On the Ordination of Women

In the past five years, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, with which my home congregation is affiliated, has experienced growing pains as the influx of congregations from the Presbyterian Church (USA) has doubled the number of congregations in the EPC’s fold.  As a consequence of this growth, the recent General Assembly voted to refer to the Committee on Administration the possible creation of a new presbytery—called “Great Plains”—that would be carved from the Presbyteries of the West and Mid-America—and would stretch from Oklahoma to North Dakota.

The study group that presented this recommendation to the General Assembly stated that it “is mindful of the particular complexities of state boundaries in the metropolitan Kansas City area in relation to existing EPC congregations.”  Perhaps the greatest of these “complexities” is my home church, Colonial Presbyterian, which has campuses in two states—Kansas and Missouri.  Adding to this complexity, is that Colonial, like the majority of former PCUSA congregations that have been received into the EPC in recent years, is egalitarian—that is, she has taken the position that the ordination of women is Scripturally permissible—whereas the Presbytery of Mid-America, which is the presbytery into which Colonial would naturally fall geographically, is comprised of a majority of congregations that are complementarian—that is, they have taken the position that the ordination of women is not Scripturally permissible.  Moreover, because one of Colonial’s associate pastors is a woman, Colonial has been received into the Presbytery of the West, which is comprised of a majority of egalitarian congregations.  As such, Colonial is geographically distant from the majority of congregations in her new presbytery in Colorado.  A new presbytery thus comprised would, of course, be to Colonial’s benefit, as the great distance to travel in the Presbytery of the West naturally limits her ability to participate in the presbytery’s life and ministry.

Now the EPC allows each local congregation to choose whether or not to ordain women to the offices of elder and deacon and each presbytery to choose whether or not to ordain and/or receive into membership women as pastors.  The EPC holds that the ordination of women is not an essential of the Christian faith—that is, the Christian faith does not hinge upon this doctrine as it does, for example, on the doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Substitutionary Atonement, and the Resurrection.

The first essential doctrine held by the EPC has to do with the Bible.  “All Scripture is self-attesting and being Truth, requires our unreserved submission in all areas of life.  The infallible Word of God, the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments, is a complete and unified to God’s redemptive acts culminating in the incarnation of the Living Word, the Lord Jesus Christ.  The Bible, uniquely and fully inspired by the Holy Spirit, is the supreme and final authority on all matters on which it speaks.”  That includes the matter of the ordination of women to the offices of elder, deacon, and minister of Word and Sacrament.

The complementarian position—that is, that the ordination of women is not Scripturally permissible—is the majority position throughout Church history and is still the official position of the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and most Evangelical churches and denominations.  It is predicated especially upon teachings by the Apostle Paul.  Referring to the creation of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2, Paul wrote, “For man was not made from woman, but woman from man.  Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.  That is why a wife (or woman; Gk. gunæ) ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels (or messengers, that is, people sent to observe and report; Gk. angeloi).” (I Cor. 11.8-10)  Again, in the context of orderly worship, “As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches.  For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says.  If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home.  For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” (I Cor. 14.33-35)  And perhaps most significantly, following a plea for prayer for all people and preceding the qualifications for the offices of elder and deacon, Paul wrote,

“I desire then at every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works.  Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness.  I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.  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—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.” (I Tim. 2.8-15)

In the complementarian position, the responsibility of the husband to lovingly lead his wife and the responsibility of the wife to submit to her husband’s leadership (Eph. 5.22-33, I Pet.3.1-7) extends also to the life of the Church.  In the regular organization of the church, the pulpit ministry, the ruling council of the church, and even those who are responsible for leading the compassion and mercy ministries of the church are to be exclusively staffed by godly men—godly women, even those with preaching, teaching, and leadership gifts, are Scripturally ineligible from serving in these offices.

Most complementarian churches do not adhere to the strictest interpretation of Paul’s prohibition against women actually participating in the worship of the church.  They are permitted to serve as readers of Scripture, to sing solos and participate in choirs and worship teams—even to lead worship singing or conduct the choir—and to pray aloud.  On rare occasion in some complementarian churches, they are also permitted to speak from the pulpit (although because they are excluded from pastoral ministry, the message they deliver cannot be considered to be a sermon).

