Women in Ministry

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YWAM is an organisation that champions the rights of all people, especially those who have have the least voice, to take their part in building God's Kingdom. Over the years I have worked with many excellent women. I have enjoyed training them and releasing them into ministry. During a recent season of study with the Open Theological College for a certificate of theology I chose an essay that stretched my thinking on the subject from the perspective of the local church. I have been asked to share this from time to time and I thought that offering it here might be valuable.

Please note it is an undergraduate essay. I can't recall the mark! It is very much my thinking. I hope it promotes discussion.

Please see Catherine Booth's persuasive argument for Women's ministry, which is much superior to my contribution here!

--Kev-The-Hasty 15:38, 15 October 2010 (UTC)

Should Women Be Ordained?

An Essay By Kevin Colyer

General William Booth founder of the Salvation Army said, 'some of my best men are women'. These Victorian sentiments, radical for their time would today in many quarters of the church cause consternation, heated debate and sensationalism: 'Women priests could be step towards a new religion'[1]. The issue of ordination of Women is a difficult one. Women are feeling a call to full time ministry and struggling to find the freedom to be obedient to this call in many existing church structures.

This essay will examine the questions raised by female ordination in areas such as the person-hood of God, the origin and desirability of a male priesthood and the difficult hermeneutical problems of interpreting Bible passages that concern the treatment of women. I will answer the question of female ordination by affirming the equalitarian position, that female ministry is legitimised by the Bible and is important for the mission of the church and the benefit of the women in the church.

The question of ordination of women has three main positions. The Catholic/Orthodox one is that the masculinity of the priest is necessary because of the tradition of the church requires him to represent Christ when officiating the sacraments. His role is similar to the Israelite cultic priesthood. The Evangelical/Fundamental position is somewhat different as it involves the biblical authority for the headship of men and the submission of women. The correct position, is the equalitarian argument summarised with Paul's declaration in Galatians 3:28, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

A Male Priesthood for a Male God?

The Bible is full of masculine language for God. The Greek word for God, theos is without question masculine. [McGrath, 1996:239]Is the need for an exclusively male priesthood derived from a male god? Feminists in particular have identified this aspect of the doctrine of God as problematic and want to dismiss with masculine language for God.

In ancient Palestine there were many fertility religions and often a god would have a consort as well. The sexual nature of a pairing of gods was common. Because of the need to differentiate between Yahweh and other fertility religions and to demonstrate Yahweh's transcendence over local gods, references to sexuality, particularly female sexuality had to be depreciated. Hayter says, 'the objective of the Old Testament was not to acclaim the conquest of male Yahweh over a female Asherah but to avoid, as far as possible, any projections of human sexuality onto their God, They believed Yahweh to be neither male nor female but supra-sexual.' [Hayter, 1987:18]

The use of male language for God is a metaphor for God's character not a definition of it: 'God is to be revered and obeyed; like a father, but better than any human parent, God constantly protects and supports his children: the inadequacy of the comparison between God and the human model is part of the message of the image itself.' [Hayter, 1987:28]. However even masculine reference and metaphor for God alone is not sufficient for theological discourse about God [Hayter, 1987:24].

Given that Yahweh is beyond any polarity into sexes the reasons for a male priesthood may have many other origins. A female priesthood may have been too close to the pagan model incorporating ritual prostitution. Strict holiness rules were imposed barring those with physical defects. A Women's period brought a seven day ritual uncleanness incompatible with Priestly duties. 'If it had to be decided as to which sex should be barred - it is very doubtful whether this questions was asked in Israel's history - there is little question of which sex that would be.' [Hayter, 1987:71]. However as we no longer bar spotted, crippled or short sighted men from priesthood, why not allow women?

However for the church, why should a man be most suitable to represent Christ? Saward argues that Priest is an icon of Christ in the Eucharist. This is flawed because it is a circumstance of the time; Christ's mission required him to be male. Also, Eucharist it is not a passion play, the only need for resemblance to Christ is in the action of breaking bread and saying thanksgiving, a task as easily done by a women. In the same way it is not required that the Queen's Ambassador to be female. Saward fails in his pneumatology as it is the Holy Spirit as not the Priest who makes Christ present in the Eucharist. [Hayter, 1987:55-56]

Questions of Headship

For women in the Old Testament world their freedom became increasingly restricted into the New Testament times; in the nomadic world of the Patriarchs women had a vital role in the ordering of society and required for the survival of the tribe. By Jesus day the women held a far lower status. Jesus was a great reformer of the status of women. He was openly seen talking with then and involving them in spiritual matters. Women were involved in all areas of his ministry, supporting him and assisting him. Neither did he relegate them to conventional sexual roles as he did not marry.

Few argue that Jesus increased oppression on women, however it is Paul who comes under most scrutiny for his attitude for women. There are 3 key passages: [Cunningham, 2000:159]

  1. The head of a women is a man (1 Corinthians 11.3)
  2. Women should remain silent in the churches (1 Corinthians 14.34)
  3. I do not permit a women to teach (1 Timothy 2.12)

For Evangelicals and Fundamentalists the problem is one of biblical hermeneutics: what does the Bible really say about the issue and what does that mean today? Several general responses should be noted to answer those who would not find a place for female ministry:

  • The epistles are not written descriptively of what church should be like but proscriptively, in response to problem situations in immature churches. The passages should be set in the wider teaching of the church and Paul.
  • Paul allowed women to have a large role in his churches and numbers many women in his lists of greetings to co-workers (for example Romans 16). "In Priscilla at least we find a growth of female leadership in the church, with Paul's full approval, which does not fit the stereotype of a church which had no pace for women in positions of authority" [France, 1995:81]
  • These are really the only main passages that restrict women's ministry. A review of scripture in both Old and New Testament reveals women in many significant leadership and ministry roles.
  • Paul is speaking culturally to specific cultural issues. As times and customs have changed the cultural issue is less binding on the church (in the same way we have in England no need to greet with a kiss).

