The question of whether or not women should be ordained set apart for religious leadership and/or to administrate certain religious rites has been present within Christian and Jewish groups since early in U.S. history. Women are regularly ordained within some religious groups. Others restrict ordination to men. Others continue to debate the question.
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Though U.S. Protestants did not first ordain women until the 1800s, women had for a long time prior to that been religious leaders both in their churches and in the public square. Perhaps one of the most famous examples of this is found in the story of Anne Hutchinson, who in the 1630s in Massachusetts challenged male authorities by holding meetings with women to discuss her pastor’s sermons. Her actions led to a trial, a conviction, and banishment to Rhode Island. While many women during this era exercised religious leadership, it was not until the mid-1800s that a woman was formally ordained to Christian leadership. Congregationalist Antoinette Brown was ordained in 1853 when she was called to become pastor of a church in New York. Unitarian Universalist leader, Olympia Brown, was ordained about a decade later, in 1863, and AME Zion minister, Mary Jane Small, was ordained in 1898. These ordinations of women and others that followed are indicative of significant changes that occurred in the mid-1800s and early 1900s in the roles of women in religious and public life. These changes were not without controversy as exemplified by the contentious debates that emerged as some groups supported and others vehemently opposed the ordination of women.
The theologies and/or polities of some Christian groups and denominations afforded women early access to ordination. For example, the Quakers’ insistence that all people are equal before God provided support for those who sought gender equity in churches and society; as a result, though Quakers did not formally ordain anyone to ministry in favor of “recording ministers,” they did acknowledge women as authoritative preachers. The group known as the Shakers that emerged in the 18th century not only sprung up under leadership of a woman, Ann Lee, but also believed that Jesus would return to earth as a woman. Northern Baptists (later known as American Baptists) likewise demonstrated early support of women as preachers by supporting the ordination of Edith Hill in 1897, setting the stage for a continuation of the practice within that Baptist group. Also, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many Holiness and Pentecostal groups regularly ordained women.
In addition to these “pioneers” in the movement are other traditions, including Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and the United Church of Christ, who in the twentieth century engendered and then formalized support for the ordination women. These traditions often faced inner conflicts over the question of ordaining women. In the late 1960s, for example, three Lutheran bodies (the Lutheran Church in America, the American Lutheran Church, and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod), held a consultation on the ordination of women but were unable to reach a consensus. Both the Lutheran Church in America and the American Lutheran Church eventually approved the ordination of women. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod experienced significant upheaval over the issue and over other issues having to do with scriptural authority and interpretation. The conflict resulted in the formation of a new denomination, the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, formed in 1987 by a merger of the Lutheran Church in America, the American Lutheran Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church, from its inception ordained both women and men. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod continues to limit ordination to men.
Other Christian groups, for example, many Baptists and the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, have consistently opposed the ordination of women. Many Baptist groups and congregations also deny women ordination, though Baptist polity allows for each local church to determine its own belief and practice. In 1964, Addie Davis became the first Southern Baptist woman to be ordained. In the early 1980s, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) passed a resolution stating that offices requiring ordination are restricted to men. Supporters of this resolution point to sections of a denominational statement of beliefs, The Baptist Faith and Message, that states the following: “[The church’s] scriptural officers are pastors and deacons. While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture” (The Baptist Faith and Message, 2000). While this is an official SBC stance, neither denominational resolutions nor Baptist Faith and Message statements are binding upon local congregations. Thus, decisions about ordaining women finally reside with each SBC church.
Groups who oppose women’s ordination do so primarily on the basis of their interpretations of biblical texts. Arguments include, generally, the perspectives that the New Testament does not report the existence of any women pastors, that pastors who represent the people before God should, like Christ, be male, that New Testament guidelines for church order do not include instructions that specify women, and that some New Testament texts forbid women to be pastors or have roles of authority over men (i.e. I Timothy 2:11-12).
Those who support women’s ordination also voice arguments based on biblical interpretation. For example, evidence exist in Old and New Testament texts of times when women exercised leadership over both males and females; and Paul stated clearly in Galatians 3:27-28 a theology of gender equity (“â€¦there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”). A number of biblical scholars and theologians, including feminist scholars, have emphasized biblical examples of women’s leadership and gender equity. Some Hebrew Bible scholars argue on the basis of their reading of Genesis 1 and 2 that both genders are created equally in God’s image. Protestant supporters include in their arguments the traditional Protestant emphasis on the priesthood of all believers.
