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Dealing with Questions on the Role of Women in Ministry

By Zenas J. Bicket

Enrichment Spring 1997

Why didn’t Jesus make any direct statements about the role of women in spiritual leadership? Why did He leave us only a possible example without a single word of instruction on this topic of extreme importance to every generation since His time? Why did He leave to Paul the task of dealing with this issue? Could it be that the way we struggle with this difficult matter is more important to God than the question of what is right or wrong?

Another question complicates the matter. Is the Pentecostal definition of the role of women in ministry different from a non-Pentecostal definition? Should it be? Does Joel’s prophecy that God would pour out His spirit "upon all flesh; and…your daughters shall prophesy…and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out my Spirit" (Joel 2:28,29) have any specific application for Pentecostals? If administration and spiritual leadership are gifts of the Spirit (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:28; Romans 12:8), are some of those gifts given only to men and not to women?[1] Is it proper to limit the operations of any of the gifts of the Spirit to men only when God’s promise in Joel 2:28 was to pour out His Spirit "on all flesh"?

Attitudes toward the role of women in ministry change little in comparison with the oceans of ink spilled on both sides of the issue. Reputable scholars search the Scriptures with sincere honesty trying to find God’s truth on the subject, only to arrive at completely opposite conclusions or at intermediate positions between complete exclusion from ministry and a completely open door for women in ministry. It is unfortunate when accusations of deliberately misinterpreting Scripture are leveled at sincere believers who want to please God in every detail.

This introduction is not a foundation for proving a single position and recommending a crusade for that position throughout the church. The apostle Paul spoke to a church and a culture that needed specific guidance and correction, just as we today need to hear from God a word for our generation—a word which resonates harmoniously with all of the inspired Word. One could wish we had direct teaching from Jesus on the subject, or that Paul could articulate for our generation as he articulated and applied eternal principles for his generation. Our task would be so much easier. But since we have neither of those guides to direct us, we must assume that God, in His great wisdom, desires us to work at applying those eternal principles to our generation, and to do it in a spirit of love, understanding, and patience with each other. With this as our goal for the entire question of the role of women in ministry, we will look at three specific areas: (1) The past and present in the Assemblies of God, (2) The gist of a position paper, and (3) Reaching for a goal with wisdom and patience.

The Past And The Present In The Assemblies Of God

The first General Council (1914) recognized the role of women in ministry more generously than most established evangelical denominations did at the time. The official minutes read: "Therefore be it resolved, that this Council recommend to the ministry and Assemblies of God, that we recognize their God-given rights to be ordained, not as elders, but as Evangelists and Missionaries. . . ." Some historians place emphasis on "not as elders," thus finding ambivalence in this early position.[2] But the infant group was making a bold statement in relation to the groups from which many of them had come, having experienced Pentecost and then beginning to preach the message. Though the word elders was not specifically defined, there was at the time a significant percentage, though a small number, of women pastoring Assemblies of God churches. As Edith Waldvogel Blumhofer has observed, "In the early Pentecostal movement, having the ’anointing’ was far more important than one’s sex."[3] It is also noteworthy that many male ministers who support a greater openness to the ministry of women were part of the early Pentecostal movement or have observed outstanding examples of anointed women’s ministries in their immediate families or personal experience.[4]

As evidence that the early openness to the ministry and spiritual leadership of women was not a unanimous opinion, the 1933 General Council, still granting ordination credentials, recommended limiting women’s ministry to that of the evangelist. But the earlier receptivity to and recognition of women’s ministry was restored and even strengthened at the very next General Council in 1935, which specifically stated that women could serve as pastors as well as evangelists. Though there have been editorial modifications in subsequent General Councils, all have maintained the same stance, with the current (1995) Bylaws statement reading as follows:

Eligibility of women. The Scriptures plainly teach that divinely called and qualified women may also serve the church in the ministry of the Word (Joel 2:29; Acts 21:9; 1 Corinthians 11:5). Women who have developed in the ministry of the Word so that their ministry is acceptable generally, and who have proved their qualifications in actual service, and who have met all the requirements of the credentials committees of the district councils, are entitled to whatever grade of credentials their qualifications warrant and the right to administer the ordinances of the church when such acts are necessary.[5]

The statistical trends on women in ministry in the Assemblies of God since the early days of the Movement have shown a significant decrease in the percentage of credentialed women to credentialed men, even though the raw numbers have remained fairly constant or have increased slightly.[6] Scholars studying the development of young church groups into mature church groups attribute the decline to the institutionalization of the group—moving from a charismatic, Spirit-prompted ministry to an organized, structured hierarchy that substitutes a professional or priestly clergy for a clergy identified by a divine anointing. Some would say that the change is not due to a loss of the anointing, but rather a more studied and careful adherence to Scripture than was followed in the earlier days. This entire question about anointed ministry should be a catalyst for personal and denominational self-evaluation.

