Women Ministers and the Church of God

Dale M. Coulter

At this previous General Assembly, a motion that would allow specially designated licensed women ministers to serve on the General Council was defeated. Because this motion changes the bylaws, it required a two-thirds majority vote. The motion failed in a split 50/50 vote. After this vote, many women ministers in the Church of God (hereafter CG) rightly expressed outrage and grief over the speeches made against the motion and the perceptions of women they heard from some of their fellow CG ministers.

There are two issues that I wish to address in this article. The first is what happened and the second is where we go from here.

What Happened? An Analysis of the Vote and the Debate

The speeches on the floor of the General Council contained several points that need to be unpacked.

First, some speeches explicitly pointed toward a slippery slope. If the CG allowed women to serve on the General Council, then it would move the denomination down the road toward liberalism, feminism, and the full affirmation of gay marriage. This argument has no basis in reality.

Slippery-slope arguments are historical. Sometimes we try to make them take on the force of logic by suggesting that one position logically entails another. If we do X, then Y must follow. History does not always work that way. For any slippery-slope argument to work, one must give historical precedents that show how one position has led historically to another. The more precedents the greater the probability. The problem is that virtually all historical precedents in Pentecostalism point in the opposite direction.

The International Foursquare Gospel Church has been ordaining women at all levels since its founding by Aimee Semple McPherson. There has been no drift into liberalism. The Assemblies of God and the International Pentecostal Holiness Church have been ordaining women at all levels for most of their existence and there has been no drift into liberalism. In fact, one of the foremost advocates against women in ministry, Wayne Grudem has admitted that Pentecostals are an exception to any drift into liberalism on the basis of ordaining women.

There is another problem with this argument. The CG has had women ministers at some level of ordination since its inception. Over the past four decades, it has tried to make its theology of ordination and leadership consistent with this commitment to women ministers. None of this has led to any liberalism. In fact, just the opposite has been the case.

Those who continue to talk about a slippery slope can only resort to false dichotomies and caricatures. This must stop. At some point, it becomes disingenuous.

Second, there were several appeals to what I would call arguments from cultural bias. These appeals were deeply offensive to women ministers. One person compared women to horses that needed to be corralled. Another person talked about women remaining in their place for their own good and protection. We usually refer to such prejudiced statements as sexism because they are rooted in stereotypes that have become normalized.

These arguments have nothing to do with scripture. They import secular stereotypes and cultural assumptions about women onto scripture. These biased views stem from a masculine mentality that fundamentally sees women as inferior. The distinction between ontological equality and functional subordination found in complementarian circles breaks down the moment a man compares women to horses.

Drawing a comparison to corralling horses is itself an example of a culture of male dominance rooted in false assumptions about women. One false assumption is that women are intellectually weaker because their physical biology develops differently. Another assumption is that if you allow women too much freedom they will take over and run things into the ground by gossiping, etc. This assumption is closely related to the false claim that women cannot handle the burden of leadership and thus must be protected by men.

Many of our beliefs about women stem from secular ways of thinking that are passed along through culture. It represents a toxic and hyper-masculinity. It breeds the kind of toxic environment that will not believe women who claim sexual harassment and abuse. This is exactly what has happened in the Southern Baptist Convention. Those who wish to deny this is prevalent in the CG need to go back and listen to the cultural arguments made at the General Council.

Third, appeals to scripture focused on the question of ordained bishops rather than the actual motion. As one speaker put it (and this speaker has made the point repeatedly in GC speeches), “This motion is just a back door into getting women to be ordained bishops. Once they get on the General Council, they will vote to make themselves ordained bishops.”

That claim was made alongside an appeal to 1 Timothy 2:8-15, in particular, 2:12 (“I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man”). The point is that the “real” issue is about women becoming ordained bishops, which is why an appeal is made to 1 Timothy.

The larger context makes it clear that Paul does not wish to exclude all women. One cannot equate wealthy women who wear gold, jewelry, expensive clothing, and have their hair braided with all women. Not all women in the first century could afford such things.

To treat this passage as excluding all women is akin to claiming that when Paul says “husband of one wife,” he means that only married men can be bishops (1 Tim. 3:2). Paul makes it clear in his first letter to the Corinthians that not only is he single, he wishes everyone could be single because it’s better to be single (1 Cor. 7:1-40). “Husband of one wife” cannot exclude single men any more than wealthy women excludes all women.

Is Paul contradicting himself when he lists the criterion “husband of one wife”? No. He is taking the situation in Ephesus as he finds it and establishing guidelines. The same is true for what he says in 1 Timothy 2. These are guidelines given the fact that wealthy women are disturbing worship in the house church in the same way that women prophets were disrupting the order in Corinth.

