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Can Women Be Pastors? The Ordination of Women to Pastoral Ministry

Can Women Be Pastors? The Ordination of Women to Pastoral Ministry

The question itself seems to be inextricably entangled in thorny brambles and scratchy briars. An overgrowth of shifting social standards, exegetical neglect, homiletical abuse, misunderstanding, prejudice, cultural intrusion, plain-old ignorance, and even the personal pain of many godly women have all converged with their prickly suckers and shoots to strangle the now untouchable center, wherein lies the fruit of truth. I am talking about the question of the ordination of women to the pastoral ministry.

In order to get at the fruit of truth, we're going to have to use our best biblical, interpretive shears to snip away the unkept vines. But as with any valuable treasure we must approach our task with humility, patience, understanding of each other, and the willingness to speak honestly about the revelation of God in Scripture. We will also need to recognize that men and women of good will disagree over this. We must not break our faith in bonds of unity even if we are convinced and convicted that our position is the right one. God has condescended to us by allowing branches of his church to exist where polarized positions may be expressed with love.

I do believe that a delimitation is in order. I am an ordained minister in a Bible believing, evangelical denomination that does not ordain females to the offices of the church. It is important to also state that we do not ordain every male candidate to these offices. But with that being said let us go forward and follow the Lord's will as best we can. The necessary limitations of this article will require us to focus on only a few of the questions. The first of these questions is always the right place to start:

1. Does the Bible actually speak to the issue of the ordination of women?

There is a possible side path that we are tempted to take and that is the matter of "ordination." Is there a discernible "theology of ordination" in the Bible? Many believers, in fact most of the global church, answers that question by saying "yes." Yes, there is a discernible doctrine of ordination: the recognition of gifts and graces and calling to God ordained offices of the church. Depending upon the branch of the church there may be two offices or three offices. The Bible speaks of presbyters who served as pastors, evangelists, apostles — those who were directly commissioned by Jesus Christ face-to-face — as well as deacons, and local church elders. Some, like Anglican brothers and sisters recognize an office of the episcopacy: the presbyter whose primary function is to "shepherd the shepherds who shepherd the flock." These are all very important matters but constitute a completely different set of questions and responses. For now let us just focus on the question of whether the Bible prohibits the ordination of a female in the office of pastor (or presbyter, “priest,” or minister of Word, Sacrament, and Prayer, that is, Christian clergy serving as pastor, “rector,” or “vicar”). Those who fill these offices must be called, trained, approved, for the Bible says "no man takes this honor unto himself."

There are many places in the Bible that speak to the question before us but do so by inference; that is, one must gather the data of the texts and discern the truth. Rather than focus on these all go to the usual texts that is cited and, indeed, the biblical passage that is often debated.

1 Timothy 2:8-15 remains the crucial scriptural text in the debate over the ordination of women, or, if you prefer, the issue of women serving as pastors of local churches. In this passage, the Apostle Paul is teaching young Pastor Timothy about the pitfalls of ministry in the Ephesian church. This Christian community, founded by Paul, was a hotbed of controversy. One of those problems, in chapter two, involves prayer for kings and all in authority (1 Timothy 2:1-2). Reading a text with Newton’s Third Law, we recognize that for every admonition there is an equal and opposite problem that created the exhortation. Therefore, undoubtedly, there were some who refused to pray for pagan or anti-Christian rulers. This violated the order of human government ordained by God. There was also trouble with men in public prayer. It is quite likely that some were weaponizing public prayers in the house of the Lord, using the privilege of pastoral prayers to call out the peccadilloes of others. Quarrels were morphing into violence.

And then there is the matter of the sensual and ostentatious display of Greco-Roman female fashion that is prohibitive.

“I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God” (1 Timothy 2:9-10).

Now, both of these critical matters in the Ephesian congregation involve parochial and universal concerns. In other words, local customs were in play in the controversy. But so, too, were more global concerns of virtue; In this case, modesty. This is a vital distinction that must be considered as we move to the “tenderloin” passage informing our pursuit of an answer to the question of whether females may be set apart for pastoral oversight of a Christian community.

So, St. Paul admonishes Timothy concerning the apparent assumption of the mantle of teaching authority by women in the Ephesian church.

“A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet” (1 Timothy 2:11-12).

There is absolutely no debate whatsoever that the Apostle Paul is forbidding women from holding the principal position of authoritative doctrinal teaching in the Ephesian church. The question is whether the Apostle Paul is continuing his line of thinking about social norms or is he moving from the issue of provocative attire by women in the assembly to speak about another matter altogether: namely, women exercising authoritative doctrinal headship over the men in the church. To put it another way: Is 1 Timothy 2:11-12 a parochial, i.e., particular, guide, or is this pivotal passage a universal, i.e., a general rule?

Men and women of good will differ on the response.

Those who believe in the ordination of women into the pastoral ministry might preface their study of 1 Timothy 2 with another important passage. The Apostle Paul taught, “there are no male or female, no slave nor free, no Jew or Greek, but we are all one in Christ.” All understand this to be true. However, some interpret this to be not only speaking ontologically — that is about personhood — but also about role relationships. Others draw the distinction between the equality of personhood and the distinction of role relationships. For instance, the apostle Paul clearly is not overthrowing the role relationship of husbands and wives, parents and children, of employers and employees, of civil authority and citizens who must abide by the law. In speaking to the essential personhood: we are all equal before God. Paul's statement in 1 Timothy 2:12 appears to be a teaching related to role relationships.

