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Published Date: January 30, 1997

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Setting the Record Straight: A Response to J.I. Packer’s Position on Women’s Ordination

Introduction: A Summary of the Argument

On February 11, 1991, Christianity Today carried an article by J. I. Packer titled “Let’s Stop Making Women Presbyters.” In it Packer asserted that Protestants are abandoning the position traditionally held by Roman Catholics, Orthodox and evangelicals with respect to the ordination of women. Packer attributed the growing trend to five factors:

  1. Feminism has infiltrated the church. According to Packer, “feminist ideology demands equal rights everywhere, on the grounds that anything a man can do a woman can do as well if not better.”1
  2. The socialization of women since World War I has permitted them to enter spheres previously open only to men.2
  3. The New Testament passages on women speaking in church (1 Cor 14:34-35) and teaching men (1 Tim 2:11- 14) have proved “problematic” both in their interpretation and application.3
  4. God apparently has blessed ministries led by women.
  5. Ordination with its incumbent status and privileges has provided a certain degree of “job-satisfaction” to females in professional ministry roles.4

Packer concludes his introduction by claiming that if his analysis is correct, then “the present-day pressure to make women presbyters owes more to secular, pragmatic, and social factors than to any regard for biblical authority.”5

In considering Packer’s article, we at last feel compelled to respond because his specific arguments continue to be so widely cited. We hear the objections that he raises so often, and we differ substantially in our view on women’s ordination. With due respect to Packer’s erudition and contribution to evangelical thought, we do not see women’s ordination as merely a by-product of modernity. We firmly believe that Scripture has consistently affirmed the ministry of women and placed equality at the core of God’s redemptive purposes since the very beginning.6

In contradistinction to Packer, we understand biblical feminism as a liberating force. When harnessed with the Scriptures, feminism can be a Spirit-led movement which liberates women and men through God’s truth and empowers them to serve in the spiritual, social, political and economic realms as witnesses to God’s saving grace. Initially, attention may be focused on the situation and needs of women, but ultimately Christians working toward gender reconciliation and equality are seeking to benefit both sexes for the furtherance of God’s glory. As with any cause, however, we must distinguish between the positive and negative forces that are at work. Thus, we support the empowerment of women in so far as it honors God, and refuse to support efforts not done in the spirit of love and truth.

Our response to Packer’s article begins with an examination of the biblical texts which we deem relevant to the discussion of women’s ordination, including the ones to which Packer refers. In the course of our examination we will consider the meaning of “head” in the Pauline passages, the original creation mandates and the quality of relationship to be enjoyed between men and women, and also the fact of Jesus’ “maleness.”7 Next we will consider the historical contributions of evangelical women to American feminism, the biblical criteria for leadership, and the theological principle underlying ordination. We will conclude by affirming why we believe women should be ordained.

Part I: The Biblical Record

Are Women Permitted to Teach and Preach?

Packer asserts that 1 Corinthians 14:34f debars women from “speaking in church” and 1 Timothy 2:11-14 prohibits women from “teaching and giving directions to men.”8 However, any interpretation which builds “a universal church order”9 on a few verses which are highly debatable both exegetically and theologically is suspect. Most biblical scholars admit that 1 Timothy 2:11-12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-36 are difficult passages to translate from the original Greek, and are therefore difficult to understand.10 Nevertheless, instead of trying to reconcile these few problematic passages with the plain teaching of the rest of the Bible, Packer surprisingly lends unequivocal authority to two or three ambiguous passages. Packer thereby violates a fundamental principle of biblical interpretation by asserting self-contradicting teachings. Packer commits this grave error in his interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:11f and 1 Corinthinians 14:34f, and also in the implication for leadership that he draws from his understanding of these passages.

Although Packer’s assumption is that 1 Timothy debars women from “teaching and giving directions to men,”11 such a Pauline prohibition would not only contradict Paul himself but also other Bible passages. For example, 1 Timothy 3:12 addresses women deacons in church leadership. In Romans 16, Paul commends by name Phoebe, Prisca, Junia (a female apostle), Mary, and Neureus’ sister as his “co-laborers”— thereby honoring these women and affirming their authority as ministers of the gospel. Furthermore, the Old Testament is replete with examples of women in spiritual, national and domestic leadership. Judges exalts Deborah’s military prowess and religious authority. 1 Kings 22 describes Huldah exercising the prophetic office, and Proverbs 31 praises woman’s spiritual, professional and domestic leadership.

Packer’s suggestion that 1 Corinthians 14:34-36 “debar[s] women from . . . speaking in church,”12 creates severe interpretative difficulties in light of Paul’s overall teaching. Earlier in 1 Corinthians 11:2, Paul commends the congregation at Corinth for “keeping the ordinances, as [he] delivered.” The ordinances to which he refers include nothing less than both women and men praying and prophesying in church. Then, in 1 Corinthians 14:1 Paul exhorts the congregation of women and men to “eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy,” gifts which clearly involve speaking, teaching and giving instructions. In verse 26 of the same chapter, as in verse 31, Paul acknowledges that “when [God’s people] come together, everyone [women or men] has a hymn or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation” (emphasis added). He then most emphatically stresses the fact that “All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church.” Yet according to Packer’s interpretation, while Paul’s command to women and men to prophecy, teach and speak in tongues is still ringing in the ears of women and men as the apostolic letter is being read aloud in the congregation, in verses 34 and 35 Paul suddenly changes his mind and forbids women in the very same congregation from speaking in church! Such an interpretation makes Paul not only a confused writer, but also an uninspired one. If we believe that all Scripture is God-inspired, including the portions written by Paul, we must seek an interpretation that expresses inner consistency and logic. Otherwise, we run the risk of calling God the author of confusion.

