by HyeRan Kim-Cragg
The 2017 General Council theme “Living God, renew and transform us” points to the Divine Spirit at work among us. While this General Council marks a historic event, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the theme is not only about a commemoration of the past but about a celebration of the present that is oriented toward the future. God is not static and we are called to discern a call that is dynamic, challenging us to be faithful and prophetic today and in the days to come. The theme also captures our imagination with a vision of the Kin-dom of God that is here and now. We imagine a transformed world, a radically different world, even though we recognize the broken and unjust reality in which we live. Women’s ordination is one such reality, a reality yearning for fulfillment.
What is at stake?
The issue of women’s ordination has been viewed as a church-dividing issue. But is it? Should the issue of women’s ordination become the issue that polarizes the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC)? Can we be in communion when certain members of the communion are being kept from using their Spirit-gifts to build up the Body of Christ and to share fully in God’s mission in the world? Does Scripture restrict the scope and nature of women’s ordination on the basis of gender? What does God, the Living God, require of us in this matter?
1. The issue of women’s ordination is more than a church doctrine issue.
The ordination of women issue derives from a biblical witness, manifested in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. How Jesus treated women, men and children matters. Equally important is the context. Christian faith does not exist in a vacuum. Our church is in the world. It is not an option for the church to not engage with the world, its brokenness and its wholeness. Our faith is influenced by our own contexts, which are culturally and socially bound. Connecting the biblical witness with the contexts means that as social conditions change, the weight and meaning of particular passages may change as well. It is critical to know this as a limitation but at the same time a reference point. The following story from the United Church of Canada may be a good example of how women’s ordination issue should be looked at biblically and contextually:
Case study: The United Church of Canada’s Story
Lydia Gruchy was the first ordained woman in the United Church of Canada in 1936. She was also the first woman student studying theology at the Presbyterian Theological College (now St. Andrew’s College, Saskatoon) in 1920. Upon her graduation in 1923 she was sent to work with children in Verigin, Saskatchewan. Soon she was leading worship services there and in 1926 Kamsack Presbytery requested her ordination. When a motion was made at the 1926 General Council (the first Council after the church union as the United Church of Canada) to grant this request, the “meeting exploded.”
The Christian social context of the 1920s through the 1950s strongly opposed the idea of women working in the public sphere. Contextually speaking, the idea of ordaining women was difficult to accept in Canada at that time, probably other places as well. It was virtually impossible to imagine women as equals to men in public positions. In this context it is possible to understand why the General Council of 1926 “exploded” with this issue, and it took 10 years for Gruchy to be ordained. Even in the decades following her ordination it was a long and difficult road for women (especially married women) to be ordained. However, there is another factor that needs to be named here. It is the context of the post-World War I and II. Not only did Canadians lose so many young men, but they also witnessed the old family order fall apart. As a matter of fact, Lydia’s brother, who was a very promising theology student, was killed during World War I. Wartime saw many women taking jobs that used to belong to men in public places. These losses and the great societal changes that occurred through this period made the call for the ordination of women something that could be imagined.
Let us go back to 1926. The 1926 General Council constituted a Committee on the Ordination of Women with instructions to report to the 1928 General Council. This report came in 1928 and offered biblical references of some New Testament passages concerning women and public leadership in the church. It asserted that according to the gospels, Jesus considered men and women to be spiritually equal. It then quoted the writings of Paul. The report cited 1 Corinthians 2:5 and Galatians 3:26-28 to show how women and men exercised leadership as equals in the early church. It also noted passages attributed to Paul which restricted the ministries women might exercise in the church, such as 1 Corinthians 14:34-36. By reading these different passages together, the report undermined the binding authority that these latter passages would have if cited alone. Here is an instance of different passages from Scripture being used to help determine the relative weight or meaning of a passage in question.
