From Bondage to Blessing

Chapter 14 - Out of the Darkness and Into the Light of Christ

"Arise, shine; for your light has come! And the glory of the LORD is risen upon you. For behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and deep darkness the people; but the LORD will arise over you, and His glory will be seen upon you." (Isaiah 60:1-2)

The Dark Ages began to come to a grimy close the day in 1517 when a young man named Martin Luther posted 95 theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany. His actions, challenging the heresies of the medieval Church, hailed the beginning of what is known as the Reformation. With reformation, came restoration of an understanding of justification by faith alone, the authority of the Scriptures, and the priesthood of the believer. While practice didn't change quickly, a work of the Spirit was beginning in the heart of the Church. As that work of the Spirit has continued, an understanding of the spiritual and functional equality of women within the Body of Christ has slowly unfolded, with the Father prodding and stirring His women onward, thrusting them forward to fulfill their destinies in Him.

In this chapter, we will look at the gradual unveiling after the Reformation of God's heart and mind towards women and their place in the Body of Christ. We will examine briefly how the Reformation changed the status of women in the Church and how it did not. Finally, we will look at some of the post-Reformation sects and movements which opened the prison doors for women, releasing them into ministry in a way that had not happened since the first century.

The Middle Ages

During the millennium known as the Dark Ages of the Church, which spanned a period of time historians refer to as the Middle Ages, the involvement of women in official ministry within the Church came to an almost complete standstill. A major reason for this was the increasing institutionalization of the Church under a male religious hierarchy. Furthermore, this hierarchy was steeped in a theology that had its roots in a Greek (pagan) philosophy which saw women as weak and worthless, yet also very dangerous to men. The resultant mindset was given strength by the ongoing tension in the relationship between men and women which had existed since the fall of man. Because women were seen as a threat to male dominance, they were increasingly shut out of a role within the institutionalized Church.

An interesting story which gives some background concerning women in medieval times is that of "Pope Joan" or "Papess Johanna". There is increasing evidence that an Englishwoman, the daughter of two missionaries from a Dorset village, deceived the entire Roman Catholic hierarchy to become Pope John VIII in A.D. 855. She took on the appearance of a young man and was educated at a Benedictine monastery in the north of Germany. She became known as "John the English" well-known lecturer and expert in the liberal arts, who taught at a medieval university called the Trivium. Her deception was only exposed when, after two-and-a-half years of rule, she began to give birth during a papal procession in Rome. A Catholic mob vented their anger at this deceit by killing her, and a new Pope John VIII was subsequently installed. The Vatican tried to keep the story hidden, but news of it leaked out and the story was passed on through the generations. A modern researcher has found 500 separate accounts of her papal term, and brought to light a bizarre test of gender that was introduced by the papacy to avoid any repetition of this deception. Future popes were required to sit in a chair with a hole in the seat. Through this hole, a cardinal would reach up and verify the sex of the papal candidate.1 Tucker and Liefeld, although skeptical themselves, note that the story of Papess Johanna was widely accepted during the late medieval period. In fact, a bust of her was placed alongside the busts of other popes during the early fifteenth century and her existence cited as fact at the Council of Constance.2

Despite the story of Joan's unique rise to the Papacy, women were kept on a very short leash during the Dark Ages. As one text sums up,

"The Roman Catholic Church was deeply committed to a position of male domination in spiritual matters. Women had a place in the Church, but that place was clearly defined as one that carried with it no official authority. By their own leadership ability and charismatic influence, women on occasion overcame this disability, but whatever role they attained almost always remained within the confines of monasticism."3

Changing attitude towards women in the Reformation

Church historians note that the sixteenth century was a time of upheaval in Christendom, as Renaissance thinking challenged the dogma and tradition of the times. The role of women in the Church was included in this challenge. Renaissance humanists and Christian reformers began to depart from the misogynist thinking that had characterized attitudes towards women during the Dark Ages, and endowed women with a somewhat greater worth and dignity.

