On a mission to fill empty pulpits
DENVER — Low pay and benefits. Overly demanding leaders. Unrealistic expectations.…
Women are preaching — but seldom in Churches of Christ.
And Churches of Christ are not alone in disagreements over interpretation of Scripture regarding women in ministry. Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans and Baptists, among others, all have some associations or organizing bodies that ordain women and some that don’t.
Nor are Churches of Christ alone in coping with dwindling numbers of young people entering ministry. Seminaries nationwide and across theological boundaries face declining enrollments.
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Should women preach? If they did, it could help address the preacher shortage. But most in Churches of Christ would say no, citing historical views of Scripture supporting that doctrine. Most, but not all.
Dozens of Churches of Christ in the U.S. and Canada welcome women to their pulpits — on occasion, in a regular rotation or, in a few cases, on a full-time basis.
Though that’s still a tiny percentage of the roughly 12,000 congregations nationwide, it includes congregations in 19 states and two provinces, ranging from small rural communities to several of the nation’s largest cities.
Disputes over the appropriate role of women in public worship in Churches of Christ are as old as the Restoration Movement itself. Leaders in the 19th century alternately appointed women to preach and prevented women from speaking at all except to sing. Some appointed women deacons while others opposed them. Some even justified their opposition to women’s suffrage on the grounds that women should learn silently from their husbands at home.
Trends varied between the Stone and Campbell sides of the movement and by region. But in the early 1800s, women within the movement, including Nancy Cram and Abigail Roberts, preached, conducted revivals, baptized hundreds and planted churches.
The protracted debate continues.
“A lot of folks are under the impression it mostly happens in the Northeast or California, but it is all over, all sizes.”
Today, congregational autonomy makes hard numbers hard to come by. But when The Christian Chronicle compared and compiled the work of scholars, an online directory of egalitarian congregations and the personal knowledge of 16 members of the Community of Women Ministers, the list grew to about 70. And the trend is neither regional nor predictable.
Steve Gardner, who recently finished a doctoral dissertation on a related topic at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn., said the 100 or so inclusive congregations he is aware of are geographically diverse.
“A lot of folks are under the impression it mostly happens in the Northeast or California, but it is all over, all sizes,” said Gardner, who preaches for the Christian congregation on North Carolina’s death row.
Karen Cooke serves as the children and family minister for the Minter Lane Church of Christ in Abilene, Texas. She previously completed a preaching internship at the Los Alamos Church of Christ in New Mexico and is a doctoral student at Abilene Christian University.
Related: On a mission to fill empty pulpits
Related: On a mission to fill empty pulpits
Cooke is in the earliest stages of research concerning churches where women serve as elders. In the process, she also came across about three dozen congregations where women may preach, and she believes there are more.
Wiley Clarkson of Groom, Texas, maintains an online directory of “gender inclusive and egalitarian congregations in the Church of Christ heritage.” It lists 41 churches that “welcome women into their pulpit” and 61 others that have other speaking or leadership roles for women. And some of those churches are also identified by members of the Community of Women Ministers as pulpits where women have preached or are preaching.
Brenda Turner, professor of graduate research in Faulkner University’s College of Biblical Studies in Montgomery, Ala., agrees with the traditional stance that women are to be silent in the church.
Turner is a theological librarian whose research focuses on women in the biblical text. She said she relies on 1 Timothy 2:11-12, “where it says women should keep silent in the church — that’s been the mainstay Scripture that’s been pointed to when the position is taken that women should not preach or teach men.”
Turner, who attends the Perryhill Road Church of Christ in Montgomery, said most people who align with that view see the issue as a salvation matter.
“I’ve heard arguments that 1 Timothy 2 is possibly about cultural scenarios that may be quite different in contemporary time,“ Turner said, “but I’m not comfortable with them myself because I can’t read Paul’s mind to know if he was writing from a cultural perspective.”
Conversely, Sara Barton, university chaplain at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., embraces that perspective.
Barton is the author of “A Woman Called: Piecing Together the Ministry Puzzle” about her own calling to preach. She said she wrote the book with her grandmothers from rural Arkansas in mind: “How would I tell them that I’m preaching?”
Barton graduated from Harding University in Searcy, Ark., and later earned a doctor of ministry degree from the Hazelip School of Theology at Lipscomb. She grew up in congregations where she “was taught to read Scripture in a way that would find guidance in very clear commands. But that often didn’t take into account the context of those commands.”
Barton is on the preaching team for the Camarillo Church of Christ, about 30 miles northwest of Malibu. She previously served as the campus minister at Rochester University in Michigan and as a missionary in Uganda.
“I started to read that guidance from Scripture in the context of what was going on in the time, place and culture to which a letter was written,” Barton said. “When we take in context Corinth, Ephesus or other congregations of the Lord being addressed, we start to see that commands are not always exactly the same to every time and place, even in Scripture. So we have to ask, ‘What is the essential heart of this for our time and place and culture?’ which might be very different.”
Turner and Barton represent two poles on the issue — one predominant and the other small but growing.
