In 1924, Ruth and Elizabeth Weidman — my great-aunt and grandmother, respectively — sailed from the U.S. for China. Like many Pentecostal women, they felt God had called and empowered them to share the gospel as missionaries. Other Pentecostal women felt a similar call and empowerment to minister in the United States.
This call to ministry was part and parcel of their baptism in the Holy Spirit, an empowerment for service promised by Jesus Christ in Acts 1:8 and first realized on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2:1–11. The apostle Peter interpreted the event of Pentecost as the fulfillment of God’s promise through the prophet Joel, “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy… Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy” (Acts 2:17,18, emphasis added; cf. Joel 2:28,29).
These passages, especially alongside Galatians 3:28, seem to equalize the ministries of men and women. Yet Pentecostals also read passages from Paul’s letters — 1 Corinthians 14:34 and 1 Timothy 2:11–15, especially — that appear to order hierarchically men’s and women’s ministries. (I would argue that this hierarchy is more apparent than real.)
Thus, even as hundreds of early Pentecostal women pioneered mission fields and planted churches, they often met resistance from men (typically) who felt the need to put them in their place by limiting their authority in the local church. My friend Joy Qualls explores this tension — between Pentecostal empowerment and hierarchical resistance, especially in the Assemblies of God — in her new book, God Forgive Us for Being Women.
She takes the book’s title from the exasperated complaint of Mae Eleanor Frey, an early Pentecostal evangelist affiliated with the AG. From 1914 to 1935, the Fellowship debated what level of credentials women could hold. In a 1928 letter to a national executive, Frey wrote: “At this last Council I felt like a criminal as they brought up this foolish woman question again …. One felt like asking God to forgive us for being women. There is nothing in the word of God that forbids a woman from preaching the Gospel or conducting a work.”
Qualls is a lifelong AG adherent and professor of communications at Biola University in La Mirada, California. Her book, a revision of her doctoral dissertation, explores how the Fellowship negotiated the tension between the Pentecostal rhetoric of empowerment and the hierarchical rhetoric of authority.
In 1935, the General Council settled this debate, at least in principle, by affirming that God’s call and empowerment to all levels of ministry are equal for men and women. In practice, however, as Qualls shows, there remains a gap between what we believe and how we behave. Though women can receive ordination to all ministry levels by the denomination, they often find the doors to leadership in the local church locked because of their sex.
God Forgive Us for Being Women occasionally makes for difficult reading. This is partly because of the academic tone of the writing, but mostly because it’s heartbreaking to see the challenges women have faced in their efforts to pursue God’s call on their lives. Dr. Jim Bradford, former general secretary of the Assemblies of God, recently preached a sermon that included this exhortation to women in the congregation: “You should never be in a place where men are putting you in your place.” After reading this book, I fervently hope that I never become that kind of man nor the Assemblies of God that kind of Fellowship.
Joy E. A. Qualls, God Forgive Us for Being Women: Rhetoric, Theology, and the Role of Women in the Pentecostal Tradition (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2018).
P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.
P.P.S. This is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission and will appear in the July-August 2018 print issue of Influence magazine.