I was a teenager when I preached my first sermon. The church was a small Pentecostal congregation in Mississippi, the pulpit was my father’s, and the text was Acts 2. It wasn’t a bad sermon; it barely had any time to be. The sermon ran hardly more than a few minutes, consisting mostly of half-baked exegesis and a few nervous jokes.
The purpose of this particular worship service was to “get the youth involved.” Some of us sang songs, some served as ushers. As the pastor’s son, I seemed a natural choice to preach the message. So I did. And, in the spirit of the occasion, I preached something like this: when God poured God’s Spirit upon the Church, all of God’s people, young and old, male and female, became empowered to preach the Gospel. The theme of the service being what it was, I focused on the former couplet, the young and old, rather than the latter (the male and female). The latter concerns me more now.
Every denomination and church tradition has its problems. I write this as my United Methodist brothers and sisters are in the midst of their assembly and I watch as many of friends, some on opposing sides of some debates, seem to duke it out on my social media streams. From my perspective, they seem to have the women’s ordination thing hammered out, but they still grapple with all sorts of issues within their tradition. They have their issues; we have ours.
Our problems just so happen to include women’s ordination. We do ordain women and have for a very long time, longer than some might expect. Yet, we have formulated a sort of official glass ceiling: we have three tiers to ordination and women may only arise to the second level. This third level, which we call “Ordained Bishop,” carries with it the ability to vote on decisions affecting the whole denomination. So, as is often the case, the church permits women to do the work but not make the decisions.
Yet, we see in this Spirit that poured out on Pentecost a life-giving Spirit that throws the tables around. The Spirit introduces chaos to what was orderly. This disruption of order is frightening; I often fear it myself. But in my heart I know that why I often greet order with such gladness is that the order often favors people who look a lot like me. The Spirit turns the world upside down so that nothing of what you are or were in the old world matters because a new world has come where we can truly say with Paul that “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:28).”
After all, the Spirit only does what Jesus did. Jesus invited women to learn from him. The Gospel was first delivered by a woman when Mary Magdalene proclaimed the news of Jesus’ resurrection to the disciples. Women have always played an important role in the work of Jesus. His church must now catch up to him.
Fortunately, the theology department of Lee University, the Church of God’s flagship university and my alma mater, released a statement in support of women reaching full ordination status on their Facebook page. That statement, posted on April 6, 2016, read as follows:
“The Department of Theology supports the full participation of women in all vocations of the church. We affirm that God the Father incorporates persons into the body of his Son Jesus Christ and pours out the Holy Spirit upon them without discriminating according to their sex. We affirm that God calls women to every activity, office, and level of ordination in the church. We both renounce any restrictions on the ministry of women based solely on their sex and commit ourselves to the removal of any such restrictions. Finally, we strive to provide a learning atmosphere in which women can find their voices and discern, understand, and pursue their many indispensable vocations.”
This is an encouraging step from an organization that is helping to shape the future of the denomination. Pentecostalism is about the Spirit speaking through whom the Spirit may. Historically, the poor and the working class have found their home in Pentecostal congregations. While many liberal churches talked about the poor, the poor actually gravitated towards Pentecostalism. As one theologian quipped, “Liberation Theology opted for the poor, the poor opted for Pentecostalism.” They knew that the subversive Spirit of God gave voice to those who would otherwise be voiceless.
Listening to some of the past discussions my denomination has held on women’s ordination, however, it is difficult to wonder if many of these men, having found authority in the one place that would allow them to have it, now see their power as something to cling to. Having secured for themselves the only place where they are not just working class white men, they cannot bring themselves to empty themselves of the power to share it. Instead of disrupting the order of the world, they simply have remade it with themselves on the top and others, including women, on the bottom.
Generally speaking, I am not a fan of the kinds of arguments that attempt to explain away the arguments of opponents rather than taking them seriously and at face value. Yet, there is a kind of anger and fear behind the arguments that do not seem to fit with the arguments they actually make. The arguments themselves consist of the flimsiest of reasoning that does not hold up to reasoning: 1 Timothy 3 doesn’t say a bishop must be a man. If we are attempting interpret this literally in the sense that they often mean it, it says they “must be a husband of one wife.” Do we need to enforce a rule that any bishop in our church must be married? If so, does that mean Paul himself could not be a bishop in our church? Perhaps something else is at work in this verse. Those making these arguments do not flesh them in out in this way, nor do they follow their reasoning in any sort of logical end. The arguments do not flow from reason; they flow from fear.
Pentecost is the time to remember that it is not our income, nor our gender, nor anything else that we possess that gives us authority in God’s kingdom. Authority comes from the Spirit of God poured out on Pentecost. God empowers the ones who receive Spirit to speak, to prophesy, to dream dreams. And for God’s church, it is time for us to listen.