The snippets of Miriam in scripture have apparently been enlisted by modern-day “Methodists” to prove women’s ordination. While Wesley himself allowed women preachers in exceptional and rare cases (note: among hundreds of preachers there was only a small handful), Wesley understood preachers as a lay-office, apart from the Temple. The use of brief scriptural accounts to make Miriam like Aaron, hardly passes mustard with classical methodist commentators such as Clarke and Benson. Indeed, these esteemed commentators understood Miriam as serving women in the congregation rather than having a universal leadership or sacrificing priesthood.
The two proof texts used by ordination proponents are Micah 6.4 and Ex. 15:20. Micah 6.4 says,
“For I brought thee up out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed thee out of the house of servants; and I sent before thee Moses, Aaron, and Miriam” (KJV/ASV).
Joseph Benson admits Miriam as included int he same spirit of Prophecy as her brothers. But, undoubtedly knowing something of Jewish custom, indicates her gifts were for the women of the congregation, saying,
“Here, on the other hand, God puts them in mind of the great favors he had bestowed upon them in delivering them out of the Egyptian bondage, by the conduct of Moses and Aaron, and Miriam their sister, who is here mentioned as having been endued with the spirit of prophecy, and raised up to be an assistant to her brothers, and an example and counsellor to the women.”
Thus, Miriam’s ministry to the women is not different from the lay-deaconess office as understood in the 19th-century. Deaconesses were instituted by the early church for specific function of serving the needs of widows and maidens. Benson also sees Miriam possessing something of a lesser office, ‘an assistant to her brothers’. Though women were perhaps more ‘dynamic’ in their participation within the methodistic societies than the Established church, keep in mind the Methodists also separated women from men in the pews. So, a gender division was fairly ingrained within the Evangelical revival even as it became settled (consequently, American mormons divide their after-church meetings of men and women). Obviously, the division of men from women in the pews was following the Moravian practice, but it also imitated the ancient Jewish church. Adam Clarke suggests this ancient division, recalling Miriam “the director of your females”,
“I sent before thee Moses, my chosen servant, and instructed him that he might be your leader and lawgiver. I sent with him Aaron, that he might be your priest, and transact all spiritual matters between myself and you, in offerings, sacrifices, and atonements. I sent Miriam, to who I gave the spirit of prophecy, that she might tell you thinks to come, and be the director of your females.”
Notice Clarke’s specification of function between siblings. Moses was the ruler. Aaron the priest. And, Miriam an Evangelist. Among the great Methodist commentators, i.e., Benson and Clarke, Exodus 15:20 carries a similar interpretation. Exodus reads,
“And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a ‘timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances.” KJV/ASV
The biblical text seems to answer itself, ‘all the women went out after her’. In other words, she led the women not the entire congregation. So, Benson describes her in this passage as presiding over the Hebrew women,
“Miriam the prophetess– So called, either in a general sense, because she was an instructor of other women in the praise and service of God, or in a more special sense, because she had the spirit of prophecy. Miriam (or Mary, for it is the same name) now presided in an assembly of the women, who, according to the common usage of those times, with timbrels and dances, sung this song. Moses led the sacred song, and gave it out for the men, and then Miriam for the women..they sung by turns, or in parts“
Likewise, Clarke affirms Miriam an instructor of women,
“It is very likely that Miriam was inspired by the Spirit of God to instruct the Hebrew women, as Moses and Aaron were to instruct the men; and when she and her brother Aaron sought to share in the government of the people with Moses, we find her laying claim to the prophetic influence, Hath the Lord indeed spoken only by Moses? Hath he not spoken by us also? And that she was constituted joint leader of the people with her two brothers, we have the express word of God by the Prophet Micah [above]. Hence it is very likely that she was the instructess of the women, and regulated the times, places, etc. of their devotional acts; for it appears that from the beginning to the present day the Jewish women all worshiped apart.“
Knowing the methodists divided their congregations by gender– the men to the left and women to the right (again, copied from the earlier Moravians) as well as organizing some of their class meetings in the same manner– Miriam’s role as an evangelist would be naturally understood. But, women prophets (ie.. Evangelists) should not be confused with either the office of Moses (pastor) or Aaron (priest). Confusing these functions actually upsets the entire methodist economy as Wesley desired. His sermon (#115) On the Ministerial Office is nearly the theological bedrock the Societies remaining inside the Church of England. So, Wesley expressly says, “In ancient times the office of a Priest and that of a Preacher were known to be entirely distinct”. Furthermore, the same distinction continued into the gospel dispensation, applying to rulers and pastors as well,
“Many learned men have shown at large that our Lord himself and all his Apostles, built the Christian Church as nearly as possible on the plan of the Jewish. So, the great High-Priest of our profession sent apostles and evangelists to proclaim glad tidings to all the world; and then Pastors, Preachers, and Teachers, to build up in faith the congregations that should be found. But I do not find that ever the office of an Evangelist was the same with that of a Pastor, frequently called a Bishop. He presided over the flock, and administered the sacraments: The former assisted him, and preached the Word, either in one or more congregations. I cannot prove from any part of the New Testament, or from any author of the three first centuries, that the office of an evangelist gave any man a right to act as a Pastor or Bishop. I believe these offices were considered as quite distinct from each other till the time of Constantine“.
So, the analogy would be Moses was God’s chosen to rule or oversee the congregation. Aaron was given the Spirit to offer praise and sacrifice on behalf of the holy nation. And, Miriam led the women like an Evangelist. Each were indeed given the same Spirit but not to equal roles or measure. It is interesting that modern ‘methodists’ overlook Numbers 12 where Miriam makes claim against Moses to lead in the same capacity. Clarke thinks Miriam was struck by leprosy (while Aaron was not) probably because she was ‘first in this mutiny’. This may also be a case of a lesser office (that of Evangelist or prophetess) intruding upon a higher (for Moses, a kind of Bishop).
So, there are two things modern methodists offensive about Miriam’s office as understood by classical men like Benson and Clarke. But, these misunderstandings would be dampened if seen through Wesley’s original societal plan. First, Miriam presided among the women. Implicit to such division are the separating of sexes into their own pews and, sometimes, classes. This was simply the Moravian practice carried over into the United Societies. It was also the example of the ancient church. Second, keeping the Preachers or Evangelists lay-officers, distinct from priests and bishops, was a cornerstone of Wesley’s so-called ‘ecclesiology’. Indeed, Wesley’s ‘ecclesiology’ was nothing less than the Church of England’s Ordinal. Of course, these categories were unfortunately slowly fused together after Wesley’s death, whereupon projectors made a denominational Church rather than keeping to the older intent of a private Society. During his lifetime Wesley resisted such motions, so his comments regarding Thomas Maxfield’s appointment (and later independency) might be considered. Surely what is said about Maxfield would likewise apply to the few women Evangelists in the Connexion, even Miriam:
“Not long after, a young man, Thomas Maxfield, offered himself to serve them as a son in the gospel. And then another, Thomas Richards, and a little after a third, Thomas Westell. Let it be well observed on what terms he received these, viz. as Prophets, not as Priests. We received them wholly and solely to preach; not to administer sacraments. And those who imgaine these offices to be inseparably joined are totally ignorant of the constitution of the whole Jewish as well as the Christian Church. Neither the Romish, nor the English, nor the Presbyterian Churches, ever accounted them so. Otherwise, we should have never accepted the service, either of Mr. Maxfield, Richards, or Westell.”
Certainly more could be said about Wesley’s women preachers, regardless of their relatively small number, although contextualized within the Methodist economy as Wesley knew it. Perhaps this post offers a starting point, yet limited to Miriam as a proof text.