Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Why Women Pastors? (A Methodist's Perspective)

In contrast to other large Christian groups like Southern Baptists and Roman Catholics, United Methodists maintain that women who are called by God may serve at every level of leadership within the Church.  Aware that this position sets us apart from other brothers and sisters in Christ, this decision was not arrived at lightly.  Rather, it is the result of a long process of prayerful theological discernment that has sought to be faithful to Scripture and Christian tradition as well as to our own reason and experience. 

Groups like the Quakers and Pentecostals have affirmed the gifts of women for ministry from the very beginning of their movements, while mainline Protestants – including Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Disciples, Congregationalists, and some Baptists – did not begin granting women full clergy rights until the twentieth century.  However, since the earliest days of Methodism, certain women demonstrated what John Wesley called an “extraordinary” call from God to share the good news and so were licensed to be preachers.  Wesley’s own mother led a Bible study in her home that drew so many people that it began to rival her husband’s ministry as the parish priest.  Thus, United Methodists have always been mindful that some women are not only persuaded of a call from God to preach, but also that the living out of this call has produced much spiritual “fruit” (Matthew 7:16) – drawing many to a deeper love of God and neighbor.  Today, women lead around 8% of all American congregations and account for 20% of mainline Methodist, Presbyterian, and Lutheran clergy.  


We believe that God is active in the world, revealing himself to us over the course of human history.  Over hundreds of years, God inspired ordinary people to write of their encounters with the divine in stories, letters, and poetry (to name a few biblical genres) – words that were collected together in the Bible.  When read in faith, these words are for us the living Word of God, telling us the good news of God’s purpose for us. 

As United Methodists, Scripture is of primary importance for understanding God and how we are called to live in the world.  And yet, it is necessary to acknowledge that the Bible has been interpreted in many different ways.  Often, particular passages are taken out of context and wielded like weapons to support causes that contradict the Bible’s message as a whole.  For this reason, the Bible is not read in isolation, but instead is interpreted through the lens of tradition (what has been “handed down” [1 Cor. 15:3] through the community of faith), reason, and experience.  We approach the Bible, not as those who have mastered God’s Word, but as humble children, acknowledging our weaknesses, and relying on the Holy Spirit to “lead us into all truth” (John 14:26).

With this in mind, we maintain that certain so-called “proof texts” against the full inclusion of women in the life of the Church (1 Tim. 2:8-15; 1 Cor. 14:34-35) are used in isolation and are often taken out of context by those who oppose women’s ordination.  In similar ways, sincere Christians have relied on isolated texts to support slavery (1 Peter 2:13-18), apartheid (Gen. 11:1-9), head coverings for women (1 Cor. 11:5), or to prohibit remarriage after divorce (Mark 10:2-12).  Before considering these specific Pauline texts, then, it is necessary to establish what the rest of Scripture has to say about women and their role in the Church.

1.     Men and women were created equally in the image of God.  In contrast to the long-held assumption that women are sub-human or dependent on men for their humanity, the Bible describes God creating “male and female” in his own image.  The woman was created as the perfect complement to man, and she shares with him in the task of caring for the rest of creation (Gen 1 – 2).

2.     The oppression and belittling of women is rooted in sin.  In the aftermath of the humanity’s disobedience to God, the relationship between men and women was distorted.  We can see the beginnings of male abuse of women in Adam’s excuse before God: “It’s her fault!”  The conflict between the sexes is the result of the Fall – including all domestic violence, sexual abuse, systematic exclusion and oppression meant to undermine the sacred worth of women as human beings created in the image of God (Gen 3).

3.     Women held significant leadership roles in Old Testament.  Although the majority of Jewish leaders were male, females also contributed in very important ways.  Most strikingly, Deborah served as a judge over Israel (Judges 4 – 5) and Esther delivered her people from extermination (Esther).  The example of these women reminds us that women were not entirely excluded from leadership roles in the community of faith and that God worked through them in extraordinary ways.