Paul is saying that females should not "wear" the mantle of doctrinal authority in the local church. It is very important to see that he buttresses this, as if to anticipate a discussion about changing social norms, with the passage that deals with the fundamental creation ordinance of men and women. This is the familiar place with the apostle Paul says, "for Adam…" Did you see that? This sentence is an explanation, a defense of his previous statement, namely, that, "I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet." Paul goes on to say that in the beginning God created Adam and Eve. There is an order in creation. The truth is that the highest form of the order is woman for she was the last creature that God made. This is also demonstrated when Adam awakes from his divinely induced sleep to behold the woman. She is fair and lovely, the gift, the highest order of creation and one to be cherished, honored, and protected in every way.

So the Apostle Paul says that in fact she has a greater role in the history of the world: for it is by woman, without the aid of the man, through childbirth, that she brings forth salvation, that is, the Lord Jesus Christ. Each of these passages deserve their own interpretive analysis, discussion, and prayerful reflection. But for our purposes it is enough to say that the force of this teaching by the apostle Paul appears to be admonishing Timothy that (1) women should not hold authoritative office in the local church that involves apostolic and doctrinal teaching; and (2) it has absolutely nothing to do with social norms — whether it might be considered appropriate or inappropriate for female to hold such an authoritative position over a congregation — nor does it have to do with ability (as a seminary professor and as a pastor I have known many gifted women whose skills and natural abilities far exceeded some of my own assistant ministers and pastoral staff). Rather, the matter is settled because of the creation ordinance.

2. So, does the Bible condone women in other offices of the church?

That is a very good question and, once again, the answer to that question is not unanimous. There are some who believe that 1 Timothy 2:12 forbids a woman to be a senior pastor, it does not forbid the ordination of women to the office. Others, feel that a woman can serve as an associate pastor or in another expression of pastoral ministry. There are others still, who believe that the office of deacon is open to women. Usually, those who hold this position point to the great female figure in the New Testament, Phoebe. She most certainly is identified as carrying out diaconal ministry. Others, point to 1 Timothy 3:8-13 in the Apostle Paul's statement of qualification for deacons. It is to be noted that there is a qualification required of deacons that is not required of elders or overseers ( 1 Tim. 3:1-7).

Paul says that "their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderous, but sober minded, faithful in all things." Why are deacons given this requirement and not elders? A survey of the New Testament provides further insight to this question. The deacon was required to be involved with the women of the church, for example, the distribution of support to widows, and, obviously, other ministries that are necessary but not mentioned. The elders principal duty is the teaching of the Word of God and the spiritual and doctrinal oversight of the flock. Therefore, the apostle Paul focused his comments on the work of the deacon and the necessity, if he were to be married, of a wife who is trustworthy in dealing with such sensitive, confidential matters within the body of Christ.

So, there are some within the body of Christ who feel such distinctions are imposed upon the text rather than extracted from the text. They feel that women may be ordained into the diaconal ministry.

3. If the church persists in the distinction of the role relationships of men and women, especially pertaining to the pastoral ministry, won't this have a negative effect before the watching world?

The truth is that much of what the church stands for, teaches, and proposes runs contra mundum — that is, "against the world." Is it not true that the Church's teaching on human sexuality, the family, and, of course, the Person of Christ, is increasingly at odds with the postmodern and post-Christian society? Then again, if the Church advances this position or any other position based on anything other than Scripture, she will be completely defenseless against rhetorical attack. Indeed, the Church without biblical doctrine is in danger of collapsing. Therefore, those men who boorishly employ this Scripture as a weapon to keep “female parishioners” from exercising their gifts are wrong (and should be called out by other men). They will be seen for what they are by the world and, ultimately, by the Church.

On the other hand, whether it is the ordination of women — and we must remember that, again, there are those within the body of Christ who love the Lord, love his Word, and have arrived at a different position — or whether it is human sexuality or any of the other issues we face it, if we alter, add to or take away from the Word of God we will not only fail in our attempt to impress the world with our magnanimity, but more importantly, we will incur the wrath of God.

4. Well, is there anything positive to say?

The biblical revelation of the role relationships of men and women, those who are called to the office of pastor, to those who were called to the office of deacon, or elder, or those who serve in a variety of other honorable professions and trades, recognizes the value and worth of every individual. The same Apostle Paul who wrote 1 Timothy 2 is the apostle who did indeed write,

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, KJV).

We serve the Lord according to God's calling, according to God's own revealed order, and we do so in humility, and total dependence upon his strengths. And we never serve apart from others. We are, indeed, members (eyes, ears, hands, feet) of the same body. Our calling is always conducted in the presence of others following their vocation. So, let respect and honor be the marks of our ministry, even—no, especially—with those brothers and sisters from whom we might part because of this or another matter.

Men and women of good will might certainly disagree about this teaching. In fact, we do. But if one reads 1 Timothy 2 and concludes a position differently than my own, and does so out of an earnest desire to understand and follow God's Word, then I have only to say, let us “cooperate without compromise." And if your heart is with my heart give me your hand.

Michael Milton author photoMichael A. Milton, PhD (University of Wales; MPA, UNC Chapel Hill; MDiv, Knox Seminary), Dr. Milton is a retired seminary chancellor and currently serves as the James Ragsdale Chair of Missions at Erskine Theological Seminary. He is the President of Faith for Living and the D. James Kennedy Institute a long-time Presbyterian minister, and Chaplain (Colonel) USA-R. Dr. Milton is the author of more than thirty books and a musician with five albums released. Mike and his wife, Mae, reside in North Carolina.

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