What About Women Pastors?
We are becoming excited about Jody's ordination which will be held on June 22 during the closing session of the California-Nevada Annual Conference at the Convention Center in Sacramento. She has asked me to be among those, along with the Bishop, to lay hands on her. Jody will be ordained a deacon, an act which recognizes her call to ministry. Every member of the church is a minister. All Christians are Christ's ministers, but the church sets some apart to be ordained to special forms of leadership and ministry.
A while ago, Jody gave me a T-shirt which reads, "I'm proud to be a United Methodist minister. We ordain men also!" Not all denominations ordain women. Some do not even allow women to serve on church boards. During the last Boys' Chrysalis, a high school boy handed in this question, "Why do you have women pastors when Scripture forbids it?" He was not being obnoxious; he was quite sincere. He belongs to a church that preaches against the ordination of women. On Easter, we had visitors from out-of-town who were quite intrigued with Pastor Jody, as their church aggressively forbids women to be pastors or leaders.
What about women pastors? This morning, on Heritage Sunday, let's look to scripture and tradition. There are two passages quickly quoted by opponents of women in ministry:
1 Corinthians 14:34-35: Women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.
1 Timothy 2: 11-12: 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.
Pretty strong language! It's very clear, with not much room for argument. However, these verses are not the only words in the Bible, nor are they the final words on the subject.
When you read and study the Bible, never take a passage as God's final word until you apply two tests: the Consistency test and the Historical test. First, check the passage's consistency with the message of the entire Bible. Especially test it with our understanding of what Jesus said and did. Jesus is the focus of the Bible, and our final authority.
The second important test is the Historical test. What is the historical context in which the passage is written? To whom was it written? What was going on that caused the passage to be written? Have there been historical developments inspired by the Holy Spirit?
The Holy Spirit did not go on vacation or into retirement after the Bible was written. For example, if the Holy Spirit had stopped inspiring, there would be slavery yet today. Can there be anyone today who supports the institution of slavery? Yet, slavery was an accepted fact of life not only in the Old Testament, but in the New Testament as well. Prior to the Civil War in the last century, slaveholders quoted the Bible to support their position. Abolitionists also quoted the Bible and, thank God, their view ultimately prevailed, inspired by the Holy Spirit, I firmly believe.
If there had been no historical development, women today would have to go through a complicated procedure to be ritually cleansed following their monthly menstruation cycle. We also would not be eating pork, and children could be put to death for sassing their parents! All of these laws are in Leviticus. Beware when folks start quoting Leviticus because Jesus reinterpreted Leviticus. Jesus was not a literalist, but believed in historical development and in the continuing inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
Let's apply the Historical test to the Corinthian passage. Scholars believe Paul wrote the Corinthians passage where he urged women to keep silent in church and ask their questions at home. What was happening in the Corinthian church that prompted this advice? Paul's main theme in his Corinthian letters is to call the church back to order. The Corinthian church was in chaos. People speaking in tongues were disrupting the worship services. People were getting drunk at Communion, and were taking Communion by themselves; and, evidently, some women were contributing to the chaos by interrupting the service with questions. Perhaps it was such a new phenomenon for women to be included in worship services, they were filled with questions. They were enthusiastic and curious. Paul told them to keep silent, and ask their questions at home, so the worship service could continue in an orderly fashion.
The Timothy passage where women are forbidden to teach or have authority over men does not pass the Consistency test. The passage is not consistent with how Jesus treated women. Jesus included many women on his ministry team. They accompanied him on his travels (Luke 8:1-3). Jesus talked to women, even foreign women like the Samaritan woman. The Timothy passage is also not consistent with the Old Testament where women were leaders of tribes and were prophets. Nor is the passage consistent with Paul. Paul recruited women pastors. In Acts 9:36, Tabitha is called a disciple. In Romans 16, Paul sends greetings to 29 people, ten of whom are women. He begins by sending his greetings to Phoebe who was a deacon! Some translations say "helper," but the Greek word is "deacon," a minister of the church. Paul then greets Prisca and Aquila, naming the wife first. Prisca had accompanied Paul on one of his missionary journeys and in Acts 18:24-26, she instructs a man, thus contradicting the Timothy passage. Nor is the Timothy passage consistent with Paul in Galatians 3:28 where he wrote, "There is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus."
