Ordination of Women

One of the ethical issues that you need to consider is the debates about the ordination of women.

The current situation:

Women cannot become priests in the Roman Catholic Church or the Orthodox Churches.  However, they can be ordained within many (though not all) Protestant Churches.  Women were first ordained in Methodist Churches in the nineteenth century.  The Salvation Army has always ordained women.  Some Baptist traditions ordain women, but others do not.  The Church of England synod (ruling body) voted in 1992 to ordain women but the winning margin was only two votes. 

What is a priest?

In the Old Testament the Israelite tribe of Levi were priests of Yahweh.  Their role was to act as a mediator (go-between) between God and man.  They took the people's sacrifices into the sanctuary of the temple (where only a priest was allowed to go) and offered them to God on the people's behalf.  

The priesthood are given their authority by the idea of Apostolic Succession.  Jesus chose his disciples and passed on to them his teaching.  He then commissioned them to 'go make disciples of all nations.' The disciples then chose their successors and passed on their authority. This means that (theoretically) current priests would be able to trace an unbroken line back from their own ordination to Jesus himself.  

This idea of the priest as a mediator is reflected in the Roman Catholic idea of a priest who hears confession and passes absolution as God's representative.  In marriage when the priest marries a couple his words are believed to be God's words.  The sacramental priest (who performs the sacraments) is an essential part of Catholicism.

However, many Protestants have a slightly different understanding of the priesthood.  They would argue that Jesus is the 'one high priest' of God who mediates between God and man.  Thus no further priest is necessary.  However, most Protestants continue to have 'ministers' who are usually still ordained into that role.  The minister's job is to minister to their parishioners, to look after their spiritual needs and to teach them and guide worship.

The key points of debate:


Traditionalists argue that in a communion service the priest represents Jesus and as Jesus was male only a man can represent Jesus adequately.  Furthermore, they argue that leadership and spiritual authority is fitting for a man, but not for a woman as man was created first.  The fact that women are expected to obey men within marriage demonstrates this.  Specific Biblical teachings seem to be incompatible with women being priests.  For example, 1 Corinthians 14 says that women should remain silent in church and in 1 Timothy women are told that they must learn in silence and full submission and may not have authority over a man.  Traditionalists often point out that Jesus had only male disciples which implies that he did not think that women would be suited to that task.  Traditionalists would usually stress that women are equally valuable to men but that they are better suited to some roles than others.  


Those in favour of female ordination would say that women are perfectly capable of performing the functions associated with being a priest.  Women can preach, teach, pray, provide pastoral care etc and thus can do the job of priest just as well as a man can.  They might argue that women have a right to serve God in this way. The fact that many women feel that they have a vocation (are called by God) to be priests might be further evidence for their suitability to the role.  

  • They might respond to the points made by the traditionalists by saying that the priest only represents Jesus - they are not supposed to be identical to him - therefore a woman can do that just as well.  They might argue (as Ruether has) that Jesus' maleness was accidental rather than essential to his nature.  
  • The point about man being made first would be seen as irrelevant to many who support women's ordination.  In the Genesis 1 story the implication is that both are made together.  Trible has suggested that the language suggests that God made a human and then created gender.  Many people do not accept the historical accuracy of the Genesis account anyway.  
  • Whilst it is true that there are some passages in the Bible that do say that women must remain silent in Church, there are others that make it clear that they could speak.  It is possible the the 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy texts were written in response to specific circumstances.  More likely is that they were just a product of their patriarchal time and thus no longer relevant (like the teachings that condone slavery and condemn homosexuality.  Most people who support women's ordination would say that the Church has to be willing to modernise and adapt or it will become outdated and irrelevant.  
  • The same argument could be made in reference to the disciples.  Jesus was restricted by the age he lived in.  If he had chosen women as disciples then perhaps he would have been less likely to have been listened to in that day and age.  The indications are that he did have close female followers.  Certain women (like Mary of Bethany) are mentioned repeatedly and the resurrection accounts mention 'the women who had followed him from Galilee'.  Some feminists have suggested that Jesus did have female disciples but that these were 'written out' by the gospel writers.  
  • Finally, those supporting female ordination would argue that the idea of 'equal but different' is incoherent.  It does not reflect true equality as true equality includes allowing people to do the same thing.  To permit the priesthood (an authoritative position) only to men is not in any sense equal.

