With the advent of Bible apps for smart phones and waterproof Bibles for the foul elements, memorizing scripture does not seem to be a necessity for the open-air preacher. With fingertip availability of the Bible, open-air preachers may fall into the trap of thinking that knowing where the verse is in the Bible is just as satisfactory as memorizing it. While we can justify ignoring Scripture memorization for the sake of the efficient use of time, we must admit that this is an excuse. For many of us we do not memorize out of laziness and a lack of commitment. We do not believe in the power of the memorized Word of God to sanctify us and improve our preaching to the glory of God.
Throughout this series on women open-air preachers, you may have had certain passages of Scripture come to mind to refute my position. In this blog post, I will focus on three common citations which are used to support the validity of women preaching in the open-air. The most common exegetical mistakes involve either making category errors or failing to understand context. By reviewing each passage, you will see that these examples do not strengthen the arguments of those who advocate for women open-air preachers.
1. Deborah and Barak (Judges 4:1-24)
Deborah, a prophetess and judge in Israel, summons Barak to remind him of the Lord’s orders. He is to go and destroy Sisera’s army. Barak responds by pleading for Deborah to come with him. “If you will go with me, I will go, but if you will not go with me, I will not go.” (Judges 4:8). Deborah will satisfy his request, but it will cost Barak his glory. Deborah said, “I will surely go with you. Nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.” (Judges 4:9). At the end of the narrative, another woman, who is called Jael, kills Sisera with a tent peg. She receives Barak’s glory.
Those who advocate that women can open-air preach will use this passage as justification. They argue that Deborah is an example of a woman who preaches God’s Word. As a prophetess, she received divine revelation and communicated it to others. Therefore, advocates of women open-air preaches say that females can follow Deborah’s example.
There are four reasons to reject this rationale. First, the main message of the book of Judges is “everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” The descriptive narratives should not necessarily be taken as imperative commands on ordering the practice of preaching. Instead, we should use the principle of allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture. Therefore, we should start with the clear passages that instruct us on who should teach and preach (1 Tim. 2:9-14; 1 Tim. 3:1-7; 2 Tim. 2:1-2; Titus 1:5-9; James 3:1) before jumping to these descriptive examples which are set in unidealistic times.
Second, we must not equate prophecy with preaching. Prophecy is receiving direct revelation from God and saying, “Thus says the Lord!” Preaching is publicly explaining the divine revelation which has been inscripturated so that the hearers will accept it. I hold the position that the gifts of prophecy in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 have ceased. Dr. Sam Waldron promotes the cascade argument with which I am in agreement. He argues that since the gift of Apostles has ceased, then there are no gifts of prophecy, speaking in tongues, or miraculous healing. Therefore, a woman open-air preacher is not a prophetess like Deborah. She is not receiving new divine revelation. Due to this distinction, it is inappropriate to parallel Deborah’s ministry with women open-air preachers.
Third, Deborah’s ministry has a different context than open-air preaching. Verse 5 says, “She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the people of Israel came up to her for judgment.” This verse suggests that her ministry consisted of personal counseling to individuals who would seek her out for guidance from the Lord. While she is conducting the ministry outdoors, she is not going to the city gates to preach to the people a message of repentance. Her ministry is dissimilar from preaching.
Fourth, God judges Barak for not leading as a man should. He asks Deborah to come with him to the battle. Apparently, he received comfort in having her present. This suggests passive, cowardly leadership. Because he did not embrace his responsibilities to lead as a man, God gave the glory of winning the battle to a woman. Ultimately, this main point undermines women preachers. The consistent teaching in Scripture is that men should lead God’s people into worship and into spiritual battle. As Genesis 3 teaches us, Satan keeps trying to reverse the roles. This contributed to the uncertain circumstances in the book of Judges.
