Among Protestants, the question of women in ministry is a problem today almost exclusively for evangelical churches in America. The mainline churches decided this issue decades ago. Unfortunately, the cultural changes that brought women into church leadership in mainline churches had the opposite effect among evangelical congregations. As a result, many evangelical congregations tend to be trapped in a kind of reactionary subculture. But unlike the monastic subculture in the ancient and medieval church, conservative evangelicalism has decidedly less biblical and theological support for its views. This is especially apparent in the question regarding women in ecclesial ministry.
In what follows, I will present the evangelical arguments against an egalitarian position on women in ministry along with my critiques of these arguments. I will then briefly discuss the Roman Catholic argument against ordaining women for the priesthood. Finally, I will present the positive arguments for egalitarianism.
1. Evangelical Arguments against Women in Ministry
1.1. Biblical arguments. The two main passages from the New Testament used against women in ministry are 1 Cor. 14:33-36 and 1 Tim. 2:11-15. The former says that women “should be silent in the churches”; they “are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate.” The latter says “a woman [should] learn in silence with full submission,” nor should a woman “teach or have authority over a man.” The passage from 1 Corinthians is less problematic in light of 1 Cor. 11:5, in which Paul speaks about women praying and prophesying in communal worship. In order to make sense of this apparent contradiction, the later passage in 1 Cor. 14 must be read contextually in connection with 1 Cor. 14:33a and 14:30, which state “God is a God not of disorder but of peace” and “all things should be done decently and in order,” respectively. Paul is here exhorting the Corinthian community to keep order and peace in their worship gatherings.
1 Timothy 2 is more complex. I commend the exegesis of Franklin Pyles (the father of my former college roommate), since I do not have time to explore this passage in detail. The attempt by some to ignore this passage because it is not authentically Pauline is not helpful, since it is still canonical. Appeal to this passage on the part of evangelicals, however, is highly problematic because it demonstrates the way modern Christians opt for proof-texting over careful exegesis. 1 Tim. 2:11ff. is preceded by several verses that cannot be ignored if one wishes to take vv. 11-15 seriously. Here the author states that “women should dress themselves modestly . . . not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes” (v. 9). Some Christians take this verse seriously, but most seem perfectly comfortable ignoring this statement as culturally antiquated but taking the next several verses as church law. Evangelical cherry-picking aside, the passage is very strange, textually and theologically. The argument from the order of creation and Eve’s deception is an unpersuasive and idiosyncratic reading of Genesis. More importantly, we have to read vv. 11-15 in light of 1 Tim. 4:7 and 1 Tim. 5:13-15, where the author mentions that women in the community are spreading “myths” and, in their idleness, becoming “gossips and busybodies.” In other words, vv. 11-15 is not an isolated text but is a culturally situated response to a problem facing specific early Christian communities.
Finally, the Pastoral epistles are themselves not theologically determinative texts in the way that the Pauline epistles are; the argument from creation is used to buttress a response to a culturally particular problem, whereas Paul’s arguments in Romans and Galatians are meant as explications of the gospel kerygma. The exhortations in the Pastoral epistles are thus not blanket norms for all Christians; they are given to specific communities facing specific problems in a specific time and place. We cannot proof-text these later epistles as if they carry binding significance in terms of our present-day ecclesial practice. Instead, we must read them canonically and christologically, i.e., according to what the church has traditionally called the “analogy of faith” (Rom. 12:6). We must read each text in light of the whole, and particularly in light of Jesus Christ, who alone is the hermeneutical key to the Scriptural witness.