Biblical teachings:

Part of the reason why the different denominations disagree about whether or not women can be priests is the ambiguity of the Biblical texts.

Biblical evidence that could be used to oppose women priests includes the following:


  • Gospels Jesus only had male disciples.
  • 1 Corinthians 14 says that women should remain silent in Church and that if they have any questions they should ask their husbands at home.
  • 1 Timothy 2:12 is a key text.  It says 'But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet,  For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve.'

However, there are also verses that could be used to support the ordination of women.


  • Gospels although Jesus only had male disciples he did have female followers.  Mary of Bethany 'sat at his feet' to learn from him as a disciple might.
  • Galatians 3:28 says 'In Christ there is ... no male or female...for all are one in Christ.'
  • Romans 16 Paul recommended Phoebe 'I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me. Greet Prisca and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus. They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them.'
  • Philippians 2:2-3 Paul recommended other women who he had worked with.  'I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.'

The Romans text is the most interesting, but also the most ambiguous.  The word 'deacon' is diakanos in Greek and means 'servant'.  So Paul could just have been describing Phoebe as someone who helps out.  However, by the second century (i.e. later than Paul was writing) it was an ordained role within the Church.  Therefore, Phoebe might have been a priest (in some form).  Even if she did have an ordained ministry we do not know what type of ministry.  She might have had a ministry just to other women or she might have had a more universal ministry.  The role of Prisca (aka Priscilla) is equally ambiguous.  Paul described her as a 'co-worker' which might imply that she was an apostle like he was.  In Acts she and Aquilla take a Jewish Christian named Apollos back to their house and teach him about Jesus.  Yet the term co-worker might be used because she shared his profession (tent-maker).

The debate in the early years of Christian history:

Christian writers like Irenaeus, Tertullian, John Chrysostom and Augustine (among others) all condemned the idea of female ordination.  Tertullian, when writing about heretics (those who had gone against official Church teaching) wrote:

'And the heretical women themselves, how shameless are they! They make bold to teach, to debate, to work exorcisms, to undertake cures'

Tertullian Demurrer Against the Heretic (C.E. 200)

'It is not permissible for a woman to speak in church, nor may she teach, baptize, offer, or claim for herself any function proper to a man, and least of all the office of priest.”

Tertullian The Veiling of Virgins (C.E. 206)

John Chrysostom said that when considering who would be suitable for ordination most men and 'the whole female sex must retire before the magnitude of the task'. (i.e. only a few men would be suitable).

In addition to individual theologians, Church Councils also pronounced against women priests.

'...the so-called ‘presbyteresses’ or ‘presidentesses’ are not to be ordained in the Church'

Council of Laodicea Canon 11 (C.E. 360).

Deaconesses were permitted.  But the role of the deaconess was different to that of the deacon and was not the same as an ordained priest.

'It is true that in the Church there is an order of deaconesses, but not for being a priestess, nor for any kind of work of administration, but for the sake of the dignity of the female sex, either at the time of baptism or of examining the sick or suffering, so that the naked body of a female may not be seen by men administering sacred rites, but by the deacon.'

Epiphanius of Salamis Against Heresies (C.E. 377)

For much of Christian history, the idea of women priests has been opposed and many traditionalists argue that it has always been this way and should not be changed.  However, reconstructionist writers like Elaine Pagels argue that whilst these sources condemn female ordination they are indirect evidence that it women were priests (there would be no reason to condemn it if it was not being done). She suggest that early Christianity included a variety of different practices and she argues that the things labelled as 'heretical' by the writers above might actually have been more true to Jesus' original message.

