On International Women’s Day: Why I can no longer defend the ministry of women in the church

I have defended the ministry of women in the church in public for a while now, including on this blog.

I don’t think I can do it any longer.

Not because of any lack of calling or gifting in their ministry, but because of a lack in mine.

Take Phoebe Palmer.

She began to be involved in leading a Bible study in New York around 1830. She soon received invitations to preach across the USA and in the UK. Something like 25 000 people were converted by her ministry.

25 000 people. Converted. Does that need defence? Really?

She visited prisons regularly, ran a society helping poor people in need of medical attention, and was involved in an ambitious project to challenge the new problem of urban poverty through the provision of low-cost housing, free schooling, and employment. She had a particular concern for orphans throughout her life.

Challenging injustice on a grand scale. Do you want me to defend that?

In The Promise of the Father, and 20-odd other books, she stressed the idea that God could and would give the blessing of holiness in an instant to a believer, and taught that holiness would be gained by faith. This teaching gave rise to the Holiness Movement, which by 1900 had changed the beliefs and practices of almost every evangelical church in America and Britain. Her ideas shaped the early Pentecostal movement, and the modern charismatic movement.

She formed the spirituality that formed me. She changed the world. Who am I to even think of defending her?

By any standards, she was one of the most powerful preachers, and most influential leaders, of nineteenth-century American evangelicalism.

For me to try to defend her ministry would be as ridiculous as a worm trying to defend a lion.

She did not often encounter criticism for presuming to preach as a woman, but eventually she wrote a defence of the ministry of women, The Promise of the Father (1859). She argued that it was a clear mark that the gift of the Holy Spirit had come that women as well as men could ‘prophesy’, which to her meant preach powerfully and evangelistically to spread the gospel.

In the face of so evident a work of the Spirit as was seen in her life, who am I to even consider the question of whether God had called her to preach? It would be offensive, presumptuous – approaching blasphemous – to even accept that the question can be asked.

And then there’s Catherine Booth. And Mary Dyer. And Catherine of Sienna. And Mother Julian. And Rose Clapham, all-but forgotten, whose first sermon, preached when she was 18, saw 700 miners converted to Christ.

Defend that? Why?

There’s a thousand stories like it. That I know. Ten thousand times ten thousand that have gone untold, no doubt.

And I think of women who I have the privilege to know, who I sit in awe of, some of whom graciously allow me to call them friends. If I could preach one tenth as powerfully or effectively as Ness Wilson, or Bev Murrill, or Miriam Swaffield, or if I had a tiny portion of the vision and capacity to inspire change of Cathy Madavan or Natalie Collins, or if I had some little echo of the pastoral wisdom and visible holiness of Pat Took or Ruth Goldbourne, or if I could even once in my life make something happen the way Wendy Beech-Ward or Ann Holt do every day – then I might think the question of whether these women are permitted by God to lead and preach was worth thinking about.

As it is, no. I can’t defend their ministries. I am not worthy to.

I will continue to fight sexism and bad teaching wherever I see it. I will continue to explain, as well as I can, the truth of Scripture, that it is a crucial mark of the Kingdom that God calls women and men indifferently to every ministry. I want to give more time in coming months and years to tracing the real harm that bad theologies of gender do. I might even write my big book on a theology of gender one of these years  (the story roughly runs: Augustine meets Judith Butler and they get on surprisingly well…).

But I’m not going to try to illuminate the sun.

And I’m not going to try to dampen the sea.

And I’m not, any longer, going to try to defend the ministry of women in the church.


UPDATE 10/3/13: If you like this post, or if you don’t, please read this:  Hannah makes important points. Steve.



  1. steve
    Mar 8, 2013

    [With sincere apologies to several wonderful people who will be very embarrassed to see their names in this post. But it’s all true.]

