The Women’s Rights Movement for women’s suffrage celebrated the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920, securing women’s place in the voting booth. In the ecclesiastical realm, God had already called women into the pulpit decades earlier— in some branches of the Christian family tree. One mover and shaker of the mid 1800’s was Phoebe Palmer, quite possibly the most influential female theologian of the time. It is said that the Second Evangelical Awakening can be traced to her ministry. Richard Foster, author of Streams of Living Water,  notes that Phoebe Palmer transcended the limitations of both gender and denomination, bringing together Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Catholics, Quakers, Untied Brethren and Messianic Jews!


Janice Six

However, it would still be decades before the Presbyterians would ordain a woman as a Minister of Word and Sacrament. In fact, it took place in 1955. Even though the Pentecostal and Methodist denominations were well ahead of the Presbyterians in recognizing the leadership role of women in the church, all three would prove to be as much as a century ahead of some denominations and traditions. To this day, the subject of women in ministry continues to be debated in some Christian circles.  

These circles of Christians are the same ones who continue to insist that the world was created in seven consecutive twenty-four hour periods of time, and Adam and Eve were two individuals from whom all humanity has descended. It doesn’t matter what anyone says in support of women in ministry, it will continue to be an issue for Christians who are under the impression that translating Greek and Hebrew to English is just a matter of matching a word in one language to the same word in another, and that each word has only one meaning.

As long as those of us who are theologically trained are lax in sharing what we’ve learned about different forms of biblical criticism, sincere followers of Christ will stumble along the path of righteousness, accusing anyone whose interpretation differs from their own as being either a heretic or blind.  As long as people are convinced that reading the Bible is an objective exercise—not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice, there will be misunderstandings about the meaning of a passage and the insistence of the uninformed will continue to be a source of conflict and division within the church.  

In the meantime, many women called to serve Christ’s church will either dismiss, deny, or place limitations on what God may be calling them to do in the church and society. Those who accept the call will continue to bump their heads on the stained-glass ceiling and hope that someday they’ll see it shattered. All the while, these female pastors will also experience the gift of being invited into the sacred spaces of people’s lives where truth is spoken even in the silence. Here they will be used by God to comfort those who mourn. Here they will pray for the anxious and uncertain to be aware of God’s presence and therein experience God’s peace. It is here that their call will be confirmed and refreshed time and again.

Eventually, as women who have accepted God’s call to ministry mature in the faith, they will tire of the debate and recognize that their time and energy are better spent serving others with compassion and using their intellect to preach the Good News of Christ rather than arguing and defending their call to ministry.

The Rev. Dr. Janice Six is associate pastor of First Central Presbyterian Church (USA)



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