Stained Glass Windows: Mothers of the Church

1 Peter 3

Wives live in submission with irreproachable conduct by being humble, gentle, and quiet in your inward being (1 Peter 3.1-6).  Husbands live submitted to God’s will with tact and insight (1 Peter 3.7). Church live in mutual love, humility, obedience, self-sacrifice, and be of one mind seeking unity that makes spiritual schism unthinkable; be responsible in the face of hostility; do what is right rather than retaliate when there are misunderstandings, exclusions (1 Peter 3.8-22).

As I studied resources for 1 Peter this week, I ran upon a writing from 1 Peter 3.15 by a woman named Phoebe Palmer. Phoebe is known by her teaching on the “Way to Holiness.” In a resource entitled The Methodist Experience in America Vol. II by Richey, Rowe, and Schmidt, there are 45 different writings from women called into the American Methodist experience. Phoebe stands as a strong woman leader in the early American Methodist movement as she called others to holiness.

Phoebe writes about the way of holiness in reference to 1 Peter 3.15 which says, “Instead regard Christ as holy in your hearts. Whenever anyone asks you to speak of your hope, be ready to defend it.”

The American Methodist Church has always affirmed women leaders and has ordained women as clergy for the last 60 years. Maude Jensen was the first women to receive full clergy rights in 1956, again that’s 60 years ago. Women have played a role in church leadership here in the States since the inception of our country. I have letter dating back to 1775 when Mary Thorn Parker. She personally knew John Wesley and Francis Asbury. She and her husband, Evan, were lay leaders at Liverpool in England, but had strong ties to the American Methodist Church.

When we think about women as leaders in the church most of us do not realize how much our opinions from culture, family backgrounds, and church traditions impact how we read the Bible. And that is especially true of the role of women in the church. I have had many conversations over the last month about the role of women leaders in the church, particularly the role of lead pastor. Many of you have shared that this year has been a time of studying the scriptures regarding women in ministry. I have found that a woman pastor in the church will stir excitement in both directions, one for and one against. I know there are some among you have been quickened in the Spirit to accept a call to leadership, yet, have struggled, even wrestled with your role as a woman in the church. This wrestling with the role of women in the church isn’t something new, and it certainly isn’t something that is resolved easily.

A little over a week ago I had the privilege of speaking about my experience as a woman in ministry with up and coming clergy at Asbury Theo. Seminary. This was my second opportunity to inspire both men and women to explore their deep-seated beliefs about women in ministry at ATS, and have been invited to two more occasions this year. I have discovered how difficult it is for all of us to be on the same page with the role of women in the church, and this church is no exception.

When we review the role of women in the church, we find there are many mothers in church history such as Phoebe Palmer. We can also read in Scripture about women who were prophetesses, judges with authority over all God’s people, women who shared Jesus’ ministry, and women leaders in the churches established by Paul. There are four core views of reading the biblical texts on women: the bible is wrong, the bible allows women some roles in ministries but prevents others, the bible allows for exceptional women to hold roles in ministries, and women are equally allowed to lead in the church.

The most common role of women in ministry in the Scriptures is prophetess (Miriam in Exod. 15.20 and Numbers 12.1-14, Deborah in Judges 4.4, Huldah in 2 Kings 22.13-20 and 2 Chronicles 34.22, Isaiah’s wife in Isa. 8.3, Anna in Luke 8.36, Philip’s four daughters in Acts 2.17-18, 21.9 and 1 Corinthians 11.4-5, Junia in Romans 16.7). We know that in the Old Testament hierarchy the prophet was the only leader in Israel who could approach the King to lead and correct according to God’s direction.

Miriam functioned closes to the apostolic ministry of the New Testament. Deborah’s role was most equivalent to Moses leadership in Israel. Junia is recognized by Paul as an apostolic leader in the early church alongside her husband, Andronicus. An apostle was responsible for breaking new ground in the Kingdom of God.

Paul commends many women in ministry at the closing of his letters in Romans 16.1-12 and Philippians 4.3. The word laborers is used in Romans 16.1-12 and Philippians 4.2-3. In fact Paul greets more women in ministry in Romans 16 than men. In Philippians 4.2-3 illustrates Paul’s shared evangelistic ministry with women in Philippi. Romans 16.1 Phoebe has carried Paul’s letter to Rome, plainly functioning as Paul’s agent equal to himself in ministry as an apostle.

When you study the role of women in the church, you will find some passages that seem to contradict a leadership position for women in the church. The two most difficult passages against women seem to be addressing a particular situation within a particular context in the church. Some here today will favor the complimentary approach of women in the church while others will favor an egalitarian approach to women in ministry. The danger we run into is slandering one another based on our particular interpretation of the Scriptures. However, you will find the Methodist Church to favor the egalitarian approach.

When you live in a culture that is divide about women in leadership in the church, answering a call can be terrifying and intimating. Over the course of my ministry career I have been called ungodly names and people have turned their backs on me – literally. I have experienced people stop being my friend, and I have had people to stop coming to church because they despised me as a leader before they ever met me. One gentleman refused to shake my hand or acknowledge my existence when we were standing face to face and I was introduced to him. I have been asked to leave a hospital room simply because I was a woman chaplain.

Over the years I have come to accept that some will welcome ministry from a woman and some will not. The key to being a good leader is to know when you are no longer welcomed by people and graciously step away. I found this to be true in the hospital as many people had never encountered a woman minister before. Loving people means honoring them in their personal beliefs, not visiting your beliefs upon them.

To be sure the best way to approach this issue of women in ministry is to not allow our opinions from culture, family backgrounds, and church traditions impact how we understand the role of women. But let us try to hear the word of God as a fresh expression among us! In fact there is a woman among us who is wrestling with a calling. I’d like for us to pray for her.


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