The reformers still had their prejudices, however. These prejudices were partly the result of the culture of the time and partly the result of theology based on the teaching of the early Church Fathers, whose disparaging views on women were influenced by Plato and the Greek stoic philosophers. Tucker and Liefeld note, "Although Martin Luther had proclaimed the priesthood of all believers, it apparently did not occur to him or to his fellow Reformers what the ramifications would actually mean for the Church." They continue on to say that regarding the role of women, "whether women themselves could hold the clerical office was not even seriously considered ... the Reformers were clearly not anxious to be innovators in this area."4

The attitude towards women was changing, however, as the Holy Spirit stirred the hearts of men during the Reformation. Tucker and Liefeld note that Martin Luther, while a man of his time in many respects, attacked those who disdained women as inferior or as a necessary evil. He had an understanding unique to his time of women's value and dignity as equal bearers of the image of God. He supported female education, encouraged greater freedom for women in the marriage relationship, and even opened up the idea of the role for women in public ministry. He suggested that if no men were available, it might be necessary for women to preach.

Nevertheless, Luther still wrestled with the biases of the men of his day, and it was obvious from his writings that he generally considered women to be inferior to men because Eve was deceived by the serpent and therefore the "weaker vessel". He saw woman as initially created equal in all things to Adam, but dropping to an inferior state after the fall. Luther saw the subjection of women to men as a necessary result of the punishment imposed on Eve for her sin. He also read the controversial passages in the Pauline epistles as injunctions against women teaching.5

John Calvin's view of women in the Church remains a source of debate. Most of his relationships with women were political, with French noblewomen whom he exhorted to stand strong against opposition in their support of the Huguenots. Some of his writings seem to indicate that he viewed the controversial Pauline texts as simply promoting decorum and edification, rather than divine law. But in other writings, he took a very derogatory and sometimes scathing view of women as "defective", "weak" and "contemptible".6 His teaching on sovereignty, predestination, and government supported an authoritative and hierarchical model, which left women forbidden to baptize, speak or teach in the Church.7

Scottish John Knox, by contrast, very outspokenly denounced women in leadership. His hostility towards women had apparently been invoked by two Catholic queens, Mary Tudor of England and Mary Guise of Scotland, who had brought persecution to Protestants under their rule. He offended many with his diatribes, and made statements like, "woman in her greatest perfection was made to serve and obey man." Nevertheless, Knox admitted his dependence upon women in spiritual matters. He had a very close woman friend and confident in London whom he praised "for nourishing and confirming him in the faith." He confided on one occasion that he was "in desperate need of her spiritual counsel".8

The Reformation served to begin a process of unlocking the chains of bondage from God's women, though it never removed them. As Lutz points out, "The Reformers improved attitudes towards sex and gave dignity and spirituality to marriage. But at no time in history had ministry for women been so limited as in the Reformation. Women were now devoid of service even in monasteries and religious orders, and found little avenue for ministry outside their homes and children."9 Others note that the position of women changed very little in society and in the established churches (Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Reformed, Congregationalist, Puritan, etc.) in the centuries which immediately followed the Reformation.10 There were bright spots, but things did not really begin to open up again for women within the Body of Christ until some years after the Reformation when radical sects began to spring up. These sects were willing to take things a step further than the Reformers by putting their theology into practice.

Susan Hyatt sees a correlation in the openness of the Reformers to the moving of the Holy Spirit, and their openness to women's involvement. She notes that the rejection of the charismata in the Reformation appeared to coincide with the rejection of women. "Where the Holy Spirit is silenced, it appears that the women are also silenced. When the Holy Spirit is secondary, it seems that women are also secondary."11 If we look at various movements within the Church historically, I believe study will verify the veracity of her observations.

