Minter Lane Church of Christ in Abilene, Texas, appointed two female elders one year ago today.
Cynthia Litton Cooke and Rendi Young Hahn, both long-time members, were ordained by the congregation during a December 8, 2019, service in which the preaching minister proclaimed, “the love of God is both masculine and feminine. And I feel like today we are more complete, now we have feminine hands caring for this church alongside the masculine hands. … So we come closer to representing what the church is.”
The service included women and men serving communion together, leading prayer at separate times, and speaking to the congregation, including women conducting the invitation to the offering and charging the elders and the congregation with their responsibilities.
Minter Lane is not the first Church of Christ to open its eldership to women and men.
It is a momentous occasion, though, as the vast majority of Churches of Christ completely prohibit women and girls from speaking, leading, and actively serving in their worship service—including from leading prayer, reading scripture, preaching, leading singing, and serving communion—and prohibit females from serving as elder, deacon, or adult Sunday School teacher.
Only about 2% of all Christianity completely prohibits women and girls as described, and the vast majority of that tiny percentage is the Churches of Christ.
The number of Churches of Christ congregations that have lifted their prohibitions on women and girls remains relatively small, but those that have studied relevant scripture as a congregation and ended such prohibitions are increasing.
With around 150 members, Minter Lane saw a few families depart due to it selecting female elders, but the overwhelming majority supported the decision.
Scripture regarding elders, including the phrase “husband of one wife,” is a focus of congregations considering female elders. The Minter Lane congregation engaged in classroom study, focus-group discussions, and conversations regarding scripture, aided by Bible professors from Abilene Christian University, a school affiliated with the Churches of Christ.
Some families departed prior to this, unwilling to continue participating while women were prohibited from some roles and functions. Families also joined the congregation due to it becoming inclusive.
Among current members, there is a sense of great hope for the future.
A Second Try
Cooke served in a variety of ways at Minter Lane since becoming a member in 1982. She had a 40-year career in higher education, recently retiring from Abilene Christian University. There, she served as Dean of Student Life, Assistant Director of Financial Aid, and Career Development Manager.
Hahn was Children’s Minister at Minter Lane for nearly 8 years and was a teacher and small-group discussion leader for Bible Study Fellowship. She is Assistant Vice President for Campaigns, Research and Technology at ACU. Cooke and Hahn are ACU graduates.
Both were asked over 5 years ago by some Minter Lane members during an elder-selection process to serve as elders, but both independently declined. They explained they had not given any thought to becoming an elder up to that point and felt it was not time, partly because Minter Lane had not had a congregation-wide discussion about women becoming elders.
Women had served in other roles at Minter Lane, including leading prayer in the assembly and serving communion, but they had not yet discussed women preaching or serving as an elder. Several members encouraged Cooke and Hahn to consider serving as elders in the future.
Congregation-Wide Scripture Study and Discussion
Minter Lane later engaged in congregation-wide study, teaching, and discussions about women serving as elders and preachers, with a focus on scripture. Its leadership initiated this effort and sought to talk with every adult member.
Professors from Abilene Christian University who attend Minter Lane helped, including professors from the Bible Studies college, Dr. Christopher Hutson and Dr. Ken Cukrowski, and a professor from its church history department, Dr. Douglas Foster (an elder at Minter Lane as well).
After these efforts, the elders communicated that all members are encouraged to serve in any way, regardless of gender. Minter Lane has had women preach several times since.
The COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing closely followed Cooke and Hahn becoming elders, and they had to adapt almost immediately to a new pastoring and serving paradigm. Minter Lane’s services and elder meetings have been online since mid-March.
Cynthia Litton Cooke
Cynthia Cooke grew up in the Churches of Christ, and much of her extended family is part of it.
On initially saying no 5 years ago, Cooke explained, I was “concerned about how other members would feel. I didn’t want people blindsided. Not that it was wrong for us to serve as elders, it was just the wrong time.”
