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Entry commissioned by and accepted for The Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization
Two primary schools of thought have co-existed throughout Church history regarding women’s role in ministry and female authority in leadership. Whereas the traditional school is patriarchal and teaches that women are lesser than men in authority and different from men in ministerial function, the charismatic school favors an egalitarian posture and teaches that ministry and authority flow directly from God by His Spirit to and through both men and women without regard of gender. Although both schools claim biblical justification, they hold conflicting interpretations arising from opposing presuppositions.
The Traditional School
In the traditional school, ministerial roles are gender-based and women’s ministries fall into the “men rule and women serve” paradigm. Its presuppositions are rooted in Aristotle’s view of women and were popularized by Church leaders, such as Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and others. As John Alvin Schmidt (1989) points out, the fundamentals driving this model assert that women are inherently evil, inferior, unequal, and unclean. On the basis of gender alone, women are required to defer to male authority and to serve in subordinate roles.
Proponents of this position believe the female to be secondary in Creation and thereby to be the subordinate helper of the male, with some Church Fathers maintaining that the female does have the image of God in the same way that the male does. Furthermore, holding Eve singularly responsible for the Fall, traditionalists teach patriarchal order as the biblical prescription for marriage and ministry. This paradigm remains intact in interpreting Paul’s writings through a selective interpretation of headship (kephale) as male authority over woman and female submission (hupotasso), and through a rule of female silence (hesychia).
Complementarianism, a modification of this position, acknowledges the equality of women in terms of created substance and innate value, while maintaining the subjugation of women through the belief that women are lesser in authority than and different in function from men. This model affords women increased opportunity for public ministry under male authority.
Women’s ministry in the traditional school can best be observed within the institutional church where female ministry flourishes in ascetic and monastic lifestyles. Reuther and McLaughlin (1979) speak of early figures such as Thekla, Makrina, Paula, Melania, and Marcella. That the traditional model remains strong is evident in women’s groups and individual women in public ministry who espouse unwavering loyalty to authoritative male headship. Devout women, such as Mother Theresa, have worked within the confines of patriarchal leadership to love and serve humanity.
The Charismatic School
In the charismatic school, (from charisma meaning “grace gift”), women exercise ministerial leadership and authority on the basis of talents and spiritual gifts, apart from gender. Proponents maintain that the Bible, accurately interpreted in terms of authorial intent, teaches that women are equal with men in terms of substance and value, function and authority, privilege and responsibility (Hyatt 2000). Female ministerial leadership increases during seasons of revival when the infusion of the Spirit of God challenges and changes human culture. In such moments, women experience elevated status tending toward equality with men to the extent that the prevailing culture allows.
Proponents see no prescribed biblical restrictions on women. In Creation, they cite gender equality with the creation of an ish adam (male) and an ishshah adam (woman) and with God giving adam (humanity) dominion over creation, but not authority of the male over the female. Eve’s turning away (tushuqa) from God to her husband sets in motion a partriarchy (Gen. 3:16b) that, through Jesus Christ in the New Creation, is resolved as God reestablishes direct relationship for both the female and the male with Himself, with no hierarchical pattern. According to Leonard Swidler (1971), Jesus taught the equality of women despite the misogynous culture of His day. Following His resurrection, when He was no longer restricted by Jewish culture, Jesus made a strong statement of women’s equality in ministry by sending Mary Magdalene as the first person to proclaim the Good News of His resurrection to the male disciples.
Proponents confront the seemingly restrictive passages in the Epistles in the light of literary and cultural context. They point out that headship is a translation of kephale, indicating that women come from the same source as men and are therefore made of the same substance. Had Paul used archon instead of kephale, he would have been promoting the rule of man over woman. Proponents also point out that female submission is a translation of hupotasso, referring to the wife’s forming a new social unit with her husband through identifying with him, even as Christians are called upon to identify with one another. Had Paul intended an obedient subordination of the wife to the husband, he would have chosen the word hupakouo. Furthermore, regarding the alleged rule of silence for women, proponents point out that hesychia, the Greek word translated “silence,” is translated as “quietness of spirit” when referring to men, indicating a bias on the part of the translators.
The charismatic position claims strong biblical support, especially in the New Testament, with women functioning in leadership roles: co-workers (sunergoi) with Paul (1 Cor. 16:16; Rom. 16:1; Phil. 4:2-3); pastors (Acts 12:12; Acts 16:13; 1 Cor. 1:11; 16:19; Rom. 16:3-5; Col. 4:15, 2/3 John); teachers (Acts 18:1-4; 18-28; Col. 3:16; Col. 1:2; 3:12; 1 Cor. 14:26, 31); prophets (Acts 2:17; Acts 21:8-9; 1 Cor. 11:4-5; 1 Cor. 14:3-4; 26, 3:10; Acts 2:17); evangelists (Jn. 4:1-26; 39-42); and apostles (Mt. 28:1-10; Rom. 16: 7).
Historically, the charismatic school boasts of women in ministerial leadership in every revival, beginning most notably among the Montanists (Hyatt 1998 & 2000). The Early Friends (1650-1690) demonstrate a biblical pattern of equality more than any revival movement prior to their day. Equality ebbed and flowed through subsequent revival movements such as the Early Methodists, the Holiness Movement, the Missionary Movement, the Suffrage Movement, and the Pentecostal Revival. In the Charismatic Renewal of the 20th Century, a blending of the traditional and charismatic schools of thought brought a renewed need to establish a biblically sound theology of womanhood, including clarification of woman’s role in ministerial leadership.
Clark, E. A. (1983). Women in the Early Church. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press.
Hyatt, S. (1998). In the Spirit We’re Equal: The Spirit, The Bible and Women–A Revival Perspective. Dallas, TX: Hyatt Press.
Hyatt, S. (2000). A Theology of Biblical Womanhood for Spirit-Oriented Believers. D.Min. Dissertation. Virginia Beach, VA: Regent University.
Hyatt, S. (2001). Spirit-Filled Women. In V. Synan (ed), The Century of the Holy Spirit: 100 Years of Pentecostal and Charismatic Renewal. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, pp. 233-263.
Mickelsen, A. (ed.) (1986). Women, Authority & the Bible. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
Swidler, L. (1971). Jesus Was a Feminist. Catholic World. January 1971, Vol. 212. pp. 177-183.
Ruether, R. & McLaughlin, E. (1979). Women of Spirit: Female Leadership in the Jewish and Christian Traditions. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Schmidt, J. A. (1989). Veiled and Silenced: How Culture Shaped Sexist Theology. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press.
Tucker, R. A. & Liefeld, W. (1987). Daughters of the Church: Women and Ministry from New Testament Times to the Present. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
Susan Stubbs Hyatt, a Canadian residing in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is founding coordinator of the International Christian Women’s History Project. She has a DMIN, two MAs, a BA, and also graduated from the University of New Brunswick Teachers College and Christ for the Nations Institute, did post-graduate studies at Fuller Theological Seminary, and doctoral studies at Regent University. She publishes and lectures internationally, and represented Pentecostals at the Colloque Femmes et Religions (2001) in Brussels. She has received academic awards including the Canadian Governor General’s Award.