As the youngest in a family of four children, there were a lot of benefits to the birth order God gave me. For starters, I had an automatic posse wherever I went. There was also an expectation put on my older siblings to “look out for your baby sister.” And by the time I came around, Grandma just couldn’t say “no” any longer (I particularly leveraged this benefit around Christmas time!). But I think the biggest advantage to being the youngest is that you rarely got in trouble, not because you weren’t bad (believe me), but because you could watch what your older siblings did, and if they got in trouble for something you could either figure out a different way to do it or avoid it all together. I was able to learn quite well from my brother’s mistakes.
“If you do not learn from history, you are doomed to repeat it.”
This is a quote my history professor used to say to us every so often in my undergrad history class. History repeats itself unless you learn from it and change. Church History is no exception. It has its good guys, the ones you admire and seek to emulate; and it has its bad guys, the ones you shake your head at and say, “What were you thinking?” I’ve introduced you to some of its heroines of the faith, now it’s time to be introduced to Church History’s Bad Girl’s Club.
Julian was a young lady devoted to the church. She lived in Norwich, England at the end of the 14th century. By the time she was 30, Julian fully embraced the aesthetic lifestyle of self-inflicting poverty and suffering. After falling ill Julian began to receive her “visions.” Deemed one of the first mystics of the Catholic’s church history, Julian focused much of her writing and teaching on her revelations in which she often refers to God, as well as Christ, as “Mother.” She also taught the idea that God was so loving that sin was easily overlooked. In fact, Adam’s original sin was really an accident, a mere mishap. Mankind was really innately good, we just mess up every once in a while. Christ’s atonement was more like a partnership where He made up for what we left off.
The problem is that none of these teachings were supported by Scripture. It was all Julian. The longer she taught her visions as divine revelation, the further and further she got away from actual truth of Scripture.
Ann Hutchinson was a spit-fire of a woman. She and her husband were members of the Reverend John Cotton’s church in Boston in the early 17th century when America was first being established by the Puritans. Ann would hold weekly meetings inside her home to further discuss the sermons Rev. Cotton would preach the previous Sunday. While these meetings may have seemed innocent enough at the start, they soon escalated to the point where they caused divisions within the church and in the colony over key doctrinal issues. Ann began to take over the meetings and expounded on more than just the sermons. She started preaching entire sermons herself. Ann was ordered by the Court of Massachusetts to disband her weekly meetings, but she refused. Then she began to speak about her personal revelations, telling the court that the colony would be annihilated because of their treatment of her. Mrs. Hutchinson, unfortunately, did not listen to the authorities given to her by God.
Margaret Fell Fox was an interesting lady. She adhered to the Quaker life and belief system which allowed women to preach. She claimed that women’s subjection to men was a part of the curse, and was eradicated when Christ came. She wrote a book called, “Women Justified, Proved, and Allowed of by the scriptures, all such as Speak by the Spirit and Power of the Lord Jesus.” (Long title, huh?) In this book, she bypasses Paul’s addresses to women preaching in 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 14, chalking them up to merely culturally restrictive mandates and not timeless principles of church practice. Interestingly enough, Margaret and her husband, Quaker-founder George Fox, spent very little time together, lived in separate homes (and sometimes separate countries), and had more of a spiritual bond – mutually advocating for Quakerism -rather than a biblical marriage.
Phoebe Palmer and her husband, Dr. Walter Palmer, were part of the Holiness Movement of the 19th century in New York. Early in their marriage, one of the Palmer’s children died and as a result Phoebe became very depressed. Around this time she received what she called a “second blessing.” In her opinion, salvation was the “first blessing,” but this second one was an added anointing of the Holy Spirit. She began to write about the true meaning of holiness and much of her early work is very good. She saw holiness as something given by God for the present, not simply for the future. She coined the phrase “laying all on the altar” which many evangelists still use today. But however positive her beginning, Palmer ended up way off the mark. She began holding weekly meetings- to promote this spiritualized “holiness.” Hundreds of men and women would come every Tuesday to hear Palmer preach. As a key part of the Holiness Movement, she gave much authority to “spiritual encounters” and visions, encouraging people to let their personal experiences trump Paul’s teachings which were supported by Christ and Scripture.
So there you have it. The Bad Girl’s Club of Church History. Sure, these aren’t the worst women that history can dig up. Scripture has some doozies of its own. But what makes these women particularly interesting (and equally dangerous) is that where they started out is not where they ended up. Each of them began on the right track, wanting to serve the Lord, seeking to know Him more, desiring His Word to be preached. All of those are great and noble aims. The problem lies in how they went about making their goals happen.
The sobering lesson from history is that you and I are not above falling into the same lines of reasoning in our desires to attain to our goals. God gives us certain gifts, and in our finite knowledge, we think that there is only one way to use that gift – if we are talented Bible teachers, then surely God wants us to be a pastor; if we are talented public speakers, then God must want us to have some huge public ministry. We can quickly forget the portions of Scripture that mandate our role as women to proclaim the Gospel. Or we may not even forget them, but like Margaret Fox, we justify them into being inapplicable to us and our situation. So how are we to guard ourselves from being inducted into the Bad Girl’s Club of Church Present?
1. Have humility
It seems like the first thing to go when we sin is humility. When we start thinking that we know best, better than our leadership, better than God, better than His Word, we start down a path that will end in trouble. We must have humility, and to have this we must realize that God’s ways are not always our ways (Isa. 55:8). He has a way and order of doing things that always has a reason and ultimately makes perfect sense, whether we get it or not. The question is do we have the humility to trust in that way when it doesn’t make sense to us? There is a trust in God’s goodness and perfect will that comes into play.
2. Have absolute adherence to the Word of God.
If God’s Word says it, it’s so! Pure and simple. God’s Word must be your ultimate trump card. It must take its rightful place of ultimate authority in our lives if we want to be sure not to go off the deep end. This was a major problem for each of these women mentioned. Each of them viewed God’s Word as subpar authority in their lives. If they hadn’t, they would have seen 1 Timothy 2 as defining their role in the portrayal of the Gospel, and sought to live out that role in their lives regardless of their gifting or desire. Because the bottom line is, God’s calling in our lives is never going to trump His Word. Never. And if we think it might, we are the ones that have it wrong about His calling, not Him.
3. Have accountability.
Accountability is one of the surest ways to keep yourself on track. Having other people in your life who can hold you to a standard of absolute and humble adherence to God’s Word is vitally important. Seek it out.
“If we don’t study history, we are doomed to repeat it.” Let’s learn from these women’s mistakes with humility, obedience and accountability so that the Gospel can be most effective to a watching world here and in the future….when WE become a part of Church History.