Reading Scripture Today: An Interview with Sujin Pak

Sujin Pak is assistant professor of the history of Christianity at Duke Divinity School. Her article, “The Perspicuity of Scripture, Justification by Faith Alone, and the Role of the Church in Reading Scripture with the Protestant Reformers,” is published in our most recent issue of the Covenant Quarterly. In this interview she addresses the pastoral implications of her article. (Read Pak’s full article here.)

G. Sujin Pak

How has your research impacted your own reading of Scripture? 

I teach a class on the “History of Biblical Interpretation” that spans from early church to contemporary interpreters. This course has not only enriched my own thinking about and engagement with Scripture but also helped me locate the Protestant Reformers within this larger history. One of the things that strikes me most about pre-modern readings of Scripture is that they steadfastly keep before them a sense of the purposes for which Scripture (as a text of a faithful community) is given—namely, that Scripture is a gift of God to God’s people to reveal God’s saving purposes centered in Jesus Christ. This, therefore, refocuses one’s purposes for reading: it is not so much for the exact knowledge one can obtain or about employing the exactly right method of reading (though, it certainly secondarily could be some of these things); it is first and foremost an opportunity to encounter God in Christ through the intercession of the Holy Spirit. And, as pre-moderns describe this, this encounter promises to be transformative: to call one out of one’s own self-absorbed ways and perspectives to a journey toward holiness and wisdom—toward Christ, the very Wisdom of God.

Thus, the journey of reading Scripture is not really about finding that right method. Pre-modern theologians employed a large variety of methods, methods often clearly shaped by the available tools of their contexts and specific situations they were addressing. Moreover, pre-modern readers of Scripture affirmed that there can be multiple faithful readings of a text; there is not just a singular correct reading. For me personally, this allows for a freedom, beauty, and creativity in my encounter of the Triune God through Scripture and casts off the shackles of my anxiety to “find that one right meaning.” This is not to say, though, that faithful reading is boundless (with no limits, as if anything goes). Rather, pre-modern readers of Scripture paint a picture of a beautiful playground for biblical interpretation that is bounded by the convictions that constitute the core of Christian identity—convictions such as Trinity, centrality of Christ, christology (two natures of Christ), incarnation, belief in the Holy Spirit, and commitment to the church in which many pre-modern theologians point to the Apostle’s Creed as a guide to these core convictions of Christian identity about which Scripture testifies.

In your article, you make the point that the Reformers’ affirmation of Scripture’s clarity “could never entail a larger array of persons claiming to have the singular, authoritative reading of Scripture” but that “this may very well be the reality in many Protestant churches today.” How have you seen this play out practically in the church?

Truly grasping the implications of Luther and Calvin’s doctrine of justification by faith alone as it shapes their views of Scripture’s clarity has proven incredibly slippery in subsequent generations. First, I should clarify that there are other ways to hold to a doctrine of Scripture’s perspicuity beyond what Luther and Calvin asserted, but it seems that many claim Luther and Calvin (for their views of Scripture’s clarity) without recognizing how profoundly Luther and Calvin built this claim upon a doctrine of justification by faith alone. I think for Luther and Calvin the convictions of Scripture’s clarity and accessibility were not meant to promote multiple claims to an authoritative reading; they were meant to open up a space for the Spirit’s working in the church, an opportunity for a profound submission (and discovery) of the Spirit’s work of illuminating Scripture, in which they believed the Spirit would always be consistent with itself. Luther and Calvin recognized in this the need for a communal process of discernment. Hence, they often pointed to the pattern of 1 Corinthians 14 in which two or three provide an interpretation and “the others weigh what is said” (1 Cor. 14:29). Though, when this increasingly lead to what they viewed as “disorderly” practices, Luther and Calvin emphasized the need for ordained ministerial leaders to provide leadership and counsel for the public ministry of God’s Word, which ultimately ended up placing the proclamation and interpretation of Scripture soundly within the preacher/pastor’s hands and downplayed their earlier emphases upon the priesthood of all believers. Continue Reading

The Reformers & Scripture’s Clarity

From G. Sujin Pak, “The Perspicuity of Scripture, Justification by Faith Alone, and the Role of the Church in Reading Scripture with the Protestant Reformers”:

Martin Luther Translating the Bible, Wartburg Castle, 1521

Among several legacies that could be identified, three rise to prominence in my own reflections: the Protestant Reformers’ assertions of the prime authority of Scripture, justification by faith alone, and the perspicuity of Scripture… They function as natural corollaries to one another and together embody the theological core of the Reformers’ message, particularly that of Martin Luther and John Calvin.


