I have three grandchildren—a grandson and two granddaughters. My daughter, the mother of these grandchildren, is an ordained United Methodist pastor. She serves part-time as an associate minister in a local United Methodist church. In that church, until recently, the senior minister was a woman, the organist was a woman, and the choir director was a woman. With my daughter, this meant that the four people who were in the public professional leadership of the church were women.
One day, my granddaughter, who was then six years old, was talking with her brother, who was eight. Nathan said, “Someday I may be a preacher.” Maggie responded adamantly, “Nathan, you can’t be a preacher.”
“Well, why can’t I be?,” questioned Nathan.
Maggie was confident “You’re not a woman.”
The times are changing. More and more women are becoming ordained ministers in the church.
Two of the most important persons in my spiritual journey have been women. Nettie Beeson, a widow, then over 70 years old, a member of my first congregation out of seminary, called me to a life of prayer. She introduced me personally to some of the “giants” of prayer who were her friends because she walked with them in her own prayer life.
Clara Mae Sells, a retired deaconess in that same congregation, was a spiritual mentor who encouraged my writing ministry. I was writing a weekly column for the newspaper in our town. Miss Sells took a special interest in my writing and preaching. Unbeknownst to me, she collected my newspaper articles, arranged them thematically, brought them to me one day, and insisted that I pursue having them published as a book of inspiration. I doubt if I would have ever had the courage to send a manuscript to a publisher had it not been for Miss Sells.
Most of us could tell stories of women who have played significant roles in our spiritual growth. The new phenomenon is the growing number of women who are being ordained. Questions swirl around this topic of women in ministry, and that’s the question this issue of The Herald addresses.
As is always the case, we need to keep a biblical perspective. And we must not resort to prooftexting from a few isolated verses for such a profound doctrine. We must keep in mind the total sweep of biblical revelation.
It seems clear to me that the witness of Scripture is that of women in ministry. In the Old Testament, Miriam, the sister of Moses, was a prophetess. She even dared to reproach Moses for his exclusive claim to divine revelation.
Hulda was a prophetess (2 Kings 22:14-20) who authenticated the contents of the scrolls found during the reign of Josiah.
Deborah was a prophetess and a judge who ruled over the kingdom of Israel (Judges 4:4-5).
Queen Esther was a great spokesperson for God.
When you move to the New Testament, the witness is the same. The prophetess Anna spoke of Christ “to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” and she gave her message in the temple (Luke 2:36-38).
Jesus chose to reveal the mystery of the gospel, as well as His Messianic identity, to an unknown Samaritan woman. She became the first evangelist to the Samaritans (John 4).
In the conflict between Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42), Jesus decided in favor of the right of women to full discipleship.
The place of women in ministry in the New Testament is captured in the significant fact that they were “last at the cross and first at the tomb.”
Last at the cross: Matthew paints the scene at Golgotha in 27:55-56.
First at the tomb: Luke paints the scene in Joseph’s garden:
” On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. … [they] said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, he has risen!’ … then they remembered His words. When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the 11 and to all the others.” (Luke 24:1-11)
At the cross—the heart of the redemption drama—women, no less than men, were loosed from the bondage of sin (also, of law and custom) and liberated into the power of the Gospel.
At the tomb, women—without clout in a male-dominated culture—were legitimized in their ministry. Our Lord appeared first to them. And though unbelieved in the beginning, they were the first to proclaim the resurrection gospel.
Last at the cross and first at the tomb. But also at Bethlehem, giving birth to our Messiah, and also at Pentecost, receiving equally with men the power of the Holy Spirit, women, too, are given the privilege and responsibility of ministry.
Dr. Maxie D. Dunnam is president of Asbury Seminary
Dunnam, Maxie D. (Winter 1997). Last at the Cross, First at the Tomb.The Asbury Herald 108, no. 1, 8.