Post-Reformation sects - lifting off the chains

It was not until the rise of non-conformist Protestant sects outside the established churches in the late 16th, 17th and 18th centuries that women began to experience some release within the churches.12 Interestingly enough, many of these sects were considered "non-conformist" because they did not quench the Spirit! We will now look at a few of these sects and their influence on changing attitudes towards women:

English Baptists, founded by John Smyth in the early 17th century, recognized the place of women in public ministry. Smyth wrote in 1609 that women deacons should be elected, approved and ordained by the Church. Women preachers were also fairly common among the early Baptist congregations.13

Another group of non-conformists, called the Fifth Monarchists, was known for permitting women an active role in ministry. They were a small yet highly visible sect which arose in England in the mid-16th century. Their founder and leader, John Rogers, strongly supported the equality of women within the Church and their right to preach publicly. He used biblical arguments to defend his position, as well as his own observation regarding the godly nature and wisdom exhibited among Christian women.14

A sect known as the Cevenols, Camisards or the French Prophets was another sect well-known for allowing women to minister alongside men. This sect's style of worship was charismatic/pentecostal in the sense that it was exuberant and included singing, dancing, shaking, shouting, speaking in tongues and prophesying.15 They arose in France in the 17th and 18th centuries, but were forced to flee to England to avoid persecution. There they became known to many of the English leaders including John Wesley.16 They also had an indirect influence on Ann Lee, who founded the Shaker movement in the United States.17

One of the most well known sects that developed in 17th century England was the Quakers or Society of Friends. George Fox, the founder, strongly defended the involvement of women in ministry. He challenged those who would limit women in ministry, using scriptural arguments to back up his claim. Quaker women boldly and courageously faced much opposition to their beliefs and their freedom to minister, often suffering persecution, imprisonment and even hanging in the case of Mary Dyer, a New England Quaker.18 According to Hyatt, "This biblically-based, Spirit-oriented Christianity threatened the rigid hierarchical social pattern promulgated by the state Church and Puritans who held to a medieval, hierarchical worldview. It threatened the authority by which these religious systems controlled people."19 Interestingly enough, the Friends movement was very open to the Holy Spirit. Quaker writings reveal the operation of the gifts of the Spirit in their midst.20

The rise of Methodism in 18th century England helped to solidify the position of women in public ministry in the sects outside the established churches. While John Wesley initially "took a very conservative stand" on the place of women in ministry, his convictions changed over time and by the 1770's he was supporting his women leaders in their preaching. Tucker and Liefeld note that "Wesley eventually became so convinced of the rightness of women's ministry that he openly encouraged women to preach ..."21 Some of the early Methodist women, under Wesley's leadership, became itinerant preachers. One of the best known was Sarah Crosby, who was an itinerant minister for over 20 years in the north of England.

After Wesley's death, prejudice against women began to arise again within Methodism and opportunities for women to publicly minister declined somewhat with the lack of Wesley's support and backing.22 Perhaps this was because Wesley had retained the hierarchical structure of the Church of England in his Methodist societies.23 Perhaps the inherent corruption of institutionalism eventually began to burden down women once again under weight of suppression. Thankfully, God's plan was not to be stopped! Coming moves and revivals would release God's women again.

Reform and revivalism - open doors for women

The post-Reformation revival movements helped to re-open doors for women into ministry. Church historian Richard Riss has stated, "Women and lay people have found a greater place for leadership during times of revival than at other periods in the history of the church."24 Maybe this is because during revivals and awakening movements, the focus is on God and not on tradition! Perhaps it is also true because the Holy Spirit lifts up women, and where there is an openness and yielding to the Holy Spirit, women are released.

Riss has surveyed literally hundreds of revivals that took place in the British Isles and in North America from the time of the Puritans until the present day. The biggest and most influential revivals, in terms of releasing women into ministry, were the North American Great Awakening and its counterpart in Britain - the Evangelical Awakening of the early 18th century, and the North American Second Great Awakening and its counterpart in Britain - the Second Evangelical Awakening of the late 18th to early 19th centuries. Methodism sprang out of the Evangelical Awakening in the early 18th century. The Holiness movement, which began about mid-19th century in America and emphasized the need for revival, provided the rise in revival activity for years to come. There was also a parallel Healing Movement at the same time, which further served to open doors wider for women's ministry.25