In exploring this “hard passage,” one approach is that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 be understood as Paul’s quote from Corinth’s letter to him,13 especially since there is no “law” anywhere in Scripture that forbids women from speaking in the congregation of God’s people.14 Thus verse 36 would give Paul’s rather strong reaction to a Corinthian belief: “Did the word of God originate with you?” Verse 37 would then assert that both women and men exercising their gifts (including speaking and teaching as the Holy Spirit gives utterance) to build up one another “is the Lord’s command.”

Packer claims that a few passages in the Bible, such as those found in 1 Timothy and 1 Corinthians, prohibit women from being “presbyters,” “speaking in church” and “teaching and giving directions to men.”15 But at the same time Packer states, “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.”16 He goes on to say, though, that this should be done “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”17 (italics ours).

It is extraordinary that Packer insists that the Bible forbids women from speaking in church, and yet he would still allow women to preach and teach as long as a man is in charge. Here Packer is committing two grave errors:

  1. He establishes as a biblical principle that women cannot speak and teach, then nullifies that very principle by asserting his opinion that women can teach and preach;
  2. He insists that a woman preach only “under” a man, thereby exalting male authority over the Word of God.

Packer’s argument not only lacks inner coherence but demonstrates the danger of formulating a doctrine based on a few ambiguous passages.

In contrast, we affirm that the authority that resides in the Word of God is neither augmented nor diminished by the sex of the preacher or teacher. Therefore, one cannot assert that men have more authority when preaching and teaching the Word of God than women do (or women more than men). As Christians, we cannot serve two masters. If the Word of God is the ultimate arbiter in matters of faith and doctrine, then we cannot continue espousing men’s supremacy over God’s Word. Insofar as Packer’s “male headship principle” competes with God for authority, we must override this supposed principle by the authority of God’s Word.

Challenging the Definitions of “Head”

Packer acknowledges that God gifts women to preach and teach and that women’s preaching and teaching carries God’s authority. At the same time, Packer insists that two Pauline passages forbid women from even speaking in church. In his effort to reconcile both beliefs, he holds on to the socalled “male headship principle”18 and bases his thinking on his interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11:3 and Ephesians 5:23. However, it remains unclear as to exactly what Packer means by “the male headship principle.” For Packer, are all women supposed to submit to all men, or only the wife to her husband? What is the universally accepted age for attaining to manhood? Should a mother obey her son, because he is her “head”? One wonders how male slaves managed their female owners when the church sanctioned slavery!

Contrary to popular opinion, the word translated “head” in Corinthians and Ephesians does not suggest male authority over women, unless we read the meaning of “ruler” or “the one in charge” into the word “head.” Although many people have taught man’s rule over woman as God’s design, such a model of relating to one another is untenable in light of the Corinthian context. For, if “head” in 1 Corinthians 11 does suggest a hierarchy or chain of command, then how would we understand the immediately preceding verse, “God is the head of Christ” (1 Cor 11:3)? Applying such a definition of “head” to the Godhead would imply that hierarchy and inequality exist within the Trinity, a teaching that the early councils rejected as the heresy of Subordinationism. “Head,” therefore, cannot mean “ruler” or “one with authority” in the above passage.

Paul, however, does explain his use of the word “head” in his discussion of origins (1 Cor 11:8, 11-12), where he defines “head” (kephale in Greek) as the “origin” of beings.19 Paul’s argument proceeds as follows:

  1. Adam is the origin of Eve in creation, and in this sense her “head”;
  2. All men, since Adam, have come from women, implying that woman is now man’s “head”;
  3. Finally, both man and woman ultimately originate from God, therefore God is the “head” of all.

According to Paul’s account of Creation (which is consistent with Genesis 2), Adam was not formed because of Eve, but Eve was formed because of Adam’s need: It was not good in God’s eyes for the man to be alone. Therefore in answer to that need, God said, “I will make a helper suitable for him” (Gen 2:18). Most significantly, the Hebrew word “helper” (ezer) does not denote an “assistant” or “subordinate” but rather a person of equal (or even greater) strength and ability than the one being helped.

Remarkably, however, most English translations of 1 Corinthians 11:9 replace the word “because” with “for” or “for the sake of,” despite the fact that the New Testament consistently translates the very same word in the given grammatical construction as “because” (as is the case in 1 Corinthians 11:10, “because of the angels”). The biased, inaccurate, and misleading translation “Eve was formed for the sake of Adam” makes the purpose of Eve’s existence seem male-oriented rather than God-oriented. The more accurate translation “Eve was formed because of Adam” reveals the underlying reason for the woman’s creation. The man needed her (Gen 2:18), and she is God’s crowning act in creation. Only after the creation of the man and then the woman does God declare his creative work to be very good (Gen 1:27, 31).

In addition, the exact meaning of “authority” or “exercise authority” in 1 Corinthians 11:10 can also suffer from biased translations (some of which even make significant additions to the original text). In a translation closest to the original Greek, the King James Version renders this verse: “For this cause ought the woman to have authority on [her] head because of the angels.” Most other translations obscure this text by wrongly adding words such as “a veil on her head” (RSV), “symbol of authority on her head” (NRSV, NASB), “sign of authority on her head” (NIV, NEB). One popular translation makes these gratuitous additions: “…a woman should have a covering over her head to show that she is under her husband’s authority” (TEV), and the Living Bible paraphrase goes even further: “so a woman should wear a covering on her head as a sign that she is under man’s authority, a fact for all the angles to notice and rejoice in.”

