Should the Church ordain women?


This piece is part of a series providing varying perspectives on the parameters of ordination.

While people are currently asking, “Should the Adventist Church ordain women?”, the Church itself is addressing a broader question, namely, “Should the Church ordain anyone at all and if so, should it ordain women?” Assuming the results of this study mean the present practice of ordination is continued, consistency would compel me to say that since the Adventist Church is ordaining men it should ordain women too and for all the same reasons. However, the question really deserves a more considered response than this with a look at some of the evidence available to us.

. . . we can say that where culturally conditioned practices cause no impediment to the progress of the Gospel they can be practised at will by believers.

To begin with, the church is a New Testament phenomenon that came into being through the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and continues to find its raison d’etre in the presence and activity of that same Spirit. The Spirit produces fruit (Galatians 5:22) in the lives of all believers without distinction and gives spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12:1-11 cf. Romans 12:6-8) to many to exercise for the edification and growth of the church. Though these two actions of the Spirit provide the means whereby the church is able to exist and function, gender is not mentioned as a factor in either of them (for a more accurate rendering of these references in the Greek text see the NNIV). 

Paul’s body parts illustration (1 Corinthians 12:12-31 cf. Romans 12:4, 5) is another case in point. He uses a human body model that is gender neutral to describe the various facets of the church and to declare their usefulness to the whole. This is in harmony with his teaching that universal salvation means, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

The Bible avoids the limitation of belonging only to a specific time or location in what it teaches. Rather, it majors on principles that are always applicable anywhere. It is its tendency to deal with motives and attitudes that makes Scripture timeless and universally relevant.

So what does this mean for male and female roles? Are they also subject to biblical prescription? 

While attitudes and motives are directed by Scripture, gender roles are normally defined by the customs and culture of a given society. As such they are subject to variation and modification as the values, knowledge and opportunities of people change over time and from group to group. So based on custom and culture we have different ways of living and relating. These may or may not conflict with Bible principle or the teachings of the Gospel. When they do conflict the New Testament has more than one way of dealing with them. Sometimes the answer is to compromise for the sake of the Gospel as Paul did in face of the practice of slavery, while the abolitionists of the 19th century fought against it in the name of Christ. At other times the answer is to confront it as Paul did in the case of certain unacceptable behaviours during worship on the part of some women (1 Timothy 2:11-15), while he endorsed the worship practices of other women who preached and prayed appropriately in the congregation (1 Corinthians 11:5). 

For the rest we can say that where culturally conditioned practices cause no impediment to the progress of the Gospel they can be practised at will by believers. This includes the way people eat, dress, work, relax, relate, manage their homes and run their churches.

Why should the Church ordain women? It would seem to me that this question cannot be answered by a one-size-fits-all policy. On the basis of New Testament teaching and practice and on the expectations of custom and culture in some parts of the world, the Church should begin to ordain women immediately. This would go a long way towards stopping the damage being done to the progress of the Gospel by failing to do so. In other parts of the world it may be a folly to ordain women because it might harm the progress of the Gospel to do so. Based on its intimate knowledge and understanding of its own part of the world it would be wise for each union to make its own decision as to whether or not to ordain women and leave the rest of the unions making up the worldwide Church to do the same.

Carole Ferch-Johnson served, until recently, as the Australian Union Conference’s associate ministerial secretary for the support of female pastors.