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Published Date: July 31, 1994

Published Date: July 31, 1994

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Women and Revival Work: Acts 2:17-21—Revival’s Magna Charta

A friend of mine attends a church that longs for renewal. The pastors acknowledge a sense of spiritual ineffectiveness among their members, and they have sought the power of the Holy Spirit to quicken, empower, and revive personal and corporate ministry. In prayer this congregation asks for an out pouring of the Holy Spirit, but with an unspoken proviso, that God honor their gender bias: God may pour out His Spirit, but men alone may exhibit the Spirit’s empowering. Yet nothing seems further from the tenor of revival and the passage in Acts where the Holy Spirit was poured out not only on Gentiles, but also on women.

History is replete with examples of Joel’s prophesy fulfilled. Writing in the second century, Justin Martyr described the cooperation of women in ministry with men as follows: “Both men and women were seen among them who had the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit of God, according as the prophet Joel had foretold.”1

Seventeenth-century theologian Henry Dodwell observed that both men and women were recipients of the gift of prophecy. He wrote:

…the extraordinary gift of the spirit of prophecy was given to others besides the apostles; and that not only in the first and second, but in the third century, even to the time of Constantine, men of all sorts and ranks had their gifts; yea, and women too. Therefore we may certainly conclude that the prophetic saying of the Psalmist, 63:11, was verified: … “The Lord gave the word, and great was the company of women publishers, or women evangelists.”2

Charles Finney, a well known American revivalist, in his 1835 Lectures on Revivals of Religion, encouraged those who seek revival to “give the meeting to the Spirit of God.” All members of Christ’s body were encouraged to exercise their gifts, male and female alike.

A. J. Gordon, a great nineteenth-century proponent of women in ministry, observed as two inseparable events revival in the church and the participation of women in ministry. Pentecost, Gordon asserts, “brought equal privileges to women … female prophecy is not the exception but the rule.”3

Mrs. A. J. Gordon contended that the bulk of Scripture favors the cooperation of evangelical women and men in ministry. She wrote: “…in that upper room waiting for the promise of the Father, the eleven disciples, with the women, and Mary, and the mother of Jesus, were gathered; and we read that the tongues of fire sat upon each of them; and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost … spiritual gifts and qualifications were to be bestowed and exercised equally by servants and handmaidens.”4

The impulse of equality amid women and men in revival work appears to be a hallmark of our evangelical heritage. American Church historians Lucille and Donald Dayton suggest that “From the very beginning women played a major role in the “evangelical revival.”5 Likewise, revival scholar Timothy Smith notes the prominence of women in leadership as a distinctive of revival history. He writes,

“The theory that … religion thrives when the feminine influence is dominant may find some support in the fact that women like Mrs. Palmer and Mrs. Upham led their husbands into the experience. Many others, including … the second Mrs. Finney … assumed prominent roles … leading their more timid sisters into the emancipating blessings.”6

Jessie Penn-Lewis (1861-1927), respected revival work, and expert in spiritual warfare, recognized the integral role women share along side men in revival work, and declared: “The Spirit of God has never been poured forth in any company, in any part of the world, in any nation, without the ‘handmaidens’ prophesying, and this as the spontaneous and unvarying result of the Spirit of God moving upon women as well as men, as at Pentecost…”7

Frances Willard (1839-98), teacher and president of both Northwestern University and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, invited many known evangelicals to articulate the basis of their support for women in ministry in her book, Women in the Pulpit. Several contributors claimed that one need merely examine the success of women in ministry, to understand they have been called by God. One contributor wrote: “The women are already in the field. They have demonstrated the divine character of this call to service. They do preach with great acceptance and conduct public services with singular propriety and power. It has become, therefore, a necessity that the church should recognize the hand of God.”8

Evangelist Phoebe Palmer (1807-74) who was enormously popular in Great Britain, Eastern Europe, Canada, and the U.S., once said in defense of her ministry: “I have not a slight apprehension that God has called me to stand before the people, and proclaim His truth… and so truly has He set His seal upon it… in the conversion of thousands of precious souls… that even Satan does not seem to question that my call is divine…”9

Clearly, the Fruit of These Women’s Labors was Evidence of Their Call.

