Faithlink Discussion: Women in Methodist History

by Jacob Juncker

Women have played an important role throughout our faith history as Christians and Methodists.  We see Paul, in many ways a progressive of his own time, using women in leadership positions to further the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Even within the Methodist tradition, women have played an important role in making the world a Methodist parish.  It is sad to say, though, that throughout Christian and Methodist history this role has been subdued and overlooked.  So much so, that there are still Christian denominations and even United Methodist churches that refuse to have women in leadership let alone as their pastor. Rather than go on a long rant, I will allow a prominent Methodist scholar and theologian argue the point for me:

The reasons generally given [for not allowing women to be preachers] are as follows: (1) that according to Scripture women must “keep silent in the churches,” (2) that the ministry would take woman out of her natural sphere, (3) that she is by nature unfitted for success in such work, (4) that she would not be apt to make it a permanent occupation, (5) that increased competition would tend to interfere with the tenure or salaries of men, (6) that the Church would lose in public esteem by the general admission of women into the ministry.

The first argument can be disposed of without much controversy.  One does not have to be a very profound Biblical scholar to recognize the difference between our modern social regime and conditions in wicked, conservative Corinth in the days of Paul, when Christian women must walk warily lest they be confused with the brazen women of the street.  A prudent bit of advice to the Corinthian women of the first century ought scarcely to be made a stumbling block to progress in the twentieth…

The second objection has more supporters…but in spite of the fact that the “woman’s sphere” argument has been urged against every movement for the political and professional advancement of women, an increasing number of intelligent people have come to recognize that woman has also a legitimate sphere outside the home… Practically every avenue of leadership today is open to woman save in the Church, and there she must content herself wither with rendering volunteer service or working in a subordinate capacity.

To those who fear that we women should not make a success in the ministry, we reply, “Try us and see…”

The argument that the ministry out to be a life job and that a woman might relinquish it to marry after a few years is amore tenable objection.  But suppose she should!  Does this nullify the value of her work in the years before her marriage?  And does it interfere with the continuance of her work…?

To those who say that the standing of the Church in the eyes of the public would be lowered if women were admitted to its ministry, we reply that if it would, then it is time for public opinion to be remodeled…

Some denominations, to be sure, are willing to ordain women, and it is easy to say that if women want to preach they should enter those denominations.  But the issue does not lie wholly in ordination.  Not many more women are preaching in those denominations where ordination is possible than in those where it is denied.  The crux of the matter, to put it badly, is that women cannot enter a field where they are not welcome…. Under present conditions it would be folly for [theologically trained women] to think of [seeking ordination], for they might take three years of theological training beyond their college work, only to find themselves superseded by men with high-school training or less.  If there are men enough in the ministry to do the work and do it well, we are willing to let them.  But are there?  We wonder if the advancement of the Kingdom is not more important than the maintenance of an ancient prejudice.

Adapted from an article by Georgian Harkness [“The Ministry as a Vocation for Women,” Christian Advocate (New York) (April 10, 1924):454-55] in The Methodist Experience in America: A Source Book, vol. II by Russell E. Richey et al. (Nahsville: Abingdon Press, 2000), p511-514.

It is a sad fact that so many “ancient prejudices” keep us from furthering the Kingdom.  May God continue to help us, the Church, as we seek to embrace all of humanity.  May we, as Christ’s body, become fully human like that of Christ himself.  In so doing, O God, make your divinity known!