Tuesday, December 2, 2008

My Reasons for Starting “Free Our Church of God Women to Serve”

Last week I formed a group on Facebook named Free Our Church of God Women to Serve. My plans had been to create a web site dedicated to the purpose of promoting equality for women in the Church of God. I developed those plans at the Church of God General Assembly last August shortly after the General Council voted down a proposal to allow women to serve on the Church and Pastor’s Council of the local congregation. My goals were (1) to provide a site for members of the Church of God to publically declare their considered opinion there should be no restrictions on women in ministry within the COG and (2) to provide a site for the distribution of resources to promote this cause.

My hopes were to create a list of people, including prominent leaders, who would declare their belief that women should be free to serve in any office of the church according to their gifts and callings and to use that list to motivate others to honestly consider the Biblical grounds for the view.

Creating the web site required more time and resources than I have had, but last week it dawned on me I could start the process as a Facebook group and develop the web site later. A website would allow for greater distribution of resources and better interaction, but it seemed urgent to get the process started. The current group can exchange ideas by posting comments on the “wall” or following a threaded discussion.

Members of the group are asked to affirm the following statement: "I have studied the role of women in the church as presented in the Scriptures and I have concluded there is no Biblical justification for restricting women from full participation in any office or rank of ministry within the Church of God."

I am committed to this cause for three reasons (1) my experience as a Pentecostal has taught me women are equally capable of serving in ministry offices but are often unjustly excluded from having a voice in the decisions, (2) my commitment to Christ compels me to encourage everyone to give their all in Christian service, and (3) it is Scripturally required of the church.

I grew up attending the Church of God (Cleveland, TN) during the 1950’s and 60’s. Although all of my pastors were men, we frequently had guest preachers and often they were women. As I experienced them, men preachers were more dynamic (translation: they ran, jumped and yelled a lot), but the women were more instructive and relational. At the risk of gross over simplification, men were more excited about serving God; women were more excited about knowing God. Men convinced me I needed to know God; Women convinced me I could know God.

In my church, women were often up front. They sang in the choir and they sang specials. They led programs like Vacation Bible School and when I was young they were my Sunday school teachers. Perhaps most impressive on my young mind was that women testified with a fervent passion for God. Testimonies were most often given on Sunday and Wednesday evenings and women gave the majority of these witnesses for Christ. It was clear to me at a very early age that the anointing that came on the fiery preachers also came on most of these women as they gave thanks for God’s miracle working power in their lives. The emphasis here is not on what they said, but how they said it. They spake with a holy unction. Other than living with my mother, no other voice convinced me more that God was real, present wherever I went, and concerned about the conditions of my life. Every quarter we had a Church Conference where everyone heard a financial report and participated in the business of the church.

Growing up in Florida, I didn’t see a lot of restrictions on women in the church. I know the restrictions existed; I just didn’t see them. When I entered high school we moved to Birmingham, Alabama where things were different. My mother quickly became a spiritual leader in the church; she taught adult Bible classes and became the Family Training Hour Director. But in Alabama the business of the church was conducted in Men’s Meetings. I had also become active in ministry, first teaching the Junior High class in Family Training Hour and then being given the High school class in Sunday school.

One day my mother asked me, “Jack, will you do something for me?” I asked her what and she continued, “Will you attend the Men’s Meetings at church? I don’t know anything that is going on and we don’t have Church Conferences here like we had in Jacksonville.” That request changed my life. Immediately I became aware of the injustice of a system that shut out of the business of the church one of its most trusted and faithful members, not to mention one of the largest tithe-payers.

At sixteen as a male member who taught Sunday school, I, a sincere but un-Spirit-filled Christian, had more authority than my Spirit-filled mother who held one of the highest ministry offices in the congregation, FTH Director. I had voice; I could vote on the business decisions of the church. I was proud to take my place as a “man” of the church, but I grieved the inequity of the system. That situation set me on a long quest to understand the role of women in the church. There were no easy answers. There were abundant examples of women in ministry in the Scriptures, but there were also those troubling texts about submission, obedience, and silence in the church. I concluded the answers were beyond my abilities and must lie ahead of me.

As a Pentecostal everything must be measured by the Scriptures, but the Scriptures were just not clear to me on this issue. My first answer to the question came not from Bible study but from encounter with the Holy Spirit. In February of my senior year of High School, when I was 17, I was filled with the Holy Spirit “with the initial evidence of speaking in tongues as the Spirit gives the utterance.” When I was twelve I had an experience of a “fluttering tongue” and was told by the evangelist and others I had received my Spirit baptism. It wasn’t long before I realized I was not walking in the fullness of the Spirit. How could I admit to that, especially after I started to teach in church? Spirit-baptism was a prerequisite for teaching.