Church historian and revival scholar Richard Lovelace suggests that at each point of church renewal one can trace a countermove from Satan. He writes: “Periods of renewal are therefore times of vigorous activity both among agents of God and agents of darkness. Behind the scenes of earthly history in awakening eras we can dimly discern the massing and movement of the invisible troops of darkness and light.”10

Similarly, Mrs. Penn-Lewis observed that with every revival the powers of the enemy are present to accuse and oppress the instruments of the Lord

What has been the nature and form of this opposition? Experts have identified two primary means of opposing revival: first, through an unawareness or an ignorance of the schemes of evil, and second, by means of deception, or a shallow understanding of Scripture — both of which have been leveled against women in ministry. A closer look at the objection raised against women in church work reveals the work of our ancient foe.

Ignorance of Evil Forestalls Revival

Lovelace argues that Christians “since the Enlightenment have become nervous about acknowledging the reality and agency of demonic powers.11 But because “hell is a conspiracy, and the first requirement of a conspiracy is that it remain underground,”12 Lovelace exhorts Christians to become skilled at detecting the opposition waged against Christ’s kingdom He writes: “If a thorough knowledge of his (Satan’s) characteristic devises were widely disseminated among the churches, the Christian warfare for the extension of Christ’s kingdom would be immeasurably strengthened. In the present situation we are often operating like an army without intelligence, beating the air and one another at times, fighting flesh and blood instead of the principalities and powers which lie behind them.”13

Penn-Lewis believed that ignorance of born satanic strategies and our victory and power in Christ has kept women from using their gifts to forward Christ’s kingdom. Ignorance has kept women from theological studies, a plan promoted throughout church history. She wrote:

“She was thoroughly deceived once,” whispered the serpent, who, alas, has since extended his operations, and thoroughly deceived the whole inhabited earth (Rev 12:9). “See how the woman leads in all kinds of heretical movements today,” cry some. “Is it not a proof that she is open to deception as much as she was in Eden?” … But is it not probable that women are being swept into the wiles of the devil today because the truths of God which they should have learned have been kept from them?… Centuries of ignorance of the things of God have left their marks upon her; but women may “learn” at last, and men, too, will learn by the stern logic of experience that it has been a perilous policy for the Christian church…14

Shallow Understanding of Scripture Discourages Revival

A substandard interpretation of Scripture is yet another tactic Satan has used to divide and confuse Christians, discourage women in ministry, and undermine revival. Confronting selective exegetical arguments leveled against women in ministry, Mrs. Penn-Lewis concluded:

“…1 Cor 14:34 and kindred passages should have been interpreted by translators and expositors in the light of Acts 2 and not Gen 3:16. For we dare not attribute satanic power, without danger of sinning against the Holy Ghost or quenching the Spirit in those whom God has moved to proclaim the Gospel, to … differentiate and say that only the men were inspired by the Holy Spirit and all the women at the same time, in me same place, were inspired by Satan. Counterfeits there have been in every movement of the Spirit throughout the ages working alongside the true, and counterfeits mere are today. But there is one infallible test for distinguishing the false from the true — the testimony to the atoning work of the cross of Christ.”15

Frances Willard also addressed the shallow exegesis and sophistry used to keep women from public ministry. Reminding her readers that the process of exegesis is a human endeavor, she exposed those who play fast and loose with Scripture. Willard suggested that Scripture be harmonized with Scripture, especially since she had found “forty passages which support the public ministry of women, and only two against it, and these not really so when rightly understood.”16

Charles Pridgeon, Presbyterian pastor, Bible Institute founder, and co-worker with D. L. Moody, decried an erroneous interpretation of the Timothy passage with its dire eternal consequence. Prideon argued, “While millions are perishing we split hairs, when the whole trend of God’s Word” supports the ministry of women.”17

Katherine Bushnell, turn-of-the-century physician, missionary, and Bible scholar, believed that by misinterpreting Scripture those who” stupidly hinder that prophesying on the part of women are placing themselves, as it were, across the path of the fulfillment of God’s Word. Instead of hasting the coming of the day of God, they are hindering the preparation for that coming.”18 Bushnell stated: “The teaching that God punishes Christian women for the sin of Eve is a wicked and cruel superstition, and unworthy the intelligence of Christians, a blighting hand upon woman’s self-respect, self-confidence and spiritual activity, from which causes the entire church of Jesus Christ suffers moral and spiritual loss.”19

Phoebe Palmer, expressing her concern that the church has been deceived regarding the role of women, taught that “…it is through the workings of the Man of Sin, whose aim it is to withstand the upbuilding of Christ’s kingdom on earth, that this deception has been accomplished. We believe that he who quoted Scripture to our Saviour has in all deceivableness quoted Scripture to pious men, men who … (then failed) in not regarding the scriptural mode of interpretation, by comparing Scripture with Scripture…”20

Pray and Resist Forces Opposed to Revival

How can we today stand against the wiles of evil that divide and confuse Christians, and thwart revival? First, I believe we must begin with prayer. Since prayer preceded Pentecost (Acts 1:14), and the Great Awakening,21 and since “Satan trembles to see the weakest of Christians on their knees,”22 we too must pray for revival, remaining alert to the schemes of evil, exposing all that deceives and contradicts Scripture.