The biblical case supports women being ordained at all levels. Even for those unconvinced, however, all CG ministers must recognize that the official teaching of the denomination is that women can and should exercise all levels of leadership at the local church. Women can serve on the local church council and pastor the local church. Thus, it’s deeply inconsistent to turn around and say women cannot be on the General Council.

Where Do We Go From Here? The Next Steps

First, most CG ministers recognize that the denomination currently lives with a series of contradictions. Some CG ministers are fine with these contradictions because they are already out of alignment with official CG teachings on women ministers. Others recognize how problematic it is to say women can be pastors, serve on local church councils and denominational boards, and also vote as part of the General Assembly but they cannot serve on the General Council.

What has changed is that for the first time in the recent history of the denomination, we have a glimpse of what the global church thinks. The Global Forums and the surveys conducted through those forums revealed that the majority of CG members and ministers want to see women ordained at all levels. If the surveys had been votes at the General Assembly, women would be ordained bishops today.

In one floor speech, an ordained bishop wondered aloud how many times this issue would keep coming up on the agenda. It will never go away because the majority of the denomination wants it. Many CG leaders want it too.

Because of what we have discovered through the Global Forums, we should expect that this issue will be on future agendas. The new composition of the International Executive Council will increase this probability.

The real question is what form should it take. My own sense is that we should simply debate it out over women being ordained bishops. A motion to make women ordained bishops would only require a majority, which would be easier to get than a motion that required a change in the bylaws. It also is the case that any effort to place women on the General Council will be interpreted as an attempt to make them ordain bishops. The best way forward is simply to confront the issue of ordained bishops directly.

The International Executive Council could immediately call for a “virtual vote” by the entire denomination through a secure online site in concert with its authority to “act upon any and all matters pertaining to the general interest and welfare of the Church of God” (Minutes S5.III). While the virtual vote would not make women ordained bishops, it would send a strong signal for the next General Assembly.

Second, ordaining women as bishops is related to the issue of internationalizing the denomination. For too long the CG has functioned as a North-American denomination with a missions arm. With most members and ministers existing outside of North America, we need to begin to function like a global church rather than an American one.

We must move to internationalize the General Assembly. One of the disheartening aspects of the vote against the motion to allow women ministers to serve on the General Council is that roughly 500 men stopped it. Out of a denomination of over 7 million, 500 men were able to stop a motion that the majority of the denomination wanted. And, those men were able to do so because they happened to live in close enough geographical proximity to the General Assembly to be present.

As others have pointed out, we had a historically low turnout of ordained bishops for the General Council. At the most, there were around 1500 ordained bishops voting on the first day, which is down from previous General Assemblies by between 500 and 1500. By the second day, that number had dwindled to 1000. This is deeply troubling to me. It says that there are ordained bishops in the United States who simply do not think attending the General Council is worth the effort anymore. It also excludes most of the ordained bishops outside the United States.

We should establish multiple locations on different continents for the General Assembly. The CG divides its global constituency into “fields,” which are large regions over which it appoints field directors. There are currently five field directors. They essentially function as “archbishops” over Africa, Latin America, Asia, the Caribbean, and Europe and the Middle East. Within each global region, a city and a church could be selected for the site of the General Assembly in that region.

Ministers would travel to those locations where their credentials would be checked and confirmed. This would keep the intention of the Minutes that ordained bishops must be physically present at the General Council. We would define being present as being onsite at one of the locations.

The General Council is already live-streamed globally. All we would need to do is multicast it so that ordained bishops at every location could participate. Other denominations have already successfully implemented these procedures. This move would immediately increase the size of the General Council five times. It would ensure that no block of ordained bishops in a single region or country could maintain control and it would allow the international Church of God to speak on these issues.

If this happened, two things would occur. The first is that American culture wars would no longer be front and center as they have been. The second is that ordained bishops would actually witness what the global church wanted. My hunch is that this would mean women would be made ordained bishops given how many in Latin America and Asia want it to happen.

Finally, we witnessed something unprecedented at this recent General Assembly. We saw a group use social media and smartphone apps to build and sustain a voting block on several issues. This same group publicly identified itself and pro-actively began to shape the agenda. They effectively ran a political campaign with a coalition, endorsements, and mobilization efforts.

If this is the new reality for the GA, then It’s time to mobilize an international coalition that will serve as a counterbalance using all the tools available. As I said, it’s already clear that the majority of the denomination wants to see women ministering at all levels. For the majority, the biblical case has already been made. It’s time to assemble a coalition that will go in and vote to make it happen. This is what should drive us for the next two years.