First, the Reformers’ affirmation of the perspicuity of Scripture was a crucial tenet of their assertion of Scripture’s prime authority and their challenge to the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. Furthermore, the Reformers grounded Scripture’s authority and clarity on the biblical principle of justification by faith alone as the very perspicuous heart of Scripture and as a principle that reinforces Scripture as self-authenticating and self-interpreting. We might more accurately understand the Protestant Reformers’ teachings on the perspicuity of Scripture if we understand its deep foundations in the principle of justification by faith alone. Yet even as the Protestant Reformers displaced church authority in favor of the prime authority of Scripture, this did not mean that they stripped the church of all authority concerning matters of Scripture’s interpretation. Rather they strongly affirmed the authority of the church insofar as it acts under the guiding rule of Scripture.


In this way, Luther argued that God’s Word is prior to the church—prior in both existence and authority. Accordingly, it cannot be the case that the authority of Scripture relies in any way on the consent and authority of the church. Rather, the church is brought into being by the Word of God; the church is built on the very foundation of Scripture as God’s ordained and sufficient revelation. Indeed, Luther defined the church precisely by its relationship to this authoritative Word of God: the church is the community that hears and obeys the Word of God revealed in Scripture.


[The Reformers’] point was not that any person, even any Christian, has what they need to interpret Scripture in and of their own ability. More specifically, the Reformers’ point was not that by the gift of faith and the Holy Spirit one’s own abilities were purified and empowered. Rather, their very point was that Scripture is clear and accessible not by virtue of any human efforts or abilities, even sanctified abilities, but solely by virtue of the gift of faith through the work of the Spirit—precisely the gift of faith given when one is justified by faith alone. Just as the Protestant Reformers affirmed that only God can initiate faith and do the work of salvation in a person, so also they insisted that only God is the actor in any true interpretation of Scripture. Just as the human must despair of making any contribution to her salvation, so Luther insisted that to interpret Scripture rightly one must despair completely of one’s own intelligence and ability.


Luther thereby connected the principle of justification by faith alone directly with the prime authority of Scripture and the assertion of God’s Word as the only actor that can accomplish the true applications and fruits of God’s Word. He clarified that though any Christian has the right to proclaim God’s Word (i.e., the priesthood of all believers), God alone has the power to accomplish what God intends in and through its proclamation. These fruits belong solely and ultimately in the hands of God. This, in essence, disciplines all human attempts to interpret Scripture, so that one must wait and see whether and how God acts in and through a proposed interpretation to accomplish God’s purposes.


To put it another way, in the view of the Reformers, the primary goal of Scripture is to reveal Christ. Luther and Calvin affirmed that all of Scripture points to Christ. This goal of revealing Christ connects directly to Scripture’s soteriological telos: to reveal Christ is to reveal God’s ordained path of salvation (i.e., justification by faith alone). For the Protestant Reformers, the true act of reading Scripture is a moment of transformative encounter with God… In this way, reading Scripture creates a sacred space in which the Holy Spirit illuminates the words of Scripture so that one may be transformed into greater conformity to Christ and glimpse the very heart of God.


Read the full article here.

Sneak Peek: CQ 75:2

October 31, 2017, marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, which set into motion the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation. This Covenant Quarterly issue commemorates this watershed movement. 

Sujin Pak, assistant professor of the history of Christianity at Duke Divinity School, discusses what the Reformers intended in their affirmation of Scripture’s perspecuity, how this affirmation was rooted in the concept of justification by faith alone, and how it impacted their understanding of the church’s role in the task of interpretation.

“[The Reformers’] point was not that any person, or even any Christian, has what they need to interpret Scripture in and of their own ability. More specifically, the Reformers’ point was not that by the gift of faith and the Holy Spirit one’s own abilities were purified and empowered. Rather, their very point was that Scripture is clear and accessible not by virtue of any human efforts or abilities, even sanctified abilities, but solely by virtue of the gift of faith through the work of the Spirit – precisely the gift of faith given when one is justified by faith alone. Just as the Protestant Reformers affirmed that only God can initiate faith and do the work of salvation in a person, so also they insisted that only God is the actor in any true interpretation of Scripture.”

From “The Perspicuity of Scripture, Justification by Faith Alone, and the Role of the Church in Reading Scripture with the Protestant Reformers”

Professor of New Testament at North Park Theological Seminary, Stephen J. Chester, engages with the Reformers’ “new Pauline exegetical grammar” and its relevance for contemporary Pauline interpretation.

