Walter Sellew’s Why Not? Is it Really a Defense of Women’s Ministry?

Walter Sellew, author of Why Not? A Peal for Those Women God Has Called to Preach the Gospel. Sellew was also a long-serving Free Methodist bishop in the later 1880s and early 1900s.

Cementing Women’s Ministry Roles

From 1911-1974 Free Methodist women who entered ministry had three approved tracks: evangelist, deaconess, or deacon. While these ministry paths opened numerous doors at the local level, decisions at the denominational level still primarily excluded women, as they could only be elected as lay delegates to general conferences. The result was that decisions affecting the entire denomination were still decided mainly by men. Since men could be selected as both lay and ministerial delegates to general conferences, it was almost guaranteed that more men would secure delegate spots and maintain the majority vote for denominational decisions.

Leaders such as Free Methodist Bishop Walter Sellew argued that male dominance in church governance was what women wanted. In his pamphlet, Why Not? A Plea for Those Women God Has Called to Preach the Gospel Sellew acknowledged women were the majority of members in local societies but contended women “willingly delegates her power” to men. Sellew explained that only when a suitable man could not be found would women step up as an annual or general conference delegate.[i]

Why Not? Not a Radical Defense of Gender Equality in Ministry

Why Not? was first published in 1894 and again in 1914 with a new forward. In the book, Sellew is very clear that he supports women in ministry. Still, women’s ordination should stop at the level of a deacon, as he saw no Biblical precedent to ordain them as elders.

Sellew’s views on women in ministry reflect changing rhetorical tactics denominational leaders took in the years following Roberts’ death. The debate varies from whether women can serve in ministry to what level of power women should be given within the denomination. There was an intentional effort to restrict women to secondary ministry roles that would leave governance in the hands of their male contemporaries.

As a bishop, Sellew had tremendous influence. Why Not? was promoted to readers of The Free Methodist as an essential book for those wishing to understand women’s role in ministry. Years ago, when I first skimmed, Why Not? I thought it was somewhat comparable to Roberts’ book Ordaining Women. Both men were Free Methodists who advocated for women’s inclusion in ministry. However, as I sat down to work on my book and chronicled what happened at the 1907 and 1911 General Conference, I took a closer look at Why Not? and realized Sellew’s arguments are actually counter to what Roberts was proposing in Ordaining Women.

Unlike Roberts, Sellew makes no attempt in Why Not? to establish a Biblical precedent for complete gender equality. In fact, Sellew dismisses such concerns. Citing the strict guidelines for those serving as district elder or bishop, Sellew rejects worries about women’s lack of access to those roles. “Any person with ambitions for authority would be very much dissatisfied with these positions.” [2] Sellew never directly addresses why he believes Biblical ordination does not mean an individual also has a right to be an elder. Still, he does wonder why ordination as an elder matters so much to women:

She now has in our church all such openings she needs and more than she uses. Ordination for women is not asked for her benefit but for the benefit of the church. She can as, heretofore, get on very well without it; but the time has come when the church demands it both for the thing itself and for the consistency of our position before the world and before God. [3]

The inconsistency of his arguments was lost on Sellew. Still, the difference between his interpretation of women’s ministry roles and Roberts’ is stark. In Ordaining Women, Roberts laid out an argument for complete Biblical equality and social equality for women. While he acknowledged that church elders govern, Roberts did not believe there was a Biblical precedent limiting the ordination of elders by gender. Citing passages in Acts where women work alongside men in the Apostolic Church, both serving equally in governance and in preaching,[4] Roberts bluntly stated:

The church has no right to forbid the free exercise of abilities to do good which God has given. To do so is usurpation and tyranny. Men had better busy themselves in building up the temple of God, instead employing their time in pushing from the scaffold their sisters, who are both able and willing to work with them side by side. [5]

Regarding Sellew’s objection that women have no desire to govern and are satisfied picking qualified men to fill governance positions, Roberts argued that the ability to recognize the character of others is precisely why women are fit to govern in the church. Good leaders are good judges of character, and good leaders know when to delegate authority. [6]

Ordaining Women: Gender Equality in ALL Areas of Life

Additionally, Ordaining Women took a very different interpretation of a deaconess’s role than Free Methodist leadership at the 1907 General Conference. Unlike the Free Methodist Discipline, which noted that a deaconess does not preach and is not to be seen as a substitute for a minister, Roberts provided New Testament examples where deacon and deaconess are used. Arguing that a deaconess is simply a female deacon with no distinction in duties, he summarized the modern church’s interpretation of a deaconess as only a lay worker:

It is giving a stone to those who called for bread. It is conferring a shadow and withholding the substance; its bestowing a name and keeping back that which is implied in the name. In short it is a stupendous sham, of which any body of men claiming common honesty should be ashamed. It is an insult to womankind and should be resented by them as such. [7]

Roberts argued that limiting the main ministry of a deaconess order to service was a disgrace. “Why give to the deacons the dignity and to the deaconess the drudgery?” The difference between the two roles was a differentiation based on sex alone. [8]

I have a feeling if Roberts had lived to attend the 1907 General Conference, he would have been very opposed to the establishment of the deaconess order, as it was nothing more than a way to place women into a secondary ministry role that involved some of the most challenging types of ministry —hospital care, nursing the sick, taking care of orphans, etc.


[1] Benjamin Titus Roberts, Ordaining Women, (Rochester, NY: Earnest Christian Publishing House, 1891).

[2]   Sellew, Why Not? 11.

[3]  Ibid, 12.

[4]  Roberts, Ordaining Women, 139-141.

[5] Ibid, 148-149.

[6]  Ibid, 108-110.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

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