Theological and Biblical Reflection on
Women in Ministry
A study paper prepared by
the Unified Committee on Theology
and Social Concerns of
the Cumberland Presbyterian Churches
Adopted for study and commended to the churches and presbyteries
of the CPC by the 171st General Assembly
The following study paper was prepared by Rev. Renee Curtiss, a member of the Unified Committee on Theology and Social Concerns of the Cumberland Presbyterian Churches, at the request of the Committee. In planning its agenda, the Committee had decided that we needed to provide this biblical and theological resource for the Cumberland Presbyterian Churches to assist their members in understanding the two churches’ position of support for ordaining women to the work of the gospel ministry. The paper was edited by the Unified Committee, and forwarded to the General Assemblies of the CPC and CPCA meeting in June of 2001.
The 171st meeting of the CPC General Assembly approved this study paper for use throughout the church. In so doing, the Assembly passed the following recommendation :
That presbyterial Boards of Missions and local
congregations be strongly encouraged to study this issue [women in ministry] in
light of the
The GA committee that studied this issue went on to state “that building relationships between women in ministry and congregations is the key to change regarding this issue. We … suggest that interim pastors help in this education and relationship-building process. In addition, where possible,
presbyterial Boards of Missions are encouraged to appoint female moderators of sessions. Regardless of gender, the appointed moderator should help in the education process and encourage the church to consider female applicants for pastors and staff positions; and finally, to encourage congregations to consider inviting women in ministry to fill the pulpit for revivals, vacations, times of illness, and special occasions.”
We send out this study paper with the prayer that the Holy Spirit will continue to help us as a church welcome the gifts and ministries of those whom God has called to the gospel ministry, women and men alike.
Theological and Biblical Reflection
on Women in Ministry
A study paper prepared for the
Unified Committee on Theology and Social Concerns
by Renee A. Curtiss
Although the Cumberland Presbyterian Church has been ordaining women to the office of Word and Sacrament since 1889, the practice is still one that is disputed and hotly debated at the grass roots level. The 1984 Constitution and Confession of Faith, clearly support the ordination of women to the offices of pastor, elder and deacon. As a denomination, we are proud to have been the first Presbyterian body to ordain a woman. The ordination of Louisa M. Woosley in 1889 was however, marked by an enormous theological debate within the denomination.
Our internal statistics, as well as the personal experiences of most clergywomen, indicate that the issue is far from settled, even in the year 2001. For this reason, the Unified Committee on Theology and Social Concerns, offers this paper as a resource for studying and evaluating the issue of women in ministry and leadership within the Cumberland Presbyterian Church.
As with any topic within the church, it is absolutely essential that a thorough and sound theological and biblical foundation be the bedrock upon which all praxis is derived. Therefore we will begin our study here.
It seems appropriate and logical then, to begin at the beginning.
Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind (Hebrew: Adam)
in our image according to our likeness; and let them
have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the
birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the
wild animals of the earth and over every creeping
thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created
humankind in God’s image, in the image of God,
God created them, male and female God created them.
[. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ]
God saw everything that God had made and indeed, it
was very good.
This creation story is the first of two and is often overlooked or even forgotten in light of the Adam and Eve story. Let us take a closer look at these two creation accounts. It will be helpful to note the Hebrew at some points which will be bracketed and italicized. Genesis says:
So God created humankind [adam: human being,
no sexual connotation] in God’s image, in the image
of God he created them; male [zakar] and female
[neqebah] he created them;
or in another rendering: “male and female created he them and called their name ‘Adam’” – humankind.” Human nature, not masculinity, is “in the image of God,” and this human nature consists of maleness and femaleness. There is no suggestion of inferiority or superiority of any kind.
Another perspective of the image here is reflected on by Grenz, who says that ultimately what it means to reflect God’s image is to be in relationship or community. Our God is a God of community as any doctrine of the Trinity will clearly indicate. Throughout all eternity, God is community, the fellowship of the Three Persons who constitute the triune God. Grenz states:
As the first creation narrative declares, when God
created humankind, God built into creatures—created
male and female—the unity-in-diversity and mutuality
that characterize the eternal divine reality.
Consequently, neither the male as such nor the
isolated human is the image of God. Instead humans-in-
relation or humans in community ultimately
reflect the imago Dei. Such human fellowship
encompasses diversity and illustrates mutuality (p.171).
