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United Methodism and the Ordination of Women

By Rev. Frank Gulley

Why does the United Methodist Church ordain women, especially when certain passages of Scripture seem to suggest that they not be given ministerial standing? Especially pertinent are statements in the New Testament that women should not teach or have authority over men (1 Tim. 2:8-15) and should not speak in church (I Cor. 14:34-35).

Behind the question rests an assumption about how Christians should reach positions on major issues and the weight given to the Biblical text in arriving at those decisions. Until this issue is resolved the question of the legitimacy of the ordination of women, and questions on other issues before the Church, will be in doubt.

From Methodist beginnings, the Bible has been the chief source for reaching most decisions in our Church. John Wesley gave it first place among the resources to which we should turn in reaching important decisions about Christian belief and practice. But Wesley did NOT (note the emphasis) make it the sole source, nor did he believe the text of Scripture to be the literal Word of God. He believed serious Christians will always read the Bible using the insights of tradition, reason, and experience.

The Methodist tradition over nearly 300 years has sought to be faithful to these insights of Wesley. The Bible has been our principal source of inspiration as we have sought to interpret God’s will for our time and place, but we have not ignored the insights that have come our way through a careful reading of the church’s history, through the exercise of our minds, and by the testing of religious insights by Christian experience. We believe the Holy Spirit works through all of these as we seek to be faithful to the will of God.

The result of the interplay between the Bible, tradition, reason, and experience has caused Methodists to arrive at conclusions that are contradictory to a literal reading of certain biblical passages. For example, in Mark’s gospel (10:2-12) Jesus clearly condemns divorce, but our church and other denominations have come to accept divorce as “a regrettable alternative” for member couples who have become “estranged beyond reconciliation.” (Social Principles, 34) And then there is John’s gospel wherein Jesus clearly attacks “the Jews,” labeling them children of the Devil (8:44)--the basis for much anti-Semitism in European and American history. United Methodism, on the other hand, holds that the “Jewish people continue in covenantal relationship with God” and that “Jews and Christians are coworkers and companion pilgrims” in seeking to serve God. (Book of Resolutions, 189-197)

Nor should we fail to mention the United Methodist view on the place of women in the marriage relationship. “We reject social norms that assume different standards for women than for men in marriage.” (Social Principles, 34) In the Old Testament, on the other hand, husbands are regarded as superior to wives in every respect; indeed, it is not inappropriate for husbands to have numerous wives and to offer them to other men for sexual favors. And then there is the issue of slavery. United Methodism’s view is stated in unequivocal terms: ‘The Church regards the institution of slavery as an infamous evil. All forms of enslavement are totally prohibited and shall in no way be tolerated by the Church.” (Social Principles, 48) Both the Old and New Testaments assume the legitimacy of the practice of slavery and at no point is it condemned.

Finally, we can point to a whole host of less prominent statements in Scripture where Methodists, like other Christian groups, have deviated from a literalist reading: Christians must not associate with “a drunkard,” those who profane the Sabbath should be put to death, the child that curses his/her father should be put to death, etc., etc.

These, and other examples, indicate that God’s people must constantly struggle using the four sources mentioned above to discern God’s will on pertinent issues that present themselves. While the Bible is still our chief instrument in that quest, it is not the only resource at hand. We believe that the Holy Spirit continues to lead, revealing God’s will in ways that previous generations may not have discerned as we face new situations and questions of critical import in our time. On some matters we believe that we understand more clearly God’s will than Christians of previous generations.

Now, more specifically on the question of the ordination of women. Methodists begin by underscoring the point that all baptized Christians are ministers of the gospel. “Our links with the apostolic faith... lead us solemnly to affirm… that all who are baptized into Christ are members of Christ’s ministry....” (Social Principles, 153) Hence, all of us--men and women--in the Methodist fold are called to witness to Jesus as Lord and Savior.  Further, we believe that in the sight of God all--men and women--are equal. “We affirm with Scripture the common humanity of male and female, both having equal worth in the eyes of God.” (Social Principles, 35) If these affirmations are taken seriously, it is only logical that our Church would conclude that ordained ministry should be open to both men and women--regardless of what some texts of Scripture might suggest to the contrary.

The Rev. Frank Gulley is professor of church history, emeritus at Vanderbilt Divinity School.



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