Women in Church History: Is God Doing a New Thing?
by Kristie Berglund
“The Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning… If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”
Acts 11:15, 17, The Sacred Text (Scripture)
I love how the apostle Peter tells the story of the way the Holy Spirit so unexpectedly fell upon the Gentiles. Peter is called before the original church leadership board—the council of elders in Jerusalem—to address the charges that had been brought against him that he had been eating with Gentiles and thus defying the law of God. Peter responds simply by recounting what God had done in leading him to these Gentiles, who then believed in Christ and were filled with the Holy Spirit. “What was I supposed to do?” Peter asks. “Get in God’s way?”
This story stands out to me because it’s one of those places where God’s Word so clearly challenges us to believe that God can do new things. Unexpected and extraordinary things. Even things that our faith tradition has previously believed to be impossible.
I believe one of those new and unexpected things that came with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit was the free and abundant giving of the spiritual gifts of preaching and pastoral leadership to both men and women of faith, just as the prophet Joel foretold: “Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.” And with those gifts came a calling to men and women to serve together as equal partners in the ministry of the gospel.
But I haven’t always believed that God was doing this particular new thing. In fact, it was quite the journey for me to get to this point—a journey that is deeply connected with my story of faith. I was in high school when I first really heard the good news about Jesus. I say “really” heard, because I’m sure I had heard people say things about the love of God and how Jesus died on the cross before this time. But none of it had ever meant anything to me. It wasn’t until I encountered the love of Christ in action—through the witness of teachers and friends at my California public high school—that the good news began to sound truly good to me. I put my faith in Christ and my whole world turned upside down.
Immediately I was captivated by the Bible and studied it voraciously. I had a passion for sharing what I was learning with others and quickly began to take on leadership roles in our high school Christian organization. I taught Bible studies, led prayer meetings, and organized outreach events. In all of this I felt fully alive, possibly for the first time in my life. For me, the call to believe in Jesus was simultaneously a call to devote my life to being a servant of the gospel.
However, in spite of the joy I was feeling in serving in leadership, I was also already experiencing some inner conflict about my gifts and calling. My community of faith—the one that loved and nurtured me during this time—believed that God called men and women to different kinds of roles in the church.
Women who had leadership and teaching gifts were welcome to use those gifts, but only for ministering to other women and children, as the apostle Paul said that he did not “permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man” (1 Timothy 2:12, The Bible). That seemed to settle the issue for my community.
Since I wanted to be a faithful servant of God, I accepted this view and sought to figure out where I might fit within this particular divine plan for women.
For college I went off to Moody Bible Institute, eager to study the Bible in the original languages and find answers for all my burning questions, including the very personal one about what my role in ministry was supposed to be. As expected, many of my Moody professors shared the view that women could not serve as pastors. But, as it turned out, not all of them found this view entirely satisfactory. I can’t even begin to say how grateful I am for those professors who taught me to read and interpret Scripture well, and especially for those who dared to hint (off the record, of course!) that perhaps Moody’s doctrinal statement did not always represent the most faithful reading of Scripture.
So at Moody I read and studied and wrestled. By the end of my fourth year, I could tell you everything about the egalitarian-complementarian debate… except where I landed on the issue. I was torn between the teachings I had embraced at that earliest stage in my faith journey and the possibilities I now saw in Scripture for a more open understanding of the Spirit’s gifts and calling.
It wasn’t until I began graduate school at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada that it all came together for me. Regent, of course, is home to some of the best evangelical theological and exegetical minds, the majority of whom are in full support of women in ministry. So it definitely helped that I was suddenly in conversation with brilliant evangelical feminists like Gordon Fee and Stanley Grenz.
But ultimately what made the difference for me was this: I actually met women who were studying to be pastors and I experienced their preaching ministry and I was blessed by their leadership gifts.
And it was awesome. These women weren’t crazy radicals who didn’t care about the Bible, as was sometimes how women pastors were caricatured in more conservative circles. Quite the opposite! They loved Jesus and wanted to serve him with their lives. The years that followed my time at Regent provided further confirmation of this belief in the full equality of women in ministry, both intellectually and experientially. Even so, when the Spirit began to call me to full time pastoral ministry, it took me a long time—and lots of encouragement from others—to be able to acknowledge and embrace that calling.
I am now an ordained pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA). I get to make a living preaching and teaching the Word, breaking the bread and offering the cup to those who hunger and thirst, praying with the sick and struggling, advocating for the oppressed.
I see so clearly now that this was God’s intention for me from the beginning, and I’m grateful to be part of a denomination that has valued and believed in me and has helped me to “fan into flame the gift of God” (2 Timothy 1:6, The Bible) as I’ve grown into my calling. I’m aware that some of my friends from those conservative days might worry about me a little. I’ve been accused of going off the “liberal” deep end. But when I look back I see God’s leading and love and faithfulness at every turn.
I’ve experienced how amazing it is when we stop digging in our heels and let the waves of God’s grace and generosity wash over us and carry us to new places. May we all have the grace to respond to such movements of the Spirit in the same way that the elders of Jerusalem responded to Peter’s testimony in Acts 11:
“When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God.”
This guest post was prepared by Kristie Berglund and the opinions expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Janay Garrick (though it’s likely that they do).