Still the Second Sex

While differences on all matter of doctrine abound among Christians, the exclusion of women from ordination isn't simply one more theological difference. Rather, it is a form of misogyny masquerading in the guise of Biblical and theological integrity.
07/15/2015 02:46 pm ET Updated Jul 15, 2016

Last Friday Seventh Day Adventists voted to continue to deny ordination to women. Earlier this month, three women AME pastors in South Carolina received hateful, menacing letters denouncing them for violating biblical norms about women's submission. My own former denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, fractured with women's ordination as one of the key points of controversy. And the Catholic Church certainly doesn't seem poised to change dogma on this issue any time soon.

While differences on all matter of doctrine abound among Christians, the exclusion of women from ordination isn't simply one more theological difference. Rather, it is a form of misogyny masquerading in the guise of biblical and theological integrity.

Differences in beliefs about the proper mode of baptism or the correct day for worship or the nature of atonement make for interesting conversations, and all of us Christians would be better off if we'd talk more with one another about our theological differences. I personally enjoy a rousing dialogue about the afterlife or the function of prayer. These are engaging ideas, worth the intellectual struggle.

But the question of women's ordination is not the same as disagreement over the meaning of communion. Women's ordination is about the valuing (or de-valuing) of women as full human beings. It is about the actual lives and callings of women and to deny it does real harm to individual women, unlike debating the nature of the Trinity. While opponents of women's ordination offer biblical and theological arguments to support their position, their practice of barring women from ordination has the unbiblical and unchristian effect of dehumanizing, marginalizing, and excluding women from participation as full human beings of equal worth before God.

First, the exclusion of women from ordination suggests that women are not fully human. This view of women relegates women to second class citizenship and submission. While opponents of women's ordination may argue that women and men have equal value but different roles based on gender, this "separate but equal" argument always seems to leave women in subordinate roles. The denial of ordination to women maintains patriarchal hierarchies of value, with men in the position of somehow being more like God than women and therefore better able to represent God than women.

Second, the exclusion of women from ordination suggests that women do not have the capacity to hear their own calling. Women's sense of self and agency is negated when churches or church leaders think they know better than women themselves what God has called women to do. When women cannot be trusted to hear and understand their own callings, they are are again assigned a subordinate status, less able to hear God's call for themselves than men and less able to exercise their full human capacity.

Third, the denial of ordination to women rests on a kind of bibliolatry that limits what the Spirit can do. Doing a "new thing," as the prophet Isaiah puts it, becomes much more difficult when norms of ancient cultures are still imposed on the contemporary church. This bibliolatry also puts particular interpretations of the biblical text above the actual well-being of women affected by those readings.

These biblical interpretations and theological beliefs that exclude women from ordination rest in assumptions that understand human relationships as hierarchies rooted in what feminist Marilyn French has identified as "power-over." Ideologies of power-over assume someone has to be in charge with authority to coerce behavior. In these ideologies, pastors are authorities with power-over their congregations, however benevolent that power may be. Women, by nature as subordinate beings, cannot therefore exercise power over men and thus cannot be ordained because ordination is seen as conferring authority/power-over.

Other models of church are possible, however. The church does not have to be a hierarchy that devalues and marginalizes anyone. Marilyn French also notes "power-to" and "power-with" as alternative models to power-over. Power-to is agency, the ability to act. Power-with is that power that comes from working together. While power-over is limited, power-to and power-with are unlimited. In a church with power reimagined as agency, collaboration, and relationship, ordination is no longer about conferring authority/power-over but about recognizing giftedness to work with God's people.

Opposition to women's ordination is at its core about maintaining male power in the church, and it is the opposite of the biblical call to equality and full personhood in the household of God. At the center of the Gospel is the recognition of the full humanity of every individual and the demand that the single defining characteristic of those who follow Christ be love.

If, then, I hold any interpretation of the Bible that leads me to treat other people as less than fully human, I'd question that interpretation.