Women in the History of Small Groups
Image: Saint-Petersburg Orthodox Theological Academy/Flickr

Women in the History of Small Groups

From Pentecost to the modern small-group movement, women have always been involved.

The worldwide small-group movement was birthed in South Korea in the mid-1960s. David Cho, the founding pastor of Yoido Full Gospel Church, had become utterly exhausted and was confined to bed rest for two years. He realized that he was acting like Moses in Exodus 18 by performing the ministry on his own. When his male elders refused to help, he asked his women deaconesses to open home groups and apply his sermons, thus launching the modern day cell group explosion. The female-led small groups grew to 19,000 groups, in comparison to 6,000 male-led groups. Cho was convinced that women should play a primary role in small groups.

Another well-known small-group revival was led by John Wesley when he developed an effective small-group system known as the Methodists in the 1700s. It was so monumental that in 1928, Archbishop Davidson wrote, "Wesley practically changed the outlook and even the character of the English nation." What is less known is that Wesley's small-group system was led primarily by women. Wesley's own mother, Susanna, had previously exemplified the effectiveness of small-group ministry by leading a small group in her home that transformed lives and instilled the vision for small groups in both John and Charles.

Of course, Cho and Wesley were only rediscovering the role that women have always played in the New Testament church, especially in small groups. While female leadership might have been new and innovative in Wesley's day—or even for David Cho in the 1960s—it was a common occurrence in the early New Testament church. After all, Christ liberated women and elevated them (Mark 15:41; Luke 23:27; John 20).

Spiritual Gifts to Men and Women

When the church was born on the day of Pentecost, Peter's first sermon portrayed women as full participants in his church. He reminded his hearers,

These men are not drunk, as you suppose. It's only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: "In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy" (Acts 2:15-18).

The culture of Peter's day was male-dominated and women were commonly assigned the status of servitude and even treated by some as if they were dogs. Yet the coming of the Spirit made women full participants. Paul goes so far as to make them equal with men in Galatians 3:28, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." Speaking of this text, Gordon Fee writes,

Indeed, on the basis of this text and its place in the argument of Galatians—where socialized distinctions between people in their relationship to God have been overcome by Christ and the Spirit—one must argue that the new creation has brought in the time when the Spirit's gifting (the Spirit who is responsible for ushering in the new order) should precede roles and structures, which are on a carryover from the old order that is passing away.

This new era or new creation is focused on the Spirit working through both male and female.

The Active Roles of Women

The early house church era belonged to women as much as men. Arthur Patzia, professor of New Testament at Fuller Seminary, writes, "The overall impression from Luke's and Paul's perspective is that women played a significant role in the life, ministry, and leadership of the early church."

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