“How should we think about the Reformers as interpreters of Paul at the 500th anniversary of their transformation of church and society? Should our interest be antiquarian only, their interpretation of the Pauline letters of value for how we understand the sixteenth century and its conflicts but of little direct interest for our own task of interpreting the New Testament in and for the twenty-first century? Or, at the opposite extreme, do the Reformers provide for us exegetical and theological touchstones, departures from which must be resisted as a falling away from the truth of the gospel? … In my view, neither of these responses is helpful.”

From “Reading Paul with the Reformers”

Read the complete issue here.

Spener and the Role of Women in the Church

From Denise D. Kettering Lane’s article, “Philipp Spener and the Role of Women in the Church: The Spiritual Priesthood of All Believers in German Pietism”:

[Spener] aimed his criticism [in Pia Desideria] at all Christians, regardless of gender, occupation, or education. He lamented that the laity did not perceive drunkenness as a sin, treated each other miserably, failed to live Christian lives, and harmed the Lutheran witness to misguided religious groups, such as the papists. According to Spener, this unchristian behavior appeared predominantly in the preponderance of lawsuits and dishonest trade relationships. His discussion of occupations further highlights his emphasis on social sins: “If we look at trade, the crafts, and other occupations through which people seek to earn their living, we shall find that everything is not arranged according to the precepts of Christ, but rather that not a few public regulations and traditional usages in these occupations are diametrically opposed to them.” By locating these problems in the bar, courtroom, and shop, Spener largely omits women’s activities in his castigations.

Denise Kettering-Lane

Nowhere in the first section of Pia Desideria did Spener identify specifically female behavior as a symptom of corruption in the church. While the spiritual equality of men and women meant that women were included in Spener’s general discussion of corrupt characteristics, he did not raise the issues of vanity, prostitution, or gossip—all sins traditionally associated with women at this time.

Nowhere does Pia Desideria propose a particular role for women or mention women explicitly.Spener apparently did not foresee some of the attacks that would occur because of women’s involvement in independent Bible reading or the conventicles. In fact, one scholar has commented that the resulting participation of women caused Spener to moderate his position in hindsight to conform more fully to societal conventions.
Even as he wrote tracts that minimized the activity of women in the Pietist movement and asserted views that corresponded to traditional views of women, largely to fend off accusers, he engaged in regular correspondence with women, providing advice about leading family devotion time and reading the Bible—even discussing theological matters. Also, if anything, Spener’s correspondence to women substantially increased over the course of his life. Thus throughout his life he consistently adhered to the notion that developing a more involved laity would result in an improved church, and he recognized that women were part of that laity. While publicly conforming to many social conventions, privately Spener regularly encouraged women’s activities in his correspondence.
His emphasis on practice reinforced the available, though limited, role of women in his vision of a collected pious group that could reform the church and the world. Nevertheless, all of these tasks performed by women remained firmly within the private realm. Women were not engaged in public teaching or sacramental roles. All of this took place within a patriarchal system ruled over by the man of the house or the minister. Spener did not suggest a change in the church structure but instead reinforced the existing patriarchy by advising extensive ministerial oversight, even in the homes of parishioners for small group meetings. It was a spiritual priesthood, but a priesthood that always operated under the careful oversight of a watchful clergyman.
Spener affirmed women’s spiritual equality, citing Galatians 3:28. He additionally acknowledged that women are recipients of spiritual gifts and refers to women in Scripture who worked with—not under—the apostles. Spener appears to support a cooperative vision in which the majority of men and women share gifts and work to support ministry. However, the subsequent question restricted the extent of women’s ministry, asking, “But are women not forbidden to teach?” Here the division between public and private spheres governed. It is true, Spener said, that women are forbidden to teach “in the public congregation,” marshaling 1 Corinthians 14:34 and 1 Timothy 2:11–12 as scriptural support. Thus Spener’s view of the spiritual priesthood—and spiritual equality of men and women—ultimately reaffirmed existing constructions of women’s roles within the church, limiting women to private activity.
In his effort to ensure that the spiritual priesthood did not upset contemporary notions of social order, Spener clearly outlined the roles of women in a way that reflected and reinforced patriarchal norms that focused on the spiritual rather than practical equality of women. While a generous reading certainly reveals places where the possibility for expanded activity for women in the church is mentioned, the overriding need to reinforce order ultimately won the day.

Response to 40-Year Survey: Timothy L. Johnson

In this post we continue our series of responses to Lenore Knight Johnson’s study, “Four Decades Later: Credentialed Clergywomen in the ECC.” See additionally the 1989 letter from the Board of Ministry (following the 10-year study) as well as responses from Katherine Hamilton and Mark Novak & Carol Lawson.  

It has been a personal pleasure for me to engage with the February 2017 issue of the Covenant Quarterly, as the issue of women in ministry in the Evangelical Covenant Church intersects in several ways with my life and ministry.

