A reader of an earlier Fish Hooks (Pastors or Priests?) asked why some Christian denominations ordain women as pastors and others don’t. That’s a rather complex topic that has elements of both Biblical teaching and cultural traditions, and it’s difficult to sort them out to everyone’s satisfaction. So don’t expect ‘pat answers!’
During Old Testament times, this was a question that no Jew would have asked: according to God’s Law given to Moses on Mount Sinai, males descended from the tribe of Levi conducted the temple duties (Numbers 18). This was another of the distinctive ordinances that set the Jews apart from their pagan neighbors whose worship was often associated with fertility rites and sometimes included priestesses and temple prostitutes. But the Jews took things somewhat farther than was specifically commanded, in that it was the male responsibility to study and teach scripture, and thus local synagogue leadership was also exclusively male.
When the Temple was destroyed in AD 70, the function of the Jewish priesthood effectively ended, but the exclusive role of males as worship leaders continued. Since the 1920s Reform Judaism has authorized ordination of women as rabbis, and Conservative Judaism has taken tentative steps in this direction in the past few decades too (Orthodox Judaism remains male-only). These changes recognize that the role of women has changed – whereas it may once have been true that childbearing and childrearing were the crucial and indispensable roles of women in a God-fearing society, evolving roles for both men and women in our modern culture no longer dictates such separation of duties.
Within the Christian Church the pattern has been similar. For Christians, the need for a temple and a priesthood to conduct sacrifices ended when Jesus Christ became the all-sufficient sacrifice for all people and for all time – the true sacrifice for which the Jewish rituals for the forgiveness of sin were but a foreshadowing. In the New Covenant, God’s perfect sacrifice is offered to all the people of the world, and the special requirements designed to differentiate the people of the Old Covenant are no longer required of those living in the New Covenant.
But it’s probably no surprise that the emerging Christian movement largely adapted the male-only traditions of the Jewish faith from which it sprang. And similarly, it has been only within the past century that Christian denominations, like our Jewish friends, have seriously questioned whether there should be any differentiation of men’s and women’s roles in the Church and, not surprisingly, this has been controversial!
Though there is no specific Biblical ordinance which forbids women from serving in the kind of leadership roles practiced in the Christian Church (and as we have seen, the Jewish priestly function is no longer relevant), there are some who will argue that God intended different roles for the genders as can be inferred from the Genesis account of creation (Genesis 2:20-23). However, Christians also point to “There is … no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28) as a very clear statement that God does not make spiritual distinctions by gender.
So the question typically comes down to how Christians understand the practices of the early church described in the New Testament. The Apostle Paul famously said “the women should keep silent in the churches” (1 Corinthians 14:34) and in this and similar passages (e.g., 1 Timothy 2:12) Paul seems to reinforce the traditional subservient role of women in Jewish worship. But Paul also provides guidance for how women should speak in worship (1 Corinthians 11:4-5) and specifically mentions women who were apparently active leaders in the church (e.g., Romans 16:1). The mention of the husband-wife team of Prisca and Aquilla as prominent evangelists (Romans16:3) and teachers (Acts 18:26) is notable for the fact that Paul states her name first, an unusual practice indicating that she was the team leader. So it is today understood by many that Paul’s apparent admonitions against women’s leadership were more about decorum, propriety, and offending the sensibilities of Jewish converts. Consequently, though the discussion continues, many Protestant denominations, such as ours, do recognize men and women on an equal footing in Church leadership.