Female leaders are on the rise in Protestant churches, from the Episcopal Church USA's election of its first female presiding bishop to the celebrity status of evangelical ministers such as Joyce Meyer and Paula White. In many Christian quarters, however, debate continues over appropriate roles for female ministers. While a recent book from theologian Wayne Grudem specifies limits for women in ministry, the latest offering from the professor, preacher, and activist Tony Campolo, Letters to a Young Evangelical, devotes a chapter to arguing for more robust leadership roles for Christian women.

In an interview with Beliefnet, Campolo explained why Jesus was a feminist, why women should be free to preach, and how his mother helped him understand the potential power of women in ministry.

What is your position on women preaching in the church, and how do you connect your position to the Bible?

Women have the same privileges and opportunities as men, given the New Testament. Relegating women to second-class citizenship was abolished when Jesus died on the cross. As it says in Galatians 3:28, “In Christ now there is neither bond nor free, Scythian nor Barbarian, male nor female; all are one in Christ Jesus.”

As far as women being in the pulpit, in the Book of Acts, you will find that Philip had three daughters who were preachers. The apostle Paul in the Book of Romans, the last chapter, the seventh verse, alludes to two people, Andronicus and Junia. Junia is a woman. And then, he refers to them as “fellow apostles,” which in the life of the early church was the highest position attainable in leadership and in preaching.

When they translated the NIV, the men changed the name Junia to Junias. [Editor's note: Read more about the centuries-old Junia/Junias debate.] They made it into a male name. When fundamentalists start changing the Bible to agree with their theology, they have to ask themselves some serious questions.

When the Holy Spirit falls upon the church on the day of Pentecost, Peter says, “This is what was spoken of by the prophet Joel when he said, ‘The day will come when the Holy Spirit comes upon His people, God’s people, and young men”--and then it says--“and young women shall prophesy, (i.e., shall preach).” There is a gift of the Holy Spirit that is given to both men and women in the New Testament. This is what makes the New Testament a New Testament rather than the Old Testament, in which women did not have such privileges.

In your book Letters to a Young Evangelical, you say that Jesus was a radical feminist. Could you go into that a little more?

There’s one instance that would validate that claim that Jesus was a radical feminist. It’s the story of Mary and Martha. He goes to visit the home of these two women. Martha takes her assigned role taking care of the kitchen, taking care of preparing food. Mary, on the other hand, decides to go and sit at the feet of the rabbi as only men were allowed to do in those days. Here is a woman breaking the social morés of the society, sitting, learning Torah from a rabbi with other men. Martha complains. At this point, Jesus says, “Martha, Mary has chosen the better thing to do.” Jesus is affirming a role for women that violates the prevailing morés of the day. What a radical thing to do. One other instance, and I could cite many, is when he goes to Samaria and meets this woman at the well. In the ancient days, women did not speak to men without their husbands being present. It was a violation of Jewish law. Jesus says, “Look, I don’t care about the law. Here is a woman that’s in need. I’m going to minister to her.” He speaks to her, person-to-person. He wants to affirm the equality of women and minister women just as he would minister to men.

Many evangelicals would cite verses from Timothy and Titus, scripture verses about women not being allowed to talk in the church.

I believe that the historians and the church fathers who wrote about these things are in agreement. Certain things happened in the early church. Women who had never had any freedom suddenly have the ability to stand up and speak and be treated as equals within the life of the church. Like most people who have been limited, who have been in a sense imprisoned and set free, there is a strong propensity to abuse that freedom and, indeed, that’s what happened. These women were abusing their freedom. They were standing up and they were lecturing their husbands about what was going on in their homes right in front of the whole congregation.

How do you deduce that?

The church fathers talked about this: Irenaeus, Chrysostom, Justin Martyr. Paul, in dealing with this whole situation, speaks rather specifically and says, “If you have anything to say to your husband, settle it at home. Don’t settle it here in church in front of the whole crowd.” There were peculiar situations in the early church that don’t apply in today’s world. For instance, that same passage in Timothy argues against women cutting their hair or wearing jewelry. And we say, “Ah, but that was dealing with particular circumstances in the ancient world, situations wherein women with cut hair and jewelry were looked upon as prostitutes. Times have changed.” Indeed they have. We’re dealing with a specific situation in Timothy, and we are to recognize it as such.

What is your response to the lists of men’s and women's church roles outlined in books like Countering the Claims of Evangelical Feminism?

I was appalled. You talk about an arbitrary decision. [Author Wayne] Grudem actually spells out, “Here are the things that men can do. Here are the things that women can do.” He has 20 things that women can do, 20 things that men can do. By what right does he make these fine differentiations, spelling out the roles of people without any authority to back up his claims whatsoever?

