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>The Ordination of Women: Present-Day Attitudes from 'Women and Church Leadership' by E.Margaret Howe

The Ordination of Women: Present-Day Attitudes

Women and Church Leadership by E.Margaret Howe,
a Zondervan Publication, 1982, pp.129-160.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions.

Nearly two thousand years have passed since the first Christian communities came into being in the Eastern Mediterranean world. During these years the church has grown and developed and has fashioned for itself multifarious structures through which to channel its activities. Leadership models have been established, and for many church communities these have been exclusively male. During the present century, however, significant changes have been taking place. People have become more aware of oppression and discrimination in all its forms, and particularly as it relates to women. The impact of such attitudes is felt within the church, where women have for many years been deprived of honor and recognition in leadership positions. It is now widely recognized that there are scriptural and historical reasons for challenging customs which have led to male dominance in church leadership, and efforts are being made to examine these and to establish a church structure which gives equal honor to both sexes.

Generally speaking, Protestant churches have moved with greater rapidity in examining issues and in implementing new policies, but there are people within the Orthodox and Roman Catholic communities who are equally sensitive to the problems and whose views are being expressed. This chapter reviews some of the issues relating to women which are being debated in Christian communities today and indicates areas in which changes have come about.

The Orthodox Churches

In September, 1976, a consultation was held in Agapia, Roumania, on the role and participation of women in the Orthodox churches. Speakers from many different countries addressed the issue with perceptive insight. The keynote address was delivered by Elizabeth Behr-Sigel of France, who raised for consideration a number of questions dealing with significant topics.

Behr-Sigel notes with regret that pronouncements concerning women in the Orthodox churches have in the past been made by men, with little effort made to ascertain the opinions of the women whom they concern. Orthodox women, she maintains, are not necessarily happy about the place “assigned to them from time immemorial by nature and by Tradition.”(1) Indeed, she claims, social customs and convention, rather than true theological insight, frequently govern attitudes toward women. Unhappily, women have been subordinated by social and cultural mechanisms; they have been separated from men and relegated to an inferior position. Somewhere along the line the church has overlooked the fact that “the revelation of the One God in three Persons ... is reflected as the Creator’s will in the multiplicity of persons and the unity of human nature in humanity.”(2)

The patristic writers, Behr-Sigel states, made a significant contribution in changing the concept of women. They exalted consecrated virginity and thus showed an awareness of women’s worth beyond mere biological function. Nevertheless, the patristic writings did not encourage a healthy reciprocal relationship between male and female members of the church.

It is for a healthy relationship that the church of today must strive. The women’s liberation movement has tended toward the development of negative qualities—selfishness and a desire for power and domination—the very qualities which on the part of men have contributed to the present sad state of relationships within the church. “We do not experience the church as a pyramid of authority,” Behr-Sigel comments. “We experience it ... as a community of prayer and love.”(3) What is needed is “an imaginative new style of relationships and new structures in which liberated men and women can join together . . . respecting one another’s dignity and distinctiveness.”(4)

Latent in the Orthodox churches’ consciousness has always been the recognition that men and women are equal before God. But layers of prejudice and cultural conditioning have obscured this reality. Orthodox theologians have dismissed Galatians 3:26-28 as having reference to baptism rather than to the matter of ordination to priesthood. Behr-Sigel argues that “the fundamental ontological unity . . . created by baptism is the foundation of the royal priesthood of all the baptized in which the ministry has its origins as a special, personal vocation.”(5) If women are to be denied the charism of priesthood, Behr-Sigel asks, “are we not in fact subordinating grace to a biological determinism?”(6)

With these penetrating observations and questions, Behr-Sigel leaves open the issue of the ordination of women to the priesthood in the Orthodox community. For her, the biggest problem concerning the ordination of women to a sacramental priesthood is that the bishop or priest is for the local congregation “the icon of the Word incarnate.”(7) There is a mysterious correspondence between “the masculine and the Word” and “the feminine and the Spirit,” and this must continue to be a topic of reflection and study.

The Agapia consultation has provided an effective starting point for such reflection, claiming that Orthodox women should have access to theological education and should be given the opportunity of teaching theology in Orthodox seminaries. A deaconess college has been founded in Greece, and the Coptic church in Egypt is consecrating women as deaconesses. Some Orthodox seminaries in the United States will admit women. Such trends are not novel. Up to the tenth century C.E. women served actively as deaconesses in the Orthodox churches, and Emperor Justinian lists as members of the clergy women who had received a major order. Hopefully the debate on these issues will continue until such attitudes become more pervasive.

The Roman Catholic Church

In the same year in which the Orthodox consultation was held in Agapia, Paul VI approved a statement on this subject entitled, “Declaration on the question of the admission of women to the ministerial priesthood.”(8) This statement was intended to be representative of opinions held within the Roman Catholic church. Many Roman Catholic scholars, however, found the Declaration to be inadequate in its argumentation, and other more carefully researched material has since been published.

The Declaration signed by Paul VI avows that the ruling in Gaudium et Spes (7 December 1965) still holds true. That ruling stated that the Roman Catholic church is opposed to all discrimination, in particular that based on sex.(9) However, it is the church’s tradition that women are to be excluded from the priesthood, and this tradition is to be adhered to at the present time. The Declaration recognizes that the patristic authors strongly influenced the policy of excluding women from leadership in the Roman Catholic church. It acknowledges that these writers are not beyond reproach. In the writings of the Fathers, “one will find the undeniable influence of prejudices unfavourable to women”;(10) and medieval scholastic doctors “often present arguments . . . that modern thought would have difficulty in admitting or would even rightly reject.”(11) However, the statement affirms that, “Since that period and up to our own time . . . the practice has enjoyed peaceful and’ universal acceptance.”(12)

The Declaration states that in this as in all other matters it is the magisterium of the church which determines “what can change and what must remain immutable.”(13) Unhappily this magisterium is almost exclusively male. It is claimed that the concept of an all-male priesthood is an unbroken tradition in both the East and the West—a claim that would be difficult to substantiate. While recognizing that some Roman Catholic women feel drawn to priestly vocations, the writers indicate that such “calling,” while noble and understandable, is not genuine. It is purely subjective and is based on personal attraction. For a “call” to be genuine, it must be authenticated by the church.