1.2. Subordination in the Trinity. Because of the massive amount of biblical exegesis arguing against a traditional hierarchical interpretation of passages like 1 Tim. 2, many evangelicals have recently turned toward arguing on the basis of a trinitarian subordinationism. (See the book by Kevin Giles for more on this.) The argument goes something like this: In the Trinity, the Son is subordinate and submissive to the Father. The Father is representative of male fathers and leaders, to whom women are to be subordinate and submissive like Jesus. This argument is faulty for many reasons. (1) First, the argument assumes that we can read human relations off of the divine relations within the Trinity. This is the same move made by social trinitarians, which is why social trinitarianism is fundamentally flawed as an attempt to legitimate egalitarianism, because then the only thing determining human social relations is whether or not the biblical witness demonstrates subordination in the Trinity (which it does). Christians need to learn that the divine persons are not really “persons” in the way we understand persons. The word has only an analogical meaning at best when applied to the divine persons. The Trinity is “wholly other”; there is no way to determine human social relations from the inter-trinitarian relations. We are prevented from making any such move. (2) Second, the argument is entirely arbitrary. Why does the Father represent men and the Son represent women? If anything, the reverse is more justifiable, since only the Son became incarnate as a man; the Father, like all three persons of the Trinity, transcends gender altogether and cannot be identified with any subset of humanity. (3) Third, if we were to identify the Son with humanity, the only human counterpart would not be women but the church catholic, men and women together. Hence, Scripture speaks of the church as the bride of Christ, and Paul speaks of Christians as those who are adopted by the Father and become co-heirs with Christ (Rom. 8:16-17; Gal. 4:7). If we are going to speak about a particular group of people who are subordinate, it can only be the church as a whole who are subordinate before the Lord. In the end, the argument from the Trinity is a complete dead-end. We need to end this line of inquiry altogether.
Excursus: The Roman Catholic Argument
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains why women cannot be ordained in the following way:
“Only a baptized man validly receives sacred ordination.” The Lord Jesus chose men to form the college of the twelve apostles, and the apostles did the same when they chose collaborators to succeed them in their ministry. The college of bishops, with whom the priests are united in the priesthood, makes the college of the twelve an ever-present and ever-active reality until Christ’s return. The Church recognizes herself to be bound by this choice made by the Lord himself. For this reason the ordination of women is not possible. (¶1577)Evangelicals will not find the Catholic argument persuasive for the simple reason that Protestants do not subscribe to the doctrine of apostolic succession. Protestants do not see present-day pastors as the present-tense realization of the “college of the twelve apostles,” precisely because Jesus did not choose a “college” but simply “apostles” to proclaim the gospel in a particular culture. God still calls apostles today, and just as with the original twelve, they are called in the context of a particular culture. They are not prolongations of some primal “college,” but are rather prolongations of the gospel. Apostles are messengers of the gospel, and therefore who can be an apostle is determined by the gospel—by the reconciliation accomplished by Jesus Christ—and not by any apostolic tradition in the church. Moreover, ministers of the gospel need not possess anything, including any physical attribute, in order to be a witness to Jesus Christ. On the contrary, as Paul declared, ministers are “clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us” (2 Cor. 4:7). God’s power is not limited by any creaturely distinction, and therefore who may be messengers of the gospel is not limited by any creaturely distinction. We are all equally unworthy of the call, and yet we are all equally called.
That said, even if Protestants did accept apostolic succession, it is not apparent why women are necessarily prevented from ordained ministry in the church. The decision by the Catholic Church to see Jesus’ choice of men for the twelve apostles as definitive for all future apostles in the priesthood is quite arbitrary. The original twelve were all Jews as well as men, but this not made a prerequisite for ordained ministry. As the gospel spread to Gentiles, Gentile leaders were ordained in accordance with this cultural expansion of Christianity. Paul explains the theological rationale for this expansion of the church to all people in Gal. 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” If the division between Jew and Greek is nullified by Christ, so too is the notion that only men are qualified for ordained ministry. In Christ, all are one. The Catholic Church’s limitation of the priesthood to men only is an arbitrary imposition of gender distinction upon the mission of the church—a mission which is about proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. And proclamation was never limited to men. On the contrary, this mission belongs to all who are identified with Christ as his followers and disciples. In other words, mission—not tradition or succession—determines ordination.
2. Arguments for Women in Ministry
In what follows, I present a number of various arguments in favor of an egalitarian position on ordained ministry. So far I have rejected the traditional evangelical and Catholic arguments against women in ministry. In the brief sections that follow, I present the positive case for gender equality in ecclesial ministry.
2.1. Women in Scripture. The examples of female leaders is extensive: Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, Priscilla, Phoebe, and Junia. These women taught men and were leaders in their respective contexts. Any attempt to explain them as aberrations from the norm misses the point: these women were raised up by God in the freedom of God’s grace. God is not bound to any norm of tradition or culture. God calls those whom God determines to be witnesses to the gospel. Men and women are both called to the ministry, and no custom can hinder the exercise of God’s free grace in calling people to this joyful task.
