The Best Is Yet to Come: Why Credentialed Women Ministers Matter to the Assemblies of God
An Interview With George O. Wood and James T. Bradford
Dr. Beth Grant has served as an Assemblies of God missionary to Eurasia for thirty-seven years. She speaks frequently at women’s retreats internationally, inspiring women to recognize their identity in Christ and be empowered to fulfill their God-given purpose. Her vision is to mobilize a generation of young women to fulfill God’s transforming mission in our twenty-first-century world.
On behalf of Enrichment journal, Dr. Grant interviewed Dr. George O. Wood, general superintendent of the Assemblies of God, and Dr. James T. Bradford, general secretary of the Assemblies of God, on a very important topic: women in ministry.
Many conflicting voices exist within evangelical and Pentecostal churches on the role of women in ministry. What is the official Assemblies of God position on women in ministry?
Wood: The official position is that there is no position that is off-limits to a woman in credentialed ministry in the Assemblies of God. This has been a historic position. My mother went out as a single minister to northwest China in 1924 when the Assemblies of God was only 10 years of age. We’ve had not only women missionaries but also women pastors. We’ve had women evangelists. We’ve had women scholars, professors — you name it.
I’m very unhappy when I hear in our own Fellowship those who don’t hold to what is our historic position on women in ministry. The Assemblies of God is a Pentecostal body. We have a very distinct view of the role of women in ministry and the prophecy of Joel that in the last days God would pour out His Spirit upon all flesh. I’m personally very concerned about the incursion into the Pentecostal movement and the Assemblies of God of persons who are not Pentecostal, who bring reformed theology and their view of highly hierarchical structure — whether it’s through seminars they’ve attended, or whatever — and miss utilizing well over half of the workforce that is available to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Our position is very clear. We have a position paper on women in ministry. We have written great books on women in ministry. I personally wrote an article several years ago in Enrichment called, “Why Pentecostals Think the Way We Do About Women in Ministry.” It lays out the whole hermeneutic for why we have the position we have.
Bradford: It really goes back to our Pentecostal hermeneutic: “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy” (Joel 2:28).
There’s no qualification on the follow-through to that. It’s an accepted fact that God’s Spirit anoints men and women for ministry. Throughout the New Testament record built on the example of Jesus’ words, He was constantly bringing women into His inner circle and elevating their status and advocating for their equality. And then there is the apostle Paul. He has this very long list of significant people in his life. An amazingly large number of them are women. Look at Romans 16. Close to half the names of all of his ministry partners in Romans 16 are women.
In the New Testament, there is a pattern of equality with men and women in the ministry. You do have a New Testament context where it’s a bit of a patriarchal society, and so that is always an issue within that larger cultural context they can’t change. They’re just trying to elevate the role of women. And then Paul ultimately saying that in Christ there is neither male nor female, “for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
Wood: In Romans 16:1, where Phoebe is referred to in the King James as the deaconess, King James translators absolutely botched that one because there was no room in their theology for a woman deacon. Even though the word is the same one that’s used for male deacons, they had to put “deaconess” on it. In Romans 16, Paul talks about Andronicus and Junia as being fellow apostles. Well, Junia is a feminine name.
When you look at the development of the New Testament within culture, there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female. That’s Paul’s statement in Galatians. When the gospel came within culture, it did not come in an attempt to politically revolutionize and overturn the social system overnight. The first thing that began to go was the nondistinction between Jew and Gentile. We know from the New Testament what a struggle this was for the Early Church.
Paul didn’t even really tackle the issue of the injustice of slavery except to say what the proper relationship was between the slaveholder and the slave. The letter to Philemon gives us a paradigm for that. In the Church, there was equality, even though the social structure was not yet there. But the seed of the gospel in terms of it being good news to the slave ultimately came to pass.
Well, the third link then is male and female. In Christ, there is neither male nor female. That is one of the few times in the history of Christianity where the culture got ahead of the Church. The culture was not ahead of the Church on Jew and Gentile. The culture was not ahead of the Church on the matter of slave and free. But the culture, at least in the West, got ahead of the Church on male and female equality. The Church, because of patriarchal models, lagged somewhat behind on that. The good thing is that in the outpouring of the Spirit with the modern Pentecostal movement, we jumped past the culture theologically. And our practice is now seeking to catch up to what our theology has been consistently saying for 100 years.
Wherever you see a move of the Spirit — regardless of the cultural structure as it relates to male and female roles — you see women and men called to ministry. Young women will say: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. He has anointed me to preach. He has anointed me to teach.” How many women currently serve as ministers in the AG?
Bradford: As of this week, there are 8,189 women serving as USA Assemblies of God ministers. It’s about 23 percent of our roughly 35,800 credentialed ministers.
