Over the last couple of weeks there has been quite a bit of media coverage concerning the role that women are allowed to play in the Church of England. This brings to light the broader question of how God intended men and women to work together from the beginning.
I thought this was an appropriate time to post some thoughts from a presentation I did at the University of Northern British Columbia last fall on “The Role of Women in Creating a Healthy Society”.
Women in the History of Christianity
Many people often think that women have been excluded in the history of the church. I have found many things in the history of Christianity that I am not proud of, and that I don’t think God would have wanted done in His name. I’m glad, however, that when looking at the role of women in Christianity we can find many examples of women who were leaders, visionaries, missionaries, reformers and martyrs. Sometimes this also meant that they were rebels against the “institution of the church”. The story of women in the Christian church is no different from the story that began for the rest of us in the Garden of Eden – a story that promises incredible potential but is severely limited by sin and failure.
In spite of many obstacles in the first few centuries, there were women who pursued studying scripture and formulating theology. Often they were women with wealth who gathered together to study and to serve those in need. These women were wide ranging and varied in their activities, but usually had a focus on personal holiness and caring for those in need. An example of these women from the fourth century is a woman named Marcella. Marcella lived in Rome, had a sharp mind and was known for her understanding of the Bible. She was a close associate of the translator of the Vulgate Bible, Jerome. People thought so highly of her that when Jerome was away anyone who sought his counsel was sent to Marcella.
From the fourth century to the ninth century, monasticism was the most prominent involvement for women in church activities. This declined during the monastic reform movement, but was on the rise again by the twelfth century. There were numerous contributions, both large and small, made by many exceptional women during these centuries. One example is Heloise, a women who became one of the great abbesses of medieval monasticism. She was praised by Peter the Venerable as having “surpassed all women” and “almost every man” in her faithful ministry.
Catherine of Siena is another women who was well known in the late medieval times. Catherine is most remembered for her efforts at reforming the papacy. She faced insurmountable obstacles, but refused to give up. There are volumes of her correspondence with popes and other church officials that stand as a monument to this one woman’s influence on Christianity.
In the sixteenth century, during the Protestant Reformation, many convents were closed. These convents had provided opportunities to women for professional ministry, but their voices were not silenced by their closing. Many women were Reformers during this period, often challenging the words and actions of their male counterparts. Leading Reformers, including Martin Luther and John Calvin, sought out women for their advice and assistance. Luther’s most outspoken defender was Argula von Grumbach. She risked her life and her family for what she believed in. She spoke out boldly, urging others to follow Scripture, not Roman traditions.
The name Wesley is famous from the seventeenth century. Most people think of John and Charles, but their mother Susanna Wesley was remarkable in her own right. The mother of nineteen children, she was a strong and spirited woman who made her own mark on Christianity. After her husband abandoned her and the children, she preached sermons to his Anglican parishioners. Because of her great preaching there was often standing room only for those who came to hear her. John Wesley referred to his mother as a “preacher of righteousness”. This is also a fitting description for many women of this era. Mary Bosanquet Fletcher, in the next century, was another great preacher. Mary was from a wealthy family and used her wealth to start an orphanage. She sometimes spoke to crowds as large as three thousand. She ministered from age eighteen until she died at seventy-six. Even after the age of seventy she would preach as many as six messages a week.
In the nineteenth century pastor A.J. Gordon claimed that a sanctified, Holy Spirit-filled life, not gender, qualified one for church ministry. There is a lot of evidence from this time that clearly shows the broad ministry of women as preachers, pastors and teachers. There were many influential women in Christianity from the mid nineteenth to early twentieth centuries, but by World War II it was rare for a woman to be a preacher or a pastor. In the earlier part of the century women were often known to speak out on behalf of others in support of temperance and suffrage. As Christians turned away from active social concern and focused more on building institutions and squabbling about theology, this voice was lost.
Opposition to women in public ministry was part of a post World War I reaction to extreme feminism and to a perceived decline of womanhood. Just as people used misguided views of the Bible to justify slavery, similar attitudes were adopted toward women after the modernist battles.
There is a biblical equality movement that began in the mid 1970’s, suffered a set back in the 1980’s and has been progressing ever since. A theology of gender equality is being recovered from its earlier roots.
The women I’ve mentioned are only a few of the many women who have had a great influence on Christianity and the world over the last 2000 years. There are many others who have made, and are making, contributions both large and small, but all equally valuable. These women were convinced of their extraordinary call to preach the gospel, and their gifts made a way for them in various and often remarkable ministries through the history of the church.
What has been your experience with God using women as leaders?