Women In Ministry

October 2014 Pulse

On 14 July this year, the General Synod of the Church of England voted to allow women to become bishops. This decision, which was made some twenty years after the Anglican Church ordained its first women priests in 1992, has finally and completely overturned centuries of tradition.

The Synod’s decision must of course be approved by Parliament in November before it becomes official. Speaking to the BBC before the historic vote, the Most Rev Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury said that to the public, the exclusion of women is ‘almost incomprehensible’.

Be that as it may, the role of women in the Church has been and still is subjected to much debate in contemporary Christianity. Complementarians (or traditionalists, as they are sometimes called) have long argued that the ordained minister is the representative of Christ. Since Christ was male, so the argument goes, the ordained clergy who represents him must also be male. According to this view, a woman can never be said to be an ‘image’ (Greek: eikon) of Christ.

This is the teaching of both the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches. In a 1994 Apostolic Letter entitled Ordinatio Sacredotalis (Priestly Ordination), Pope John Paul II declared that the ‘Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful’.

A year later, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), then Prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, issued a statement which insisted that this ‘teaching require definitive assent’ because it is ‘founded on the written Word of God, and from the beginning constantly preserved and applied in the Tradition of the Church’.

There is a profound sense in which the ordained minister does represent Christ, especially in the celebration of the Eucharist. The question has to do with how the Church should understand this. In what sense is the clergy the representative of Christ? And does this representation require the ordained minister to bear a bodily or biological resemblance to Jesus?

As we have seen, traditionalists’ answer to this question is unequivocal: the ordained minister must bear a physical resemblance to Jesus (i.e., he must be male because Jesus was male). But is it not perhaps more theologically sound to argue that the minister represents Christ orally and not physically? Thus, in the celebration of the Eucharist, the celebrant represents Christ by repeating his words of invitation, that is, by serving as the mouthpiece for the risen and ascended Lord.

The ordained minister can represent Christ because he or she is created in the image and likeness of God, of which Christ is of course the perfect exemplar. This fundamentally means that ordained ministers represent Christ in their humanness, not in their gender. This view is further supported by the orthodox understanding of the Incarnation, according to which the eternal Word took upon himself fallen human flesh in order to bring salvation to all humans, male as well as female. If this argument is basically sound, it follows that the Church should never exclude women from the ordained ministry!

The question of the role of women in the ministry is also debated among evangelicals, some of whom argue that women should be excluded from ministry – especially leadership roles in the Church – on biblical grounds. Complementarians have customarily appealed to 1 Timothy 2:12 as the biblical basis for excluding women in the teaching ministry and in leadership.

While Paul this passage does prohibit women from teaching and exercising authority, many scholars are of the view that his instruction is directed only at the church at Ephesus where the young Timothy served as pastor. In giving this instruction, Paul uses the indicative instead of the imperative verb. This suggests that the instruction was purposed to address a specific problem that had arisen in the Ephesian church. As Stanley Grenz and Denise Kjesbo have rightly argued, the present indicative indicates that ‘Paul is not voicing a timeless command, but a temporary directive applicable to a specific situation: “I am presently not allowing”’.

Furthermore, while Paul speaks of ‘a woman’ in the passage, many scholars think that he is in fact referring to a group of women. These women were probably influenced by false teaching and were eager to promote it in the Ephesian congregation. This is probably why Paul alluded to Eve, who was deceived by the serpent in the Garden (1 Tim 2:14).

It is also in this context that Paul’s instruction that women should not have authority over men should be understood. This is not a universal injunction that categorically prohibits women from assuming leadership roles. Paul gave this instruction because he specifically wanted to stop the group of gullible women, who, having been corrupted by false teaching, wanted to usurp the authority of the rightful leaders of the Ephesian church.

The NT clearly teaches that every member of the Body of Christ is given spiritual gifts and therefore has a role to play in the Church. This suggests that women must also be allowed to exercise their Spirit-endowed gifts, including the gifts of teaching and leadership. It is only when believers use their gifts to serve one another that the Church, as the community of the Holy Spirit, is able to fully carry out the mandate Christ has entrusted to her.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.