Divine Call and the Historic Struggle over Women’s Roles

Wendy J. Deichmann

In a previous Catalyst blog entitled “The Biblical Basis for the Ordination of Women in the Wesleyan Tradition,” I described various patterns of women’s leadership evident in the NT and historic early church. In this blog I will trace how these practices were severely curtailed in many places within Christianity by the medieval era—centuries later to be revived by Pietists, Wesleyans, and other Christians. Women in some of these bodies met with ecclesiastical resistance to their callings once again in the context of North America, but resistance to their leadership was eventually overcome in many instances.

In the early medieval era, the dominant Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox denominations expanded their power, territories, and cultural influence throughout Europe. In the process of formalizing institutional policies, these bodies increasingly ruled women out of officially recognized ministerial roles. For instance, in 441 AD the Council of Orange declared, “Let no one proceed to the ordination of deaconesses anymore” (quoted in Elizabeth Gillan Muir, A Women’s History of the Christian Church: Two Thousand Years of Female Leadership [University of Toronto Press, 2019], 17). By the eleventh century, theologians authorized by the long-established denominations were well underway with the task of embedding into their respective institutions religious gender ideologies that reserved priestly and formal leadership roles within the church for males. By this time in Roman Catholicism, women who expressed a call to formal roles within the church were viewed with suspicion. Benedictine monk and cardinal Peter Damian, for example, characterized women as “charmers of the clergy, appetizing flesh of the devil, … castaway from paradise, … poison of the minds, death of souls, venom of wine and of eating, companions of the very stuff of sin, the cause of our ruin” (quoted in Muir, A Women’s History, 23). The one credible option left for women within the realm of the Roman Catholic Church was to commit themselves to lives of virginity and prayer, sequestered within a female religious order (Barbara J. MacHaffie, Herstory: Women in Christian Tradition, 2nd ed. [Fortress, 2005] 49–51; Muir, A Women’s History, 22–24.). Within such religious orders, a limited number of women did rise to the position of abbess, itself in many cases a form of ordained ministry.

The Protestant Reformations that began in the sixteenth century gradually opened new doors for women in church leadership. Both the Pietist movement that arose in the seventeenth century and the Methodist movement that was strongly influenced by it developed out of a sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation ethos that hearkened back to NT and early church practices in many respects, such as the inclusion of women in ministry. These movements and their leaders, including John Hus, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Wesley, called into question Roman Catholic doctrines that were based in ideologies of male superiority and entitlements to ecclesiastical power historically associated with Rome and its pontiffs.

Protestants—including Lutherans, Calvinists, Pietists, and Methodists—developed theologies that viewed women and men as spiritual equals and encouraged substantive biblical and theological study by all Christians. In these traditions, women were expected at a minimum to cultivate holiness in their personal lives, counted on to teach children the basics of the faith, and to take responsibility for ministries of hospitality, prayer, and Bible study. To varying degrees, Anabaptists, Moravian Pietists, Quakers, and Methodists assigned both women and men to leadership roles in ministry, including preaching, based on their understanding of NT precedents and principles of spiritual egalitarianism.

When he visited the Moravian Pietists at Herrnhut, Germany, in 1738, Anglican and Methodist John Wesley would have encountered Moravian practices of appointing women as congregational judges and members of governing boards, as well as the ordination of women as deaconesses, eldresses, presbyters, priests, missionaries, and evangelists (Muir, A Women’s History, 182–84). In contrast, as a renewal movement within the essentially traditional Church of England, the early Methodists did not “ordain” anyone. However, John Wesley certainly did send forth many men and some women as Methodist preachers and exhorters, and as prayer, Bible study, and class leaders. Grandson of Puritans, avid scholar of the Bible and biblical theologian, Wesley stood firmly in the Protestant Reformation tradition that affirmed NT spiritual egalitarianism between men and women. He acknowledged prohibitions in NT epistles against women speaking in particular church contexts (e.g., 1 Cor 14:34–35; 1 Tim 2:11–12) and justified his own appointment of women as preachers of the gospel by the “extraordinary call” the Holy Spirit had placed on not all, but certain women in his own context in eighteenth-century England, and on the evidence of the spiritual fruit of their preaching and other ministries (Jean Miller Schmidt, Grace Sufficient: A History of Women in American Methodism, 1760–1939 [Abingdon, 1999], 31–32).

In the century after Wesley’s death in 1791, his (male) successors in leadership in England and America reverted to severe restrictions regarding women in ministry, which quickly became a self-perpetuating cycle. They developed policies more in accordance with the spherical ideology of dominant social norms that relegated women to the home and men to the world of business and politics. As the Methodist movement developed into institutionalized denominations, positions of influence and power, such as ordained ministry and the vast majority of preaching circuits, were explicitly reserved for males. Nonetheless, in the first half of the nineteenth century, as if a grand pendulum were swinging in the opposite direction, numerous Holy Spirit-led women came forward seeking licenses to preach as well as ordination in several American Methodist-related and other denominations. This phenomenon multiplied and eventually blossomed within several denominations into vast new opportunities for women in leadership in Christian ministry in the twentieth century and beyond. We will explore these developments in an upcoming blog.

Posted Oct 18, 2021

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