The late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have witnessed a resurgence of the debate over women’s ordination. By the end of the twentieth century, many Protestant and Jewish groups accepted women in the role of pastoral leader or rabbi. Some groups, however, continued to oppose women’s ordination and for some of those groups the debate has intensified. The 2000 revision of the Baptist Faith and Message, cited above, has reignited and intensified the debate amongst Baptists as proponents of ordination argue that the 2000 language about women leaders is anti-woman and opponents insist that the revision only underscores a biblical mandate that while women and men are of equal value, the role of pastor is restricted to men. The 1963 Baptist Faith and Message, which the 2000 version revises, does not include a statement limiting the pastoral office to men. Moderate Baptist groups such as the Alliance of Baptists, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and the American Baptist Churches, U.S.A. take a more proactive and supportive stance toward ordaining women.
In recent decades, the debate has also intensified within the Roman Catholic tradition. Throughout the 1970s, Roman Catholics debated whether or not the priesthood should be open to women. A final ruling on this question was published in the Vatican’s 1976 “Declaration on the Question of the Admission Women to the Ministerial Priesthood”; the Declaration stated that “the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith judges it necessary to recall that the Church, in fidelity to the example of the Lord, does not consider herself authorized to admit women to priestly ordination.” Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, support nevertheless grew for the ordination of women to the Roman Catholic priesthood. Early in the 1990s, Vatican leaders began to take actions they hoped would quiet public support for women’s ordination. These actions included pronouncements against ordaining women as well as disciplinary actions against individuals who advocated openly for women’s ordination. Pope John Paul II issued a statement in 1994 underscoring the teaching of the 1976 Declaration and further stating that the teaching was not open to debate. The 1990s also saw debate sparked within the ranks of those Roman Catholics who supported women’s ordination. Notably, feminist biblical scholar Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza argued at a 1995 Women’s Ordination Conference that women should aim not for ordination but rather for a “discipleship of equals” that resisted the overwhelming patriarchy of the Roman Catholic Church (Schussler Fiorenza, 1983). Others at the conference maintained a stance in favor of women’s ordination. In the initial decades of the twenty-first century, the debate over women’s ordination continues within the Roman Catholic Church.
The issue of women’s ordination has also stirred controversy within Jewish communities. The question was first posed in 1889 by Mary M. Cohen in Jewish Exponent: “Could not our women be ministers?” (Nadell, 1988, 1). In 1972, many years after the publication of this question, the Sally Jane Priesand became the first female rabbi within Reform Judaism in the U.S. Amy Eilberg in 1985 became the first woman received into the rabbinate within Conservative Judaism. To date, no women have become rabbis within Orthodox Judaism, though debate over the question continues within that Jewish sector.
Other religious groups in the U.S. also debate what roles women can hold. For example, a controversy currently exists among Muslims over to what extent women can act as imams; most agree that while women can lead a gathering of women in prayer, women cannot lead a mixed gender group in prayer. Jehovah’s Witnesses consider all persons “ordained” upon public baptism. Women are commonly appointed as full time ministers in order to evangelize or to serve as missionaries. However, the roles of deacon and elder as well as the authority to perform baptisms, funerals or weddings are restricted to male Witnesses. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints does not ordain women but the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints adopted the practice in 1984.
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Several organizations have emerged over time to support women clergy. One of the earliest was the Woman’s Ministerial Conference, founded in 1893 in Boston, Massachusetts. The International Association of Women Preachers was founded in 1919 by M. Madeline Southard, a Methodist minister from Kansas. Both of these groups supported women who believed they had a call to preach and advocated publicly for women in religious leadership. The Women Church movement, which began in the U.S. in the 1970s primarily to support Roman Catholic women who sought ordination, has kept alive ecumenical dialogue about the ordination of women as well as about other ecclesial and societal issues that impact the lives of women.
See also Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Feminism, Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Southern Baptist Convention, Women-Church Movement.
Keller, Rosemary Skinner, and Rosemary Radford Ruether, eds. Encyclopedia of Women and Religion in North America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006.
Keller, Rosemary Skinner, and Rosemary Radford Ruether, eds. In Our Own Voices: Four Centuries of Women’s Religious Writing. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1995.
Nadall, Pamela. Women Who Would Be Rabbis: A History of Women’s Ordination, 1889-1995. Boston: Beacon Press, 1988.
Reid, Daniel G., ed. Dictionary of Christianity in America. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1990.
Schussler Fiorenza, Elisabeth. Discipleship of Equals: A Critical Feminist Ekklesialogy of Liberation. New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 1983.