Cooke was married to a highly respected ACU professor, Dr. Jim Cooke, who passed away in January 2019.
She talked with him about the prospect, and he wholeheartedly supported her serving as an elder. This was very important to her willingness to serve and “meant a lot” to her. She described Dr. Cooke as “half of my functioning” and that it has been a “time of grief.”
Prayers, Children and Grandchildren
Cooke has a heart for service in God’s kingdom.
Cooke’s prayers to God have included asking for the courage to walk through “any door God opens,” and she felt like serving as an elder “was part of God’s answer to my prayers.” This may in part be God’s call to me “to look after some of the other widows” in particular, she said.
Also, “I want my children and grandchildren to grow up to see women publicly involved in the life of the church.”
Cooke’s older daughter, Jennifer McMillen, majored in Bible at ACU and became a youth minister and served at a Church of Christ before moving on to join the staff at Northpoint Community Church, outside Atlanta, where well-known minister Andy Stanley is the senior pastor. She has served in several roles there, including as the director of middle school groups and singles ministry groups.
Cooke explained that she is glad that her daughter overcame teaching from the Churches of Christ world that discourages females from dedicating themselves to public ministry.
Cooke recently spoke at a session of “Big Questions,” sponsored by Kaufman Church of Christ, where she engages in a wide-ranging and insightful discussion with its senior minister, Doug Page, about grief, faith and living with gratitude in the midst of loss. She quotes from Psalm 121, “I lift up my eyes to the mountains. Where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord. … [H]e will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.”
“Serve However I Can”
The Churches of Christ is one of the most, if not the most, restrictive Christian groups of size relative to women and girls serving in the church.
When asked about female elders being controversial within its congregations, Cooke said, “I don’t want to be a poster child for the Churches of Christ. I just want to be where I am and serve however I can.”
Minter Lane has a “shepherd’s prayer,” one led by an elder, every Sunday, and Cooke has received much positive feedback on having a feminine voice lead prayer while addressing coronavirus-related struggles.
She noted that she “didn’t get to go to the prayer and service training classes my brothers went to,” so she has had some trepidation about leading prayer, but she gets up and “just prays, more conversational than theological” and “hearing a mother’s heart, a grandmother’s heart,” has been appreciated by women and men.
Rendi Young Hahn
When Rendi Hahn joined Minter Lane over 25 years ago, women were already reading scripture from the pulpit. Later, women began leading prayer and singing and serving communion.
“One of my sweetest memories is of my husband, our two daughters, and I serving communion together. It gave me great hope for my daughters.”
Many in her extended family, both her own and her husband’s, were and are part of the Churches of Christ. Both of her grandfathers and her dad served as elders in Churches of Christ congregations.
She worried about how some family members might react or that it might cause people within the Churches of Christ to treat her family members differently. But conversations with her extended family have gone well, and she has had support and help from her mom and dad, which she appreciates.
Her congregation has been supportive. “The Minter Lane congregation reacted very positively to Cynthia and my selection as elders, with great love, joy, and support.”
On worship assemblies at Minter Lane, Hahn says, “it is a great blessing to see the door open for all Christians to use their gifts for the body of Christ. Worship time has been richer, due to the variety of people participating. Women often pray and preach differently than men might.”
“A missionary from China recently preached at Minter Lane, discussing the experience of motherhood in her sermon in a way that a man couldn’t. For both women and men, girls and boys, to hear that was wonderful. It gave me great hope for our congregation.”
Worry, Then Peace
“I worried about the possibility of causing division, of causing problems for people. It’s a lot to hang on a person, that they are the one who might cause problems for a church or church members, people you love, when all that person wants to do is serve God and others in the way God is calling them. I had to wrestle with that.”
“I studied scripture and spoke to several elders, men and women. There came a point at which I finally felt at peace with it.”
Hahn found Galatians 3 and Genesis in its description of life before the curse particularly encouraging. Also, Revelation 22:3 states that “No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him.” She decided that is what she would aspire to.