However, the New Testament usage of the words “exercise authority” does not permit such translations (and additions). The word is always used in the active voice, and the object of authority always refers to someone or something other than the one exercising authority. 

Admittedly, the terseness of the original Greek poses translation challenges, and scholars are not able at this time to translate these verses uniformly (and therefore there can be no uniform interpretation either). However, in view of God’s own designation of woman and man as mutual rulers (Gen 1:28) and God’s creation of woman in answer to man’s need, and in light of the strong implication that woman herself is called to exercise authority (1 Cor 11:10), might Paul be arguing that at Creation woman as helper (a strong concept in Hebrew) was invested with authority which she is free to exercise? For, significantly, Paul next describes the mutual nature of authority: “Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman. For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman: but all things come from God” (1 Cor 11:11-12).

For Paul, authority must be placed in the context of interdependence. Thus, in the new community of Christ (“in the Lord”), woman and man enjoy mutual authority and practice mutual submission. (See also Paul’s exhortations to marriage partners to exercise mutual authority, 1 Cor 7:3-4.) Of course, ultimately women and men must both submit to the authority of God, their Creator to whom they both owe their being.

In Ephesians 5:23, as in 1 Corinthians 11:3, Paul states that “the husband is the head of the wife,” but nowhere does the apostle mention “the male headship principle.”20 Admittedly, there is a “principle” pertaining to the head/body analogy, but that is not the kind Paul uses here. In Ephesians, when Paul talks of Christ as the head of the church he describes Christ as source—the one who gave himself up for the church in order to give her life; Christ is the first fruit of the resurrection; Christ is the “head” stone or the corner stone of the church, who supports and binds its members together; he is the one who nourishes her and causes her to grow (Eph 4:15,16; Col 2:19). Christ is the head of this body, and the two partake of “one flesh” as do husband and wife. Christ reigns over all and calls the church to share in his reign, as the first man and woman shared God’s dominion over creation in the garden before the Fall (Eph 1:21-23).

In drawing the parallel between Christ/Church and man/ woman in Ephesians 5:21-33, Paul exhorts the woman to submit to the man, and commands the man to love the woman sacrificially, as Christ gave himself up for the church. In this call to love and submission, some interpreters hear a divine appeal to separate roles: men love, women submit. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Significantly, the love described in 1 Corinthians 13 looks identical to submission. Loving others, the second of the greatest commandments, is demanded of both men and women. Paul summons both men and women to “a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph 5:2), and also calls them to mutual submission (Eph 5:21). Paul views love as essential to the proper exercise of any spiritual gift (1 Cor 12-13), and views submission as a result of being filled with the Spirit.21 Thus, both mutual love and mutual submission are integrally tied to a life in the Spirit.

We submit that the word for “head” has been consistently misinterpreted, because better translation and interpretation would yield the truth of mutual submission and thus threaten the false assumption that women should always submit to men. Unmistakably, Ephesians 5:21 commands us “to be subject to one another out of reverence to Christ” (italics ours), clearly requiring men to be subject to women and women to be subject to men. Those who believe (as does Packer) that authority lies in the Scriptures and not in the male sex, should submit to a woman when she is proclaiming, speaking, or living out the truth. Failing to submit to a woman who proclaims God’s truth is tantamount to failing to submit to God. Furthermore, a man or a woman who is always assertive and leading the way runs the risk of not submitting himself or herself to the lordship of Christ and not imitating Christ’s sacrificial love.22 On the other hand, a person who always depends on his or her spouse to lead abdicates the responsibility of exercising his or her God-given authority and may even compromise the lordship of Christ by serving another master, namely one’s spouse.23

The Relationship Between Adam and Eve in Creation

Packer supports what he calls “the creation pattern.”24 According to him, although man and woman are equal “in personal dignity” as image bearers, “God has set them in nonreversible relation to each other.”25 He goes on to elaborate that a “man [is made] 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.”26 His assertion is based on the erroneous notion of “male headship”27 and on an inadequate understanding of the words “helper” and “rib.”28 As we have already discussed, Paul’s usage of the word “head” does not imply that men ought to lead women, but rather that they are inextricably connected to one another as a head to a body.29 In studying the word “helper,” it is astounding to note that the whole Old Testament never once uses this word (ezer in Hebrew) to refer to an inferior.30 Instead, the word most often designates God as the helper who comes to rescue Israel. A careful study of “helper” used in the Hebrew Scriptures demonstrates that it reflects power and strength and “taking responsibilities for the well being”31 of the helpless. If Packer’s sentiment that “God has set [man and woman] in a nonreversible relation”32 is true, then one has to assert that since woman, and not the man, is designated the “helper,” it is the woman who is to fulfill exclusively the role of leading, initiating and protecting man!

