Thursday, October 21, 2010

Women as Pastors

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines on Women as Pastors:

Q: Why is it that some churches have women as pastors and others do not? What reasons do they give for their position?

The ordination of women to the office of pastor is a topic that has been the center of a great deal of controversy in many denominations for several decades now. The Bible certainly honors the important roles which women have played in Church during its time and throughout History. In the earliest years of the Church, the Bible frequently mentioned women who were church leaders either as deaconesses or as the hosts and financial sponsors of the congregations which worshipped in their homes, but without reference to them as an elder, bishop, or pastor.

During the Middle Ages, the church became heavily dominated by male leadership and the only role which remained for women was as a nun. Even after the Reformation, women’s role in the churches advanced little, if at all, because the society of the time gave a very low place to women. From the time of the Enlightenment forward, women’s role in the Church began to grow along with their position in society, until the idea of women as pastors was first proposed around 150 years ago, and began to become commonplace among mainline denominations around 50 years ago. However, it is an unfortunate fact of history that the many beneficial contributions of women to church life were often suppressed in the church. Even in the present day, I have visited congregations which do not allow women to serve the church in any position other than teaching young children.

However, this is not to say that the reasons of churches which do not ordain women as pastors are merely cultural. For example, in the years when the Apostle Paul was writing the New Testament Epistles, which contain the several Biblical commands that pastors be men, the presence of female clergy in the various non-Christian religions of that region was extremely common, meaning that Paul’s instructions were actually in opposition to the culture of his time rather than influenced by it.

Today’s churches which permit only male pastors cite several verses from the New Testament as the basis of their position. These include the end of 1 Corinthians 14, 1 Timothy 2-3, and Titus 1. When referring to pastoral qualifications in two of these passages, Paul specifically uses the Greek word “andra” which can only refer to a male, rather than choosing the Greek word “anthropos” which could be translated either as “man” or as “person.”

In another, it says that women may not “speak in the church.” In the original language of the Bible, there are three possible words to refer to speaking. One refers to all speaking, and another refers specifically to the act of preaching. The third, which is the one Paul uses, refers to public speaking, such as what is done while preaching, leading worship, and administering Sacraments. Additionally, “in the Church” an important phrase, because it refers specifically to the worship gathering, and does not include the organizational leadership of the congregation, or even the teaching of theology as an academic subject. Another verse prohibits women from occupying church leadership positions which place them in spiritual authority over men.

With the exception of churches within the Pentecostal/Charismatic segment of Christianity, whether a church has female clergy largely depends on how they view the Bible, specifically the verses mentioned above. Denominations which ordain only men as pastors typically view the Bible as being completely and literally given by God through the pen of human authors, and therefore correct in all it says. Denominations which do ordain women as pastors typically view the Bible as having been writing by humans, about God, possibly under divine guidance, but with the result that the Bible contains God’s Word rather than being God’s Word.

As a result, denominations with this view of Scripture have a practice, in this and other areas, which more closely reflects the values of their culture, because their method of interpretation allows the option to conclude that certain portions of the Bible are the opinion of their author rather than the command of God. Others may reason that it was God’s command then, but that His position has since changed. Still others may even propose that the specific books of the Bible which contain these verses may have been forged or corrupted over time rather than being authentic.

Ultimately, the question of “may women be pastors?” is inseparably tied with the question, “Did God really say…?”

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