The main theological argument used in this document against the ordination of women to the priesthood concerns the role of the priest in the eucharistic celebration. The priest it is claimed, acts in persona Christi, “taking the role of Christ to the point of being his very image.” The value of a sign rests in the fact that it is perceptible, easily recognizable. It is claimed that “there would not be this ‘natural resemblance’ ... if the role of Christ were not taken by a man.”(14) It is acknowledged that at the eucharist the priest also represents the church (the bride of Christ), but this is considered secondary.

The Declaration of 1976 is all the more interesting because it was promulgated within a year of the Detroit Ordination Conference. This conference, held in November, 1975, was attended by 1400 men and women who were concerned to explore the matter of the ordination of women in the Roman Catholic church. Discussion at this conference ranged over a number of significant issues.(15)

Elizabeth Carroll reminded delegates that women are excluded not from service in the church but from official installation. Although called to priesthood, women are not satisfied with the concept of priesthood embraced by the Roman Catholic community. The formulative period for this particular office was the last half of the third century C.E. At that time antifeminism was deeply ingrained in Jewish and Greek tradition. It triumphed over the teachings of Jesus and Paul. What passes today as “sacred tradition” is in fact “not of divine origin, but only the prolongation of an inadequate response imposed on the gospel message by the dominant culture.”(16)

Rosemary Ruether attributed the exclusion of women from church leadership not to “the order of creation,” but to “the fallen disorder of injustice.” She challenged the entire symbolism sustaining the Roman Catholic church’s hierarchical structure— symbolism which speaks of power, lordship, and authority. Male dominance in the church is one of those injustices that must be overcome. Ruether lamented the fact that the persons who hold the power for change are elderly, Italian, male celibates, “persons whose entire personal, social and cultural experience most totally removes them from understanding the issues of women.”(17) A new concept of teaching authority is needed, Ruether maintains, one which allows for fallibility and incompleteness in what the church has taught to past generations.

Anne Elizabeth Carr also challenged the present concept of leadership in the Roman Catholic church. Neither pope nor bishop nor priest, she claimed, can be found in the New Testament in the form in which these offices exist in the Roman Catholic church. No absolute forms of ministry were imposed by Jesus or the apostles. The exalting of the Mass and the diminishing of the centrality of the preaching of the Word came about as the result of choices made by various church officials.(18)

Richard McBrien commented on the fact that the Vatican II Council, while condemning the worldwide discrimination based on sex, did not face the problem within its own borders.(19) It is well-known that the conveners of the council even refused to allow a woman to read a paper before the assembly.(20)

Eleanor Kahle emphasized the practical problems involved in the ordination of women. She claimed that male priests were more threatened by the possibility of a change in the “lifestyle” of the rectory than they were by the concept of a woman celebrating Mass.(21)

Joseph Komonchak challenged the tenacity of tradition and the wisdom of accepting its dictates without question. Tradition must be understood, judged, and evaluated. He quoted Cyprian as saying that “a custom without truth is simply the antiquity of error.” One must therefore consider carefully the issue of the ordination of women. If the reasons advanced against ordaining women are not valid, what authority does the mere custom have? And, Komonchak asked, what makes one tradition more sacred than another?(22)

The Roman Catholic church still prohibits the ordination of women to the priesthood. John Paul II has indicated that he does not intend to make any change in this situation. In 1979, however, the Catholic Biblical Quarterly published a summary of the findings of a task force appointed in 1976 to study the topic, “Women and Priestly Ministry: The New Testament Evidence.”(23) The task force consisted of prominent scholars selected from the ranks of the Catholic Biblical Association of America.

These scholars remarked that the New Testament does not provide materials dealing specifically with the role of women in the ministry of Jesus or in the conduct of early church life. The material for consideration in the New Testament is sporadic and geared to particular situations. Moreover, the Christian priesthood as embodied in the structure of the Roman Catholic church came into being after the period of the New Testament documents. The concept of ministry reflected in the New Testament is that of diverse charisms distributed widely among various members of the community. No one group controlled or exercised all of the ministries. The task force pointed out that the coming of the kingdom of God transformed the old social order. Women featured prominently among the disciples of Jesus from the beginning of his ministry until the end, becoming in fact the first witnesses of the resurrection. Women thus met the Pauline criterion for apostleship. Women were present within the Christian community at Pentecost and shared in the outpouring of the Spirit, from which derived the gifts which equipped for ministry. Women ministered along with men in founding churches, leading public worship, and teaching new converts. Such roles were ultimately associated with priestly ministry, and they were evidently never restricted to men.

One argument frequently used by those who oppose the ordination of women is that Jesus chose twelve men to be his apostles. He selected no women for this honor. Consequently women should not be ordained as priests. The task force challenged the validity of this line of reasoning. Not only were there no women among the Twelve—there were no Gentiles, no Samaritans, and no slaves as far as can be ascertained. Did Jesus intend to establish a criterion for office with respect to race, ethnic identity, and social status? If not, why would his choice delineate a criterion for office with respect to sex? In addition, it is clear from the pages of the New Testament that at no time were the roles and functions now associated with the priestly ministry restricted to the Twelve. Indeed, apostolic ministry itself was shared by a wider group of people, some of whom are named in the New Testament. But apostleship was not an office which could be handed on by succession. It was in a sense an eschatological role which passed with time. And the basic task of ministry was always shared among a much wider group—people who were prophets, teachers, administrators, and so on—a group that was never exclusively male. It is this group from which the priestly ministry stems.

