More thoughts on the ordination of women and Christian unity

One of the real challenges to the full ecumenical reunification of the Christian Church across the world is going to be the very different approaches taken by various churches toward the ordination of women. I do not say "women in ministry" as folks sometimes do because it seems clear to me from the Bible that the whole community of Christ is a priesthood (1 Pet. 2:9) and the whole community is called to be in ministry (Eph. 4:12) - men and women, young and old.

It is important that we who practice women's ordination explain ourselves thoughtfully, not with simple slogans.
For example, just because God loves all members of the church, just because God calls all into his royal priesthood and to be ministers of his new covenant, it does not necessarily follow that he intends that just any of them can be set apart as 'priests' in the more particular sense. Indeed, under the old covenant the whole community was likewise a 'kingdom of priests' (Ex. 19:6), all were called to be ministers in the world, and yet only certain Levite males were allowed to be ordained priests - even though God certainly loved the women and the males of the other tribes and really did call them into his covenant. So the argument "God loves women and calls them to salvation/therefore they should be ordained" (usually appealing to Gal. 3:28) simply does not hold up under thoughtful and Biblical scrutiny.

And this issue is critically important and needs to be throught through extremely carefully. My own communion - The United Methodist Church does ordain women as both deacons and presbyters, and also consecrates women to be bishops. My Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic friends, as well as my Episcoplians friends who are strong Anglo-Catholics would all say that this policy (at least as regards presbyters and bishops) is outside the will of God for the polity of the Church according to the Spirit-led Tradition and cannot, therefore, be condoned. Many of my Baptist and conservative Evangelical friends would say that this policy clearly contradicts several passages of the Bible - the authoritative Word of God - and likewise cannot be condoned.

I would say several things in response. First of all, it is vitally important (and on this I completely agree with my friends above) that the Church must submit itself to the will of God as that will has been revealed to us. I met some in seminary who seemed to believe that the Bible forbids the ordination of women, and that we should just do it anyway. At this point, they had apparently decided that their own preferences, or those of the Christians in their immediate circle are more authoritative than the Word of God revealed in the Bible or the leadership of the Spirit revealed in the Tradition of the Church - and this is a suicidal position for the Church to take. It cuts us off from any authority above our own selves and renders us incapable of truly saying (with any authority) to a broken world "Thus saith the Lord who made thee..." All we could then say is "It seems to me that..." And how sad that would be.

If we are going to ordain women, or if we are women who are going to seek to be ordained, we must do so because we have studied the Bible and have come to the conviction that God accepts and encourages women in the leadership of the Church. I have pointed out on a previous occassion that N.T. Wright makes the case (from the Bible!) for ordaining women to all levels of the Church's leadership - including the episcopate (he also briefly deals with the tradition). This is the track that churches (such as my own) who favor the ordination of women must take as they attempt to justify our postion and persuade other churches to adopt it.

Along those lines, I recently read this article by Ben Witherington III, that great evangelical United Methodist theologian and New Testament scholar, arguing (again, from the Bible) in favor of women's ordination and deflating some of the supposedly Biblical arguments against it. Witherington is certainly not a raging liberal or hyper-feminist. He is a Bible-believing Christian, committed to living his life in submission to the Word of God and also committed to understanding that Word as clearly as possible - whatever it may say.

To those who think that we United Methodists (and others) are unbiblical in ordaining women, please read these articles and think again. Even if you still come to the same conclusion (that we are all in error), I hope you will at least respect that we are trying to do business with what the Bible as a whole actually teaches.

What of the Tradition of the Church? Is it not clear that the whole church, always and everywhere has held to an all-male ordained ministry?

There are several books out there now about acceptance of women deacons and perhaps even presbyters in parts of the Ancient Church. I want to do more research here, but as I understand it, there is some evidence that before the "standardization" that occured in the Church when Christianity became legal, the ordination of women was accepted in some places giving us a precedent in the very early layers of the Tradition for this practice. However, it certainly cannot by any means be said that there exists a clear catholic consensus across the ages and across the whole Church in favor of this practice. At best we might argue that it was a minority practice in the Ancient Church and has progressively reappeared in the last couple hundred years as a more wide-spread minority practice.

And so, for those of us who do ordain women, and are part of churches that do so, there can be no place for self-righteous triumphalism: "We are the truly liberated church and they are just backward and patriarchal and mean, etc." I believe I encountered this attitude several times in seminary and it is deeply distressing. We who ordain women should have confidence that we can make a case, from the Bible and perhaps the Early Tradition in favor of our practice; but we should also walk with the humility that comes from the awareness that the majority of the Church today and throughout history - saintly men and women who truly loved the Lord, his church, and his word - disagree with us on this issue and do have reasons for doing so (that is, they are certainly NOT irrational or unholy simply because they disagree here). This should not make us defensive or shrill, but it should make us humble in offering our reading of the text for their consideration.