    • Catherine Shelley (@devesian)
      Mar 10, 2013

      Dear Steve, your post has just given me some very much-needed hope and incentive to carry on, having just emerged from a somewhat bruising and abortive job interview – where I am aware that some in the parish wanted ‘a married man, with a family’. Thank you and God Bless, Catherine

      • steve
        Mar 10, 2013

        Catherine – just, thank you for that encouragement. And my prayers for an appointment where they will value you for the gifts God has given you. Steve

    • Amy Reardon
      Mar 13, 2013

      Thank you so much for this post, which my husband found and shared with me. I just want to note that Phoebe Palmer was an American. In your essay it sounds as though she were British. I’m an American woman preacher—Salvation Army officer, in fact—and I take great pride in the fact that Palmer was American. (Not very holy of me, I suppose!) Interestingly, Catherine Booth’s famous booklet called Women in Ministry, which defended women in the pulpit, was written in response to public criticism of Palmer in English newspapers. You probably know that. 🙂 But I’m just adding this historical tidbit to the conversation.

      • Amy Reardon
        Mar 13, 2013

        Oops. Reread it. I see you have mention she was American. Sorry!

        • steve
          Mar 13, 2013

          Yes, trying to steal her for us! Booth’s booklet is fascinating isn’t it – I want one day to compare the two editions; people say she toned it down second time around…

    • Cynthia DeVita-Cochrane
      May 2, 2013

      Wow. Just wow. As a woman who has served (read struggled) in ministry or lay ministry positions since my college days I appreciate the supportive words more than I can adequately express. Even as I complete my PhD. this year, I still feel there is really no use for my giftings in the church. Thanks for inspiring me to ignore the naysayers and simply be about the Father’s work.

    • elizabeth quigg
      May 7, 2013

      1st Steve i’d like to commend you on your honesty on this relevant & important issue. As a woman who loves Jesus Christ it can be tough in this ‘mans’ world but through a very special woman (teacher/preacher) in my own life i have learnt to live equal to men .. to walk beside them not behind them 🙂 It was my privilege to have had Paster Bev Murrill as my mentor for more than 15yrs. Her unsurpassed love for God & her love for all people taught me to do the same 🙂 Although i could never say that my calling or even discipline in the word of God is anywhere near what Bev’s is, but i do love Jesus & i’ll proclame His love to anyone who’ll listen 🙂 At this point i’m coming out of a very dark, lonely place of wandering in the wilderness (i’ve been in it for far to long, i think they call it ”self-centred-ness ) but i can see light at the end of this tunnel so onward & upward i say. You seem like a wise soul & your ‘defense’ of woman in ministry, i would say, has not gone unnoticed. Again thank you for your honesty & for your love of all women who put themselves on the line every day for the Gospel & it’s truth of who Jesus Christ is to this world 🙂

  2. Martin
    Mar 8, 2013

    Brilliant post Steve – nice job pulling us in with the title! 🙂

    One comment though. I am always struck by just how much anger and disdain there is on both sides of the “women in leadership” question. (And, whether you feel it should be or not, it is a question.)

    I can understand why it is this way. I can only imagine how hurtful it must be to feel that other blogs/leaders/people are challenging issues that speak to the very core of our identity in terms of how we serve Jesus.

    But, acknowledging the reality of the depth of the issue, I just wonder whether it’s slightly unhelpful to raise the stakes with the “approaching blasphemous” comment? It felt like the kind of unhelpful (at best!) leap that others make when they say things like, “oh, they obviously just don’t believe the Bible.” Not true, not fair.

    While you may vehemently disagree with them, do you really want to suggest that many of your dear sisters and brothers-in-Christ are approaching blasphemy? Maybe so? If so, that saddens me.

    Again, thank you for the wonderful blog post. I didn’t know some of those you mention, and I intend to learn more about them.

  3. rebecca
    Mar 8, 2013

    Just seen this retweeted by baptist times. Amazing read full of brilliant points. Was a tad wary when I say the title but happily surprised at the content of the blog.

  4. Jo
    Mar 8, 2013

    Thank you for the humility and grace of what you have written and for standing with women everywhere who are called to ministry. Thank you for being a good brother to me and my fellow sisters in Christ. A simple but powerful use of words.

  5. Julie
    Mar 8, 2013

    Thank you!

  6. Stuart Pascall
    Mar 8, 2013

    Thanks Steve – a truth well expressed…….

  7. Catriona
    Mar 8, 2013

    Thank you.

  8. Dennis
    Mar 8, 2013

    Hi Steve,

    I thought this was a great article – thanks. One genuine question, though: how can you contextualise the New Testament teachings about women in leadership, but still hold to a literal reading of the verses about homosexuality?