In addition, the translation “rib” is problematic. The word translated “rib” in Genesis 2:21 occurs 42 times in the Old Testament and is never translated as “rib” except here.33 Elsewhere the word is usually translated “side, or sides,” or sometimes “chambers.” Furthermore, we cannot accept the interpretation supplied by the rabbinic tradition and many other commentaries, which assume that the creation of Eve from Adam’s “rib” suggests her physical, spiritual and moral inferiority. In contrast, Adam’s own words of praise “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” emphasize the striking similarity between man and woman. The point is that they are like each other, and that when joined in marriage they become one flesh.34

As Paul clearly recognizes in 1 Corinthians 11:3, 11f, there is nothing in Creation that suggests a distinction of roles according to sex. Hierarchy in human relationship came as a consequence of sin, and is not an end to be desired.35 In Eden, “God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitfuland multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it’ ” (Gen 1:28, italics ours). God gave a mandate to both woman and man as equal partners and did not designate certain responsibilities as men’s work and other responsibilities as women’s work.36 Packer’s pattern of man’s leadership and woman’s submission  amounts to nothing more than inherited cultural assumptions of what it means to be a “manly man” and a “womanly woman” (to quote Packer).37 Unfortunately, however, many Christians take it for granted that the definition Packer and others supply is God’s order. These Christians join Packer in reading male “rulership” into the Scriptures simply because for most of human history, including the present time, the male sex has indeed been dominating the female sex. They consider it only “natural” to think that God’s will is for man to rule and woman to submit.

God constantly challenges us to re-evaluate our cultural norms and submit these norms to the light of the totality of biblical truth. Thus, when we take seriously the doctrine of total depravity, we must scrutinize every culture, tradition and teaching, especially those that are considered “natural.” Yet oddly enough, while Christian doctrine readily admits to individual depravity, Christian doctrine seems more reluctant to admit to corporate depravity. In other words, many Christians have no problem subscribing to the basic tenet that individuals are sinners who need to be saved, but overlook the need of human cultures—the product of sinners—to be redeemed.

The Maleness of Christ

Packer states: “[T]hat Jesus’ maleness is basic to his role as our incarnate Savior is a matter of biblical revelation.”38 While it is true that Jesus was born as a male child, the Scriptures do not celebrate his gender as an intrinsic or eternal quality of Christ. Packer’s assumption completely ignores the central teaching of the Bible concerning who Christ really is and whom he really represents as “Son” and as “adam”39 or “anthropos.”

According to the Scriptures, Christ is the “Son.” The phrase “Son of Man” (Dan 7:13; Matt 26:64; 12:8) identifies the coming king as fully human, and the title “Son of God” (Matt 4:3) identifies Christ as equal with God. Both are Messianic titles that point to Jesus’ essential nature as fully human and fully divine. When God declares Christ as “my Son” (Ps 2:7; Heb 1:5; 5:5) before the incarnation, God is not saying that Christ is born as a male child in eternity. The title “Son” or “Father” does not identify God as male. On the contrary, God explicitly declares, “I am God, and not male, the Holy One among you” (Hos 11:9, italics ours).40 Being Yahweh God and being male are mutually exclusive. Those who claim that the designation “Son” or “Father” be understood in terms of the sex of the persons of the Godhead are committing the tragic mistake of creating a pantheon of male gods.

With respect to the reference to Christ as adam, Romans 5:14 says Adam was “the figure of him that was to come,” namely Christ. Traditionally, the Hebrew word adam in Romans has been taken as a proper noun designating the male person Adam. However, the word adam first appears in Scripture as a collective noun, referring to the collective entity comprised of man and woman.41 Humankind would be a suitable equivalent.

In the Garden, God made man and woman as one flesh, one collective entity, and referred to them as such.42 Romans 5 understands the “adam” (Hebrew) of 5:14 as the one “anthropos” (Greek for “humankind”, see also 5:12,19; 1 Cor 15:21)43 through whose one offense (Rom 5:15-18) sin entered into the world. In the above passage, both “adam” and “anthropos” refer to male and female as one entity. Adam was created as male and female: They were created to be one flesh (Gen 2:24), and they sinned as one flesh, committing one collective offense. As the creation of humankind (adam) was complete when the woman was formed, so was the transgression complete when the man sinned. In Genesis 3:22 and 23, God similarly refers to Adam and Eve as one entity: “The adam [human kind=Adam and Eve] has become as one of us . . . lest he put forth his hand . . . God sent him out of the garden to till the adama44 out of which he was taken. And [God] drove the adam out” (italics ours). Reading adam as a proper noun for the male would lead to the conclusion that Eve was never driven out of the Garden! Instead, we conclude that Adam and Eve were driven out together and that the adam in Genesis 3:22-23 is a collective noun. In short, the “adam” of Romans 5:14 refers not to the first male person, but to both the first man and woman. Therefore, Christ, who represents the whole human race, comes as anthropos. “For since death is through anthropos, also through anthropos is a resurrection of the dead, for in adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Cor 15:21).

Although for Packer “it will always be easier…if [Christ’s] human agent and representative is also male,” taking Packer’s reasoning to its logical conclusion means saying that based on the particularities of Jesus’ social status, religious heritage and sexuality, only free Jewish males can sufficiently represent Christ and qualify for ordination—thus effectively excluding the majority of past and present Christians! Packer’s argument that women cannot represent Christ as well as men by the mere fact that in human form Christ was male is unfounded.

In addition, it is our authoritative Scripture that declares Christ represents all humanity, not only males. Christ redeems our humanity, not “maleness.” Yet, sadly, what for Packer is “a matter of common sense” would render Christ an insufficient redeemer for half of humankind. However, we dare not reverse what Christ has done in creation and redemption in providing salvation for the whole human race.