The trend is growing, however. Even though 23 percent of all of our ministers are female, we’re trending higher in terms of our new credential applicants. In this category, we are trending closer to 50 percent being female. For over 20 years the number of credentialed women has been growing sequentially every year. We’re starting to see women serve in our districts as executive officers. Presently, we have four districts where women are district executive officers. That trend is really encouraging. Also, three of our college and university presidents are women.
How can denominational officials at national, district, and sectional levels promote the value of women in ministry? It seems that’s not always consistent in practice across our Movement.
Wood: The Assemblies of God is structured in such a way that there is broad autonomy given to the local church level and the district church level. So the General Council officers can teach, inspire, and try to motivate and educate, but we cannot dictate. That is, you can’t, as a General Council officer, go into a district and say, “There’s a way, and you’re going to do it,” unless the district is aberrational in a statement of fundamental truths.
You can’t do that with a local church either. So it becomes a matter of the General Council leadership pushing the envelope, so to speak, and saying, “This is important.”
It takes time to change perceptions, depending upon who is in district leadership and who is in local church leadership. Since the Assemblies of God has always been somewhat porous in terms of having the input of other people from outside the Assemblies of God, a lot of ideas come into the AG at the local or district level that do not represent what our best biblical understanding conveys.
At times, as a national leader it is frustrating to recognize there are still glass ceilings in place in some quarters of our Movement on the role of women in ministry. And certainly these six to seven years now I’ve been general superintendent, I’ve tried everything I know to use the powers of persuasion — including the Women in Ministry task force, which has been so critical in enhancing the role of women in ministry — to advance this proposition that God equally calls and gifts women for ministry.
Bradford: For the past 20 years, in one position or another, Dr. Wood has been in a General Council executive office. He’s always been a very firm voice, along with others, on the issue of women in ministry. We should not underestimate the power of the bully pulpit that the General Council can have. We want our voices to continue to be strong. That’s why we’re doing another issue of Enrichment journal on women in ministry.
Increasingly districts should have female speakers at district council and leadership events. Use the power of appointment where there are nonelected positions, but significant leadership positions. We are wanting at every level for districts to continue to model diversity in terms of gender, similar to what we want to do at the General Council level. We must keep encouraging our districts and churches that there are some wonderful ladies who could be pastors. We have about 515 lead pastors among our credential holders right now. Over 800 missionaries and nearly 150 evangelists are among our female credential holders.
Dr. Wood is right that we can’t dictate what things should happen in our structure and our body. We simply need to be become cheerleaders in growing ways, and keep putting women in front who are highly gifted.
Wood: I learned something very valuable as a pastor who helped walk a congregation through transition on the local church board.
Our board, by historical precedent, was an all-male board. I recognized that was in contradiction to our understanding of women in ministry on the local church level. Most church bylaws are gender specific; they are masculine. So rather than making the mistake that some younger pastors do of overturning the tables, trying to change overnight, we established a committee to study this issue. They were so divided after one year I asked them to serve a second year. I always like a committee to come back unanimous. If they’re not, a congregation gets divided.
The second year it was all but one or two people on the committee who were for making the bylaws gender-inclusive and making it possible for women to serve on the board of elders of the church. I tried to make it an issue that was not a break-fellowship issue in our church. But there were some who attended Bill Gothard seminars and other kinds of venues — where there was just a clear model that women are subservient — who brought that theology into the church.
The congregation, by an overwhelming vote, adopted the change. And then over the course of time, women came onto the board of elders of the church. And the difference that it made in the conversation at the table was enormous. What we had done by our restrictiveness was lose the voice of a significant part of our congregation that had insights that the male members did not necessarily have. But it also gave a visible representation to the congregation.
Participants in our services were a mixture of men and women. We gave the visible representation of the integration of women with men in ministry. We did the same with the board of elders. I wish that every Assemblies of God church would take a look at their constitution and bylaws and eliminate a barrier on the local level to women serving in even lay leadership positions in the church. We’re a Pentecostal body, and that ought not to be.
It’s not that we were pushing a so-called feminist agenda. We had the agenda from Galatians: “Nor is there male and female … in Christ Jesus.”
We had the agenda from Joel 2 and Acts 2 before the feminists ever caught the idea of women serving alongside men. So it’s not that kind of an issue. We’re trying to say, “What does the Scripture teach us, and how do we live out the model of Christian community?”
That’s a critical point for young women who are very sincere and see this servant model of leadership in Christ and are not comfortable with a rights issue. This has nothing to do with rights for men or women in ministry. That’s not the rationale for following Jesus in leadership in ministry. Don’t we cripple ourselves in the Kingdom by not empowering both men and women to use their God-given gifts?
Wood: I’ll tell you a sad story. Just a few months ago, a very competent, young, ordained, seminary-trained, female graduate interviewed for a pastoral position of a church of about 100 to 150 people. At the end of a process, the board said they were not going to recommend her election to the membership of the church. Two of the board members came to her privately and said, “You know, we all realize you’re the most qualified person to be pastor. But two of the board members are opposed to having a woman as pastor. Therefore, the person we’re going to recommend is not as qualified as you.”
