President of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), Frances Elizabeth Willard (1839- 98) was one of the most influential women in the U.S. of her time. The WCTU, deemed one of the largest nineteenth-century women’s organizations with 2 million members, had a three-pronged mission of abolition, suffrage, and temperance. Comprising an army of women, the WCTU had an outreach ministry to workers of many trades. Convert of a Methodist revival, Willard was a coworker of D. L. Moody.
As an outspoken advocate of women’s suffrage, Willard believed God intends Christian women to advance the well-being of their families through their political vote. She combated prostitution, exposed the need for laws against rape, and called upon fashion designers to eliminate the pencil-thin waistlines that were deforming women’s bodies. As evidence of her own achievement as an educator, she was made president of Northwestern Ladies College, which later became Northwestern University.
Willard was always an advocate of women in ministry. She encouraged women to pursue ministry that was not limited to work among other women, something she herself had often felt confining. She believed God had work for women as evangelists and in every branch of church work and public life. She opposed the prejudice that keeps women from using their gifts for God’s glory.
A brilliant exegete, Willard approached Scripture with a dedication to excellence and consistency, as well as a commitment to women. In 1889, she inspired her peers by writing Woman in the Pulpit, an examination of the interpretive methods used to limit women in ministry. She even invited a renowned biblical scholar who opposed her position to critique her exegesis. Woman in the Pulpit had three main objectives. The first was to advocate the consistency in interpretation of Scripture, and that the difficult passages on women be viewed in light of the main thrust of Scripture. Second, she examined the lives of women already serving in public ministry. Third, she presented both views, offering a platform to theologians on both sides of the issue.
An exegesis of consistency
Tackling faulty methods of reading the Bible, Willard exposed the tendency to interpret select portions of Scripture literally. Why, she asked, do some interpret literally the first part of 1 Timothy 2:11, “Let a woman learn in silence,” yet ignore the remainder of 1 Timothy 2 and the mandate that women avoid braided hair, fine clothing, and jewelry?
Similarly, she points out that Christ commanded his disciples to “wash one another’s feet” in John 13:14; yet the churches do not make this a matter of practice. Likewise, in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul elevates singleness and celibacy over marriage, and widowhood over remarriage. Why do the churches not teach likewise? To Willard, interpreting Scripture with such variability confuses the “plain Bible-reading member of the laity.”
Moreover, theologians would “outlaw as unorthodox anyone who did not believe Christ an equal member of the Trinity.” Yet they readily preach and “practice the heresy that woman is in subjection to man, when Paul distinctly declares that her relation to man is the same as that of Christ to God.”
Interpreting God’s Word for personal advantage is always a temptation, Willard warned. Issues such as slavery and the leadership of women have fallen prey to a preferential reading of Scripture. As most people enjoy being waited on, Willard feels this has led to the promulgation of slavery. Many people enjoy seeing women beautifully dressed, and most would pre¬ fer marriage to singleness, yet we tend to establish church practice according to natural the pencil-thin waistlines that were de- forming women’s bodies. As evidence of her own achievement as an educator, she was made president of Northwestern Ladies College, which later became North- western University predilections rather than a consistent reading of Scripture.
To avoid such errors, Willard charged her readers to read Scripture through Scripture: 1 Timothy 2:11 should be understood in light of Judges 4:4–5, and 1 Corinthians 14:3, Acts 18:26, and Romans 16:3-4. Similarly, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is best read in light of Joel 2:28, 1 Corinthians 11:5, Acts 21:9- 10, and 1 Corinthians 11:11. First Corinthians 14:35 is made clear through Luke 2:36- 38, Philippians 4:3, John 1:1- 3, and Romans 16. Harmonizing Scripture with Scripture, one must remember that there are more than 30 passages in “favor of woman’s public work for Christ, and only two against it, and these not really so when rightly understood.”
Rendering women’s subjection as anything but a product of the curse is an affront to God as the “whole tenor of the Scriptures is to show that in Christ the world is to be restored to the original intent of its creation when there shall be no more curse.’ ”
The fruit of women in ministry
As president of the WCTU—perhaps the best-organized women’s movement of any era—Willard observed the advance of Christ’s kingdom through the leadership of women. They served as superintendents heading departments of evangelism, “of Bible Readings, of Gospel Work for railroad employees, for soldiers, sailors, and lumber¬ men; of prison, jail, and police-station workers.” These women regularly studied and expounded “God’s Word to the multitude, to say nothing of the army in home and foreign missionary work, and who are engaged in church evangelism.”
One woman, after 25 years as a pastor and preacher, states that “there is not work outside the home circle upon which women can so consistently and properly enter as that of the Christian ministry—none can be so well fitted by nature for understanding the great problems of character and destiny as those whom God has appointed to give birth to new life and to mould the characters of the young.”
Yet, the ministry of these women remained outside the church, “not because they wish to be so, but because she who has warmed them into life and nurtured them into activity is afraid of her own gentle, earnest-hearted daughters.”
A church that breathes life into a woman’s soul, while bidding her to serve elsewhere is a spectacle that is “both anomalous and pitiful,” claimed Willard. When will the church call in “these banished ones, correlate their sanctified activities with her own mighty work, giving them the same official recognition that it gives to men?”
Both views presented
Willard then offers renowned theologians and preachers a venue to defend or oppose women’s public ministry. Each tackles a difficult passage or defrocks inconsistent biblical interpretation. An anonymous contributor, whose editorial services reached “several thousand readers per month, and is foremost among the leaders of a great denomination,” writes:
I believe women should be authorized as ministers in the church of God- [because] man has no greater natural or spiritual rights than a woman to serve at the altars of the Church, as a minister of the Gospel. If a woman possesses gifts, graces and usefulness, she occupies the same vantage ground before the world, and is under the same obligations to God. If women can organize missionary societies, temperance societies, and every kind of charitable organization—why not permit them to be ordained to preach the Gospel and administer the sacraments of the Church? If women should withdraw from the churches and all missionary and merciful work, we would begin to think that the foundation had dropped out of our civilization.
To her credit, Willard invites an articulate opponent to critique her theological defense of women in ministry. This critic rightly noted Willard’s tendency to suggest that women possess natural attributes making them superior to men. Women are not, her opponent correctly argues, “holier by nature than men, and if they were this would not make them better ministers. An angel from heaven is not more fitted to preach the grace of Christ than was Saul, the chief of sinners.”
We cannot, I agree, sacrifice the foundations of “Chris¬ tian theology for the misty sentimentalism that expatiates on the natural goodness of woman.”
Perhaps the greatest strength of Woman in the Pulpit is that it exposes the myriad ways in which Christians read the Bible inconsistently. “A practice prohibited in one sentence and regulated in another, by the same author, shows either variability in opinion, or else an intended limitation in the original prohibition.”
Clearly, the Bible allows for women’s preaching and public ministry, and to deny women this right is a poor reading of the text, a hindrance to the kingdom of God, and an injustice to those created in God’s image.