Christ calls all believers to pursue the way of the Cross. There are not two ways: “Men, love. Women, submit.” The most excellent gift of the Spirit is for both women and men. Christ commissions both women and men to make disciples of all nations. Our risen Lord did not say, “Men, preach. Women, support them.” The Holy Spirit fills both women and men and equally gifts them. Finally, God calls everyone to godliness and Christ-likeness. The Bible does not say, “Men, be manly men; women, be womanly women.”45 Christ came as anthropos. In human time and space, he was a free Jewish man, but class, ethnicity and gender are only temporal categories. Christ says that there is no marriage in heaven, implying that our sexual identity is earth-bound. The word of God declares, “…for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 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 or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:26-28). Indeed, all believers are called by Christ, belong to Christ, are clothed with Christ, and are gifted by the Spirit of Christ. These aspects are intrinsic to who we are as the children and heirs of God (Rom 8:14-17, 1 Pet 2:9, 3:7).

Part II: The Historical Record

The Roots of the Feminist Movement

While we share Packer’s high view of God’s revelation, we understand that revelation to include what God has done in history. Sociological factors are not the ultimate determination of our lives, but we cannot afford to underestimate the role history and society have in shaping our theology. All knowledge, including theology, is socially informed. Therefore, we must now investigate the origins of feminism in the United States in order to evaluate Packer’s statement that feminism is a secular movement.

Packer asserts that “the social change since World War I …has made opening the presbyterate to women appear as plain common sense.”46 Then as quickly as he expresses this opinion, he dismisses such a sociological phenomenon as irreconcilable with his theological positions and therefore not worth his further attention. However, based on our research, we cannot sustain Packer’s assumption that feminism is merely a secular twentieth-century force.

Contrary to Packer’s assertion, the feminist stirrings that impacted the Christian West did not originate with the social upheavals of World War I.47 A century before that war, many women were already advocating a greater voice in society. Moreover, when we examine the historical record we learn that, in the United States, the church stood at the forefront of the feminist movement.

Before the Civil War, a revival swept through New England that produced both spiritual awakening and social emancipation. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Sojourner Truth and other sisters risked their lives in the fight for the abolition of slavery. In 1848 at Seneca Falls, New York, “happily married wives, mothers of large families, former slaves and educated girls” gave birth to the women’s suffrage movement.48 After the Civil War, Christian women formed female benevolent and missions associations. Free from male domination and control, these women were able to publish their own periodicals, develop educational curricula, recruit missionaries, raise millions of dollars for missions and start missionary training schools which later became Bible schools.49 Women also played a leading role in establishing settlement houses, providing relief for the sick and the destitute, and advocating prison reform. Christian women marched in the front lines of the Prohibitionist Movement, opposing the moral ills associated with drunkenness—ills that included poverty, wife abuse, prostitution, and the destruction of the family.50 Steeped in Christian faith and empowered by biblical convictions, our nineteenth-century foremothers paved the way for the social equality between the sexes that we enjoy today.

During World War I, to replace men who entered the armed forces, women had been employed outside the home in greater numbers than before and in a variety of paid positions. But when men returned from the war, many women abdicated those positions outside the home in order to accommodate the new male work force. Thus after 1920 the women’s movement actually lost some of its momentum.

The theological winds had also shifted. The optimism and urgency that spurred a woman like Phoebe Palmer to preach to lost souls in order that they may be saved and usher in the day of the Lord, was giving way to a new thirst for hierarchy and order.51 Dispensationalism, which dominated fundamentalist circles during the mid-twentieth century, emphasized God’s distinct operations in certain eras. Presuming feminine subordination in the modern era, dispensationalists began a systematic effort to curtail women’s activities. Through deliberate policy moves, coeducational Bible schools now became predominantly male bastions of learning.52

In the early twentieth century there was also a strong push to make Christianity more appealing to men. To bring men into the pews, preachers relied heavily on military and athletic imagery and depicted Jesus as a virile “robust, red-blooded man.”53 Men absorbed women’s missionary societies.54 Pulpits increasingly became the exclusive realm of male preachers and pastors. Since World War II, women in conservative, independent, evangelical churches have found themselves almost exclusively ministering to other women and children.55

At present the Christian feminist agenda varies widely, and many feminists have deviated significantly from their Christian moorings, or abandoned Christianity altogether as hopelessly misogynist. Nevertheless, even radical secular feminists who have been sensitive to the injustices women face have provided a necessary critique of church and society. We in the Church need to confess our culpability in promoting inequality and hostility between men and women. As local congregations and denominations, we need to repent of unfair practices that not only allow but encourage women to serve overseas in the same capacity as men, but restrict women’s roles back in the USA. We need to repent of our unwillingness to accord women the same respect as men, an attitude that has too often overlooked the ministry of women, leaving them“veiled and silenced.”56

Gifts and Godliness: God’s Criteria for Service

While we disagree with Packer’s location of the origins of modern feminism, we could not agree more with his statement on gifts:

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.57 God has indeed called both men and women to exercise their gifts for the building up of the body (Rom 12:4-8; 1 Cor 12:4-26, Eph 4:11-12).58 To restrict women’s gifts is to disobey God.

The New Testament teaching about gifts always occurs in the context of a discussion of the interdependence of Christ’s body. The Spirit assigns gifts to women and men for the explicit purpose of enriching their common life. It is our gifts, not our sex, that determines our function in the body. Everyone’s gifts exist for the benefit of one another and thus the “common good” (1 Cor 12:7).

On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was poured out on women and men. Empowered by the Spirit, God’s sons and daughters spoke in tongues and prophesied. When they preached, thousands were converted. It was not their masculinity or femininity that drew people to the Lord, but their Christ-likeness. They had witnessed the risen Christ; they had prayed and received the Spirit; they had evangelized and made disciples—all in obedience to their Lord.

