Why Are There Women Preachers?

Why Are There Women Preachers

God Values the Voices of Women and Has Enlisted Women to Bring about the Kingdom

This week, a ministerial colleague from a neighboring town posted on Facebook that she almost wrecked her car entering the toll way while reading this sign.  The Rowlett Church of Christ is just north of the United Methodist Church where I pastor.  I am thankful to the maker of the sign because it provided an opportunity to preach on this important topic.

Our understanding of this issue is extremely important.  It is about more than the church’s decision to ordain women.  It is about more than women having the authority to teach Sunday school and lead church committees.  Our understanding of this issue informs the value we place on women in our society.  It informs how we understand God and the value God places on women.  It informs how we view our sons and our daughters, our grandsons and our granddaughters.

Jan Preaching Easter

The Importance of a Voice

A person’s voice is a metaphor for their existence.  Early in life we discover the use of our voice is a way we make ourselves known.  Speech is how we ask for what we need and describe what we want.  Voice is the way we express ourselves.  Our voice enables us to share our ideas, perspectives and opinions.  Through our voice we make a difference in the world.  When we value someone’s voice and listen to them, it is a great and powerful thing.  The silencing of a voice is a disregard for a person’s existence.[1]  God values the voices of women and enlists them in the furthering of the kingdom along with men.

God Enlists All Voices to Bring about the Kingdom

Throughout the Biblical witness from the Old through the New Testament, God chooses to utilize all sorts of men and women.  God frequently chooses the less powerful, less learned, and least likely of people to achieve kingdom work.  God loves to use ordinary people to accomplish extraordinary things.

Those who choose to follow Jesus are to witness with voice and action.  Beginning on the day of Pentecost, Jesus sent his followers and called them to be witnesses: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8 [NRSV]).

From that moment on, all Christian disciples are called and sent to bear witness to the truth of Jesus Christ.  Men and women in every age and every location throughout the history of the world – are called to use their voice.

In the book of Acts, following the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, Peter immediately begins to witness to the people.  Peter’s speech ushers in a new Messianic age – the reign of Jesus the crucified and risen Messiah and an outpouring of the Holy Spirit of God on the church.

Peter quotes the prophet Joel, indicating clearly that God will enlist the voices of both men and women, even slaves – “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.” (Acts 2:17-18 [NRSV]).

What Do We Do with Paul’s Admonitions for Women to Be Silent?

How do we address the admonition of Paul in 1 Corinthians 14 for women to be silent? – “Women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” (1 Corinthians 14:34-35 [NRSV]).

There are volumes written by many New Testament scholars on these verses (and a similar admonition in the book of Timothy 2).  It is helpful to summarize the problems with this text by lumping the resistance into three categories – context, authorship and contradiction.

  • Context – A simple reading of the full chapter of 1 Corinthians 14 quickly indicates to most readers that these verses seem out of context.  Paul is clearly addressing speaking in tongues (glossolalia) throughout the entire chapter fourteen.  Speaking in tongues should be done in a way to build up the church, Paul indicates.  If there is no one to interpret one’s speaking in tongues then that person should remain silent.  In the context of chapter 14 verses 34-35 seem awkward.
  • Authorship – There is significant scholarly support that verses 34-35 were added by later generations.  These letters traveled from church to church over the course of many years and frequently churches would write things in the margins.  Some scholars contest that these sentences do not adhere to the flow of Paul’s conversation, use different words, and have a different tone because they were inserted by later generations.[2]  The editors of the NRSV even put parentheses around these passages with a footnote that the original manuscript placed these sentences at the end of the chapter.
  • Contradictions – Only a few chapters earlier, in Chapter 11, Paul instructs women on how they should pray and prophesy in the church by dressing modestly and wearing a head covering – “Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head—it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. (1 Corinthians 11:4-5 [NRSV]).  Praying and prophesying were prominent roles in a worship service.  Why would Paul give instructions on how women should speak in the worship service and then shortly afterward tell them to be silent? There is significant evidence that there were women leaders in the Pauline community at many of the churches, especially in the book of Romans (chapter 16).  In his letter to the Galatians, Paul proclaims equality of all people because of Jesus Christ – “For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:26b-28 [NRSV]).  Paul values the voices of women and enlists women to bring about the Kingdom of God.

God Values and Enlists the Voices of Women throughout History

God has given us great evidence that there is value placed on the voices of women because God has enlisted the voices of women throughout the centuries of Christianity despite periods of great cultural resistance.