Personal Intersection

I began seminary only months before the decision was made to ordain women at the June 1976 Annual Meeting of the ECC. As I think back on my years in ministry, I am particularly grateful for that 1976 decision. In each of the churches I have pastored, I have ministered with women pastoral leaders. I am married to an ordained clergywoman whom I have had the pleasure of working with as well as witnessing her ministry in other contexts. I was blessed to graduate from North Park with five women in the spring of 1980. I believe this was in a graduating class of forty. In my current role at NPTS, I have the privilege of being involved in the vocational development of gifted women and men for ministry. Most years the student population is close to 50% women.

It is noteworthy that a majority of the students in NPTS’s master of divinity program are men, while a strong majority of students in programs like the Certificate in Spiritual Direction are women. Those distinctions are significant but do not negate the fact that the composition of the current student body is vastly different than it was when I was a student. This marks the fact that real progress has been made in the past forty years. I have the joy of observing gifted women enter our seminary community, expand their knowledge base and ministry skills, develop their pastoral identity, and depart for the purpose of serving in Christian ministry.

There is, however, grief to be recounted. It was a personal delight for me to observe at our most recent Midwinter Conference one of my female classmates, Mary Miller, receive the honor of being named distinguished alum of NPTS for 2017. Mary has served the ECC well as an exceptionally gifted servant leader. As a colleague and friend, Mary has been a blessing to me over my decades in ministry. Honoring Mary also serves to honor those other early women in ECC ministry. It also causes me to remember one classmate who was also exceptionally gifted for ministry but had to choose to serve in another denomination because of the way things unfolded for her. That memory illustrates the impoverishment to our denominational body when inadequate provision is not made for a major change in our denominational culture. As it has frequently been noted, it was both curious and unfortunate that the same assembly that voted to ordain women also voted not to embark on a strategy to promote and educate concerning the matter.


Kelly Johnston’s biography of  Jean Lambert was a particularly apt way of unpacking the concept of the pioneer. Along with Mary Miller and the other four women I graduated with in 1980, Jean Lambert was certainly a pioneer in for women in ECC ministry. I had not been aware of the letter Jean had written in 1989 on behalf of the Board of the Ministry. It was and is a strong letter, and it describes well the pioneer role of our earliest female colleagues in ministry. As I was glad for the honor bestowed on Mary Miller at Midwinter, I was reminded of what a good thing it was that Jean Lambert was honored by the ECC in 2006 (Irving C. Lambert Award for excellence in urban and ethnic ministries) and NPTS in 2008 (honorary doctorate). She established solid ground for women pastors and theologians in the ECC. I was personally struck by some of her work referred to in Johnston’s article.

Lambert’s contribution to Amicus Dei opened my eyes to the richness of “Mission Friend” terminology. This work was a major influence in my Doctor of Ministry work at Hartford Seminary (1986-1991). One of the things Lambert did well was to show how Pietist essentials, such as the “priesthood of all believers,” offered a path toward a  less hierarchical, more egalitarian church. These essentials are given strong expression in the third article of this issue of the Quarterly. Denise Kettering-Lane reminds us that even though the early giants of Pietism likely did not have women ministers in mind, their theological principles are given rich expression through the reality of women in ministry.

Practical Considerations

A a Covenant, we are fortunate that each decade since 1976 persons have offered careful analysis of the ECC’s progress in living into its vote. Lenore Knight Johnson offers fair and thorough insights on where we stand at year forty. Some of her suggestions for improvement I find particularly helpful. It is a given that we are congregational in our polity, and I think the advantages of this far outweigh the disadvantages. Yet there is no doubt that congregational polity has in large measure limited the suitable placement of many gifted clergywomen. Knight Johnson helpfully points out major ECC events, such as Midwinter and CHIC, as available opportunities for the ECC to draw attention to gifted women preachers.

I would add our Covenant camps to that list. This was brought home to me recently when my daughter Chloe came home from a youth retreat at Covenant Point and enthusiastically reported what a great speaker Ramelia Williams was at this event. As the father of a sixteen-year-old young woman, I celebrate that she has had ample opportunity to hear gifted women preach, including her mother. It is my hope for Chloe and others like her that each decade going forward will mark dramatic progress for our denominational family when it comes to women in pastoral leadership.

Timothy L. Johnson, graduated from North Park Theological Seminary in 1980. After twenty-five years of parish ministry, Tim returned to NPTS in 2005 to serve as field education director (currently also interim academic dean). Tim’s wife Kari Lindholm-Johnson is an ordained Covenant pastor who is currently the artist-in-residence at Swedish Covenant Hospital. They have two children. Gabe is a sophomore at North Park University; Chloe is a sophomore at Von Steuben High School.