2. The Woman at the Well (John 4:1-42)
In John 4, Jesus has a gospel conversation with a Samaritan woman. He turns the conversation to the gospel by offering living water which will bring eternal life. Then, Jesus demonstrates His deity by communicating the woman’s personal history with men. She quickly transitions the conversation to a dialogue on worship. Jesus responds in verse 24, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” Afterwards Jesus gives a positive declaration that He is the Christ.
The woman leaves Jesus to go back to the town after the disciples arrive. She goes with haste to tell the people, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” Many of the townspeople go to find Jesus. The Lord provides an impromptu retreat where He teaches them the Scriptures for two days.
Advocates of women open-air preachers say that this is an example of a female preaching. She went to a public place in the community and ordered the people to come and see Jesus. Her announcement is public and regards spiritual matters. Therefore, the Samaritan woman gives female Christians an example to follow by preaching the gospel.
There are three reasons to reject this interpretation. First, the Samaritan woman’s example is descriptive and not prescriptive. John narrates the woman’s actions, but this should not be taken as a command or justification for women to preach.
Second, the Samaritan woman does not preach but testifies. She does not open the Scriptures to “rightly divide the Word of truth.” Instead, she comes back from the well excited since Jesus told her specific details about her life. Now she is telling the people to go to this same Jesus. It would be similar to a woman telling a group of people about the impact the Bible has had on her. She excitedly encourages everyone else to read it too. We certainly would not consider this testimony to be preaching since it is not an authoritative delivery of God’s Word. On the contrary, the woman is directing people to read the Word. They are to go hear Jesus’ voice in the Scriptures.
Third, Jesus is the preacher in the passage and not the woman. The townspeople go to Jesus and not the woman to receive instruction. Jesus spends two days with them to open up the Scriptures. In verse 42, the people said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.” Her testimony did not bring them to saving faith. Now they believe, because they have heard directly from Jesus’ mouth.
3. Philip’s Daughters (Acts 21:7-14)
Paul and Luke find hospitality in Philip the evangelist’s house when they arrive in Caesarea. Luke mentions that Philip had four daughters. He notes that all of them prophesied. After a few days, another prophet named Agabus comes from Judea. He prophesied that the Jews in Jerusalem “‘will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’” Of course, this predicts Paul’s imprisonment and relocation to Rome in order to stand trial before Caesar.
This passage illustrates the prophetic ministry. The Holy Spirit gave Agabus a message to speak to Paul. This message tells of future events which only the Lord could know. Therefore, the prophetic gift is different from preaching and teaching. It requires God to set aside a person to receive ongoing authoritative revelation from Him. Since the prophet’s message is from the Lord, then it is binding upon the recipients’ conscience.
A person cannot appeal to women prophets in Scripture to justify women open-air preachers without making category errors. The Greek word for prophesied means, “to speak under the influence of divine inspiration, with or without reference to future events” according to Louw-Nida. In contrast, preaching is not giving new special revelation. Instead, preaching publicly proclaims what God has already revealed in His Word.
This means to appeal to prophetesses in Scripture to support women preachers is poor exegesis. Miriam (Exodus 15:20), Huldah (2 Kings 22:14), and Noadiah (Nehemiah 6:14) are not examples of women preaching. Instead, they held an office which is no longer in effect. With the completion of the canon, prophecy has ceased. The Scriptures are the sufficient revelation for any believer in Jesus Christ. Consequently, the prophetesses’ examples cannot be applied to the ongoing debate of women open-air preachers.
In the previous two blog posts, we examined Biblical arguments for only having qualified men preach in the open-air. In this third installment, we will study the teaching and practice of George Whitefield and Charles Spurgeon.
Before we look at their ministry, we must remember their historical context. These men lived in a day where the question of women preachers was rarely addressed. I have not found in their writings or secondary sources where the question of women open-air preachers is specifically answered. Since they lived in a period before the prevalence of feminism, they either did not think about this question, or it was not important enough to address.
