Exploring Why We Think The Way We Do About Women In Ministry
Dr. George O. Wood’s classic article explains how Pentecostals interpret Scripture on this important issue
On June 5, Rev. Donna Barrett was formally installed as general secretary of the Assemblies of God. Barrett is the first woman to serve on the Executive Leadership Team, making this a significant moment in the history of a Fellowship that has long endorsed women in ministry. In honor of this occasion, we are reposting an article that first appeared in the Enrichment Journal during 2001. Written by former General Superintendent George O. Wood, it explains the Pentecostal hermeneutic that supports the AG’s affirmation of women’s full participation in the leadership of the church.
The Southern Baptist Convention, meeting in Orlando, Florida, in June 2000, excluded women from the office of pastor. The newly adopted Baptist Faith and Message states that while “both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”
Many Southern Baptists explained their action as a move to counter liberal culture. Christianity Today quoted Mike Whitehead, interim president at Midwestern Baptist Seminary: “It is not news that God assigned roles in the home and in the church. This principle is not a cultural relic but a divine order. Most Baptists are pretty squeamish about tinkering with the words of God.”
Where does this leave the Assemblies of God? By permitting the ordination of women and permitting women to pastor, are we tinkering with the words of God? Have we capitulated to the liberal culture by credentialing 5,225 women of our 32,304 credentialed ministers (16.17 percent), and by having 387 women pastors among our 12,055 churches (3.21 percent)? [Editor’s Note: Today, there are 9,142 women serving among our 37,619 credentialed ministers (24.3 percent), and 569 of 13,023 AG churches (4.4 percent) have women senior pastors.]
My purpose is not to denounce the Southern Baptists. I have great respect and admiration for what they have done to advance the cause of Jesus Christ. My reason for referring to them is to surface the hard question that is often asked the Assemblies of God. The Southern Baptists, along with some believers inside and outside our Movement, assert that permitting women every role in ministry available to men violates Scripture. As Pentecostals, we better have an answer to that. And, we do.
The Text and Our Experience
As Pentecostals, we intuitively approach the biblical text in a manner different from most of our evangelical brothers and yes, sisters. We factor in the element of experience as a lens through which we look at Scripture. We are criticized for that. But our evangelical compatriots essentially do the same thing, except they interpret the text from their nonexperience, which is an experience of sorts.
I say this with no edge. I’m a graduate of one of the finest evangelical seminaries. I’m grateful for the training I received. Many of my own seminary community side more with us than with the Southern Baptists on the issue of women in ministry. But dialogue is freshened among believers when one can engage from time to time in a little playful poking.
I cannot count the number of times I, as a Pentecostal in an evangelical seminary, was accused of basing my views on the Baptism and fullness in the Holy Spirit on my experience. I learned to rejoin: “But you do the same thing. You base your views on your experience. And your experience is that you have not had an experience.”
I am not so foolish to predicate my hermeneutical approach toward women in the ministry as resting solely on the pillar of experience. I do suggest that experience is a necessary prism through which we understand and appropriate God’s Word.
What do I mean? Let me use two examples.
Peter and Cornelius
Acts 10 starts us on a hermeneutical approach to resolving difficult issues. Men are on their way from Cornelius to Peter in Joppa with an invitation for him to come to Caesarea. Peter has no clue they are approaching. At the noon hour, on the rooftop of Simon the tanner’s house, Peter falls into a trance while waiting for lunch. He has a vision of a sheet descending from heaven with all kinds of nonkosher animals. He’s told to kill and eat.
To use a modern idiom, Peter replies, “No, Lord, I cannot do that. I’ve never eaten a cheeseburger in my whole life.” (Cheeseburger is not in the text, but a cheeseburger is nonkosher. If the vision occurred in 2001, cheeseburgers would have been on the sheet. To this day, an orthodox Jew will not eat a cheeseburger because the Levitical law is interpreted to ban the eating of dairy products and meat at the same time.)
Notice carefully what Peter said, “Surely not, Lord! … I have never eaten anything impure or unclean [i.e., nonkosher]” (Acts 10:14).
This is an astonishing admission. Was Peter absent the day Jesus taught on clean and unclean foods? Several years before Peter’s rooftop experience, Jesus asked: “Are you so dull? … Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” Then comes Mark’s tag: “In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:18-19).
Do you see the issue? For years Peter had the clear, straight-line teaching of Jesus on the subject of kosher and nonkosher foods; but it took Peter’s experience of the vision to actualize the teaching as applied to his own life. Without the experience at Simon the tanner’s, Peter would have probably lived the rest of his life and never eaten any nonkosher item, even though the Lord had expressly given permission to do so.