Biblically speaking, two insights can be gleaned from this report. One is the ambiguity of Scripture, which sometimes contains contradicting views. Paul spoke of women as equals to his fellow workers and leaders in one place. But in another place and to a different audience he downplayed women’s roles in the church. While the Bible is the inspired Word of God, it is not to be taken literally because of its ambiguity and ambivalence. The second insight is that we as interpreters of the Bible have evangelical freedom to counterbalance the weight of passages that have come to be seen as going against the underlying tenor of biblical revelation on such particular issues as women’s ordination. Evangelical freedom is the freedom Christians have to go beyond established practices or understandings of the faith in response to the gospel. The general orientation of teachings by Jesus and that of Paul in Galatians 3 were invoked to relativize the explicit teachings of some biblical passages (e.g., Ephesians 5:21-33; 1 Timothy 2:9-15) as no longer binding in detail.
The United Church of Canada’s story shows how we can learn from our foremothers and forefathers of faith who took a biblically sound position that led to a prophetic, counter-cultural call to justice, a call to the inclusion of women in ordained ministry. The North American culture of the 1920s through 1950s opposed the public role of women, such as in leadership in churches. Yet, this particular church heeded a biblical call against the pervasive reading of its own cultural context by discerning God’s voice in the Bible. The life and the ministry of Jesus as the Word of God incarnate was the guiding principle of how they as a community of faith felt they must address the issue of women’s ordination.
2. The issue of women’s ordination is more than an issue of tradition.
It is no longer sufficient to approve or oppose women’s ordination simply on the grounds that the church has done so or has not in the past. Rather Christians must engage in theological anthropology, a study of what it means to be human in relation to God. The 2017 General Council confesses belief in God as a living God, and not a God in the past only. Its theme directly points at “us,” with whom God made a covenant and to whom God called. It is “us” who are to be renewed and transformed both as individual human beings and as a community. To point to “us” is also to recognize that our human relationship is broken. The Divine Spirit grieved because of our rebellion (Isaiah 63:10) and Jesus wept over the city of Jerusalem (Luke 19:41) because we disobeyed God by allowing ourselves to treat women to be unequal to men. Where does this inequality come from? Is there any theological justification that women are subordinate to men?
To respond to this, we must go back to the beginning of how humans were created in the Bible. The creation story in Genesis has two different, seemingly opposite, versions. Genesis 1 clearly tells that God created both female and male in the image of God, pointing to the equality of men and women. Chapter 2 has a different account. God created a man first, and then a woman was created out of this man’s ribs. The latter account has served to justify the inferiority of women, placing women in a secondary place relative to men.
While these two accounts seem contradictory this is not the case when one examines the biblical meanings of the following two words—that is, ezer (helper) and adam (humanity). The word ezer comes when God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner” (Genesis 2:18). Biblical scholars have sought out other uses of ezer through the Bible. The word appears 29 times in the Hebrew Scriptures and it mostly appears when referring to God. In the case of God being our helper (i.e., Exodus 18:4; Deuteronomy 33:7; Psalm 20:2, 33:20), this word ezer is used. Thus the first woman as the helper does not imply her subordination to men or a secondary status as far as the biblical witness is concerned. Furthermore, right after the helper is mentioned God called the woman a “partner,” that is an equal companion to the man.
The other important word is adam, which is often taken for the name of the first man in the Bible. However, in Genesis 1:26-27, adam refers to the human person or humanity of both female and male. It may be argued that a singular noun that represents both female and male genders emphasizes human unity in diversity. Male and female are created together for partnership with one another and with God as part of God’s desire to bless the whole world.
In short, a theological anthropology out of both the Genesis 1 and 2 affirms relationality. As human beings we are related to one another and to God. We cannot live alone. God saw this at the very beginning. Not only do we need God but also we need each other. As much as we try to deceive ourselves that we are independent, capable of doing things alone, we know from the bottom of our heart that we must depend on each other. As much as the world, our economic and social system, endorses hierarchy and inequality as the status quo, we as people of faith know that that is not God’s way. We know from the bottom of our heart that we cannot live fully until the unequal relationships are broken down and mended.
