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Women as clergy:

The continuing debate

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Excerpts from speeches to the Synod of the  Australian Anglican Church, 2001-JUL. The church was considering whether to allow women to be considered for consecration as bishops.

bullet "In salvation, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. But in my mind, it does not follow that responsibility for feeding and correcting the flock of God, for administering the sacraments instituted by Christ, and for teaching sound doctrine is gender non-specific. If the leadership role of men rested only on one or two verses in the letters of St Paul, then I might be convinced that it was a practice for that time, but not binding us now. However, that is not the case. As I read it, the consistent teaching of Scripture is that men have the responsibility under God to take these roles...We need to be very sure that it is new wind of Spirit of God, and not a tornado of our times, that we allow to blow away two millennia of acceptance of the leadership role of men in the church." Ann Young,
bullet "A male-only episcopate will declare that we have a divided priesthood and indeed two classes of Christians - men who can lead the church, and women who cannot...I have not presented the case for women bishops on theological grounds, because the theological debate about the ordination of women was concluded in this church once women were accepted as deacons and priests. Our prayerful study of the Scriptures, and our examination of church history and tradition, convinced us that this move was 'of God'. In the past nine years, that conviction has been resoundingly confirmed as we have seen and experienced the priestly ministry of women." Dr. Muriel Porter.

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Topics Covered in this essay:

bullet Arguments for and against female ordination
bullet Demonstrations in Europe for female ordination
bullet Metro Detroit's Council of Baptist Pastors
bullet Other information on female ordination

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Arguments for and against female ordination:

bullet The Original Disciples: According to most Christians' interpretation of the Gospels, Jesus called 12 individuals to be his disciples. Most or all probably shared 9 factors in common. They were:
bullet bearded,
bullet dark skinned,
bullet Aramaic speaking,
bullet married,
bullet male,
bullet Jewish,
bullet residents of Palestine,
bullet without much formal education and
bullet the parent of one or more children.

Various Christian denominations have deviated from these factors in the selection of clergy. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, has ordained clean-shaven and bearded priests; candidates of all races, speaking many languages; usually single but sometimes married, etc. In other ways (marital status, religion, citizenship, education) the church requires its priests to be opposite to the original disciples. But Roman Catholic and many other conservative denominations still maintain the necessity that all of their pastors, priests and ministers must be male.

bullet Treatment of Women in Bible Times: Some liberal theologians point to differences in the treatment of women in the Bible. Before Jesus' ministry and women's roles were very severely restricted in Jewish society. During his ministry, he treated women and men equally, even though it offended many people. The Gospels describe about 10 of Jesus' followers in some detail. About half were men; half were women. After his execution, the growing Christian movements appear to have continued Jesus' practices towards women. But the church gradually reverted to the earlier policy of treating women as inferior beings, in the 1st century CE. This led to the almost complete suppression of women in later centuries. The church and government reduced the status of women to the inferior standard of the Jewish, Roman and Greek societies of the time. Women were gradually denied access to positions of authority, and restricted limited and rigidly defined roles. This largely continued into modern times, until the rise of the feminist movement.
bullet General comments on 1 Timothy: Conservative theologians believe in the inerrancy of the Bible. The author of 1 Timothy unambiguously restricts the role of women to minor tasks within the church. Thus many believe that women must not be considered eligible for ordination today.

Many liberal theologians regard 1 Timothy as a later forgery. They note the numerous references in the Bible, in early Christian writings that never made it into the Bible, and in archaeological evidence which show that women did indeed play an active leadership, ministering and teaching roles in the very early Christian church. Quoting Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza:

"The Pauline literature and Acts still allow us to recognize that women were among the most prominent missionaries and leaders in the early Christian movement, They were apostles and ministers like Paul, and some were his co-workers. They were teachers, preachers and competitors in the race for the gospel."

Liberal theologians believe that 1 and 2 Timothy were written by unknown authors in the second century CE, many decades after Paul died. Some further speculate that one of the purposes of the forgeries was to "subvert Paul's radicalism," and to reinstall "conventional patriarchal attitudes towards women." 1

bullet General Comments on 1 Corinthians: Conservatives generally interpret 1 Corinthians 14 as limiting all women's speech during services. Paul's statement is clear and unambiguous. And if women are not allowed to speak, then they obviously cannot be pastors, ministers or priests.

Liberals might point out that St. Paul's statements would be in conflict with the historical evidence of female leadership in the early church. In other passages in his Epistles, Paul acknowledges that there were female apostles and ministers. He also referred to women prophesizing in church. They might conclude that the restrictions in Corinthians were most likely intended to control specific actions by some women, at some churches, and at a particular time. They would not necessarily have been intended to refer to the status of women today. Many liberals believe that the passage 1 Corinthians 14:34b-35  was inserted into the original writing by an unknown person at an unknown date. Since it was not part of the original writing, it cannot be considered authoritative.