    • Haydn Davies
      Mar 8, 2013

      Surely the issue of women in the bible is taken literaly: ‘Your sons and your DAUGHTERS shall prophesy…on my menservants and my MAIDservants …I will pour out my Spirit and they shall prophesy. (Acts 2.17-18 – quoting Joel 2)

    • Ian Paul
      Mar 9, 2013

      I don’t suppose Steve is doing this. All Scripture needs to be read in its context, and I believe that in doing so we find Scripture affirming the ministry of women and consistently affirming sexual unions as belonging in heterosexual marriage.

  9. EKMCronin
    Mar 8, 2013

    Thank you. I am obviously one of many people who will also be really grateful for you saying such humble words.

  10. Veronica Zundel
    Mar 8, 2013

    As friend of both Ruth Gouldbourne (who acts as ‘bishop’ for our little Mennonite congregation) and Ann Holt (whom I’ve known for 25+ years), I can only agree wholeheartedly! Some people think God needs defending – I don’t.

  11. Dianne Tidball
    Mar 8, 2013

    This is so heart warming and affirming. Tears are in the eyes. Brilliant.

  12. Malc Morgan
    Mar 8, 2013

    Sad this article had to be written! Anointed women of God need encouraged to push through! Go for gold!

    • Ian Chisnall
      Mar 8, 2013

      Amen! (or should that be Awomen!)

      • Ian Watkins
        Mar 9, 2013

        Probably should be Aperson 😉

  13. Tanya Marlow
    Mar 9, 2013

    Yes!! Thanks.

  14. Amanda Allchorn
    Mar 9, 2013

    Beautiful, moving & poetically written. I’ve shared this on FB Steve and by email to enable more women…and men to engage with this…thankyou

  15. Malcolm
    Mar 9, 2013

    Perhaps from now on – in light of sex abuse scandals and other corruption – you might like to turn to defending the role of MEN in ministry.

  16. Mathew
    Mar 9, 2013

    Hi, really enjoyed reading this, although I have believed that leadership is a calling of men, I am happy that I have read this. I have been seeking to understand the Scriptures and the Role of Women for some time now, My heart is all for the leadership of women I just cant seem to get past some of the passages of the Bible.
    But thank you, it is a weighty challenge indeed

  17. Patrick Mitchel
    Mar 9, 2013

    “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves”

    Thanks for a truly Christian reflection.

    Reblogging this

  18. Nina Nicolson
    Mar 9, 2013

    Many thanks from a female, Southern Baptist who grew up in Arkansas….

    God bless you!

  19. pedantic pete
    Mar 9, 2013

    Very powerful. I guess it’s a bit like Peter in Cornelius’s house – realising that if God had poured out His Spirit on these Gentiles, who was he to reject them? If the Holy Spirit has so anointed these women in their ministries, who are we to stand against them?

    • Murielle
      Mar 10, 2013

      Yes was blessed by this. I also find it hard to read the letters to Timotheus and seing though how God has so clearly called women I know, their ministry is so powerful I just has to be from God, if you see the Holy Spirit working through them… your example of Paul and the Gentiles is a little like I turned out to explain it to myself: when Jesus came, the Jews tried to respect the law as they had understood it, they tried to be strict on it, yet Jesus knew so much more of its depth and xould show them where they ad been mistaken… so sometimes we may think women should only be silent and sit down wheras when we see Jesus, we see how he allowed Mary to sit at his feet, his resurrection was witnessed by women first, a prophetess is spoken of in the Gospels…

      • steve
        Mar 10, 2013

        Murielle, there are good resources for understanding the Timothy passages – see some of Tom Wright’s articles on the Fulcrum website for example.

    • Jeanine Moss
      Apr 15, 2013

      I have found Acts 10 to be a very powerful passage in pointing out the process God used in guiding Peter through the acceptance of a “next step.” To name just a few — the creation of a willingness to desire something more than previously experienced, the use of His sovereign power to arrange for the fulfillment of what He has prompted us to desire, His choice of strong-willed Peter, how Peter was “softened” in that he stayed at the home of a tanner, etc. How many are saying,”Not so Lord! For I have never…” with regard to the idea of women in leadership?

