At the risk of political correctness I’ve decided to put forward an alternative view on a topic that has generated a good deal of debate in the last while — at least in the denomination with which I am associated (C&MA). There have been a lot of voices suggesting it is time for us to depart from our historical position of ordination for men only to pastoral ministry.
Foremost in the debate has been the very practical reasons why women are obviously well-qualified to fill positions of leadership in church ministry. And though some Scriptures like Acts 2:17, 18, and Galatians 3:28 are often used to justify the arbitrary nature of God’s call to ministry, most would cite cultural reasons for Paul’s references to male church leadership. They might even go so far as to say that the Bible was written in patriarchal language as a reflection of its times and culture. They would say that Paul’s exhortations along these lines should be thought of as being descriptive rather than prescriptive.
It is true that some biblical exhortations are of a cultural nature that would not seem practical in our western culture — such as women having their heads covered while in worship (1 Corinthians 11:3-6) or the practice of greeting one another with a holy kiss (2 Corinthians 13:12). Even Paul would advise that some latitude be given in how we practice our convictions about appropriate Christian decorum (Romans 14). And perhaps this also applies to how we regard this particular subject.
Yet it seems advisable that the issue of women’s ordination to pastoral ministry not be dismissed merely on the basis of cultural practice or personal conviction. In many ways, it does not seem appropriate to treat this subject as being totally arbitrary. For the Bible does seem to give us a general direction on this matter which is more than mere suggestion.
First of all it is important to consider what is meant by ordination. While it is true that ordination has not been formalized in the Scriptures as is the case with baptism and communion the concept of ordination is everywhere. Ordination is as old as God’s call for some to be Levites and priests as well as kings and prophets in the Old Testament. And this same sense of calling for particular roles is also extended to the New Testament in what we read of Jesus’ call of the twelve apostles (Mark 3:14) and of God’s bestowment of gifts for spiritual ministry (i.e. 1 Corinthians 12:4-6). Likewise, ordination to pastoral ministry appears to be a vocational calling to lead and to teach within the church. There are a number of Scriptures that advocate a paid professional kind of leadership for the church (i.e. 1 Corinthians 9:7-12, 1 Timothy 5:17, 18). Ordination has to do with vocational pastoral ministry. I believe a great deal more attention needs to be given to how ordination is recognized and affirmed in our time. As it stands, it seems to me that ordination, as we know it, is conferred much too simply and quickly. So in the first place ordination should apply to those who are recognized for their call to life-long pastoral ministry. And yes, as is the case with specialization of any kind, ordination implies a certain sense of authority. In view of these elements, it seems right that formal ordination ought to be reserved for those who are given special roles of life-long pastoral leadership within the church.
And as to the question of gender for these roles of leadership, though there will always be exceptions for which there ought to be provision, in general it appears that the matter is not totally arbitrary. Both in creation and redemption it seems evident that God has called men especially to responsibilities of leadership. This is true in every sphere including the home, church, and state. In their homes, for example, men should lead as Jesus led — taking the role of a self-sacrificing servant. And God’s call for women in marriage is to uphold and honour this kind of leadership (Ephesians 5).
In general, it appears that this is also God’s order for the church. And that is why Paul’s instructions regarding church leadership are so specific (1 Timothy2:12, 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1). However, I’m sure even Paul would agree that there are exceptions. The issue of women in leadership even in the church is not an absolute matter in the same way as we would regard the holiness of God or the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. Sometimes, in the Bible, it is evident that God does bestow a special leadership calling to women as well. Deborah (Judges 4) is one such example in the Old Testament, and Priscilla may be considered this kind of example in the New Testament (Acts 18:18, 26).
Since the church is God’s very special work of grace in the world (the pillar and foundation of the truth — 1 Timothy 3:15) its leadership is a very critical matter. Ordination appears to be a proper recognition of the significance of its leadership. Therefore it ought to be reserved for those who, it is clearly evident over time, are called to provide leadership to the church for their whole lives. It seems fairly consistent throughout Scripture that God has ordained for men to be His authoritative voice in the community of God’s people. But there may be instances in which it is obvious that God has also gifted women for this role. The standard for both ought to be that any particular person, by his or her character, giftedness, and ministry experience, is clearly called to a life of pastoral ministry in the church.
This is not to say that other men and women may not occupy very influential roles of giftedness and service in the life of the church. As we all know women have the power to influence (and thus to lead) in very powerful ways by their quieter, hospitable, and more sensitive manner. It is important for women (and men) to appreciate the significance of this special power or gift of which men in their experience know a lot less. But the latter is something quite different from being the authoritative voice of pastoral leadership in the church.