Women in Ministry

During 19th and 20th Centuries

Margaret Towner, ordained in 1956 as the first constitutionally-approved woman minister in the UPCUSA or the PCUS.
Margaret Towner, ordained in 1956 as the first constitutionally-approved woman minister in the UPCUSA or the PCUS. Source: Monmouth Presbytery Clerks' Corner
In the Old Testament book of II Kings, Chapter 22, we have the story of King Josiah. He became king of Judah (the southern kingdom) when he was eight years old. At the age of 18 he ordered a major restoration of the Temple. In the midst of the rebuilding, the workmen found a book of the law and brought it to the King. Josiah needed someone who could interpret it to the nation. Josiah's religious leaders took the book to Huldah the Prophetess, Huldah was recognized as a woman who could interpret the law and declare the word of God. This is a clear example of an officially recognized public teaching ministry of a woman. Huldah along with Miriam the Singer and Deborah the Prophetess/Judge are examples of Old Testament women who had recognized and very public ministries.

The Old and New Testaments include many examples of women in ministry but the Church has long struggled with accepting women in public ministry. The problem has been that few women were recognized for their work. The pressure of the world to believe that all leadership should come from educated upper-class males has usually blinded the people of God to other ministries all around them. In world religious history, Jesus was unusual in that he recognized the questions and ministries of women and even encouraged children to speak to him.

When the Apostle Paul addressed the nature of the church in the Epistle to the Galatians he insisted that the church no longer should be guided by traditional social structures.

Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise.

Galatians 3:23-29

Paul teaches that we are all the children of God. This passage teaches that racial, ethnic, and gender distinctions have no place in the Church. This passage even goes farther and teaches that distinctions based on our worldly condition specifically slavery have no place in the church. Paul is introducing a revolutionary way of being in community. He is declaring that the work of Christ has given us equality. Unfortunately that equality has seldom been recognized within the church.

Most denominations have had in their histories periods when women were forbidden to have recognized public ministries. Many denominations still restrict the ministries of women. This restriction was (or is) usually based on I Timothy 2 in which the instruction was that a woman should not teach or have authority over a man. Many authorities understand this to be actually forbidding a woman from teaching her husband or having authority over her husband. However it is to be interpreted, it must be reconciled with Paul's teaching in Galatians 3. How could Paul state in one passage that there should be no distinctions and then in another passage insist on distinctions?

Kinds of Ministry

A. Lincoln showing Sojourner Truth the Bible presented by colored people of Baltimore, Executive Mansion, Washington, D.C., Oct. 29, 1864.
Sojourner Truth was a former slave who became internationally known for her preaching and lecturing. Abraham Lincoln invited her to the White House several times.
Library of Congress

Before we discuss the specifics of women in public ministry, we need to discuss a bit about the nature of ministry in the church. If we limit our definition of ministry to public teaching and preaching alone, we miss an important part of what God is doing in the world. There are many kinds of ministry. Some ministries are done in public in front of others and with a certain "glamour" and power. But these are far from the most common ministries.

All Christians are called to minister. A church or denomination may not recognize some less "glamorous" forms of ministry like maintaining a church building, changing light bulbs, or providing the food and drink that makes a church a place of hospitality, but that doesn't mean that those jobs are any less important to the ministry of God's people in the world. We believe that as Paul wrote in I Corinthians 12, there are many members in the body of Christ but it is always just one body. All of our work together allows the church to function.

Your ministry is doing the work you find yourself called to by God. All men and women in the church are called to minister. Part of what we hope to do in this class is to help you recognize some of what God is calling you to do in the Church.

Does It Really Matter

The big problem with the church's history of restricting public ministries to males is not that women didn't get to minister. They never quit ministering. The problem was that by refusing to recognize the public ministry of women, the church taught by example the very opposite of what Paul had been teaching in Galatians 3. Ultimately the insult of ignoring the public ministry of women was not only against the women who were called to serve but also against the principle that Jesus' life, death, and resurrection called for the transformation of all human social institutions as well as the transformation of each of our hearts.

It is impossible to separate our rejection of slavery with our rejection of limited gender roles. It is impossible to separate our rejection of racism and ethnic hatred from this passage in Galatians. Jesus' life and ministry were not just to redeem our hearts but to reconcile all the relationships of human life. Recognizing all forms of women's public ministries is a part of recognizing the scope of Jesus' work in the world.

Here is a short timeline of the important events in our denomination's recognition of women in ministry.


Female Union Society for the Promotion of Sabbath Schools formed


Formation of the first women's missionary societies


Elizabeth Cady Stanton (a Presbyterian) and Lucretia Mott (a Quaker) attended the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, which refused to seat women delegates


The historical marker of the Newbern Presbyterian Church, Newbern, Alabama, records, "Two women served on early Board of Elders contrary to Presbyterian Rules of Order."


Sojourner Truth, a freed slave woman preacher, toured the country. Responding to a man saying her sermons were no more than a flea bite, she said, "Maybe not, but the Lord willing, I'll keep you scratching."


PCUS (southern church) General Assembly changed the 1880 ruling that women could not speak in assemblies of both men and women


Lillian Herrick Chapman became first woman licensed to preach in PCUSA (northern church)


Women ordained as deacons, PCUSA (northern church)


Women ordained as elders, PCUSA (northern church)


Margaret Towner became first woman ordained as a minister of Word and Sacrament in PCUSA (northern church)


Requirement that all churches elect women as elders and deacons added to the Book of Order, UPCUSA (northern church)

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