  20. Bev Murrill
    Mar 10, 2013

    As ever Steve, a great article and one in which many people appreciate again your clarity of expression and the depth from which you speak. Long may you live and be an advocate for the causes of the Lord.

  21. Christopher Hall
    Mar 10, 2013

    To add to your list the Rev Florence Li-Tim Oi, the first Anglican woman priest. Visit http://www.ittakesonewoman.org/public/litimoi_story.php
    In 1984, 40 years after her priesting, she was invited to Lambeth Palace to meet Archbishop Robert Runcie, then unconvinced whether women should be ordained. After meeting her, he told the Canadian Archbishop Ted Scott: “Who am I to say whom God can or cannot call ?” ‘It Takes ONE Woman’ to change the thinking of the Church.

    • steve
      Mar 10, 2013

      Thanks! Not come across Florence before; I’m working on a resource retelling some stories of great female leaders of the church, and will certainly follow up on her.

  22. David Atkinson
    Mar 10, 2013

    Steve, all I can say is thank you!

  23. steve
    Mar 10, 2013

    Please read this, if you like this post; Hannah makes a vital point: http://hannahswithinbank.com/on-why-i-still-need-you-to-defend-me/

    • Jenni Entrican
      Mar 14, 2013

      I’m not a quick responder. I need to take time … and I’ve mulled over this blog since I read it last weekend, and I’ve come back to it because it wouldn’t let me go. And I’m so glad I did because I read Hannah’s post which says eloquently what I have been thinking. As a women in ministry in Britain, connecting with other women, and living with the reality, that despite some great male colleagues, there are more than enough of those who not only don’t get it, and there is plenty of pain out there, and I do need you, as she says “to pull your weight on this …. because you have more weight than me.” So I appreciate what you’ve written and I appreciate more your commitment – unpacked a little more in your response to her post – to continue to ‘throw your weight around’! Thanks.

  24. Ed Huntley
    Mar 11, 2013

    Couldn’t agree more. Nothing in the NT to prevent women priests. God is using women mightily in leadership in the church. If He didn’t want them, He wouldn’t have blessed them and their ministry. People use the bible to reinforce their own fears and prejudices unfortunately.

  25. Tina Lockett
    Mar 12, 2013

    Your post was sent to me by a colleague, Dr. Wesley Hill. What you wrote is a breath of fresh air. Thank you! If you are looking for more resources, check Christians for Biblical Equality http://www.cbeinternational.org/.

    the Rev. Tina Lockett
    Trinity School for Ministry
    Ambridge, PA, United States

    • steve
      Mar 12, 2013

      Tina, thanks for taking the trouble to comment. Wes and I have only met a couple of times, but I respect him enormously. Yes, I am a member of CBE, and love what they do.

  26. Mimi Haddad
    Mar 12, 2013

    Thank you for your tribute honoring the courageous and godly leadership of women whose legacy should stand, truly, on its own. Your words were as humble as they were true. May they also inspire equal humility, thankfulness, and a bold commitment to support the gifts of women leaders also serving Christ, boldly, around our world. Thank you! Mimi Haddad, president of Christians for Biblical Equality, http://www.cbeinternational.org

    • steve
      Mar 12, 2013

      Mimi, you and your colleagues have done far more than I can dream of doing in aid of this cause, for which I am profoundly grateful, but thank you for noticing my contribution, little though it is.

  27. Paula
    Mar 12, 2013

    For those who have expressed seeing a degree of conflict between the evidence for gifted women in ministry and what scripture seems to say, I humbly offer an in-depth study and also commentary which might help:

  28. Maiya
    Mar 13, 2013

    Hi, Steve. Thanks for your very thought-provoking post, as well as your link to Hannah’s post, which I also read & thought was excellent. You both make such excellent points. Like you, I feel the issue of woman’s ordination should be a non-issue. The contributions of women pastors should speak for themselves, but as Hannah pointed out, too often their contributions are overshadowed, minimized & otherwise unheralded. Consider also that as pastors, we are called to defend the gospel, reflect the Light of the ‘World, and otherwise share our faith. None of us are actually “worthy” to do so, but we fight the good fight anyway by the grace of God. Even as a woman pastor, I haven’t really seen woman’s ordination as “my” issue. There are enough people who need ministering to who don’t care whether God’s love is shared with them by a man or a woman. But Hannah’s post made me reconsider. Men & women need to stand together so we may better & more powerfully minister to those who need to hear & experience the gospel. Too many gifts & energy has been spent fighting over who’s allowed to do what while people are literally dying to be saved.

