I am posting a short paper I was asked to prepare for the Doctrine and Polity Commission of the Church of God (2 years ago). It has not been published elsewhere.
The purpose of this paper is to examine briefly the theological interpretations and hermeneutical decisions made by leaders and ministers within the Church of God with regard to women in leadership. It is hoped that this examination will raise awareness of the traditions inherited by the Church of God and outside influences that still hold powerful sway in the life of the church. A reading of early General Assembly Minutes and the Church of God Evangel
reveals that women were active in most levels of ministry of the church life. Women evangelized, planted churches and served as pastor for those they established.
Like the rest of the Pentecostal movement, the egalitarian and charismatic nature of this early period eventually evolved into a more structured institution with barriers falling along both racial and gender lines.
While there are many contributing factors, such as the interesting dance between the holiness people and the pervading culture, the “redemption and lift” of Pentecostals and what Land has identified as the “rush to respectability”, there are two factors in the history of the Church of God which have held tremendous sway.
The first factor is the interpretation of women in leadership first articulated to Church of God readers by A. J. Tomlinson. In 1913, A. J. Tomlinson published his passionate plea for the “mustering” of the Army of the Lord: the Great Church of God, The Last Great Conflict: “Oh for a million men and women to burst forth, with such holy ambition, with every unused power in full use, like mad-men to strike terror and fear to all the half hearted religionists of the day!” However, in the next chapter, titled “Joy and Rejoicing”, Tomlinson begins to present his interpretation of the biblical role of church government. He declares, “Church then means government—Christ’s government; His Church.” He continues, as if responding to a question, “Here then is where women are to keep silence: that is, they are to have no active part in the governmental affairs.” Citing 1 Corinthians 14, Tomlinson continues by discussing the regulation of tongues. He concludes, “There were no women speaking in the council at Jerusalem: no one talking in tongues. They were a judicial body, searching for and applying the laws to a particular case.” The implication is that the Holy Spirit does speak through women in prophetic ways, such as with messages in tongues. But because the business of the Council is governmental, specifically, judicial, then this type of spiritual manifestation is not needed, and therefore, women’s input is non-existent. The great irony, even inconsistency, of this argument is that the Assembly minutes are replete with confirmation of business decisions through messages in tongues and interpretation. In 1914 it is a message and interpretation that confirms Tomlinson’s appointment as General Overseer, which is understood to be an appointment in perpetuity. This interpretation of woman’s role in the church appears to be unique to Tomlinson. Others, like the Assemblies of God, were more likely to interpret Paul as restricting women from pastoral roles.
In all fairness, the early leaders of the Church of God, like those in other Pentecostal denominations, were concerned with finding the “Bible Way” of leading the church. A. J. Tomlinson was absolutely certain that one form of church government could be found within Scripture. While he was obviously influenced by outside models (i.e., other denominations, the railroad and the United States government), his heart was to use the New Testament as the rule for faith and practice. While it is clear that this literalistic interpretation does not prevail for Tomlinson, others in the Church of God and the larger Pentecostal movement, where a more dynamic, Spirit-driven interpretation is preferred, on this issue he seems to take a more fundamentalist approach. Tomlinson, and others after him, in dealing with this issue utilized a literalistic reading of the English New Testament text, seeing no room for women to serve as deacons, elders or bishops. It should be noted, however, that this more fundamentalist reading on the matter was not the only model available to these Pentecostals. Wesleyan and Holiness leaders, contemporary with the early Pentecostals, such as the Salvation Army and B. T. Roberts of the Free Methodist Church, encouraged full participation of women in all areas of the life of the church, including the arena of leadership.
Tomlinson’s own inconsistency with regard to hermeneutical practice, specifically in his interpretation of Paul’s instructions, can be seen with his endorsement of a woman as lead teacher at the Bible Training School, established in 1918.
In 1917, Tomlinson proposed the idea of a Bible Training School for the purpose of equipping both men and women in the “Bible and missionary training.” The Assembly voted to establish such a school with Tomlinson as Superintendent but he appointed a woman, Nora Chambers, a licensed evangelist, as primary teacher. Chambers taught Bible to both men and women. Apparently, Tomlinson “suffered a woman to teach.”
