The Crumbling Argument against Women’s Ordination

Opponents of female ordination have an arsenal of arguments against allowing women into the ministry. One of the most well-worn comes from the Pastoral Epistles, likely written by a disciple of Paul’s: Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. (1Ti 2:11)

There are myriad was to read this and similar passages in their historical context to overcome the problem that on the surface men appear to be the ultimate authorities in the Church. But many would rather not engage in such exegetical gymnastics. Though they want their opposition to sound theological, I submit that their primary aversion is cultural and experiential. The parallel issue of women driving in Saudi Arabia comes immediately to mind – there are religious arguments for and against, but the ultimate threat is not to God’s Sharīʿa but to a patriarchal social structure. It is a paradigm shift to embrace women as societal equals, and that is an experience that many people would rather not have.

I recently saw a dear friend who dares to unite “she” and “priest.” Years ago I invited her to preach at the church I was serving, and her sermon was profound. She didn’t preach “like a man” or “like a woman;” she just preached. Deep, charismatic, thought-provoking – that night she seemed a mere vessel for God’s Spirit to talk to and touch a congregation. Afterward one of my dearest congregants, who was raised Roman Catholic, approached her. “I never thought I could sit through a woman preaching, but you have completely changed my mind.” My jaw dropped as I overheard that comment and the ensuing conversation. He had learned through experience part of the profound Christian mystery that Paul had uncovered while reflecting on the effects that baptism might have on ethnicity, class, and gender: “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.” (Gal 3:28).

Mainline Protestantism has done many things wrong, but it has done at least one thing right. It has introduced mainstream Christianity to the possibility of full sexual equality for those who handle the sacred things of God. Not that Protestant theology gets all the credit – it simply opened the window for secularism to make new discoveries about human dignity, and then incorporated those discoveries. As the Neo-Orthodox adage goes, “The world taught the Church that women can be priests.”

This is a truth which other religious traditions have understood for much longer. Shinto Saiin, Yoruba Iyanifa, and Ryukuyan nūru have functioned as female clerics for countless centuries. Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī received Buddhist ordination in the 6th century BCE.

The Talmud recognizes seven women (Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Huldah, and Esther) as prophets, and Rashi’s commentary on Gen 29:34 adds Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah to this list. In the 1600s a woman named Asenath Barzani headed a Jewish Yeshiva in Iraq. The first female Ḥasidic rabbi was the Maiden of Ludmir in the mid-19th century. The German Regina Jonas, who died at Auschwitz, was ordained a rabbi in 1935. This was well before the first Anglican (1944), Lutheran (1947), or Presbyterian-USA (1956) women were first officially ordained as full clergy.

Islam has a long, albeit sparse, tradition of female clerics. From at least the time of aṭ-Ṭabarī (840-923 CE), Sunnī jurists have recognized that there is no reason that women cannot be muftīs, and thousands of prominent women such as ʿĀʾisha al-Baʿuniyya have functioned as jurists. Additionally, the Ḥadīth of Umm Waraqah indicates that the Prophet Muḥammad himself appointed a woman to lead a mixed-gender group in prayers.

This takes us back to Paul. As misogynistic as his critics (and conservative apologists) claim him to have been, his vision of ministry was not restricted to men. He described Priscilla as his “fellow worker;” the book of Acts describes her and her husband correcting a prominent evangelist on his faulty doctrine. Paul recognizes Phoebe as a deacon and a woman named Mary as a fellow laborer for Christ. They do the work of the Church, which is available to women and men. If there is to be a hierarchy, it seems clear that the New Testament contains a paradigm for egalitarianism within it.

The New Testament terms “prophesy” and “preach” are interchangeable; it is not a stretch to define a prophet/preacher as one who brings God’s word to God’s people. Abraham Joshua Heschel writes that in the Hebrew tradition, “prophecy consists in the inspired communication of divine attitudes” (p.288 of The Prophets); for Christians the Virgin Mary easily falls into this category. The Council of Ephesus in 431 declared Mary theotokos (“God-bearer”), the one from whom God’s revelation to humanity emerges. Minority voices in Islam consider Mary to be a prophet for precisely this reason: she brought the word of God (kalimat Allah) to the people of God. The New Testament additionally recognizes Anna and the four daughters of Phillip as bearers of God’s word.

Opponents of women’s ordination frequently argue that Jesus and all twelve of his original disciples were male; therefore the custodians of his ministry ought to be men. However, I know of no one who insists that their other demographic commonalities (Galilean, Aramaic-speaking, and of course Jewish) should be criteria which priests ought to meet. Pope Francis has made overtures to suggest that there might be a slight chink in the armor of the paternalists’ logic, but nothing more. Every tradition would be richer for doubling the size of the pool of those qualified to become fully ordained.

The most common argument I hear against female ministers is not theological, but stylistic. People who are used to the cadence, pitch, or tremor of an “average” man’s voice behind the pulpit have a hard time finding inspiration in anything else. But it is dangerous to laminate culture or personal preference onto theology. Even the most conservative Christian would concede that God is free to reveal (and has revealed) God’s self through women as well as men. My favorite preacher growing up, the first clergyperson to encourage me to preach, my clerical mentor in seminary, and the bishop who ordained me are all women. To be sure, I have nothing against male clergy – I am one. My experiences with female clergy (and the uphill climb that many of them face due to cultural biases) have prevented me from being anything other than a supporter of a gender-blind Church polity. Some might argue a difference between the capacity to preach and sacramental authority, but here Luther’s doctrine of the Word of God challenges the distinction. Certainly traditionalists can point to and ossify patriarchal historical ages, but in doing so they usurp God’s freedom to operate however and through whomever God desires. The argument against women in the ministry is so tired that it needs to be put to rest.

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