Although Paul prohibited women from teaching or exercising authority over men or from speaking in church, there are a number of passages in Scripture where women do, in fact, do these things.  For example, the Prophetess Deborah was appointed by God to judge Israel (Judg. 4.4-5.31); the Prophetess Huldah was appointed by God to instruct King Josiah (II Kg. 22.14-20); the Prophetess Anna prophesied at the dedication of Jesus that He was “the redemption of Jerusalem” (Lk. 2.36-38); Priscilla, with her husband Aquila, taught the Evangelist Apollos “the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18.26); and the four unnamed daughters of the Evangelist Philip prophesied in Caesarea (Acts 21.8-9).

Moreover, in his list of qualifications for the offices of deacon, Paul wrote that “(the deacons’) wives (Gk. gunæ; linguistically, it can be interpreted as either “the wives” or “the women”) likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things” (I Tim. 3.11); and he commended to the Church at Rome a woman named Phoebe, who was a deacon (Gk. diakonos, the same word employed in I Tim. 3.8) at the Church in Cenchreae (Rom. 16.1-2).  Likewise, in I Corinthians 11.5, Paul commends women who pray or prophesy in church, and in II Timothy 1.5, he pays homage to Timothy’s mother and grandmother, who were instrumental in instructing Timothy in the faith.

Because “all Scripture is breathed out by God” (II Tim. 3.16), and because God does not contradict Himself (Num. 23.19, I Cor. 14.33), the passages which prohibit the ordination of women must be reconciled with the passages in which women function in ordained capacity.  Those who hold the complementarian position hold that the passages which prohibit women from serving in ordained office are normative, whereas those passages in which women apparently function in this capacity are divinely-sanctioned exceptions.

Conversely, Bible-believing Christians (as opposed to those who claim the name of Christ and yet undermine the authority of Scripture) who hold the egalitarian position hold that the passages in which women function in ordained capacity are normative and that those passages where the Apostle Paul prohibits them from ordained office require special handling.  To be sure, egalitarian Christians, like complementarian Christians, are committed to uphold the integrity and authority of God’s holy, inspired, inerrant, and authoritative Word.

Egalitarian Christians predicate their belief that the ordination of women is permissible upon those passages in which women prophesy in church, or teach or exercise authority over men, and upon Paul’s teaching that in Christ, “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)

The prohibition against the ordination of women hinges upon the three passages, previously mentioned, in which Paul stated that women “ought to have a symbol of authority on (their) head” (I Cor. 11.8-10), that women ought not speak in church (I Cor. 14.33-35), and that women ought not teach or exercise authority over men (I Tim. 2.8-15).  Egalitarian Christians hold that these proscriptions must be interpreted in the context of the specific circumstances that existed in Corinth and Ephesus at the time Paul wrote I Corinthians and I Timothy.  Corinth was the home of the cult of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of lust, whose priestesses were cult prostitutes.  Similarly, at the time Paul wrote to him, Timothy was ministering in Ephesus (I Tim. 1.3), which was the home of the cult of Diana (or Artemis; Acts 19.21-41), a fertility goddess portrayed in art with many breasts, whose priestesses were also cult prostitutes.  Moreover, the Lord Jesus chastised the Church of Thyatira for tolerating “that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols.  I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality.  Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works, and I will strike all her children dead.” (Rev. 2.20-23)  Likewise, it is known that sexual immorality was an issue with which many early churches struggled, including the churches in Corinth (I Cor. 5-6) and Ephesus (Eph. 5.3-5, I Tim. 1.9-10).  Because of the association in Ancient Greek society of women religious leaders with cult prostitution, it is likely that Paul forbade them in that context specifically for that reason.  Because this association between women religious leaders and cult prostitution no longer exists in modern society, and given the Biblical precedence of women in leadership roles, it follows that Paul’s prohibition of women from ordained office no longer applies today.

