (IVP Academic, 2021) 12–13.
  39. Chesna Hinkley provided research on the ETS as a 2018 CBE International intern. See Mimi Haddad, “History Matters,” in Discovering Biblical Equality, 12–13.
  40. 1 Thess 5:12: “We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you (proïstamenous) in the Lord . . .” (ESV). Compared to Rom 16:2 “. . . she has been a patron (prostatis) of many . . .” (ESV).
  41. Epistolam ad Romanos, Homilia 31, 2 (Migne, PG 60:669ff.).
  42. See Wan, “What Makes Some Men Sexual Harassers?”
  43. Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation (Beacon, 1973) 19.
  44. John Piper said, “There is a masculine feel to Christianity. . . . God has revealed himself to us in the Bible pervasively as King, not Queen, and as Father, not Mother. The second person of the Trinity is revealed as the eternal Son. The Father and the Son created man and woman in his image, and gave them together the name of the man, Adam (Genesis 5:2). God appoints all the priests in Israel to be men. The Son of God comes into the world as a man, not a woman. He chooses twelve men to be his apostles. The apostles tell the churches that all the overseers—the pastor/elders who teach and have authority (1 Timothy 2:12)—should be men; and that in the home, the head who bears special responsibility to lead, protect, and provide should be the husband (Ephesians 5:22–33).” Piper, “‘The Frank and Manly Mr. Ryle’—The Value of a Masculine Ministry” (sermon, Desiring God 2012 Conference for Pastors, Jan 31, 2012). On Aug 14, 2014, Owen Strachan tweeted, “Satan hates testosterone. You can’t blame him—after all, he’s seen it used to crush his head,”.
  45. Gregory Nazianzus (330–389) wrote in “Epistle 101,” To gar aproslepton atherapeuton (“what is not assumed is not redeemed”), in Patrologia Cursus Completus, Series Graeca, vol. 37, ed. J. P. Migne (Imprimerie Catholique, 1862) 181. See Edward R. Hardy, ed., Christology of the Later Fathers (Westminster John Knox, 1954) 218.
  46. Søren Kierkegaard, Discourses on the Communion Fridays, trans. Sylvia Walsh (Indiana University Press, 2011) 125. See Mimi Haddad, “Christian and Islamic Feminists in Dialogue,” Priscilla Papers 34/3 (Summer 2020) 3–9.
  47. The faith of the Syrophoenician woman eclipses the twelve male disciples who cannot perceive how Jesus will feed the 5,000. She tells Jesus that the crumbs under the table are enough (Mark 7:24–30). The “rich young ruler” cannot abandon his wealth (Mark 10:17–22), but the widow gives all she has (Mark 12:41–44). The Twelve grasp for power because they want to sit at Christ’s right and left hand (Mark 10:35–45); they forbid even children to approach Jesus (Mark 10:13); they are surprised when Christ speaks with women openly (John 4:27); and Judas betrays Christ. When Jesus is arrested and crucified, the Twelve disperse, one denies Christ openly, and the others hide behind locked doors. Not the women! They understand that Christ’s work is completed on a cross: a woman anoints Jesus as the priests anointed the kings of Israel (1 Sam 10:1, 16:12–13; Matt 26:6–13). Mary Magdalene is the first to meet the risen Lord. Christ sends her to the disciples with the good news. She becomes the apostle to the apostles. Yet, the disciples do not believe her. Even as Jesus appears to them, Thomas asks to touch his wounds (John 20).
  48. See Marianne Meye Thompson, The Promise of the Father: Jesus and God in the New Testament (Westminster John Knox, 2000). See also James Barr, “‘Abba Isn’t ‘Daddy,'” in The Journal of Theological Studies, 39.1 (April 1988) 28–47.
  49. Bruce Ware, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Relationship, Roles, and Relevance (Crossway: 2005). See also Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Zondervan: 1994)
  50. Charles Malik, “Graham Center Dedication” (presentation, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois, Sept 13, 1980).
  51.  See Wan, “What Makes Some Men Sexual Harassers?”