Tucker and Liefeld reveal that the revivals and sectarian movements began to bring change to the rigidity of Puritanism, which "loosened up" American religion, providing greater opportunities for women within the religious community.26 They declare that "without female involvement, the Great Awakenings might never have transpired." It was women's prayer meetings that fostered these revivals and it was mostly women who attended the meetings.27 Tucker and Liefeld note that it was during the Second Great Awakening (late 18th century and early 19th century) "that female lay ministries began to flourish." They observe that the women were not seeking professional religious careers, only to serve God and impact society in a meaningful way. As a result, "during the early 19th century, there was a tremendous increase in women's involvement in lay ministries."28

Similar things were going on across the Atlantic in Britain as a result of both the Evangelical Awakenings, with lay ministries also springing up there. These lay ministries involved not only every aspect of social work but spiritual ministry as well. Home mission societies sprang up which were founded and directed by women who had a vision to reform their cities. Tucker and Liefeld note that "it was out of the reform movement that Sunday schools emerged."29

The Sunday School movement

The Sunday School movement, which began in England in the 1780's, would never have flourished without women. Its most active agents and most of its teachers were women. In the early years of the movement, it was often opposed by clergy for this very reason.30 The growth rate of this movement was astounding, despite the opposition. One woman in England, Hannah More, organized Sunday schools that accommodated approximately 20,000 children. In Sweden, under the leadership of Lady Ehrenborg, the movement grew from the 1850's to include 25,000 teachers and more than 300,000 pupils in 50 years.31

Foreign missions movements

The missions movement of the 19th century offered women fantastic opportunities for meaningful ministry - and many leaped at this opportunity. On the mission field, they could freely minister in ways that they could not minister so freely at home. They could evangelize, preach, plant churches, pastor, establish apostolic networks, train ministers of the gospel and the list goes on. It has been noted that by 1915, there were more than 3 million women on the membership roles of some 40 women's missions societies.32 Tucker and Liefeld observed in 1987 , however, that "in spite of the fact that there were vast numbers of women involved in foreign missions, both at home and abroad, and that women had a powerful effect on the modern missionary movement, little mention is made of their contributions in the history-of-missions texts."33 Thankfully, this situation has changed over the past fifteen years! There is now a selection of books for the Christian reader to choose from which share the historic accomplishments and the many sacrifices of God's women on the mission field.

Summary

During the period of the Dark Ages, the involvement of women in ministry almost came to a standstill. The main reason was the institutionalization of the Church and a theology rooted in the pagan teachings of the Greek philosophers. The Dark Ages came to a close with the advent of the Reformation in the early 16th century. Yet the Reformation brought only a glimmer of light. Church practice did not change to any great degree. The Reformation was, however, the beginning of a work of the Spirit within the Church which continued in the centuries to come.

A possible correlation between an openness to the moving of the Holy Spirit and the freedom for women to minister was identified. In the Reformation, the gifts of the Spirit were quenched, as were the giftings of women. In contrast, it was noted that when the Holy Spirit was allowed to move in the various revival movements, women found a greater place of leadership than at any other time.

The rise of the non-conformist sects after the Reformation in the late 16th, 17th and 18th centuries opened a door for the release of women to minister. Not bound by the traditional thinking and limitations of the established denominations, these sects recognized the place of women in public ministry and actively encouraged it. Some of these sects included the English Baptists, the Fifth Monarchists, the Camisards or French Prophets, the Quakers or Society of Friends and Methodism. Many of these experienced charismata and manifestations of the Holy Spirit in their midst.

The revival and awakening movements helped to bring more liberty to women within the Church. They were also influential in thrusting women forward into ministry. The most significant ones in terms of impact upon women were probably the 18th century Great Awakening in North America and its counterpart, the Evangelical Awakening in Britain, and the Second Great Awakening and Second Evangelical Awakening in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It was noted that the Great Awakenings might never have happened without the female involvement and undergirding in prayer. One movement almost solely sustained by women was the Sunday School movement. Another was the missions movement of the 19th century. By 1915, more than 3 million women were on the membership roles of the various missions societies.