This brings me back to the quest for ecumenical unity. While a case can be made for women's ordination from Scripture, the Biblical warnings against schism (and exhortations toward unity) are crystal clear. As long as we are divided, we are not fully obeying God's Word.
It is clear to me that some of the innovations that are currently dividing the historic Protestant elements of the Western church (such as homosexual clergy) will never (and should never) recieve an ecumenical consensus and will have no place in a fully-reunified Church. Some (especially among my Anglican and Catholic friends) would lump women's ordiantion into this same catagory. Yet I am not convinced it belongs there since a case can be made, from the Bible certainly, and perhaps in a limited way from the earliest layers of the Ancient Tradition, in favor of this practice. And I am aware that there have been relatively mainstream Orthodox, Catholic, and Anglican theologians who have suggested that this is at least a possibility as well.

Yet this remains a stumbling block to ecumenical reunion. Recall the recent offer of Metropolitan Jonah of the Orthodox Church to conservative Anglicans: women's ordination was one of the three positions (along with adherance to the "filioque" and 5-point Calvinism) that still stand in the way of reunion. Drop those three, he said, and the Orthodox will recognize the ACNA Anglicans as a legitimate Orthodox Church (see here). It is an offer of historic proportions.

The easiest way forward would be for churches on both sides of this issue to decide that it is "non-essential" and that a church's ecclesiology may be legitimate and valid with or without ordained women. However, because ordination is a sacrament in some traditions (and a rite of sacramental character in others, such as my own) it is not likey that everyone will really accept this as non-essential. Anglicanism has tried with some success to hold this position internally yet it has been a source of stress on the unity of the Communion. A compromise position - of say women as deacons only, or women as deacons and presbyters only in a reunified Church - might work better, but would certainly not please many on both sides of the question. Perhaps we could follow the example of Anglicanism and say "practice need not be uniform in all places on this question" so that some dioceses or provinces ordain women and others do not.

In any case it is only in being true - meticulously true - to the Bible and the tradition that we will ever persuade other Christians to even consider that the ordination of women is legitimate and not simply another example of the Church following the lead of culture and being "blown about by every wind of doctrine."

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Anonymous Rev. Ralph Howe said...

Brother Daniel: I like your willingness to wrestle with these issues. As a fellow UMC, anglo-catholic Wesleyan evangelical I find your blog interesting and worthwhile. Keep it up to the Glory of God. Ralph Howe howerw3@gmail.com

6:33 PM, December 21, 2009  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

It might be worth noting that in his book PASTORAL THEOLOGY, Thomas Oden argues that a pro-tradition argument can be made in favor of women's ordination using the same logic that the Roman Catholic Church (borrowing from Cardinal Newman's idea of doctrinal development) deployed in some of the Vatican 1 and Vatican 2 reforms.

N.T. Wright uses a similar approach on "tradition authority" in his article that I linked in my post.

11:58 AM, December 22, 2009  
Anonymous Lindsey said...

Hmmm... Methodist 'doctrine' is essentially based on a majority vote by a mix of the ordained and non-trained laypersons. Methodists vote on Truth as though Truth should (or even could!) be decided by democratic process.

Given that Methodists have official doctrine that condone abortion and there is a big movement to make homosexuality a legitimate lifestyle for clergy and members (both of which are grossly incompatible with the majority of the rest of the Christian world), it is hard to really believe that they take the Bible very seriously. As of late, Methodists as a group have a strong tendency to ignore Scripture and tradition and put too much emphasis on 'reason' and 'experience' both of which are highly subjective and frequently incompatible at the individual level.

10:12 PM, December 22, 2009  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

Hi Lindsey,

I would say that your impressions of United Methodist doctrine are partially correct, and partially a mis-understanding.

The "Official" doctrine of the Church are the doctrinal standards in The Book of Discipline - they are constitutionally protected and can only be changed by a super-majority vote of 2 consecutive General Conferences AND by the delegates of all the Annual conferences (from every parish in the world). As we have seen from other attempts to change constitutionally protected (non-doctrinal) sections of the Discipline, this is extremely difficult to do.

So while the Church can modify its doctrine, you can be sure that to do so in an unbiblical direction would be extremely controversial and would never pass. But we do believe that the community, not just the individual, must be the interpreter of the Bible, and that is the reason for this structure.

