From time to time, issues arise in the church that force us to ask questions about how we interpret Scripture. Of special interest in recent days, especially in the denomination which I serve — the Christian and Missionary Alliance of Canada — has been the matter of the role of women in ministry. It is true in this denomination that women have served in many different roles including teaching, various kinds of pastoral services, and missionaries. Many, as single women, have been instrumental in starting churches abroad, and some even here in Canada. But the Alliance has traditionally stopped short of ordaining women for pastoral/church leadership.
This restriction has existed because of what has been understood as an application of the principle seemingly evident in general throughout Scripture and specifically expressed in 1 Timothy 2:12 and 1 Corinthians 11:3, that men have a certain functional authority over women. Since ordination to ministry implies a significant sense of authority in the church, by the nature of the case, women should not be ordained.
One response by some is to dispute the significance of ordination as it is practiced in our day. Opponents of the traditional view do not think that authority rests in those who serve as individual leaders of the church, but in Scripture itself or in the plurality of elders. But others insist that since the Scriptures identify the legitimacy of those who serve in professional pastoral/teaching roles in the church (1 Corinthians 9, 1 Timothy 5:17), there is very much a place for the recognition of those who are thus called in ordination.
Others don’t disagree with the concept of ordination, but insist that the Bible supports the idea that women can also be ordained. Their arguement hinges on the fact that men and women have been created as equals in God’s design (Genesis 1:27) and that the fall of Genesis 3 distorted an otherwise harmonious relationship into one of subjugation and tension, but that God’s original plan for equality has been restored in Jesus Christ. Proponents of this view point to Paul’s statement in Galatians 3:28 about the redemption of God’s original design for men and women to be equal. They further point to the fact that at Pentecost, Peter’s sermon specifically recalls the words of Joel the prophet, who said that in the last days, God would pour out His Spirit without distinction between men and women (Acts 2:17, 18).
Those who support the idea of women also being ordained for ministry feel that Paul’s injunctions for a woman not to have authority over a man (as in 1 Timothy 2:12) had an application in a particular circumstance. The same can be said, they say, for the situation in Corinth when Paul wrote about women wearing a covering on their heads to signify their submission to their husbands during worship (1 Corinthians 11:2 – 10). In the view of those who support the ordination of women to pastoral ministry, these injunctions had a certain cultural significance and should not be considered universally applicable. The instances of women serving in places of leadership in the New Testament and in church history under God’s evident blessing, in their minds, proves the point.
All of these different perspectives have been quite fully written about in a book edited by Bonnidell and Robert Clouse called, Women in Ministry — Four Views. As I read the different views and the rebuttals of the other writers, I was impressed by their differences in understanding of the same Scriptures. It is true, as the editors point out, that changes in culture and society tend to influence change in church practice. Thus people today variously applaud or resist the impact of obvious rising female leadership in society and the church. Nevertheless, it is a fact that women are leaders in their own right in increasing numbers in many spheres of professional work. What should the church’s response be to this sea-change taking place around us?
For my part, I think there is something fundamentally wrong with setting standards by what is happening in the world. While it is important to often re-examine deeply held traditional views in the light of cultural trends and to make adjustments and adaptations for more effective communication within the culture, ultimately we should be careful to develop our convictions from Scripture. And as I examine Scripture in the light of all that is being said about women in professional church leadership, I can’t help but conclude that there are two main ideas communicated there: that there is some kind of role distinction between men and women that calls men to a greater responsibility of leadership, and, that women should be recognized in larger ways for the ways in which they can legitimately lead in the life of the church.
For this reason, I don’t think the matter of ordination is totally arbitrary. Women may be called to many roles of teaching and leadership in the church, but in general, I think it is unusual for God to call women to church leadership. At the same time, I don’t think ordination should be exclusive; there should be allowance for exceptions to the rule where this is obviously merited.