Women in ministry: A Biblical, Historical Perspective

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In looking for a scriptural answer to the question about women’s role in the church, we have a clear-cut decision to make. We can take 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-12 as definitive statements on the issue and then have to distort, twist and try to explain many, many other statements and accounts throughout the Old and New Testaments that are at variance with those statements.


Or we can take the entire scriptural context which supports the full equality of men and women in the church as being the norm and look upon these two passages as intended for some local situations, the details of which are not fully known to us in modern times. The entire holiness movement, of which The Wesleyan Church is a part, has tended to accept the full equality of the sexes and to view the Corinthians and Timothy references as special, localized situations.


The full equality of male and female in the governance of this world is clearly stated prior to the Fall (Gen. 1:27-28—dominion was given to them both). Full equality is restated as a basic principle of our relationship “in Christ” (Gal. 3:28). In the Old Testament there were several women who were prophetesses, serving as the voice of God in instructing and leading men: Miriam, Deborah, Huldah. The Prophet Joel predicted that in the coming age the Holy Spirit would be poured out upon men and women alike, and they would prophesy (Joel 2:28-29). On the day of Pentecost Peter declared that this was now being fulfilled (Acts 2:16-18).


Women prophetesses spoke the Word of the Lord in the early church (Acts 21:9), and Paul himself speaks of women prophesying and praying publicly in the church services as a normal thing (1 Cor. 11:5). Furthermore, throughout the gospel record, unusual prominence is given to women as the more faithful of Jesus’ followers. In the oldest and most reliable Greek manuscripts, Priscilla is mentioned ahead of her husband, Aquila, five times out of seven references to this couple, and she took the lead in instructing Apollos, one of the most prominent preachers of the New Testament age (Acts 18:26 – the oldest Greek manuscripts put her first in this passage).


Paul refers to Phoebe as a “deacon,” not a “deaconess” (Rom. 16:1). Some ancient manuscripts appear to refer to a woman apostle by the name of Junia (Rom. 16:7), and Paul at different times lists women among those he calls his “fellow-laborers.”


It is evident that there are special localized, culturally related circumstances spoken to in the New Testament, such as the prayer veils or head coverings for women (1 Corinthians 11) or the holy kiss (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20). There is no other logical way to deal with the Corinthians and Timothy passages on women in the ministry.


There is no way to ignore this pervasive picture of women as sharing in the leadership and ministry of the church. John Wesley used some women as class leaders and apparently one or two as preachers. Luther Lee, one of the founders of the Wesleyan Methodist Church, preached the ordination sermon of the first woman ordained in America (1853), using the Galatians 3:28 text. William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, fully supported women’s right to preach and lead. His wife, Catherine, shared fully in his ministry and his daughter, Evangeline, was later one of the top leaders of the Salvation Army. B. T. Roberts, founder of the Free Methodist Church, wrote one of the best books on this subject, fully supporting the right of women to be ordained and to serve in the ministry. Martin Wells Knapp and Seth C. Rees, cofounders of the Pilgrim Holiness Church, were both married to preachers, and both strongly supported the right of women to preach. At one point, forty percent of the ministers in the Pilgrim Holiness Church were women. It has also been obvious that some women have the gifts of leadership and preaching, being empowered by the Holy Spirit for such a ministry.


As a result The Wesleyan Church has taken an unequivocal position on the matter. Its Constitution declares that any member may be elected to any office that any other member can be elected to (Discipline 155:3), and it makes it clear that this means a woman can be elected to any office in the Church by declaring that there shall be no discrimination against any member or minister on account of sex (Discipline 176:3d).


The Wesleyan Church, on the basis of the total context of Scripture, believes that a woman is fully equal to man in terms of her right (as directed by the Holy Spirit and authorized by the Church) to teach, preach, lead or govern (including supervisory roles and board memberships), lead worship or serve in any other office or ministry of the Church. We have some women pastors, a woman district superintendent in Puerto Rico and have had some general officers in our overseas churches who were women. We have women who serve on Local Boards of Administration, District Boards of Administration, College Boards of Trustees and the General Board of Administration.


Since the Scriptures do not explicitly provide for a ritual such as ordination for anyone, but do support the full equality of men and women in church work and leadership, The Wesleyan Church believes that its pattern of ordination should be available to both men and women.


Lee M. Haines is a general superintendent emeritas of The Wesleyan Church.


Haines, L. M. (March, 1992). Women in ministry: A biblical historical perspective. The Wesleyan Advocate, 3–4.


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