If Whitefield and Spurgeon did not address this question, then why are we reviewing their material? Both men had clear teachings on who should preach in a worship service in a church. Nowhere did they argue that women could preach. Also in their writings, they referred to open-air preaching as a service. In their understanding, preaching outdoors is the same as the worship on Sunday morning in a church. Therefore, it is appropriate to apply their understanding that only men can preach in church to open-air preaching as well.
I am arguing that these men would apply the principles of 1 Timothy 2:12 to open-air preaching since they considered it to be a worship service. To support this position, we will review the reasons why these men preached outdoors and examine their understanding of the open-air service.
A. Reasons Why Whitefield and Spurgeon Open-Air Preached
1. Did the location have a church building?
In Arnold Dallimore’s biography on George Whitefield, he referred to The Church of England’s policy on preaching outdoors. It “did not entirely prohibit out-of-doors preaching, but actually allowed it where no church was available, and it was on this principle that missionaries to primitive peoples, had always acted” (George Whitefield Vol. 1, pg. 250).
On this basis, Whitefield preached his first open-air sermon at Kingswood to two hundred people. Since the location did not have a church, then Whitefield did not have to ask permission from church authorities to preach there.
2. Did the churches refuse to allow Whitefield to preach in them?
After using the previous principle to start preaching outdoors, Whitefield expanded it to areas where the local churches declined to open their buildings to him. Dallimore wrote, “…he had developed the idea that in any instance in which he requested the use of a church for his evangelistic and charitable purposes and it was refused, he might look upon that area as in the same category as Kingswood, and that he would be within his rights in entering it and preaching there out of doors” (George Whitefield Vol. 1, pg. 257).
If God did not give Whitefield the use of a church building, then He gave him the use of the open-air to conduct services.
3. Was the crowd too large for the church building?
Griffith Jones, a Welsh pastor in the 18th century, was a trailblazer in open-air preaching. Many times he took his church services outdoors due to the crowds. Dallimore commented, “…whenever they were too many to be accommodated within the building he transferred the service to the churchyard or an adjacent field” (George Whitefield Vol. 1, pg. 260).
God blessed Charles Spurgeon with the same problem. Spurgeon’s autobiography recounts a visit to Scotland. The editor wrote, “The new church could not hold the multitude of people who came to hear, so Mr. Spurgeon kindly said that he would preach in the open air, and the 17th of May proved to be the first lovely summer day of the season. (C.H. Spurgeon Autobiography: Volume 2, pg. 254).
4. Are there people who would not come to church to hear the gospel preached?
In Spurgeon’s Lectures to His Students, he references to people “who have not fit clothes to worship in…” with garments “so filthy, so odorous, so unapproachable, that the greatest philanthropist and the most leveling democrat might desire to have a little space between himself and their lively individualities” (Lectures to His Students, pg. 269). These citizens either do not have appropriate clothes to meet their standard for attending church, or their filthy rags would embarrass them.
Spurgeon gives another reason for why a person may not come to the service. “There are others who, whatever raiment they wear, would not go into a chapel upon any consideration, for they consider it to be a sort of punishment to attend divine service” (Lectures to His Students, pg. 269). These individuals had distasteful memories from their previous church attendance.
What was his solution? Take the service to the people. “The open-air evangelist frequently picks up these members of the ‘no church’ party, and in so doing he often finds some of the richest gems that will at last adorn the Redeemer’s crown…” (Lectures to His Students, pg. 269). This is why Spurgeon recommends a young pastor to start open-air preaching when he moves to a town to take his charge (Lectures to His Students, pg. 274-275). He proposes that pastors in large towns should “find a vacant spot where you can obtain a right to hold services at your pleasure” (Lectures to His Students, pg. 274-275).
In Whitefield and Spurgeon’s minds, open-air preaching is a service. For the reasons listed above, a preacher takes the service outdoors. He leads the worship of the people through the preaching of the Word. Since it is a worship service, then their prohibition of women preaching in a worship service would apply.
