“100 years ago I could not have voted in the United States, but I believe I could have found a place to preach”, I told the pastor sitting across from my husband and me.
He shook his head in dismay, his passion to see his sisters raised up flashing like fire in his eyes. As we sat talking with him, pouring out our hearts about God leading me through seminary and my call to teach and pastor, I began to wish that I could have known a group of women in the last half of the 19th and in the early 20th centuries— fearless ministers who traveled to outposts and led small churches and went out widely as evangelists and preached the word wherever they could, wherever they were welcomed.
But where, exactly, did these women come from? In the book She Can Teach: Empowering Women to Teach the Scriptures Effectively, Jackie Roese writes of the body of Christian men and women in the mid-19th century who stood up to begin to reverse injustices against women. She reminds us of the 1848 Seneca Falls, New York, convention that sparked a first wave of feminists. “Organizations such as the Moody Bible Institute began to train women as circuit preachers. Women-led aid organizations such as the Salvation Army thrived….And the Sunday School movement took up the cause of literacy for women and children.”
Perhaps the results of the Second Great Awakening were still being felt, as more than 100 women had crisscrossed the country as itinerant preachers from 1790-1845. Additionally, as Cecil Robeck notes in The Azusa Street Mission and Revival, the Los Angeles revival that began in 1906 notably broke down ethnic, socio-economic and gender barriers, sparking a movement that raised up women in Pentecostal circles “long before most Protestant denominations.”
Although we can’t be sure how all of these forces converged, the pendulum began to swing, and men and women united across faith lines to win the female’s right to vote, often alongside the work of prohibition in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. State by state, the vote began to be won until the 19th amendment was passed. The voices of God’s female image bearers gained strength, as they cast their votes and raised their voices alongside their brothers, even influencing politicians.
But as the US began to grant civil rights to women, a rising tide of fundamentalist Christians fought back against what they named theological liberalism and modernism and women began to lose their voices in the Church.
Many of those ordained or commissioned as ministers in conservative evangelical denominations lost their status and were literally displaced from their pulpits or ministries. The word of God may have burned in their hearts, but it would no longer be heard as much from their lips.
It would be easy to offer biblical texts for this change in policy. No need to rehearse the passages from the epistles that offered a remix on the Greco-Roman codes of the day—passages that some view as universal truth, others seeing them as pertaining to a specific cultural in a specific situation. Those squashing the ministry of women would offer familiar passages as transcultural principles they must defend, presenting verses like 1 Timothy 2:14 as a code of law. “Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and was in sin.” Never mind that Paul also uses the same sequential logic to say that women should wear head coverings (I Corinthians 11:7-12).
A woman’s place and value was again primarily defined by the effects of the curse—not by the reversal ushered in through Christ’s redemption.
Throughout church history, the Fall as described in Genesis 3 provided the fuel for casting Eve and women in a tragic and negative light: first deceived, prone to wander, capable of tempting men to evil by their very nature—and consequently, unable to divide the word of truth as a man could. As fundamentalism rose up in the 1920s and beyond, the male preachers preached it, the new seminaries and colleges trumpeted it, and the Church at large seemed to be pushing women to remain in an inferior, subservient position to men in general.
Yet through the years, the Word still spoke. Many who studied the Scriptures with careful scholarship found a completely different message located at the heart of the gospel.
Were women set free through the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ—or were they enslaved by “the deception of Eve?”
When studying the Scripture as a whole, and witnessing the beautiful redemptive arc that first pushed Christians to fight for freedom for slaves and voting rights for women and African-Americans, scores of Christians began to sit up and take notice. Today, many who stake their lives on the trustworthiness of Scripture have decided it’s time to free up God’s daughters for full inclusion in his kingdom work—for the sake of our sisters, our brothers, and the spread of the gospel around the world.
As for me, I long for the day when the Church begins to view women not primarily as fallen and dangerous, but as redeemed and restored disciples of the living God. When this happens, there is no telling the power that will be unleashed as the other half of God’s image bearers bear witness to the gospel in whatever way they are gifted, all for the Kingdom’s sake.
Read more from Suzanne at suzanneburden,com and check out her book “Reclaiming Eve: The Identity and Calling of Women in the Kingdom of God“.
Graphic credit: Katie Hickman