Recent Roman Catholic statement: Ordinatio Sacerdotalis

The Roman Catholic Church does not permit women to become priests.  In the Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (subtitled 'on reserving the priestly ordination to men alone') Pope John Paul II made the following arguments against female ordination.

  • The priesthood has always been just for men.
  • Jesus chose only male disciples.
  • Women have a different - but equally important - role (motherhood).
  • They can also be witnesses, holy martyrs and testify to their faith.

He stressed that Jesus was not restricted by the cultural norms of his day and age but 'chose whom he willed' and 'acted in a completely free and sovereign manner'.  This means that his choice of only male disciples was deliberate.

One particular phrase in the Ordinatio Sacerdotalis caused a lot of comment. Pope John Paul II wrote:

'Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church's divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgement is to be definitively heard by all the Church's faithful.'

Doctrine of papal infallibility = pope cannot be wrong when he speaks ex cathedra,  It is based on the idea that God would not let the Pope be wrong on key moral issues!

Although the Pope did not use the phrase 'ex cathedra' many theologians and church members believed that the phrasing implied that this was said infallibly - which would make it very difficult for the Catholic Church to change its stance on the matter.  In practice, many individual Catholics do support the ordination of women.

Roman Catholics for the ordination of women:

In 1994 a Roman Catholic nun named Lavinia Byrne wrote a book entitled 'Women at the Altar' arguing for the ordination of women.  She made the following points:

'In days when exclusively male leadership has been abandoned in other walks of life, it seems undeniable that this representative role of the priest may actually be weakened by a solely male priesthood.'

'I believe there are many women who possess these priestly qualities and whose ability to bring men and women to God is tempered by the kind of tough gentleness which nourishes families and challenges the overbearing.'

'The ordination of women to the priesthood is the logical conclusion of all the recent work of Catholic theology about women and, in particular, about the holiness of all the baptized.  It is not an aberration from what the church teaches.'

Lavinia Byrne Women at the Altar 1994

The response to this book eventually caused Byrne to leave her convent and break ties with Rome.  Yet she is far from being a lone voice within Catholicism.

The Women's Ordination Conference (US group) and Catholic Women's Ordination (UK group) are two of the leading pro-women's ordination groups. Both their websites contain useful resources.  The Catholic Women's Ordination webpage has a summary of why women should be priests.  It can be found here. The US site has a similar (but a bit more detailed) very clear response to some of the central arguments against women priests.  The first section of that article can be found here.

This article makes the following points:

  • Jesus did not make women apostles because this would not have been appropriate in that day and age.  However, cultures change and the Church has had to rule on many issues for which Jesus did not provide explicit guidance.
  • The priest represents Jesus' role as mediator.  His maleness is unimportant as that is not the part being represented.
  • Just because it has always been that way does not mean that it should continue to be that way.  The Church has had to develop on certain issues before.
  • There is evidence that women were priests in the Early Church.
  • Women served as priests in underground secret churches that existed in Communist Czechoslovakia.

Crucially, they state that:

'Popes made mistakes in the past despite the guidance of the Holy Spirit. They have defended doctrines and practices which have afterwards proven erroneous. Thankfully, many of these errors have been nullified by other popes or councils. Most certainly, further corrections will be forthcoming.'

Women's Ordination Conference.  'Why Ordination?'

However, whilst some Catholics might think that there is room to challenge John Paul II's statements it seems unlikely that this will happen in the next few years.  As reported in the Catholic Herald, Pope Francis I has declared the issue of women's ordination 'closed'.

'With regards to the ordination of women, the church has spoken and says no. Pope John Paul said so with a formula that was definitive. That door is closed.'

Pope Francis I speaking in 2013

That said, he has also stated 'We cannot limit the role of women in the Church to altar girls or the president of a charity, there must be more.' Which does imply that he values the potential contributions of women and is aware of the shortcomings of the Church's response.

