(Yikes! Grammar problems abound. Passive voice rules. This really needs to be cleaned up. Nonetheless...)
To begin a discussion of the ordination of women, we can begin with the biblical witness. There are no references in the Bible to women priests. There are no references in the scriptures for women apostles or for the laying on of hands for women. There are very clear statements in the Bible, such as 1 Timothy 2:11-15, which states, “Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. 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, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.”
There are others: 1 Timothy 3:2 that specifies that overseers and deacons must be men and 1 Corinthians 14:34b-35 that states that women must be silent and in submission when in church. Any one of these verse would seemingly preclude women from taking any pastoral role or from any ordination. Most of those who would argue so would not question the origin of these pastoral letters or admit the possibility of an interpolation into 1 Corinthians.
However that is not necessarily the case. Many scholars now believe that the pastoral letters were written after Paul’s death and were given Paul’s name as an appeal to his authority. By the time these letters were written, it was evident that Jesus was not going to return next Thursday (the much celebrated delay of the parasouia) and perhaps an ordering of the church would be necessarily so that the church structure fit into the current society.
It is interesting to note that the society in which these scriptures were written, women’s roles were restricted: they never held positions of power and strict readings of the Hebrew Scriptures would have women regarded as property to male owners – their fathers and husbands. However, Jesus held women in high regard: he ate with them, he spoke to them and about half of his inner circle was female. (1) Paul seems to hold women in high regard as well in the book of Acts. Of the 40 or so proper names in the book of Acts, 16 are those of women. These women are not just people to provide meals for the men, but active in ministry. (2)
All of these verses are open for various sorts of interpretation. It could be argued that the Pastoral Letters were written as late as 150 CE and were written in Paul’s name specifically to discount all the references he makes of women being apostles and ministers in the earlier letters. My argument is one of optimization: why would God place gifts and graces for ordained ministry in women if these gifts and graces are not to be used?
There are other starting places for this discussion.. We can begin with doctrine, especially as redefined by the Pietistic movement after Luther. Christ is figured as priest, prophet and king, although this is not a concept that Luther particularly used. (3) Christ is also in complete relation with the other parts of the Trinity; they are in relationship. We are told to be as Christ – we are told we share with Christ and are partners with him and thus share in the communion of the trinity. Most radical is the idea that a priest’s authority is not only given from above, but bubbles up from below, as the priesthood of all believers entrust their God given authority to a priest selected from the assembly. None of the concepts are gender specific.
Yet for generations the Roman Catholic Church has taught that a) The trinity is of the same substance and essence but yet b) there is an ontological difference (in substance and essence) between humanity expressed as male humanity and humanity expressed as female humanity. (4) If one considers Galatians 3:6 “for all are one in Christ Jesus,” these statements can constitute a true conundrum, or at the least two different classes of Baptism. Questions arise: could Christ’s sacrifice then even save women if they are of different substance and essence? Or as Mary Daly so eloquently puts it, “If God is male, then the male is God.” (5) In the Inter Insigniores, we read that “we can never ignore the fact that Christ is a man … in actions which demand the character of ordination and in which Christ himself, the author of the Covenant, the Bridegroom, the Head of the Church, is represented, exercising his ministry of salvation- which is in the highest degree the case of the Eucharist- his role (this is the original sense of the word 'persona') must be taken by a man.” (6) Yet just a couple of paragraphs down in this same section, it is made clear that the Church is female—the church is referred to as “she” and “her.” The priest is the representative member of this church (which is female). Would it not be plausible that the priest be female? (7) Again, these create a conundrum.
It is obvious that there are many other things that could be explored and said about gender and ordination. We have followed a pietistic and a Roman Catholic rabbit trail. We could also explore Eastern Orthodox and Anabaptist thought, but it’s apparent that most of these are indeed rabbit trails. There are interesting conclusions that raise interesting questions: if God is male and man is made in the image of God, where does this leave women? (8) If Christ came to be with the oppressed and the downtrodden and came as a lowly peasant builder, why did he not come as the lowliest of the low – a woman? (9) Is the feminization of church and society a result of having female clergy or is the ordination of women a result of the feminization of the church and society? (10) Or is there really such a thing as a "feminization" of church?
Given these questions, perhaps it is time for Christianity to revision ordination. These questions spotlight deep cracks in our understanding of some vary basic doctrines. If women and men (and thus by extension Christ) are of different substance and essence, do we need to revision our soteriologies and Christologies? Do we need to revision our doctrine of church itself into a “Church in the Round?” As Letty Russell pointed out “our current understanding of ordination is shaped by theological doctrines of hierarchical divine order rather than by a gospel understanding of the order of freedom. Women in ministry are questioning not just doctrines and models of ministry but the structure of the churches themselves.” (11)
If one is to understand Genesis 1:27, as I have in a previous footnote, that is the image of God is only complete in an intimate, ongoing, procreative relationship between a man and a woman, perhaps “Church” needs to be revisioned as well. Perhaps the best possible minister for a congregation is indeed representational: a married couple, a clergy couple. This clergy couple would not divide the tasks into “senior pastor” and “associate,” but would be co-pastors with the division of ministry done along lines that reflect the pastor’s own particular gifts and graces, rather than preconceived notions of gender roles.
(1) The longest conversation Jesus has in the book of John is with a woman and one outside of his normal circle: a Samaritan woman at the well.
(2) In Acts 9:36, Paul refers to Tabitha as a “disciple.” In Act 18:24-26, Pricilla is described as taking a pastoral role to a man from Alexandria, named Apollos. In Acts 16, Paul refers to Phobe as a “deacon” in the same sense that he refers to himself in 2 Corinthians and in Ephesians 6:21 where the word is used to describe a male person as a “minister.” In Romans 16:7, he refers to Junia as an “apostle.” These are only a few of these types of verses.
(3) This is the three-fold office as commonly understood. I understand from this concept started with Eusebius and was expanded by Calvin, but I have not located the exact references.
(4) Gaudium et Spes 12,4. Pope Paul VI, December 7, 1965 as interpreted by Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.
(5) Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation, Beacon Press, p. 19.
(6) Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Inter Insigniores: Declaration on the Question of Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood, October 15, 1976, section 5.
(7) Especially if we understand the church to be the bride of Christ, as described in Revelation 19.
(8) A careful exegesis of Genesis 1:27 shows that perhaps neither man nor woman alone are in the image of God, that only the Adam (the human) before he was split into two was in the image of God. Perhaps the most complete image of God can only be found in intimate relationship, especially as found in the marital relationship. Through conjugal relations and through procreation, perhaps a joined couple experiences the fullest expression of being created in the image of God. It has also been of some interest to me that theologians become squeamish when discussing what will happen to/in creation itself when Christ and his Bride (the church) join in conjugal relations.
(9) To answer my own rhetorical question, perhaps this creates a stronger argument for a soteriology of Christ as kinsman-redeemer, as only the male could complete this task.
(10) For excellent discussions of these issues, I would suggest two books: The Gendered Pulpit: Preaching in American Protestant Spaces by Roxanne Mountford, Southern Illinois University Press, 2003 and Feminization of the Clergy in America by Paula D. Nesbitt, Oxford University Press, 1997.
(11) Letty Russell, Church in the Round, Westminster John Knox Press, p. 47.