The task force expressed the opinion that “the claim that the intention and example of Jesus and the example of the apostles provide a norm excluding women from priestly ministry cannot be sustained on either logical or historical grounds.”(24) The only prohibitions against women participating in worship are pastoral directives motivated by social and cultural factors. Such texts cannot be used to support the exclusion of women from church office. “The conclusion we drew, then, is that the New Testament evidence, while not decisive by itself, points towards the admission of women to priestly ministry.”(25)

Moving even more directly into the matter of women ordained to the priesthood is a study conducted by Fran Ferder entitled, Called to Break Bread?(26) Ferder notes that the documents emanating from Vatican II inspired women to assume more commitment to the life of the church and to its task in the world. Placed before them was a new vision of equality, and women were urged to increase their knowledge of Scripture and to develop their inner potential so that they might follow the vocational destiny assigned to them by God. As women responded to this challenge, many felt called to priestly ministry. This was interpreted by some church officials not as a vocation to be joyfully affirmed, but as a threat to the church which must be countered. “It appeared,” Ferder writes, “that the vision and ideal of the Second Vatican Council had gone beyond the cultural and emotional limitations of the church at this moment of history.”(27)

The study conducted by Ferder addressed itself to three basic questions: Who are the women who wish to test a call to ordination in the Catholic church? What are they like as women and as ministers? Why do they want to be priests? The study involved one hundred women who felt so called. The majority of them were physically attractive, highly educated, intelligent women in whose lives Scripture reading and daily prayer featured prominently. They proved to be people with confidence and a basic sense of personal security. They were thoughtful and articulate people, open-minded and well-balanced in social attitudes, and they related well in individual and group situations. It became clear to the interviewers that these people were not seeking ordination to the priesthood because of any excessive desire for power or status. Nor were they strong supporters of the women’s liberation movement. They were women with an inner awareness that God had equipped them with gifts for priestly office and that God was calling them to bring these gifts to fruition in the service of the church.

The Roman Catholic community in the United States is becoming increasingly aware of the need to ordain women to the sacramental priesthood. Time will tell how closely the governmental mechanisms of the church are geared to the mind of its peoples.

The Protestant Churches

Within some Protestant denominations the ordination of women to ministry is so well-established that it no longer calls for comment. Sometimes, however, a wide gap remains between theory and practice. The following paragraphs communicate some of the issues with which Protestant denominations are still grappling. This is not a comprehensive survey. Unfortunately, time and resources precluded such. Rather, it is a sampling of the present situation in some of the leading denominations in the United States of America. It is important to note, however, that there is lively discussion of this issue in some of the smaller evangelical denominations, and that attitudes and policies are gradually changing in the Conservative Baptist Association, the General Association of Regular Baptists, the Grace Brethren Church, the Plymouth Brethren, the Free Methodist Church, the Evangelical Free Church, the Reformed Presbyterian Church, and other such groups. A more wide-ranging survey would be most valuable.

Assemblies of God, General Council

Many Pentecostal churches have always assumed that as the Holy Spirit is given by God irrespective of the sex of the recipient, so the ministries conferred by the Spirit are to be exercised irrespective of the sex of the recipient. This principle, however, is not always clearly reflected in the statistics of church structure. The General Council of the Assemblies of God, for example, has in its present bylaws a statement concerning the ordination of women which is practically identical to that embodied in the first constitution of the church (1914). The current statement reads as follows:

Eligibility of women. The Scriptures plainly teach that divinely called and qualified women may also serve the church in the Word (Joel 2:28; Acts 21:9; 1 Corinthians 11:5). Women who have developed in the ministry of the Word so that their ministry is acceptable generally, and who have proved their qualifications in actual service, and who have met all the requirements of the credentials committees of the district councils, are entitled to whatever grade of credentials their qualifications warrant and the right to administer the ordinances of the church when such acts are necessary.(28)

By late 1977, this denomination was listing nearly 1600 ordained women, with another 1600 women licensed to perform ministerial duties. However, only 292 women are pastors of churches. This means that only 3 percent of the 9,214 churches in the denomination have women pastors. Many of these are small churches which would have difficulty obtaining a male pastor. Of the other women with ministerial credentials, 95 are listed as “home missionaries,” 309 as “foreign missionaries,” 1,225 are “retired,” and 1,256 are “pastor’s wives, evangelists, teachers, inactive, etc.” The ordained women who are pastor’s wives share in the ministry of their husbands and may or may not carry the title of “pastor.”

Joseph R. Flower, the general secretary of this denomination, has produced an unofficial statement entitled, “Does God deny spiritual manifestations and ministry gifts to women?” This paper, written in 1978, is a historical and exegetical study exposing some of the misconceptions and prejudices which in the past have prevented people from accepting women in the role of minister. Flower notes that the influence of Christ did much to restore the dignity of women in a world which had relegated them to a position of social inferiority. Flower maintains that theologically speaking, the death of Christ released humanity from the curse brought about by sin. Woman is no longer to be subjugated under male headship. The mutual and complementary relationship that Adam and Eve enjoyed before the fall may now be restored, and the church should be in the vanguard of any movement which aims to restore this balance in a scriptural framework.

The American Baptist Convention

The American Baptist Convention officially endorsed the idea of ordained women serving as pastors in the late nineteenth century. Names of the earliest women ministers have not survived, although it is known that the second woman to be ordained by this denomination was ordained in Nebraska in the 1890s. However, at this present time, of the 6,609 ordained ministers in American Baptist churches, only 248 are women. This low percentage is a cause for concern to some members of the denomination. A survey entitled “A Study of Women in Ministry,” which was conducted over a two-year period, 1976-1978, confirmed suspicions that women are discriminated against in seminaries, among executive and area ministers, among pulpit committee representatives, and among the laity. The survey indicated that women are at a disadvantage in the recruitment/placement system, that it is more difficult for women to find an appointment than it is for men, and that women receive lower salary and allowances than their male counterparts.(29)

Why this difference between theory and practice? The answer is found in the fact that each local church is autonomous. The individual congregation may choose to appoint or to refuse a woman as minister. Members of a congregation naturally tend to be influenced by cultural forces and by custom. Some congregations have not been educated to move beyond the “traditional” when considering the role of women. Thus, appointing a woman as minister becomes a point of controversy. Pulpit committees will sometimes use this as a reason for refusing to consider a woman candidate. To do so, they argue, may threaten the unity of the church, resulting in a loss of membership and income.

An encouraging trend among the American Baptists is the increase in the number of women attending their seminaries. In 1975-76 women comprised 14 percent of the total student body. By 1978-79 that proportion had risen to 23 percent. A survey conducted by the denomination revealed that only about two-thirds of the women graduates actually seek ministerial positions. Of those seeking such positions, about 72 percent are able to find an appointment. This suggests considerable openness on the part of congregations to accepting women as ministers.