  29. Kathleen Langridge
    Mar 13, 2013

    Thank you, Steve. 16 years ago God led me out of America to England and set me free to preach and teach. Unlike many of my sisters I did not have the strength or support to stay in my own country and fight the good fight. I am now in Latvia, a country that resists women in the pulpit. I am an observer, looking for opportunities and waiting on God learning His ways of grace. Your words give great encouragement.

  30. Patti Williams
    Mar 13, 2013

    Nice piece!

    As a former woman clergy member and current professor at a Baptist College in the U.S., I find it interesting to see that this was written by a Baptist colleague across the pond. In the conservative U.S. south, women are not embraced in ministry. In fact, our campus minister is a woman but she is not allowed to preach in our weekly chapel services because she is female. She can organize Bible studies and outreach ministry but is not allowed to formally deliver the Word of God. This simply makes me cringe as I know that God uses women mightily.

    Thanks for the perspective of “not” defending women preachers!

  31. Michelle Thomasson
    Mar 13, 2013

    Happily uplifting, thank you for this post!

    Thinking on 2nd letter John verses 1-6, how can anyone keep a good lady down and prevent what is commanded 🙂

  32. Steve Martin
    Mar 17, 2013

    God is so much bigger than needing His Word to be only carried by someone with the proper genitalia.

    Nice post!


  33. Lauren
    Mar 19, 2013

    I really appreciate the sentiment of this post – Steve is right, it’s ridiculous to have to defend the ministry of women. But I also appreciate the follow up with the second article. The issue is really that we women in ministry don’t have the option of not defending ourselves. We have to. In a million ways every day we’re belittled and dismissed and undermined, and we can’t avoid it. Our male advocates have the choice of saying, “this is ridiculous, it should be obvious, I’m stopping.” But we don’t. So if you’re really going to advocate for women, don’t stop defending us – step in when we’re dismissed or overlooked or neglected, and sit with us when we’re exhausted by having to constantly defend a ministry that should be obvious. Your presence and persistence is what we really want.

  34. Hannah
    Apr 19, 2013

    Hi Steve,
    Thank you for articulating this so well. Christians for Biblical Equality is interested in potentially re-posting this material for our online e-newsletter, possibly in conjunction with Hannah’s response. To see our publication, visit: http://www.cbeinternational.org/?q=content/arise-e-newsletter
    If this would interest you (either in full form or somewhat edited) please email me (or if my email is not visible, reply to this comment).
    Thank you.

  35. Xana McCauley
    Apr 21, 2013

    Thank you from Johannesburg South Africa. We need men standing alongside us – please don’t stop defending us. Here the different ‘cultures’ are blamed; matriarchal cultures are blown out of proportion and with greater horror than patriarchal ones; if women are outspoken we are seen as disrespectful and aggressive; if we are not outspoken we are seen as sweet, gracious and knowing ‘our place’. Giving up is often a temptation to me but I will not succumb to it. These blogs give us hope and encouragement.

    • steve
      Apr 21, 2013

      Thanks, Xana. I’m conscious how little I know about the way these issues play beyond the little US-UK cultural circles I move in. Thank you for some insight.

  36. Alfredus Magnus
    May 3, 2013

    Steve: Great comments. Here’s a Catholic perspective: Would the horrendous child abuse and its ongoing criminal cover up have occurred in the Catholic Church had there been women bishops? I think not. Ironic that this happened in a church which so honors Mary as the Mother of our Lord and has had such great women leaders, Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, etc.

    Here’s one reason why. Although some of us rely on the essential equality of men and women to defend full women’s ministries, I suggest that more is at stake. While their ministries vis a vis men are often the same (preaching for example), women bring different charisms, different gifts, to ministry and I suspect to church administration as well. The Church is impoverished when She excludes half of God’s gifts, something Christ went out of his way to avoid. In His earthly ministry, He relied heavily on women apostles and teachers. We should do the same.

    It’s God’s will for the Church.


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