As a result of the Spirit’s work, God’s reign is open to all flesh—men and women of all ages, races and classes. We do not earn salvation, nor does salvation depend on our sexual identity; we are saved by grace. Likewise, we do not carry out the work of Christ in our own strength, whether male or female, but in the power of the Holy Spirit. We are in error if we think that we are initiated into God’s kingdom by the Spirit and then accomplish God’s work by the flesh. The Spirit calls and empowers us all, and the same Spirit that dwells in women dwells in men, for there is only one Spirit.

The church lived by the egalitarian teaching of Christ during its earliest days. Freed from bondage to the world and filled with the Holy Spirit, in the early church women ministered as apostles, preachers, teachers, evangelists, deacons and ministers. But after Christianity was declared the state religion of the Roman Empire, the church adopted an increasingly hierarchical structure of administration. As ecclesial offices became increasingly institutionalized, decrees were issued by the church’s male-management to prohibit women from being ordained as bishops and ministers (cf. the Council of Nicea).

With the rise of Pentecostalism in our own day and the ordination of women in many mainline denominations, we are indeed witnessing a new wave of women entering the ministry. The increase follows historical precedence. Whenever major revivals have occurred, God has raised up women to pave the way for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. For despite cultural repression or the passage of time, God’s criteria for leadership remains the same: the person must be godly and gifted.

Why Ordain Women?

Packer contends that groups that actively support women’s ordination “fail to read out of Scripture any principle that directly requires such action [ordaining women].”59 Packer correctly observes that the Bible nowhere demands women to be ordained, but if the whole truth is to be known, neither does Scripture demand men to be ordained. Ordination is simply a human symbol that affirms God’s calling for a person’s life.

Significantly, while the word “ordination” may be absent from the biblical vocabulary, the Scriptures are replete with instances describing the process of God’s election. Anointing was a means by which God’s people acknowledged a divine appointment. In the Old Testament, in obedience to God, Israel poured olive oil on the heads of prophets, priests and kings.60 In the New Testament, churches prayed and laid hands on individuals whom God had called.61

As time passed and the church became more established, the formal ceremony surrounding the confirmation of God’s servants grew more elaborate. In the Constantinian era (4th century AD), the ordained office even came to be associated with political power and status. However, regardless of the mode of human confirmation, the divine pattern remains the same. The initiative and the authority to choose workers resides with God. It is God who calls people into ministry. We participate by confirming the decision and celebrating God’s wisdom.

Packer condemns women’s ordination as “one more sign of the undiscerning worldliness of late twentieth-century Western Christianity.”62 We too are disconcerted by how ordination has contributed to the unhealthy divide between the clergy and laity, as we are also painfully aware of the world’s corrupt influence and the gross abuses of power associated with ordination. In all fairness, however, such distortions should not prevent women, any more than men, from being ordained. The process needs reform, but that does not mean we must abandon the practice altogether.

Changing the Status Quo

Along with providing teaching that is more consistent with God’s intentions in calling both women and men into ministry, we need to create a more hospitable place for women to exercise their gifts in the church. By example and by precept, we need to teach men and women how to submit to God’s appointed leaders regardless of their sex. We can encourage women to discover their God-given talents by giving women more opportunities to lead in worship, pray in public, teach adults and preach to a mixed audience. Regardless of marital status or vocation, women are called to cultivate their gifts and character in order to glorify God, and it is our duty as their sisters and brothers to encourage them to do so. At the same time we need to affirm women whom God calls to focus their energies and talents on the home front as much as we support women who have careers outside the home.

Change on the individual level, however, cries out for structural changes. Until the church’s ruling bodies, including denominations, act according to the biblical precepts regarding God’s appointments, we will continue to stifle God’s Spirit from doing an even greater work among us. As members of Christ’s worldwide church, we need to correct the gross imbalance between male and female leadership at all levels in the church and in society. Championing the cause of Christ for women may call for all kinds of actions that take us beyond the confines of our own congregation. God may be calling some of us to join forces with secular movements to work for change in the political and economic sectors. As we redress the situation that has hindered women and men from working together for God’s kingdom, we are confident that a fresh outpouring of the Spirit will accompany such changes.

We cannot condemn feminist ideology or the growing female work force—factors that Packers cites as contributing to the present move to ordain women—simply because theyare modern realities. Instead, we need to ask what Truth would demand of us. Then and only then can we act responsibly amidst the complex social, political and economic realities of our times. Although change is always to some extent unsettling, we cannot base our views on the assumption that any social change must mark a further fall from grace. Only by adhering to Truth can we redeem the feminist agenda and bring it under the Lordship of Christ.

Indeed, what message promises more hope and healing in the area of gender reconciliation than the good news that Christ came to make women and men co-heirs of God’s reign? From the beginning, God intended Adam and Eve to rule Eden together. Yet ever since the fall, Satan has been wreaking havoc with women’s and men’s relationships, sowing discord and jealousy and turning the Church into a battleground for the sexes. But it is God who has the final say, and ever since that fateful day, God has been redeeming and restoring creation. God’s order of love challenges the status quo between men and women. Where injustice and sin reign, change is not an option—it is God’s requirement. God’s power to redeem is so great that God can take areas of rupture and pain and make them the focus of divine healing and empowering. When a redemption of such magnitude takes place, then we will experience the deep sense of wholeness and unity for which we were created.

