Evangelical, Wesleyan, Egalitarian
I guess it is a paradigm shift for a lot of people but, the fact is that the Methodist acceptance of women in ministry was well ahead of the modern, secular feminist movement — and is, in that sense, unrelated to it! The more radical, Bible-thumping, revivalistic branches of the Wesleyan movement accepted the idea of women in ministry long before the official acceptance of this by the United Methodist Church.
As proof I offer this passage from Binney's Theological Compend Improved (1874): "Woman's Sphere in the Church."
This early egalitarian attitude toward gender & women in ministry is characteristic of the Wesleyan tradition and should be seen as part of the fruit of a progressive-revelation perspective on the Scriptures. The rejection of the practice of slavery by John Wesley and the earliest Methodists is another.
There is really a difference in how Scripture functions in Wesleyan theology as contrasted with other perspectives.
In a recent article on the Church of the Nazarene's Holiness Today site, Al Truesdale (emeritus professor of philosophy of religion and Christian ethics at Nazarene Theological Seminary) writes about "Why Wesleyans Aren’t Fundamentalists.” He says that the fundamentalist approach is to see the content Scripture's revelation as divinely revealed information: thus, the emphasis on inerracy. Wesleyans tend to see the content of Scripture's revelation as God Himself: it is an invitation into a relationship with the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ through the Scriptures.
In addition, Wesleyans have always had a respect for the progressive nature of God's revelation in Scripture. The Scriptures reveal moral principles that reflect the character of God. These are being worked out progressively through time, and the changes in human cultures.
Thus opposition to slavery was to John Wesley and Adam Clarke and other early methodists (not to mention William Wilberforce, of course) a no-brainer. People are created in God's image. Christ died for all, therefore God values all. They shouldn't be treated as property. End of issue.
A similar hermeneutic is at work among the methodists as they approached the women's issue as well. The rules designed to apply to the culture of the past, need not be considered binding in a later time: particularly when in New Testament times one of the effects of Gospel was to elevate the role of women in the original culture of its day.
It was clear to Wesley (though he had quite a bit of hesitation on this) that God had clearly called and gifted certain women as preachers and teachers.
And, it was only natural for his followers to look to the Scriptures, look to what God was doing and say: Why not!
Here is a quote from Charles Yrigoyen, Jr. that I found on the Internet several years ago. The article is no longer there, but here's the quote:
Methodists flourished under the direction of class and band leaders, persons of spiritual strength and insight. Most of them were women! Among them were Sarah Crosby, Dorothy Downes, and Grace Murray, exemplary Christians whose witness persuaded many to accept God's grace and begin a new life....
In effect, [Sarah Crosby, Mary Bosanquet, Hannah Harrison, Eliza Bennis, Jane Cooper, and others]... were engaged in preaching, and many people experienced conversion as a result of their testimony and proclamation of the gospel.... In 1787, despite the objections of some of the male preachers, he officially authorized Sarah Mallet to preach, as long as she proclaimed the doctrines and adhered to the disciplines that all Methodist preachers were expected to accept.
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