When I was a young woman, I had an unsettling experience after being invited to another church to sing. Before my solo, I began sharing thoughts about the song. Suddenly, a man came up behind me, placed his hands on my shoulders and pushed me to the side.
I thought this man was trying to prevent me from tripping over a microphone cord. But then he shoved me down the steps, saying, “You cannot stand here. If you need a music stand, I’ll get you one.” I sang and sat down.
Later, I learned that this church believed that women should not preach to men. They thought it was wrong for me to speak about my faith, and they felt it was especially offensive when I did so from their pulpit. I have never been able to forget how it felt to have a man shove me off a church platform.
Although this experience happened in a Baptist church, it caused me to become more aware of how women are treated in all sorts of churches, including the IPHC. Unfortunately, my experience was not that unusual. Today, many across the Pentecostal world are asking, “Where are the women pastors and preachers?”
Early Pentecostals and Holiness believers welcomed the ministry of women. Our history shines with stories of many bold, articulate women. Catherine Booth, for example, sat in the balcony as her husband, William, was challenged by the Methodist church in England for his unconventional ministry to the poor. When William was asked to change his ways, he looked up for Catherine.
She famously shouted back, “Never!” Then, he motioned her to the door where they embraced and walked out together. Their Salvation Army thrived, and Catherine became an able writer, teacher, leader, and preacher in the movement.
Catherine had been influenced by another woman who gave shape to the Holiness movement—Pheobe Palmer. Palmer had grown up as a devout Methodist and didn’t doubt her salvation, but she longed for more. Finally, Phoebe read the words of Jesus from Matthew 23:19, “Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gift, or the altar that sanctifieth the gift?”
At once, she realized that she had failed to understand the need to place herself on the altar. Once Phoebe grasped this, she began to teach and preach about it with conviction. Although some criticized her for assuming a role as a spiritual leader, she became the mother of the holiness movement.
Amanda Berry Smith broke through barriers of gender, class, and race in the middle of the nineteenth century to proclaim holiness to all who would listen. Amanda was born a slave, and when, as a free woman, she received her call to preach, she was confronted with many obstacles. Many male ministers questioned her calling.
Nevertheless, Smith persisted and was finally given the opportunity to preach. A revival ensued that lasted for weeks and spread 20 miles. To her, it seemed that God was putting his seal of approval upon her ministry. She rose from within the African Methodist Episcopal Church but was soon preaching across denominations and around the world.
Almost half a century later, Rev. William Seymour labored in prayer with a small group of Christians in Los Angeles. They believed in Pentecostal power, but they had not yet received it. Finally, William asked one of his mentors, Pastor Lucy Farrow, for help. Farrow had experienced tongues, but William Seymour had not. He hoped that she could help him.
At Seymour’s request, Farrow came to Los Angeles and began to minister alongside him. Within a few days, she honored the request of a man who asked her to lay hands on him and pray that he would receive his Spirit baptism.
Farrow waited until she sensed the leading of the Holy Spirit. When she finally prayed for him, he fell to the floor praising God, speaking in tongues and testifying that he had received his Spirit baptism. That was the beginning of the Azusa Street Revival.
When we see the powerful way God worked through women in our history, it’s not surprising to learn that the IPHC has licensed women for ministry since it began. Women have always been welcomed onto the mission field, into the Sunday school classroom, behind the piano, and even behind the pulpit. Many of our churches were planted by women. Yet, present-day churches are less likely to welcome women into pastoral roles.
What caused this gap between what we believe and what we practice? I suspect some of it is partially due to ecclesiastical shifts that occurred during the 1950s and 1960s when Pentecostals sought more widespread acceptance into mainstream Protestant culture. Male pastors were dominant in that world.
The next blow came in the 1970s and 1980s when movements outside of classical Pentecostalism began infiltrating the theology of some laity and leaders. These movements, in reaction to liberal feminism, emphasized the belief that men were to lead while women were to submit to men, stay quiet, and have lots of babies.
During this time, Pentecostal theologies that celebrated the work of the Spirit in both men and women received less attention. Those that promoted male leadership gained sway. As a result, young people in Pentecostal denominations rarely saw women preach or pastor.
Since there were fewer female role models serving as preachers and pastors, it likely became hard for young people to imagine women filling those roles. I think it may have become more difficult for congregations to imagine being pastored by a woman, too.
By 1996, some Pentecostals saw that efforts to silence women were wrong. The IPHC held a Solemn Assembly at Northwood Temple in Fayetteville, N.C., calling the church to repent for seven deadly sins. One of them was the sin of male dominance. Although I was too young to understand how deep the sin of male dominance was, I heard the words, “We repent.”
Just as we work out our salvation, we must also walk out our repentance. Repentance requires admission of guilt and a change in behavior. It is turning away from the wrong path and fixing our eyes on the right path.
The Holy Spirit is at work among us, stirring a new generation of women who will not bend to human principles that contradict their godly call to the pulpit and pastoral ministry. There is also a generation of men awakening who will clear the way for them.
I see spiritual fathers and mothers who will take these women by the hand and walk with them. If ever there was a time for prophetic, priestly, evangelistic, pastoral voices of Spirit-filled women to once again be released into this world, it is now. Here are some ways that we can all help.
Larger churches can seek to fill associate pastor positions with women.
Senior pastors can open their pulpit regularly and give women the opportunity to develop their preaching skills.
Pastors can be more intentional about cultivating ministerial calls of girls and women.
Leaders who organize conferences can plan for women to preach and teach.
We can require internships before issuing ministerial licenses and create mentoring programs that put women on more equal footing with men.
We are a priesthood of believers with a history to be proud of. Let us remember who we are and keep gaining ground, together, for the sake of the gospel!
This article was first published in Encourage magazine.