My heart just sank at that. I thought, That is not right.
I feel passionate about changing the situation at the local level. Now, if the woman candidate had been less qualified than the male candidate, I would feel equally upset if they said, “We’re going to choose you because you’re a woman even though you’re less qualified.”
Either way, that has to be taken off the table. The bottom line is: Is this person qualified? Is she gifted? And what’s the Spirit saying? Let’s not use artificial, secular means for making decisions in the body of Christ.
Throughout our history, we have an amazing legacy of powerful women of God who were pioneers in the U.S. and around the world. I believe God has a similar future for us. As we recognize the hand of God on young women and encourage and equip them, I believe the best is yet to come. If a young woman approached you today for advice about embarking on ministry with the Assemblies of God, what would be your advice to her?
Bradford: My wife is not a credential holder, but she is very passionate about women in ministry. She is part of a team of women that provides content to a website: womeninministry.ag.org. I would first of all direct a young woman to this site so she knows she is not alone. Many people are cheering her on. She will find excellent resources on this site that will answer many of her questions and provide her with wonderful encouragement and insights from other women ministers. The majority of people accessing the site are credentialed women in the Assemblies of God.
I get letters from women seeking pastoral positions outside the Assemblies of God just because doors would not open in our Fellowship. I want to caution these ladies: As hurtful as that experience can be, don’t turn it into a crusade. Don’t try too hard to prove something. They should just do what God has called them to do. Somehow, in God’s sovereignty, the gifts these women possess will be recognized. It’s not an easy road.
I would encourage them to persevere. Let God raise them up, and trust their calling to Him.
Wood: Changes like this don’t happen overnight. I realize there is frustration. I’ve lived long enough to know also that sometimes a “no” or a “wait” is part of God’s plan. And I don’t want that “no” or “wait” to be for improper reasons, but that sometimes occurs. If I were a young woman setting out in credentialed ministry in the Assemblies of God, I would network among my friends and other women in credentialed ministry, and I would say, “What are the spots within the Assemblies of God where I will be most welcome? What districts are most welcoming? What set of churches seem to be most welcoming?”
I think I would try to head for those places, unless the Lord specifically said, “No, you go to this very hard place though they haven’t had a woman pastor in that district in 100 years.”
The Lord can tell you to do that.
There also is a wide-open doorway for church planters in the Assemblies of God. Through the processes of the Church Multiplication Network, which is at our offices, we would be delighted to partner with qualified women church planters who feel the call of God to get a team together and go plant a church somewhere. So that door would be open.
I’m probably more focused on the senior pastor’s position, where the door seems to be opened the narrowest. However, there are many open doors, especially in staff positions. The door is wide open for women who feel called to be missionaries, youth pastors, children’s pastors, executive pastors, staff pastors, counselors, and teachers in our schools.
What can male senior pastors do in their leadership roles to mentor women for ministry?
Bradford: If senior pastors are in a position to hire staff, they should make an intentional decision to balance their staff with men and women. Allow significant volunteer leadership positions in the church to be filled by women as well. If the bylaws restrict board members to males only, lead the board through the process Dr. Wood described earlier with his church when he was pastoring. It takes courage to do this in some settings.
Wood: I think it is word and deed. Of course, by word, give appropriate biblical teaching on the subject of women in ministry.
Deed is in little things. For example, who serves Communion? We had a practice in the church I pastored of all men serving Communion. I mean, that’s what the men do. So we integrated that by including women. Who received the offering? It was all men. We changed that so that during the liturgy or worship, there was a visible representation of the presence of women. I didn’t have to say a word to do that. That was by deed.
It frustrates me when I’m in a church and one person does all the talking from behind the pulpit. The pastor gives the welcome. The pastor gives the appeal for the offering. The pastor prays. The pastor preaches. The pastor prays at the end. It’s helpful to have as many voices as possible within the time strictures so that you are visibly representing the beautiful nature of the body of Christ.
Dr. Wood, could you close with a prayer, especially over the women ministers in the Assemblies of God?
Wood: Heavenly Father, we thank You that Your Spirit has called women, as well as men, to serve You in vocational ministry. We ask Your favor and Your blessing to rest upon each.
I pray especially for young women, that this discussion would strike a resonant chord in their own hearts and lives that this Fellowship called the Assemblies of God is a welcoming place for women in ministry. Our hearts’ desire is to celebrate, affirm, and lay hands upon the calling that You have placed upon women in ministry.
Lord, it was never Your intention that half of Your workforce be unemployed, so we pray for full employment in the kingdom of God for all those whom You have divinely called to be in vocational ministry, whether male or female. We ask for the continued outpouring of Your Spirit upon this Assemblies of God family so that we would see in the days to come a continuation of the greatest work of evangelism the world has ever seen — one that employs both men and women in the harvest fields of America and this world. In Jesus’ name. Amen.