My Journey to Affirming the Ordination of Women (Part X)

Even as my last post on this site suggested that I might not do much blogging in the near future, I feel compelled to (finally) round off my series on my journey to affirming women’s ordination.

One important objection of complementarians to the evangelical egalitarian position is the observation that in the last century-and-a-half, Christian groups that have embraced women’s ordination have embraced other doctrines and practices that they believe are unscriptural–most notably, acceptance of homosexual practice, and the sign gifts (tongues and prophecy). This is a slippery-slope argument, but rhetorically effective and important to consider.

The response is that it all comes down to authority and the reasons for accepting women’s ordination.

For theological conservatives, the Scriptures are authoritative, with the historic interpretation of the community of faith playing some role. Of course, there are numerous variations and iterations of this position, but Scripture as historically interpreted is primary for this group.

Western culture has moved rapidly past a welcome correction of patriarchy (equity feminism) to a radical quest to erase all differences between men and women, and even to decouple gender from objective biological reality. For many in North American mainline churches and European state churches, contemporary norms and beliefs are determinative, and interpretation of Scripture is brought in line with those norms–basically, bringing our religion “up to date.”

For charismatics, the Scriptures are authoritative, but experience of the sign gifts also played a role in the early acceptance of women preachers in that movement. If we think of religious authority structures on a spectrum between centralized hierarchy and “democratized” plurality, it is easy to see how the sign gifts could flourish in the American context–which has no state-sponsored religious hierarchy–as an alternate structure of religious authority. The sign gifts and that way of understanding authority was attractive to those who couldn’t access traditional forms of authority, and helps to explain why charismatic groups typically accept women’s ordination. After all, anyone who receives these gifts can speak with divine authority, and Paul himself acknowledges that men and women can have this gift.

(Excursus: Let me clarify that I do not consider continuationism, i.e., the ongoing exercise of the sign gifts, to be on par with acceptance of homosexual practice. While I believe continuationists misunderstand the NT, the “responsible” exercise of tongues and prophecy (not “charismania”) is mostly a theological inconsistency, a mild distraction from Scripture. On the other hand, the entirety of the biblical witness, OT and NT, and the universal witness of the church until only the last few decades, is that the only proper expression of human sexuality is within the context of a marriage between a man and a woman. [Yes, there is polygyny in the OT, and I will someday write a book about it–but those marriages still consisted of one man and one woman–one man who participated in several marriages simultaneously.] While some scholars argue that approval of monogamous homosexual relationships is the logical “redemptive trajectory” of NT ethics following the elevation of women and the inclusion of the Gentiles, William Webb (Slaves, Women and Homosexuals, passim) and Richard Hays (Moral Vision of the New Testament, 52-56, 394-399) show that this rationale cannot responsibly be extended to justify homosexual behavior biblically.

Some might object to my listing charismatic Christians as a separate group from “conservatives.” Of course, many charismatics are quite doctrinally conservative. My main point is about sources of authority. This isn’t a series on the charismatic movement, but the alternate authority structures can be viewed as a context both for missional innovation and for false teaching. A cessationist myself, I used to be more suspicious and continue to have my reservations, but I have come to appreciate the more responsible forms of Pentecostalism and charismatic Christianity for their innovative potential. At the very least, these movements as the main Christian groups that are growing worldwide must be taken seriously by evangelical cessationists.)

Therefore, it matters more why a group is embracing women’s ordination. It is why we have begun to see three basic varieties of denominations in all of the main Protestant traditions in North America: Those that do not accept homosexual practice or women’s ordination; those that accept women’s ordination but not homosexual practice; and those that accept both (basically, all the mainline denominations). Those who are staking out this middle position include:

  • North American Lutheran Church
  • Anglican Church North America
  • Evangelical Presbyterian Church
  • ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians
  • Evangelical Covenant Church
  • Evangelical Association of Reformed and Congregational Christian Churches
  • Christian Reformed Church in North America
  • Free Methodist Church

Ultimately, the second objection suffers from the fallacy of association. As I discovered, there are Christians who consider Scripture to be authoritative, who derive their egalitarian position from Scripture and responsible hermeneutics, and who don’t condone the use of sign gifts or homosexual behavior, for the same scriptural reasons I don’t. The very existence of these groups (as well as charismatic groups like the Assemblies of God) and their consistent witness to Christian orthodoxy on topics such as the exclusivity of the gospel of Christ and sexual ethics is proof that it is possible to affirm women’s ordination and remain consistent with historic Christian teachings.

I recognize that for some who object to my position, this response sounds a bit like the layman who, when asked if he believed in infant baptism, replied, “Sure, I’ve seen it done!” But perhaps the only way to refute the slippery-slope objection (which is a logical fallacy, BTW) is with counterexamples.

Because of the theological and historical factors previously mentioned, it is the case that a much higher percentage of female pastors would be considered “liberal” and thus objectionable to my main interlocutors. But this is not a valid argument either, any more than liberal (or illiterate/unskilled/wicked/foolish) male pastors are evidence against men’s ordination.

One last word on this post: I hope that complementarians who remain unconvinced can nevertheless acknowledge the difference between affirming women’s ordination on the one hand, and affirming homosexual practice on the other hand. Homosexuality rejects the sexual complementarity of male and female, and thus is directly contrary to Scripture’s teaching on human beings in the image of God.

At worst, ordained women who are otherwise orthodox have been improperly (from the complementarian perspective) vested with church authority, which they then attempt to exercise in good faith. But that is the responsibility of the elders and overseers who ordained them. While complementarians may object to this improper exercise of authority, it is not in the same category as affirming one of the most serious of sins against God’s image, i.e., sexual immorality.

In my final post, I will provide some resources for further reading on this subject.

About Benj

I’m a native North Jerseyan, transplanted to Pennsylvania...lived and taught in Eastern Europe for six years…Old Testament professor, ordained minister, occasional liturgist…husband to Corrie…father to Daniel and Elizabeth.
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2 Responses to My Journey to Affirming the Ordination of Women (Part X)

  1. Susan Soesbe says:

    Another highly readable post. This was very interesting and thought provoking.

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