Over the last few weeks I’ve been dissecting the 1890 Free Methodist General Conference debate about ordaining women. While we’ve read some wonderful defenses of women in ministry, it’s important to also look at the critics. Many of the arguments made in the 1890s are still being made today, which, frankly, doesn’t give me much hope that the issues surrounding gender roles in the church will be resolved anytime soon. However, we must continue to persevere and push people to rethink their opinions about gender. As Donald Dayton, a Wesleyan theologian, notes in his book Discovering an Evangelical Heritage, “The same twists of history which have obscured the Evangelical sources of abolitionism have also hidden the early Evangelical commitment to feminist principles.” (p. 85) Dayton notes that any objections evangelicals had to progressive social practices, such as ordaining women, were largely based in cultural conditioning of Christianity – not in understand derived from Biblical faith. This cultural conditioning is prevalent in the rhetoric of the critics at the 1890 conference.
Owen – “I contend that the word helpmeet does not mean equality; it simply means a helper. I am not to stand here on this floor to prove to this body that woman is not in many respects the superior of man, but my contention is that God designed that man should be the leader and ruler, and just as the word says, ‘Woman shall be a helpmeet unto him.’ We have a President in the United States and a vice-president, and no one would content that the vice-president was equal in authority to the President. He is simply a helper in official matters.” (p.125)
B.T. Roberts, in his opening statement for the discussion, notes that Phoebe, mentioned in Romans 16:1 as either a servant or deaconess in the English translation of the Bible. However, Roberts notes that this comes back to social conditioning by the English translators. In fact Roberts argues that Phoebe was as much an ordained minister as Paul. Paul only designates himself an elder of the church, a term used to refer to Phoebe as well. However, as the debate heats up Biblical translation becomes a cornerstone of the oppositions’ arguments.
Vincent – “The whole day so far, has been spent on a mere supposition, and that is briefly comprehended in this, that Phoebe was a deacon in the church, which has been proven quite to the contrary. To introduce this change, is assuming too much at this time. The history of the past warrants me in saying the church has survived, and under God, accomplished much without this arrangement [ordaining women] so unwarranted. And why now, to gratify a few restless spirits among us, make this departure?” (pp. 130-131)
Superintendent W.T. Hogg’s closing remarks on the debate: “It is evident that marriage itself, to woman, is ordinarily a disqualification for the duties of the Christian ministry, and it is equally evident from the Scriptures, that in all ordinary cases the marriage relation is enjoined upon both men and women. If the marriage relation is ordinarily a disqualification for ordination to the ministry, to what class of women shall the right of ordination be accorded, if accorded at all? Certainly prudence, common sense and scripture assure us that young women are especially enjoined by scripture to ‘marry, bear children, guide their house and give none occasion to the adversary to speak reproachful.’ Any arrangement that tends to interfere with this pre-ordained plan of God is certainly without divine warrant.” (p.132)
Hogg’s position in the 1890 debate was of the leader of the oppositional party. Howard Snyder in his book Populist Saints notes that Hogg was gaining influence as a popular pastor in the New York Genesee Conference. Early on at the conference he introduced a restrictive resolution that made more than a majority vote at annual conferences and general conference necessary to ordain women. Before Hogg’s resolution a simple majority vote at general conference would have been enough to pass the resolution ordaining women. The support for Hogg’s resolution came down to the belief that The Discipline must be changed to include women’s ordination. Whereas Robert argued that a 2/3 majority vote was not necessary because since ordaining women was not restricted in The Discipline there was no need to add or change the document. Thus, through technicalities the ordination of women in the Free Methodist church was put on hold until the 1970s.
Before moving on to other topics, I want to spend one more week giving voice to the women delegates who spoke passionately for the ordination of women. The 1890 General Conference was the first conference to seat women delegates, and their voices provide a passionate, spiritual and eloquent response to why women should be given the right to be ordained.
All critics quotes were taken from the book Passion of the Founders, Ed. By Gerald Coates for the Marston Historical Society.