Why Complementarians MUST Ordain Women, Part 5: Cultural Exegesis and a Prescription

Well, the discussion on 1 Corinthians 14 continues, but it appears that discussion is more narrowly focused on exactly how male and female differences affect the use of particular spiritual gifts in formal worship.  The question of whether to ordain women, and to what functions, is a larger issue, and even though it’s closely related to 1 Corinthians 14, I think for the present I can address it and steer around the not-yet-settled questions in that one chapter.

Back in Part Two of this series, we discussed how within North American church culture, we have created a monster through misconstruing (or just ignoring) what the Bible says a pastor is supposed to be.  Having failed to apprehend the biblical picture of a richly gifted team of leaders functioning in diverse ways in the church, we expect one pastor to fulfill all those roles.  By our lights, the lead pastor is supposed to cast the vision for the church, comfort the sick and afflicted, counsel the broken, resolve disputes, preach every Sunday, coach his staff, teach Sunday school, oversee the administration of the church, represent the church to the community, and much more.  He is, in short, supposed to have all the gifts at once, and use them all simultaneously.  This job description is not biblical, and it’s a recipe for disaster.  (This is not to say that nobody can live up to it.  In God’s providence, there are a few incredibly gifted and energetic folks who not only rise to this sort of challenge, but seem to thrive on it.  But they are few and far between — certainly not one for every church.)  Having created this Frankenstein paradigm of clerical ministry, we then use ordination as the vetting process for releasing someone into that ministry.

So if we’re going to return to a more biblical practice of church leadership (and I find encouraging signs that this is the case everywhere I look, these days), then it’s time to rethink ordination a bit.  At its core, ordination is the church recognizing the person’s calling, qualifications and character.  If we don’t think the person is called into the ministry to which we’re about to ordain him, then we won’t ordain him.  If we think he’s called, but he’s doesn’t yet have the skills he’ll need in the ministry, then we ask him to beef up his skill set before we ordain him.  If he’s got the calling and the skills, but is still struggling with immaturity or other character flaws that are going to significantly hamper his ministry, then again, we ask him to take some time and grow in the Lord before we ordain him.  To be ordained, he should have all three: calling, qualifications, and character.  He doesn’t have to be perfect, and there’s always room for improvement, so it’s always a judgment call.  But there comes a time when he’s ready to get out there and learn by doing, and the church’s job at that point is to appoint him to the ministry and send him out.

Stripped down to those basics, we actually see something similar to ordination in the New Testament.  The apostles laid hands on the seven (deacons?) appointed to the care of widows in the Jerusalem church (Acts 6:6).  The Antioch church laid hands on Paul and Barnabas to commission them for their missionary ministry (Acts 13:2-3).  The eldership laid hands on Timothy, apparently not only to consecrate him for ministry but to impart a gift to him (1 Tim. 4:14).  Paul did something similar for Timothy (2 Tim. 1:6).

What we see in New Testament practice, though, is specific.  A person is not ordained to “gospel ministry” in general.  When the church lays hands on someone, it is because God is separating that person to a specific ministry: care of widows, taking the gospel to the Gentiles, and so on.  Perhaps our practice of ordination should follow the same pattern.

Within the tribe that raised and trained me, we actually have an institution like this already: it’s called a “commissioning service,” although the only time we really did it was for missionaries that we were sending out from our own local congregation.  We would lay hands on them and consecrate them for their particular calling and mission.  However, in these cases, we didn’t do much in the way of due diligence, because we were outsourcing that to Pioneers, New Tribes, or whatever mission board that person was going with.  The mission board would have primary responsibility for the missionary once he was on the field, so we trusted them to examine the candidates thoroughly (and generally, they did, but notable lapses are not unheard of).