Beyond all that, we have a doctrinal tradition that includes Methodist and Anglican and wider Christian theologians across the centuries that can never be changed and will always be a part of our doctrinal heritage, no matter how the official doctrines may or may not be re-worded.

Our position on abortion is actually a nuanced pro-life position that says (if you read it carefully) that abortion should only be a legal option in certain rare cases - not simply as a form of birth control - and that even in such cases it should not necessarily be used. The statement begins with the assumption that both unborn baby and mother are human beings and must be respected. This is utterly different than a secular/political "pro-choice" position.

In any case, this statement is not "official doctrine" in the same sense as the Doctrinal Standards. The abortion statement is part of a section called "Social Principles" and constitute "official guidance" more than 'social doctrine' in the Roman Catholic sense. Methodist ministers are free to disagree publically with the social principles without any possibility of being brought up on heresy charges (the same is not true for the doctrinal standards).

Finally, you mention the move (as in most all American denominations) to "normalize" or "Christianize" the homosexual lifestyle. The mere existence of such a movement should not be read as a rebuke of the whole Church (which officially teaches that homosexual practice is contrary to the will of God). Rather, it must be understood as a reflection of our cultural context. Unlike other denominations that are consentrated in the US South, we have members from all over the nation where attitudes vary widely, and unfortunately many Christians uncritically absorb their society's values. Even so, recent surveys indicate that 3/4 of our clergy are against changing the denomination's standards on this issue, and most of us would assume that the proportion of lay people is even higher.

If you really are interested in UM doctrine I suggest you get a copy of "The Book of Discipline" and read it for yourself.

9:57 AM, December 29, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Over at Touchstone magazine they are discussing this issue.


One of the commentors make the assertion, and I quite like it, that as men are meant to be soldiers fighting for our country, they are also fighters against the forces of spiritual evil as well. Men are fighters, no doubt.

3:28 PM, December 29, 2009  
Blogger lehall said...

I really appreciate this post. I care about unity of the church and about the ordination of women. Good resources to think through the questions.

3:46 PM, December 29, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Even if the Bible condones / supports women as pastors -- and I lean towards the view that it does not -- then Methodists are doing a terrible job of screening the ones they do ordain. We have lots of bad theology from the Spragues of the denomination, but on average women seem to bring more of the pluralistic / pro-choice / pro-oxymoronic same-sex marriage false teachings with them.

4:44 PM, December 30, 2009  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

Hi 4simpsions,

I know some people might be ready to jump all over your comment, but I think I see a potential connection back to my main point.

I once read an article that highlighted a study claiming that only about 20% of women clergy where orthodox in their theological views (according to whatever standards the survey was using - always an important point here: historic standards like Trinity and Biblical authority, or more recent ones like "inerrancy").

I began to wonder if perhaps some ordained women feel pressured to marginalize the teachings of the Bible precisely because they believe on some level that their own ordination contradicts those teachings. That is to say, because we, as a group, have done a poor job with our exegesis and our explaining WHY we think that the Bible DOES allow/encourage ordained women, many of the women we do ordain are left feeling quite ambivalent about the Bible in general, which in turn severs them from that all-important theological source and authority that should be guiding their thinking on other issues (such as religious pluralism and sexual ethics).

That's just a theory mind you, but I wonder if there is some truth in it...

If it is, I wonder if a similar issue might emerge for divorced pastors (regardless of gender).

The broader question you put your finger on is the state of theological education and formation in United Methodist seminaries. Unfortunately, it seems to me, that very few if any of our schools are really seminaries in the true sense where candidates enter into a deliberate and coherent sort of theological and practical formation in the disciplines of the pastoral life and the teachings of the Church so that they can both articulate and defend those teachings.

10:19 AM, December 31, 2009  
Blogger danielhixon said...

I recently ran across this article on why the Assemblies of God (generally considered a "conservative evangelical" denomination) DO ordain women.


Not surprisingly, they look (in large part) to the promise of the Prophet Joel quoted in Acts chapter 2 that "sons and daughters will prophecy." If prophecy is taken to mean "preach" then the Scripture explicitly affirms that women will be preachers under the new covenant. However, we still have that distinction between "prophets and priests" to sort out - just because a woman is a preacher it does not therefore follow that she can be a priest as well. However, as far as I know, ALL of the Biblical texts brought in against women's ordination are texts that explicitly deal with preaching and teaching (the very thing that Joel says women will do).

4:42 PM, December 12, 2011  

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