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by Josephine Benton

Can any one forbid water for baptizing these
people who have received the Holy Spirit
just as we have?

—Acts 10:47, RSV


  "Can Any One Forbid?"

A Biblical Analogy

After speaking with the voice of a storyteller, I cannot resist turning "preacher" in this last chapter and the conclusion. Review with me, if you will, the account recorded in Acts 10 and 11 and reflect on its relevance to the present situation. This segment of early church history gave me courage as I entered the ministry in 1973.

Peter, waiting for lunch on the housetop in Caesarea, fell into a trance. He saw a great sheet of sailcloth being lowered from heaven by the corners; in it he saw beasts, reptiles, and birds excluded from the diet according to Biblical laws. At the same time a voice instructed, "Rise, Peter; kill and eat." 1

Peter protested, "No, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean."

"What God has cleansed," came the immediate response, "you must not call common." The exchange was repeated three times; then the sheet with animals was lifted into the sky.

While Peter puzzled over the meaning of the vision, men sent to him from a Gentile centurion by the name of Cornelius knocked at the gate of the house. They requested that Peter visit the centurion, who they assured him was a man of exceptional character. Considering the message of the trance to be relevant to this unusual invitation, Peter accompanied the messengers to the Gentile's home.

To Cornelius and those whom he had assembled Peter stated, "You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit any one of another nation." So strong was the prohibition against this kind of mixing of Jew with Gentile that Peter had considered it to be unlawful.

Convinced as he was now of the Spirit's direction, Peter nevertheless anticipated problems with church leadership when he returned; for this reason he had brought along peers to witness whatever might take place.

As Peter told of Christ's teachings and works—attested to as well by his companions—and preached of judgment and remission from sins, he was astonished to see the Holy Spirit falling upon his listeners. They were eagerly accepting his words, and God was visibly accepting them.

Peter and his companions consulted together briefly. They could hear these Gentile converts speaking in tongues and magnifying the true God. "Can any one forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?"2 Peter asked. Thereupon he took responsibility for the baptism of the Gentile converts in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. A time-established barrier had been broken.

After establishing their converts in the faith, Peter and his companions returned to Jerusalem, overjoyed because they had been instruments of the Holy Spirit.

Soon Peter found himself under interrogation by the apostles. Why, they wanted to know, had Peter unlawfully accepted uncircumcised people into the church?

Church policymakers were told how the Holy Spirit had affirmed those Gentile converts. For this reason, Peter explained, he did not feel free to bar from baptism into Christ the Gentiles who had received the baptism of the Holy Spirit "just as we."

The Jerusalem church leaders accepted this evidence. They not only ceased their opposition but actually glorified God. They rejoiced that their Lord wanted Gentiles as well as themselves.

This story highlights a dramatic turn-around in early church policy.

When I assumed the duties of an associate pastor in the 1970s, I thought, If God is pleased to call women into the ministry and to bless them with a portion of His Holy Spirit, then this action on God's part will soon become evident. At that point surely the church will cease considering ordination of women to the ministry to be inappropriate,3 just as the early church ceased to consider the acceptance of Gentiles into the faith to be unlawful.

However, as Annual Councils and General Conference Sessions followed one another for years with the results of repeated "further study" never resulting in full acceptance, other women ministers and I were puzzled. After a growing number of us had spent years of service in the ministry without seeing a move toward ordination, I thought at first that my hope deriving from that Biblical model was not going to materialize.

Still later I realized that the analogy did hold, but in a different way from what I had expected. The denomination now is much larger than the early church, both geographically and numerically, and so progress on women's ministry to this point has been local rather than global in scope. Where there has been opportunity for women to accept God's call, a demonstration of the presence of the Holy Spirit has occurred, and in many such cases leadership has been more than willing for women to be fully accepted into ministry. The Potomac and Southeastern California Conferences, in which a growing group of women have been ministering during the last two decades, officially support their women ministers; Ohio is also affirmative. During 1989 two union conferences (the Columbia Union Conference Executive Committee on May 4 and the Pacific Union Conference on June 7) voted actions approving ordination of qualified women, either in general or specifically. These church entities agreed to delay ordination until after the General Conference Session of July 1990.4 The Biblical analogy does hold true that as women are called into ministry and blessed by the Holy Spirit, recognition of God's acceptance is followed in many cases by acceptance of church leadership.

Until the denomination decides to accept its women ministers fully, there will still be women called by God to carry as many of the responsibilities of evangelistic, pastoral, counseling, and Bible teaching work as they are allowed to shoulder.

However, they look for the time when convicted church leaders will ask, "Can any one forbid" that these women should be accorded full participation in ministry, inasmuch as they "have received the Holy Spirit just as we?"


1 Acts 10:13, RSV. Scripture quotations in the remainder of the chapter are from Acts 10 and 11, the RSV, unless otherwise indicated.

2 Acts 10:47, RSV.

3 Actually, a resolution favoring ordination of women to the ministry was made as early as 1881. (See Appendix C.)

4 See Appendix C for relevant actions taken at the 1990 General Conference.

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