(RNS) — George Oliver Wood, the longtime Assemblies of God leader who died this week at age 80, once recalled how he grew up listening to his mother and other women preach.
“The Holy Spirit had called them in light of the prophetic promise of Joel 2:28–30 fulfilled in Acts 2:17–18,” he wrote in the denomination’s magazine in 2001, in defense of women’s ordination within the Assemblies of God. “With almost 100 years of experience, we can say without hesitation that God’s calling, equipping and effectively using women in ministry ‘seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.’”
During Wood’s decade-long tenure as the general superintendent of the denomination, the percentage of women ministers in the U.S. Fellowship increased, from 19.2% to 24.3%.
It would become one of his signature accomplishments as superintendent of the Pentecostal denomination and a hallmark of his legacy as a leader deeply invested in diversity.
Wood, who died Jan. 12, was the first general superintendent to have been a missionary kid, to China; the first to graduate from the AG’s Evangel University, and the first with an earned doctorate, to which he later added a law degree. His tenure in the leading office was the fourth longest in the denomination’s 107 year history. An avid proponent of church planting, and a megachurch pastor who saw the denomination to its highest levels of membership, Wood’s legacy still rings strongest as “a door-opener, bridge builder, and ministries-starter” said his son, George P Wood, executive editor of Influence magazine, the AG periodical for ministry leaders.
Early in his career, from 1965-71, Wood served as director of spiritual life at Evangel University in Springfield, Missouri; as pastor of Newport Mesa Church, in Costa Mesa, California, until 1988; and as assistant superintendent of the Southern California District Council from 1988-93. He rose to national leadership in the 1990s, taking the role of third in command, as general secretary, before being elected to general superintendent in 2007.
When Wood left office in 2017, voters at that year’s General Council in Anaheim, California, resolved to make Wood honorary general presbyter, in recognition of his service as a pastor, teacher, author, and an ordained minister for 50 years. Their resolution declared, “His preaching, leadership, and personal ministry have been a resource to the ministers and churches of the Southern California District Council and the General Council of the Assemblies of God, both in the United States and around the world.”
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During the 1970s, many church leaders fell under the sway of Donald McGavran’s “homogenous unit principle,” which premised that “[p]eople like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic or class barriers,” and took an accommodationist stance toward such preferences. In an article titled, “Does Jesus Really Want His Church to Be that Way?” in Agora, published from 1977-81, Wood argued that the early church drew converts from myriad ethnic groups, in different languages and cut across classes. This vision, of a heterogenous church, stayed with Wood for his entire career.
As general secretary, Wood formed a Taskforce on Women in Ministry (1999), which later became the Network of Women Ministers. In 2009, the General Council added a position for an ordained female minister, and Dr. Beth Grant was elected to this position. She had served as the Director of the Network of Women Ministers. Facing subsequent criticism from some who questioned whether the denomination was capitulating to liberal culture because of its stance on women, Wood argued the AG was simply staying true to the Pentecostal understanding of Scripture over evangelical complementarians.
“The Southern Baptists, along with some believers inside and outside our Movement, assert that permitting women every role in ministry available to men violates Scripture. As Pentecostals, we better have an answer to that. And, we do,” he wrote in the 2001 article, published not long after the Southern Baptist Convention adopted the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message which limited the office of pastor to men.
Wood proved similarly invested in increasing the diversity of the movement’s leadership, leaving a 21-member Executive Presbytery with seven racial/ethnic minorities and two women the year he left office — compared to one with 14 men, all white, when he took office. Under Wood’s leadership, roles for an Hispanic Presbyter and an African American Presbyter were established.
In 2014, Wood met Bishop Charles Blake and Rev. Thomas Barclay leaders from Black pentecostal churches, the Church of God in Christ and the United Pentecostal Council of the Assemblies of God respectively, to build stronger relationships between the denominations. Such bridges were made in part by Wood’s public apologies for early pentecostals’ “tragic” decisions to separate from Black adherents. That same year, Wood faced criticism for joining the Church of God in Christ to observe a “Black Lives Matter” Sunday. Still, Wood reflected,“The lives of all people are precious to God, of course, but at the present moment, many of our black brothers and sisters in COGIC and the AG feel that their lives are not highly valued by many in white America.”
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At Christianity Today, Daniel Silliman notes that “Wood spoke out more about politics in later years—expressing special concern about the legalization of same-sex marriage and threats to religious liberty. He made headlines in 2019 warning that “a day of persecution” was coming for Christians in the US. Wood wrote, “I believe a day of persecution… starts with marginalization as the secular worlds of politics, entertainment, and media seek to push us …out of the public square. We are going to be increasingly called bigots and hate mongers for our not accepting immoral behavior. The secularist would like to believe that the First Amendment means only freedom of worship; but it says instead ‘freedom of religion.’”
At the same time, Wood distanced himself from partisan politics. “Our focus should be on the gospel,” Wood said in 2017. “If we begin to endorse candidates, then we are politicizing the church, diluting our message, and bringing unnecessary division among our people. It is sufficient that we can speak on issues without endorsing specific candidates for office.”
Assessing the legacy of his predecessor, General Superintendent Doug Clay offered that Wood “had a unique ability to open doors for young people, women, and ethnic minorities by providing them a meaningful seat at the table. That has been a major force behind our growth in each of those areas.”
Wood is survived by his wife, Jewel, and their two children, Evangeline Hope Zorehkey and George Paul Wood.
(Erica Ramirez is director of research at Auburn Seminary, and a graduate of Southwestern Assemblies of God University.)