Within that tribe, ordination was taken to be entirely a church function, and so the church would delve quite a bit more intensively into the candidate’s life.  We would give notice to the congregation, several Sundays in a row, that John Doe was a candidate for ordination, and if anyone knew of reasons why he should not be ordained, that person should speak to the elders at once.  There would be interviews.  The candidate was often asked to prepare a doctrinal statement and/or philosophy of ministry statement, and then provide an oral defense for them.  The process would culminate in a grueling several-hour ordination exam, where the elders and other interested parties would grill the candidate on his calling, his Bible knowledge and practical wisdom, and his character and experience. If the candidate passed all tests, then a day would be appointed, and the whole church would come together to see the elders and pastors lay hands on the candidate and ordain him to the ministry.

What I propose for ordination is a blending of these two categories.  Let the examination of the candidate be as intensive as ordination exams have tended to be.  But let us not ordain someone to anything so general as “the gospel ministry.”  No single part of the Body is the whole Body, and so no single part should be ordained to do the whole Body’s ministry.  If we are going to the trouble to examine a candidate’s calling and qualifications in detail, then let us commission that candidate to the specific area of ministry for which which God has called and qualified him.  Or her.

Of course, “or her.”  Because once we agree that the commission should be to something specific, and not to some Frankensteinian polyglot called “the gospel ministry” (which necessarily includes teaching and exercising authority over men, along with practically all the other gifts and functions), then we immediately see a number of biblically sanctioned roles to which a woman can be called without violating even the strictest readings of 1 Timothy 2:12 or 1 Corinthians 14:34.  Deaconess and prophetess head the list of New Testament categories here, but it goes further than that.  1 Timothy 5 implies an office of “church widow” — a widow over 60, with no relatives to support her, who devotes herself to service to the church, and in turn is supported by the church.  There may be more biblically attested categories.

In addition to the “big box” categories, there are more specific callings.  Just as Paul and Barnabas were commissioned to a specific mission work, and not simply to a general calling of “evangelist” or “apostle”, so other believers also have specific callings.  For example, I have a friend whose calling in this season of her life is to devote herself to encouraging and mentoring women.  I dare say that if she were pursuing this ministry among brown people in Jakarta or Nairobi — or even white folks in Zagreb or Madrid — few churches would have difficulty laying hands on her and commissioning her for the work.  But instead, God has called her to Denver.  What difference does it make if the women she’s mentoring speak ‘Merican?  Should we not commission her to the work all the same?


3 Responses to Why Complementarians MUST Ordain Women, Part 5: Cultural Exegesis and a Prescription

  1. David says:


    I think I hear what you’re saying but it seems to me that maybe you should revise your vocabulary and drop the word “ordain” from the discussion altogether, based on what you’ve said so far (but not knowing exactly where you’re going) and my own limited experience and knowledge.

    In this language and culture–including our evangelical subculture–the understanding of the term and the implications that go with it are basically set in stone and it seems to me that trying to change that would be a waste of energy. Even trying to change it within a single small church would be very difficult. It just seems to have too much baggage to shake off.

    How about using another term like “commissioning” or “laying on of hands”? Such a term, and the qualifying process attached to it, would apply to all those with specific callings like what you mentioned, including the lead pastor/preacher/whatever whether or not he’s previously been officially “ordained” by a denomination or church.


  2. Tim Nichols says:


    The thing we must do is see to it that the ministries of women are taken every bit as seriously, and celebrated every bit as much, as the ministries of men. How we get there will be a matter of making tactical decisions appropriate to our gifts and our context.