So we deduce, God establishes a covenant relationship with all of humanity, not just the male portion.
Let us now turn our concentration to the second creation account, which has historically been interpreted by many in such a way as to justify the subjugation and subordination of women to men and therefore used as a basis for denying women the ability to serve in leadership positions within the church.
The second chapter of Genesis records: “In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, then the Lord God formed man [adam] from the dust of the ground.” When creation of the physical world—plants and animals—is completed, there is still something to be desired “but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner” (Gen. 2:20b), one who will be with him. The term “help” or “helper,” [ezer] is found twenty-one times in the Old Testament, twice in this chapter. From the other nineteen uses, sixteen times the help is God; the other three speak of relative equals. Never does the word connote subordination. When the text speaks of God as our help [ezer], it is of course acknowledging God’s strength and power for us, not God’s subordination to us. Isn’t it ironic then, that we would want to interpret [ezer] in the context of Genesis 2 as meaning subordinate? When God creates Eve from Adam’s rib, God’s intent is that she will be—unlike the animals—a power (or strength) equal to him.
The second term “meet” (KJV), “fit” (RSV), or “partner” (NRSV) is a translation of [neged], a preposition. Elsewhere in the Old Testament it is translated as “before,” “in the presence of,” “in the sight of,” “over against.” The sense in this verse has been rendered as “a mirror image of himself, in which he recognized himself.” We may conclude that neither term [ezer or neged] indicates subordination of one to the other. According to Grenz:
The creation of woman ‘for man’ or as
his ‘helper’ means that she rescues him from
his solitude—‘then God said it is not good that
the man should be alone’ (Gen.2:18) Rather
than being cast in a subservient role, she
is thereby elevated in the narrative as the
crowning achievement of God’s saving intent
in the Garden (p. 165).
It is important to note here, that our interpretation of a text depends on where we are standing. We cannot deny the presuppositions that we bring to a text and how they impact our interpretation. It is however, our responsibility to be aware of these biases in our reflection.
To those who still insist that the woman being taken out of the man’s rib, is subordinate, the first ruler, the second ruled, we might recall that “the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground”(Gen.2:7a). The words contain a point not reproducible in English: for, in the Hebrew, ‘ground’ [adamah] is in form the feminine of ‘man’ [adam].
We see the coming into being of woman. A most profound image: God builds woman out of man’s “essential stuff.” There could be no clearer picture than this: the most intimate belonging to each other. Adam was incomplete without his counterpart; now human nature is complete. “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife” (Gen.2:24a). The “therefore” speaks of their oneness in completing each other.
The creation accounts in chapters one and two of Genesis depict a humanity created in the image of God. This humanity is to be in a relationship of mutuality and equality, recognizing the divine image in one another and their need for interdependence and mutual support. The Confession of Faith in section 1.11 summarizes it this way:
Among all forms of life, only human beings are
created in God’s own image. In the sight of God,
male and female are created equal and complementary.
To reflect the divine image is to worship, love, and
If this is the proper order of creation, then why the need for this paper? We need not look far for the answer. Genesis 3 offers an explanation for the disruption of the original order.
Put simply, the disintegration and disruption is a result of sin and the Fall.
To the woman God said, ‘I will greatly
increase your pangs in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children, yet
your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.’
This is not the way God created things to be, but because of sin, it is the way God has allowed things to be. It is precisely at this point that the relationship of mutuality between male and female was corrupted, leading instead to a relationship of discrimination and subjugation of women to men.
By the grace of God, however, this is not the final word. Christ is the Alpha and the Omega and it is he who has the last word on any and all issues. The final say is this—Christ redeems us (all humanity) from sin and is the restorer of the original order. We are no longer living under the curse of sin, but under the grace of God through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. As stated in 2 Corinthians , “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away: see, everything has become new!” Also from Galatians 3:27-28: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
God invites us to work in this new kingdom order through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit chooses to work where the Spirit wishes and with whom the Spirit wishes. The spirit’s freedom of movement is noted in Joel 2:28-32 and again in Acts 2 on the day of Pentecost. Acts 1:13-14 states:
When they had entered the city, they went to
the room upstairs where they were staying,
Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip
and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James
son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas
son of James.
devoting themselves to prayer, together with
certain women including Mary the mother
of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
On Pentecost when all of these were filled with the Holy Spirit, Peter stood up and recited from the prophet Joel:
In the last days it will be, God declares
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall
prophesy, and your young men shall see
visions, and your old men shall dream
dreams. Even upon my slaves both men
and women, in those days I will pour out
my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.