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Chapter 14 notes

  1. Christopher Morgan, "Riddle of Joan the 'She Pope' May Be Solved", The Sunday Times (London, March 22, 1998), p. 15.
  2. Ruth A. Tucker and Walter Liefeld, Daughters of the Church (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1987), p. 139-140.
  3. Ruth A. Tucker and Walter Liefeld, Daughters of the Church (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1987), p. 140.
  4. Ruth A. Tucker and Walter Liefeld, Daughters of the Church (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1987), p. 172-173.
  5. Ruth A. Tucker and Walter Liefeld, Daughters of the Church (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1987), p. 173-175.
  6. Ruth A. Tucker and Walter Liefeld, Daughters of the Church (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1987), p. 175-176.
  7. Susan C. Hyatt, In the Spirit We're Equal (Hyatt Press, Dallas, 1998), p. 68.
  8. Ruth A. Tucker and Walter Liefeld, Daughters of the Church (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1987), p. 177-178.
  9. Lorry Lutz, Women As Risk-Takers for God (World Evangelical Fellowship in assoc. with Paternoster Publishing, Carlisle, Cumbria, 1997), p. 13.
  10. Ruth A. Tucker and Walter Liefeld, Daughters of the Church (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1987), p. 207-216.
  11. Susan C. Hyatt, In the Spirit We're Equal (Hyatt Press, Dallas, 1998), p. 70.
  12. Ruth A. Tucker and Walter Liefeld, Daughters of the Church (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1987), p. 207, 218.
  13. Ruth A. Tucker and Walter Liefeld, Daughters of the Church (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1987), p. 224.
  14. Ruth A. Tucker and Walter Liefeld, Daughters of the Church (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1987), p. 225.
  15. Edith Deen, Great Women of the Christian Faith (Harper and Row Publisher, 1959, reprinted by Barbour and Company, Uhrichsville, OH), p. 161.
  16. Ruth A. Tucker and Walter Liefeld, Daughters of the Church (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1987), p. 226.
  17. Edith Deen, Great Women of the Christian Faith (Harper and Row Publisher, 1959, reprinted by Barbour and Company, Uhrichsville, OH), p. 161.
  18. Ruth A. Tucker and Walter Liefeld, Daughters of the Church (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1987), p. 227-228.
  19. Susan C. Hyatt, In the Spirit We're Equal (Hyatt Press, Dallas, 1998), p. 94.
  20. Susan C. Hyatt, In the Spirit We're Equal (Hyatt Press, Dallas, 1998), p. 96.
  21. Ruth A. Tucker and Walter Liefeld, Daughters of the Church (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1987), p. 242.
  22. Ruth A. Tucker and Walter Liefeld, Daughters of the Church (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1987), p. 242.
  23. Susan C. Hyatt, In the Spirit We're Equal (Hyatt Press, Dallas, 1998), p. 131-132.
  24. Richard M. Riss, A Survey of 20th Century Revival Movements in North America (Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, MA, 1988), p. 6.
  25. Ibid., p. 17-24.
  26. Ruth A. Tucker and Walter Liefeld, Daughters of the Church (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1987), p. 245.
  27. Ruth A. Tucker and Walter Liefeld, Daughters of the Church (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1987), p. 245-246.
  28. Ruth A. Tucker and Walter Liefeld, Daughters of the Church (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1987), p. 247.
  29. Ruth A. Tucker and Walter Liefeld, Daughters of the Church (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1987), p. 249.
  30. Ruth A. Tucker and Walter Liefeld, Daughters of the Church (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1987), p. 249.
  31. Ruth A. Tucker and Walter Liefeld, Daughters of the Church (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1987), p. 291.
  32. Ruth A. Tucker and Walter Liefeld, Daughters of the Church (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1987), p. 291.
  33. Ruth A. Tucker and Walter Liefeld, Daughters of the Church (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1987), p. 291.

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