by Sharon E. Watkins, senior minister, Disciples Christian Church, Bartlesville, Okla.
Presented to the Stone-Campbell Dialogue, Cincinnati Bible College, November 27-28, 2000
Thank you Michael Armour for starting us off on this topic with a clear and helpful paper. My response from a Disciples point of view will focus on three areas: the role of women in New Testament times, highlights from the history of women’s leadership in Disciples, and comments about the current status of women in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
2 … 11 Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles … 12 Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles … 13 For the Lord’s sake … 17 … Honor the emperor.
18 Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh …
3 Wives, in the same way, accept the authority of your husbands, so that, even if some of them do not obey the word, they may be won over without a word by their wives’ conduct …
I Peter 2:11-13,17-18 (selected), 3:1
The writers of the New Testament assume the Roman Empire. There the wealthy held slaves. All people associated with each other according to social status. Women lived segregated from men. In the eastern part of the empire this latter was particularly true *1 The shockingly liberal behavior of some matrons of the West, who actually reclined at table with their husbands and guests, would not likely be seen in the more conservative towns of the east where women and young children knew their place—out of the sight of men. Well … such behavior might be seen among Christians.
The Christian message called into question the assumed social patterns of Greco-Roman culture. The Apostle Paul, in I Corinthians 11 overturned the Roman household code. The rich did not eat first in the household of the church and leave the rest to go hungry. The table of the Lord was a table equally for all followers. In Galatians 3:28, Paul was clear, “In Christ, there is no Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female.” In I Cor 11:5&13, Paul told women how to pray and prophesy in corporate worship. Lydia hosted a church in her home (Acts 16:14-15, 40.) Phoebe was a deacon (Romans 16:1.) Prisca, along with husband Aquila, instructed in the faith (Acts 18:18, 26.) Junia was an apostle (Romans 16:6.)
Early Christians found themselves attempting to forge a path that took into account both the realities of Roman society and the possibilities of Christian koinonia. Walking such a line became particularly difficult following the Jewish Revolt. Now the eyes of the empire were on the people of Palestine, watching for signs of rebellion. The church had to determine how to remain faithful to the demands and promise of our Lord yet realistic with regard to how much diversity Roman society could handle.
The earlier writings of Paul (with his more western outlook: Romans, I Cor, Gal) and stories from the Book of Acts (for example Acts 8, the Ethiopian Eunuch; 16, Lydia; 18, Prisca) show great movement toward honoring all followers for their spiritual gifts regardless of gender or social status. Later writings (the letters to Timothy and Titus) and the more conservative Peter are more cautious. Peter (I Peter 2:11, 13) says, “I urge you … conduct yourselves honorably among the gentiles.” “Honor” in the Greco-Roman context would include strict attention to the social segregation of the household according to class, age and gender.
As Disciples in the 20th century have wrestled with the question of women in church leadership, most have come to the conclusion that exegetical evidence points to a gospel message that is remarkably open to women in leadership, given the context in which it was first put into writing. Jesus’ own behavior appears to reject Greco-Roman household codes. His public conversation with the woman at the well (John 4:7-27), his acceptance of women’s patronage (Luke 8:3), his encouragement to his women followers (Mary, Martha [Luke 10:38-42], the woman with the alabaster jar [Mark 14:9]), give legitimacy to women’s leadership roles in the early church.
Lydia, Prisca, Phoebe, Junia and the others, in response to Christ’s call on their lives, moved beyond the accepted bounds for women of the time. Most Disciples today believe that the apparent biblical limitations placed on women in leadership have more to do with the need to face reality regarding the power of Roman social convention than with a gospel mandate to maintain a hierarchy of men over women. Just as biblical instructions to slaves no longer justify slavery for us, just as we no longer believe that the biblical mandate to “honor the emperor” requires us to have an emperor, so we believe that apparent biblical limitations on the role of women are not meant to stand for all of time. They are, rather, an attempt to find a middle ground between the rigorously segregated Roman norms and the gospel’s more progressive view in which all people are equally gifted in baptism to serve our Lord.
The same gospel implications that led to a progressive role for women in the early church have led Disciples in the 19th and 20th centuries to move cautiously toward an increasing number of women in church leadership.
It was in 1874, that Caroline Neville Pearre wrote letters to nearly a dozen of her women friends across the country to explore their interest in organizing women to support mission *2 The Christian Women’s Board of Mission which resulted did so much to further the spread of the love of God across the globe that the men of the church later co-opted it. Isaac Errett, of The Christian Standard, supported the women publicly 8867 During that same period, Carrie Nation quite publicly fought for the cause of temperance as did Zerelda Wallace — a little more gently 0 In the late 1800’s, the first Disciples women were ordained *5 (Admittedly, this was more a testament to our low theology of ordination than our high view of women, as ordination brought cheaper fares for Christian workers traveling on the railroad.)
