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Commentary: Why Do United Methodists Ordain Women When the Bible Specifically Prohibits It?


By Tom McAnally
Retired Director of United Methodist News Service

This question is usually prompted by Paul's comments in I Timothy 2:8-15 (NRSV):

I desire, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument; also that the women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God. Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.

United Methodists take this scripture, like all scripture, and reflect on it critically in light of their Biblical and theological inheritance.

* The creation stories of Genesis tell of God making female and male in God's own image. God placed them in the garden to work in harmonious partnership.

* Old Testament prophets call for justice, speak out against inequities, and stand with the oppressed.

* Jesus Christ had women as friends, disciples and witnesses. He challenged the conventional beliefs of his day that women were inferior and men were superior.

* The Apostle Paul called the people of God to create a world where the gifts of both women and men are celebrated and used, where "there is neither male nor female, but all are one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28).

Methodism's founder, John Wesley, believed that the living core of the Christian faith was "revealed in Scripture, illuminated by tradition, vivified in personal and experience, and confirmed by reason." In The United Methodist Church this way of examining Scripture and doing theology is sometimes referred to as the "Wesleyan quadrilateral."

Wesley's position, and the position of The United Methodist Church, is that Scripture is primary. The United Methodist Book of Discipline notes, however, that the Christian witness, "even when grounded in Scripture and mediated by tradition, is ineffectual unless understood and appropriated by the individual. To become our witness, it must make sense in terms of our own reason and experience."

What matters most, according to the Discipline, is that "all four guidelines be brought to bear in faithful, serious, theological consideration. Insights arising from serious study of the Scriptures and tradition enrich contemporary experience. Imaginative and critical thought enables us to understand better the Bible and our common Christian history."

One reference from Paul may appear to rule out the ordination of women, but United Methodists also take into account other scriptural references as well as our tradition, experience and reason.

The United Methodist Church, by polity and practice, supports the full inclusion of women in every aspect of church life. Among groups that specifically work to eliminate sexism and promote the full inclusion of women are the General Commission on Status and Role of Women and the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.

The Methodist Episcopal Church licensed and ordained women as local preachers in the early 1920s. However that position changed in 1939 at the time of union with the Methodist Episcopal Church South and the Methodist Protestant Church. In 1956 full clergy rights were granted to women in The Methodist Church. The last of the mainline Protestant denominations (The Episcopal Church) did not approve ordination of women until 1976.

If you are a woman and feel called by God to ordained ministry, visit the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry's website.