B. Whitefield and Spurgeon’s Understanding of the Open-Air Preaching Service
1. Both men incorporated congregational singing.
Whitefield chronicled in his journal about a service he held at Kennington Common. He wrote, “All stood attentive, and joined in the Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer most regularly” (George Whitefield Vol. 1, pg. 289). Whitefield took Psalm singing and reciting the Lord’s Prayer outdoors since he considered the gathering to be a worship service to God.
When Spurgeon preached outdoors on September 10, 1862 in Cheddar, he began the service with a hymn. Pastor T. B. Field wrote down his eye witness account. “A temporary platform had been erected for the preacher, and Spurgeon commenced the service by saying, ‘Let us make these old rocks resound to the praise of God.’ The first hymn was, ‘All people that on earth do dwell’; and another that was sung was, ‘Rock of ages, cleft for me.’” (C.H. Spurgeon Autobiography: Volume 2, pg. 90). Spurgeon viewed his open-air preaching as being a service. He approached the worship as if he was leading the congregation at The Tabernacle.
2. Whitefield only allowed ordained men to preach with one exception.
George Whitefield applied the same standard to preaching indoors and outdoors. Only ordained men could preach. Dallimore wrote, “Whitefield did not favour lay preaching. In the exalted views that he held of the Christian ministry, he placed strong emphasis on the necessity of the Divine call, on adequate preparation and on ordination” (George Whitefield Vol. 1, pg. 304). Whitefield only made one exception to this rule. His friend, Howell Harris, sought ordination several times through the Church of England, but they denied him since he was with the Methodists. Whitefield declared that God had ordained him even if the church would not recognize it.
While I do not take Whitefield’s strict view on who can preach, it shows that he did not have separate standards. He had the same qualifications for preaching in a church building or for preaching outdoors. Since he viewed both as worship services, then he applied the same credentials. During this time, The Church of England did not ordain women to preach. Therefore, we can conclude that Whitefield would not permit women to open-air preach since they are not allowed to preach in a church.
3. Spurgeon referred to the open-air meetings as a service.
In a chapter on open-air preaching, Spurgeon gave advice on the preacher’s placement in respect to the sun. “Practiced preachers do not care to have the sun directly in their face if they can help it, neither do they wish their hearers to be distressed in like manner, and therefore they take this item into consideration when arranging for a service” (Lectures to His Students, pg. 274). He refers to the open-air preaching event as a service. The man is leading the people to worship Christ by faith.
In Spurgeon’s chapter on the history of open-air preaching, he quotes an account from the famous outdoor sermon involving John Livingstone in Scotland. In the days leading up to the sermon, “There had been many of them there together for several days before the sacrament, hearing sermons, and joining together in larger or lesser companies, in prayer, praise, and spiritual conferences” (Lectures to His Students, pg. 251). These outdoor meetings had all of the elements of worship. Instead of holding a conference in a church building, they worshiped under God’s glorious sky. Spurgeon would agree with the assessment that open-air preaching is a service.
4. Spurgeon referred to the preacher’s location as a pulpit.
Spurgeon recounts Whitefield’s first open-air preaching sermon at Kingswood. Since Whitefield went to preach in the field, Spurgeon commented, “Now he was the owner of a pulpit that no man could take from him and his heart rejoiced in this great gift” (Lectures to His Students, pg. 257-258).
Besides going to a field, a preacher can find an unusual portable pulpit. Spurgeon described Gideon Ouseley’s ministry by writing, “His pulpit was generally the back of his horse…” Lectures to His Students, pg. 260).
By using the language of a pulpit, Spurgeon links the preaching in a church building as being the same as preaching in the open-air. At the Tabernacle, Spurgeon’s pulpit stood powerfully at the center. This continued the protestant reformed tradition that the preached word is the center of worship and not the Lord’s Supper. This background illuminates how Spurgeon connected open-air preaching with conducting a worship service.
Whitefield and Spurgeon never conducted a church or an open-air service with a woman preacher. Since they believed that women could not teach or have authority over men, then they only allowed men to preach in public worship. They did not invite women to open-air preach because they understood the meetings as being a worship service. Therefore, these great preachers would not permit women to open-air preach.
