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Musing of a Progressive Christian Layman: Women in Church Leadership

How can any 21st century woman believe that only men must lead in the home and church and that a woman’s role is to submit to male leadership? How can a woman attend a church that refuses to ordain women as pastors/priests or as church leaders like deacons or board members? And how could any 21st century man believe that women should not be leaders in the church?
But the Catholic Church only allows male priests because, they claim, that Jesus’ disciples were all male and there were no female apostles. Of course, that means they deny that Mary Magdalene was a leader of the early church, even rivaling Peter, although that Church now recognizes her as the “Apostle to the Apostles.”
And since Southern Baptists and other conservative denominations like The Presbyterian Church of America (PCA) claim Biblical inerrancy, they contend that the New Testament affirms that men should be the leaders in the home, church, and state. Women were not created to rule; men were. According to the Bible, specifically Paul, no woman is qualified to be a pastor or a deacon or in any other leadership position over men. They quote the following verses as proof:

  • “…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. Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached? Anyone who claims to be a prophet, or to have spiritual powers, must acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord.” (1 Cor. 14:34-37)
  • “Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church… Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.”(Ephesians 5:22-24)
  • “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. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” (1 Tim. 2:11-14)

Therefore, they question how a woman could be a pastor if she is forbidden to teach or to have authority over men? A woman pastor would be disobeying scripture.
That type of reasoning may have been acceptable during the 1st century, but it definitely isn’t twenty centuries later.
Those who claim to believe everything in the Bible

  • In Acts 18:26, Luke writes that Priscilla and Aquila heard Apollos, a Jew from Alexandria, speak in the synagogue. He obviously had been instructed in the Way of the Lord and spoke with enthusiasm. Later these two women “took him aside and explained the Way of God to him more accurately.” Horror of horrors, these two females taught Apollos, a man!
  • In Romans 26:1, Paul writes, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae.” Phoebe was a woman deacon of the church, something many conservative Christian churches refuse their women members.
  • In Romans 16:7, Paul writes, “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.” Junia was a woman and a prominent apostle, according to Paul.
  • In Philippians 4:2-3, Paul calls Euodia and Syntyche co-workers “in the work of the gospel” beside him.

It doesn’t matter to conservative Christian denominations, but the New Testament never mentions ministry categories like “senior pastor” or “pulpit minister,” whether male or female. So why do you have them?
Women were prominent in Jesus’ ministry.  They are included among the disciples, witnessed his teaching and were present at his resurrection – the male disciples were not there. Mary Magdalene, obviously a woman, was the first to see the risen Jesus and she told the disciples the good news (John 20:17-18). In Luke 10:38-42, Mary sits listening to what Jesus said. When her sister, Martha, tried to get Jesus to help her with womanly chores, Mary was commended – “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” In John 4:7-30, after a Samaritan woman speaks with Jesus, she testifies to the people of her village: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” And, according to John 4:39, “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.” The first Gentile convert, according to Matthew 15:21-28, was a Canaanite woman. In Matthew 12:49-50, Jesus that “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” He treated women as equal to men. In Galatians 3:28, Paul said, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Paul, who is often thought to be anti-women, was saying that men and women are spiritually equal. Is that enough scriptural proof that women were important in Jesus’ ministry?
Protestant denominations who ordain woman and have female pastors:

  • The United Methodist Church has ordained women since 1956 and in 1994, 15% of their total clergy were female. Today there are more than 10,300 active and retired women clergy in the United States.
  • The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) – In 1893, Edith Livingston Peakewas appointed Presbyterian Evangelist by First United Presbyterian of San Francisco. Between 1907 and 1920 five more women became ministers. They began ordaining women as elders in 1930, and as ministers of the Word and sacrament in 1956. Reportedly, in 1994 19% of PCUSA clergy were female. By 2001, the numbers of men and women holding office were almost equal.
  • The United Church of Christ – In 1994, 25% of their clergy was female. They reportedly have almost 2,000 female leaders today.
  • The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – In 1994, 11% of their clergy was female; today there are almost 1,500,358 ordained women.
  • The Episcopal Church in the United States – in 1994, 12% of their priests were females; is supportive of women in all leadership, including ordination and is working for gender justice; reportedly, today there are more than 1,000 female priests.

Other denominations that, according to the Pew Research Center, allow women in leadership roles include American Baptist Church, Assemblies of God, The Christian Church/Disciples of Christ, and Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).
Although they are not recognized by the Catholic Church, there is a group of women that call themselves “Roman Catholic Womenpriests.” This is an international movement designed to “prepare, ordain in Apostolic Succession and support women” who are summoned by the Holy Spirit to minister as Catholic priests.
In 2014, the Rev. Dr. Amy Butler was elected to the senior pastor position for Riverside Church in New York City, the first woman to hold that position. Riverside is a non-denominational church that has been in existence since 1930.
There’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that only 11.4 of U.S. congregations allow women in ministerial roles. The good news is that the number of female clergy has risen from 16,408 in 1983 to 46,501 in 2010.
No one should be denied any role of ministry or leadership in the Church simply because of one’s gender.

Review & Commentary