God Calls and Provides
Hahn has been “amazed at the opportunities to come alongside both single and married women in their time of need as an elder. Those opportunities increase and change from those of a very active member, particularly relating to spiritual guidance and aid.”
Women have expressed great appreciation for having female elders with whom they feel more comfortable discussing their struggles, single women in particular.
“It wasn’t like there weren’t already women in the congregation to talk with, but there is something to having someone identified as an elder, as a shepherd, someone with whom you can relate in your particular struggles, to walk beside you.”
“If you would have asked me as a 20-year old if something like this, a female elder in a Church of Christ, would have ever taken place, I would have said you are crazy. It wasn’t even in the realm of possibility.”
“I am very humbled by it. As always, God calls and God provides.”
For a discussion regarding scripture relative to female elders, including “husband one wife,” see Steve Gardner, “10 Churches of Christ Where Women Speak in the Assembly: Female Elders (Part 2),” Authentic Theology (April 3, 2019).
For a discussion regarding scripture on women serving in the assembly, see Steve Gardner, “20 Passages Asking Women to Speak, Teach, Lead, and Have Authority Over Men, In the Assembly and Elsewhere,” Authentic Theology (September 3, 2018).
For a discussion regarding harm to young girls by congregations prohibiting women from leadership roles in the church, see Steve Gardner, “Church of Christ Practice Harms Girls Long-Term, Suggests 2018 Study,” Authentic Theology (November 28, 2018).
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Sources & Notes
Quotes and most information come from interviews of Cooke and Hahn, separately, in November 2020.
Thank you to Dr. Larry Bradshaw, who provided a video of the December 8, 2019, Minter Lane Church of Christ elder-ordination service.
Other sources include:
On Dr. Jim Cooke: https://acu.today/2019/01/16/acu-remembers-dr-jim-cooke/
Cynthia Cooke speaking with Doug Page of Kaufman Church of Christ on grief, etc.: www.facebook.com/doug.page.37669/posts/10101774187905557
On Doug Page: https://kaufmanchurch.org/im-new/our-staff
Women have preached at Minter Lane. See Karen Cooke preaching at Minter Lane on 9/15/19 — Sermon on Luke 15:1-10; offered communion remarks (Kelly Bryant Gibson offering communion remarks — https://www.facebook.com/minterlanecoc/posts/10157573875108353
On Minister Albert Acosta, preaching minister: <http://www.minterlane.org/history/>
Only about 2%: See Notes & Comments discussion in Steve Gardner, “Church of Christ Decline Worsens, 2400 a Month Depart, Treatment of Women & Girls Factor,” AuthenticTheology.com (November 13, 2019). I’m referring to U.S. Christianity relative to the 2%, but I estimate that the worldwide percentage is approximately the same. By my estimate, around 2% of Christianity completely prohibit women and girls as described as the Churches of Christ does, a bit over half of Christianity (e.g., Roman Catholic, Southern Baptist) bars women from one or more higher church offices (e.g., preacher, elder, priest, senior pastor, deacon) but does not bar them from all speaking, leadership, and active service roles in the assembly (e.g., leading singing), and around 25-35% of Christianity (e.g., most Methodist, Assemblies of God) does not bar women from any church function or role. These are estimates. I have not found a reliable source that provides such an evaluation worldwide. The only other religious group of size that completely bars women and girls from speaking, leading, and active service in the worship assembly besides Churches of Christ is Islam. There are some smaller Christian groups that bar similarly. As mentioned, an increasing number of Churches of Christ are no longer completely prohibiting women and girls from speaking and leading, so the reference to Churches of Christ is not to all of them.
A list of gender-inclusive Churches of Christ is maintained by Wiley Clarkson at Where the Spirit Leads.
The picture is a screen shot from a video of Cooke’s and Hahn’s ordination service provided by Dr. Larry Bradshaw. Rendi Hahn is on the left, and Cynthia Cooke is on the right.