Thesis

Theological and Hermeneutical Considerations Regarding Female Empowerment Within Early North American Pentecostalism A Dissertation Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts (With Post-Submission Edits)

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  • Christ for the Nations Institute
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Abstract

Early North American Pentecostals allowed women to engage in a wide spectrum of spiritual leadership activities, including the public preaching and teaching of Scripture when men were present in the audience. My review of all of their extant newspapers (1906-1908) led me to conclude that the right of women to minister in these ways was so widely considered to be a desirable and godly form of praxis that the authors and editors of these journals did not feel any particular need to defend or explain their position. This was the result of several factors: First, experiential evidence of the Holy Spirit’s sovereign gifting carried tremendous weight as Pentecostals evaluated all manner of manifestations and issues, including questions pertaining to biblically appropriate female empowerment. Second, understanding the mechanics of embodied Spirit fulness and gifting as something more akin to actual Spirit possession than to mere Spirit influence confirmed and strengthened Early North American Pentecostal belief that God had clearly chosen to empower women for ministry functions. Third, the initial perception of gender-inclusive xenolalia as a God-given means for missionaries to overcome linguistic barriers to the communication of the Gospel was taken as added proof that women could be called to preach. Fourth, the widespread conviction that the Pentecostal movement was the fulfillment of Joel’s end-time prophecy pre- disposed early North American Pentecostals towards gender-inclusive ministry and provided them with an identity framework that linked all of the above factors together in a synergistic relationship. These realities were undergirded by a pneumatologically-centered hermeneutical method that accorded great value to legitimate spiritual experience, both externally in the acts of God in human history and internally through supernatural illumination of the human mind and spirit during the consideration of the biblical text. The pattern within the early North American Pentecostal newspapers and the interpretive models advanced by both Archer and Thomas parallel the approach taken by the Early Church in its evangelistic efforts and are supremely biblical. Simply put, the faith of the first Christian disciples and the Gospel they preached were grounded in historical events rather than in concepts or ideas. At its heart were the narratives of human experience connected to the birth, life, ministry, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. These experiential testimonies carried such weight in early Christian thinking that it caused them to reevaluate and, in some instances, totally change the way they viewed the Hebrew Scriptures. They wrote the New Testament in order to document, understand, defend, and ultimately communicate these experiential truths. Since their faith flowed out of and rested upon a foundation of experience, it is not surprising that experience also weighed heavily in their hermeneutical thought processes, including during the Council at Jerusalem. Similarly, when the earliest North American Pentecostals became convinced that the risen Christ was deliberately and actively pouring out the Holy Spirit upon them, distributing gifts as a function of His divine prerogative, this profoundly informed the way they viewed and interpreted the Scriptures relative to the question of women in ministry and leadership.

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The issue of religious authority is one of the main reasons why women have been allowed to participate in Pentecostal churches, and why they have been limited. Women are granted access to ministering authority, but not governing authority. Charles Barfoot and Gerald Sheppard have noted the presence of these two types of authority to be operative within Pentecostalism and have associated them with Max Weber's typology of prophet and priest. However, in their attempt to describe the history of Pentecostal women in ministry with these categories, Barfoot and Sheppard present the paradigm as one of displacement rather than coexistence. The result is a problematic and misleading account of Pentecostal women in ministry. However, the issue is not Weber's categories, but how they employ them. The purpose of this article is to utilize the distinction between prophet and priest to differentiate between two types of ecclesial functions and their concomitant religious authority, rather than to differentiate between two periods of Pentecostalism. A brief history of Pentecostal women in ministry is presented, wherein examples are offered of how women in the Church of God, the Church of God in Christ, the Assemblies of God, and the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel operated in the prophetic realms with a ministering authority, but were largely prohibited from the priestly realms and its ruling authority. As these examples demonstrate, the history of Pentecostal women in ministry is told best when the simultaneous existence of the prophetic and priestly functions are recognized, and ministering authority and ruling authority are connected to these two functions.
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