3. To affirm women’s ordination is to declare the priesthood of all believers not only with words but also with actions.
Not ordaining women in public ministry may be status quo, and for some, it may look even natural, following the long-standing tradition in church history. But it is not what God requires of us. We must listen, listen to God calling us to repent and to renew so that we would be transformed, taking a prophetic step, beholding a world that is constituted with equality and justice. From the very beginning, when God created “us,” both female and male in the image of God, God said, “it was very good.”
There are many stories of women in the leadership roles throughout the history of the church so it is ironic that women’s ordination is still strongly opposed in many churches. One may imagine an undercurrent of living water moving beneath the frozen ice above. Though the reality looks fixed and static, this frozen water is bound to melt and move with the current below eventually. There are plenty of exemplary Christian women whose public leadership in church and society bears witness to the spiritual gifts with which God endowed them. Churches in our communion have confirmed that the Holy Spirit is indeed calling women to ordained ministries and through them equipping the members of the church to be light and salt of the earth.
In the early church, before it succumbed to the lure of power, there were many amazing women leaders. Here are a few examples. St. Perpetua was educated and was a teacher for the church. She is the author of the earliest extant extra-biblical teaching material. When she was 21 years old, like many other martyrs of her day, she was held in prison in the Coliseum and eventually murdered in 203.*
By the medieval era, the only official role available to women in the church was that of a nun. Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) devoted her life entirely to know the mind of Christ. She recorded 16 experiential visions from God, which were about the creation and fall, the crucifixion of Christ and grace. Her writings are the first of any English woman.* The church historian Jane Douglas claims that Christine de Pisan, a lay woman who lived around the turn of the 15th century, set off a centuries-long literary debate about the nature of women in which she challenged the theologians’ assumptions.
The Reformation took place. Marie Dentiere in the early years of the Reformation in Geneva took up this debate, insisting that the liberating Gospel called on women to speak and write, and she did, according to Douglas. Katherine Zell (1497-1562) met and married Mathew Zell, a Catholic priest, and together carried on ministry in partnership with one another. The Catholic Church ex-communicated him for his marriage, but the Lutheran church took him in. When their marriage began to hurt their ministry, Katherine wrote and published a well-argued biblical defense for their marriage. Later it was commended by Martin Luther.*
In North America Phoebe Palmer (1807-1874), though married to Walter Palmer, pledged her life to the promotion of holiness. In 1835, Phoebe and her sister established a women’s prayer meeting, and in two years this became the start of a renewal that would eventually impact all of American Methodism. She was well known for her exhortations and preaching. Her influence was advanced by her writings. She critiqued the church by remarking that it had buried women’s gifts in a Potter’s Field. This field is referenced in Matthew 27:1-10, pointing to a land to bury foreigners purchased with the money Judas received for the betrayal of Jesus.*
Many missionaries went out all over the world in the 19th century. While their attitude was often colonial and oppressive, some of their evangelization work was illuminating and liberating in terms of women’s education. Jeong-Shin Yang was one beneficiary from this education. Born in northern Korea, she became blind at age six due to illness. She was invited to go to a school for the blind that missionaries from North America had built. Despite her physical disability, she was enabled through this school to go on to study medicine in Japan and theology in the USA in the 1940s and 1950s. She became the first ordained woman in the Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea in 1977.
It is nothing surprising to note that the church lost its vitality when it lost sight of the equality of women and men. Once the church was established and institutionalized, it exercised its power like an imperial state. As the church became the dominant power in society, the role of women was pushed to the margin. Attempts were made to silence women to the point that they were murdered such as in the witch hunts of the inquisition. But as we have listed above, there were strong and faithful women who the church failed to silence. These women form a cloud of faithful witnesses, watching over “us,” who were called by God. This same God, this Living God, is calling us to open a new chapter of the WCRC history.
*Source taken from Shannon Nicole Smythe, Women in Ministry.