40-Year Survey Response: Ordered Ministry

In this post we continue our series of responses to Lenore Knight Johnson’s study, “Four Decades Later: Credentialed Clergywomen in the ECC.” See additionally the 1989 letter from the Board of Ministry (following the 10-year study) and Katherine Hamilton’s response

Lenore Knight Johnson provides a comprehensive study of the state of credentialed clergywomen in the Evangelical Covenant Church four decades after its 1976 decision to ordain women. Her research expanded the first and second decadal studies that included only ordained women who earned their MDiv degrees from North Park Theological Seminary. As she reported, the number of women serving in credentialed ministry has grown dramatically since the first and second decades of this analysis. She appropriately acknowledged a broader range of women called to serve in ministry – and actively doing so – beyond the category that was originally studied.

Carol Lawson

While the “threshold position” of the senior/solo preaching pastor is still seen as the benchmark for progress in our denominational position, we do celebrate the increased number of credentialed women who are serving in a variety of roles. Yet we acknowledge we are not yet where we want to be as a denomination. We too have heard stories of female colleagues who struggle to find a call or who desire to move to another ministry setting but have difficulty making that next step. We can always do more to support women in ministry, and we work hard toward finding specific ways to do so.

As mentioned in the article, our Commission on Biblical Gender Equality wrestles with these exact questions and statistics at each of their meetings since its creation in 2002. After completing educational material Called & Gifted for the 30th anniversary of the 1976 decision, the Commission devoted itself to seeking ongoing ways to advance its advocacy, knowing we had not yet achieved a fully welcoming culture.

We are particularly excited about Project Deborah. This initiative was briefly mentioned in Knight Johnson’s article, but since the February publication the Commission has expanded Project Deborah to enhance our commitment to identifying gifted and godly women in our ministry settings who may be called to lead and serve the church. A downloadable video curriculum with discussion questions is now on our website, along with seven vignettes of women sharing ways they have been mentored and encouraged. It’s an important initiative because it highlights ways in which male clergy have stepped up to encourage women. We think this is a critical element. (Our Commission blog invites writers and readers to share in this journey.)

Mark Novak

In working with Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE), we have learned that many Christian communities are in this same journey. CBE is excited about the Project Deborah initiative and have asked our Biblical Gender Equality Commission for permission to use and advertise these resources within their circles of influence.

Develop Leaders also hears the disappointment of clergywomen who are seeking a call and feel less than welcome by some local churches. The challenge of congregational polity is real, not imagined. There are wonderful stories of women who are ultimately celebrated in their role as pastor, if not always initially. And there are times that the Methodist Church’s placement of pastors is envied rather than resented. We are committed to continually working with the Council of Superintendents promoting advocacy for clergywomen to be equally considered for all pastoral positions. We hope that some of the comments in the article represent a narrative that has been corrected. But we recognize that this is an ongoing challenge and one we do not take lightly. Continue Reading

40-Year Survey Response: Katherine Hampson

In this post we continue our series of responses to Lenore Knight Johnson’s study, “Four Decades Later: Credentialed Clergywomen in the ECC.

I am a first-generation Filipina-American, currently pursuing my MDiv at an interdenominational seminary and working towards ordination to word and sacrament in the Evangelical Covenant Church. My path to seminary and ordination has been a “bottom-up” journey from within the local context, facilitated by key connections and relationships. I was initially given lay leadership opportunities within the church. As my gifts and calling were developed and affirmed by senior pastors (at the time both men, one white, one Asian), I eventually pursued seminary training and now ordination. All along the way, my local church pastors have been unwavering advocates, modeling that advocacy in our multiethnic church, as well as making space for me to preach and further develop my gifts.

Katherine Hampson

There are strong echoes of my experience in the 2016 Covenant clergywomen survey with regards to many women’s “non-traditional route” into ministry; the necessity of advocacy, structural, and spiritual support; and the importance of local church male pastors making space for their female counterparts. I would be curious to see how these factors operate specifically within the intersectionality of race and gender for clergywomen of color, and for multiethnic and ethnic-specific/immigrant congregations.

The Covenant’s affirmation of both racial righteousness and women’s ordination and leadership are crucial cornerstones for women of color serving in ministry. Yet cornerstones alone do not a strong structure make. Family and cultural issues can add extra layers to the stained-glass ceiling for clergywomen of color. When I told my parents that I was preaching for the first time, they indirectly (and indelicately) voiced their disapproval by asking, “Oh? Was the pastor away? Could they not find any man around to preach?” In Asian-American contexts, cultural patriarchy may be a significant factor in a congregation’s decision to not hire a female pastor, even if she is affirmed and ordained by the denomination. Her résumé may be put aside on the grounds that she will not be a “good fit” for the church –  yet assumptions regarding the form and definition of “fit” remain unchanged and unchallenged.