The Gist Of A Position Paper

The question of the role of women in ministry continued to be a major controversy, leading the Executive Presbytery to assign to the Doctrinal Purity Commission the task of preparing a position paper based on the best scholarship and explication of controversial scriptural passages. Following 2 years of work by a 12-member all-male commission and drawing on the contributions of two women resource persons (one an ordained minister/Bible college professor and the other the wife of an ordained minister), the Commission submitted the result of its study and deliberation. The paper was adopted by the General Presbytery in August 1990.

Little has changed as a result of the adopted statement, just as little changed after each earlier General Council action on the role of women in ministry. That should not be a surprise nor a concern. Position papers rank third in importance behind the direct statement of Scripture and the Statement of Fundamental Truths contained in the Constitution of the General Council of the Assemblies of God. On position paper subjects where Scripture is unmistakably clear, conformity should be immediate. On matters where the interpretation of Scripture varies and has been at variance for years (as in the case of the role of women in ministry), the position paper should be a distant goal toward which practice moves gradually, taking into consideration local circumstances, cultural traditions and biases, as well as the overall mission of the church—worship toward God, edification toward other believers, and outreach to the lost. Settling controversial issues never supersedes the mission of the church, and a unified purpose and mission may call for patience in accomplishing lesser goals. The apostle Paul seems to have ministered from that perspective (cf. Philippians 3:7–17).

The position paper actually reaffirms the historical and constitutional position of the Assemblies of God on the role of women in ministry. It places the women’s ministry issue in global perspective, showing the inconsistencies of cultural practices among some who place limitations on the ministry of women.

Twentieth-century practice among Pentecostals around the world reveals evidence of a genuine struggle to apply biblical truth in various cultural contexts. In some settings, female spiritual leadership is readily accepted; in others, though women may have limited ministry, leadership posts are withheld from them. At times there is inconsistency between the leadership a female missionary has at home and that which she has on the field, or between her opportunities and those of a national female. Indeed, culture has influenced the extent of leadership a woman has been allowed to share. The Church must always be sensitive to cultural concerns, but it must look to Scripture for the truth that applies to all times and cultures.[7]

Another section of the paper surveys biblical examples of women in ministry. In the Old Testament, Miriam was a prophet[8] as well as a leader (Exodus 15:20). Deborah, a prophet and judge, led an army to battle victory (Judges 4 and 5). Huldah, another prophet, contributed much to the great religious reform under Josiah (2 Kings 22; 2 Chronicles 34).

In the New Testament, Philip’s four virgin daughters prophesied (Acts 21:8,9). Euodia and Syntyche, in spite of their personal disagreements, were identified by Paul as his coworkers (Philippians 4:2,3, NKJV). Paul called Priscilla and her husband Aquila "fellow workers in Christ Jesus" (Romans 16:3, NKJV). In his concluding remarks to the Roman Christians, Paul greeted a large number of ministering persons, including many women (Romans 16). Phoebe, a leader in the church at Cenchrea, was highly commended by Paul to the Christians in Rome (Romans 16:1,2), obviously contradicting the interpretation that Paul, in 1 Timothy 2:11–15, excludes women from teaching and leadership roles in the church.[9] As a diakonosof the church at Cenchrea, Phoebe was more than a servant or helper; Paul often used the term for a minister or leader of a congregation and applied it specifically to his own ministry as well as to Jesus Christ and to Timothy. A number of scholars observe that translators with preconceived assumptions on the role of women in ministry render diakonos as "minister" when used for men, but "servant" when used for Phoebe.[10] Paul called Junia an apostle (Romans 16:7). But many translators since the 13th century have changed the name to the masculine Junias, thus avoiding an exception to the common assumption that only men could be apostles. Paul was a strong advocate of women’s ministry. God called women to spiritual leadership in the Early Church, and there is no biblical evidence He has changed His mind on the subject. Some claim that God uses women only when He cannot find willing men, and when He does find a willing man, women are no longer needed in leadership roles. But God could have raised up a man for each of the above leadership positions, just as He called a belligerent Paul to become one of His greatest spiritual leaders. "God does indeed call women to spiritual leadership," the position paper states.