Upon being truly filled with the Spirit I was consumed with the awareness that every child of God needed to be an evangelist and fulfill God’s purposes in their lives. My passion was for the lost and the question about women in the church was a question of the Spirit’s anointing to win the lost. For a season the question was answered; women must be encouraged to pursue the callings God placed on their lives. To resist the work of God in anyone’s life was to resist God. At 18 I became a Christian feminist. Ironically, the greatest obstacle for my going public was the then current attempt to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. I was uncertain of all of the implications of such a move. After all, I was the product of the Western culture – deep fried in Southern tradition. My mantra became, “I am not so concerned about women’s rights as I am about responsibilities. We need every child of God using all of their gifts and talents for the work of the Kingdom. That’s why I believe in ordaining women and letting them serve in any office they are gifted to serve in. The Scriptures are hard to understand on this issue and if we must ere, let us ere on the side of trusting the Spirit. He’ll show us if we are wrong.”

Two points need to be highlighted. First, I am the product of strong women, my mother and grandmothers (and a strong man). I married a strong woman, a fellow minister. Some have assumed she influenced me to become concerned with this issue. The truth is I gave her her first feminist book, “All We Are Meant to Be” by Scanzoni and Hardesty. I held these views, at least in incipient form, before I met her.

Second, I must confess that the theory of feminism is easier to profess than to practice especially in marriage. I have not been a perfect model of egalitarian practice. I have undergone a couple of conversions and need a few more.

As noted above, Pentecostals are driven to live their lives out of the Scriptures. The Spirit and the Word are one. Ministry demands we wrestle not only with our own questions, but also with the questions of others. And we must seek our answers from the Scriptures in a way that is consistent with the nature of the Scriptures. Only then will we nurture faith. Clarifying the role of women in the church became a perennial quest; or more accurately, explaining those “texts of terror” as they came to be known became a recurring theme of my ministry.

One trigger point for me was 1983 when I wrote a paper in my doctoral program titled “Authority and Power in the Administration of the Local Church.” That project focused what I already knew and made it annoyingly clear how hypocritical my church was when it came to women in the ministry. For example, a woman could serve as pastor and in that role was required to serve as chairperson of the Church and Pastor’s Council, but if she resigned as pastor she could not be elected to serve on that same council. Women could serve on and chair other boards and committees, but not that one special one. In that year I resolved I would not pastor a church that had a Church and Pastor’s Council, we would conduct all of our business in regular church conferences. With this renewed impetus and with Cheryl as a dialog partner I finally found a Scriptural approach to the issue. (In the near future I will begin a series on my views on a Scriptural response to the role of women in the church.)
About ten years ago I began to be increasingly and deeply troubled about the church’s confusing stance on women in the church. Pryor to that time it would be more accurate to say I was annoyed, embarrassed, or even frustrated. I would speak my views when the subject arose but I did little to initiate change other than to attempt to model my views as a pastor. I gained a reputation as one who encouraged women in ministry and I structured our local polity so that it empowers women to serve in any of the offices of the congregation.

At the Assembly of 2004 I saw an opportunity to act. I was a parliamentarian and so I was aware the agenda would probably be covered in time for items to be presented from the motions committee. I went to the Assembly with a motion to submit. In essence, my motion called for all offices and ranks of ministry to be opened to women. It was referred to committee for study with a report to be presented at the 2006 Assembly. That report was given but without opportunity for response. In 2008 the agenda included an item removing the restriction on women serving on the Church and Pastor’s council. It failed.

Following the 2004 Assembly I returned home with a sense of call to work for these needed changes. I led our congregation in a series of conferences on the subject. We passed a motion committing ourselves and our resources to promote the full inclusion of women in the offices and ministries of the Church of God. I confess; I dropped the ball. Time passed without our taking any action. I left the 08 Assembly deeply convicted for my past failure to act. The text that frequently reverberates in my mind is “And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men everywhere to repent” Acts 17:30.

It is time for us to address this issue. The Scriptures must be our guide. The question is what does the Word of God reveal about God’s desire for women in His Kingdom?

Stay Tuned.

2 comments:

Phil Hoover, Chicago said...

And as usual, a wonderful, provocative, insightful post.

I'll look forward to more of this subject....

Phil Hoover, Chicago said...

Maybe the Pentecostals could take a "cue" from their Nazarene friends....

The Church of the Nazarene elected a WOMAN as one of their six General Superintendents...

Imagine that..