Recent Church of England debates:

In 1994 the Church of England ordained its first women priests.  However, as early as 1975 the General Synod (the ruling body of the Church) had issued a statement saying:

 'That this Synod considers that there are no fundamental objections to the ordination of women to the priesthood'.

Since then the numbers of women priests have been steadily growing and in 2010 more women were ordained than men. As yet the Church of England does not have women bishops.  In 2012 a vote on women bishops failed to get the required two thirds majority.  In 2013 the Church voted again, gained the majority necessary to make the change and it is likely that the Church of England will have women bishops by the end of the year.

Anti-female ordination Anglians:

Their website is here and contains some 

Not all those within the Church of England are happy with the Church's support for female ordination.  A group called 'Reform' are an evangelical group of Christians from within the Church of England who campaign for what they consider to be reforms of C of E practices.  They are opposed to female ordination.  On their website they set out the key points of their case against women priests.  One of the issues they address is the case of women in the Early Church.

'Some advocates of women bishops quote parts of the Old Testament where particular women are in leadership roles, and parts of the New, where women have key roles. It is quite true that God raised up particular women in the Old Testament for particular times and purposes, but this never flowed through to the institutional arrangements in the priesthood. These remained male. In the New Testament, a number of women did indeed have a crucial role in the development of the early church: they hosted meetings in their homes; provided financial support; were active in evangelism, prophecy and prayer; and were co-workers with Paul. However, their ministries never included leadership of the local congregation. Nevertheless, it is clear that without the ministry of women, the church would never have developed in the first place.'

Reform website.

Relating this to people you have studied:

Liberal/equality feminists:

Secular liberal feminists like Mary Wollstonecraft and Harriet Taylor argued that male/female difference was largely down to upbringing.  Taylor in particular advocated equal access to jobs to ensure jobs go to those who perform them best.  On that basis, female ordination fits with liberal feminist aims.

Liberal feminist theologians like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Phyllis Trible and the earlier work of Rosemary Radford Ruether tend to stress the idea that the core biblical teachings promote equality.  By emphasising the patriarchal nature of the way the stories have been handed down they provide a rationale for ignoring (or re-evaluating) key texts used to oppose the ordination of women.

Reconstructionist/reform feminists:

Elizabeth Schusslier Fiorenza and Rosemary Radford Ruether in their later work both promote the search for the overlooked women in the Bible.  Schussler Fiorenza's 'creative actualisation' and investigation into women in the Early Church and Ruether's rediscovery of the feminine traditions within the divine both provide justification for the ordination of women.

Radical feminists:

The issue of women's ordination was fundamental to Mary Daly's eventual rejection of Christianity.  In her first book 'The Church and the Second Sex' (1968) she had argued that women needed to be given equality within the Church, but she eventually came to the conclusion that Christianity was inherently and irredeemably patriarchal and should be rejected.  She stated that:

'...a woman asking for equality within the Church would be comparable to a black person demanding equality in the Klu Klux Klan.'


Evaluation for this section is largely a matter of looking at the key differences of opinion and decide who convinces you and why.  Make up your mind on the following:

  • Can a female priest represent a male Jesus?
  • Does it matter that Jesus only chose male disciples?
  • Should the Church always do what the Church has always done?
  • Is it a woman's 'right' to be ordained?
  • Did Jesus stand up for women's rights?
  • Can a woman fulfil the role of priest?
  • If the Bible says women should remain silent in Church then should they?
  • Are Phoebe, Prisca/Priscilla, Mary, Euodia and Syntyche significant?

In order to answer the last question you might want to do a bit more research about women in the Bible to see what different scholars think terms like 'diakonos' and 'co-worker' actually meant.

Further Reading:

Women's Ordination Conference (Catholic, US based) found here.

Catholic Women's Ordination (UK based) found here.

BBC Q/A Women Bishops in the C of E debate found here.

Interesting article on the women mentioned by Paul which sites a range of scholarly articles here.  Good overview of all the women mentioned by Paul here.