Old Testament Voices 

In the Old Testament God used the voices of women.  Miriam was the first Prophetess to the nation of Israel.  She danced with tambourine and sung her prophecy in the book of Exodus (Exodus 15:1-20).  The fourth of the Judges who ruled over the Jewish people was a woman, the Prophetess Deborah.   Deborah lived in the Mountains of Ephraim and held court under a palm tree.  She was wise and God fearing and the people flocked to her for advice and help ( Judges 4:4-7).   Esther was a young Jewish girl who spoke up against a violent, anti-Semitic pogrom and saved the lives of thousands (Esther 1-6).

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The First Preachers Are Women

Women are recorded in every Gospel as the first preachers, the first witnesses to the most significant event in Christianity – the resurrection of Jesus Christ.    Each Gospel handles the account differently, but regardless, God valued the voices of women.  At the tomb, the angel of God instructed the women to “go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead.’” (Matthew 28:7 [NRSV]).

Other New Testament Examples of Women Preachers

In the book of Romans there is additional evidence of women preachers.  In Rome, ten women appear as Paul’s ministers in chapter sixteen – Phoebe, Prisca, Mary, Junia, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, Persis, Rufus’s mother, Julia and Nerseus’s sister.  Phoebe is described as “a significant leader in the early church with three different titles: sister, deacon, and benefactor.”[3]  

In the book of Acts we learn about Lydia (Acts 16:11-15).  Lydia was a wealthy merchant of purple cloth who owned her own large home.  After her conversion to Christianity she was the founder and leader of  the Philippian house church and she preached in her own church.[4]

According to the Orthodox Church in America, holy tradition specifies that when the apostles departed from Jerusalem to preach to the ends of the earth, Mary Magdalene went with them: there is evidence of her going to Rome as a missionary, preacher, and evangelist.

God appeared to Nina (335 A.D.) in a dream to go into Iberia to the land of Georgia and “preach the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.”[5]  She continued to preach the good news of Jesus Christ despite dangerous confrontations with pagans in outlying mountain regions.  Nina reportedly turned thousands of people to believe in Jesus.[6]

The Middle Ages

Despite the prohibition by the church, the middle ages give several examples of women preachers.  Some women were allowed space to preach – usually they spoke as teachers and abbesses in their own monastery to other women.  Hildegard of Bingen spoke with such power and authority that men also came to hear her preach.  Rose of Viterbo was a young girl in Italy who heard God’s call to serve the poor and preach the gospel.  Rose began preaching in the streets as a young girl at the age of ten.

Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Women Preachers

Anne Hutchinson (1591-1643) was a Puritan woman living in the North American Massachusetts Bay Colony.  Anne Hutchinson organized weekly meetings of women to study the Bible and discuss recent sermons.[7]  She believed God called her to preach and she did so at these meetings.  Her message at these meetings became so popular that up to eighty people would attend, including men.[8]  In 1637 she was “excommunicated from the Massachusetts Bay Colony.”[9]  After her banishment, she and some of her followers established a new settlement in 1638, becoming the founders of the state of Rhode Island.[10]

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The Moravians and the Quakers in the 17th century invited women to speak and defended the ministry of women.  Quaker women “engaged in preaching and even received ordination to various ministerial offices.”[11]  A 1750 picture of the Moravian Synod includes women as leaders.  They pointed to the Holy Spirit as the source of all preaching, and logically admitted that they could not restrict the Holy Spirit from choosing any avenue for communication, even a female voice.  The Quaker’s considered the prohibitions on women’s speech in the Bible as a temporary restriction that was for that period in history.

The Methodists

The Methodists were one of the first to employ women preachers.  John Wesley (1703-1791), the founder of the Methodist Church, “is one of the prominent male advocates for women preachers.” [12]  Because of the rapid expansion of the Methodist movement, Wesley found a necessity to employ lay preachers as well as exceptional women preachers – such as Sarah Crosby and Mary Bosanquet.

John Wesley responded to a letter from a hopeful female preacher, Mary Bosanquet that he had been persuaded to admit God’s call of women to preach.   Mary Bosanquet wrote Wesley a letter in which she argued against the literal interpretation of Paul’s admonition against women speaking publicly in the church.[15]

In 1761 Sarah Crosby first experienced the call to preach when, while leading a class meeting in Derby, nearly two hundred people showed up instead of the usual thirty.[16]  Unsure about the propriety of speaking to such a large crowd but realizing that she could not speak to each individual personally, she preached.  Sarah wrote John Wesley following this incident and asked for his advice.  Wesley does not discourage Sarah Crosby, and Sarah apparently continues to respond to God’s call on her life to preach despite the restrictions regarding her gender.  She continued to travel and preach throughout England the rest of her life.