The Timothy passage does not pass the Consistency test, nor the Historical test. The Timothy passage is not a historical development, but a historical reversion! Timothy was probably not written by Paul, but at a much later date. It discusses bishops, elders, and a church organizational structure that was not yet formed in the early times of Paul and Peter. The writing is from a later time when the prudes and prunes were saving the church from what they thought were excesses introduced by Jesus and Paul! Jesus and Paul went too far in the opinion of the men who ran the churches in the second century. We see them turning back the clock to keep women in a place of submission. The historical reversion went so far that women were not even allowed to sing in church. In fact, men and boys choirs are still heard in English cathedrals. The only recourse left for women to serve God was to organize their own movements, their own orders and convents, until the Holy Spirit began to move in some Protestant churches, including Methodism.
In the mid 1800s, there was a great deal of controversy over women pastors within Methodism. Some were licensed, some were ordained, only to have their ordination revoked by later conferences. One such woman was Anna Howard Shaw who was questioned interminably about her call to ministry. One man asked her, "Wives are to obey their husbands. Suppose your husband should refuse to allow you to preach? What then?" She replied, "Even if he did, it would not concern me, for I am a spinster." The man persisted, "You might marry some day." She said, "Possibly. It is equally possible that I might marry a man who would command me to preach; and in that case, I want to be all ready to obey him!'
This leads me to my final point. The most compelling argument of all that God wants women pastors is that God obviously calls some women, as God calls some men, to ordination. Can any of us doubt the genuineness of Pastor Jody's call to ministry? She obviously has the gifts, graces, motivation, competency, spirituality and commitment to be ordained a deacon. Would anyone accuse God of being in error?
Jody is the seventh woman pastor with whom I have had the privilege of working. Let me tell you about the first. It was not until 1956 that the Methodist Church finally ordained women. Mary MacNicholl was one of the first women to be ordained. She and I worked together from 1961-1966 in the Central Minnesota Methodist Parish. Ten churches cooperated together, with four pastors. Mary was pastor of three of the churches, and I had four. I was just out of seminary, so I was given the most!
Mary wore two dresses, a black one for winter, and a white one with black designs for summer. They both hung well below the knees. She wore her hair in a bun, wire rimmed glasses, and a little black hat which she only took off when she led worship services. She carried a Bible under one arm and a Methodist Discipline under the other, as she went forth to preach the gospel and shape up those rural Minnesota congregations. She had a delightful sense of humor and a no-nonsense administrative style. No one wondered where Mary stood! We had wonderful times of ministry together, and I learned a great deal from her, including a deep respect for women pastors.
Mary's mother, also named Mary, was Mary's housekeeper and cook. When Mary Sr. became ill and moved back to Philadelphia, Mary Jr. and her sister decided that Mary Jr. would take a leave of absence from her ministry to go back to Philadelphia and take care of Mother, while her sister worked. Not only did the sister earn more money than Mary, Jr. did as a pastor, neither the sister nor Mother really took Mary Jr.'s call to the ministry seriously We visited them in Philadelphia and found that Mary Jr. had lost her fire, sparkle, zest, and call. Soon after, she died. The irony is that Mary Jr. died before her mother did. The doctor felt that the cancer which killed her probably had its inception from the time she left the ministry. Mary Jr. became an example of Jesus' warning in Luke 9:62, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God." Mary sacrificed her call and lost her life. Truly, Mary had been called by God to be a woman pastor.
God calls everyone of us to ministry, some kind of ministry, using the spiritual gifts God gives us. In addition, God calls some to ordained ministry, both men and women.
© 1997 Douglas I. Norris