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Women in Ministry
and the Church of the Nazarene

Brad Mercer

From its very beginning the Church of the Nazarene has recognized from both Scripture and history that God calls women to preach, to pastor, and to other positions of leadership. Many Christians today contend that the Bible teaches the opposite, that women are forbidden by Scripture to preach, or to pastor, or be in any positions of authority over men in the Church. They believe that in the home and in the church men are supposed to be the leaders and women are supposed to be the followers. Men are supposed to exercise authority and women are supposed to be subject to them. They believe that several passages of scripture support this view.

One of these passages is 1 Corinthians 11, which deals with long hair.

1 Cor 11:3 But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ. 11:4 Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, 11:5 but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head--it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. 11:6 For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil. 11:7 For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man. 11:8 Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man. 11:9 Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man. 11:10 For this reason a woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. 11:11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman. 11:12 For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God. 11:13 Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled? 11:14 Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, 11:15 but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. 11:16 But if anyone is disposed to be contentious--we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God.

Verse 3 says in part that "the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God." Verse 5 says that "every woman who prays or prophesies with no covering of hair on her head -- she is just like one of the 'shorn women'" (or prostitutes). Verse 14 says "if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him." Yet we know that Paul himself at one point in his ministry took the vows of a Nazarite, which involved letting his hair grow long. And while he says God is the head of Christ, in another place he says they are equal.

So what is this passage really about? The answer is found in verse 16, which says: "If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice." The Corinthian church was a dysfunctional, feuding, contentious church. They argued about food offered to idols, the Lord's Supper, speaking in tongues, and the role of women. Prostitutes in Corinth kept their hair cut, and acted with more freedom than respectable women in their pagan society. Paul was merely saying that if church women were doing the same, this was going to cause the church to earn a bad reputation in the community or create division in the church. With that result in view, Paul instructed them not to do it, not for the sake of restricting women, but for the sake of the community.

In his statement on the headship of men he is merely telling women that they can submit to men for the sake of harmony in the church and respectability in their community without returning to the bondage of the law, just as Jesus made the Father his head and later ascended into heaven to assume again the full rights and powers of His Godhood. Just as Jesus, even while making himself temporarily the inferior of God, still retained many of the proofs and privileges of his divinity, so the women of the Corinthian church, even while submitting to pagan respectability, still retained the right to pray and prophesy in public as long as they left their hair uncut to avoid the connection with prostitution.

Another passage used to assert male dominance is Ephesians 5:21-23.

Eph 5:22 Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. 5:23 For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. 5:24 Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.

Paul says that Christians should submit to one another, and then starts using marriage as an metaphor of Christ and the Church. He is not so much saying that this is how marriage should be as he is saying that he wants to use marriage as it is to help them get a picture of Christ and the Church. He goes on in the next chapter to talk about slaves and masters in the same way. He demands male dominance and female inferiority only to the extent that he approves of slavery. Paul even used called himself a "slave of Christ" (for example Rom 1:1). This does not approve slavery. It only uses a means of communication with which people would be familiar. In Ephesians 5, he is telling husbands, wives, slaves and masters how to be Christlike in the society and circumstances in which they find themselves.

Titus 2:3 Likewise, tell the older women to be reverent in behavior, not to be slanderers or slaves to drink; they are to teach what is good, 2:4 so that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, 2:5 to be self-controlled, chaste, good managers of the household, kind, being submissive to their husbands, so that the word of God may not be discredited. . . . 2:9 Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to talk back, 2:10 not to pilfer, but to show complete and perfect fidelity, so that in everything they may be an ornament to the doctrine of God our Savior.

Again the writer of Titus (2:3-5, 9-10) says that young women keeping busy at home and being subject to their husbands is good compared to gossip, sloth and alcoholism. That was not a replacement for praying, prophesying, teaching, and doing the work of a deacon no more than he is demanding that slavery be perpetuated when he says that slaves should be taught to be subject to their masters.

Paul explains in Titus 2:10 that his purpose in saying these things is not to justify the social arrangements, but to "make the teaching about God our Savior attractive" to unbelievers by being happy, quiet and trustworthy in whatever circumstances we are in. It is Christlike to be submissive rather than to let social controversy overshadow the message of redemption from sin and shame. We don't want to demand even legitimate rights if to do so would drive people away from Christ. It is therefore society that oppresses women, not Christ, the Bible, or the church.

Nazarenes and the Holiness movement of which it is a part have always recognized the spiritual equality of women, and any movement to the contrary is, according to former General Superintendent William Greathouse, "from non-Wesleyan, non-Holiness outside influences." Paul says in Galatians that in Christ there is neither male nor female, but all are one. Paul says to women as well as men in Galatians 4:7: "So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has also made you an heir," with, as verse 5 says, "the full rights of sons." This does not suggest that women must become men in order to have relationship with God; the word "son" here is a generic cultural term for "progeny" or "child" (note the NRSV: "So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God;" see Neo-fundamentalism).

This view of the proper role of women in the kingdom of God is confirmed by a look at the role of women in the Bible (see various articles at Women and Theology). While many women in scripture were primarily wives and mothers like Sarah, who called Abraham lord (which in Hebrew can also mean "husband"), others were influential in the broader community and held positions of leadership in the church. In the Old Testament, Deborah ruled the nation of Israel, judging men and women, and leading the men of Israel into battle. She was, as all the Judges were, a prophet (see Deborah).

In the New Testament, the first person to see the resurrected Christ was a woman -- Mary Magdalene (see Apostle to the Apostles). Christ spoke to her of spiritual things and commanded her to preach the gospel to men -- to tell the disciples of his resurrection. He revealed the future to her, telling her of his ascension, and ordered her to tell the disciples of it; making her, in effect, a prophet as well as a preacher.

