The discussions were only whispered at first, but they were persistent. Should women be allowed to become colporteur leaders?
But by now the feminist movement was gaining alarming ground in worldly circles. Feminism insisted women should be able to force their way into any position men could fill. Feminism demanded that women become soldiers in the trenches of war! Worse, it spat in the face of God’s ordained plan for husbands to be the heads of families. Surely by allowing women equal opportunity to sell books, and especially to teach men to do so, the colporteur work was joining a spiraling downward trend toward evil.
It was decided that the church should not support or appear to join such a dangerous movement. Accordingly, almost all female colporteurs were removed from the field of ministry. Those allowed to continue until retirement were not replaced. In select liberal areas, a few were allowed to receive training, but this was frowned upon by other areas that held to what was considered a more biblical view of male headship. Those who received training were warned that they probably were receiving it in vain, as they would likely not be hired. This proved true. Females in the canvassing ministry became nearly a thing of the past.
This had an especially negative impact on the ministry of selling books to women, because many women would not open doors when men knocked, or confide to men about what books they needed. A few desperate women did appeal to men for help with heart issues, but problems of inappropriate interaction sometimes developed. After that, men were trained to avoid talking alone for any length of time, or in any depth, with women at doors. This tragic development, of course, meant that the women in most neighborhoods were left unreached, unable to buy the books they desperately needed. But it could not be helped. This, it was declared, was God’s way. Women who needed help would have to find it in self-help bookstores down the street.
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For decades the canvassing work limped along with virtually no female assistance. Those who volunteered their efforts because of a strong sense of calling were sometimes reluctantly allowed to work, but books were only supplied to them at a rate that meant they worked basically for free. After all, confusion with the feminist movement could not be allowed. However, the women who could, kept working cheerfully, because to them all that mattered was spreading the Gospel.
Finally, the work was suffering so greatly that the men in charge of colporteur programs decided to reopen discussion about women’s ministry. They formalized the debate by creating a committee of colporteur leaders to prayerfully study and examine the situation.
A strong unity was reached on some obvious points immediately: women had clearly been used by God in the past to spread His Word through canvassing, and God’s work was being grievously injured by the current approach. Furthermore, if women were doing this work, they should be paid for doing it—and paid equally with men. The current way of handling things was disgraceful and should not be tolerated. Almost all of the women called, qualified and burdened to do the canvassing work—including many of the most naturally gifted—had been turned away from the work. Almost to a man, everyone agreed this catastrophe must be remedied!
Ignoring this immediate crisis, however, the colporteur leaders now focused their time and study on three elements upon which they could not agree. Was it biblical to have a ceremony in which hands were laid on the women, and a prayer was offered for their ministry to be Spirit-filled? Could such women be called “colporteur leaders”? And most importantly, was it biblical to allow women to teach men how to canvass?
Most of the colporteur leaders freely admitted that they had benefited richly from women teaching or training them in the past. Many of the best books they sold were written by a female author. But some still held staunchly to what they claimed was the Biblical standard—that only men could teach or lead other men in spiritual matters.
On these points, the discussion raged, with leaders on both sides arguing passionately for their understanding of a Biblical approach. The longer the battle continued, the sharper it became, until a permanent canyon threatened to open between the two sides. “We cannot compromise,” both sides insisted. “We must obey the Bible.” Even the work that had been going well for decades was now threatened by the debate about allowing women to join in spreading the Gospel.
Finally, a tentative suggestion was made by a small group—women who were canvassers. Many of them had been selling books quietly for years, at little or no profit. Scores of others longed to do so, but could not, because they could not afford to leave their other responsibilities unless they were paid to do the work they felt God was calling them to do, selling books. Now they came unitedly to the committee to present a solution.
“Could we perhaps redirect our energies into solving the present crisis?” the women asked. “As we argue about these issues, women in the neighborhoods you are canvassing are dying without hope and without God. You dare not reach them, and even if you would, they dare not ask you for help.
“If we can be trained, equipped and paid decently, we will be happy to go out into the field and work. You don’t need to worry about calling us ‘colporteur leaders,’ or even about laying hands on us and praying for the Spirit to bless our ministries. Just let us work. Reduce the price of books to one that we can reasonably afford, and we can go out to save souls.”
And the women who could, kept working cheerfully, because to them all that mattered was spreading the Gospel.
Note: To read part 1 of this installment, click here.[/box_holder]
Nicole Parker was once a zealot intent on changing the world, but is now an astonishingly domesticated homeschooling mom living in quite possibly the tamest town on earth–Collegedale, Tennessee. While engaged in her mundane tasks of chopping veggies and sweeping floors, she enjoys lofty theological ponderings, a pursuit also enjoyed by her husband Alan, a professor at Southern Adventist University. This penchant has led her to inch her way through a master’s degree in biblical counseling, and now has her devouring a master’s degree in pastoral ministry from Andrews University. However, she has zero intention, and even less desire, to become a pastor. Check out her website at www.heartthirst.com