The Common Good
August 2009

Empowered by God

by Mimi Haddad | August 2009

The rich history of evangelical feminism.

One of my friends works in Christian ministry at a large, secular university. She is passionate about Christ; she is a gifted teacher, preacher, and apologist; she has dedicated her life to loving college students. She is tenacious in using her spiritual gifts and willing to live on a very limited salary. And, as she told me, “My church spends thousands of dollars so I can share the gospel with college students, both men and women. Yet they will not permit me to preach from the pulpit because I am a woman. This is not only inconsistent. What is worse, they are telling me that there is something wrong with being female!”

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However, in the memory of those still living, things have been very different in the evangelical movement. Recently, three women in their 80s came into the office of Christians for Biblical Equality to volunteer. All three attended evangelical churches. All three were raised evangelical and went to Wheaton College. And all three remember hearing of female evangelists such as Amy Lee Stockton and Rita Gould preaching throughout the Midwest, in places that would surprise some of us today. One of the women, Alvera Mickelsen, told me, “You know, it wasn’t until 1950 that women preachers were considered ‘liberal.’ Before that, no one thought twice about women preaching the gospel.”

The contrast between the experience of these women and that of many evangelicals in college today tells us that something vital has been lost for evangelicals. While the patriarchal view, which holds that women are subordinate in their role and their very being, has been around for much of history, it was only in the 1970s that a new patriarchal religious strain emerged within the evangelical community: the so-called “complementarian” view, which argues that, while men and women are created in God’s image as equals, women have different “roles” or “functions” than men. By “role” or “function” they mean one thing: that women are to be submissive to male authority.

This dissonance between what women are (created equally by God) and what they are to do (take a subordinate role to men) is a challenge to logic. But is it also a challenge to Christian history and scripture? In fact, what evangelical “complementarians” are missing is the fact that the shared authority and ministry of men and women were embraced in egalitarian ways in the work of the apostles—and in the writings and ministry of the early evangelicals of the 1700s.

Because early evangelicals believed that conversion marks the clearest division in life, they included all believers in the work of evangelism, even if it meant challenging social taboos by giving women and slaves new positions of leadership and freedom. The priority they gave to evangelism loosened the grip of prejudice within the body of Christ, challenging the patriarchal assumptions that dominated church culture after the death of the apostles.

TO APPRECIATE THE roots of this break that evangelicals made with patriarchy, let us consider how the earliest Christian church—that of New Testament times—had made its own break from the society in which it arose. Remember, the Christian church emerged in a society where most gender expectations had been shaped by Greek philosophy, which assumed that women’s ontology—their being, nature, or essence—was less morally pure, rational, or strong compared to men’s. As Aristotle put it in the fourth century B.C.E., “the relationship between the male and the female is by nature such that … the male rules and the female is ruled.” And such philosophical assumptions had consequences in everyday life: Women in the ancient world had no authority in decision-making within social structures, and vast numbers of girl babies were exposed—left in the open to die—after birth.

Consider how differently the church in New Testament times functioned! Women—Priscilla, Junia, Lydia, Chloe, Nympha, Apphia, Phoebe, and more—served in positions of leadership. Baptism, open to both men and women, replaced circumcision as the outer expression of our inner relationship with Christ. Women were not required to be obedient, but to offer voluntary submission, just as Paul asks all Christians to submit to one another (Ephesians 5:21).

When Paul wrote in Galatians 3:28 that Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, male and female, are all one in Christ, he offered these words to a culture in which nearly half of all people were slaves and more than half were female. His words are radical indeed when you consider that, in Paul’s culture, your identity and sphere of influence were determined by your gender, ethnicity, and class. To this world Paul boldly declares that our value and influence come not from our parents but from God, from whom we receive our ultimate inheritance, and our sisters and brothers in Christ receive the same inheritance equally from God’s Spirit. Rebirth in Christ opens opportunities for equality of function within Christ’s new covenant community.

Sadly, after the death of the apostles, the church adopted the cultural devaluation of women. As Chrysostom (347-407 C.E.) put it, “The woman taught once, and ruined all. On this account therefore he saith, let her not teach … for the sex is weak and fickle.” Throughout the Middle Ages, while women such as Catherine of Siena, Hildegard, and Theodora provided moral leadership to the church during war, conflict, corruption, and the plague, theologians such as Aquinas continued to argue that women were inferior in nature and service. Later, Protestant reformers such as John Calvin and John Knox kept rank with the patriarchal assumptions of earlier theologians, even though women were prominent in advancing Protestant faith throughout Europe. Women such as Lady Jane Grey in England; Jeanne D’Albret—defender of the Huguenots—in France; and Katharine von Bora, Martin Luther’s wife, in Germany courageously promoted Protestant faith, even though many were tortured and martyred.

THE EGALITARIAN VIEW of the New Testament church began to re-emerge in 1666 with the writings of the Quaker Margaret Fell Fox. It gained enormous momentum in the 1800s, during what has been called the “golden era” of missions—the largest missionary impulse the world has ever known. New centers of Christian strength and vitality were flourishing in the Americas, Africa, and Asia, according to mission experts such as Dana Robert. More than half of all Christians were found outside the region that had been the historical heartland of Christianity for nearly 1,500 years. In all of this, women, who outnumbered men on mission fields 2-to-1, played a central role; so did people, such as Amanda Smith (see below), who had been born into slavery.

