Few questions in the church, in the last decade or so, have aroused more debate, concern, and disagreement than the ordination of women. Objections have generally come from some of the old Protestant churches in the Western world. At the same time, some of these churches have accepted the idea. Among the so-called “younger churches” in the Orient, for instance, there appears to be considerable freedom in ordaining women to church offices, and where this has been allowed considerable variance in practice has resulted. Churches have allowed women to serve in the posts of minister, elder, and deacon. Others have limited women to the offices of elder and deacon, or have admitted them to the deaconry only. Even where women have been permitted to become ministers, relatively few have taken the office. All denominations prefer the male minister.

Pull And Tug Of Feminism

It is quite understandable that this question of feminine ordination to church offices should have arisen in our modern era. Feminism, or the modern theory of “women’s rights,” has impressed us so thoroughly with what women have been able to accomplish, that one is likely to feel boorish if he obstructs the modern advance. In fact, one feels that there is a kind of inevitability about opening offices to women. One advocate of the plan stated that it will come into general practice “when the cultural pattern of the day has removed the bias which is present.” In other words, the difficulty women had being accepted into the professions once reserved for men will have to be experienced again in reference to the eldership and the ministry.

In all this debate, however, few people have inquired whether feminine elders and ministers would not be something different from feminine doctors and lawyers. The assumption is that if women have achieved success and status in secular professions, why should they not have the same opportunities in the church? There is a curious reasoning process here that involves two fundamental fallacies: first, that everything included in the modern feminist movement is unquestionably good (“Give the little woman credit for anything she can get, man”), and second, that our modern day demands that we think like modern men.

The first supposition may be questioned on the ground that some women may be occupying positions today which ought to be held by men, and that they are in those spots only because men have not been available. The second fallacy rests on the idea that what is “up-to-date” is necessarily an improvement over what has previously stood as truth. Nondiscernment in this respect has tended to favor secularistic thinking above “biblical reasoning,” the kind of reasoning that is oriented in divine order and revelation.

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There is general agreement that churches ought to be governed in thought and practice by the teaching of the Word of God. This means that there must be no easy capitulation to modern ways of thinking simply because they are modern. Rather, we should endeavor to determine God’s will and way. With respect to the question, therefore, let us search the Scriptures to see whether God has revealed his mind on the matter.

Is there any revelation that will help in determining whether we shall ordain women to the offices of the church? Both sides agree that there is, but there is disagreement as to interpretation. Care must be given to examining relevant passages and allowing Scripture to speak for itself. A biased attitude against women could cause an interpreter to conclude that women ought not be ordained, just as a feminist enthusiast could assume an opposite conclusion.

Difficulty Of Interpretation

It is important for us to recognize that Scripture deals with both permanent and temporary matters, and that our most difficult task is discerning which is which. The commandment “Thou shalt not steal” is looked upon by everyone as permanent; yet there has been considerable disagreement over whether the Sabbath commandment is permanent (as prescribed, for example, in Exodus), or whether it is temporary with some aspect of permanence. Features of New Testament Church practice, like foot washing and the bestowal of the holy kiss, are recognized by the greater part of the Church today as ordinances no longer obligatory. Sometimes the temporary and the positive are intertwined with one another in the same Scripture passage as in 1 Corinthians 11:1–16 where the ordination of women to church offices is not actually discussed (nor is it discussed anywhere else in the New Testament), but rather the proper behavior of Christian women in public gatherings.

The Permanent Element

The permanent element, of course, is the “natural subordination of woman to man,” to which should be added “in the divine order of creation.” This is set out in the third verse of the chapter as follows: “But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.” God was the “head” (sign of authority) of Christ, for Christ had subjected himself to the Father in order to achieve our redemption. Jesus says in John 5:30: “I can of mine own self do nothing. As I hear, I judge … because I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me.” The Son was not inferior to the Father, but for the sake and requirements of our redemption, he made himself subordinate (cf. Phil. 2:5–11).

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Hence, Christ is called the “head of man,” whether every man accepts this headship or not. Ultimately, “every knee” shall bow before him, and “every tongue” shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Phil. 2:10, 11).

By the same token man is considered the “head” of the woman. The woman, of course, has Christ as her spiritual head. Paul in his letter is affirming the double authority that rests over her.

Many people have held that the Apostle is speaking in 1 Corinthians 11:3 not of the original created order, but the order of redemption—God’s “scheme of things” after man had fallen into sin. This interpretation may be granted if we consider that after sin had become a reality God declared to woman, “thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee” (Gen. 3:16). It is odd that proponents of the ordination of women have used this fact to argue that the case would be otherwise in an ideal situation. They also cite Galatians 3:28 (“there is neither male nor female, for ye are all one in Christ Jesus”) to assert that with Christians subordination of women to men no longer holds.

Paul in writing to the Galatians refers to our position in the spiritual kingdom of Christ; and with regard to our redemption in that respect, he states that God makes no distinction between the sexes. In the created, natural order, however, the principle of subjection is permanent, even with Christians. It belongs also to creation itself. “For the man is not of the woman; but the woman for the man” (1 Cor. 11:8, 9). The basis for this statement is that the man “is the image and glory of God, but the woman is the glory of the man” (v. 7). The woman has also the image of God (Gen. 1:27), but having been made from man, hers is an “intermediate” one. She was created to be man’s “help meet”; “bone of his bone, flesh of his flesh.”

Temporary Features

Set in the midst of these permanent principles in Paul’s argument are certain temporary features. In the passage of 1 Corinthians 11, we note a reference to the wearing of the veil or headcloth by women in public gatherings. This was proper custom for that time. Women of honor were always to appear with their heads covered, for this signified that their proper sphere was in the home, and that they were under the authority of the man (whose proper sphere was in public life). Women today show their natural subjection to men in other ways.

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In 1 Timothy 2:11–13 and 1 Corinthians 14:34 we note that women were enjoined to keep silence in the churches. Apparently some women at the time had been abusing their privileges in Christ and were making it appear as though the principle of subordination no longer existed. The principle could only be protected when women observed the rule that held within the general cultural situation.

It must be emphasized that the Bible does not teach a doctrine that men are by nature superior to women, any more than God the Father was superior to God the Son. Yet as the Son became subordinate to the Father in order to secure our redemption, so in the created order the woman is intended to be functionally subordinate to man. Only sin can turn a natural subordination into a subjugation on the part of man over woman. It is in the Church of Jesus Christ then that we expect to find the best expression of God’s order of human relationships. Where the gracious influences of the Gospel have not been laid, we often find women the mere property of man and, too often, regarded as of little value.

Perhaps we might conclude by saying that those who are subordinate must not attempt to bear rule or authority over people whom God has placed in authority (Heb. 13:7, 17; Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:2; 1 Tim. 3:5; 5:17). A woman who by divine ordinance is subject to her husband in the home can hardly bear rule over him in the house of God. She may, however, exercise authority over those who are subordinate to her, such as children or in official capacity other women. The principle of subjection is with us on every hand: wife to husband, children to parents, citizens to the state, and congregations to elders or bishops. This is not our arrangement, but God’s.


Elton M. Eenigenburg is Professor of Historical Theology at Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Michigan. He holds the Th.M. from Princeton and the Ph.D. from Columbia University. He has written The Second Coming of Christ and A Brief History of the Reformed Church in America.

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