I set down the phone, dropped my face in my hands and slowly let the tears fall.
As my husband sat nearby, holding our baby boy, he waited for me to settle down enough to explain. A year before, I had felt the Lord’s call on my heart to become a senior pastor. Following months of communicating with districts around the country, I had finally interviewed. The leadership of the church had been enthusiastic toward me, and - even as the voices of some were raised questioning the validity of having a female pastor - my responses seemed well received. Several people told me they expected favorable congregational vote. After the vote, however, those questioning voices had carried enough weight to turn down my opportunity to come as their pastor. The apologetic phone call informing me of the decision left me heartbroken and confused.
In a holiness denomination that has ordained women since its inception, how could women be refused the opportunity to fulfill their call simply because of their gender? And from a broader perspective, what is it in the soul of the Church that seems inclined to deny the full equality of men and women?
Can the call to a life of holiness speak to the work of feminism?
Are they two contrasting theories, or might they relate to each other?
Simply defined, feminism is “the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes.” Looking through theological and biblical lenses, we could add “religious” to the categories of equality advocated by feminism. In a variety of cultures, this term has taken on negative connotations. Within religious circles including some areas of Christianity, feminism is often assumed to have specific political agendas, and is quickly written off as being irrelevant and even oppositional to a life of Christian faith. The work of feminism is then something to be ignored, if not opposed.
And yet, how can we ignore the difficult realities of inequality that lead to oppression? Examples abound from the whole spectrum of global cultures: sex trafficking, female genital mutilation, “honor” killings, early marriage, prohibition of mobility, limited education, and prohibition of property ownership. In some of these cultures, men use Scripture itself as justification for oppression. At its most foundational level, feminism seeks to free women from oppressive practices and to move toward equality and mutuality of the sexes.
Feminism in Wesleyan-Holiness History
Women in John Wesley’s England (1703-1791) faced oppression that seems nearly unfathomable in many developed nations today. Unable to own property, be formally educated, or professionally employed, women were completely dependent upon their fathers or husbands for their livelihood. However, Wesley’s mother, Susanna, had a profound impact on him. Despite her own society depriving her of a formal education, she educated all of her children in several languages, including the language of the Holy Spirit. Her theology is evident in the legacy left through Charles and John, as well as her other sons and daughters. Specifically, she encouraged John to empower women to minister alongside of men as leaders, and he did to a great degree.
During the lifetime of Phineas Bresee (1838-1915), the feminist movement - though it wasn’t called that yet - began to experience progress. More countries began allowing women to receive a formal education, develop vocations, and to some extent to own property. Somewhat of a contemporary to Bresee, Phoebe Palmer (1807-1874) did the work of a feminist in calling for all people, men and women, to seek the experience of entire sanctification. As part of this experience, people were exhorted to testify publicly. This was perhaps one of the most marked areas where the holiness movement empowered women, as now they were being encouraged to speak in public. The movement sought to include and to empower all people, even and especially those on whom society looked down. In this sense, holiness and feminism shared similar work of empowerment and inclusion. Bresee continued this empowerment in his ministry. At the prodding of a women’s prayer group, he assisted them in opening—and later became president of—a school that welcomed men and women equally. It eventually became known as Point Loma Nazarene University, an institution representing the equality of the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition.
Theological and Biblical Reflections on Holiness and Feminism
One of the things I love most about the doctrine of holiness is its relentless commitment to God’s Love being the ultimate power that overcomes sin, and this isn’t something we have to wait to experience at the second coming. It is a claim and hope we can hold to now! The Love that was present and working at creation, that journeyed with God’s people through their desert wanderings, and that filled the believers at Pentecost is the same Love that seeks to empower us today. When Christ came to earth and took on human flesh, he came to die for our sins, but not only that! He came to show us how to live! His life of holiness shows us how we can live holy lives. As we look at biblical and theological themes in holiness, it is not difficult to see ways where holiness and feminism mirror the same ideas and goals.
In our pursuit of holiness, we seek God’s power—available to us through the gift and grace of the Holy Spirit—to help us live lives in the image of God. When God created people, the story in Genesis tells us they were created after the image of God. The Hebrew word adam used in Genesis 1:27 is best translated “humankind” or “humanity,” so it would read, “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female, he created them.” All people have been created in God’s image. In that same creation account, God blessed both the man and woman; God gave them both the mandate of overseeing the earth. And as they were both created in God’s image, there was no hierarchy in the marriage relationship originally created by God. Some theological perspectives focus on the fallenness of humanity that takes place in Genesis 3 (which describes a hierarchical marriage as part of a curse). These perspectives believe people will be controlled and dominated by their sinful nature for all of life on earth. But the perspective guiding Wesleyan-Holiness theology proclaims our call to allow the Holy Spirit’s power to restore us to God’s image, as we were created in the beginning.
Another interesting perspective to glean from men and women being made in God’s image is the way God’s character reflects both masculine and feminine traits. The God portrayed in a masculine way as a shepherd in Psalm 23 is further imaged in Psalm 22:9-10a as a midwife attending a birth. Yahweh who is called “Father” in Isaiah 64:8 is also described in Isaiah 66:13 as a mother who comforts her child. While God is not male or female, but a transcendent Spirit with no physical body, Scripture uses metaphors of both genders to portray God’s image to us.
The deeper we look into the theology of sanctification, the more we see the work of the Spirit empowering people through love to be reflections of the image of God. It is a theology that includes the mutuality of all persons. The work of feminism seeks similar avenues of mutuality between men and women. As we follow the call to be restored in holiness to the image of God, we are not just sanctified as individuals but as the Body of Christ, called to submit mutually to one another out of reverence for Christ.
In these relationships of unity through holiness, all people are recognized equally.
We all are in need of God’s grace. We all are invited to live holy lives of redemption and restoration. We all are to exercise the gifts given to us by the Holy Spirit. We all are called to minister within the holy priesthood of believers. We all have equal value before God in this: all are invited to receive the grace of sanctification through the power of the Spirit.
What heartbreaking news that phone call brought as I tried to obey the call to pastoral ministry. Just months later, my phone rang again inviting me back to that same church. Eventually, a second vote took place, this time inviting me to be their pastor. In the months and years that have followed, the empowerment of love brought through God’s Spirit has broken down walls of bias and bitterness. Holy love has transformed hearts and lives in the church and reached outside the church. What a magnificent reflection of the redemptive power of God’s love!
As the empowering work of holiness and feminism continue to come together, may the image of God reflected in the face of the Church be a transforming power that brings the world to know the perfect love of our Lord!
Editor's Note: This essay is part of the Renovating Holiness project. Rev. Deanna Hayden lives in Raytown, MO, with her husband Ben, and their two children Josiah and Hannah, where she is the Lead Pastor at Southwood Church of the Nazarene. Born and raised in San Diego, she also spent time living and teaching in South Korea before moving to Kansas City and becoming an ordained elder in the Church of the Nazarene. She loves culture and coffee shops, being silly with her family, and serving the Lord in the never-dull adventure of life in ministry!