4.     In Christ, there is no longer male and female.  Jesus broke down social barriers by reaching out to women and including them in his apostolic community.  The same woman who gave birth to the Messiah was with him at his death, when most everyone else had run away.  Jesus’ female disciples were the first ones to witness his resurrection.  Through Jesus, God opened the way for a new community, the Church, where salvation, baptism, and discipleship are available to all people – including women.  Old barriers of division and exclusion, including the conflict between the sexes that is rooted in sin, no longer apply within the new community of faith (Gal. 3:28).  In contrast to social norms where women were viewed as property, women in the Church are empowered by the Holy Spirit to be witnesses to the saving grace of Jesus Christ. 

5.     Women held significant leadership roles in the Church.  It is clear that “femaleness” is not a barrier to full participation in salvation, baptism, or discipleship.  This being so, it is logical to conclude that Christian ministry is also extended to all people.  Indeed, the New Testament affirms that women participated in the ministry of the Church on many different levels.  In fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy, God poured out his Spirit upon all flesh, so that women should “prophesy,” the same word that connotes the sharing of the Gospel message (Acts 2:17).  Thus the arrival of the Spirit points to a new context for the ministry of women in the Church – women like Philip’s daughters (Acts 21:9), Priscilla (Rom. 16:5), Euodia and Synteche (Phil. 4:3), Phoebe (Rom. 16:1), deaconesses (1 Tim. 3:11), and Junia, who is referred to as “prominent among the apostles” (Rom. 16:7).


In light of the larger narrative of Scripture, it seems reasonable to maintain that women should not be universally excluded from leadership within the Church.  In these “latter days,” God has poured out his Spirit on all flesh, leveling barriers that were formerly meant to exclude, including between male and female (Acts 2:17; Gal. 3:28).  Therefore, all efforts to silence women from “prophesying” that are based in a male desire to control or dominate females must be understood as a re-imposition of old sinful divisions within the Church.

However, it must also be acknowledged that for the vast majority of the Church’s history, women have not been able to participate fully in the leadership of the Church.  This is partly due to a particular interpretation of the aforementioned Pauline proof-texts and partly because of the belief that only a man could stand in the place of Christ as a priest (since Jesus was a man) and that Jesus only chose twelve male apostles. 

We do not cavalierly shirk off these historic objections to the ordination of women.  As previously noted, we do not approach the Scripture as individuals but as part of a wider community of faith that cuts across time, space, and denominational divisions.  And yet, we are also convinced that all tradition must be continually measured against the apostolic witness of the Scripture as a whole.  Especially in view of the longstanding violence and oppression against women – inside and outside the Church – we are compelled to take a closer look at these objections and are careful to remain open to where the Spirit may be leading us toward reform.


As we seek to be faithful to the Word of God, we cannot dismiss out of hand biblical texts that we may find uncomfortable.  To be sure, “all Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16).  At the same time, though, we must be careful to interpret individual passages within their own context and in light of the Scriptural narrative as a whole.  In this task, it is critical to rely on the God-given resources of tradition, reason, and experience – while continuing to acknowledge that sin too often clouds our ability to hear the Word that God is speaking through the text today.  That being said, the Pauline texts in 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 14 have traditionally been used in Protestant circles to bar women from ordained ministry.  Although many have approached these texts with a preconceived sexist agenda, others maintain their position against women’s ordination out of a commendable desire to be faithful to God’s Word. 

Still, it should be noted that a selectively literal reading of Paul’s writings on women casts suspicion on the motivations of the interpreter.  Why is it that those who oppose women’s ordination strenuously quote Paul’s advice that women “be silent” (1 Cor. 14:34) and that they should not “have authority over a man” (2 Tim. 2:12) – but ignore his explicit instructions on women’s apparel in worship such as head coverings, gold jewelry, pearls, expensive clothes, and braids (1 Cor. 11:5; 2 Tim. 2:9)?  Furthermore, women are rarely confined to complete “silence” as a literal interpretation would suggest (they may testify, sing, offer prayer requests, etc.), instead they are carefully excluded by men from the recognized power structures and leadership in the Church (despite doing most the work).  It is in these selectively literal contexts where women are excluded from leadership that men in authority most often overlook domestic violence, sexual abuse, and exploitation of women in the Church.  If those who oppose the ordination of women want to be taken seriously, they should be consistent in their literal interpretation of Paul and should root out all forms of abuse against women in their churches. 

