Throwback Thursday: Ordaining Women Bishops to the Ministry – A Discussion on Church of God General Assembly, Nashville 2016

Throwback Thursday: Ordaining Women Bishops to the Ministry – A Discussion on Church of God General Assembly, Nashville 2016

Church of God General Assembly, Nashville 2016
“….all ordained ministers 25 years of age and older and ordained bishops…”

Rationale: “This motion seeks to affirm the value of a new generation of ministers by giving them voice and vote in shaping the future mission, vision, and core values of the Church of God. It also expands the International General Council to include ordained women, whose anointed insights and spiritual discernment are much needed in addressing the growing complexity of fulfilling the Great Commission….”


2010 Open Letter


One item that was not fully resolved at the 2012 General Assembly Agenda in Orlando was WOMEN in MINISTRY. Item 15 expressed a general desire to permit women to be fully represented in all roles within the church. It was NOT a gender issue, but rather a leadership one – an issue of ministry and of responsibility, if you will. Coming from a long line of women ministers in the churches, one cannot be impartial to the issues involved in this item. As Bishop Nick Park wrote:

The removal of these outdated and senseless gender restrictions, in my opinion, makes such obvious good sense that there’s not much more I can say on the subject.  Needless to say, I will be voting for this item, even though it comes about 100 years too late!


Another concern of mine is that the entire process of the Church of God International General Assembly is male dominated. One sister, a credentialed minister attending General Assembly for the first time this session, told me that she’d never before fully realized the significance of the current Church of God policy of not allowing women to be bishops. Something about seeing all of those men bunched together down on the General Council floor with the women scattered around the edges on the other side of the short curtained barrier drives home the dividing wall between us. Having Rev. Barnett preach to the General Assembly probably speaks volumes about the fervent desire of the Church of God to find ways to include female ministers at the highest levels. I wholeheartedly applaud this action. However, such measures must not minimize our continuing commitment to free our women to serve without imposing unfair restrictions…. An authentically Pentecostal ecclesiology affirms the divine calling and employs the spiritual gifts of all the members of the body, and the whole body is better off because of it.

Dr. Kenneth J. Archer: A Pentecostal egalitarian view of humanity does not diminish, dilute, or demote maleness or femaleness but instead properly elevates both to mutual dignity, honor and love through mutual submission and service as individual followers of Jesus properly image the Social Trinity relationally in community.

Dr. Donald Dayton: “This church hosted the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention of 1848 (which first called for women’s suffrage), participated in the ordination of Congregationalist Antoinette Brown, the first woman to be ordained (founder Luther Lee preached the ordination sermon) and originally founded Wheaton College-though in recent years the church has been identified as a “holiness church” and since then has been incorporated into the fundamentalist/evangelical tradition.”

Lee Theology Department Statement on… Women in Ministry | “Statement on Women in Ministry”
“The Department of Theology supports the full participation of women in all vocations of the church. We affirm that God the Father incorporates persons into the body of his Son Jesus Christ and pours out the Holy Spirit upon them without discriminating according to their sex. We affirm that God calls women to every activity, office, and level of ordination in the church. We both renounce any restrictions on the ministry of women based solely on their sex and commit ourselves to the removal of any such restrictions. Finally, we strive to provide a learning atmosphere in which women can find their voices and discern, understand, and pursue their many indispensable vocations.”

Christopher Stephenson Before I begin, I want to stress that the following comments are my own. I make no attempt to speak on behalf of any of my departmental colleagues. The Statement speaks for the Department; I now speak only for myself. Thank you to everyone who read the statement. That is the sole reason that I shared it–for it to be read. I see little value in crafting a statement like this if no one knows that it exists. The Statement was adopted by the Department of Theology–not any other department(s), not the entire School of Religion, not Lee as an institution. If the Statement frustrates you, please do not spread your frustration around to others unnecessarily. : ) It is a Department of Theology Statement. This is a theological issue. The Statement neither mentions by name nor is directed to any single denomination or church tradition, including the Church of God. To assume that the statement relates only to the Church of God is to assume that the Church of God is the only church tradition with which the Department is concerned. That would be to assume too much. Such restrictions are undesirable in every church tradition in which they exist, not only the Church of God. At the same time, I choose to believe that the leaders of the Church of God value the insights of the professional theologians at one of its premier academic institutions. While the Statement is not directed to these leaders, I hope that it can somehow be of benefit to them. Perhaps it could encourage those who agree with it and give those who do not agree something to consider further. The Statement speaks about the Department, its stance on this issue, and its commitment to try to bring change. It neither makes demands of anyone else nor calls upon anyone else to do anything nor criticizes anyone for anything done or not done on this front to this point. To the extent that the Statement does apply to the Church of God–for it is one of the churches with such restrictions–the Statement is not a stance against the Church of God but a stance *from within it.* There are twelve full-time members of the Department. By my count: 
–Ten regularly attend a local Church of God congregation–I am one of them. –Nine are members of the Church of God–I am one of them. –Six are credentialed Church of God ministers–I am one of them. (And my monthly reports are up to date. : ) –Five are ordained bishops–I am one of them. (There would be one more if she were eligible!) –One is a career missionary, married to a Church of God national/regional overseer.