Look next at Peter’s explanation to the Jerusalem church on the coming of salvation and the Spirit to Cornelius’ house. Peter is up against a traditional interpretation of the Old Testament text as he explained to Cornelius, “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile” (Acts 10:28). Why then did he come? “But God has shown me … .”
Once the Holy Spirit is poured out on Cornelius, Peter has some explaining to do to the Jerusalem church. He defends himself two ways: (1) the experience itself (Acts 11:4-15), and (2) a biblical text, “Then I remembered what the Lord had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit’” (verse 16). On the basis of the conjuncture of experience and Scripture, Peter rests his case and the Church makes the proper conclusion (verses 17-18).
Had the Lord left it to the Early Church to engage in theological debate concerning whether or not the Old Testament text permitted an observant Jew to visit a Gentile’s house — or the inclusion of Gentiles into the family of God without circumcision or maintenance of the ritual law — the issue would have been argued until the cows came home. The Holy Spirit simply chose to take initiative and decide the matter by fiat, and then leave it to the Church to attest His work by reference to the written Word.
This provides for us a clue concerning how to adjudicate an issue such as women in the ministry. Is it possible that, in addition to looking at the biblical text, we should survey what the Holy Spirit is doing within the experience of His people?
Let me be clear that I am not suggesting we forsake the objective grounds of Scripture for the murky dangers of ascertaining truth by subjective experience. We must never forget the prescient statement of former General Superintendent Thomas F. Zimmerman: “A river is designed to flow within banks. For Pentecostals, experience is the river, but that river must stay within the God-ordained banks of Scripture.”
However, a key perspective has often been lost when Bible believers divide on a doctrinal issue: What does the Bible itself teach us concerning the method by which the Early Church resolved doctrinal differences? It is that method I am looking for; this shapes my hermeneutical approach to the text.
The Jerusalem Council
I have presented an opening example from the biblical text itself. Had it been left to the Jerusalem church to debate from the Old Testament on whether Peter should be given permission to go to Cornelius’ house, and whether these Gentiles should be received into the community of faith and baptized without being circumcised, I don’t think there would be too many who would deny that the Jerusalem church would have banned the visit. The Holy Spirit, though, acted unilaterally in taking the initiative, in keeping with the Lord’s promise that when the Spirit came, He would lead into all truth (John 16:13).
Is the example of Peter and Cornelius an aberration, or is the same principle repeated again? The answer to the last part of the question is a clear and resounding yes.
Look at the Jerusalem Council, recorded in Acts 15. They were no longer dealing, as with Cornelius, with the inclusion of one Gentile family into the Church. The Early Church was dealing with the inclusion of entire Gentile communities resulting from Paul and Barnabas’ first missionary journey. A good segment of the Jerusalem church is upset. Why? Because they feel the text of the Old Testament is violated. The group for Gentile inclusion feels otherwise.
How do you resolve an issue when both groups have a very high view of Scripture? Does the Assemblies of God have any less high a view of Scripture than the Southern Baptists? No. Our Statement of Fundamental Truths begins by affirming, “The Bible is our all-sufficient rule for faith and practice.” The first article relates to the Scriptures inspired: “The Scriptures, both the Old and New Testaments, are verbally inspired of God and are the revelation of God to man, the infallible, authoritative rule of faith and conduct (2 Timothy 3:15-17; 1 Thessalonians 2:13; 2 Peter 1:21).”
The Jerusalem Council provides a paradigm for resolving a textual dispute among believers over doctrine. First, there is a full-scale discussion of the issue. The Judaizers led with their thesis, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses” (Acts 15:5). In the “much discussion” that followed (verse 7), the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees probably quoted volumes from the Old Testament text supporting their position.
While teaching a college-level course on Acts, I once set aside a class session for the students to role-play the Jerusalem Council. Some students were assigned to play the role of the Judaizers; others, the pro-Gentile party. A student assumed the role of the moderator, James. Two other students played the roles of Barnabas and Paul. A very lively discussion followed.
I noticed one thing through the reenactment — something I should have known earlier, but I hadn’t really paid attention to it. The weight of the biblical text was on the side of the Judaizers. The role-playing Judaizer students quoted Scripture by the yard in advancing their view of “be saved and be circumcised,” or “no circumcision, no salvation.”
In fact, if you stack up all the texts supporting circumcision on one side of the scale, and the texts affirming inclusion of Gentiles without circumcision on the other side, the Judaizers clearly had the scales tipped in their favor.
However, since the Scriptures cannot be broken (set against each other), it became the task of the Jerusalem church — and it is ours today as well on other matters — to harmoniously resolve texts that appear to be contrarily engaging each other.