A closer analysis of the figures, however, revealed that of those women entering the ministry, only 79 percent were placed in a church. A comparative sampling of men indicated that 99 percent of the male graduates seeking ministerial positions were so placed. The seminary women were sometimes diverted to child-care centers, social agencies, schools, and counseling. In addition, while 67 percent of the men placed in churches occupied the position of “pastor,” only 30 percent of the women assumed that title. Moreover, the average salary of the men was $2,000 higher than that of the women, and their allowances for travel, conferences, and other expenses were double that granted to the women. While most of the men were ordained either before or immediately after graduation, it was not unusual for women to wait two or more years before receiving ordination.

On the basis of such findings, members of the “Study of Women in Ministry” survey made a number of recommendations aimed at improving the status of women ministers within the American Baptist Church. Seminaries were requested to enhance the opportunities for women with respect to recruitment, degree expectations, financial aid, field experience, and placement possibilities. Congregations were exhorted to encourage women as well as men to respond to the call to ministry. Local churches were requested to include women in all offices, and pulpit committees were to search out information on women candidates. It was recommended that scholarship funds be made available for women ministerial candidates and that the recipients be utilized as speakers at churches, conferences, and state conventions. Because pastoral leadership is a significant influencing factor, ministers were requested to educate congregations toward the acceptance of women as pastors, and to encourage and welcome women pastors in the community. It was recommended that executive and area ministers employ competent women at all staff levels and that they act as advocates for women seeking placement.

These recommendations are now being worked out within the structure of the American Baptist Church. The study group concluded its investigation with this statement:

Our conviction is that the ministry will grow in effectiveness and the church will better fulfill its mission if churches, laity, ministers and executives accept women and men equally as ministers.(30)

The Southern Baptist Convention

The Southern Baptist Convention has only recently entered into dialogue concerning the ordination of women. No resolution on this issue has been passed by the Southern Baptists. One was once proposed but was ruled out of order on the basis that it was not appropriate business for the convention. There are no requirements laid down by the S.B.C. concerning ministerial appointments. A person may be ordained to ministry with a minimum of educational qualifications and with little or no experience if a local church so chooses. As there are no specific guidelines for the ordination of ministers in general, it is argued that no statement concerning the sex of an ordination candidate is called for. Consequently churches tend to be guided in this area by unwritten but longstanding tradition.

This tradition has evolved out of an economic and cultural milieu in which women were relegated to positions of lesser honor than those occupied by men. They were, however, required to be actively involved in the church, so that for generations women have provided the backbone of Southern Baptist mission outreach, Christian education, and so on. Yet they have not received the recognition accorded to men in titles of honor and financial remuneration. In many Southern Baptist churches it will be maintained that women are “thought of very highly,” but they are frequently relegated to positions in which they have little participation in decision-making or in the leading of community worship. Although the S.B.C. has not specifically addressed the matter of the ordination of women, it has passed two resolutions in the last decade which relate indirectly to the issue. Both reflect the deeply ingrained attitudes toward women which characterize many Southern Baptist congregations. The most recent resolution, passed by the 1980 convention, states that the S.B.C. does not endorse the Equal Rights Amendment. An earlier resolution, approved by the 1973 convention, took the form of a somewhat vague statement entitled, “On the Place of Women in Christian Service.”(31) This resolution makes reference to “the distinctive roles of men and women in the church and in the home,” suggests that mission promotion and education are spheres of service suitable for women, and claims that “most women’s liberation movements” are attacking what the S.B.C. defines as the “scriptural precepts of woman’s place in society.” The resolution states that the Bible is “explicitly clear” on this subject. Reference is made to “God’s order of authority,” namely, Christ the head of every man, man the head of the woman, and children in subjection to parents. Attention is drawn to the fact that man was not made for the woman but the woman for the man, though they are dependent on one another.

The resolution does not make clear why mission promotion (evangelism) and education (teaching) are ministries open to women, while (by implication) the pastorate is not. If the S.B.C. is taking seriously the literalist interpretation of the scriptural guidelines, then the “I permit no woman to teach” (1 Tim. 2:12) controversy has evidently been overlooked. If, however, the S.B.C. is aware, from a study of Scripture, that women were participating in preaching and teaching ministries in the early Christian communities, it is hard to understand why this body would exclude women from these same ministries within the context of the pastorate of the local church. Furthermore, although the Pauline statement concerning the interdependence of man and woman (1 Cor. 11:8-12) is referred to, no attempt is made to come to terms with the new insight that it portrays concerning the status of women.

In the absence of any competent exegetical statement from the national leadership of the church, Southern Baptist congregations have sought to grapple with the matter on an individual basis. In 1976, for example, twenty-five-year-old Suzanne Coyle requested to be ordained by her home church. Coyle had grown up in Gravel Switch, Kentucky, where she had attended Beech Fork Baptist Church regularly and had played the piano for its worship services. She was graduated from Center College in Danville, Kentucky, and earned a Master of Divinity degree in Pastoral Theology from Princeton Theological Seminary. On the basis of her outstanding work at Princeton, Coyle was awarded a scholarship for postgraduate studies. Since her early college days, however, she had felt called to the ministry. At the time of her ordination request she was employed by the Southern Baptist Home Mission Board and was working as chaplain-pastor of Central City Baptist Chapel, Philadelphia. After consultation with Coyle, the deacons of Beech Fork were convinced that God had called her to the ministry and that she should be recommended for ordination. On December 6, 1976, the congregation voted to ordain her.

Coyle’s ordination took place in February, 1977. In April of that year the South District Association registered its disapproval. Beech Fork Baptist Church was notified that if it did not rescind Coyle’s ordination, the executive board of the South District Association would recommend that the church be withdrawn from fellowship. By the time the annual meeting of this body was held in October, it was clear that Beech Fork was not willing to rescind the ordination. By a vote of 98 to 64 this congregation was therefore excluded from the fellowship of the South District Association.

The issue of the ordination of women is also raised from time to time at the state level. At the Kentucky State Convention held in November, 1977, a pastor attempted to introduce a resolution opposing the ordination of women. This was rejected. Instead, a “Resolution of Ordination” was passed which reads as follows:


1. That the place of authority for ordination is centered in the authority of the local church under the authority of scripture. Churches ordain. Conventions do not.