He holds firmly to what he considers the biblical distinction between the scene in Acts where Priscilla and Aquila talk privately about scripture, and then the verses in Timothy and Titus that say women should not speak or lead or have teaching authority in a big church setting. He distinguishes between a private situation and a church situation. 

That’s his conclusion. If he would go the scriptures he will find that a woman was one of the persons who taught Apollos, a man, things concerning the Holy Spirit. Most of my fundamentalist brothers and sisters--and I am an evangelical, so I can say most of my fundamentalist brothers and sisters--are quite willing to pack women off and send them as missionaries to dangerous places where they might get killed. They don’t mind them preaching overseas. They just don’t want them to be preaching in their own backyard. I think there’s a subtle racism implied in all of this, namely that white men can speak to white women, but white women can’t speak to white men. Yet white women can speak to black men or Asian men. Aren’t you, in fact, saying black men are inferior to white men?

Some evangelicals sincerely fear that women preaching and women’s ordination will muddle male-female roles and potentially drive men from the church. What’s your response to that?

If a man is so intimidated by a woman in a role of leadership, the man has a psychological problem that needs to be healed and cured. He needs counseling and he needs prayer. We can’t control women simply to cater to the insecurities of men who can’t handle this.

If a guy is intimidated by a woman in leadership, he has real problems with his own concepts of masculinity. That’s a harsh statement, but I believe it to be true.

When it comes to ordination, the Bible is clear that all Christians are ordained. The Book of Ephesians says that, when you are saved, you are saved for good works, which God has ordained for you from before the foundation of the Earth. Every Christian is ordained, not just men. I really go along with the great theologian, Elton Trueblood, who once said whether we’ve been theologically trained or whether or not we have vocations in the workaday world, all of us are ordained for ministry.

Many conservative evangelicals would say that throughout history men have usually been the leaders and preachers in the church. But in your book you say that evangelicalism has a heritage of women in ministry. Could you explain that?

The Salvation Army, from its very beginning in the early 1800s, had women in preaching roles. The wife of William Booth was very much a preacher. And in the community of the Salvation Army women are commonly preachers. The Assemblies of God have women preachers. They didn’t always, but they do now. If you were to get [Thomas] Cahill’s book, How the Irish Saved Civilization, you will find that, in the Middle Ages, women were often preachers and leaders of the contemporary church of that time. Monasteries and convents were not necessarily two separate entities. They were often in the same building and, very often, the head of the monastery/convent was a woman. [Revivalist] Charles Finney was the Billy Graham of the 1800s. When you came down the aisle and accepted Jesus as your personal savior at a Finney revival, he took you in the back room, where there were two tables, one table to sign up for the anti-slavery movement and the other for the feminist movement. When they took you in the back room, they didn’t give you a Gospel of John. You had to sign up for what he believed God was doing in the world at that time. And at that time, he saw that the great movements of God were the abolition of slavery and the liberation of women from their servitude.

The first meetings of the feminist movement, the Niagara Meetings, were held in northern New York. They were all held in churches under the influence of the Finney revivals.

We live in a strange day where we play word games. For instance, Billy Graham’s daughter, Mrs. Lotz, is a great preacher. Billy himself says she has the gift. She preaches to large groups, thousands of people, and men show up and get saved under her direction. But, because she’s in this fundamentalist community, she says, “Oh, I’m not preaching, I’m teaching.”

I can’t endure this kind of fine differentiation between preaching and teaching because, when I preach, I teach, and when I teach, I preach.

You’ve said that your mother had all the gifts of a preacher but wasn’t allowed to use them.

My mother was the greatest storyteller that’s every come down the pike. People often say, “Oh, you have such a gift for storytelling.” I learned it from my mother. My mother was an incredible communicator. In the last years of her life, she was hired by a Lutheran home for the elderly in New Jersey because she could get these elderly people together and enthrall [them] for hours as she told stories and talked about scripture.

The church was the poorer for having lost my mother’s gifts. The whole time my mother was growing up she constantly talked about the fact that, when she was a little girl, she wanted to go up and join the Pillar of Fire missionary movement. The Pillar of Fire was this little tiny denomination--hardly anybody’s ever heard of [it]. I could never understand why she wanted to do that, until I found out in her diary that she wanted to join the Pillar of Fire and leave the Baptist church because the Pillar of Fire allowed women to be preachers.

That hurt me, because I knew my mother wanted to be a preacher in addition to having the gifts. The Bible says that God gives gifts to people, and the Bible also makes it clear that we ought not to neglect the gift that is in us. If a woman has the gift of preaching, to neglect that gift is sinful. It’s as simple as that.

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