Secondly, as Christ had to rebuke Peter (Mt 16:23), so we too must confront ignorance, deception, and faulty biblical scholarship. Remember that our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the powers that operate in and through human institutions, even the church.

Lastly, we must be diligent to remind our brothers and sisters in Christ that if Pentecost is a paradigm of revival, then “The church which silences women will be found to silence the Holy Ghost.”23 As Dr. Bushnell said, “a sect, or sex, or race which attempts a monopoly of the Spirit’s voice and power, will find that the Holy Spirit will flee far from it.”24

Prayer Suggestions

Pray for the message of biblical equality to be faithfully proclaimed and eagerly received. Pray for wisdom in our dealings with evil. Pray for women and men in ministry, for seminaries, for those on the mission field, for local and national CBE leaders, for those who have yet to find fellowship with other egalitarians, and for helpful materials. Pray for those who have been abused, and pray too for those who oppose the message of equality.

Pray for CBE Chapter activities. Pray for the next CBE conference, pray for finances, and chapter planting. Pray that gender bias will not hinder revival. Pray for denominations and parachurch organizations. Pray for CBE members, writers, and speakers, that God would protect their health, relationships, and finances.

Pray for more persons committed to pray regularly that God’s will be done in bringing justice for women, and God’s name be honored.


  1. Justin Martyr, as quoted by Francis Willard, Woman in the Pulpit (Boston, MA: Linthrop Co., 1888), p. 151.
  2. Henry Dodwell, as translated and quoted by Phoebe Palmer, Phoebe Palmer Selected Writings, ed. Thomas C. Oden (NY: Paulist Press, 1988), p. 35.
  3. A. J. Gordon, as quoted by Janette Hassey, No Time For Silence (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Academie Books, 1986), p. 107.
  4. Mrs. A. J. Gordon, as quoted by Janette Hassey, No Time For Silence (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Academie Books, 1986), p. 157.
  5. Donald and Lucille Dayton, “Recovering A Heritage: Part 11 Evangelical Feminism” Sojourners, Vol. 3, No. 6 (August/September 1974), p. 7.
  6. Timothy Smith, Revivalism and Social Reform (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), p. 144.
  7. Jessie Penn-Lewis, The Magna Charta of Women (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1975), p. 101.
  8. Frances Willard, Woman in the Pulpit (Boston, MA: Linthrop Co., 1888), p. 85-86.
  9. Phoebe Palmer Selected Writings, ed. Thomas C. Oden (NY: Paulist Press, 1988), p. 312.
  10. Richard Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life; An Evangelical Theology of Renewal, (Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press 1979), p. 256.
  11. Ibid. p. 69.
  12. Ibid. p. 71.
  13. Ibid. p. 136-137.
  14. Jessie Penn-Lewis, The Magna Charta of Women (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1975), p. 58-60.
  15. Ibid. p. 101-102.
  16. Frances Willard, Woman in the Pulpit (Boston, MA: Linthrop Co., 1888), p. 34.
  17. Charles H. Pridgeon, The Ministry of Women (Gibsonia, PA: The Pittsburgh Bible Institute, n.d.), p. 26-28.
  18. Katherine Bushnell, God’s Word to Women (Piedmont, California: Published via reprint, ed. Ray Munson, Box 52, North Collins, NY, 1976), cited by paragraph, 794.
  19. Katherine Bushnell, as quoted by Jessie Penn-Lewis, The Magna Charta of Women (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1975), p. 72.
  20. Phoebe Palmer Selected Writings, ed. Thomas C. Oden (NY: Paulist Press, 1988), p. 39.
  21. Richard Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life; An Evangelical Theology of Renewal, (Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press 1979), p. 152.
  22. Ibid. p. 155.
  23. Katherine Bushnell, as quoted by Jessie Penn-Lewis, The Magna Charta of Women (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1975), p. 102.
  24. Ibid. p. 102.
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