For Men Only? Breaking a Two Thousand-year-old Tradition

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Consecration of Barbara C. Harris as the first woman bishop of the Episcopal Church, U.S., met with strong opposition from some segments of the denomination. Citing tradition and Scripture as the basis for their negative stance, the opposers do not agree to “changing the 2,000- year tradition of ordaining only men to the priesthood and episcopate” (italics added).*


Regardless of Bishop Harris’s spiritual, theological, educational, and experiential qualifications, those opposing her appointment hold tenaciously and unapologetically to the belief that the priesthood is for men only. If supported and continued, such opposition could result in a formal schism among Episcopalians. Harris is to be commended for her obedience to God’s call and for her courage in attempting to lead the church beyond tradition to truth.


My first pastors in the Church of God were co-pastors Samuel and Eleanor Dotty; every other sermon was by a woman. Holiness people accepted leadership because of God’s call, not by sexist standards. Two-week revivals were often conducted by women evangelists. One of the most effective was under the anointed evangelistic preaching of Mabel Lewis, later to become Mabel (Lewis) Powell.


A neighboring pastor, Sophia Fluke, was always active in Kansas state ministries. The full recognition of women in ministry was affirmed by women from that local congregation responding to the call of God, as indicated by Nellie (Fields) Snowden. Women in ministry just seemed “normal” to me.


Across the movement the names of Mary Raab, Wilma Perry, Marie Strong, Amanda Patton, Axchie Bolitho, Diana Swoope, Lillie McCutcheon, Jeannette Flynn, and a host of others verified what I had always been taught. In Christ there is neither male nor female (Gal. 3:28). Scripture supports the gifting of both prophet and prophetess. While acknowledging this theologically and supporting it historically in the ordaining of women, our present involvement of women in ministry indicates that some still appear to believe that pastoral leadership is for men only.


There is a great deal of difference between recognizing a divine call through ordination and through the release of that person into full pastoral leadership. Leadership includes followership, and there are those who may accept women as pastors but find it difficult to follow them.


Rejection can be nonverbal—no outspoken opposition at all—only isolation, exclusion from full participation in key leadership roles. It is as though women are fine in the classrooms, on committees, as writers, and even in some selected positions of executive leadership; but when it comes to full pastoral roles (especially of key churches), we reserve that for men only—even men not as well qualified educationally or as gifted spiritually are preferred over women who are divinely called, educated, and ordained. Such action, whether or not acknowledged or confessed, indicates a drift from our biblical roots.


C. E. Brown strongly supported women in ministry, writing in the Gospel Trumpet, May 27, 1939: “The prevalence of women of a church, a country, or an age. As the church grows more apostolic and more deeply spiritual, women preachers and workers abound in that church; as it grows more worldly and cold, the ministry of women is despised and gradually ceases altogether.” You can read a reprint of his editorial on page 17.


By this measurement, it is not too difficult to see where we are as a movement. In a time of social enlightenment when sexist barriers are being broken down, we in the church seem to have some spiritual blind spots. Prejudice and discrimination are never broken down or destroyed without corrective measures being willfully and intentionally implemented.


With our form of church polity, full acceptance of women in ministry cannot be legislated. It will be realized only when the church repents and removes the mind-set that reads “for men only”—the mind-set that expects and requires women to compensate by being more qualified than men. Only then will women be released to exercise their full potential as pastors.


For men only is neither scriptural nor spiritual in the Christian community.


* “Consecration of Bishop Stirs Episcopal Dissent,” Christianity Today (March 17, 1989), 41.


Arlo Newell is editor in chief of Warner Press, Inc. Publication Board of the Church of God.


Newell, A. F. (May, 1989). For men only? Breaking a two-thousand-year-old tradition. Vital Christianity, 12–13.


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