Written by Andy Lang
July - August 2000
In the 19th century, the North American Christian traditions that later formed the United Church of Christ were beginning to take the first hesitant steps towards the liberation of women.
Their story is part of "Consolidation and Expansion"—the fourth volume of "Living Theological Heritage of the United Church of Christ," published recently by Pilgrim Press.
Like the controversy a century later over the inclusion of lesbians and gays in the church, both sides on the "women's question" appealed to the Bible for support.
When women began to "prophesy" during public worship in the Christian Church—one of the UCC's 19th-century ancestors—the editor of the "Gospel Luminary" quoted Timothy 2:12: "I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent."
But what about 1 Corinthians 11:5? asks Rebecca Miller in "Duty of Females." Here, Paul describes women praying and prophesying in public worship. "From the above it is plain that prophesying means exhorting, edifying, or instructing, comforting, testifying of Jesus, or all of them."
Other churches in the UCC family tree were beginning to break gender barriers.
In 1853, Antoinette Brown was ordained by a small Congregationalist church in New York state. She was the first woman in centuries to receive ordination as a presbyter or pastor.
At the same time, orders of Evangelical and Reformed "deaconesses" were organizing hospitals and welfare services in German immigrant communities throughout the country.
They were equal to male deacons, a report of the German Reformed Church argued in 1881, as "persons full of wisdom and the spirit of God, in order to take charge of a specified work for the edification of the body of Jesus Christ." "Taking charge" was not a term most 19th- century men were willing to accept in connection with women, but the report painstakingly cited scripture and tradition to make the case.
Other stories from the 19th century tell a great deal about the theological and cultural forces that shaped the modern United Church of Christ.
The "Christians," for example, were an early ecumenical movement who rejected creeds and believed Christian unity could be restored on the basis of the Bible's authority. "Evangelicals" were another ecumenical movement: German churches in North America that transcended the rivalry between the Lutheran and Calvinist traditions. They paid close attention to creeds but also believed conflicts over true doctrine should never, except in extreme cases, prevent Christians from living together in communion.
The German Reformed churches were also beginning to learn how to live with diversity: in the second half of the 19th century, the liturgical and theological innovations proposed by the "Mercersburg Movement" were bitterly opposed by the "Old Reformed," who accused the sacramentally-minded Mercersburgers of "Romanizing tendencies."
Those conflicts—painful at first—gradually faded. The result, by the 20th century, was that four traditions—Christian, Congregational, Evangelical, and Reformed—had experience in building communities where theological and spiritual diversity could be incorporated without pushing the church to the edge of schism. The stories of how they learned the art of community is relevant to the issues that divide us today—and a good reason to study this volume of Living Theological Heritage.
The Living Theological Heritage series can be purchased by phoning 800-537-3394. Andy Lang is Managing Editor of the UCC website.