2. That the recognition of the ordination and the utilization of those thus ordained is also the prerogative of the local church.

This resolution at least permits local churches the freedom to decide which individuals meet the biblical requirements for ordination, whether those individuals be male or female. Individual autonomy is, as the resolution indicates, in accordance with common practice in Southern Baptist churches.

In September, 1978, a “Consultation on Women in Church Related Vocations” was held in Nashville, Tennessee—the first national consultation of its kind for this denomination. In attendance were 295 persons representing 25 states. Catherine Alien of the Women’s Missionary Union was chairperson, and in her opening address she called for a more honest approach in confronting women and girls with the challenge of professional service within the denomination. “We must stop dangling terms such as freedom, life commitment, call of God, priesthood of the believer, personal accountability, and church related vocations before their ears, eyes and noses if they are not supposed to hear, see and appropriate them.”(32) The purpose of the consultation was to explore such issues in the presence of those persons who are most influential in establishing policies and in educating congregations. Only about five hundred copies of the document containing the findings of this consultation have been made available for circulation.

At present there are about 55,000 ministers in the Southern Baptist Convention, of whom about 33,000 are ordained and acting as pastors. Ordination is not a prerequisite for a pastoral appointment, but it has certain legal implications. Apart from the tax break for which it qualifies one, it enables the individual to perform services such as wedding ceremonies. Although official statistics are not readily available, it appears that at present there are only about one hundred ordained women in the Southern Baptist Convention.

There are many other women “in ministry,” but they are not ordained. Chaplaincy appointments are more common for women than pastoral appointments, and because the military chaplaincy requires ordination, the Chaplaincy Division of the Home Missions Board has been authorized to ordain women. There are apparently large numbers of women in S.B.C. seminaries who would like to be ordained, but few of these women expect to find pastorates. Some Southern Baptist churches will not even consider women for ordination as deacons.

In the absence of hierarchical control, the key to this situation is probably in the hands of the seminaries. Careful exegesis of Scripture, the elimination of prejudice, and sensitivity to issues relating to sexism would equip new church leaders with the ability to assign more equitably the varied ministries that God has given the church. In the meantime, the Christian Life Commission assumes responsibility for matters of a moral and ethical nature, and it is this body which is giving visibility to the issues relating to women in the Southern Baptist Convention.(33)

Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Throughout its long history the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has ordained women to the ministry as missionaries and as parish ministers. In the early 1970s, however, this denomination showed great concern over the fact that comparatively few women were actively involved within the leadership structure of the church. The 1973 yearbook revealed that only 4 percent of professional church workers were women, less than 9 percent of the church’s seminarians were women, and women were inadequately represented at the executive level of the church. Very few churches had women elders, and although women featured in the diaconate of a number of churches, the existence of separate boards of deacons and deaconesses often reflected a devaluation of the serving ministry of women.

The General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), meeting in Cincinnati, Ohio, October, 1973, passed resolutions geared to changing this situation. It was recommended that a single order of the diaconate be implemented, representing men and women equally. All the bodies of the church were requested to be aggressive in the recruitment of women for preparation for professional church vocations. A high priority was to be given to the provision of financial support for such women. In order to redress the balance at the executive level, it was recommended that men should be considered for vacant positions only if no competent women could be found. Congregations which had called women as pastors were commended, and other congregations were encouraged to follow their example.

Resolution 37 of the assembly was concerned specifically with women in ministry. It was observed that women ministers in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) did not receive equal treatment with men in recruitment, in education, in placement, or in financial remuneration. Such discrimination, though unintentional, was depriving the church of balance in the appeal and effectiveness of the gospel. It was therefore resolved that women be encouraged to commit themselves to the full-time vocation of ministry in word and sacrament. Women were to be given equal consideration for pastorates and in the staffing of other significant positions. The Equal Rights Amendment was strongly endorsed, and it was specified that within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) women should receive equal remuneration for equal vocational tasks.

The year 1974 marked the centennial of the founding of the first national organization of women—the Christian Women’s Board of Missions. In 1920 this board joined with the American Christian Missionary Society to form the United Christian Missionary Society. This body is the primary programing and outreach unit of the church. At the time of its foundation it was agreed that the governing board would be comprised equally of men and women. The UCMS has provided a healthy example for the other agencies within the church. Much of the present increase in the participation of women in the church is due to its influence. Women are now serving on all the governing boards of the major units of the church and on all the regional boards. Percentages range from 12 percent to 50 percent. In 1980 the Church Finance Council, which collects and distributes all finances for the entire denomination, had a woman serving as president.

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is actively conducting seminars enabling women to function more fully as decision-makers in the church. These seminars are being attended by women in all thirty-five regions of the denomination throughout the United States and Canada. Seminars concerning the diaconate and the eldership are also being conducted. These lay positions are extremely important in the guidance and functioning of congregational life, and until very recently women were almost entirely excluded from both of these offices. This is no longer the case; women are now functioning in both of these offices in increasing numbers. Guidelines concerning the inclusive use of language in worship are being made available for the use of church leaders.

The American Lutheran Church; the Lutheran Church in America; and the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod

These Lutheran churches, although organized separately at this present time, are all members of the Lutheran Council of the U.S.A. and have much in common with one another. They do differ, however, on the matter of the ordination of women, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod being opposed to it.

In 1972 The American Lutheran Church produced a brief document entitled, “Women and Men in Church and Society— Towards Wholeness in the Christian Community.” While affirming the “profound mystery” of God-given sexuality “which both separates and attracts us,” the statement challenges the sex-stereotyping which pervades Western culture. Qualities such as gentleness, compassion, helpfulness, and artistic appreciation are found to varying degrees in both males and females, as are qualities of assertiveness, vigor, initiative, and strength. All human beings are created in God’s image, and the mystery of femaleness and maleness is to be celebrated as one of God’s gifts.

It is not necessary, the statement maintains, for men and women to view one another as antagonists. It is human estrangement from God which gives birth to insecurity and which leads to competition, conflict, fear, and the abuse of power. In the family and in social life the roles of men and women are changing. Christians must come to terms with the true nature of personhood. Neither marriage nor parenthood are indicators of personal worth. Sexuality is a part of life, but it is not the whole of life. “Men and women are equal as persons, complementary in their sexuality, mutually related in their wholeness.”

