“We would like CT’s pages to be a platform where [the women in leadership issue] can be debated with logical yet loving force,” wrote Terry Muck on our editorial page last July. The essay that follows was commissioned as a partial fulfillment of that desire.

Oxford has been called the home of lost causes, and here am I, an Oxford man, pleading for an end to something that is now standard practice in Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran, Congregational, Pentecostal, and Presbyterian denominations, along with the Anglican churches of the U.S.A., Canada, New Zealand, and Ireland. Is this a lost cause? Perhaps. Yet does not wisdom urge us to stop this practice and point us to a better way of benefiting from women’s ministry than by ordaining them to the presbyterate? Here are my reasons for thinking that the answer is yes.

Let me say, before moving into my argument, that I am as emphatically for women’s ministry as I am against turning women into substitute men by making presbyters of them. (See “What Is a ‘Presbyter’?” p. 21.) To confine women to domestic and menial roles when God has gifted them for ministry and leadership would be Spirit-quenching, beyond doubt. Gifts are given to be used, and when God-given gifts lie fallow, whether in men or in women, the church suffers. However, by envisaging a presbyterate of manly men, the New Testament indicates that the truest womanly ministry will be distinct from this, in ways that I will specify in a moment. But two other questions must be faced first.

Question one: Why has so much of the church in our time come to think that introducing women into the presbyterate is good, right, wise, and pleasing to God? Official Roman Catholicism (though not all Catholic theologians, nor laymen) and Orthodoxy as it seems from top to bottom, and Bible-based evangelical communities of all denominational stripes within Protestantism, agree in opposing this trend, but it cannot be denied that the general current of Protestant opinion has flowed the other way, so that many nowadays are wired to dismiss counter-arguments as foot-dragging foolishness. The trend is modern; whence came it? From a conjunction, it seems, of five factors.

First, the feminist ideology that demands equal rights everywhere, on the grounds that anything a man can do a woman can do as well if not better, naturally requires women presbyters, and women bishops, too, such as can already be found among Methodists and Anglicans in North America.

Article continues below

Second, the social change since World War I whereby gradually women have been moving into what were previously men’s jobs, and doing them well, has made opening the presbyterate to women appear as plain common sense.

Third, it has become clear that the present-day relevance of the New Testament passages that debar women from doing what presbyteral ministry involves (speaking in church, 1 Cor. 14:34f., teaching and giving directions to men, 1 Tim. 2:11–14) is problematical. If in these passages Paul is establishing a universal church order, meant for all congregations in all places at all times, then all is clear—but is he? Or is he simply legislating for his own day? And if the latter, are we wrong to allow that in a changed cultural situation, in which women were educated as men are and could come to church with well-studied Bibles in their hands, Paul might have said something different? At this point, there is division among those who agree that what Paul says, Christ says, just as there is among those who do not believe any such thing; and no amount of general debate on the male headship principle of 1 Corinthians 11:3 and Ephesians 5:23 (which is itself differently understood by different expositors), or on anything else said about the two genders in Scripture, does anything to diminish the divergence. Understandably, those who think that if Paul were alive in the modern West he might possibly, or would certainly, remove his restrictions have not stood against, but gone with, the pressure for women clergy.

Fourth, God has blessed the ministry of ordained women. Does that not prove the rightness of their presbyteral role? Not necessarily. God has blessed his people before through intrinsically inappropriate arrangements and may be doing so again. His mercy in practice does not settle matters of principle any more than majority votes do. The conclusion that God’s use of women presbyters shows that he wants them does not follow.

Fifth, the Anglican and Presbyterian restriction of leadership at the Lord’s Table (and, in Presbyterianism, of power to baptize) to presbyters has spread the sense that presbyter status is an enviable privilege, without which Christian professionals do not have a fully satisfying ministry. This feeling, however unjustified (and it seems to me unjustifiable), is widespread, and makes it seem churlish to deny to all the church’s professional women the job-satisfaction that those whom Anglicans call priests are thought to get from their sacramental ministrations. Do not misunderstand me. I speak as an Anglican presbyter myself.

Article continues below

If the above analysis is right, the present-day pressure to make women presbyters owes more to secular, pragmatic, and social factors than to any regard for biblical authority. The active groups who push out the walls of biblical authority to make room for the practice fail to read out of Scripture any principle that directly requires such action. Future generations are likely to see their agitation as yet another attempt to baptize secular culture into Christ, as the liberal church has ever sought to do, and will, I guess, rate it as one more sign of the undiscerning worldliness of late twentieth-century Western Christianity.

On, then, to question two: What considerations cast doubt on the wisdom of making women presbyters? I see four such considerations.

First, the authority of Scripture.