Experience is a necessary prism through which we understand and appropriate God’s Word.
The “much discussion” of Acts 15:7 dealt first with the question, What does the text of Scripture say? The Judaizers answered one way; Paul and Barnabas the other. How do you affirm truth when believers are throwing texts at each other?
Here is where the Jerusalem Council has a most important lesson for us — and it’s the same lesson discussed above regarding Peter’s going to Cornelius. We must listen to the experience of seasoned leadership who give testimony to being guided by the Holy Spirit.
Following the textual debate, Peter stood and recounted his testimony of years earlier with Cornelius at Caesarea. His clinching line is, “God, who knows the heart showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us” (verse 8). Peter quoted no Scripture; he simply restated his experience.
Then Paul and Barnabas stepped to the microphone. They too spoke of their experience. “The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them” (verse 12).
The Judaizers have no testimony to share. Their arguments are based solely on proof texts, and they totally ignore what the Spirit has done.
James, presiding at the Council, drew a conclusion supported by those assembled. He affirmed the testimony of Gentile inclusion and attested it by reference to key texts from Amos 9:11,12 and Isaiah 45:21, pointing to the ingathering of the nations and God’s eternal plan for such (Acts 15:16-18).
The essential matter decided, four conditions are laid down for Gentiles to follow (Acts 15:19-21) as essential either for moral purity (abstain from sexual immorality) or table fellowship between Jews and Gentiles (food offered to idols, strangled meat, and blood).
Applying Early-Church Resolution Methodology to the Women in Ministry Issue
Why is this discussion on the inclusion of the Gentiles relevant to the issue of women in the ministry? Because we learn from the New Testament itself the process by which the Early Church resolved issues when texts appeared to collide. Their understanding of the text was impacted by their experience in the Spirit.
Let me cite some examples from my own Pentecostal roots.
I spent some of my early years growing up in northwest China. The women sat on one side of the church, and the men on the other. The educational level of the women at that time was considerably less than that of the men. Married women called out across the sanctuary to their husbands, seated on the opposite side, with questions related to what was being said or done in the service. That experience helped me put into context Paul’s admonition that women should remain silent in the churches, asking questions of their own husbands at home (1 Corinthians 14:34-35; 1 Timothy 2:11-12). Clearly, he had not forbidden them to speak within the context of prayer or prophecy (1 Corinthians 11:4-5).
My experience shaped my understanding of the text. It was no different in regard to women preachers.
My mother was ordained by the Assemblies of God in 1924 — as were a host of other women in the early years. I grew up listening to my mother and other women preaching the gospel. What was their basis for so doing? The Holy Spirit had called them in light of the prophetic promise of Joel 2:28-30 fulfilled in Acts 2:17-18 — in the last days God would pour out His Spirit on all flesh, including daughters as well as sons who would prophesy, including women as well as men servants.
In Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost, he announced that God had launched the fulfillment of that promise. It’s not surprising, therefore, that the Pentecostal church has always embraced women in ministry — since to do such is Pentecostal. It’s what the Spirit promised to do in the age before the coming of the Lord. God is an equal opportunity employer; therefore, so must we be.
When texts have been thrown against us — such as 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15 — our experience told us that these texts must be interpreted in light of Joel 2, Acts 2, and Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
This is the same pattern we find when dealing with the Gentile inclusion question. Had the issue been presented for debate prior to Peter’s going to Cornelius’ home or prior to Paul’s Gentile mission, the Jerusalem church would have voted against both endeavors of bringing in the Gentiles without prior observance to Jewish law and culture. But the debate took place after the endeavors of Peter and Paul — and their experience helped the Early Church reach an appropriate understanding of the text.
With the advent of the modern Pentecostal movement in 1901, the Holy Spirit began to be poured out copiously on both men and women. Six of the 12 elders at the Azusa Street mission were women. They granted credentials and laid hands on believers to go forth as missionaries and evangelists.
At the organizational meeting of the Assemblies of God in 1914, women were granted the right of ordination as evangelists and missionaries, but not as elders. Ordained women were, at first, not permitted to vote in the General Council since such was regarded as an eldership function. However, women were accorded voting rights beginning with the 1920 General Council, the same year the 19th Amendment was adopted, which granted women in the United States the right to vote.
The ban on eldership meant that ordained women should not serve as pastors, marry people, and administer the ordinances of water baptism and the Lord’s Supper. However, the Assemblies of God had ordained women fulfilling all these functions anyway.