In this statement the American Lutheran Church confesses that in the past it has tended to accept the ways of society as though they were the ways of God. A reexamination of the Scriptures, however, has convinced the church leadership that it has been in error. The Scriptures do not forbid the ordination of women or their service in the ministry of Word and sacrament, nor do they consign women to a subordinate role in the church.

The implications of this are far-reaching. Nominating committees are exhorted to take active steps to bring women into leadership roles in the church. Care is to be taken to eliminate from constitutions, worship forms, and official statements any pronouns or expressions that would deny to women their full participation in the life of the church. Editors of church publications are to guard against the perpetration of stereotypes that would artificially limit the choices open to men and to women. Seminary faculties are requested to be active in encouraging women to pursue theological education. Specifically, they are to appoint women to seminary teaching positions and to create an acceptable climate for women seminarians.

The church’s concern for the personhood of each man and woman is also to be reflected at the congregational level. Congregations are to be encouraged to demonstrate their acceptance of ordained women; both laymen and lay women are to be involved in ministry roles whenever the church assembles for study or worship or participation in the sacraments. Informal group meetings are to explore issues relating to human roles as an aid toward communication and understanding. Outside the church, concerted efforts should be made to protest the distorted sexuality and sexual stereotypes featured in the mass media. Within the church, congregations should strive for equal opportunities with respect to service, advancement, and reward for all their employees.

These trends are comparatively recent. At present only 70 of the 5,800 ordained pastors in the American Lutheran Church are women. This figure is expected to increase significantly in the near future. In the four seminaries listed by the denomination, the collective enrollment of students studying full-time in the Master of Divinity programs during 1979 was reported as consisting of 866 men and 131 women. Many of these women will no doubt be ordained as ministers. The vast majority of women presently involved in the leadership of the American Lutheran church are lay staff, and there are many hundreds of these.

The Lutheran Church in America is also now working actively to encourage the inclusion and support of women in professional leadership roles. A handbook is being produced to aid call committees in filling congregational vacancies. These committees are being encouraged to examine possibilities for the placement of women. In the nine seminaries listed for the denomination, curriculum changes are being encouraged to strengthen education relative to women in ministry. Strategies are being devised to improve campus climate and to provide a supply of qualified women who may be appointed to the faculties. During 1978, the candidates enrolled in the Master of Divinity program numbered 1,077, of whom 236 were women. More than 90 women are ordained as ministers in the Lutheran Church in America. The denomination is calling for women writers and book reviewers for its journal, Partners; and it has expressed an openness to consider any specific goals, objectives, or strategies which might strengthen the support of women in the professional leadership of the church.

The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod has been concerned over the past decade with the matter of granting women suffrage. It was not until 1969 that women in this denomination were given “permission to vote in their local congregations, to serve as delegates to District and Synodical conventions, and to hold elective or appointive positions on District and Synodical boards and commissions.(34) The 1969 convention in Denver declared that, “Those statements of Scripture which direct women to keep silent in the church and which prohibit them to teach and to exercise authority over men, we understand to mean that women ought not to hold the pastoral office.” The resolution continues, “We hold that they do not prohibit full membership of women on synodical boards, commissions, and committees”; and “We hold likewise that Scripture does not prohibit women from exercising the franchise in congregational or synodical assemblies.”(35)

The Synod and the congregations of the Synod were on this basis given the freedom to adjust their policies and practices relating to the involvement of women in the church. In 1972, the Commission on Theology and Church Relations endorsed this statement, urging members of the Synod “to recognize the right of each congregation to judge according to its circumstances whether it is necessary or expedient for it to introduce woman suffrage.”(36) In the meantime, the 1971 convention had adopted a resolution, “To withhold ordination of women to the pastoral office.” This resolution quoted from the proceedings of the Denver convention as they related to the pastoral office and resolved “that the Synod reaffirm its position that the Word of God does not permit women to hold the pastoral office or serve in any capacity involving distinctive functions of this office.” The “distinctive functions of this office” would include preaching, the public administration of the sacraments, and church discipline.

Data gathered by a Task Force on Women in 1975 indicated that 64 percent of the congregations participating in its survey had implemented the 1969 resolution. However, the number of women in leadership positions in these churches was still very low. In most congregations women were excluded from assuming the position of president, vice-president, or elder. Many congregations appeared satisfied with the more traditional roles for women, such as secretaries, choir directors, organists, and teachers of Bible classes for women. At the district and synodical levels women were still by and large excluded from the decision-making processes of the church.

The Task Force on Women reported that similar discrimination was identified in the educational sphere. For example, out of the districts reporting, only 4 percent of the elementary school principals were women, and almost without exception women teachers were receiving a substantially lower median salary than their male counterparts. In the Synod’s colleges, of sixty-eight persons holding the rank of full professor, only one was a woman. Equal percentages of men and women and essentially equal salaries were found only at the instructor level.

In view of the fact that 54 percent of the Synod’s communicant membership is female, the Task Force on Women recognized that tremendous resources and talents available to the church are not at present being utilized. It advocated continuing study on the role of women in the church. And in view of the fact that “the concept of ministry is changing from an authority figure to a servanthood model,”(37) the task force recommended that the Commission on Theology and Church Relations should focus attention on studies relating to the meaning of ordination. In particular it should study the relationship of ministry and the priesthood of believers to the office of pastor, the question of women serving as pastors, the male/female qualities ascribed to God, and male/female relationships and roles as outlined in the Scriptures. The fact that this frightens or bewilders some people should not deter the church from its endeavor to affirm and strengthen the ministry of women within its congregations.

The United Methodist Church

The Methodist church has from its earliest days licensed women to preach, but it was not until 1956 that there was an official removal of all ordination restrictions based on sex. In that year the General Conference voted “full clergy rights for women.” The United Methodist church came into being in 1968 when the Evangelical United Brethren church and the Methodist church united. At that time women received guaranteed annual appointment by the bishop, involving either a pastoral charge or a special appointment beyond the local church. From that time onward the United Methodist church has endeavored to be supportive of women clergy.

