Women in Pentecostalism: Prophets or Priests?

By: Wolfgang Vondey
Tuesday, September 6th, 2011

The gender paradox in Pentecostalism is no secret. There are many more women in the movement than men, and yet women are not allowed into visible positions of authority (you can reverse this paradox). To put it differently: While Pentecostalism maintains to be an egalitarian movement, women are only as equal as men allow. Some would say it differently again: female Pentecostals can be in any position of authority they want as long as it does not include authority over men. What is wrong with this picture?

The literature on the gender divide in Pentecostalism is large albeit still new. We can certainly blame the neglect of the Pentecostal gender paradox by the social sciences (both the neglect of women and the neglect of Pentecostalism). We can also blame the predominance of theories that silence women’s experiences and marginalize women (not only among Pentecostals). We can also blame a fundamentalist reading of Scripture that purportedly justifies male authority and the submission of women, especially in the church. But these blatant issues are not constituting the paradox. How is it that Pentecostalism is a religious movement largely made up of women, when women are not allowed into visible positions of authority?

I suspect that it has to do with an undeveloped ecclesiology among Pentecostals (and this may include an undeveloped anthropology). The charismatic movement in the mainline churches finds its own problems in the often uncritical adoption of hierarchical (read: patriarchal) patterns of the mother church. For some reason, charismatic manifestations do not seem to challenge institutional structures. Classical Pentecostals, on the other hand, have falsely adopted the Protestant idea of the “priesthood of all believers” in addition to a more genuinely Pentecostal notion of the “prophethood of believers.” (Roger Stronstad has long warned that the Protestant paradigm is ill-fitting for Pentecostals). I have elsewhere suggested that Pentecostalism should not be confused with Protestantism. More so, however, Cheryl Bridges Johns has frequently lamented that the gender divide in Pentecostal leadership is to be blamed on the dominance of the priestly image of ministry and a restricted image of prophethood. She sees an abundance of “priestly pentecostalism” characterized by a male dominated hierarchy and institutionalism while women are placed in the position of prophetic pentecostals that co-exist with the priesthood albeit without challenging the patriarchal authority. I think Johns is on to something that needs further development.

There are to my knowledge no studies on the juxtaposition of priesthood and prophethood in Pentecostalism. If Stronstad is correct, then Pentecostals traded their prophetic heritage and calling for a Protestant mindset of the priesthood that is ill-fitting and misleading. Certainly there is the image of the church as a royal priesthood, and I would not insist as harshly as Stronstad on the false choice made by Pentecostals. I do concur, however, that the prophetic dimension of Pentecostalism has suffered since the beginnings of the modern movement. Evidence to the latter can be found frequently and with particular intensity in regions like Latin America and North America, where the patriarchal heritage and male dominated image is still strong. The emphasis on women as prophets instead of priests is coupled with the relegation of women’s authority to the household instead of the church. The prophetic gift has consequently moved to the family (where it encounters other obstacles). In the Pentecostal churches, prophecy holds no significant ecclesiastical authority. And that is the crux of the matter: the idea and office of the priest has been severed from the image and anointing of the prophet. I am talking strictly in terms of leadership structures here. The barring of women as prophetesses from the priestly office has backfired in ways I am not competent enough to analyze at this time. Certainly a blog is not the place for such analysis. But this is the place to call attention to such matters, especially in light of the ongoing heated discussions in general assemblies among many Pentecostal denominations. I believe these discussions will go nowhere quickly unless we face the theological problem of juxtaposing priesthood and prophethood in Pentecostal churches. A more developed anthropology and ecclesiology might indicate that men and women are called and equipped to be both prophets and priests. At least in my reading of Scripture, prophets and priests are not mutually exclusive. In the very least they coexist in the exercise of authority among the people of God. In the Spirit-filled church, they should be one and the same.

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Wolfgang Vondey
This entry was posted by on Tuesday, September 6th, 2011 at 10:11 am and is filed under Church Ministry, Leadership, Theology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

7 Responses to “Women in Pentecostalism: Prophets or Priests?”

  1. Cheryl Bridges Johns says:

    Wolfgang, I believe you are correct in noting the need for more robust anthropology and ecclesiology within the Pentecostal movement. Until then, women will continue to be trapped within the matrix of confusion over their ontological status as priests and prophets.

    • Thanks for your time, Cheryl. It is your voice that has brought out the identity of the gender paradox as a tension between priesthood and prophethood. Watch out for my forthcoming book, “Pentecostalism: A Guide for the Perplexed” (London: Continuum, 2012). I discuss the issues of gender and race in a chapter on egalitarianism and institutionalization among Pentecostals.

  2. Candace Laughinghouse says:

    Up until last year, I committed my life to the gender issue in the Pentecostal church. I gave special attention to the powerful, yet non-authoritative role of women in the black Pentecostal church.

    Your blog brings up the issue of women being relegated/limited to the role of prophet(ess). This leaves the authority of the priesthood to be restricted to men in the body of Christ. I wonder if there is more to it than the Pentecostal movement being underdeveloped ecclesiology and anthropology.

    I’m not sure what term we would apply here, but the same “talking points” to justify the sexism in the church (especially the black church) is that God created man to be head of the household. For me, I see the issue to be the convenience of patriarchal reading of Paul’s initial intent to explain the lifestyle of being a Christian with the Roman household codes to those he was preaching to. Whenever I present Scriptural evidence of women in leadership, let alone the woman as the first apostle of Jesus Christ (Mary Magdalene), the conversation is reverted to Christ being the head of the church as man is the head of woman, etc. Then the connection is drawn to the man being the head of the household and therefore NO woman could ever lead in God’s house – the church. I guess my question is when did “man” become the head of God’s house? I would think God is the head of God’s house. And the other question I ask is how does their interpretation of Scripture apply to single women. Are they uncovered because they are not married? Of course, some “underdeveloped” Christians would agree to that statement. But overall, I find the Pentecostal church relying a whole lot on the household codes of Paul and less on the example of Jesus. I might be wrong….

    • Hi Candace. Thank you for your comment. I would imagine that you are not alone. I would direct you to an excellent collection of essays in a recent book called “Philip’s Daughters: Women in Pentecostal-Charismatic Leadership” edited by Estrelda Alexander and Amos Yong. I especially recommend the final essay by Frederick Ware. You may find some answers here.

    • michael muoki says:

      Hi, thanks for this great insight.
      I am beginning my PhD, Thesis and I want to work on Gender Relations in Urban African Pentecostalism and their impact on their impact in ecclesiological formation. I am green in this field and i find your discussion very healthy. can you give me some more tips and the key issues to check on, maybe some works to read or so. you can email me @ mikewas@hotmail.co.uk
      thank you

  3. Don Quijote says:

    Dulcinea wasn’t a pentecostal.

    “pentecostalism is the best! pentecostalism is the best! we give women freedom, while those others do not.”

    why do we keep turning moves of God into denominations?

    Isreal wanted a king.

    Don Quijote fought for no king; rather, for dulcinea, For Her, for the most beautiful woman in the world. And by doing that “for the least of these” he accomplished it for all of woman.

  4. Will Winn ('87) says:

    I have always thought that a study/curriculum needs to be developed that may be entitled:

    “Christian Woman: In Adam or In Christ; In Singleness or in Marriage; In Church Ministry and Gifting; In Church Leadership”

    It has always seemed to me that much of the preaching and teaching tries to apply the “in marriage” situation for Christian women to the other segments of women in today’s Church.