This selective literalist hermeneutic became the predominant position, an oral tradition, in the church with regard to women in leadership. Its implications are easily seen in the church’s regulations excluding women from the Church and Pastor’s Council and the rank of Ordained Bishop, both positions which include the responsibility of making “business decisions” for the church, local and international.
The second major contributor to the current interpretation is the influence of Evangelical and Fundamentalist interpretations of certain texts on the Pentecostal community. The Tomlinsonian interpretation has been fortified for the Church of God by its close association with those in Evangelical Churches. As the Church of God and other classical Pentecostal denominations embraced the Evangelical movement, most conspicuously by joining forces in 1948 with the formation of the National Association of Evangelicals, so too it adopted its view of family and women’s roles. This view, often asserted to be the biblical view of family, was in reality “a family lifted out of nineteenth-century industrialized Europe and North America.” Pentecostal families were much more likely to resonate with more prominent historical (and biblical) models where the family was “an economically productive unit.” In this model, family members farmed or worked together to sustain the family. The “stay at home mom” was a luxury not often enjoyed by non-middle-class families.
Interestingly, in 1948, the year of the NAE charter, the nomenclature for ministerial ranks in the Church of God changed. The rank of Evangelist was eliminated and the rank of Licensed Minister was instituted. However, women’s credentials remained unchanged; women were ‘granted Evangelist’s Certificates. The implication of this move is that the Assembly did not want to silence the charismatic call of the woman who was an evangelist, but she was not recognized as professional clergy. Tomlinson’s legacy lived on. His statements of 1915 could have been voiced in 1948 and the years following: “Let the good sisters feel at perfect liberty to preach the gospel, pray for the sick or well, testify, exhort, etc., but humbly hold themselves aloof from taking charge of the governmental affairs.”
In 1994, however, the first real challenge to Tomlinson’s view was seen in the redefining of the understanding of the constituency of General Assembly. In that year, it was decided that the General Assembly, the highest governing body of the Church of God, consisted of all members present, male and female.
In 2000, the title of the second rank of licensure for Church of God ministers was changed to “Ordained Minister”, in effect, granting ordination to women. However, women were still excluded from the highest rank, “Ordained Bishop”, and thereby from positions of influence.
Now, only 4% of credentialed ministers in the Church of God in the United States are women. Women are restricted from advancing to the level of Ordained Bishop. This “stained glass ceiling” prevents, then, their direct influence in the decision-making processes of the church. By virtue of the limitations of their ministerial rank they cannot be appointed to most leadership positions in the church. They do not have voice in the General Council. On a state level, most Administrative Bishops will not appoint a minister who is not an Ordained Bishop to the larger churches or to serve as District Overseers. Only in mission states or territories may ordained ministers serve on State Councils. This decline in the number of women being credentialed reveals that while women may on the local level be involved in pastoral functions, they are not doing it in official capacities, at least as far as the General Church is concerned and are therefore a less than significant voice.
It seems that the contemporary Church of God has held to Tomlinson’s interpretation of the role of women, but now couches its position in terms of staying true to Scripture. There is a fear that the move to give women rights in the area of leadership would move us toward the “slippery slope” of liberalism and “open the floodgate” for liberal interpretation. For many, the need to identify themselves as conservatives in the area of scriptural views, and the fear of being identified as otherwise, has allowed them to uncritically accept the interpretation of those within Fundamentalist circles. The question before us is, is it possible to be conservative on Scripture and other issues, while holding to an egalitarian view of women in leadership.
In an attempt to begin to answer the question, one should look at groups such as the Free Methodists who believe in the inspiration and authority of Scripture, the sanctity of human life, opposition to homosexuality, gambling and worldly forms of entertainment, but who maintain that women can be full participants and leaders in the Body of Christ.
To be true to who we are, descendants of Wesley who enjoy the full blessings of Pentecost, it is vital that we recognize the prophethood and priesthood of all believers. It is a matter of fidelity and faithfulness.