Women in the Church

(January 12, 2001)


Recently, the defection of former president Jimmy Carter and his wife from the Southern Baptist Convention, as well as the practical breakdown of any further progress toward reunion between the Roman Catholic and Anglican (Episcopal) churches, underscore the division that is occurring between churches, and even within various churches, over the acceptance of women into the ordained ministry.

Biblical fundamentalists and diehard traditionalists, of course, can always point to passages in the Bible (like those found in I Corinthians, chapters 11 & 14) that forbid women to speak in church or even to attend with their head uncovered. But on the other hand, the New Testament speaks of "deaconesses" and ancient documents have been uncovered that prove that this term refers not just to charitable service to the Christian community but to an ordained role in early Christian worship. Some historical researchers claim to have found evidence even of female Christian presbyters or "priests". Meanwhile, the Episcopal Church in the USA has even gone further and ordained a few female bishops! (Can you imagine what this could mean for Catholicism? After all, the pope is not what he is because he is ordained as "pope", but because he is ordained or appointed as Bishop of Rome.)

The problem then, seems not to be simply what the Bible says (which in itself seems inconclusive) nor simply a matter of tradition, some of it based on rather weird ideas like Aristotle's opinion that women were misbegotten (that is, defective) males. Since that kind of argument is clearly bizarre, others have retreated to the claim that since Jesus picked only males as his "apostles" only males can be ordained to officially function in church. Others, finding that argument weak, since being an apostle (that is "emissary" or missionary) is not the same function as presiding at worship, argue that only a male can adequately do the job, since in some church theologies the presider should represent Christ in that case must not all presiders wear beards? Still others argue that the presider must first of all represent the congregation which in that case would argue that at least half the time the presider should be female!

All this suggests that what we have at work here is simply a reluctance by males to admit that they've largely run out of excuses for keeping women "in their place". In a religion that proclaims that in God's eyes there is no real distinction between "Jew and Gentile", between "freeman and slave", or between "male and female", and as the consciousness of women regarding their basic human dignity increases around the world, it is hard to see how those Christian churches who continue to bar women from the ordained ministry can expect that they are going to retain the loyalty of half of the human race.