The major portion of the 1990 position paper deals with biblical passages relating to the appropriate role of women in ministry. The passages include Genesis 2:18–25; 1 Corinthians 11:3–12; 14:34–36; Galatians 3:28; 1 Timothy 2:11–15; 3:1–13 . A summary of the four main passages follows.

As introduction to the Pauline passages, the position paper notes that ministry in the New Testament is charismatic in nature. It is energized by the gifts (charismata) sovereignly distributed by the Holy Spirit. Restrictions against women in ministry, as advocated by non-Pentecostals who have not accepted the charismatic nature of New Testament ministry, must be closely examined.

1 Corinthians 11:3–12. The statement that "the man is the head of the woman" has long been used to support male superiority and to exclude women from spiritual leadership. Evangelical scholars take one of two positions on the meaning of the word kephale ("head"): (a) "authority over" or (b) "source" or "origin." Both meanings are found in the literature of Paul’s time. The position paper concludes: "Without attempting to resolve this debate, we do not find sufficient evidence in kephale to deny leadership roles to women (in light of biblical examples of women in positions of spiritual authority, and in light of the whole counsel of Scripture)."

1 Corinthians 14:34–36. When Paul said, "Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak," he must have meant something besides an absolute, unequivocal prohibition because he earlier gave instructions to women who prayed and prophesied in public services (1 Corinthians 11:5). Possible explanations of what he was prohibiting include (a) chatter in public services, (b) ecstatic disruptions, (c) certain authoritative ministries, such as judging prophecies, (d) and asking questions during the service. Then the conclusion: "Although we may not solve all the difficulties of this chapter, we do conclude that this passage does not prohibit female leadership, but like the rest of the chapter, it admonishes that ’all things be done decently and in order’ (1 Corinthians 14:40)."

1 Timothy 2:11–15. "I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man" (verse 12, NKJV) has puzzled interpreters and resulted in various explanations. Was the prohibition a universal truth, or was Paul reporting his application of divine truth for the Christian community to which he and Timothy ministered? There were obvious problems concerning women in Ephesus: immodest apparel and adornment (2:9), younger widows who were busybodies (5:13), and possibly some manipulative women (2 Timothy 3:6).

Reading the entire passage beginning with verse 9 strongly suggests that Paul was giving Timothy advice about dealing with heretical teachings and practices involving women in the church of Ephesus. Paul’s choice of "I do not permit" is an echo of his words to the church at Corinth: "But to the rest speak I, not the Lord" (1 Corinthians 7:12). The heresy may have been so serious that Paul had to say, "I am not allowing [Ephesian] women to teach or have authority over a man."

1 Timothy 3:1–13. This passage deals primarily with male leadership, probably because first-century culture produced a primarily male church leadership. Use of the word gunaikas in verse 11 allows translators to choose either "wives" or "women" based on the translator’s assumptions about the context. The first choice applies the qualifications to deacons’ wives, the second to female spiritual leaders. Biblical passages that identify most leaders as male should not be made to say that women cannot be leaders. The Church must work with cultural traditions if it is to fulfill the Great Commission effectively.

After examining these passages, the position paper observes:

[W]e conclude that we cannot find convincing evidence that the ministry of women is restricted according to some sacred or immutable principle.

We are aware that the ministry and leadership of women are not accepted by some individuals, both within and outside the Christian community. . . . The existence in the secular world of bigotry against women cannot be denied. . . . We acknowledge that attitudes of secular society, based on long-standing practice and tradition, have influenced the application of biblical principles to local circumstances. We desire wisely to respect yet help redeem cultures which are at variance with Kingdom principles. Like Paul, we affirm that the Great Commission takes priority over every other consideration. . . . A believer’s gifts and anointing should still today make a way for his or her ministry. The Pentecostal ministry is not a profession to which men or women merely aspire; it must always be a divine calling, confirmed by the Spirit with a special gifting.

Reaching For Goal With Wisdom And Patience

Once a goal has been carefully examined and established, some are impatient with any delay in its accomplishment. Delay is seen as weakness and cowardice, an unwillingness to take a stand. But Paul’s urgency was never to correct the ills of society. His urgency was bringing men, women, and children to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, then discipling them to reach and disciple others. Paul raised the position of women in the Early Church far above what contemporary society practiced. But he never went so far that his message was smothered by a social crusade. Preaching Jesus Christ and Him crucified was Paul’s crusade.