Yet the first passage above involving the headship of men over women is the most problematic because of the Pauline links with the Genesis creation and fall accounts. Does the passage in its use of language mean that man as head of the women is her authority? Or does it affirm the ultimate authority of God over both men and women together? Paul's use of "head" is under dispute here as to whether is refers authority or source (as in 'head waters').

The argument turns to Genesis. Opponents of women ordination note that Man was created first in the image of God: therefore he is the one who most fully reflects God. Women was created for man to support and help him, thus cast in a servant role. Women created last, is subject to man and should be submissive to him. Man because he names woman gains an authority over her.

In answer to this it should be noted that Genesis speaks of the mutuality of the creation of humankind. Men and women together (socially not in the sexual act) are created in the image of a triune and relational God. The passage is about the shared image of God. The type of support/helper meant is that same support that God is to his people; a saving and delivering help. And if being created last defines submission it should be noted that man was created after animals! Women was created out of man to show their shared nature not pre-eminence.

Male dominance is reinforced with fear and never more clearly by account of the fall. Tertullian requested, 'the daughters of Eve should wear penitential garb to remind themselves that it was though Eve that sin entered the world.' [cf. Hayter, 1987:102]. Woman was tempted first and is the weaker partner, thus being more likely to be deceived and lead men astray, thus excluding them from leadership. Yet, if man was so much the stronger how come he did not resist? It is more likely that the use of a snake as a tempter derives again from fertility religion and the issue is about the corruption sin brings than who sinned first [Hayter, 1987:104]. The fall was a social act not a gender act.

As a consequence of the fall, the man was to dominate the woman. This is due to disruption of sin in human relationships. Yet Aquinas and others would hold that this was the case ante pecconum (before the fall) thus the order for the world now.

The arguments are heated and protracted and beyond my scope to discuss in-depth here. The recent scholarship by Hayter, France and others have shown that there are good biblical grounds for suggesting that there is reason be allow women to have leadership roles.

The Case for Female Ordination

France suggests that there is a parallel between the ordination question and the antislavery movement of the 18th Century [France, 1995:16-17]. Slavery is not directly condemned in the Bible, indeed there are many commands to treat slaves fairly and equitably. Yet, Wilberforce et al came to the conclusion that slavery was a blot on the worlds concience and one of the worst evils a man can inflict upon another. Now, no Christian would readily retract to a pre-Wilberforce position. Why should we not say the same in the case of women? Even if we allowed that there was no clear case for equality, why should we not grant women equality in the same way?

The mission of the church in western culture demands it. In many respects the question of the place of women in society was answered decades ago, the church has yet to catch up. Yet surely the church should be at the forefront of the redeeming of women? In every area of contemporary society women have achieved equal status to men and the church must reflect this. We have shown no clear biblical reason why it couldn't. In order to be relevant and attractive to the women of today, and increasingly the professional women who are used to taking an active and capable role in society, the church must provide meaningful opportunities for ministry. Banners, flowers and quiche are not enough.

We have seen how God is represented more fully in a social expression, male and female together. A man is not enough to image God, the role of women is needed alongside. The church is also under great pressure and need for leaders. Women increasing are feeling the call to serve in ministry and need to have freedom and support to be obedient to their calling to the same degree that man have.

Of course there is the Galatians 3:28 argument of Paul that in Christ there are barriers between male or female. The Jewish Beraka prayer, 'thank you God that I am not a Gentile, Slave or a Woman', is reversed in this statement. This is an appropriate summary of the teaching of the Bible that ethnic, economics and gender are irrelevant to status with God. And if they are irrelevant to God they should be done away with on the human level.

Conclusion

This essay has examined the issues surrounding the ordination of women. I have shown how very person of God is effected by this argument and that God is neither male nor female but transcends both sexes and requires neither one in precedent of the other to be represented. The origins of the masculine language in reference to God are present to differentiate Yahweh from lesser deities and not to define gender.

I have also shown that the status of women in the Bible is consistent with an equalitarian view that together men and women are part of God's plan and purpose, neither one supplants the other. I have shown that both Jesus and Paul did not restrict women's ministry but rather went beyond the culture of their day by recognising women's validity in both worship and ministry. It is vitally important that today we have a church that makes a clear room for the ordination of women and the establishing of female leadership.


  1. W. Oddie, article in the Daily Telegraph, May 5, 1982, cf. Hayter, p1

Bibliography

L. Cunningham and D. Hamilton, Why not Women?: a Biblical study of women in missions, ministry and leadership, (2000)

R.T. France, Women in the Church's ministry, a test case for Biblical Hermeneutics, (1995)

M. Hayter, New Eve in Christ, (1987)

M. Harper, Equal and different. Male and Female role in Church and Family, (1994)

S.R. Hiatt, 'Women's Ordination in the Anglican Communion: Can this church be saved?', Religious institutions and women's leadership: new roles inside the mainstream, ed. C. Wessinger (1996)

A. McGrath, Christian Theology, an introduction, (1996)

Quotations are taken from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, (1971)