Conclusion: Our Common Standard

When all is said and done, it is not what J. I. Packer believes or what we believe that counts, but what is true. If the ordination of women is unbiblical, then it would stand to reason that it should not be practiced at all. But if the possibility exists that we have misread or mistranslated our Scriptures, or are unsure of what the counsel of God says, we owe it to ourselves and to our sisters and brothers to study the subject more fully and to withhold judgment until we discern more clearly what God’s Word says. On the other hand, if we are convinced that God yearns to see more women serving as leaders in the church, then we need to encourage women to serve in capacities consistent with their gifts and to celebrate their ordination whole-heartedly.

Packer shares our conviction that we need to submit our beliefs and practices to God’s dictates. And surely all believers need to keep striving towards the goal of more fully embracing God’s teaching. God’s reign is far wider than any of us can imagine. Only as we determine to obey God will we be in a position to receive greater vision from God. Only a commitment to following God’s Spirit and Word can move us beyond traditions and habits that keep us tied to an old and inferior order.

Male-exalting teaching is not uncommon. Indeed, since the Fall men have ruled women. Unfortunately, many of us have therefore assumed that this blight on human relationships is God’s intended pattern of relating to one another. Sadly, those who perceive male hierarchy as part of the order of creation seem to ignore the fact that ever since the Fall God has raised up (and blessed) women to rule, lead, save and instruct his people. According to Packer, God’s choice of women leaders, or what he labels “intrinsically inappropriate arrangements,” were the exception to the rule. God, however, never blesses what is intrinsically wrong, but what is right. Furthermore, when Packer appeals to our “common sense” in support of “the male headship principle,” he forgets that since the Fall what common sense calls normal is often sin which has become widely accepted. Male dominance is sinful, but socially tolerated around the world. God, nevertheless, persists in restoring what is good, and that good is intended for men and women as they both answer God’s call to use their gifts in his service.