It would be fruitful for future surveys to examine whether the cultures of immigrant and multiethnic congregations tend to break down or build up gendered notions of ministry. Another avenue for ongoing exploration is whether clergywomen’s experiences differ in Covenant church plants and in pre-existing churches that choose to affiliate with the Covenant. Would ECC church plants be more willing to hire female pastors than, say, a newly-affiliated church that comes from a more conservative background? It is interesting to note that more majority-Asian-American churches join the Covenant through denominational affiliation than through church planting. How does this affect their view on women in ministry and pastoral leadership?

In local Asian-American church contexts, the presence of advocates has the potential to bear more weight than any top-down denominational stance. Having an older male authority figure express affirmation for women’s pastoral leadership, model support, and actively advocate for structural and cultural change can have significant influence on local church culture and structure. This was true in my experience.

The 2016 survey stresses the need for clergymen to advocate for their sisters to live out their call to vocational ministry and create spaces for them to serve. I would urge my brothers who pastor in primarily Asian-American contexts, whether in multiethnic or ethnic-specific immigrant churches, to further examine the significance and weight of their voices. I would encourage them to be all the more intentional about dismantling structural and cultural barriers for women in their local contexts, while also affirming through word and deed the call and gifts that the Lord has placed upon their sisters in ministry.

Katherine Hampson serves as pastoral intern at Highrock Covenant Church in Quincy, Massachusetts, while she pursues her master of divinity degree from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

An Open Letter to Covenant Women (1989)

Over the next few weeks we’ll feature a series of responses to Lenore Knight Johnson’s study, “Four Decades Later: Credentialed Clergywomen in the ECC.” We begin the series with a letter issued June 12, 1989, from the Board of the Ministry, responding to the ten-year study conducted by Mary Miller. The letter was written by Jean Lambert on behalf of the Board, and is reprinted in Kelly Johnston’s article, “Jean C. Lambert: Covenant Pastor, Theologian, Pioneer,” pp. 16-19.

An open letter to each woman seeking to obey Christ’s call to ministry in the Covenant Church, both volunteer lay workers in local congregations, and pastors, missionaries, and staff ministers.

We have been thinking together about the situation of women and men in ministry in the Covenant Church, and we want first to affirm some convictions, and then offer some interpretation we think important.


  1. We are committed to an inclusive ministry in pilgrimage toward a whole church.
  2. We care about you. We value your commitment to Christ, respect your willingness to study and prepare for ministry, desire to be your colleagues.
  3. We hear your pain and respect your anger, as we heard it expressed by some of you in Mary Miller’s report of your responses to her questionnaire, published in the Covenant Quarterly.
  4. We are distressed by the continuing atmosphere of coolness or hostility encountered by all too many women who hold positions of leadership throughout the Covenant church.
  5. We do not claim complete understanding of the sexism that is one of the dominant evils in our society, yet we are committed to learning what it is, how it affects women and men, how it distorts our common life in Christ; we are committed to repenting of sexism so the Spirit of God can transform us. And,
  6. As part of our ongoing work in a church always being reformed by God’s Spirit, a church growing more whole as we believe Christ intends, we urge you to join us in considering some “facts of life” we believe affect our common life in church work: the search for a call, the consideration of volunteer possibilities, the selection or interview process, entering into work, how one is received, how one perceives oneself in ministry, how we respond to situations of frustration, conflict, and fulfillment. We think putting these facts into open conversation will help us all be stronger, saner, and more faithful.


Fact 1: American society is sexist, specifically masculinist. (It is also racist, ageist, classist…but we aren’t addressing all of that here!) Though we do not understand it fully, it is clear that sexism is both a psycho/cultural bias and complex of social institutions. It operates largely unconsciously, though its “symptoms” may be observed by the seeing eye. This complex reality – sexism – is based on an ancient intuition that the biological differences between men and women are a natural and revealed “message” about superiority/inferiority, value and worthlessness, competence/incompetence, appropriateness/inappropriateness.