Barton cites two catalysts for that growth: welcome and scholarships for women at universities associated with Churches of Christ and male colleagues who have become “increasingly outspoken and welcoming about women in ministry.”
Reciting a list of women currently engaged in preaching, Barton said they all “have done higher ed, an M.Div. or D.Min. (Master of Divinity or Doctorate of Ministry degree) or something and have an experience of having been welcomed, empowered and given opportunity — at ACU and Lipscomb and Pepperdine and somewhat in other settings.”
Nicolds, a Spokane, Wash., native, completed a master of arts in Christian ministry degree at ACU. Dahlman graduated from York University in Nebraska, then earned a master of divinity degree at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky and a doctor of ministry degree at ACU.
“There are not enough positions available for all the women who are equipped for preaching in Churches of Christ,” Dahlman said, “so it’s inevitable the vast majority will have to leave.”
But she has seen signs of change and periodically is contacted by churches seeking counsel about hiring a woman.
Nicolds has also been invited to apply elsewhere or offer advice. “There’s a church in western Massachusetts that really hoped to hire a woman and asked me to point them in directions on that,” she said.
Other congregations in Connecticut and New Mexico have recently opened minister searches to women.
As the Chronicle reported last year, the number of students preparing for ministry at colleges and universities associated with Churches of Christ has decreased. Yet women occupy many seats in majors that may lead to ministry.
Eight universities responded to an informal survey in fall 2023, and seven provided data regarding the number of women in various ministry majors at the graduate and/or undergraduate level. Among them, 237 women were enrolled. Like their male colleagues, not all intend to preach, and not all come from Churches of Christ.
The largest numbers of women were at Harding, ACU and Lipscomb.
Related: Women in the church
Related: Women in the church
Harding had 137 female undergraduate Bible majors, 43 percent of its total. Monte Cox, dean of the College of Bible and Ministry, said he had no way to know their specific ministry objectives at this point nor did he have a breakdown of church affiliations. But, over the past 10 years, about 20-25 percent of Harding Bible majors have been women.
ACU had 42 undergrad and 49 graduate women enrolled. Twenty of the graduate students were pursuing an M.Div., “which is a typical degree if students are choosing to preach,” according to Carson Reed, dean of the Graduate School of Theology.
Over the past 10 years, 560 women have completed undergrad or graduate degrees at ACU in ministry fields, though that number likely includes some who earned both.
Lipscomb had 39 female students across all graduate theology programs. Leonard Allen, dean of the College of Bible and Ministry, provided graduate numbers only. He said 74 women have graduated from the Hazelip School of Theology over the past 10 years. A slight majority were from Churches of Christ. “Some are looking for opportunities to preach or to be equipped to do so,” he said.
As is often the case, discussions on matters of disagreement tend to create two camps, whether the issue is women, worship or world events. Renee Sproles, director of cultural engagement for Renew.org, a multifaceted resource ministry for Restoration Movement churches, doesn’t see it that way.
Sproles’ emphasis at Renew for the past several years has been on gender because, she said, “things in our culture keep getting more and more confused instead of clearer.”
Sproles writes and speaks from the viewpoint of a complementarian.
“The egalitarian considers men and women interchangeable,” she said. “The complementarian tends to think that while there is overlap, that there are particular roles that men and women play that are not interchangeable.”
Specifically, she believes Paul’s writing in the New Testament excludes women from serving as an elder or senior minister.
“Everything else,” she says, is open to both.
“In 1 Corinthians we see women praying and prophesying — Paul doesn’t forbid that. We see Priscilla and Aquila teaching Apollos. … There’s lots of evidence that women were deacons. There are lots of things women can do. The shorthand we’ve used for so long, where men lead and women submit, is not really a good shorthand for what you see unfolding in Scripture. Men are head of women. Women are a strong help.”
Using the same word, she said, God was a help to Israel.
“I think we’ve gotten it really wrong,” she added, when denying so many roles to women. “We clearly see women pray and prophecy,” and yet, she acknowledged she rarely sees a woman pray in church. “And we’re poorer for it.”
Despite doctrinal differences, Barton and Turner both long for less animosity on the issue among Christians and congregations.
Turner said that Churches of Christ, as a whole, “probably have not done ourselves any favors by showing so much division. Unity of spirit is ranked highest of anything in Scripture — charity and love are the only things above that.”
Churches of Christ, as a whole, “probably have not done ourselves any favors by showing so much division. Unity of spirit is ranked highest of anything in Scripture — charity and love are the only things above that.”
She said she’d like to see churches “be more communicative among each other, respectful of each other’s positions and just not condemn. We have to be careful of taking on God’s role.”
Barton hopes the Restoration principle of autonomy can support greater unity.
“I hope churches will remain true to those roots, respecting local autonomy,” she said. “And if churches desire, through study of Scripture and discernment, that women will use gifts for preaching and being elders, that other congregations who have discerned something else will respect that. I hope that can happen — that we can remain brothers and sisters in Christ and find unity with one another even if we disagree on disputed matters.”
CHERYL MANN BACON is a Christian Chronicle contributing editor who served for 20 years as chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Abilene Christian University. Contact [email protected].
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