Philip Melanchthon, Luther’s right-hand man, identified the authority of Scripture as the formal (i.e., formative) principle of the Reformation. He was right, and biblical authority remains the formative principle of evangelical theology. The Reformers elucidated the principle by explaining that Scripture is sufficient as a God-given guide to faith and life under Christ, not needing additions from any worldly or ecclesiastical source, and is also clear, not needing an external interpreter but interpreting itself from within on everything that matters. With this, too, modern evangelicals agree.

Nor are they the only ones who nowadays urge that Scripture must ever stand in a critical, corrective, constitutive, and creative relation to the church’s faith. When modern Roman Catholics and Orthodox claim, as they mostly do, that their tradition is verifiable from Scripture, they are acknowledging that the written Word of God yields its own meaning and message, and the church may not sit loose to it. There has in our time been significant movement here, and as a result, the appeal to Scripture by the opponents of women’s ordination sounds the same from whichever side of the Reformation divide it is made.

What in Scripture weights the scales against the practice of making women presbyters? It is just the fact that though the New Testament celebrates in all sorts of ways Jesus’ affirmation of particular women as disciples and friends, and though ministering women keep appearing in the narrative of Acts and the letters of Paul, nothing is said of women being chosen as presbyters. Educated guesses as to what Jesus might do or Paul might say, were they alive now, are only guesses; all we are sure of is that as Jesus appointed no female apostles, so Paul used his apostolic authority to keep women from leading the church in worship, and actually justified this from the story of the Creation and the Fall, which he treated as disclosing universal truth about the two sexes (1 Tim. 2:12–14).

Article continues below

This being so, it is surely as likely that, were Paul with us today, he would negate women’s presbyteral leadership as that he would sanction it. Second-guessing an apostle is, of course, a risky business; but who can be blamed for thinking that negation would, in fact, be more likely, and that therefore the only safe, unitive, reverent, and God-honoring way is to give Paul the benefit of the doubt and retain his restriction on women exercising authority on Christ’s behalf over men in the church (1 Tim. 2:11)?

Second, the knowledge of Christ.

The essence of Christianity, according to the New Testament, is knowing and trusting Jesus Christ the Lord, the incarnate Son of God, as prophet, priest, and king; as lamb, shepherd, and lifegiver; and as head, husband, and cornerstone of the church that is his body, bride, and building. Knowing Christ in all these respects has a relational and affectional, as well as an intellectual, dimension; it is cognition and communion, obedience, love, and adoration all combined; it is peace and joy, salvation and eternal life, heaven on earth. On all of this the New Testament writers are at one.

A further aspect of the New Testament knowledge of Christ is that he, as thus described, is the true minister in all Christian ministry; the words and acts of his ministering servants are the medium of his personal ministry to us now, whereby he makes real and vivid to us his grace to us and his purpose for us. And this is the foundation for the second argument.

That argument is in essence as follows: Since the Son of God was incarnate as a male, it will always be easier, other things being equal, to realize and remember that Christ is ministering in person if his human agent and representative is also male. This is not to deny that Christ ministers through women, unordained and ordained (and to men, too!): My point is about the ideal form of the church. Stated structures of ministry should be designed to create and sustain with fullest force faith knowledge that Christ is the true minister. Presbyteral leadership by women, therefore, is not the best option.

Article continues below

That one male is best represented by another male is a matter of common sense; that Jesus’ maleness is basic to his role as our incarnate Savior is a matter of biblical revelation. Jesus Christ was not, and is not, merely a symbol of something else, or a source of teaching, that can stand on its own without reference to the teacher. The New Testament presents him as the second man, the last Adam, our prophet, priest, and king (not prophetess, priestess, and queen), and he is all this precisely in his maleness. To minimize the maleness shows a degree of failure to grasp the space-time reality and redemptive significance of the Incarnation; to argue that gender is irrelevant to ministry shows that one is forgetting the representative role of presbyteral leadership. Surely it is clear, then, that, spiritually speaking, a male presbyterate is desirable, even if one does not think it mandatory.

Third, the significance of gender.

God made humanity in two genders. Both males and females bear his image and in personal dignity are equal in every way, but God has set them in a nonreversible relation to each other. This finds expression, according to the most straightforward reading of Scripture, in the story of Eve being made from Adam’s rib, to be a help to him (Gen. 2:20–23), and in Paul’s assertion of male headship, not simply in marriage (Eph. 5:23), but in the human race as such (1 Cor. 11:3, 11f.). The creation pattern, as biblically set forth, is: man to lead, woman to support; man to initiate, woman to enable; man to take responsibility for the well-being of woman, woman to take responsibility for helping man. Scripture implies, and experience surely confirms, that where these relational dynamics are disregarded, the nature of both men and women is put under strain, the full self-discovery and fulfillment that God meant men and women to find in cooperation is missed, and some of the honor due to our wise Creator perishes.