“Renounce”–to reject something publicly–is the right word. I publicly reject the idea that these restrictions are adequate or desirable. With respect to the Church of God, the primary restriction in question is a matter of *polity,* not *doctrine.* It does not occur in the Declaration of Faith, Doctrinal Commitments, or Practical Commitments, but rather in the descriptions of the ministerial rank “ordained bishop.”

The International Executive Council, International General Council, and International General Assembly “renounce” aspects of Church of God polity every two years by proposing changes to it. Implicit in the mere creation of an agenda for the International General Council is a rejection of the idea that the polity is already perfect and that revisions do not need to be considered. The Statement renounces restrictions, not persons. It says nothing about the intellect, character, or sincerity of persons who support such restrictions. It refers only to the restrictions themselves.

The Statement does not indicate a refusal to abide by the restrictions as long as they are in place–as if anyone had the ability to “ordain women as bishops anyway” in spite of the restrictions. Of course, I abide by the restrictions. Yet, in the same breath I immediately say that I want the restrictions to disappear completely because they are not funded by what I consider to be the best theological insights on the matter. Remember from the 2014 General Assembly that I am required only to “adhere to” not necessarily “agree with” all matters of polity. : )

Anyone who might feel that renouncing this small set of restrictions amounts to renouncing the Church of God as a movement per se has a significantly narrower view than my own of the essence and significance of the Church of God, which could not possibly be exhausted by any single matter of polity such as this. I do not assume that my own experiences are universal, but most of the young people among the best and brightest in the Church of God with whom I have contact see these kinds of restrictions as an incentive to leave rather than an incentive to stay. Just one more reason that I want the restrictions to disappear yesterday.

As far as the timing of the Statement, the Department finalized it about a month ago. I did not investigate whether it had been publicized elsewhere before I shared it here, but I waited to share it here as long as I did because, frankly, I did not want to prompt some of the kinds of responses in the thread during Lent. I know that this is a contentious issue for some, and there are better ways to prepare to celebrate the Paschal Mystery than contention. I recall no mention whatsoever in our departmental conversations of any attempt to influence anything that may or may not be discussed at the 2016 General Assembly. As for myself, I submitted a formal request for the removal of the ordained bishop restriction to be placed on the 2016 agenda, in response to the International Executive Council’s invitation to make such requests. I hope that we have the opportunity to consider it in Nashville.

While I was typing most of these words, my older daughter (age four) awoke from sleep and came to where I was typing because she had not seen me all day due to my teaching responsibilities. As I hugged her tightly, I cried and prayed that she would have the strength to be faithful to the Church of God and that she would not grow up in a church that keeps her at arm’s length as it currently does her mother, who, along with me, has found the strength to be faithful to the Church of God anyway. I am a fifth-generation member of the Church of God, and I want both of my daughters to be the sixth.

Again, thank you to everyone who took the time to read the Statement. Please remember that this post is my own thoughts. To the extent that they pertain to the Church of God, they are grounded in my commitment to the Church of God. The fact that I want to see change is a sign of my engagement with and concern for the Church of God. I believe that critical commitment is more valuable than apathy or complacency. The Church of God and the Department of Theology need each other, and both are better together than they could ever be if they were apart.

Dr. Skip Jenkins Thanks to everyone who has read the Department of Theology’s (DoT) recently posted statement on women in ministry; I have appreciated reading the responses on the board.