To say our society is “sexist” has implications on three levels: Continue Reading

Jean C. Lambert

From Kelly Johnston’s, “Jean C. Lambert: Covenant Pastor, Theologian, Pioneer”

Jean Lambert, 1962 (image credit: CAHL 11847)

Jean Lambert, 1962 (image credit: CAHL 11847)

At the 97th Annual Meeting, held in Chicago, 1982, Jean Lambert (1940–2008) became the ninth woman to be ordained in the Evangelical Covenant Church. Lambert would go on to serve in a variety of diverse contexts, alternating between parish and academy. Beginning as professor of theology at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Missouri (1976–1985), Lambert took her first pastoral call at Bethesda Covenant Church in New York City (1985–1989). From Bethesda she reentered the academy as senior lecturer of religious studies at the University of Zimbabwe, Harare (1989–1991). After a second call to parish ministry as pastor of the International Fellowship Immanuelskyrkan in Stockholm, Sweden (1992–1998), she returned to the classroom in Zimbabwe, as associate professor of theology and ethics at Africa University in Mutare (1998–2004). Reflecting on her ministry at the end of her life, Lambert wrote, “I have been a boundary-straddler, my churches and communities crossing sociological, denominational, national, linguistic lines.”


Lambert credited the women’s movement for her later ability to “recognize the call of God for what it was” and accept that women could be called to pastoral ministry. At the same time, her desire for a less hierarchical church generated ongoing resistance to ordination. She was deeply convinced that the ministry to which every Christian was called could rightly be considered an ordained ministry…. Lambert’s main argument in “Un-Fettering the Word” is that the interpretation of Scripture should be available to all Christians regardless of their standing in the official leadership structures of the church. The article reflects Lambert’s passion for the priesthood of all believers. In time Lambert came to realize that despite her desire to maintain lay status, functionally she had already passed from laity to clergy by virtue of her vocation as a seminary professor.


Jean Lambert preaching at North Park Covenant Church, 1980s. (Image credit: CAHL 17717)

Jean Lambert preaching at North Park Covenant Church, 1980s. (Image credit: CAHL 17717)

Using the power of words as well as her presence in key places, Lambert was an advocate for Covenant women in ministry before and following her ordination. In agreeing to the Covenant’s position on baptism during the ordination process, Lambert had inserted “she or” and “or her” throughout the statement at each instance masculine language was used. She appended a note to the end of the document: “I am glad to agree in the Covenant’s statement on Baptism, here stated, and will commit myself to continuing work to deepen our mutual understanding and improve our language so as to upbuild the body of Christ.”


Lambert’s core conviction that all Christians were called to serve God was significant for her pastoral ministry. She articulated her goals for ministry in early 1987 as becoming “more aware of God’s presence so as to lead others into receptivity; to be faithful in use of Scripture so as to lead others into discerning God’s guidance and saying ‘yes’ to God’s unique call to them—as individuals, congregations, Christians institutions, and as workers in secular institutions.”


In the last years of her life, Lambert was honored by the church as well as the academy. It is fitting that her pioneering work was recognized by both fields she had served over the years… In 2006 the Evangelical Covenant Church honored Lambert with the Irving C. Lambert Award, an award recognizing excellence in support of urban and ethnic ministries, named in honor of her father… Professors Philip Anderson and Richard Carlson, who had enjoyed friendship with Lambert for many years, both felt it important that Lambert receive an honorary doctorate from North Park Theological Seminary, where she had always wanted to teach. At the 2008 commencement ceremony, Carlson presented Lambert with the honorary degree in absentia, as Lambert’s quickly declining health prevented her attendance.


Jean Lambert was a pioneer who helped pave the way for other Covenant women in ministry, as she wove together practical ministry and academic theology. She was a pastor who contributed significantly to the theological articulation of the Evangelical Covenant Church and a professor who shaped Christians into ministers capable of thinking theologically about life’s challenges. Her words continue to challenge us to partner together as mission friends, bringing glory to God as we love and serve “the Friend of friends” together.

Read the full article here

 Image credit: Covenant Archives and Historical Library (Historical Photograph Collection)

An Interview with Mary Miller

Ordained five years after the 1976 vote to ordain women in the ECC, Mary Miller conducted the very first decadal study on Covenant clergywomen. At the 2017 ECC Midwinter Conference in Louisville, Kentucky, Miller was honored with the North Park Theological Seminary Alumni Award for Distinguished Service. I was fortunate to sit down with Miller to discuss the 40-year survey, how it compared to her own findings thirty years prior, and what she hopes for the future of women in ministry in the ECC. Here is a portion of that conversation, lightly edited for publication.


Mary Miller accepting the North Park Theological Seminary Alumni Award for Distinguished Service, January 31, 2017

Mahon: After comparing the results of the forty-year study to your own experience with the ten-year study, what changes do you see that should be celebrated?