The argument here is this: presbyters are set apart for a role of authoritative pastoral leadership. But this role is for manly men rather than womanly women, according to the creation pattern that redemption restores. Paternal pastoral oversight, which is of the essence of the presbyteral role, is not a task for which women are naturally fitted by their Maker.

Fourth: the example of Mary.

The relevance to this discussion of what we know of Jesus’ mother will be differently assessed by different people, some perhaps making too much of her and some too little. But any who recognize in Mary a supreme model of devotion and developing discipleship must also see in her final proof of the non-necessity of ordination for a woman who wishes to serve the Father and the Son, and of the significance that can attach to unordained roles and informal ministries.

Article continues below

What has been said highlights the reason why women seek the presbyterate (they have gifts for ministry and a sense of pastoral vocation, and no lesser role offers them the scope they desire); but it also highlights the reason why ordaining them to that office is inappropriate (Scripture presents presbyteral leadership as a man’s job). In practice, ordaining women presbyters has regularly proved divisive without being particularly fruitful—a state of affairs that may be expected to continue. What wisdom is there in pushing ahead with this policy? None that I can see. Even if, unlike some of its critics, one does not find oneself able to maintain that Scripture actually forbids it, one can hardly claim that there is much sense in it. The structuring of women’s professional ministry in the churches needs to be rethought.

Should there be such ministry at all? Emphatically, yes. That women are gifted for and called to service in the church is plain, and gifted persons are gifts that the churches must properly value and fully use. In fact, of course, it already happens: women pastoral assistants, ministers of music, youth directors, education ministers abound, making these roles their career. It has sometimes been suggested that they should be given presbyteral status by ordination just because their ministry is their life’s work, but this loses sight of the New Testament analysis of presbyteral ministry as pastoral oversight (shepherdlike rule) through the didactic discipline of directive and corrective teaching that embraces the whole congregation—which is work for a man rather than a woman. The matter needs rethinking at the level of principle rather than pragmatics, and I close with a suggestion as to how.

Three questions, it seems, need to be asked.

First: What is the distinctive quality of womanly ministry, as distinct from the ministry proper to men? Answer: It is maternal rather than paternal in flavor and style, and this quality should permeate all the activities that make it up. The natural, proper, and desirable role difference between mother and father in the human family, as found in virtually all cultures, should be reflected in the cooperative ministry of men and women in the church. The roles are complementary, and the true enrichment comes when they are being fulfilled side by side.

Article continues below

Second: In what situation is it most fitting that a professional woman worker should minister? Answer: In partnership with a male leader, rather than as a sole pastor. In such a partnership, the psychological dynamics of the “help meet” relationship of Genesis 2:18 will be maintained, in the sense that the woman will feel herself, and be felt, to be helping a man fulfill a calling that embraces them both. If she is on her own, this cannot be, and one element of womanly satisfaction will be lacking to her.

Third: Does such ministry call for presbyteral ordination? Answer: No, nor is it particularly appropriate. The biblical ideal would seem to be that in the woman’s ministry, maternal attitudes of care for the weak and attention to the needs of individuals will be central. Pastoral visitation in homes and hospitals and the spiritual nurture of children, young people, and families seem to be the natural activities in which these attitudes would find expression.

Is it proper for a woman who ministers in this way to preach? Since authority resides in the Word of God rather than in preachers and teachers of either sex, it is my opinion that a woman’s preaching and teaching gifts may be used to the full in situations where a male minister is in charge and the woman’s ministry of the Word has the effect of supplementing and supporting his own preaching and teaching. (We in the West are no longer in the Bibleless situation to which 1 Tim. 2:12 was directed.)

None of this, however, requires ordination as a presbyter. A title indicative of rank—deaconess, or pastoral assistant, for instance—would be helpful; surely, though, that is all that is needed.

The fomenting by rival pressure groups of secular-minded, status-oriented squabbles about the rights and wrongs of ordaining women presbyters seems endless: the feminist and fundamentalist lobbies see to that. The observed effect of presbyteral ordination of women is regularly to preoccupy them with fulfilling a man’s role and so to divert them from the sort of ministry in which they would be at their best. Effective partnership between men and women in the pastorate seems rarely to be sought or found. It is hardly a happy scene.

Article continues below

How long, O Lord? Shall we ever get beyond this state of things? I hope so; we need to. Phasing out the female presbyterate would, in my judgment, be part of our cure. Is my cause already lost? Am I crying for the moon? I wait to see, as Oxford men habitually do.

J. I. Packer is Sangwoo Youtong Chee professor of theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. He is the author of many books, including Knowing God and A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.