1.     1 Corinthians 14:34-35: “Women should be silent in the churches…If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home.”  Perhaps the most obvious point is that this passage does not refer to who is leading the service, but only to those who are in the congregation.  Moreover, the “silence” here implies “reverence” or “respectful attention” more than limitation, since women (who were overwhelmingly uneducated) may have been asking questions or causing other disruptions in the service, “for God is a God not of disorder but of peace” (14:33).  Silence in this passage is related to the ordering of worship within the particular context of the church at Corinth, not restricting half of the body of Christ to total public silence for all time.

2.     1 Timothy 2:12: “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.”   In all of Christian Scripture, this is the only text that instructs all women to be “silent.”  In context, however, Paul is giving his own personal advice to Timothy’s particular situation, saying that women in the congregation should be decent and modest in appearance, not “seizing authority” over men.  Why would Paul say this?  Timothy was a young pastor in Ephesus, a city where the female-only cult of Artemis was the main religion.  In order to prevent newly empowered Christian women from getting carried away and dominating men like the cult of Artemis, Paul encourages them to learn in silence (“reverence” or “respectful attention”), so that men and women together can develop the gifts of leadership God is giving them.  Such a spirit of reverence and respect need not contradict all other biblical passages where women appear in leadership roles (see above).  In fact, it is this very spirit of respect that prevents women from seizing the kind of authority over men that men previously held over women.

To a lesser extent, opponents of women in Church leadership roles will point to the requirements for selecting pastors (elders) that refer only to men (1 Tim. 3).  Yet such a restrictive interpretation is not consistently applied, since to do so would be to suggest that all pastors should be married fathers with disciplined children who obey their teachings.  This not only makes an assumption (beyond the text), that Paul and Timothy were married men with children, it demonstrates the opposite bias of a literal interpretation of the texts that refer to Junia as an apostle (Rom. 16:7) and Phoebe as a deacon (Rom. 16:1).


In addition to the biblical proof-texts (widely circulated in evangelical Protestantism), Catholic and Orthodox opponents of female ordination often cite tradition and theology.  The Catholic Church's opposition to the ordination of women has hardened in recent years, although a majority of churchgoing American Catholics are actually in favor of female priests.  Supporters of the Vatican's policy point out that God became a man, not a woman.  It makes sense, then, that only male priests can fully represent Christ to the people in worship.  Furthermore, Jesus chose all male apostles when he certainly could have selected from among his devoted female followers.  

Certainly, proponents of female ordination should not simply dismiss centuries of church practice.  However, in the case of the argument that a female cannot sufficiently represent Christ in worship, it is helpful to remember Gregory of Nazianzus' maxim that "that which he did not assume he did not redeem."  In other words, the incarnation is about Christ assuming and redeeming our common humanity, not "maleness" - otherwise, all women remain unredeemed!  Furthermore, to follow this narrow logic, one would also have to exclude all Gentiles from ordination as well.  Paul underscores the opposite point in his letter to the Galatians - in Christ, there is no male and female, no Jew or Greek (3:28).  Therefore, gender cannot be a determining factor for what it means to be human and to stand as a representative of Christ to the people in worship.

The second objection of Jesus only choosing male apostles is more difficult to address.  But surely, even though the apostles were given particular authority by Jesus and the early Church, we should remember the faithfulness of his female disciples, who remained by his side when the apostles fled.  We should also bear in mind the patriarchal context of the ancient world.  There is no reason to infer that because Jesus chose all male apostles that he meant to exclude women from leadership in the Church for all time.  Indeed, the leadership positions women did hold in the early church (particularly Romans 16:1, 7) and the spiritual fruit of women in ministry today seem to imply the contrary.


Even in traditions where they cannot serve as pastors/priests, women have lived out calls to ministry over the centuries as nuns, missionaries, pastors’ wives, deaconesses, and teachers.  Within Methodism, women have served as class leaders and local preachers.  Over a period of time, the fruit of this ministry has been observed by our corner of the Church to be blessed by the Holy Spirit.  We believe that the reasons for excluding women from full participation in the Church’s leadership contradict the greater message of Scripture – that in Christ there is no longer male or female – as well as our own experience of the effectiveness of females in various non-ordained ministry roles.  Thus, as United Methodists and other Protestants, we have come to a consensus that women should be ordained as a witness to the wider Church that we are truly living in the latter days, when the Spirit is poured out on all people and our “daughters shall prophesy.”