    I see your point and I might actually take that tack were I responsible for reforming these practices in an existing church. However, I also see a big potential problem that would give me serious pause. It’s harder to change those terms that we think. We might say “commissioned” from the pulpit, but the people would say “ordained” anyway, about the men who are going into preaching ministry. I would expect the practical result (in actual effect) to be a two-tier system in which women can get “commissioned” but men get “ordained.” This is the very thing I am fighting against. Of course, all is not lost at that point; it’s just that the change in terminology will not, by itself, convey to the people the very real change in ecclesiology that must take place. So the next battle will be to get the people to understand that “commissioned” doesn’t mean “ordained” as they formerly understood it — not even for a man. This is the “slow-n-easy” approach, and I’ve certainly used it in situations where it was called for. Even here, though, we are eventually going after changing that stuff that’s set in stone. That’s the work of reformation, and accrued fecal matter still needs cleaning up, even if it has been there so long it’s fossilized. Sometimes, that’s where the cleanup is most needed, and the job calls for miners with picks rather than maids with featherdusters.

    For me, in my situation at this point, I prefer to go right for the heart of the matter. Saying “We must ordain women” conveys immediately that I am calling for a deep change in ecclesiology. Of course, then I have to qualify it, because the change I’m calling for is not what people immediately think of. But I’ve grown accustomed to that sort of struggle, and I’ve also learned some hard lessons from it. People that immediately classify me into the enemy camp and won’t hear a word of explanation? Not folks I want to work with in any case, and better to find out now. You yoke with someone like that, you’ll spend all your time talking the guy off some ledge or other instead of getting real work done. It’s not worth it. (I also work hard to position myself better on the front end by saying, for example, “A woman may not teach or have authority over a man in church, but Scripture nonetheless requires us to ordain women.” That kind of thing helps people know, right from the beginning, that I’m not taking either of the common positions. Some immediately dismiss me as a schizophrenic nutjob — and again, these I don’t want to work with anyhow — but others demand an explanation, which I am only too happy to provide.)

    Of course, caveat lector. Keep in mind that this is the same sort of reasoning that led me to the term “mystical union,” and that got me in a lot of trouble. (About which, let me repeat: The Christian life is a life of mystical union with Christ through the Holy Spirit, or its promises are meaningless, it is a Pharisee-factory at best, and to hell with it.) That to say, using “mystical union” was the right call, and I would absolutely do it again, but not everybody is called to incite the degree of opprobrium to which I am accustomed. Different gifts. Some parts of the Body have surgeon’s hands, and some have miner’s hands. I’m always happy to do miner surgery; got my pick right here, hold still….

  3. David says:

    Ha ha–pick or dynamite?

    It seems to me you’re going to have a two tier system no matter which way you go. Whether you say “commissioned” or “ordained,” you still have to get them to understand it “doesn’t mean ‘ordained’ as they formerly understood it.”

    It’s my understanding that the Presbyterians ordain elders and deacons, but I think you still have a two class system–clergy and laity.

    Forget, for the moment, the issue of women and consider a plurality of elders. Suppose you were to set up a church with a board of elders that are all considered co-equal, none of them being officially ordained, and all (or none) given the title of Pastor. If one of them is paid and does the bulk of the preaching, I think you’re still going to have a two tier system in the eyes of the people. It’s just the way it seems to be. I once participated in a scenario similar to what I just described. That doesn’t make me an expert–just opinionated!

    I don’t know your tribal experience, but based on mine, my gut feeling is that if you keep the term “ordained” you’ll still end up with a perception of a “real” ordination” versus some kind of a “lesser” ordination.

    Here’s another line of thinking. To take the ministries of women (and lay men) as seriously those of ordained men, those ministries should indeed be elevated somehow. But maybe the current concept of ordination also needs to be knocked down a little. Interestingly, horizo in the NT is only used of Christ in terms of a person being the object. I know that’s a week argument based on the fact that there are only eight occurrences, and that aphorizo does point to people, but I sometimes wonder if the term–and the often associated “Reverend” title–should just be abandoned altogether because it’s held TOO highly. I was once a part of a church in which you couldn’t speak from the pulpit, officiate communion, or perform baptisms unless you were ordained (or a missionary). To me, that’s making too much of ordination.

    I’m just kind of spouting and rambling based on my own experiences and I have no real argument with you. If you can pick or dynamite your way successfully to a better system, more power to you, brother!

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