Skip to main content

Brief Thoughts on Women’s Ordination, Homosexuality, and Slavery

I teach Biblical ethics.  Each year I do so, I wonder whether I should put on the list of topics to consider ‘women in ministry’.  We always discuss sexual ethics—particularly homosexuality, given challenges to orthopraxy in the West in our day on this topic.  But does a discussion of women in ministry belong in a course on ethics in the same way that a topic like homosexuality does?  Is it not more a matter of 'polity'?

The answer is in part what we understand by ‘ethics’.  Too often, we think of ethics as ‘quandary ethics’—what should we do when faced with challenging circumstances?  This approach to ethics is all about major challenges and struggles: abortion when a mother’s life is in danger, going to war when faced with a major, evil force like the Nazis or Isis, or homosexuality—a challenge in a different way given that some clergy and scholars are challenging the long-standing teaching of the Church in our day.  

Yet ethics is more than quandary ethics.  It is also, and much more, about how we should live, day by day.  It is about the character we should work to develop, not just the responses we should give when faced with crises and tragedy.  And so, this raises the question, ‘what is the role and status of men, women, children, pastors, missionaries, etc. in the home and/or the church?’  That is a more day-to-day sort of question, a ‘How shall we live?’ question rather than a ‘How shall we respond?’ question.

Ethics, moreover, could be seen in terms of what we should not do because we are God’s people.  It could be seen as ‘the sin list’ of things someone does not do if one is going to enter the Kingdom of God.  Scripture clearly teaches that certain acts and behaviours will exclude someone from the Kingdom of God—homosexuality being one of them.  But being an ordained woman for ministry (parish or bishop) or missions is not something that will exclude someone from the Kingdom of God!  The person doing the ordaining will not be excluded, and the person being ordained and serving in such a ministry is not excluded.  Ethics understood in this way would cover the issue of homosexuality, but it would not cover the issue of women’s ordination.

It would, however, cover the issue of slavery.  Paul extends the 8th Commandment, ‘You shall not steal’, to cover the slave trade in 1 Timothy 1.10.  Stealing people and enslaving them is an ethical matter--one that, like homosexuality, will exclude one from the Kingdom of God.  That is rather serious!--nothing like having a woman priest!  Similarly, Revelation 18.13 speaks of the things to be destroyed in the wicked economy of the Roman Empire, and the list concludes with ‘slaves, that is, human souls’.  A simple word with profound significance.  Up to 1/3 of the Roman Empire may have consisted of slaves—a system of ‘stealing’ people’s lives, a system that contributed largely to the engine of the Roman economy.  (Mind you, this was different from the economic model of the Old South in the USA during the days of slavery as slavery in the Roman Empire was not largely an agrarian workforce.)

Women’s ministry may, however, be a subject related to ethical issues if not an ethical issue in itself.  It may, for instance, be a pragmatic issue with ethical implications.  Take away the car, the grocery store down the road, the 1.5 child family planning, the equal education of females and males, and so forth of Western society and get back into the warp and woof of ancient society, and you will have to start thinking differently about roles and family.  Paul’s warnings in the Pastoral Epistles include concerns about women easily duped by false teaching: this was a day when girls were not educated.  His suggestion that women (including young widows) marry rather than follow the false teachers’ teaching not to marry was pragmatic: don’t set yourself up for sexual immorality by staying unmarried if you do not have the gift of celibacy.  His recommendation that women focus on childbearing and rearing is a call to familial rather than ecclesial ministry (though elderly widows may have an ecclesial ministry of care and prayer).  Think about it: a family with five children needs a mother, not an absent mother running around in ministry leaving the children to a maid.  Sure, this has implications for absent fathers in ministry, too, but the point is that a push for pastoral roles for women in the 1st century may have been neither here nor there ethically in itself, but it could have ethical implications, like the proper care of children in the family.

Finally, the role and status of women in ministry can raise questions of role differentiation in ethics.  The egalitarian movement in the West since the sexual revolution in the 1960s in particular came, by the 1990s, to raise questions about role differentiation more generally.  Not just equal work opportunities and pay, not just ordination, but now, perhaps especially, gender fluidity itself.  Surprise, surprise, this is not a new issue.  It was an issue in the 1st century as well.  Just here, the issue of women’s dress and ordination becomes an issue of ethics, not just style and ecclesiastical polity.  1 Corinthians 11.2-16 is not some relic of antiquity about the dress of women in that era.  It is a passage about an ethical concern over gender confusion.  Paul responds by insisting that the two genders (there are only two, by the way) God created must not be confused.  The same concern is present in 1 Timothy 2.9-15.  Women are to dress like women—modest women, at that.  Men are to wear their hair as men do, not as homosexuals with long hair (that is the issue about long hair—not simply a matter of hairstyles).  The differentiation of roles must be maintained, even if different societies and ethnic groups distinguish genders differently.

Thus—speaking strictly on the matter of gender differentiation—it may be perfectly fine in Uganda, for example, for women to be ordained to ministry.  The culture there is not experiencing the gender confusion of the West.  Ordaining women in this context may not cause people to think that women are acting like or being treated like men.  In our day in the West, men might have long hair and people will not think that they are transgender or homosexual, but if your male priest showed up to worship with high heels and a purse, you’d think otherwise.  'Nature itself teaches us' that this is wrong (1 Cor. 11.14; not the particular way a person is dressed but what it signifies about gender differentiation in that culture).  Surprisingly, then, in the egalitarian West, women’s ordination may be an ethical problem, but in Uganda it might not be.  In the West, the issue of gender confusion has created an ethical quandary: is women’s ordination not like affirming homosexuality in that both are examples of gender confusion, a failure to differentiate roles?  If the matter is an ethical issue in Uganda, it might be more an issue of family ethics: who is properly raising the children?  Pentecostals, incidentally, may think of ordination as an empowering by God for a call from God to a task only God can accomplish.  Ordination is not an office or status but a role that nobody in their own strength will be able to accomplish without the power of God at work in and through the minister.  On such an understanding, gender issues are somewhat irrelevant: all ministers are unqualified to the task, and God’s use of such persons only shows that, when we are weak, we are strong because of His power at work in us.

So, yes, women’s ordination will be on the syllabus next time around for the ethics course.  But it won’t be there because ordained women or those ordaining them are immoral.  This is a very different issue from homosexuality or the slave trade.  Learning to distinguish these issues is a good exercise for students on the course—and for all of us, for that matter.  When, in the West, people think that the issues of slavery, women’s status and ordination, and homosexuality are related in that social ethics are thought to be all about the increasing advance of freedom, they simply do not understand the differences between the issues and the different approach to ethics in Scripture.  Instead, they are thinking like Westerners in the 21st century.