2.2. Spiritual gifts. This second point is an extension of the first one—viz. that God graciously grants gifts in the Spirit for the ministry of the church (though Paul clearly states that love is greater than any gift of prophecy or teaching or apostleship). According to Rom. 12:6, different persons have different gifts “according to the grace given to us.” Moreover, the parts of the body that “seem to be weaker” are not only “indispensable,” but God gives them the “greater honor” (1 Cor. 12:22, 24). The gifts themselves are not divided according to gender; they are freely given to all as God sees fit for the consummation of God’s reign on earth.
2.3. Biblical exegesis. Evangelicals generally know the Bible very well, but knowing what the Bible says is not enough. Christians have to know how to read the Bible, and this is not something most Christians know how to do. I have discussed 1 Cor. 14 and 1 Tim. 2 above already, but much more thorough exegesis is necessary in order to do justice to the complexities in these passages. In particular, we have to remember that the Bible is a document of its own particular culture and time, and readers of the Bible must therefore faithfully attend to its cultural specificity, especially in the Pastoral epistles.
2.4. Theological anthropology. Against the argument in 1 Tim. 2:13, Gen. 1:27 speaks of male and female as together constituting humankind: “male and female [God] created them.” Male and female are each constitutive in defining human identity, and thus no division of labor between men and women is justified on the basis of the creation account. Karl Barth’s axiom for theological anthropology is basic for understanding the human person: “I am as Thou art.” In other words, there is no “I” without “Thou,” no “me” without “you.” Human identity is essentially relational. Who “I” am is never independent of the social matrix in which “I” exist. The same can be said for ecclesial ministry, in which the “I” of the pastor only exists in light of the “Thou,” which includes men and women both.
2.5. Christological unity. Several passages in the New Testament are axiomatic for the Christian faith in terms of understanding human social relations. These include the following: Rom. 8:14-17; 1 Cor. 12:12-13; 2 Cor. 5:14-20; Gal. 3:27-28; Eph. 4:4-5; Col. 1:17-18, 3:3, 3:11. What these passages have in common is a universal emphasis on the unity of the church—the unity, even, of all humanity—in the person of Jesus Christ. The passage from Romans and 1 Corinthians speak about this unity as a unity in the Spirit, but the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ and the unity in the Spirit is only possible because of the reconciliation that Christ accomplished in his life, death, and resurrection. If we are going to construct a theology of ministry, we must begin with the reality of our unity in Christ. Any attempt to distinguish between humans—whether according to gender or something else entirely—must first recognize that we are united as one people under one Lord in one Spirit.
2.6. Baptism vs. circumcision. The Old Testament initiation into the community required circumcision, for this was the sign of the covenant given to Abraham by God (Gen. 17). Circumcision, of course, is only for men, and thus women are identified by their male counterparts. In the New Testament, however, circumcision is replaced by baptism of water and Spirit. Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration and incorporation into the body of Christ, and unlike circumcision, men and women are equally baptized before God. Passages like Gal. 3:28 are in a way glosses on the “new creation” marked by baptism: a new reality in which men and women are equally reconciled, equally sanctified by the Spirit, and equally called by God into the mission of faithful witness to Jesus Christ.
2.7. The presence of the Spirit. Connected with baptism, of course, is the indwelling and empowering of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the ground for the church’s mission and practice, and those who are called into the service of the gospel are called in the Spirit. The Spirit is not bound to the structure of the church, but rather the structure of the church is determined by the workings of the Spirit. In his first address to the crowd at Pentecost, Peter quotes the prophet Joel: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy . . . Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy” (Acts. 2:17-18). Here we see that prophecy—a spiritual gift, according to Paul—is extended to all people without restriction or distinction. Clearly, women cannot be subordinate if they are equally included within the gifting of the Spirit. Later, in Acts 15, at the Jerusalem Council, the pouring out of the Holy Spirit is the basis for the argument that Gentiles are included within the church. Peter here declares: “And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us” (Acts 15:8-9). This is reminiscent of Paul’s statements in 1 Cor. 12:12-13 and Gal. 3:28. The point is that the Spirit is poured out equally among both Jews and Gentiles, men and women, and this pouring of the Spirit is what determines the being, structure, and mission of the church. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus Christ, and thus it is not surprising at all that the Spirit brings unity and equality to humanity. As long as we continue to baptize both men and women—a baptism in both water and Spirit—then we must leave ordination open to all, lest we think the Spirit is subordinate to our own human traditions.
