Should women serve as Christian clergy? Why, or why not?

Should women serve as Christian clergy? Why, or why not? July 26, 2017

THE RELIGION GUY (instead of answering a question posted by a reader) raises this topic that he discussed with a house guest who advocated an all-male clergy on biblical grounds, while The Guy (full disclosure) favored having pastors of either gender.

Most Christians have belonged to church bodies that limit clergy leadership to men. A watershed occurred in 1975 when Archbishop of Canterbury Donald Coggan wrote to inform Pope Paul VI about a growing consensus within the international Anglican Communion in favor of allowing women priests.

In response, Paul stated that the Catholic Church believes this change is “not admissible” due to: 1) Jesus Christ’s choosing of only male apostles. 2) “The constant practice of the church” from the apostles onward to follow Jesus’s example. 3) The consistent belief of Catholicism’s “living teaching authority” that  male priesthood fits “God’s plan for his Church.”

The following year, a 5,500-word explanation from the Vatican’s doctrinal office, approved by Paul VI, called this tenet “immutable” and “normative” (see It argued that even Jesus’s mother Mary did not hold “apostolic ministry” despite her “incomparable role,” and that the women who worked closely with the Apostle Paul weren’t ordained either.

A separate section said the priest celebrating Mass takes “the role of Christ, to the point of being his very image,” having a “natural resemblance” that’s difficult to see with a woman. However, this was not considered a “demonstrative argument” that defines Catholic theology.

Pope John Paul II issued a 1994 apostolic letter to all bishops that summarized those prior documents and reaffirmed “the constant and universal Tradition of the Church” (see Furthermore, John Paul declared that “all doubt” should be removed on such a “matter of great importance” and that “this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.”

Orthodox Christianity holds to the same unbroken tradition. A 2009 article by Metropolitan Hilarion, who chairs external church relations for Russian Orthodoxy, acknowledged that “there is no clear theological argument” for excluding women priests, but “a new Revelation as powerful as” the New Testament itself would be required to enact such “radical changes in the established church order.”

(Regarding whether Catholicism and Orthodoxy should ordain deacons, as opposed to priests, see this 2016 “Religion Q and A”:

Protestants who approve female clergy, and like-minded liberal Catholics, are not convinced by the basic argument from historical precedent, that the church cannot do something because it’s never been done. For instance, Christianity tolerated slavery as an ingrained economic reality but eventually condemned it entirely, and forbade charging of any interest under Old Testament law but later allowed reasonable charges. And the Catholic Church long ago added an innovation that forbids most married priests.

Proponents of women clergy also contend that cultural expectations would have made it impossible for Jesus to appoint female leaders. Opponents reply that Jesus felt free to defy the culture of his day on other matters.

The Vatican’s argument from the precedent set by Jesus’s apostles cited two difficult New Testament passages that are central to the debate among Protestants, for whom biblical teaching is paramount rather than church tradition:

1 Corinthians 14:34-35: “The women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. . .”

1 Timothy 2:11-14:  “Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived. . .”

Since women did in fact “speak” in church in other New Testament situations, opponents rely less upon 1 Corinthians than 1 Timothy. As Ray Van Neste of Union University interprets Timothy in the conservative “ESV Study Bible,” “women are not permitted to publicly teach Scripture and/or Christian doctrine to men in church” and “are not permitted to exercise authority over men in church.” (He adds that Scripture does not address women’s leadership in business or government.)

Opponents often say 1 Timothy’s mention of Adam and Eve defines a system that was established with God’s very creation of the human race.

But influential conservative Protestants have concluded the opposite, due to the context in which the letter was originally written. One such was the late Kenneth Kantzer, academic dean of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and later editor of “Christianity Today.” Writing in that major evangelical magazine in 1986, Kantzer said 1 Timothy applied to the specific problem in Ephesus of women who lacked necessary instruction and embraced heresy.

His successor as Trinity dean, Walter Kaiser Jr., was later president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. In “Tough Questions About God and His Actions in the Old Testament” (2015), Kaiser similarly said 1 Timothy meant women in Ephesus needed better training to “have authority” in order to avoid echoing Eve, who sinned in ignorance. ” The “NIV Study Bible,” an evangelical best-seller, notes that “some” hold that viewpoint, or else believe 1 Timothy’s concern was that Ephesus women would “domineer” men.

The late E. Earle Ellis, research professor of theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, pointed out in a 1989 anthology that the Greek in 1 Timothy can be translated as not “a woman” but “a wife” exercising authority over her “husband” in church. He concluded the passage does not bar single women, and with a married woman was only concerned if her behavior would disrupt the relationship with her husband.

Perhaps most important, Ellis and others have observed that in the church 2,000 years ago 1 Timothy spoke about a pastor who was the congregation’s sole leader, and does not apply when a pastor shares authority collectively with other clergy and with lay officers, as in most modern Protestant congregations.

Note: The Religion Guy’s own denomination, the Christian Reformed Church, is unusual in accommodating strong proponents on both sides. To see their arguments, go to  and click on “here” in the sentence “Scriptural casues for both sides have been laid out here.”

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