That statement, which was crafted over a month ago during a department meeting wherein all full-time, ranked faculty of the DoT were present, was a revised version of a statement the DoT had adopted back in the fall of 2007. This revision was approved by the DoT on March 03, 2016—without dissenting voice—and it comes at the END of an intentional, three semester engagement with this issue among ourselves, our students and leaders in the Church of God, Lee’s sponsoring denomination. It started with a three part symposium on Women and Authority in the Church back in the Fall 2014. The first symposium investigated the role of women in the New Testament church, the church after the apostles and the medieval church. What we found was an ebb and flow within the history of the church regarding the ministerial freedom or restriction placed on women; that is, in some periods and in some places there were women who had official positions like men. In other places, not so much. The second symposium considered the question for the contemporary church, but was not limited to the Church of God because (a) the student constituency of Lee University spans multiple denominations and (b) the students being trained in the School of Religion are not solely from the Church of God (take, for instance, our Pentecostal students from the Assemblies of God: their denomination has NO restrictions on the ordination of women nor the positions they might hold in the denomination. In fact, a woman sits on the committee that is similar to the COG’s Council of 18!) Our third symposium that semester was specific to the Church of God, and the panel that night consisted of two denominational leaders and a full professor from the COG’s Pentecostal Theological Seminary.

I think that I need to spend a moment to talk about that third symposium because the panel spoke about the ebb and flow of women’s authority, position and credentialing in the COG. A series of decisions were made from 1909-1925 that increasingly circumscribed the role of women, delimiting their functions within the church, specifically in governance AND “sacerdotal” functions (that is, performance of baptisms, communion, marriages, etc). Prior to 1925 women were allowed to do water baptisms, communion, marriages, etc—even if it was not normative—but the 1925 General Assembly (GA) decided to remove “sacerdotal rights” from women’s ministerial duties. This decision was attributed to the influence of A.J. Tomlinson, who was considered the “pastor of the church” as the general overseer. Around 1940, the COG changed the wording of its levels of credentialing so that only men could be called “licensed ministers,” and only licensed and ordained ministers could perform the sacerdotal functions. It remained this way until 1990, when women were permitted to attain the level of “licensed minister,” and thus once again were authorized by the church to perform the ordinances and officiate weddings, but they could not become an “ordained minister.” What did not come out in that symposium or the Q&A following it was this: a) 1992, women were granted the right to speak on the GA floor; (b) 2000, a call was made “from the field” to alter the wording of the credentials such that the second level, licensed minister, became an ordained minister and the third level became ordained bishop, this latter level women were not permitted to attain; (c) 2006, women began to be officially appointed as missionaries rather than simply acting under the “covering” of a husband; (d) 2010, the GA decided women could serve on Pastor’s Councils, which since the 1960s had been limited to only males; (e) and finally, in 2011, Emma Sue Web was appointed as a district overseer in California by the state overseer!

Now, back to the main narrative of the DoT’s three semester engagement on this issue. In November 2015, the SOR invited Sandra Kay Williams to be the keynote speaker at our Homecoming Alum breakfast. In that speech, she told her story (and those of other women she knows) of ministerial marginalization because of womanhood, and she pleaded for a revisiting of the polity that restricts women to full credentialing in the COG. Not 30 minutes later, after a lengthy Skype interview with Margaret Gaines, a long-time COG missionary and this year’s recipient of the SOR’s Alum of the Year award, I—along with over 100 other people—watched as the General Overseer of the COG publicly apologized to Margaret for the way the denomination treated her (and at times hampered her ability to minister). It was a righteous moment, and one that I will never forget—it was when I knew that this denomination was being led by a holy person, Mark Williams.

The construction of the statement was placed on the DoT’s agenda in January 2016, but was tabled until March because of other, institutional responsibilities that took the entirety of the January and February meetings. The delay in its posting to the DoT’s FB page was a miscommunication between me and the department secretary—there was no other reason for its tardiness, nor was there some strategic plan for its posting “on that day.” Now, some responses to the statement see us as “drawing battle lines,” or “being at odds” with the denomination, or even as “renouncing the bible.” Truthfully, those kinds of posts surprised me. First, while I admit that the word “renounce” may sound harsh, we meant it in the strictest, grammatical sense of the word, namely, to reject something publicly. Since statements of the type we posted are often formulated with concise wording, we chose a word (renounce) that could be elongated to this idea: “we announce in public that the DoT rejects, as biblically or theologically necessary, the restrictions still placed on women’s credentialing or judicial functions.” Chris Thomas, an ordained bishop in the COG and a professor at the Pentecostal Theological Seminary, published an essay in the book, Toward a Pentecostal Theology of Preaching (chp 6), in which he explored the biblical texts surrounding this topic, determining that restrictions on women are not biblically necessary. My own colleague in the DoT wrote an essay in that same book wherein she argued that being “Made in the Image of God (Gen 1:26-27),” coupled with Acts 2 and the Day of Pentecost, provide a theological justification for women preachers and the removal of all credentialing restrictions. Thus, our “renouncing” of restrictions is not a rejection of the bible nor its authority in our lives or its foundational place in our theology.