Nineteenth Century Women Preachers

Phoebe Palmer (1807-1874), mother of the Holiness movement, persistently pushed against the cultural norms, publicly teaching and preaching her message.  Phoebe Palmer understood that women were called to preach equally as men and she said that “the prohibition of women’s preaching was a waste of resources and an offense to Jesus Christ.”[17]  Phoebe Palmer encouraged other women to preach by “insisting that Paul’s intention in 1 Corinthians 14:35 and 1 Timothy 2:12 was not to exclude women from the pulpit.”[18]

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Jarena Lee (1783-?) was a freed slave and the first woman authorized to preach in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.  She became a traveling minister walking thousands of miles on foot. Jarena Lee traveled to wherever she was invited to preach even through dangerous southern slave holding outposts.  She traveled on foot sometimes for twenty miles a day preaching seven hundred sermons a year.[19]

The Grimke Sisters were born to a southern slave holding family, but ran away to live in the north.  Authorized to preach by the Quakers, they spoke out against the evils of slavery.  Lydia Casad Sexton is the great grandmother of one of our District Superintendents, Vic Casad. She was the first woman ordained to preach in the church of the United Brethren in 1850.  Anna Howard Shaw (1847-1919) was the first woman ordained by the Methodist Protestant Church in 1880. [20]  Clare Hale Babcock was the first woman ordained in the Disciples of Christ church, it was one of the factors that caused the church to split in 1906.  Aimee Semple McPherson was a Pentecostal preacher in the 1920s who preached to thousands in California and had a successful radio program.

God Consistently Uses the Voices of Women Despite Cultural Barriers

All of these women were strongly moved by the Holy Spirit to speak about Jesus Christ and give their witness – they could not be silent.  They braved significant cultural opposition to the use of their voices.  They encountered danger. They suffered resistance, ridicule, banishment and even imprisonment.  Yet, God continued to use them to bring about the kingdom and enact change.  For centuries God has demonstrated that despite cultural barriers, women continue to speak and preach.  God values and has consistently enlisted the voices of women.

Conclusion

God has given you a voice – whether you are male or female your voice is a powerful and a precious gift.  How will you use your voice?  Will you use your voice to build up the church, to encourage others?  Will you use your voice to give people a vision of hope?  Will you use your voice to sow seeds of peace?  Will you use your voice to tell the story of Jesus and share what God has done for you?  Will you use your voice to speak out against oppression and injustice?  Will you use your voice to change and transform the world?

I agree with Paul’s promise in Philippians 2 that the name of Jesus is the name above all other names.  At the name of Jesus — every knee shall bow.  The knees of men shall bow and the knees of women shall bow.  At the name of Jesus every tongue shall confess.  The tongues of men shall confess and the tongues of women shall confess.  Confess Jesus Christ is Lord!    Amen.

 

By: Rev. Jan Jokinen Davis, preached at First Rowlett United Methodist Church on March 1, 2015.  http://www.firstrowlett.org/media

Link to sermon on youtubehttp://youtu.be/lBP2M5AVnrA

 

Resources:

[1] Mary Donovan Turner and Mary Lin Hudson.  Saved from Silence: Finding Women’s Voice in Preaching.  (St. Louis: Lucas Park Books, 2014).

[2] Richard B. Hays, Interpretation A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching – First Corinthians (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997) p. 245-249.

[3] Eunjoo Mary Kim, Women Preaching: Theology and Practice through the Ages (Eugene, OR:  Pilgrim Press, 2004) p. 34.

[4] Ibid., p. 38.

[5] Orthodox Church in America, Saints Lives – St Nino (Nina), Equal of the Apostles and Enlightener of Georgia (Orthodox Church in America, 2014) accessed July 2014, http://www.oca/saints/lives.

[6] Ibid. Kim, p. 38-40

[7] Encyclopedia Britannica, s.v.”Anne Hutchinson”, accessed July 2014, http://www.britannica.com

[8] Ibid. Kim, p. 91.

[9] Ibid. Turner and Hudson, p. 12

[10] Ibid, Encyclopedia Britannica.

[11] Ibid. Kim, p. 85-87.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid. p. 96

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid. p. 101

[20] The People of the United Methodist Church, Time Line of Women in Methodism  (The United Methodist Church, 2011), accessed July 2014,  http://www.umc.org/who-we-are/timeline-of-women-in-methodism.