The new president of Cedarville University, a Christian college in Ohio, has decided that no woman shall teach a man in any Biblical studies. This reflects a long-running debate within Evangelicalism (see here and here) over gender complementarianism and the role of women. 

To be sure, this debate is not going away any time soon within conservative Protestantism and Evangelicalism. The North American Lutheran Church came into existence in part because many Lutherans coming out of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America wanted to continue to ordain female ministers. The Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ also lists female ministers on its roster, making them eligible to be called by a congregation. A group addressing the diversity of views over female ordination in the new forms of Anglicanism, the Theological Task Force on Holy Orders for the Anglican Church in North America has entered its second phase. Most denominations connected to the Wesleyan Holiness movement ordain women, as do many Pentecostal groups. When one considers that among five Pentecostal denominations in North America there are over 15,000 credentialed women ministers, almost half of whom are in the Assemblies of God, it seems clear that the issue will continue to be debated and discussed.

The deeper issue, however, is how ordination is understood in relation to charisms and the nature of the church. While the Catholic Church does not ordain women to the priesthood, it has recognized the importance of female theologians and leaders within the life of the church. Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Ávila, both of whom have been declared “doctors of the church,” were mystics who functioned in the charismatic realm of dreams and visions. There is a recognition of women possessing charisms that qualify them to officially represent the teaching of the Catholic Church, even if they cannot enter Holy Orders. Because Holy Orders remain connected to a sacramental framework within the Catholic Church, there is a clear distinction between teaching and ordination that provides theological space for women to serve as theologians and Biblical scholars.

It would be difficult to imagine the strict complementarian position now represented at Cedarville University as acknowledging this role for women. Certainly, there is an acknowledgement that women can possess a teaching charism and thus a ministry of teaching, but this ministry cannot be exercised in relation to the entire church. It seems that women cannot be doctors of the church. This more rigid position stems from a view of ordination in which teaching is the primary activity of the minister. There is a direct link between teaching authority and ministerial authority in a way that one does not find in other views of ordination. This can be related to a non-sacramental view in which the Lord’s Supper and Baptism are ordinances that do not convey grace, which reinforces the role of teaching in the office of pastor.

The link between ministerial authority and teaching authority also relates to an extension of the visible church beyond denominational boundaries within evangelical circles. Because Protestantism as a whole defines the body of Christ as an invisible entity, this can create confusion over the relationship between the visible church and the invisible church. Strictly speaking, the university is a para-church body in the same way that evangelistic associations or other kinds of pan-evangelical organizations are. One thinks of Intervarsity Fellowship and Cru as examples of these para-church ministries. These organizations generally do not function as denominational entities within the evangelical world and thus, strictly speaking, are not the visible church.

Since para-church organizations fall outside of the visible church, there is a question as to whether women can teach or train men in ministry practices or in theological matters within those settings. I find an attempt to extend ordination and ministerial authority beyond the visible church in Wayne Grudem’s statement for Christianity Today that “it is illogical to say a woman should train men to be Bible teachers and pastors when she shouldn’t be one herself. If women shouldn’t be pastors or elders in churches, then they should also not have that role in other contexts.” Such a statement seems to reduce the office of presbyter to teaching rather than viewing it in terms of Word and Sacraments in relation to the authority to shepherd a congregation. And does this include all para-church ministries?

The strict complementarian position of Cedarville University raises questions about ordination and the nature of the church. It assumes that a university is more than a para-church organization and that ordination just is teaching authority. Both of these assumptions move in the wrong direction. Despite the fact that the debate over female ordination will continue, it seems that evangelicals on different sides of that debate could come together about the role of women in para-church organizations. Women can and should be teachers and leaders in these organizations. This would require broad agreement on what ordination is and how it relates to the structures of the visible church. 

More on: Evangelical, Women

Articles by Dale M. Coulter

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