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Commentary: The Ordination of Women

By The Rev. Dr. Steve Harper
Dean, Asbury Theological Seminary, Orlando

Christian tradition does not speak a uniform word on this issue, and we must seek to maintain respect for those who feel women should not be ordained. Our own United Methodist heritage has not come to the current affirmation without struggle and differences of opinion. Nevertheless, we support the ordination of women and we believe that our position has strong elements in its favor. In this article, I will set forth the basics of our position, giving special attention to two passages in the New Testament where significant controversy has focused.

Prior to the establishment of the Christian church, several key points were already in place. First, the creation narrative shows a shared dominion, where both men and women are commissioned by God to care for the world, the family, etc. Second, the Old Testament period included significant ministry from such women as Esther and Deborah. Third, it is also clear that Jesus included women in his apostolic community. While none of these factors relate to "ordination" per se, they do reveal the role of women in God's economy.

A turning point occurs in Acts 2:17, when the prophecy of Joel is fulfilled, including the fact that, "your daughters shall prophesy." The Greek word for "prophesy" is broader than the role of the prophet, and is used to speak of the general communication of the gospel message. Even those who argue against the ordination of women have to acknowledge that the Pentecostal paradigm creates a new context for the ministry of women in the Christian church.

In the congregational era of the New Testament we see the ministry of women further reinforced by such people as Phillip's daughters (Acts 21:9), Priscilla (Romans 16:5), and Junia (Romans 16:7). In the case of Junia, she is referred to as "prominent among the apostles," giving credence to the leadership role some women (at least) had in the early church. Nearer to the close of the New Testament era, we also see the emergence of "deaconesses" (1 Timothy 3:11).

Furthermore, it must also be remembered that ordination as we understand it in United Methodism today does not have exact roots in the New Testament. A contemporary theology of ordination cannot be read back into the biblical text, but the text can be instructive to us today as it reveals the ministry of women in the early church. It is also beyond question that by the fourth century, women were ordained to ministry in the church, and this would never have happened if the original proponents had felt they were in violation of the Bible.

Before we look at two "controversial passages," it is important to set the preceding brief view of scripture alongside what might be called a "redemption paradigm." In the Wesleyan tradition, theology is an order of salvation; the story of how God saves people. Three elements are clear in this view:

  1. Salvation is for all
  2. Baptism is for all
  3. Discipleship is for all

This being so, it is logical to believe that this paradigm continues to the point "ministry is for all." It does not make sense to believe that God would involve both men and women in the first three elements of the redemptive process, and then exclude them in the fourth one.

This then is a brief overview of the case we make for the ordination of women. But we are mindful that two passages in the New Testament are often used as "conclusive" arguments against it: 1 Corinthians 14:35-35 and 1 Timothy 2:8-15. I will now turn attention to showing how we view these passages within the affirmation of the ordination of women.

The Corinthian text addresses women keeping silent in the church meetings. Perhaps the most obvious point in this passage is that it does not even refer to who is leading the service, but only to those who are in the congregation. The silence of women on such occasions is a carryover from the synagogue, and it was a sign of "reverence" not limitation. Moreover, the culture of the time looked askance at women who spoke in public in ways that could be perceived as disruptive. In extreme cases, their morality would even be called into question.

The point for us in the Corinthian text is that it simply does not address the issue of women in leadership, much less ordination. It is not a text that even applies to the topic in question, because it refers only to what women should do in the audience. Nothing is said of what they may (or may not) do up front.

The passage in 1 Timothy is the second passage cited by those who oppose the ordination of women. At face value, it appears to be an open-and-shut case against women's ordination because Paul says clearly, "I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man" (2:12). However, it is wrong to make this a blanket statement, for to do so would cause Paul to contradict himself. He spoke approvingly of women ministering publicly in 1 Corinthians 11:5. He commended Euodia and Synteche for their labor in the gospel (Philippians 4:3), and he held Lois and Eunice in highest honor (2 Timothy 1:5).

So, what does the passage in 1 Timothy really mean if it is not a wholesale prohibition? It appears that what Paul was forbidding was women ministering "independently" — this is, "having authority" over men. The early church was barely thirty years old when Paul wrote this passage, and in some places the congregations were even younger. In that length of time, women had not yet risen to roles of leadership as quickly as men. This was not discrimination or prohibition as much as it was a reference to current reality. So, what Paul resisted was a woman "running ahead" of the development of the church at that time and presuming a role of "authority" not yet universalized in the Body of Christ.

But the seeds of change had been sown, and sown by Paul himself, who was already charting the course for the Christian church, different from Judaism and Greco-Roman culture. He was declaring the shift when he wrote revolutionary words in Galatians 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." This is the principle that would revolutionize the church and lay the foundation for the ordination of women. It is against this transformational passage that we ultimately interpret our affirmation.