Not only is there evidence in scripture that the Spirit works in many and various ways—but the evidence of this is before our very eyes. The Spirit is unbounded and works in and through persons without regard to their ethnicity, nationality, social-economic status, intellect, education, age, or yes¾even gender.
It is also important to note the historical Jesus’
attitude toward women. He more often than not, defied the traditions and
customs of his time. He talked to women, even to the despised ones: to the
He accepted women’s ministry to and for him. He
taught them, an unheard of thing at that time, and called them not to limit
their work to “housewifely” ministrations. “Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet
and listened to what he was saying” (Luke )
was commended, for she understood that “there is need of only one thing” (Luke
10:42a). She had chosen “the better part which will not be taken away” (Luke
10:42b). Jesus allowed a woman who was a “sinner” to wash and anoint his feet
saying: “Your sins are forgiven” (Luke 7:48b). He healed men and women;
accepted a woman’s precious oil to anoint him for burial and included her in
the proclamation of the gospel: “wherever the good news is proclaimed in the
whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her” (Mark 14:9;
Matthew 26:6). Women went with him on the road to
Initiation into this new community replaces the
covenant sign of
Many commentators and Christians consider that the absence of women among the Twelve speaks against women in spiritual office. These same observers fail to note that, if this were true, it would speak against Gentiles in spiritual office too. The eleven Jews, aware that Judas’s place has to be taken, consider two other Jews and cast lots for them. True, no Gentiles are among the converts yet, and women are, but the judging of the twelve tribes was not so imminent as to exclude waiting for the Gentiles. The point is this: If in the divine economy the Twelve are to represent the new “priesthood” or authentic ministry of the gospel, they fail to represent women and Gentiles alike. The barrier between Jew and Gentile was as great as between male and female, and both barriers were removed by Christ.
It is also worth noting that some writings attributed to Paul are often noted in denying women to the office of ministry and leadership within the church. To this opposition we render a simple argument of logic. It is time for honesty and consistency in the interpretive act. If one is compelled to a literal interpretation of the scripture, then it is imperative that this be pervasively consistent. For example in I Corinthians 14, if one deems appropriate the literal interpretation of “women are to keep silent in the
churches” then the praxis should reflect this interpretive approach.
Therefore, there would be no female voices in choirs
or congregational singing. There would be no women praying out loud. There
would be no women teaching Sunday School or
How is it then, many have interpreted this silencing to be applicable only for positions of leadership within the church? It is time to stop proof texting for our personal advantage or status. In order to be true to the text, it is also imperative that the scripture be interpreted in light of its historical and cultural context. Paul’s letters and those attributed to Paul were addressed to particular people and churches within a particular context. These churches were grappling with concrete issues which the author was attempting to specifically address.
Before making a judgment on the issue of women in
leadership within the church, one must look at the writings of Paul which
support the concept. Paul on his missionary journeys preached to and converted
men and women, and considered men and women his fellow workers. The tentmaker
It is noteworthy to mention what the Confession of Faith states in 1.07: “In order to understand God’s word spoken in and through the scriptures, persons must have the illumination of God’s own Spirit. Moreover, they should study the writings of the Bible in their historical settings, compare scripture with scripture, listen to the witness of the church throughout the centuries, and share insights with others in the covenant community.”
Gains have certainly been made regarding women in ministry, yet, we still have a long way to go. We still express our faith in words that exclude women; we still pay clergywomen lower salaries than we pay clergymen; we often regulate women to declining churches; and we still perpetuate myths and stereotypes that assign second-class status and roles to women.
A women in ministry research project in the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ in June of 1991 entitled Where We Stand makes this important note:
For many congregations the discrimination
[against women] comes in the form of an assumption
that men’s competence can be trusted [ as compared
to women’s competence]. For women, trust is
rarely granted automatically, but must be tested
and proven, and there is always a reserve of
uncertainty in members of the congregation.
Fule, AureliaT. Should Women Keep Silence in the
Grenz, Stanley J. and Denise Muir Kjesbo. Women
in the Church: A Biblical Theology of Women in Ministry.
Melton, J. Gordon. The Churches Speak On:
Webb, Val. Why We’re Equal: Introducing Feminist
Woosley, Louisa M. Shall Woman Preach? Or the