bullet The Priestly Function: Those opposing the ordination of women would note that throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, and from the early Christian church to the present time, the priestly function has only been performed by men. In ancient times, only men of a specific Jewish tribe could act as priests. Those promoting female ordination point out that Jesus broke with the tradition of male superiority on numerous occasions, and that Paul acknowledged female apostles, co-workers and ministers. It was only in the 2nd century that the doors once more closed on women's ordination. By once more allowing women to be priests and ministers, they would argue, we are returning to Jesus' pattern of gender equality.
bullet Effect on Denominational Stability: One argument that is often used against female ordination is that it might weaken or split the denomination. This is an argument that has considerable validity, as does the parallel arguments about ordination of gays and lesbians. In fact, every major ethical debate in recent decades has created major intra-denominational stresses: slavery in the 19th century, racial integration in the late 1950's, inter-racial marriage in the mid 1960's, and now ordination of women, gays and lesbians.
bullet Representation of Christ: J.I. Packer argues that a pastor or priest represents Christ when he ministers to individual members of his flock. Since Jesus was undeniably male, then the ideal form of the pastor is to also be male. "That one male is best represented by another male is a matter of common sense." 2 Liberals might argue that God has traditionally male properties (lawgiver, judge, etc) as well as traditionally female properties (creator, healer, etc). Thus God can be represented by either a man or a woman. Genesis 1:27 states this clearly. The fact that Jesus became a human being is of primary importance; that he was male is incidental. If Jesus were female, the daughter of God; she could still have been crucified and resurrected. Nothing fundamental would really change in the gospel.
bullet Genesis 1:27 describes how "...God created man in his own image...male and female he created them." Thus a man reflects the image of God as much as a woman does. The ideal church structure would thus appear be to have both male and female pastors, in order to fully reflect the different aspects of God. A pastor must minister to both men and women. By both male and female clergy available, each church member has the opportunity to deal with a pastor of whichever gender they feel most comfortable. 4
bullet Alternative Roles for Women: Packer cites Genesis 2:20, and suggests that women were created by God to be helpers to men. 2 He feels that women should be confined to the roles of pastoral assistants, ministers of music, youth directors, [and] educational ministers. These roles have "the effect of supplementing and supporting [the male pastor's]...own preaching and teaching... None of this... requires ordination as a presbyter."  Most English translations of Genesis 2:20 describe Eve as a "helper." And a helper is normally regarded as a person of lower stature to the "helpee." But some (e.g. New Living Translation, Today's English Version) use the term "companion." - thus indicating that Eve had an equal stature to Adam. The original Hebrew word does not have a connotation of inferiority.

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Demonstrations for the Ordination of Women:

An "Action Purple Stole" has been organized by Roman Catholics in Germany, to promote with dignity the cause of women's ordination. Members of the group wear a purple stole during mass. Before ordination services, they quietly demonstrate in the church. After ordinations, they congratulate the newly ordained, give them a rose, and ask them to pray for the Church and for those women who feel called to the priesthood. The group has compiled a list of women who would seek ordination if it were available to them.

A similar group in Austria goes further. They also list the names of men who are ineligible for ordination under the present rules because they are married, or who cannot accept a lifetime commitment of celibacy and loneliness. They also include the names of those former priests who were forced to leave the priesthood in order to marry.

Sister Ruth Schfer, a German theologian and teacher, has been employed by the Roman Catholic church for the past 3 years.  She organized an "Action Purple Stole" in Essen on 1998-MAY-29. After meeting with her diocesan bishop on JUL-1, she was told that her yearly contract would not be renewed. "We Are Church" Germany and "Maria von Magdala", a German movement for equal rights for women in the Church, are calling for letters of support to Sister Schfer and letters of protest to her diocesan bishop.

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Metro Detroit's Council of Baptist Pastors:

The council has been actively involved for many years in the promotion of civil rights for minorities. In 1999-MAR, they debated whether to allow female pastors to join their council. Some spoke in favor of a non-sexist approach to membership in the council. They asked how a group can be effective at fighting racial discrimination if it continued to engage in gender discrimination. But others quoted Bible verses to support their argument that women should not be allowed in leadership positions. The Rev. Sampson Matthews, pastor of Mt. Hebron Baptist Church in Ferndale, MI commented: "God has always put man first. He never put man at the foot. We all have theological differences. All of our interpretations are different. But Scripture plainly says what it says." After the council voted to admit women, the Rev. Johnny Ray Young, pastor of The Greater St. John Missionary Baptist Church, resigned. He commented: "After 2,000 years, all of sudden God is wrong -- I don't buy that." 3

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Other information related to Female Ordination:

bullet See our essay "The status of women in the Bible" for additional information on the role of women in old testament times, during Christ's ministry and during the early Christian church.
bullet The Canon 1024 discussion list has a FAQ on the Ordination of Women. (1024 is the canon law within the Roman Catholic Church which specifically excludes women from ordination.) Members of the list have selected 12 difficult questions to answer, with responses that are both in favor of and opposed to the ordination of women. See:

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  1. M.J. Borg, "Meeting Jesus Again", Harper, San Francisco CA, (1994) Page 67, Note 43
  2. J.I. Packer, "Let's Stop Making Women Presbyters", Christianity Today, 1991-FEB-11, Page 18 to 21.
  3. George Bullard, "Pastors invite spirited debate on women's leadership role," Detroit news, 1999-MAR-20.
  4. G.Y. May and H.P. Joe, "Setting the Record Straight," Christians for Biblical Equality, a critique of J.I. Packer's essay at:

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See our news feed on women's issues. It shows 20 current news items, and is updated every 15 minutes.

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Copyright 1996 to 2005 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance. 
Removed from file femclrgy.htm on 2000-DEC-17
Latest update: 2005-JUL-27
Author: Bruce A. Robinson

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