• Elaine Kelly

Gatekeepers in Churches

Updated: May 16


While some gatekeepers in churches have closed doors to leadership roles for women, others have followed Jesus' example and opened doors for all to live life to the full.

We have seen that Jesus opens the gate and anyone who enters can enjoy life to the full. Some women have felt God call them to church leadership but needed a gatekeeper to open the door for them. Women's leadership is not a woman's issue. The whole church needs to discuss how to interpret scripture and follow God's intent regarding women and men in ministry.


Today, let's honour six men who have been good gatekeepers, opening doors to women who needed their support. These men have facilitated and affirmed women called by God, sometimes at great cost to themselves.


1. Quakers included men and women as equal speakers in the priesthood of believers from their beginnings in the 1600s. George Fox, a founder of the Quakers, was an English Dissenter, opposing religious leaders and the government's financial support for the Church of England. He put a focus on inward transformation rather than outward rituals. He rejected the need for ordained clergy and believed anyone, male or female, could receive the call to preach and teach. He was imprisoned for blasphemy in 1650. His sentence was doubled when he refused to swear oaths or take up arms. When he preached to "tremble at the word of the Lord", they mocked him with the nickname Quaker. By 1657 over a thousand Quakers were in prison, jailed for failure to attend the established church. Fox was released after demonstrating he had no military ambitions. Protestant William of Orange wanted to acknowledge the support of nonconformist protestants after they helped him defeat the Catholic James II, so advocated for the "Toleration Act" of 1689. This Act both prevented British monarchs from being Catholic or marrying a Catholic and allowed nonconformist Protestant denominations the freedom to worship. After that, over 2,500 English Dissenter places of worship were licensed, and the Presbyterian Church was recognized as Scotland's official church. However, in New England, the Quaker women travelling ministers were undermining Puritan religious leaders. In Plymouth and Massachusetts, laws were passed making it illegal to give aid or shelter to Quakers. Boston banned all Quakers in 1658 under the penalty of death. Quakers paid for their stance on the egalitarian priesthood of believers.


2. The Salvation Army was founded by a husband and wife team, William and Catherine Booth. It was hearing Catherine preach a sermon that made William change his mind and accept women as preachers. From the day it started in 1865, the Salvation Army gave men and women equal roles as a lieutenant, captain, colonel, and general. As they set up their mission, leading politicians and representatives of the Church of England were hostile to William Booth in part because of his "elevation of women to the man's status". In the 1880s, British authorities broke up their meetings and subjected Booth's followers to fines and imprisonment for disturbing the peace. The Salvation Army came to Canada in 1882. In 1915, Mable Broome became the first black officer in the Salvation Army officer, demonstrating the commitment to award leadership roles regardless of race or gender.


3. In 1819, Jarena Lee became the first woman to be authorized to preach by Bishop Richard Allen. He withdrew from his local Methodist Episcopal Church in 1787 because of segregated seating and other restrictions on black worshippers. After Allen founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church, he was attending church in 1819 when the minister scheduled to speak was mysteriously silenced. A black woman, Jarena Lee, impulsively rose from her seat and addressed the men and women using the text that the minister had chosen from Jonah. She said she was like Jonah, because it had been nearly eight years since the Lord had called her to preach and she had delayed in doing God's bidding. On hearing her preach, Allen announced that he believed she was called to be a preacher. When no church hired her, she preached anyway, becoming a travelling evangelist.


4. In 1861, Bishop B. T. Roberts argued that women should work shoulder to shoulder with men in building the kingdom of God. A white American preacher, he founded the Free Methodist Church, breaking away from the Methodist denomination for three main reasons: the segregation of worship into male and female; the commercialization of the church; and discrimination against the poor (with leadership being overly concerned with social prestige and wealth). Roberts was tried for "unchristian and immoral conduct" and found guilty in 1858 and his ordination was taken from him. The new denomination added the word "free" to indicate free from slavery, secret orders, worldliness and formality.


5. The Apostolic Faith Movement (which separated from the Pentecostal movement in 1916), trained women for ministry from 1900 onwards. White American Charles Fox Parham led churches in the Midwest, was director of a bible college in Kansas, and opened a Bible school in Texas. When a female student, Agnes Ozman, was baptized by the Holy Spirit in December 1900, Mr. Parham realized women could be gifted by God. Parham married a Quaker woman, preached alongside his sister-in-law Lilian Thistlewaite, and commissioned a number of women to establish church plants and serve as pastors. Parham was the first in a long line of Pentecostal evangelists including Mary Woodworth-Etter, Aimee Semple McPherson, and Kathryn Kuhlman. His influence waned as he separated from the racial integration popular with William Joseph Seymour.


6. African American William Joseph Seymour attended Parham's Bible school in Texas in 1905 when Parham required him to sit in the hallway since he was black. Seymour listened through an open door to learn about how a Christian may be filled with the Holy Spirit and speak in tongues, a Pentecostal belief. Seymour brought the Apostolic Faith Movement to Los Angeles in 1906 and he organized a very successful mission, attracting thousands of people, seven days a week. Mr. Seymour invited both women and men to provide leadership and outreach. Seymour opened the door for Florence Crawford and Emma Cotton (both white) to found and lead congregations along the West Coast and in Oregon. Seymour was ridiculed in the media for violating Paul's command regarding the silence of women. Early Pentecostals replied by saying God promised to pour out his Spirit on all people (Joel 2:28-29), that God authorized women and men equally to proclaim the gospel (Acts 2:17-18) and that an individual's gifts are determined by the Holy Spirit, not gender (Galatians 3:28, 1 Corinthians 12:11). Pastor Seymour is quoted as saying, "It is contrary to scriptures that woman should not have her part in the salvation work to which God has called her. We have no right to lay a straw in her way, but to be men of holiness, purity and virtue, to hold up the standard and encourage the woman in her work, and God will honour and bless us as never before. It is the same Holy Spirit in the woman as in the man." Mr. Parham and Mr. Seymour are both fathers of Pentecostalism, but Seymour allowed the mixing of races at worship services and witnessed the Holy Spirit descending on all races; Parham believed in racial segregation. Their differences evolved into the mixed-race Church of God in Christ and the whites-only Assemblies of God.


The Quaker George Fox, Salvation Army co-founder William Booth, Richard Allen, Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Bishop B. T. Roberts, Charles Fox Parham and William Joseph Seymour all opened the gate for women to preach, even though speaking for change cost them. History demonstrates God giving spiritual gifts to all people, regardless of race or gender. Some forget these effective, gifted women preachers called by God who participated in church leadership with the support of men gatekeepers. Some churches close their doors to women leaders, missing out on the spiritual gifts of their women members. It is empowering to know the history of both men and women opening doors to women in church leadership. Today's egalitarian men and women can stand on their shoulders.





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