Recent developments in the Southern Baptist Convention have been difficult to watch: the destructive pastoral advice issued to women in abusive situations; the authoritarian leadership structure that supported Paige Patterson, then president of a major seminary, as he used his position to “break down” a rape victim; and the judgment (to use Albert Mohler’s words) that now hangs over the denomination. We may be witnessing a Baptist apocalypse, which is both tragic and necessary. All reformations begin with a great unveiling.
Now is the time to reclaim the center of evangelicalism. We must recover the role of women in spreading the gospel, in the way that some have reclaimed the connection between the gospel and social issues. This reclamation would have nothing to do with the second-wave feminism of the 1970s—and everything to do with the first-wave feminism of the late nineteenth century.
From A. J. Gordon’s defense of women in ministry (1894) to D. L. Moody’s allowing women to speak on his platform—even working with Emma Dryer to form what would become Moody Bible Institute (1886)—to Edith Torrey, the first full-time Bible teacher at Wheaton (starting in 1919), the contribution of women was defended across the evangelical movement.
From 1879 to 1898, Frances Willard led the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union—the largest organization of women in America at the time. Willard’s program was pro-family and pro-women. She argued for women preachers. She was followed in this regard by Catherine Booth, co-founder of the Salvation Army. Frances Willard, Catherine Booth, and Phoebe Palmer all wrote books defending women speakers and preachers on the same basis that A. J. Gordon had given: the dispensation of the Spirit unleashed at Pentecost.
Evangelical affirmation of the role of women had three important strands. The first was a recovery of the role of medieval and early-modern women teachers and mystics within the life of the church. Evangelical proponents of women in ministry argued that in the history of the church there had always been women teachers, even if there had not been women priests. The second strand was a belief that Christians were living under the dispensation of the Spirit, who granted charismatic gifts. Before a Pentecostal or charismatic movement existed, evangelicals such as A. B. Simpson were heralding the restoration of gifts of the Spirit as part of a new dispensation that included ministerial roles for women.
The recovery of women teachers and the charismatic life both comported with the third strand, the maximization of lay ministry as the fuel for revivalism, missions, and social change. Evangelicals excelled at creating mediating structures through voluntary associations that transformed the larger culture: the Salvation Army, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the YMCA, the YWCA, and so on. Women could rise to positions of prominence within these structures, and indeed women teachers and female students were strong presences at many evangelical educational institutions.
But the resurgence of Fundamentalism, coupled with the rise of muscular Christianity, spelled the end of an evangelical mainstream influenced strongly by women. Though some historiographies lump Wesleyan Holiness, Pentecostalism, and Fundamentalism under the same umbrella, these movements diverged into distinct branches of evangelicalism, especially on the question of women in ministry and the ongoing validity of the charismatic gifts. Wesleyan-Holiness groups such as the Church of the Nazarene retained the view of their founders, that the emergence of women ministers was part of a contemporary Pentecostal outpouring. This view was assimilated into early Pentecostalism. By contrast, in the Reformed-Baptist arm of evangelicalism, cessationism combined with muscular Christianity and a strong defense of the faith to exclude women from any public ministry positions that involved leading or teaching men.
And the Reformed-Baptist branch became the defining model of American evangelicalism in the twentieth century. John Rice was part of its ascendancy when he argued against women ministers in Bobbed Hair, Bossy Wives, and Women Preachers (1941), claiming that “God is a masculine God.” Of course, the more sophisticated spokespersons for the evangelicalism of the 1940s and 1950s would not put the matter so crassly. (Rice eventually broke with the Southern Baptist Convention and mainstream evangelicalism and moved to the fundamentalist right.) By the 1970s, Billy Graham was publicly stating that women could pursue the public ministries of teacher and preacher, the latter a position held by his daughter, Anne Graham Lotz. Still, the “masculine” feel of evangelical Christianity has been in the air for too long. Recent events suggest that it may have contributed to an environment that disregards the victimization of women.
It is time to leave “masculine” evangelicalism behind and reclaim what was the evangelical center in the nineteenth century. This does not require complementarians to violate their consciences with respect to the Word of God. Rather, it entails recovering the role of women as teachers, preachers, and deacons who serve the whole church (not simply women’s ministries). On these three points there should be broad agreement, regardless of disagreements about male headship in the home or whether women may serve in the pastoral office. Genuine repentance requires action to correct future behavior. Today, that action means reforming in head and heart with respect to our sisters in the faith. The old center can be the center again, and it will help preserve evangelicalism from permitting in the future the spiritual and sexual abuse currently on display.
Dale M. Coulter is associate professor of historical theology at Regent University