  1. J. I. Packer, “Let’s Stop Making Women Presbyters,” Christianity Today 35 (February 11, 1991): 18.
  2. Ibid, 18.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid, 18. In fact, with men returning from both world wars, many women resigned their positions outside the home to accommodate the returning work force.
  5. Ibid, 18.
  6. God created men and women as equals (Gen 1:27) and gave them the same responsibilities (1:28), never once dividing the labor in the Garden according to sex.
  7. Packer, 20. Packer never defines his use of the term “maleness,” whether he means by it “masculinity” or “male sex.” For further discussion, see the section on “The Maleness of Christ.”
  8. Ibid, 18.
  9. Ibid.
  10. While we concede that they are complicated and ambiguous, we also point out that part of the frustration in dealing with the so called “difficult passages,” including 1 Cor 11 and Eph 5, is that we have repeatedly encountered poor translations that have already biased the case against women in leadership roles.
  11. Packer, 18.
  12. Ibid, 18.
  13. Paul quotes from Corinth’s letter throughout his letter, immediately giving his response. One example would be 6:12: “All things are lawful for me,” to which Paul’s response is “but not all things are beneficial.” Katherine C. Bushnell, God’s Word to Women. (New York: North Collins, no date supplied), Lesson 27.
  14. See Gretchen Gaebelein Hull, Equal To Serve (Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company), 258. She provides a bibliography for the interpretation of the word “law:” for “the Rabbinic tradition of women’s silence in worship (Jewett, Man as Male and Female, 114; Gundry, Woman Be Free!, 70); Jewish and pagan laws restricting public participation of women (Liefeld, “Women, Submission, and Ministry,” 149).
  15. Ibid, 18.
  16. Ibid, 21.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid, 18.
  19. See Catherine Clark Kroeger, “The Classical Concept of Head as “Source,” Appendix III in Gretchen Gaebelein Hull’s Equal to Serve (Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1987), 267ff. See also Alvera and Berkeley Mickelsen, “What Does Kephale Mean in the New Testament?” in Women, Authority and the Bible, ed. Alvera Mickelsen (Downers Grove, Illinois, InterVarsity Press, 1986), 97-110, and and Philip Barton Payne “Response” in Women, Authority and the Bible, 118-32 in which the authors argue that kephale means “source of life.”
  20. Ibid, 18.
  21. Eph 5:21 “submitting to one another our of reverence for Christ” is a dependent clause of “Be filled with the Spirit” (5:18).
  22. “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave, just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt 20:25-28, italics ours) (NIV).
  23. “You have only one master and you are all brothers and sisters” (Matt 23:8, italics ours) (NIV).
  24. Packer, 20.
  25. Ibid, 20.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Ibid, p.20. Packer thinks that Paul asserts male headship, not simply in marriage (Eph 5:23), but in the human race as such (1 Cor 11:3, 11f.). However, we saw already that the “head” can mean origin of being: (1) Christ is the origin of human race; (2) Man is the origin of woman. (3) God is the origin of all.
  28. Ibid, p. 20. For Packer, “Eve being made from Adam’s rib, to be a help to him” (italics ours) is a reason why she may not be a leader or initiator.
  29. See the section on Challenging Definitions of “Head.”
  30. “Helper” is used twice of Eve (Gen 2:18, 20) and three times of human help for those in trouble (Is 30:5, Ez 12:14, Dan 11:34); in all other instances it designates divine help. The psalmist cries out, “The helpless commit themselves to you [Lord]; you have been the helper of the orphan” (Ps 10:14), and “Surely, God is my helper. The Lord is the upholder of my life” (Ps 54:4).
  31. Packer sees this as the non-reversible role for man, p. 20.
  32. Packer, 20.
  33. Bushnell, Lesson 5.
  34. See Aida Besançon Spencer. Beyond the Curse (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 19 ), 23-29.
  35. God’s prediction that “He will rule over you” (Gen 3:16) comes after the fall, as a consequence of sin.
  36. Even after the fall, there are no role distinctions prescribed by God, even as God’s Word in Gen 3:23 states that “The Lord God banished [Adam and Eve] from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which [they] had been taken.” Joy Elasky Fleming understands the prediction “I will greatly multiply your sorrow” (Gen. 3:16) to refer to the labor of the land. Like Adam who will sweat and suffer as he toils the ground, which has been cursed for his sake, Eve too will meet with frustration and weariness as she toils the ground. Fleming bases her interpretation on the three occurrences of ‘itsabon (the Hebrew word translated variously as “sorrow,” “toil” and “pain”). Each usage speaks of the hard work associated with tilling the ground (Gen 3:17, 5:29). See Joy Elasky Fleming, Man and Woman in Biblical Unity: Theology from Genesis 2-3 (St. Paul, Minnesota: Christians for Biblical Equality, 1993), 31-38. For a more detailed analysis, consult her doctoral dissertation “A Rhetorical Analysis of Genesis 2-3 with Implications for a Theology of Man and Woman” (Ph.D diss., University of Strasbourg, 1987).
  37. Packer, 20.
  38. Ibid, 20.
  39. “Adam” is a Hebrew term that means: (1) Adam, the proper name; or (2) the earth, the ground; or (3) humanity, humankind. In this instance, adam refers to humanity.
  40. The word translated male here is “ish” in Hebrew, which refers to male as opposed to female.
  41. The second usage of adam in the Bible refers to Adam (the proper noun), Eve’s counterpart (Gen 3:21).
  42. “Let us make humankind in our image” [italics ours] (Gen 1:26): “So God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27, italics ours). Humankind (adam) is singular (him), but has two components (male and female, thus, them).
  43. The word “anthropos” is a Greek equivalent for “adam” and both words mean humankind, not a male person. The Greek word for a male person is “aner.”
  44. Humankind is called adam for they were taken out of adama, the ground.
  45. Packer, 20.
  46. Ibid, 18.
  47. Ibid.
  48. Elaine Storkey, What’s Right with Feminism? (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986), 143.
  49. Margaret Lamberts Bendroth, Fundamentalism and Gender: 1875 to the Present (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University, 1993), 25-27. So successful were the separate benevolent and missionary organizations formed by women that May Wright Sewall said before the National Council of Women in 1895, “I believe not only that division of labor is temporarily a good thing, but . . . it may, indeed, be regarded as permanently good.” Frances Willard, however, in 1889, already upheld the model that evangelical feminists like ourselves adhere to. “We need the stereoscopic view of truth when woman’s eye and man’s together shall discern the perspective of the Bible’s full-orbed revelation.”
  50. Elaine Storkey, 144.
  51. Bendroth, 16.
  52. Ibid, 89-94. See also Jeannette Hassey, No Time for Silence: Evangelical Women in Public Ministry Around the Turn of the Century (Zondervan, 1986).
  53. Billy Sunday, “Positive vs. Negative Religion,” Box 9, Folder 79, William A. Sunday Papers, Billy Graham Center Archives, Wheaton, Illinois as quoted in Margaret Lamberts Bendroth, Fundamentalism and Gender: 1875 to the Present, (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University, 1993), 24.
  54. Bendroth, 88-89.
  55. Ibid, 96.
  56. See Alvin Schmidt, Veiled and Silenced: How Culture Shaped Sexist Theology. (Mercer University Press, 1989).
  57. Packer, 18.
  58. Rom 12:5 states that “each member belongs to all the others.” 1 Cor 12:4 explains that the various manifestations of the Spirit in the form of gifts must serve “the common good.” Eph 4:12 gives the same purpose “so that the body of Christ may be built up.”
  59. Packer, 19.
  60. For examples of the anointing of a king, see 2 Sam 2:4 ad 1 Kg 1:34, for a priest Ex 28:41, and for a prophet 1 Kg 19:16.
  61. For examples of the anointing of praying and laying on of hands, see Acts 6:5-6; 13:2-3; 1 Tim 4:14 and 2 Tim 1:6.
  62. Packer, 19.


Bendroth, Margaret Lamberts. Fundamentalism and Gender: 1875 to the Present. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University, 1993.

Bushnell, Katherine C. God’s Word to Women. New York: North Collins, no date supplied.

Fleming, Joy Elasky. Man and Woman in Biblical Unity: Theology from Genesis 2-3. St. Paul, Minnesota: Christians for Biblical Equality, 1993.

Hull, Gretchen Gaebelein. Equal to Serve. Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1987.

New Bible Dictionary. Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 1962.

Kroeger, Catherine Clark. “The Classical Concept of Head as ‘Source’” in Gretchen Gaebelein Hull, Equal to Serve. Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1987.

Packer, J. I. “Let’s Stop Making Women Presbyters,” Christianity Today 35 (February 11, 1991), 18-21.

Schmidt, Alvin. Veiled and Silenced: How Culture Shaped Sexist Theology. Mercer University Press, 1989.

Spencer, Aida B. Beyond the Curse: Women Called to Ministry. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1985.

Storkey, Elaine. What’s Right with Feminism? Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986.