Following World War II (as after the Civil War and W.W.I), there was a resurgence of interest in women in leadership. At Clifty Falls, Indiana in 1953, state Christian Women’s Fellowship and Women’s Guild leadership came to the conclusion that “since through baptism, all people, male and female, are received into the church as full members, then women … cannot be barred from participation in all positions and activities within the church.” *6
The stage was pretty well set by this time among Disciples for women to assume leadership positions within the church; however, there was not a big rush to the scene. To become the first woman deacon or elder or minister in a particular community was a rather daunting prospect given the opposition and uncertainty still reigning in many quarters.
As I grew up in the 60’s and early 70’s, I had little experience with women as deacons and elders and no inkling that a woman might become a minister. My own early clues of a call to ministry merely pushed me to declare early that “I would never marry a minister!” Or be a missionary. Those seemed to be the only ministerial options a woman might follow. It never occurred to me to resist the call of God by vowing to not be a minister myself!
During this time, Disciples congregations were exploring the possibility of admitting women to the diaconate and to boards of elders. In 1976, the booklet, One Diaconate, was published *7 In the late 70’s or early 80’s an elders’ training manual that was widely used among Disciples, included a biblical reflection on admitting women to the eldership. *8 Today the majority of Disciples congregations have accepted women into the eldership and diaconate. Some do not, but most have at least discussed the matter at some time in the last 25 years.
Among Disciples, women have been editors of journals, going back to Marcia Bassett Goodwin, editor of Missionary Tidings in 1883. *9 Women participated in the Commission on Brotherhood Restructure in the 1960’s. *10 They have been presidents of units of the church and have served as moderators of the General Assembly.
Accepting women as pastor has been more difficult. Though Lexington (and others) were admitting women for BD degrees in 1953, *11 it was not until the 1970’s that women began to enroll in seminary in any numbers at all, and even then most women regularly experienced being the only woman in their class. By the 1980’s, however, women constituted one third of enrollment in Disciples seminaries. *12 The percentages have remained in that range.
Women actually serving churches have been fewer. In 1984, 4.2 percent of Disciples pastors were women and 32.8 percent of associate ministers were women. This represented a 30 percent increase in the number of associate ministers from a decade earlier, but only a 3 percent increase in the number of solo or senior ministers.*13 While there have been increases since then in the number of women serving as ministers in congregations, the percentage has not matched the number of women receiving seminary training.
The reasons are probably varied: Many women do not go to seminary intending to be pastors. Some attend seminary as part of their own spiritual growth and development. A few find that once graduated and ready, there is not a call from a congregation forthcoming. The bigger issue, however, for most Protestant denominations (including Disciples) that it is easier for women clergy to receive a first call—to a smaller, poorer, more rural congregation that cannot pay well—than to move to that next, more prosperous church. *14 My sense is, however, that with a looming shortage of Disciples clergy, congregations are beginning to look more closely at women candidates and take what is perceived to be the risk of extending a call.
As with the Churches of Christ, there is a range among Disciples of what is considered to be an appropriate role for women in the church. Not all Disciples are yet comfortable with women in ministry—lay or ordained. But most Disciples are aware that part of what sets us apart from some other branches of our Christian family is that we accept women in public leadership while others do not. While the issue continues to be a struggle for some individuals and some congregations, few Disciples can now say that they have never seen or heard of women in ministry. What was once totally outside the consciousness of most church members is now an accepted reality. And most of us rejoice that the gifts of so many once nurtured only in carefully proscribed, limited arenas are now able to be offered to the service of God within the larger community of faith.
*1 Carolyn Osick and David L. Balch. Families in the New Testament World: Households and House Churches. Westminster John Knox Press. 1997. p. 59ff.
*2 Fran Craddock, Martha Faw, Nancy Heimer. In the Fullness of Time: A History of Women in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Chalice Press. St. Louis, Missouri. 1999. p. 2ff.
*3 Ibid, p. 7.
*4 Ibid. p. 18
*5 Lester G. McAllister and William E. Tucker. Journey in Faith: A History of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The Bethany Press. St. Louis, Missouri. 1975 p. 263.
*6 Craddock et al. Fullness of Time pp. 89-90
*7 Ibid. p. 148
*8 Peter M. Morgan. Disciples Eldership: A Quest for Identity and Ministry. Christian Board of Publication. St. Louis, Missouri. pp. 14-15
*9 Craddock et al. Fullness of Time. p. 246
*10 Ibid. p. 251.
*11 Ibid. p. 90
*12 Ibid. p.172.
*13 Ibid. p. 173.
*14 Jackson W. Carroll, Barbara Hargrove, Adair T. Lummis. Women of the Cloth: A New Opportunity for the Churches. Harper and Row, Publishers. San Francisco. 1981. p. 138.