Woman's right to preach the gospel: Catherine Booth (1859) | Women

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Woman's right to preach the gospel: Catherine Booth (1859)

Posted October 25, 2019

Catherine Booth co-founded the East London Christian Mission in Victorian England in 1865, which would go on to become The Salvation Army.

An outstanding and accomplished preacher, Catherine wrote her seminal pamphlet ''Female Ministry’; or, Woman's Right to Preach the Gospel' in 1859, systematically refuting claims that women shouldn't preach.

'[W]e think that we shall be able to show, by a fair and consistent interpretation... [t]hat not only is the public ministry of woman unforbidden, but absolutely enjoined by both precept and example in the word of God.' - Catherine Booth

Catherine packed out halls around England, drawing many to Christ through her appeals. Catherine wrote much of the theology of The Salvation Army, enshrining women's freedom in our foundations. Under the leadership of Catherine and her husband William Booth, The Salvation Army commissioned thousands of female preachers to evangelize the world. The Salvation Army now has outposts in 131 countries.

The Salvation Army Women's Minstries continues to thrive thanks to Catherine's inheritance. We've compiled a brief outline of Catherine's points in 'Female Ministry’; or, Woman's Right to Preach the Gospel' below.

Read ''Female Ministry’; or, Woman's Right to Preach the Gospel' by Catherine Booth full pamphlet here 

'Then, when the true light shines and God’s words take the place of man’s traditions, the Doctor of Divinity who shall teach that Paul commands woman to be silent when God’s Spirit urges her to speak, will be regarded much the same as we should now regard an astronomer who should teach that the sun is the earth’s satellite.'

Argument: It is not NATURAL for women to preach

Catherine's response: 'Did not God, and has not nature, assigned to man his sphere of labour, 'to till the ground, and to dress it'? And, if exemption is claimed from this kind of toil for a portion of the male sex, on the ground of their possessing ability for intellectual and moral pursuits, we must be allowed to claim the same privilege for woman.'

Women previously had neither opportunity nor training to enter the sphere of public preaching, so Catherine warns against allowing custom to inform perceptions of what is natural or unnatural. Women's grace, tact and emotional intelligence lend well to preaching, so her character is not made to be unnatural when stepping up to preach, she argues. The call for men to 'till the ground' has been circumvented so men may enter the priesthood on merit, so why not women with the same anointed charge?  The sphere of home, marriage, children or previous example should not constrain women's gifts of ministry.

Argument: It is not HUMBLE for women to preach

Catherine's response: 'Who would dare to charge the sainted Madame Guyon, Lady Maxwell, the talented mother of the Wesleys, Mrs. Fletcher, Mrs. Elizabeth Fry, Mrs. Smith, Mrs. Whiteman, or Miss Marsh with being unwomanly or ambitious?'

Catherine refutes accusations of women's ambition or pride being indulged when women preach. She argues that prominent female speakers exhibit ambition similar to Christ's, 'who, for the joy that was set before Him, endured the cross, despising the shame' (Heb. 12:2). 'Would that all the Lord’s people had more of this ambition', Catherine declares.

Argument: It is not SCRIPTURAL for women to preach

Catherine's response: 1 Corinthians 11:1-15 '...every woman who prays or prophesies', Joel 2:28 'Your sons and daughters will prophesy', Acts 2:17 'Your sons and daughters will prophesy'

Catherine's foundational appeal is to the spiritual mandate of scripture, prescribing women's praying and prophesying in both the Old and New Testaments. She quotes renowned holiness preacher Phoebe Palmer, 'The scriptural idea of the terms preach and prophesy, stands so inseparably connected as one and the same thing, that we should find it difficult to get aside from the fact that women did preach, or, in other words, prophesy, in the early ages of Christianity'.

Catherine emphasises Paul's call for women was to attire themselves appropriately while they perform these public forms of 'edification and comfort' in 1 Corinthians. Presbuteros of the Protestant Electoral Union says 'The prophesying spoken of was not the foretelling of events, but the preaching to the world at large the glad tidings of salvation by Jesus Christ. For this purpose it pleased God to make use of women as well as men'.

Catherine outlines other notable Biblical women in leadership roles, among them, a woman named Phoebe addressed as a diakonos in Romans 16:1; this word for minister also used in reference to Jesus (Romans 15:8), Paul and Apollos (1 Cor. 3:5) and ministers of the new covenant (2 Cor. 3:6). Junia is a woman named as an apostle in Romans 16:7, and there are a litany of women leading early churches and co-labouring with Paul. 

Argument: It is not PERMITTED for women to preach

1 Corinthians 14:34-35 'Let your women keep silence in the Churches, for it is not permitted unto them to speak, but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home, for it is a shame for women to speak in the Church'

Catherine's response: Paul is asking the church at Corinth for contextual silence, for learning's sake

Catherine uses Rev. J. H. Robinson's literature, outlining that the 'silence' verb is contextualised in every instance throughout scripture. They both argue that this scripture was showing 'it was not silence which was imposed upon women in the Church, but only a refraining from such speaking as was inconsistent with the words ‘they are commanded to be under obedience'' 'Paul’s fulmination is not launched against speech with premeditation and prudence, but against speech devoid of these qualities. It would be well if all speakers of the male as well as the female sex were obedient to this rule.'