When Jesus stayed at the home of Martha and Mary, Mary sat in the living room with the men and listened to Jesus (see Mary and Martha: Sisters Who Served). Martha wanted Jesus to remind Mary that a woman's place is in the kitchen, but the Lord rebuked her and told her that Mary had chosen the better way.

At Pentecost, men and women together prayed in the upper room, and were jointly referred to as "Brothers" by Peter in Acts 1:16. In Acts 2:4 they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and Peter called it the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel that men and women alike would receive the Holy Spirit and would prophesy.

After Pentecost, women were accorded full responsibility, along with men, in the church. Sapphira was treated as an equal partner in the crime of Annanias, and was held responsible as such by God, Peter, and the church. Peter said to her: "How could you agree?" She was struck dead for agreeing with, and submitting to, the leadership of her husband when he was morally wrong.

Priscilla is mentioned before her husband Aquila every time they are mentioned in the New Testament after their initial introduction. This was contrary to custom and indicates that she was the more prominent of the two in the church. At the very least they were completely equal. The Bible mentions her first in saying that they were tentmakers. Paul says he worked with them. They accompanied him on a missionary journey. They took Apollos into their home, and they taught him the way of God more perfectly.

Other prominent women in the early church are mentioned more briefly. Phillip had four unmarried daughters who prophesied. In Romans 16, Phoebe is called a servant, a word elsewhere translated deacon -- a position of prominence and leadership in the church. Finally, in Acts 16, Lydia was apparently the head of her household, as well as a successful businessperson, and a prominent member of the church.

First Timothy 3 gives the qualities of a deacon -- obviously a position of leadership. After talking in verses 8-10 about deacons using a masculine form, there are instructions given in verse 11 to "the women." While the old KJV translated this as "their wives," the Greek text simply says "the women." This implies that the reference is to female deacons, not necessarily to the wives of the male deacons. So, we may understand the word translated "the women" in verse 11 to mean "female deacons." The whole passage may then be understood to mean: "Most church leaders happen to be men, so I'm making that assumption in describing their qualities, but of course, the general idea also applies to women in the same position."

We see, then, that women in the early church were white-collar professionals like Lydia, worked at blue-collar trades like tentmaker (Priscilla), were equal partners with their husbands, like Sapphira and Priscilla, and were preachers, prophets, teachers and deacons.

This tradition of full participation by church women has been continued by the Church of the Nazarene and its forerunners. Among Quakers, women preached from the beginning. In the absence of her husband, Susannah Wesley often preached to congregations numbering in the hundreds.

Phoebe Palmer was one of the best known evangelists of the nineteenth century in the United States, Canada and Great Britain, and was probably the single most influential holiness leader of the century. She started out with a Tuesday meeting in her home for other ladies, for prayer, testimony and devotions focusing on the doctrine and experience of entire sanctification. By the end of her life she had written books, edited and published a holiness magazine, led several Methodist Bishops into the experience of entire sanctification, preached holiness to thousands in revivals and camp meetings, and established Tuesday Meetings for the Promotion of Holiness in cities throughout North America and Great Britain. She also established the Five Points Mission in New York City, which provided education, religious instruction, day care services, employment assistance and cheap or free room and board to the poor of the city. (Many will remember the Five Points Mission for its role in the movie The Gangs of New York.)

In the late nineteenth century, Amanda Smith preached holiness to whites and blacks in the United States, England, Africa, and India. She also wrote an autobiography, established an orphanage and urged greater equality for blacks and women. Her accomplishments were great for anyone, but the fact that she was a black woman and a former slave made them all the more remarkable. Finally, in the early twentieth century, a woman, Catherine Booth, was the world leader of the Salvation Army, which is a holiness church (see Female Ministry by Catherine Booth).

The Church of the Nazarene was formed in 1908 by a merger of the Pentecostal Church of the Nazarene with the New Testament Church of Christ. A co-founder of the New Testament Church of Christ was Rev. Mary Lee Cagle. She preached, ordained other preachers, including many women, and established churches throughout Tennessee, Arkansas and into Texas.

In the 1930's and 1940's, perhaps the best-known preacher in the state of Arkansas was Rev. Agnes Diffee, popularly known as "Mother Diffee". She led Little Rock First Church of the Nazarene to become one of the largest Nazarene churches in the denomination under her pastorate. While pastor there, she also established a radio station in the basement of the church which broadcast her messages throughout central Arkansas.

Nazarene women also established the Nazarene Missions International and Nazarene Youth International. Nazarene women were ordained by denominational founder Phineas F. Bresee and established mission churches in California to reach Native Americans, Mexicans, and Asians. Pasadena College, now Point Loma Nazarene University, was founded at the urging of women. One of the leading theologians in the holiness movement in the late 20th century was Dr. Mildred Bangs-Wynkoop. In 2005 Nina Gunter was elected to the office of General Superintendent, the highest office in the Church of the Nazarene.

In light of the opposition to women in ministry from some branches of evangelical Christianity, the General Assembly of the Church of the Nazarene adopted an official statement in 1993. This simply put into writing as official policy what had been practiced in the Church from its inception.

904.6. Women in Ministry

We support the right of women to use their God-given spiritual gifts within the church. We affirm the historic right of women to be elected and appointed to places of leadership within the Church of the Nazarene. (1993) [From the Manual, the official statements of doctrine and polity of the Church of the Nazarene.]

Young women today should be open to the leading of the Holy Spirit. He may be calling them to be godly wives, mothers and teachers of children. But he may also be calling them to be pastors, evangelists, missionaries, professors, college presidents and general church leaders in the Church of the Nazarene (see Women and the Call of God).

-Brad Mercer, Copyright © 2018, Karen Mercer - All Rights Reserved
This article is the property of Karen Mercer and is used here by permission
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