In my previous post, I argued that the creation order forbids women from preaching during a worship service and outside during an evangelistic event. I examined passages from Genesis 2, 1 Timothy 2:11-14, Ephesians 5:25-27, and 1 Peter 3:1-6 which consistently cite the creation order as justification for separate roles for men and women. The Bible does not give an exception clause where this principle is not applied on the street corner. If a woman is not to teach her believing husband, unbelieving husband, and men in the church, then why is she to preach to unbelieving men outside of the church?
In this post, I will be scrutinizing a false assumption. When a person argues that a woman cannot preach in a church on Sunday, but they can open-air preach outside the ballgame on Saturday, then they are assuming that those two preaching ministries are intrinsically different. This creates two classes of preachers based upon context. Therefore, they must conclude that open-air preachers have different qualifications from Sunday indoor preachers since they are preaching outdoors. This allows the qualification of being a man to be removed from the list.
However, the Bible does not make this distinction. Preaching is preaching. Whether a person preaches in the pulpit or on the street corner, the qualifications should be the same. If preaching is the public proclamation of God’s Word in order to urge individuals to accept it, then context does not change the qualifications. If a person is not qualified to preach in the pulpit, then he should not be preaching on the street. Therefore, a woman should not open-air preach since she is not allowed to preach during the worship service.
By looking at five categories from the Bible, I will show that God does not create a false dichotomy between indoor and outdoor preaching. Indoor preaching on Sunday is the public proclamation of the Scriptures. It is not private instruction for only Christians. All people are welcome to hear the Word of God preached just as all individuals are invited to hear the Scriptures proclaimed on the city square. Since all preaching requires a herald to publicly proclaim God’s Word, then preaching is the same event without distinction to time, place, or audience.
1. Moses is proclaimed in the synagogues.
Acts 15:21 states, “For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.”
The word, proclaim, is the Greek word, κηρύσσω. Louw and Nida defines it as “to publicly announce religious truths and principles while urging acceptance and compliance.” This is the main word translated as “preaching” or “proclaiming” in the New Testament. The word, εὐαγγελίζω, which means “to communicate good news concerning something” can also be translated as “preach.” Finally, the word for teach is διδάσκω which refers to “formal or informal instruction” and is translated as “teach”. This word is not translated as “preach” in the New Testament. The Scriptures distinguish between preaching and teaching. They are not synonymous activities.
Why do I make this distinction? Preaching is inherently public. κηρύσσω refers to public proclamation in every use. In Acts 15:21, the counsel at Jerusalem cites the ancient practice of Scripture reading in the synagogues. Luke uses the word for public proclamation even though the Scriptures were being read in the synagogue building. Reading from the Pentateuch was a public and not a private activity even though it took place in a building.
2. Jesus’ disciples proclaim in the communities.
Luke 9:2 states, “And he called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal.”
Jesus sends His disciples to the communities to proclaim the Gospel. The same word from Acts 15:21 is used here. Jesus commands them to publicly announce the Gospel message and implore people to accept it. If they do not believe, then they are to shake off the dust of their feet as a testimony against the people.
Jesus only sent the twelve men to perform this task. He did not send out women to minister across the town in order to publicly call sinners to Jesus Christ. Elsewhere in the New Testament, κηρύσσω and εὐαγγελίζω are not used to describe women. Men are the only ones who preach evangelistically in a community or to the local church.
Acts 8:5-8 says, “Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip, when they heard him and saw the signs that he did. For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was much joy in that city.”
After the persecution in Jerusalem, Philip travels to Samaria to publicly plead with the citizens to believe in Jesus Christ. Luke does not record if Philip’s preaching took place outside or in a building. These details are not necessary. His point is that God used Philip to preach, which by definition is a public ministry.