Miller: The way the author, Lenore M. Knight Johnson, concluded the study was a celebration. She didn’t say we’re in crisis pain or in the sharp pains of trying to figure it out and feeling rejection, but that there were more celebrations. There still are horrible situations, but there are more good ones. You know, on a percentage, on a holistic, wider vision, that’s really nice to hear. For people in my generation, we have not done anything. We have not gotten anywhere. We have one woman in a church over two hundred. One woman. One, after this many years. You have a tendency to get into a funk about what has not happened rather than what has….

We’re quite adept at saying, “Oh, we have so many women who are ordained!” And we changed it so that it’s not Word and Sacrament and Specialty Ministry – it’s all lumped together. I do affirm the priesthood of believers; I do affirm specialty ministries. But the role that challenges authority is Word and Sacrament – predominately preaching these days, more than other sacraments, with our theology. So I do so very much grieve that. I also really appreciated the author bringing in contemporary readings on the subject, because I don’t know that literature.

Mahon: I also appreciated that Knight Johnson brought in other studies. It’s one thing to look at where we are, but it’s helpful to know it’s not just us. It’s systemic among evangelical denominations.

Miller: Yes. We hardly ever bring in the Holiness Movement, women who were part of their founding. I knew a woman in her nineties from the Church of God in Indiana, Anderson, and they would brag on their women preachers. There is no second-guessing or anything, and I thought, “You know, they’re evangelical.” But we only bring in a certain kind of evangelical.

Mahon: In the ten-year study, you quoted a woman saying, “When I began ministry eight years ago, I did so with full hope that there would be others, women as ‘settlers’ who would follow, surpass, better us ‘pioneers.’ Now I find that hope not just frustrated but pretty much shattered.” As one of those pioneers, have you seen “settlers” follow you? Or do women graduating from seminary today still need to be ‘trailblazers’?

Miller: I would say there are more settlers. There are some who will go into much more difficult situations and take on the challenges….Some [men & women] are not fitted, temperament-wise, to do any challenging – or they challenge itty-bitty things, rather than the main things. There’s some wisdom, and Lord knows, I challenged wrong things. I have some really stupid and embarrassing situations (but I’m not going to tell them!). But you know, you have to pick and choose. You can’t just say that everything is important…

It’s been three years since I was on the Biblical Gender Equality Commission. At my last meeting I distributed a chart depicting the number of female pastors ordained to Word & Sacrament compared to the whole ministerium. That percentage was somewhere around twelve percent at one time. Over the course of forty years it has reduced to about two percent.  It marks a huge change in the landscape of ministers in the denomination. Even if new leadership made women in senior ministry a significant thing – like we as a denomination have done with racial diversity – it would take a long time to restore.

Ministry areas affecting that decrease are hirings for church planting and some of the conference visions rejecting egalitarian relationships. I asked if I could plant a church and was denied. The percentage of solo men to women as church planters is significant. Many of the women accepted are co-pastoring as complementarian planters with their husbands. We keep adding new planters from outside the Covenant who have no commitment to theology of women in senior leadership. I think it is a justice issue that Covenant money is being given predominantly to men for this specialization. Ha! I think I know who would win a class action lawsuit!

Mahon: One of the questions you asked respondents in the ten-year study was, “If you had a magic wand, what would you do with it to aid the progress of women in ministry in the Covenant?” How would you answer that question now?

Miller: I would bring that two percent up to about fifty-one percent.

Mahon: Do you have any advice or encouragement for beginning women pastors and seminary students?

Miller: The world is getting smaller with all the technology, all our relationships and traveling, so find alternate role models, encouragements, skills, and behavior sets. They’re out there and available now, which is different than when I started. You can borrow from other traditions. You can borrow from stories of people who are now known…. I’m going to accept this award tonight on behalf of my husband who paid for my degree and then died. It was an investment that we couldn’t afford, but it gave me my whole life. I’m also accepting it for Victoria Welter. In 1903 she was the first woman to get a theological degree from North Park Theological Seminary, and the class was allowed to vote whether or not she would be in the class picture. They voted no. Now, everybody thinks the story ends there, but the grace is that she became a missionary in China. So, I know that one illustration. It’s insidious, but I’m sure they were very nice about telling her she couldn’t be in the picture. Now, though, there are enough examples like that that we know, as well as the positive ones where they were stout and it worked. In some ways those resources – they don’t do the work for you, but they shore you up and encourage you.

Mary Miller was ordained in 1981, five years after the 1976 vote to ordain women in the Evangelical Covenant Church. She currently serves as the chaplain of Covenant Village of Cromwell, Connecticut

Mackenzie Mahon is an MDiv/MNA dual-degree candidate at North Park Theological Seminary and serves as student assistant for the Covenant Quarterly

Image credit: The Covenant Companion