Legislation was enacted at the 1976 General Conference affirming the need for an educated and informed professional ministry. The conference clearly stated its desire to unite theory and practice with respect to women ministers.

In the same year, the Women’s Division published a policy statement entitled, “Ministries to Women and Ministries to Children.” In this statement the observation is made that when the Methodist church came into being, prejudice and the limitations of cultural attitudes precluded women from assuming significant roles within the church. Even now, after many years of struggle, it is often true that the status of women in the church, as in society, is frequently tied to sex-stereotyped roles. “We believe,” the policy statement reads, “that the church is still in captivity to male values, structures, and practices and consequently is unable to be the locus of genuine community.”

The Women’s Division maintains in this statement that the cultural norm concerning women, both in the United States and overseas, is antithetical to the gospel and should be challenged. Women should be freed from the captivity in which they have so long been held. This liberation is “an imperative out of the heart of the Gospel, and where it is in evidence, is the working of the Holy Spirit.” The statement recommends that programs be devised which enable women to participate fully at all levels of decision-making in the church; that women be given opportunity to develop leadership potential and to serve on governing boards and in executive leadership; and that a more aggressive program of recruitment of women for all forms of the ministry be initiated. Men should be trained to confront and deal with “the nature, scope and effect of discrimination and prejudice within this world of difficult choices and conflicting values.”

In 1978, United Methodist women participated actively in a campaign to extend the deadline for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. The Women’s Division also sponsored an Equal Rights Amendment Inquiry in North Carolina and in Oklahoma, two of the fifteen states which had not at the time ratified the amendment. The Commission on the Status and Role of Women (mandated by the 1972 General Conference) planned regional events geared toward increasing the number of women delegates to the 1980 General Conference. Women’s issues were given greater prominence throughout the denomination.

There are, at this present time, more than one thousand ordained women ministering within the United Methodist church. The first major study of these clergywomen was published in 1980. It is entitled New Witnesses and is authored by Harry Hale, Morton King, and Doris Moreland Jones. This study focuses on the dramatic increase in the number of women clergy in recent years, and it analyzes the problems and possibilities inherent in this situation. In spite of initial difficulties the study group had in obtaining a list of these ordained women, the eventual participation in the project was unusually high—more than 90 percent of those listed responded to questionnaires. A startling number of these were ordained between 1968 and 1980. They had transferred directly from college to seminary to ministerial positions. Sixty-two percent of the women were under forty years of age. (The mean age for all clergy was 45.1 years.) Of the women elders, 50 percent were ordained in the three-year period preceding the study. In 1979, 87 percent of the women were serving in local churches rather than in special ministries, 67 percent of these being pastors in charge of a local congregation.

The United Methodist church elected its first woman bishop on July 17,1980. Marjorie Swank Matthews is a native of Onaway, Michigan, where she served the church as a layperson for many years. After her ordination, she held pastorates in New York, Florida, and Georgia, and was a member of the cabinet of the conference for five years. Bishop Matthews was elected to the highest office of the church at the North Central Jurisdictional conference in Dayton, Ohio. A 460-delegate assembly voted her into the office of bishop by acclamation and with overwhelming enthusiasm. She is now bishop of the Wisconsin Area of the church and leader of the 140,000 United Methodists who fall under her jurisdiction. Part of her duty as bishop is to ordain men and women who desire to become clergy.

The situation relating to women in the United Methodist church is thus encouraging in many areas. However, there are still obstacles to be overcome. Self-doubt sometimes plagues women seminarians who feel called to ministry. It is often easier for a woman to declare herself for diaconal ministry than to seek ordination as an elder. In the diaconate a woman may serve in such areas as Christian education, church music, and church communications—roles more acceptable to the community at large. Some pastors are reluctant to receive female candidates for membership in annual conferences. A woman who experiences a sincere call to ordained ministry but receives no affirmation from the church may very likely abandon her vocation. Such a frustrating experience may lead to psychological disturbance and may cause the person to leave the church in anger or bitterness. Energies which could be better channeled into church ministry are sometimes dissipated in defending a call. So there are still barriers to be broken down.

The United Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. and the Presbyterian Church, U.S.

The United Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. is by far the largest single body of Presbyterians in the United States. It came into being in 1958 when the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. merged with the United Presbyterian Church of North America. In the early years of this church’s history, women struggled to receive recognition as preachers and as ordained ministers. In 1912, a woman was licensed to preach, but this license was revoked one year later. It was not until 1930, after much debate, that the General Assembly approved the ordination of women to the office of elder (a lay office), specifying that personal pronouns used in the regulations relating to ruling elders “should be interpreted generically, that is, as applying to either men or women.”38 In 1956—a quarter of a century later—the General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. approved the ordination of women to the ministry of sacrament and Word, stating that “both men and women may be called to this office.”(39)

The opportunity thus provided did not result in an overwhelming influx of women into ministerial positions. By 1971, only 103 women were listed as ordained clergy in the United Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. Since that time, however, there has been a rapid increase in these numbers. In 1978, 410 women were so listed out of a total ministerial force numbering around 14,000. This number of women ministers is expected to escalate. Presbyterian seminaries report dramatic increases in the number of women enrolled in Master of Divinity programs. From 1977 to 1978, for example, this grouping nearly doubled, rising from 343 to 600. Women seeking ordination, however, continue to experience resistance. Indeed some churches, as recently as 1978, were not even willing to appoint women elders.

In order to facilitate change in attitudes and to assist in the placement of women in professional ministries, the denomination has embarked on a five-year project in which the problems are being systematically approached. One publication resulting from this is the Resource Book for Placement, Acceptance and Support of Clergywomen, written by Penelope Colman and Ann Conrad. Strategies have been defined in the areas of suasion, education, and visibility. Simple, clear, direct models have been produced in each of these areas defining activities, goals, and long-range objectives which could be adapted to any church situation. Included in this publication is a short study contributed by Roberta Hestenes, an ordained minister in the United Presbyterian Church, entitled “Scripture and the Ministry of Women Within the Christian Community.” After careful study of the issues involved, Hestenes concludes, “The choice we today are faced with seems to be whether or not to move forward towards God’s ultimate purpose or to remain mired in the past and fearful of change” (p. 37).