3. Paul proclaims the Gospel.
In Acts 9:20, the new convert Saul, who is called Paul, publicly preaches Christ. “And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’” The same word, κηρύσσω, is translated as “proclaimed.” This word refers to a herald announcing the words of a King in public. He is the sovereign’s mouthpiece to inform the public of the king’s decree. In the same way, Paul entered the synagogue to proclaim the true way of salvation to the Jews who were persecuting Christians.
In Acts 20:25, Luke uses the same word to describe Paul’s ministry to the Ephesians. “And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again.” In his farewell address, Paul testifies that he ministered the whole counsel of God to the Ephesians. He publicly proclaimed Christ to the city which created a remnant as a church. Then, he continued to publicly preach to those Christians about the Scriptures.
These two instances show that the changing contexts did not create two forms of preaching. In Acts 9:20, Paul preached to unbelieving Jews in a synagogue. In Acts 20:25, Paul testifies to preaching to the Christians in Ephesus. The time, place, and audience did not change the definition of preaching. It is a public proclamation of God’s Word with the aim of imploring the hearers to accept it. Paul did not embrace a dichotomy in preaching based upon the circumstances of the sermon delivered.
4. Paul commands Timothy to preach the gospel.
2 Timothy 4:1-2 says, “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.”
In Paul’s last epistle, he continued to disciple Timothy. He has entrusted him with the Gospel message in order to preach. Timothy is to find other men who he can disciple and train for the gospel ministry as well (2 Tim. 2:2). These men are to imitate Paul and Timothy by teaching the gospel to others. In Paul’s discipleship program, he requires the faithful men who are students to become teachers.
When Paul chooses the next generation of preachers, he does not select any women. His pastoral epistles are directed to Timothy and Titus. They are required to find faithful men to lead the church as elders and to become teachers of the gospel. Paul commands Timothy to preach the Word of God. This is central to the gospel ministry. However, he does not give instructions for Timothy to find women to preach the gospel. The only reference to women teaching takes place in Titus 2. It is the context of older women teaching the younger women to be godly wives and mothers. The charge of public proclamation is only given to faithful men like Timothy.
5. John the Baptist and Jesus proclaimed the gospel.
In Matthew 3:1, John the Baptist preached the gospel outdoors. “In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea…” As the forerunner to the coming Messiah, he publicly proclaimed the message of repentance and faith to the Jews.
When the Messiah came, he continued to preach the same message under different circumstances. Unlike John, Jesus proclaimed the gospel in the Jewish synagogues. Luke 4:4 says, “And he was preaching in the synagogues of Judea.” Jesus’ preaching ministry included open-air in Matthew 5-7 and in the religious establishment’s house of worship. In both contexts, Jesus kept the same message and method of delivery. He preached the Word publicly, so that the audience would accept it.
John the Baptist’s preaching and Jesus’ proclamation contained the same elements. First, they both preached the gospel message. Second, God had sent both to preach. Third, they declared these truths publicly. The society considered the synagogue to be a public place. Fourth, they urged their hearers to accept the message. These elements were present in both ministries. Therefore, there are not two separate categories of preaching.
The Bible does not teach that a person can both be disqualified from preaching in a worship service, and yet qualified to preach in the open-air. Instead, the Scriptures ask, “Are you qualified to preach?” Since the most common words for preach, κηρύσσω and εὐαγγελίζω, are not used to command or describe a woman engaging in this ministry, then a person must conclude that a woman must not preach. The time, location, or audience does not determine if a woman is qualified to preach. Contrary to society norms, God has not made women to preach. The Bible presents a preacher as a faithful, Christian man whom God has called and other men have affirmed to preach the gospel under all circumstances.
Pastor Brandon was born and raised near Springfield, IL. He graduated from Illinois College in 2007 with a B.A. in History, from Moody Theological Seminary in 2010 with a Master of Divinity, and a PhD in Historical Theology in 2021 from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City. He is also an ACBC certified Biblical counselor. He is married to Karise with whom they raise Ian, Elizabeth, and Patrick. He is interested in history, especially Charles Spurgeon, and has a heart for street preaching and evangelism.