The success of women and former slaves as missionaries called into question gender and ethnic bias in interpreting scripture—and the church began to see the importance of liberating them both in church and in society. Between 1808 and 1930, more than 46 biblical publications were issued in support of women’s gospel leadership. These documents signify the emergence of the first wave of feminists—a movement that was deeply biblical.

For example, A. J. Gordon (1836–95), perhaps the most prominent evangelical pastor of his day, was a leading advocate of abolition, missions, and women in ministry. Gordon believed that Pentecost was the “Magna Charta of the Christian church,” in which those who had once been viewed as inferior by natural birth (their being and nature) attain a new spiritual status through the power of the Holy Spirit. God’s gifting no longer rests on a “favored few, but upon the many, without regard to race, or age, or sex.”

Perhaps the most extensive egalitarian reading of the Bible was advanced by Dr. Katharine Bushnell (1856–1946), a medical doctor, missionary, Bible translator, and activist who exemplified the period’s combination of missionary work, social activism, and first-wave feminism. Her book God’s Word to Women, released in 1919 and still in print, advanced the equality of women—a position that grew out of her study of scripture in the original languages, her observations of women’s leadership on the mission field, and her medical efforts to help abused women both in the U.S. and in India.

Bushnell begins her theological basis for women’s equality in Genesis, by observing that Adam and Eve were both equally created in God’s image and called to share dominion in Eden. Satan, not Eve, was the source of sin (Genesis 3:14-15), and sin led to the domination of men over women (Genesis 3:16). Most important, Bushnell and other evangelical egalitarians assessed women’s essence and capacity for ministry—just like men’s—based not on the Fall, but on Christ’s victory at Calvary.

The egalitarians of the 1800s affirmed the authority of the scriptures and provided a challenge to the presumed inferiority of women and slaves, as it had been put forward by previous generations of Christians. Ultimately, first-wave feminists offered a serious blow to any biblical support for determining one’s scope of service based on attributes such as gender, class, or ethnicity.

Early feminists not only established the hermeneutical groundwork for later generations of egalitarians to build upon; they also fueled activism that dealt a death-blow to the institution of slavery and made it possible for women to gain the right to vote and become preachers of the gospel. As we can see, the liberation of women was a deeply biblical movement; it began not with secular feminists such as Gloria Steinem in the 1970s, as is often argued, but with Katharine Bushnell, Amanda Smith, and A. J. Gordon in the 1800s and earlier.

The priority given to conversion, so highly valued by evangelicals, pressed them to give women and slaves new ministry opportunities. The call of evangelism can press us today to acknowledge and embrace the gospel leadership of women—empowered by God since the empty tomb!

Mimi Haddad is president of Christians for Biblical Equality (www.cbeinternational.org).

In Word and Deed
Four women leaders of faith.

Priscilla. Paul references Priscilla and her husband Aquila more frequently than he does anyone except Timothy. The couple were a living model of Galatians 3:28: She is a Roman woman, and her husband is a Jew—most likely a freed slave, given his name, which means “eagle’s feather.” (Slaves were often given silly names.)

Priscilla and Aquila attain prominence not only because of the church they establish while in Ephesus (1 Corinthians 16:19), but by endangering their lives for Paul (possibly during the riots referenced in Acts 19:23-41), an act that gains gratitude from all the Gentile churches (Romans 16:4). Priscilla’s leadership in the early church is emphasized by Paul, who refers to her as a “co-worker,” a term he uses elsewhere to identify other leaders such as Mark, Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Apollos, and Luke. She’s named before her husband in most biblical references to the couple, indicating that she was the more renowned.

Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) must be included in any discussion of evangelical activists. Evangelist, preacher, abolitionist, and suffragist, Truth caught the attention of many political leaders; even President Lincoln was one of her admirers. Though she never learned to read or write, she had one of the most brilliant theological minds of her day, and an intimate relationship with Christ. As Truth told a suffragist meeting in Ohio, to deny women the privilege of voting or preaching because Christ was male was to ignore the fact that it was Christ’s humanity, not his gender, which made him the perfect sacrifice for all people. Truth offered a powerful testimony that women’s identity, value, and service is located in their truest identity—rebirth in Christ.

Amanda Smith (1837-1915), who was born a slave in the U.S., was deeply influenced by revivals. During one of these meetings, she heard God calling her to preach; Smith became a prominent evangelist who preached throughout the U.S. and in India, England, and Africa.

A gifted leader who bravely faced gender bias, Smith addressed educated leaders at a revival in Keswick, England, in 1882, saying: “You may not know it, but I am a princess in disguise. I am a child of the King.” Smith located her call to evangelism in her own conversion, which was not rooted in her gender or social status as a former slave, but in her identity in Christ.

As Smith was evangelizing overseas, there were Christians who seemed more concerned that a woman might preach than that souls were saved. Yet she was a powerful leader. In response to her work in India, a male leader wrote to her saying that, through her, he had “learned more that has been of actual value to me as a preacher of Christian truth … than from any other one person I had ever met.”

Frances Willard (1839-98) came to faith at a Methodist revival meeting and went on to become president of the 2-million-member Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), which had an evangelistic outreach to laborers of many trades. Advancing Christ through evangelism and activism, the WCTU worked across social, national, ethnic, economic, and denominational boundaries. The WCTU advanced not only the gospel, but also abolition, temperance, and women’s suffrage.

Willard was prominent for her work against prostitution, lobbied for legislation against rape, and urged leaders in fashion to eliminate drastic corsets that harmed women’s health. When she died, 30,000 people came out to mourn, while flags flew at half-mast in Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C. —MH

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