Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Now That’s a Good Question!, pp. 271–272.
Some people view the controversy over women’s leadership in the church as simply a collision between two view points—one that espouses women’s liberation of one form or another, and the other, die-hard male chauvinism. But that’s a simplistic approach to the very controversial issue of women’s ordination.
In 1 Timothy 2:12, the apostle Paul sets forth the qualifications for church leadership, and he makes the statement, “I will not allow a woman to have authority over a man or to teach.” Now notice, he doesn’t say, “I will not allow a woman to be a pastor,” nor does he say, “I will not allow a woman to be ordained to ministry.” He says, “I will not allow a woman to have authority over men or to teach.” Therein lies the problem. The verb Paul uses in this passage that is translated “authority” occurs only once in the entire New Testament in this particular context. Because this word is only used once in the New Testament and rarely shows up in other Greek literature of that period that survives today, we’re not exactly sure what that word means. Even so, we struggle to be obedient to the guidelines and the restrictions for church government that are set forth in the New Testament.
I would say that Paul prohibits a woman from having some kind of authority. As I study the patterns of that in the New Testament, I think that what Paul is saying is that women can be involved in all kinds of functions of ministry in the church but that the role of juridical authority or of governing authority is not to be held by women. I would add that the overwhelming majority of New Testament scholars through the years have agreed with the position I have just stated. I know that in certain denominations, ordination means that a person has been given governing authority in the church. If the apostle prohibits that and if he prohibits it for all generations, then obviously the practice today or yesterday or tomorrow would be inconsistent with the apostolic authority and would therefore be inconsistent with the authority of Christ.
Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from the P&R edition of Truths We Confess, volume 2, p. 295.
I was originally ordained in the United Presbyterian Church, which later became part of the Presbyterian Church, USA. At the time of my ordination, that body ordained women to the offices of ruling elder and teaching elder (minister). I believed that this was in direct violation of Paul’s instructions regarding church officers in his first letter to Timothy, where he said that he would not allow a woman to have authority over a man (1 Tim. 2:12). For most of church history, the great majority of Christians believed that the apostolic mandate precluded women from holding the office of judicial authority in the church. That was why nearly all churches historically did not ordain women.
This issue became a crisis in the church that I was serving because the policy that I and others followed was that we would submit to women who were in positions of authority, but would not participate in their ordination. If we served on sessions where women were elected as elders, we would obey their judgments and honor and recognize the office that they held. We only asked to be excused from actually ordaining them ourselves. In other words, we said, “We believe it’s wrong to ordain women, so as a matter of conscience, we would ask to be excused from the ceremony of actually ordaining women. If the church sees fit to go ahead and ordain them, we don’t think that this issue is serious enough for us to depart from the church or to split the church over. We will live at peace with the church as a loyal minority.”
That worked well for decades until a general assembly established the requirement that all teaching and ruling elders had to participate in ordination ceremonies. That became a requirement for me, and for me to remain in good standing in the church, I had to be willing to do things that violated my conscience. I appealed for exemption and requested that I be allowed to continue in the ministry without prejudice, holding this scruple. The request was denied at a general assembly by a vote of seven hundred to thirteen. Had the church dealt with that matter according to the instructions of the New Testament, they would have considered me a weaker brother and allowed me to stay with my scruple—unless they regarded it as an essential matter of faith. I asked the stated clerk what I should do, and he told me that I had three options: (1) change my mind and submit, (2) await prosecution, or (3) exercise my right of peaceable withdrawal from the denomination. My presbytery accepted my peaceable withdrawal.