Secondly, we posted a “statement,” not a declaration or a resolution. So, rather than imagine ourselves as “drawing battle lines” for war, we were engaging in a conversation. Think about this: a true conversation between people only occurs when a series of statements are made that illicit response and dialogue. The DoT is talking, we are discussing; we publicized this to invite more conversation partners and to move our talking outside the “ivory tower” of the academic environment. What surprised me the most was the supposition from some respondents that GA decisions are inviolable and unalterable, and therefore undiscussable. But this is not the impression that I get when I read the Minutes of the first few GAs. They did not see themselves as setting up laws that were timelessly binding because only Christ was the Law Giver who had such authority. Rather, they gathered to interpret and apply scriptures in their current, historical setting under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In fact, a motto of those first GAs was, “Walk in the Light as Light is shed on our path.” Early on, Tomlinson would say things like, “This is what we have done in the past, now let’s see if there is new light from the Holy Spirit for our present.” The idea was this: it is the church’s responsibility to continually return to its judicial or governing decisions to make sure that the Holy Spirit did not have something “new” to say to the Body.

Thirdly, insofar as the above is correct, the DoT does not see itself as “at odds” with the denomination. Our loyalty to the COG does not prohibit us from discussing issues. The faculty of the DoT are indeed loyal to the COG—the Statement is not a stance against the Church of God but a stance from within it. There are twelve full-time members of the Department, ten of whom regularly attend a local Church of God congregation—I am one of them. Nine are members of the Church of God—I am one of them. Six are credentialed Church of God ministers (I am not one of those because the TN board required my wife to be interviewed before I could be credentialed, but she refused to be interviewed because she was not going to subject herself to interrogation by a board that would not ordain her). Five are ordained bishops, and one of us is a career missionary, married to a Church of God national/regional overseer. We love this church, and we work to train students to minister within this church we so dearly love.

I am a fourth generation COG Pentecostal. My great-grandMOTHER was a founding member and first pastor of the Sandy Valley COG in Ohio (she was removed from the position when a man wanted the job, even though the church wanted her to remain pastor!). My great-grandfather was one of 13 charter members of the Canton Temple COG, in which church I was dedicated as a baby by Raymond Crowley—former General Overseer of the COG, and by which church I was sent off into ministry in April 1990. I went to Duke Divinity school after graduating Lee in 1994. At Duke I was forced to intellectually defend my Pentecostal heritage and practice (at least one time receiving a lower grade because of my refusal to recant my belief in the Holy Spirit’s continuing empowerment and present revelation to the church and Christians). And now I spend my days teaching, defending and modeling my Pentecostal spirituality and theology to hundreds of men and women in my classes each week at Lee University. And my DoT colleagues are no different than me, even if their personal stories are not identical to mine. Further, our disagreement over this polity issue is certainly not the same as a rejection of the theological commitments contained in the COG’s declaration of faith, which each of us subscribe to. In fact, 2.5 years ago the DoT sponsored a special service on Baptism in the Spirit where over 90 students came forward for prayer to receive the baptism (view the service at ), 2 years ago we had a special healing service (view the service at ), last semester we had a special service on the end times (view at ); plus, in the summer of 2015 we had a special service dedicated to sanctification and the pursuit of holiness, and this semester we had a breakfast and prayer service for those seeking spiritual gifts (over 50 students were present, at least half of them were NOT COG).

We are a faithful bunch who love the Lord, are dedicated to prayer and searching the scriptures, and who seek the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit each day for ourselves, our students and our denomination. Come and meet us; let us meet you, and let’s see what the Holy Spirit will do among us!

With all this in mind, should ITEM 15 be revisited in 2018?
How do you think it will benefit the church worldwide?

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