But how does this work out in a local congregation where there are strongly divided attitudes? One Assemblies of God church took a wise approach to the issue. When opinions for and against women serving on the deacon board began to surface, the pastor appointed a committee which included the major voices on both sides of the question. The pastor was also a member of the committee. Results of the study were to be reported back to the official board. The study was not rushed. Attitudes were more important than haste in reaching a conclusion. The expression of secular feminist views was not germane. A list of questions formed the structure for the study:

1. Is it biblical for women to be spiritual leaders?

2. Is there further New Testament teaching on women in ministry?

3. Were there female deacons [or elders] in the Early Church? Is there any precedent for female deacons in the Assemblies of God?

4. What understandings of our local situation should condition our conclusions and recommendations regarding female deacons? Where do we go from here?

The result of the 10-page study report was a careful worded change in the church bylaws to allow women to serve on the board. There has not been a wholesale move toward women on the board. On every election ballot, at least one woman has been included in the list. On only one occasion was a woman elected. But the opportunity for future involvement is now in place, and it was accomplished without disruption and diversion from the primary mission of the church.

Women should not be placed in leadership roles just to accommodate calls for representation. We must always seek the will of the Lord when we vote on leadership. The best qualified and spiritually sensitive persons of either gender can be considered without fearing that we are violating some eternal, immutable principle excluding women. If there are no women qualified for spiritual leadership, maybe the church has failed in its task of equipping all "God’s people for works of service" (Ephesians 4:12, NIV).

A position paper is not a signal to force issues for which a local church is not yet ready. But neither should it be ignored when opportunities present themselves for achieving a biblically healthy body that respects all Spirit-gifted members, both male and female, and provides opportunities for their gifts. A humble and sensitive nudge, as Paul gave to the Early Church, is still the best way to achieve the ministry richness that God desires His Church to enjoy.

Zenas J. Bicket, Ph.D., formerly served as president of Berean University of the Assemblies of God and chairman of the Doctrinal Purity Commission, Springfield, Missouri.



ENDNOTES:

[1]Some non-Pentecostal scholars have noted that only the gift of prophecy is associated in Scripture with women; therefore, they conclude, the other gifts are given only to men. But Pentecostals have seen a far wider demonstration of the gifts of the Spirit through women.

[2]Margaret M. Poloma, The Assemblies of God at the Crossroads (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1989), 106,107.

[3]Edith Waldvogel Blumhofer, The Assemblies of God: a Popular History (Springfield, Mo.: Gospel Publishing House, 1985), 137.

[4]Poloma, 108. Margaret Poloma also concluded from a survey response of 184 Assemblies of God ministers: "While 64 percent of the 48 ministers over 50 years of age were strongly supportive of women in ministry, only 27 percent of their cohorts under age 30 indicated a similarly strong support. . . . [P]astors over the age of 50 (who may have been more likely to be exposed to women pastors in earlier years) are more likely than young or middle-aged pastors to score low on the WOMEN’S index (thus indicating stronger support for women in pastoral roles)"–Poloma, 116.

[5]General Council of the Assemblies of God Bylaws, Article VII, Section 2, Paragraph k.

[6]Because of variations in tabulation prior to 1988 (when Christian worker or the later certified minister credentials were included), a number comparison of the years from 1914 to the present is meaningless. However, the following table shows the current and recent situation concerning credentialed women in the Assemblies of God (from General Secretary reports). The 4,592 and 4,861 credentialed women represent 15% and 15.3% of all credentialed ministers.

Category

1988

1995

Total Number Women Credentialed

4,592 (15%)

4,861 (15.3%)

Senior Pastors

309

349

Evangelists

276

228

Foreign Missionaries

248

284

Home Missionaries

109

135

Age 65 and Over

1,799

1,911

[7]The position paper, "The Role of Women in Ministry," is available in two forms: as a pamphlet (#34-4191) and as one piece in a paperback collection of all the officially adopted position papers (Where We Stand [Springfield, Mo.: Gospel Publishing House, 1994], 243 pages).

[8]The term prophet is deliberately applied to each of these women, even though the English language has a feminine form, prophetess. The emphasis is on the office, not the gender of the individual. Some writers have erroneously described the feminine form of the word as indicating a lesser position than a prophet.

[9]For a detailed treatment of Phoebe’s spiritual leadership role, see Craig S. Keener, Paul, Women & Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1992), 237-240.

[10]See for example, B. H. Streeter and Edith Picton-Turbervill, Woman and the Church (London: F. Fisher Unwin, 1917), 63, and Keener, op. cit., 238,239.