2.8. Jesus’ own example. Not much needs to be said here. Jesus was radically subversive in his treatment of women. He spoke to them and taught them in a way that paid no attention to the mores of his own day, which did not view women as equal partners in dialogue and especially not as pupils. Furthermore, we must not forget that women bore the message of Jesus’ resurrection to the (male) disciples. John only has Mary Magdalene as the first witness to the resurrection. Matthew and Mark both note that Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James first witnessed the resurrection and reported it to the disciples. Luke goes even further and says that “Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them” told the apostles about Jesus’ resurrection. Details aside, the accounts all agree that women were the first apostles of the good news of Christ’s resurrection. The Gospels go out of their way to make it clear that no male disciple was the first witness.
2.9. The eschatological thrust of the biblical narrative. One of the more important argument is what some call the “historical trajectory” argument. This is espoused well by John Stackhouse in his book, Finally Feminist. I wish to expand upon that view somewhat with a more robust eschatology. There are, in my view, three temporal dimensions to the eschaton—past, present, and future—represented by Jesus Christ, the church from Pentecost until now, and the coming New Jerusalem, respectively. In each dimension, we see an eschatological movement toward or realization of equality and unity. First, the unity achieved by Christ has already been discussed above (2.5). Our equality before God is already an accomplished fact in him. We might speak less of a movement and more of an eschatological actualization of equality in Jesus Christ, which establishes the basis for historical development in the church. Second, we see an eschatological thrust toward equality in the life of the church. We see this, for example, in the way the early church, as recorded in the New Testament, challenged the social norms of their day with regard to women and slaves. That the ancient church did not eradicate patriarchalism or slavery is no argument against the fact that there has been a progressive realization of equality throughout history. Because such equality is rooted in what Christ himself accomplished for us, we can see this progression as a movement in the Spirit who conforms us to what we are already in Jesus Christ. Finally, the eschatological vision of the New Jerusalem is decidedly egalitarian. There is no human hierarchy in heaven, for all social divisions have been nullified in light of the fact that we are now one family gathered together before the Lord. This eschatological vision, once accepted, places a radical call upon the church here and now to embody this vision in its corporate life. The present-tense church is called to manifest the eternal reign of God in its sociopolitical existence, and that includes relations between men and women in ministry. The church’s progression through history is always a movement toward this final eschatological vision. The mission of the church is therefore to manifest the coming New Jerusalem in its corporate existence as the people of God who witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. If the New Jerusalem is a community of equals, then so too is the church. And both the present church and the coming New Jerusalem are grounded in the equality established by Christ himself.
2.10. The mission of the church today. My final point is a practical one. If the mission of the local church is to proclaim the gospel to the local culture, and if the local culture is no longer patriarchal in nature, then it follows that any attempt to hold on to a patriarchal framework is a hindrance to the gospel—or, if not a hindrance, at least not an aid. The exhortations in the Pastoral epistles were written to churches as a way of improving those churches’ ministry. Having male leaders and silencing certain women who were hindering the gospel were necessary at the time to strengthen the ministry of those ancient communities. Today, however, such considerations no longer apply. Is it still necessary to keep women in a subordinate teaching position? Is it still necessary to have a male as a head pastor in a church congregation? Does a male leader actually further this church’s mission in any tangible way? Are the church’s views on women in ministry law or gospel? In other words, do the church’s views on women follow from the gospel and aid the spread of the gospel or are they following what they think are hard-and-fast laws in the Bible? These questions do not apply simply to the SBC; even some progressive “emerging” churches are still caught up in such questions. The question, finally, is this: How is our view of women in ministry consonant with the mission of proclaiming Jesus Christ?
It pains me to think about this issue, because I’ve seen what disagreements over this issue have done to local congregations. A major church in Portland is currently dealing with this problem. Unfortunately, this particular church has decided to compromise and find a via media between the two opposing sides. What it did not do is seek to articulate a position that is grounded Scripture and theology and risk making one of the two sides upset. In this brief engagement with the problem of women in ministry, I hope that I have shown which side this church should have taken—and perhaps still will. I can only pray, with Paul, that “the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give [these churches] a spirit of wisdom and revelation as [they] come to know him” (Eph. 1:17).