This particular church, it seems, is continuing to move forward. The 1980 General Assembly decided that the appointment of women as elders was no longer to be optional. Each congregation is now required to ordain both men and women as elders. Any church which finds itself unable to abide by this rule must write to the Presbytery giving reasons for its inability to conform and requesting permission to appoint only men. The Presbytery must accept the reasons as being valid by a two-thirds vote. The Vocation Agency has produced a 16mm film entitled “A New Wave Breaking: Women Are Ministers,” which recreates the story of a nominating committee which called a woman to the pastorate of its church. A study guide has been produced to help viewers analyze and assess their own thinking on the issues with which the film deals.(40)

The Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. is in formal relationship with the United Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. and shares many of the same attitudes in relation to the ministry of women. The 119th General Assembly (1979) agreed that whenever a joint U.P.C./P.C.U.S. General Assembly is held, it will meet only in a state which has ratified the Equal Rights Amendment. In anticipation of a future merger, a Joint Committee on Women has been established to develop plans for united programs and organizations.

The present Committee on Women’s Concerns of this denomination came into being in 1972, when the Board of Women’s Work was integrated during the restructuring of Assembly agencies. The committee is responsible for the development of national strategy, for voicing the concerns of women, and for the promotion of increased responsiveness in the church toward the resources of women. In particular the Committee on Women’s Concerns works toward a more equitable representation of women in all church courts and their committees, boards, and agencies. As yet this is still way below desirable levels. The committee estimates that at the present rate of progress it will take another seventeen years to raise the representation of women as church officers to 33 percent, and another thirty-four years to raise this to 50 percent. Only when this time comes will the church operating structure realistically represent the proportion of women in the church.

In the 1978 General Assembly, the Presbyterian Church, U.S. elected its first woman moderator, Sara B. Moseley. At this assembly, the Committee on Women’s Concerns recommended, among other things, that the Book of Church Order be edited to ensure that inclusive language is being used. All 485 of the noninclusive terms which feature in the 1977-78 edition of this book are to be changed in time for the next printing or no later than 1983. Presbyterian Church, U.S. seminaries registered 146 women during the 1978-79 academic year among the 1,010 students enrolled for the first professional degree. At this time about 145 of the approximately 5,431 people ordained and in pastoral ministry in the Presbyterian Church, U.S. are women.


It is evident that there are encouraging trends in many branches of the church. New perspectives gained from the study of Scripture and from reflection on the course of history are being translated into concrete realities. Some churches are still in the initial stages of investigation, organizing conferences and informal study groups which focus on women in ministry. Other churches have moved beyond this to definite legislation which grants women equal status with men in church leadership. But for all churches there are still issues to be addressed. In particular there is the need to continue to search out ways to actualize in the local churches ideals which are written into state or national church constitutions. Ministers and seminary faculty are the people who have the most influence in this area. To ministers belongs the task of educating congregations and implementing policies. To seminary faculty falls the responsibility of so training future ministers that they will be competent to redress the balance of ministerial function as they enter the sphere of the local church.


1. Constance J. Tarasal and Irina Kirillova, eds., Orthodox Women: Their Role and Participation in the Orthodox Church (Geneva, Switzerland: WCC, 1977), p. 17. Printed in the USA by Office Assistance Inc.

2. Ibid., p. 19.

3. Ibid., p. 20-22.

4. Ibid., p. 21.

5. lbid., p. 27.

6. Ibid., p. 28.

7. Ibid.

8. Statement written by Franjo Cardinal Seper and Father Jerome Hamer. Approved by Paul VI (London: Catholic Truth Society, 1976). The text is contained in The Order of Priesthood (Huntington, Ind.: Our Sunday Visitor, 1978), pp. 1-20.

9. "Every type of discrimination, whether social or cultural, whether based on sex, race, color, social condition, language, or religion, is to be overcome and eradicated as contrary to God’s intent. For in truth, it must still be regretted that fundamental personal rights are not yet being universally honored. Such is the case of a woman who is denied the right and freedom to choose a husband, to embrace a state of life, or to acquire an education or cultural benefits equal to those recognised for men." The Church Today, p. 29, in The Documents of Vatican II, ed. W. Ml Abbott (New York: Corpus, 1966), pp. 227-28.

10. The Order of Priesthood, p. 3.

11. Ibid., p. 4.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid., p. 10.

14. Ibid., p. 12.

15. See Women and Catholic Priesthood: The Detroit Ordination Conference, 1975, ed. Anne Marie Gardiner (New York: Paulist, 1976). This book contains an excellent bibliography, pp. 199-208.

16. Ibid., p. 19. .p. 31. , pp. 66-88. , p. 91. . p. 73. , p. 122. , pp. 255-257.

17. lbid.

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid.

23. Catholic Biblical Quarterly 41 (1979): 608-13.

24. Ibid., p. 611.

25. Ibid., p. 613.

26. Fran Ferder, Called to Break Bread? (Mt. Ranier, Mich.: Quixote Centre, 1978).

27. Ibid., p. 11.

28. Bylaws, Article VII, Section 2.K, as quoted in “Does God Deny Spiritual I Manifestations and Ministry Gifts to Women?” Joseph R. Flower, General Secre- “ tary, General Council of the Assemblies of God, January 2, 1978 (unpublished).

29. A Study of Women in Ministry, E. C. Lehman and the Task Force on Women in Ministry of the Ministers’ Council, American Baptist Churches, 1979.

30. Ibid., p. 91.

31. Resolution No. 12, Annual of the S.B.C., 1973.

32. Findings of the Consultation on Women in Church-Related Vocations, p. 6.

33. See Leon McBeth, Women in Baptist Life (Nashville: Broadman, 1979).

34. Convention Workbook 1975, p.58 .

35. Convention Proceedings 1969, Resolution 2, p.17 .

36. Convention Workbook 1973, Appendix A, pp.37-38 .

37. Convention Workbook 1977, p.54 .

38. Digest of the Acts and Deliberances of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., Vol. 1 (Philadelphia: 1938), p. 462.

39. The Book of Order, Part II, Form of Government, chapter 8, Sec. 2,38.02.

40. See Elizabeth Verdesi, In But Still Out (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1973).

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