Now it must be granted that Paul nowhere gives this line of reasoning as the basis of his prohibition against the ordination of women.  Moreover, he did give reasons that relate to the creation of woman before the Fall and Eve’s role in the Fall.  Because woman was made from and for man, and not man from or for woman, it follows that a woman “ought to have a symbol of authority on her head.” (I Cor. 11.8-10)  And again, “Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” (I Tim. 2.11-12)

However, the first reason ought to be interpreted in the context of I Corinthians 11.3, which relates the relationship of a woman to her husband.  As such, vv. 8-10 relate to the relationship of husband and wife.  As noted above, the Greek word used in this passage is gunæ, which linguistically can be translated as either “woman” or “wife”.  Given the context of the passage as the relationship of husband and wife, it does not follow that it applies to women in the broader life of the Church.

With respect to the second reason (I Tim. 2.11-12), Paul claims that Eve was deceived, whereas Adam was not.  However, both Adam and Eve transgressed the commandment (Gen. 3.6-7,16-19), and it was on account of Adam’s sin that our race is accounted guilty (Rom. 5.12,18-19, I Cor. 15.21-22).  And Scripture does not bear evidence that a woman is more gullible than a man.  Indeed, Abigail proved wiser than either her first husband, Nabal, or her second husband, David (I Sam. 25), and the “excellent wife” of Proverbs 31 “opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.”  Thus, women are not inherently more susceptible to deception than men on account of their gender.

What is more, Paul claimed that women “will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.” (I Tim. 2.15)  But as Paul emphasized elsewhere, “A person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” (Gal. 2.16; see also Rom. 3.28, Eph. 2.8-9)  And Paul elsewhere stated that it would be better for the unmarried persons and widows, if they could keep from sexual desire, to remain unmarried so that they would be more unencumbered in order to serve the Lord (I Cor. 7.8,25-40).  Paul, therefore, could not have meant that women would, in fact, be saved by the work of childbearing.

Rather, given the context of vv. 13-14, it would seem that there were in the Ephesian Church women who were susceptible to false teachers (I Tim. 5.15).  Likewise, it would seem from the context of vv. 8-15, that Paul is instructing Timothy that these women ought to give attention to spiritual discipline, learning sound doctrine, and doing good works that befit godliness, and not seeking positions of authority in the Church.  However, just because there were in the early Church, and still are in the Church today, women who were susceptible to false teachers, it does not follow that Paul’s proscription against women serving in ordained office in the Church, if there are godly, wise women who fulfill the spiritual and character requirements of I Timothy 3.1-13, Titus 1.5-9 for elders and deacons.

If it be objected that women do not meet the requirements of being the “husband of one wife” (I Tim. 3.2,12, Tit. 1.6), it should be pointed out that neither did the Apostle Paul.  If godly single men should not be excluded from ordained office in the Church, then neither should godly women.  What is of concern here is that a man who is called by God to ordained office be either chaste in singleness or faithful to his (only) wife in the covenant of marriage.  Likewise, a woman who is called by God to ordained office must be either chaste in singleness or faithful to her (only) husband in the covenant of marriage.

Complementarian Christians will point out that today, there are still women in ordained offices of churches who, like “Jezebel” in the Church of Thyatira, are “teaching and seducing (the Lord’s) servants to practice sexual immorality” (Rev. 2.20).  Of course, such should not be ordained to office in the Church, but few of these, if any, are practicing cult prostitutes.  Moreover, there are men in ordained office who do the same thing; they ought not be ordained either.  It does not, therefore, follow that godly women should be precluded from ordained office.

Certainly, the egalitarian position is not unassailable, and it could be in error.  But the same holds true of the complementarian position.  Whether or not one holding to the binding authority of the Word of God believes that the ordination of women is Scripturally permissible, such is not an essential doctrine of the Christian faith.  To be sure, the position that the ordination of women is not Scripturally permissible but that the Scriptures may be corrected by secular scholarship and cultural norms must be avoided, for it is not a position that comports with the Christian faith in that it places the interpretation of the Scriptures as an authority over the Scriptures rather than bringing one’s interpretation into submission to the same Scriptures that one purports to interpret.  Complementarian Christians and egalitarian Christians, therefore, ought to be charitable toward one another on this issue and ought to extend to one another that hand of Christian fellowship.

“I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.” (I Cor. 1.10)

“By this all people will know that (we) are (Christ’s) disciples, if (we) have love for one another.” (Jn. 13.35)

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