In 1922, then general superintendent E.N. Bell, writing on behalf of the Executive Presbytery to ordained women, wrote: “It has nevertheless been understood all along that they could do these things when some circumstance made it necessary for them to so do … . The Executive Presbytery … authorized the Credential Committee to issue new credentials to all our ordained women who are actually preaching the Word just the same as ordained men do, and that these new credentials should state these women are authorized to do these things when necessary.” So sensitive and potentially divisive was that decision that Brother Bell requested at the end of his letter to ordained women: “TAKE NOTICE: This letter is not to go out of your personal possession.”
In 1935, the General Council itself recognized that ordained women may pastor and administer the ordinances of the Church. If the Early Church took a few years to sort out the Gentile inclusion issue, it is not surprising that we took a few years at the beginning to work through the issue of women’s inclusion in ministry.
Salvation and Status in Galatians 3:28
I referred earlier to Galatians 3:28 as providing a pattern to help us understand the text and experience brought to bear upon the text. Galatians 3:28 deals with three great cultural divides: (1) Jew and Gentile, (2) slave and free, (3) men and women.
As regards salvation, the distinction between each of these was clearly abolished from the start of the Church. Salvation was equally available to both Jew and Gentile, slave and free, men and women.
As regards status, the Holy Spirit worked developmentally within the Church as it became a model to the outside unbelieving world.
For example, the first issue the Spirit tackled from Galatians 3:28 was the Jewish/Gentile issue. Gentiles were to be included without first becoming Jews. However, to accommodate cultural sensitivities of believing Jews, the Gentiles were told not to eat blood or things strangled. Over time, how an animal was killed or whether a person ate his steak rare ceased to become an instrument of division. The meat issue constituted a temporary, but not a permanent concession to cultural sensitivities.
The second issue related to slaves and free. Within the church there was to be no distinction between master and servant — each was equal at the foot of the Cross. However, as an accommodation to culture and to prevent massive social upheaval and persecution of believers — slave and free — the full-scale liberation of slaves was not advocated.
Slaves were to be obedient to their masters (Ephesians 6:5-8; Colossians 3:22-25; Titus 2:9-10; 1 Peter 2:18-20), even more so to their believing owners (1 Timothy 6:1-2). Surely no one now would advocate the foregoing texts as an argument for slavery today. We recognize these texts as interim until the full force of Galatians 3:28 could be applied.
The gospel is like tree roots growing underneath the sidewalk. Sooner or later, the liberating power of the gospel — for Gentiles, slaves, and women — breaks through the repressive concrete of cultural mores and norms that discriminate and oppress.
The third issue of Galatians 3:28 relates to “nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Our evangelical friends who are opposed to the ordination of women or women as pastors agree with us that Galatians 3:28 clearly makes salvation available without distinction to each of the three groupings listed by Paul. They agree with us over the status issues of Gentiles and slaves.
For example, no one would argue that we interpret Galatians 3:28 in light of the slave passages listed above. We interpret Ephesians 6, Colossians 3, Titus 2, and 1 Peter 2 in light of Galatians 3:28. Neither Gentile nor Jew, neither slave nor free — that is the permanent and enduring law of the gospel as related to both salvation and status.
Why are women left out? Arguing that Galatians 3:28, in regards to the status of women, should be interpreted in light of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 is no different than arguing that Galatians 3:28 should be interpreted by the slave passages.
Parenthetically, why do our Southern Baptists friends — and other evangelicals who agree with them — not equally insist on the enforcement of the veil (1 Corinthians 11:3-6) along with the enforcement of “silence” for women? Why this selectivity in the text? By their own hermeneutic, wouldn’t this failure to enforce the veil amount to a capitulation to “liberal culture” and “tinkering with the words of God”?
In the end-time harvest, Pentecostals believe that God is accepting all workers and qualifying them for any role consistent with their calling and gifting.
My estimation, historically, of how we arrived at that view is that in our early days we witnessed that the Spirit himself had called women into the ministry. Like the Bereans (Acts 17:11), we immediately went to the text to see if this experience could be corroborated. Our forefathers found the eschatological texts of Joel 2, quoted in Acts 2; and the salvation/status text of Galatians 3:28. They understood that God was bringing Pentecost again to the Church to gather in the harvest at the end of the day. In this era of the Spirit, the harvest was so huge, both men and women were needed.
Their inclusion of women into the ministry followed exactly the same pattern used by the Early Church, as recorded in Acts. They brought their experience to bear on the text; they brought the text to bear on their experience. And they found a complete consistency between the written words inspired by the Spirit and the present-day leading of the Spirit. Now, with almost 100 years of experience, we can say without hesitation that God’s calling, equipping, and effectively using women in ministry “seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28).