“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
Melody, Thanks for your comment. After reading it I just had to scroll back up and look at the image to see what my response would be henceforth. I saw a group of women – united. That’s what I saw, the first time I looked at the image and that’s what I saw the second time I looked at it. I am struck by the fact that if the women were facing forward, we would then see their “tops”. Would we now have to worry about being disempowered because it might be apparent that we have breasts under our clothing? (Oh, horrors!) I am not sure what is so disempowering about seeing our “bottoms”… but see a totally different image then what you do.
“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.”
This. This. This.
We are called to help Jesus bring about the Kingdom of God. He straight up told us that gender roles won’t be the same in the Kingdom (Matthew 22:30). So, why would be hold so tightly onto roles that are supposed to have been caused by the Fall?
I’m not a pastor and I don’t feel like that’s what I’m supposed to do. However, I still feel like an outsider within Christianity. When I try to join theological discussions, some men won’t do anything but preach at me. I’m not supposed to be “teaching them”, so any new insight I might bring gets dismissed without even being considered.
Hey there kmburm: Jesus has already set women free! And your voice matters, your female voice matters, you matter in his kingdom. Thanks for commenting.
I can tell I’m going to enjoy your book!
One small point, I wish that the image above was of women facing the lens squarely. I know the idea is that they are moving ahead together into the future, but for me seeing their bottoms is disempowering. It’s a small point as I say, but it triggered the thoughts for me. Everything communicates. As a photographer and marketer images are really important.
Again, thanks for this article!
Interesting point. One I would not have thought of. Can’t wait to hear your thoughts on Reclaiming Eve!
Point well taken, Melody! Keep the feedback coming.
Outstanding article, Suzanne! I’m reposting to Kyria.
This was great to read and it spoke to my personal history. Lately I have increasingly realized I am not alone in the struggle to find my place as a Christian Woman. Both my paternal grandmother and step-grandmother were ordained ministers. One was born in 1899, the other around 1912, and were right in the thick of these movements in the church. One had been a pastor and school principal at various points of her life. My grandfather, father and mother were pastors and Music Directors. They all served as great examples to me of how God uses women and men to further the gospel. I grew up in a denomination that ordained women so I never thought about a lack of opportunity for women to equally serve in any place within the church in the early years. Yet as a young adult woman in college and after, I began to notice this “patriarchal Christianity” (as I call it) embedded throughout the local churches. Not only did I not see women being appointed as pastors, I rarely saw them on church boards except in certain circumstances Basically if a married couple both served in the church as leaders, the wives were never considered for the board because the default was always with the husband. I was being taught that husbands were the spiritual leaders of their wives and homes. I thought well no wonder women aren’t called to pastor churches! I guess everyone would think it was her husband who would be actually be leading the church since she would be “under” his spiritual leadership, therefore making her not qualified and potentially dangerous since he wouldn’t be subject to review, denominational authority etc.
I began asking questions as to what happened with my mothers generation. It seemed that we had literally gone backwards, even in a denomination where women were in seminaries and ordained, yet rarely getting appointed as pastors. For decades I felt like a rebel, like people wanted to hold a cross up to ward off the demons in me or garlic or whatever (figuratively speaking). The more I asked questions, or tried to serve in areas not traditionally accepted as my place (music ministry, children’s ministry, missions) the more ostracized I felt.
It was not until my daughter attended a well known denominational Christian university did things begin to turn and I began to realize I was not alone. My daughter (who I had always encouraged to prepare herself for a career or ministry however God called her, married or not) was mentored by some female professors who considered themselves Christian Feminists. Praise God she went on to complete her degree, and is now studying at Fuller Theological Seminary working towards her masters and possibly PhD in Theological Studies with a primary focus on Women within the church and ministry. She plans to write books, articles etc. as God leads her to help heal some of the damage caused by the church, and inspire other women to follow God’s calling no matter where or how.
Thank you for answering His call. It’s time again to share the good news to all, regardless of gender, and then let the Holy Spirit Lead whoever and wherever without the church squelching it. Imagine that!
Beautiful. Thank you.
Thank you, Zoe.
So good! Yet women preaching goes back to America’s colonial roots. I’m reading “Strangers & Pilgrims” by Brekus. She claims that females are “cut off from their collective past” & so female preachers know little about medieval or early modern women religious (ones with biblical arguments for women’s public speech). Bekus alleges that we (women) are cut off from denominations seeking acceptance and repeatedly have to justify their voice in church. Pity!
Indeed! We can’t give the whole history in a short article. But women in the first three centuries of the Church or so were leading. The Church Fathers squashed that by casting Eve in an inferior light. Yet women have risen up at key points in history. Would it make a difference if we were more grounded in our history? I think it would—though it wouldn’t solve all of our problems.