Catherine points out the inconsistent application of the rest of Paul's instructions in 1 Corinthians. We cannot in good faith extract the silencing of women from the surrounding rules, apply it as universal and ignore the rest.​ Catherine speaks of the 'unparalleled contradiction and absurdity' in writing to a church about women's conduct as they exercise public prophecy then apparently forbids their speaking at all, a few chapters later.

1 Timothy 2:12 'But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet.'

Catherine's response: This was an instruction for order in Corinth's assembly, while women learned together

Much like 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, Catherine appeals to the modifiers in language used in the scripture. The women in Corinth would not have had the same access to religious teaching and forum as their male counterparts, and their riotous conduct was a distraction. Respectful learning, informed teaching and mutual obedience honours God and advances the Gospel. This is what Paul is addressing, with view of women growing in a mature faith, so they might better testify of God.

Catherine appeals to Rev. J. H. Robinson's exposition: 'No one will suppose that the apostle forbids a woman to ‘teach’ absolutely and universally. Even objectors would allow her to teach her own sex in private, they would let her teach her servants and children, and perhaps, her husband too... If this passage be not a prohibition of every kind of teaching, we can only ascertain what kind of teaching is forbidden... not dictatorial, domineering, nor vociferous, for then, and then only, would it be incompatible with her obedience.'

Argument: It is not NECCESSARY for a woman to preach

'As to the obligation devolving on woman to labour for her Master, I presume there will be no controversy. The particular sphere in which each individual shall do this must be dictated by the teachings of the Holy Spirit and the gifts with which God has endowed her.'

Men in society asserted women's domain was in the home, in unseen and uncelebrated labour. Men were already doing the work, they contested. Catherine points out the woman who poured perfume on Jesus, the prophet Huldah, Judge Deborah, Jesus' female disciples, the Samaritan woman, Anna's prophesying of Jesus in the temple alongside Simeon, Miriam leading, and Mary and Mary testifying of Jesus' resurrection. She sees where the Bible draws women out of a traditional role into following God. 'Whatever realm God calls you is the most important work - whether seen or unseen, but always it must be at the behest of Holy Spirit.'

'But surely, if the dignity of our Lord of His message were likely to be imperiled by committing this sacred trust to a woman, He who was guarded by legions of angels could have commanded another messenger; but, as if intent on doing her honour and rewarding her unwavering fidelity, He reveals himself first to her.'

Catherine: Women CAN and MUST preach

  • 'And I entreat thee also, true yokefellow, help those women which laboured with me in the gospel, with Clement also, and with other my fellow labourers' (Phil. 4:3)
  • 'Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my helpers in Christ Jesus, who have for my life laid down their own necks, unto whom not only I give thanks, but all the Churches of the Gentiles'. (Rom. 16:3-4)
  • 'Salute Tryphena and Tryphosa, who labour in the Lord. Salute the beloved Persis, which laboured much in the Lord' (Rom. 16:12)

'The Lord shall give the word, that is plentiful matter of speaking, so that he would call those which follow the great army of preaching women, victories, or female conquerors.' - Psalm 68:11, Grotius

Equally called: 'Now, if the word of God forbids female ministry, we would ask how it happens that so many of the most devoted handmaidens of the Lord have felt themselves constrained by the Holy Ghost to exercise it. Surely there must be some mistake somewhere, for the word and the Spirit cannot contradict each other. Either the word does not condemn women preaching, or these confessedly holy women have been deceived.'

    Catherine finishes with a list of incredible women, preachers and missionaries. She laments that if other isolated texts had been so uncritically applied as the ones toward silencing women, what 'terrible results would have accrued to the world.' 'How comes it then, that by this one isolated passage (1 Cor 14:34-35), which, according to our best Greek authorities, is wrongly rendered and wrongly applied, woman’s lips have been sealed for centuries, and the 'testimony of Jesus, which is the spirit of prophecy,' silenced, when bestowed on her?'

    Equally appointed: She uses Galatians' 3:28 mandate: ​'There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither male nor female, for ye are all one in Christ Jesus' and asks, 'If this passage does not teach that in the privileges, duties, and responsibilities of Christ’s kingdom, all differences of nation, caste, and sex are abolished, we should like to know what it does teach, and wherefore it was written.'

    'We think it a matter worthy of their consideration whether God intended woman to bury her talents and influence as she now does? And whether the circumscribed sphere of woman’s religious labours may not have something to do with the comparative non‐success of the gospel in these latter days.' 

    Equally serving: Catherine bore absolute assurance that women were co-labourers in the Gospel, and that nothing should circumscribe their place from serving in the priesthood. Husbands' mutual deference to their wives bore witness to the reversal of the Fall, and Jesus' command that we are to love one another as ourselves. Catherine commends women as mighty luminaries throughout her text, and throughout her life - and The Salvation Army carries on in step with this same Spirit of Freedom and Truth.

    We thank God for our legacy of faith through Jesus Christ, and the legacy of theological certainty that God releases all women by his power to serve his greatest purposes - to glorify God, to reveal our Saviour and to use our gifts to worship him. Come join us!

    #OurWomenPreach

    Read 'Female Ministry’ or, Woman's Right to Preach the Gospel by Catherine Booth in full here

    Watch our visual celebration of the many notable women of the Bible: