Southern presbyterians face another war of northern aggression...

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Here's a 1985 article from Reformed World published by the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC). Reformed World has been in continuous publication since 1877 and this article highlights the historical naïveté of conservative Reformed men who tilt at St. Louis and Moscow windmills while Tim Keller reigns in Manhattan.

Exporting his old feminist rebellion across a sleepy southern denomination, young innocents out of the south trained at Covenant think Tim's as hip as his slightly older homeboy, Woody Allen. And being ignorant of feminism's victories in Reformed denominations around the world, these men are sitting ducks for this war of northern aggression--particularly when this time around it's southern wives and daughters the northerners are fighting to emancipate...

Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it, so let's do some remedial work. Read this article and learn the fault lines. Learn what follows the ordination of Redeemer's "deeks." Get familiar with the triumphalist attitudes and language of feminist aggressors who are cocksure they're on the side of the angels. Try to understand the significance of these practices Redeemer is exporting across the South:

  • Redeemer promotes male and female officers across her congregations...
  • Redeemer has a woman directress over all female and male deacons...
  • Redeemer has ex officio members of her board of elders exercising the same authority in those meetings as most of her teaching elders (assistant pastors)...
  • Redeemer has women teaching and exercising authority across her parachurch mission works...

As you read this article think of your presbytery's most recent ordination exam in which one more Covenant grad took exception to the PCA's Constitutional prohibition of women officers and ask yourself whether he knew his rhetoric was a century old? And speaking of a century old, is anyone asking how the Presbyterian Church in America's Scarlett O'Hara culture plays into the hands of our northern feminist emancipationists?

Speaking only for myself, while serving on the PCA's Ad Interim Study Committee on Women in the Military, I found myself wondering if southerners are even capable of facing the feminist danger? While it makes cents for RUF to tap into southern presbyterian money to export and fund southern men planting PCA churches north of the Mason-Dixon line, it seems to me that the sleepiness and very white noblesse oblige of southern presbyterians will necessarily silence any discussion of sex, not to mention the mounting of a defense against female emancipation. 

Southerners are still licking their wounds from the war of northern aggression. I'm doubtful they're willing to fight against Tim Keller's social justice movement which purports to lift southern presbyterian wives and daughters from the involuntary servitude to which their sex is born.

(Please note I've emphasized some parts of the article in bold. All emphases are my own.)

The Ordination of Women to the Ministry in the Member Churches of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches



During her period as Assistant in the WARC Department of Theology the Reverend Henny Dirks-Blatt undertook a survey of the attitudes and practice of member churches vis a vis the ordination of women. We here publish her findings. The raw data on which the conclusions are based, and a bibliography, are available on request.


The question of the ordination of women to the ministry is the question of the Church as such: are we really all one in Christ (Gal. 3:28) in our churches? Or do we make distinctions corresponding to those of the world? 

The purpose of the present study is

  • to set the question in its historical context,
  • to provide up-to-date information on the present practice of the member churches of the WARC in the matter of the ordination of women,
  • to summarize the arguments employed for and against the admission of women to the ministry, 
  • to survey the question of the right to equality* in the ministries of the Church.

The role of the Bible: As can be seen from the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles of the New Testament, women were of vital importance in the early Church — see the Easter narratives, the list of greetings in Romans 16, the story of Lydia, etc. From a very early date, however, they were pushed into the background, on social grounds for the most part. This discrimination can be discerned in the Epistles of the New Testament, and is more familiar in our congregations today than the earlier and original role of women. More familiar because women, though numerically superior and mostly more dynamic than men, have been and still are kept strictly to "their" limited place, on the social grounds advanced by the apostle.

The role of theology: Theological arguments have been and still are advanced to justify this, such as those developed very clearly for example in the WCC's study on women in the ministry (May 1958):

  • the order of creation (imago Dei, the precedence of the man, Paul's attitude to women); and
  • the order of redemption (the ministry, authority of Scripture, authority of the Church tradition).

From the current arguments against the ordination of women mentioned further on, it is obvious that these arguments are not exhaustive.

Church and women: Many church authorities insist emphatically that women are vitally important for Christian congregations even today. Since it is a historical fact that women have been deprived of the representation due to them in congregations in virtue of their importance, it is essential today, when the arguments advanced to justify this unequal treatment at both the social and theological levels are losing ground, to inform congregations and churches throughout the world of the current practice in Reformed Churches. By so doing we may hope to support and reinforce them in their own efforts, to offer them arguments to reflect upon and to encourage churches and their womenfolk to venture along fresh pathways and take such initiatives as may be necessary to accord to women their rightful place in the Church.

Principles: This report is based on answers to a questionnaire sent to all member churches in January 1985 by the WARC Department of Theology. We take this opportunity of warmly thanking all the churches which responded to this questionnaire.

The questions were divided in four groups:

  1. Do you ordain women to the ministry? (Please give your pros and cons)
  2. If you do ordain women: a) since when? b) in what numbers (in proportion to the total number of ministers)? c) Do women enjoy equal rights in practice?
  3. If against admitting women to the ministry: a) are there women studying theology? b) if so, what activities will it be possible to assign to them subsequently? c) were there discussions on the issue ? d) do you have women elders?
  4. Have you published reports on this question?

A good deal of information, especially in the case of churches which did not answer the questionnaire, was to be found in issues of the Reformed World and its predecessors, as well as in Reformed Perspectives and Reformed Press Service. Reports of WARC General Councils also contain contributions to the question of "The Ministry of Women in the Church" and kindred themes. In the case of a few member churches, no relevant data was obtainable in spite of all our efforts.


It was in The Catholic Presbyterian in 1882 and in The International Congregational Council in 1891 that we found the first published contributions on the ordination of women to the ministry within the Reformed family of churches at the international level. Under the heading "Woman's Place and Work in the Church", the 1882 article stated: "In the ecclesiastical as in the social sphere, the woman is the companion of the man. Her work is to supplement his. Their interests are one and their work diverse only in methods but not in aims...Christian men and women are not rivals but companions." In the second article of 1891, entitled "The Ministry of Woman", the question is asked: "Who are we that we should assume an air of authority or patronage towards those who have hitherto been the strength and glory of our churches?"

In both contributions, more is said of diaconal activities than of the preaching ministry, and in some churches the question as to whether women could even become deacons was still being debated. The biblical figure around whom everything revolves is Phoebe (Acts 16).

In 1917 the Quarterly Register noted that the Council of the Congregational Union of England and Wales had already decided in 1909 and now in 1917 reaffirmed that a woman who fulfilled the same conditions as men for the preaching ministry had the right to be ordained.

By 1921 there were already 67 women in a worldwide total of some 6,000 Congregational ministers. A speech by the Reverend Clarence E. McCartney at the General Assembly of the Alliance of Reformed Churches in Philadelphia in 1921, vigorously opposing the admission of women to the ministry or to posts of responsibility in the Church, was strongly opposed by delegates to the Assembly. His arguments seemed to them unsound, prejudiced and even perverse.

They were in substance as follows:

  1. If we heed the politicians and the world, we are following the wrong leader.
  2. The ordination of women would feminize our Church and this process has already gone far enough.
  3. There is a danger of scandal, division and satanic conflict.
  4. It would be an obstacle to the unity of the Church (e.g. in relations with the Roman Catholic Church).
  5. It would import heresy, fanaticism, distortion and perversion into church doctrine.

The chief argument in rebuttal to this was the vital part played by women in the mission field. How, one delegate asked, can responsibility and decisions be entrusted to women in the mission field while these are still withheld from women in Europe and America?

In 1953 an article by Hugh Thomson Jr. entitled "The Place and Status of Women in the Reformed Tradition" appeared in The Presbyterian World. The traditional view of woman's subordination and the modern view of woman's emancipation are in fact found side by side in the Reformed family of churches as in other churches too. In certain countries some churches admitted women to the preaching ministry: in Austria (as deaconesses), Switzerland, France, Canada and Japan. One church in the USA was just on the point of taking this step. In Indonesia, women are ordained to the ministry but in Holland, the "mother country" of these Reformed Churches, the admission of women to the ministry was still rejected.

It came as a great surprise to Thomson to find that while most churches of the Reformed tradition had no hesitation in enlarging the ministry and responsibility of women in the Church, the preaching ministry remained strictly confined to men. He finds no sufficient grounds for this and concludes that it was not the character of officebearers nor the diversity of rights and responsibilities that were decisive but the existence and need for the ministry as a means for securing order in the Church. In Thomson's view, apart from traditional practice and prejudices, nothing in the Reformed doctrine of Church and ministry necessitates the exclusion of women from the ordained ministry.

The first step towards the recognition of the role and work of women in the Church as ministerial activity, therefore, was the introduction ot the office of deaconess. This gave recognition to the many and varied voluntary activities of women in the Church and especially on the mission field. Improved formal education for girls smoothed the way for women to pursue higher education and thus to the study of theology.


Against the historical background thus sketched we may now present some statistical data concerning the ordination of women in the Reformed family of Churches.

Women are now ordained to the ministry in a total of 92 member churches** of WARC. 30 member churches expressly refuse to do so.

From another 35 member churches we have received no relevant information though in the case of about 15 of these a favourable attitude to the ordination of women is expected.

Twenty years ago, in 1965, about 50 of these churches were willing to ordain women to the ministry. In the eighties alone, there were 15 Reformed churches which we knew of which decided to allow the ordination of women to the ministry.

Breakdown by continents
Africa              12 churches ordain women, 10 refuse, 14 uncertain
Latin America 8 churches ordain women, 6 refuse, 5 uncertain
North America    9 churches ordain women, 1 refuses
Asia                 29 churches ordain women, 8 refuse, 11 uncertain
Australasia       30 churches ordain women, 3 refuse, 5 uncertain

Differences: In eight countries, there are several member churches differing in practice. In other words, in each of these eight countries there is at least one member church which ordains women to the ministry and at least one member church which refuses to do so, though both are member churches of WARC and share the same social setting.

Confessional differences within the WARC
Congregationalists    4 churches ordain women, 4 refuse, 2 uncertain
Presbyterians          28 churches ordain women, 18 refuse, 11 uncertain
Reformed               37 churches ordain women, 8 refuse, 17 uncertain
United                   20 churches ordain women, 1 uncertain
Others                    4 churches ordain women, 2 refuse, 1 uncertain

A specially striking feature of these figures is the statistical picture of the United Churches.

In union negotiations we sometimes find that at least one of the churches preparing for union already takes a favourable view of the ordination of women or already practices this. At the church level, therefore, there is no negative attitude to the ordination of women in church unions. Not even the tradition is a hindrance in these new churches.

The office of eldership in the Church is more open to women than is the pastoral ministry. Specifically: only five African churches (one of which ordains women to the pastoral ministry), three Latin American, one North American, two Asian, one Australasian and one European church, refuse to admit women to eldership. Although the participation of women in the decision-making courts of the Church is almost invariably less than 50%, this readiness of our member churches to admit women to eldership is an indication that women are being given responsibility in the Church, since the church councils, kirk sessions and presbyteries are of vital importance in the Reformed Churches.


Surprising trends are discernible in the forty or so arguments produced by church authorities for and against the ordination of women to the ministry (a good many communications, alas, included no such arguments) (cf. pp. 10-12).

1. For ordination of women

Theological arguments: For the most part, the arguments adduced in favour of the ordination of women to the ministry are theological in character.The ecclesiological question finds expression as follows: the ministry or priesthood of all believers is appealed to as ruling out the exclusion of women from the ministry and the precedence of the male church member. The anthropological dimension is to be found in the appeal to the order of creation, now mainly related to the first creation story and the community of man and woman as Imago Dei (cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III, 1). The possible implications of this for our "male" image of God are another matter altogether and await our future discovery.

On the other hand such statements as this: "Women are also human created in God's own image" indicate clearly the theological disqualifications women have had to endure in the Church.

Biblical arguments: The fact that Jesus included women in his band of disciples as a matter of course during his earthly life, that he invited them to follow him and chose them as first witnesses of his resurrection — this is an argument which clearly deserves to be set beside Paul's declaration that in Christ there is neither bond nor free, neither male nor female, but that in him all are one.

In almost all these arguments it is still possible to discern that they have served as apologetic defences against all the biblical arguments adduced in favour of the suppression women's rights in the Church in past decades and centuries.

Arguments from tradition: In the Church "reformed in accordance with the Word of God", another line of argument, that from the church tradition had difficulty in securing a hearing, for the norm of this Reformed Church is supposed to be the Bible alone and not the tradition. Despite this, the word "tradition", traditionally repudiated, is also to be found in the responses from the churches; but what it signifies is the social tradition of the subordinated woman, a tradition which has meanwhile become superannuated and been replaced by that of the woman with equal rights and no longer discriminated against.

Pragmatic arguments: Even now, therefore, most Reformed churches are able to allow women to share in the tasks of the Church in keeping with their relative importance, and even to admit that they are needed and — not least — have innumerable admirable qualifications for the pastoral ministry. One of our member churches, for example, is even prepared to ordain women "contrary to the biblical warnings against them" and simply "because we need them"!

2. Against ordination

Biblical and theological arguments: One might have expected to find in the arguments against the ordination of women to the ministry some references to the passages from 1. Corinthians 11:3ff. and 1. Timothy 2:12 to which appeal was so often made in the past in this connection, passages commanding women to be silent in the Church and refusing them any role in church doctrine. In fact, we find no trace of these biblical passages in the arguments against the ordination of women to the ministry. There may be some connection between this silence and the fact that it has now come to be recognized that the apostle Paul spoke as a man of his own time who regarded any public appearance of women in the embryo Church of Christians as a dangerous provocation to non-Christian society and therefore prohibited such a public role.

The biblical passages which used to be cited against the ordination of women have also lost their substance today through the reliance of both Jesus and Paul on women and their work in the development of the Christian community.

In contrast to the practice of recent decades, theological arguments are also absent in the grounds given for not ordaining women. Indeed, it is even argued that there can be no decision here on theological grounds.

Only in the response of one Church which ordains women to the ministry do we find the biblical arguments that both the advocates as well as the opponents of ordination have made use of to justify their answers.

Social arguments: What is stressed, on the other hand, is that churches in some places have been reluctant to ordain women because of social problems. On the one hand, there is the outlook older church members, which is still extremely patriarchal; on the other hand, there is the outlook of the whole population, as for example, in a predominantly Islamic state. Reformed communities are reluctant to ordain women if they constitute only a tiny Reformed minority within an almost exclusively Roman Catholic society or live in the shadow of strong Orthodox churches.

Many would regard such cultures as sexist and would say that sexism i.e. the restriction of the woman to her role as wife and mother and the insistence on her obedience to the male, is the real reason why some churches and congregations adopt a negative attitude to the ordination of women to the ministry.

Not yet but one day...: The conclusion to be drawn from those responses which take the line: "Still under discussion", "question not yet on the agenda", "no suitable woman yet found" etc. is that, in some member churches, a little more boldness and initiative on the part of their womenfolk could secure a decision in their favour. When arguments are absent, it is only a question of a church's (and its womenfolk's) taking an initiative. Since ecclesiological questions should be more important for a Church than sociological ones, it should be possible to adopt extremely solid biblical and theological arguments in favour of the ordination of women to the ministry, with social qualifications.

The first preference: Whether this can achieve anything to counter the assertion: "Up to now we have always found sufficient men" is open to question. It becomes clear here that the ordination of women is for some still something of a stopgap measure, as we shall show later in more detail.

3. In between for and against

Church women should take courage from some of the "in between" responses. These, too, fall within the category of "not yet but one day..." arguments. They add, however, the express assertion that their church order contains no explicit laws against the ordination of women.


In view of the data and positions discussed so far, there no longer appear to be any major obstacles to the ordination of women in the majority of member churches of the WARC. The bigger problem is the recognition of ordained women (cf. pp. 12-13).

1. The role of the congregation

In actual practice: It is no longer at the level of church authorities that restrictions appear but at the level of congregations. Church leaders seem to be a step ahead of most of their congregations. Practice lags behind theory. In churches which confer  ordination independently of an actual call to a congregation, ordained women have difficulty in finding a congregation to call them if there is competition with a man. In the USA, for example, women pastors are assigned to the unattractive smaller and poorer country churches which themselves cannot find anyone other than a woman pastor ("since we need her"). In larger congregations it is as assistants or associate pastors for the most part that women are installed. Opportunities for promotion*** are slight. It is hopeless for women pastors to aspire to become senior pastors; their sex is too great a barrier.

In other member churches in which ordination is only conferred on a pastor in consequence of a call to a congregation, women pastors have to find a congregation within a fixed time in order to secure their ordination. When there are too many pastors as is the case at present in the Federal Republic of Germany, many women again are handicapped in the choice of pastors. By itself, the progressive attitude of the church authorities is not much help in such cases.

Reasons: Only in very rare cases is the rejection of a woman by a congregation connected with her incapacity and far more frequently with the fact that there was also a male candidate for the pastorate or that the congregation would have preferred a male pastor. The question of sex is thus always still more important than the question of qualifications.

In the first place this is surely to be traced back to the lack of a social recognition that women are equipped for responsible and leading positions. The problems of USA women in corresponding professions are no less than those of women pastors.

— In the second place, the patriarchal tradition of the Bible and of its fundamentalist interpretation is a limitation which is only too difficult to overcome in the congregations.

— An important part is certainly to be attributed here to the "authoritative personality" of the reverend pastor.

— It also seems worth asking how far it is also a psychological problem for the congregation to listen to a woman expounding the "masculine" Word of God and to accept her homiletic interpretation of it.

Solutions: When we seek solutions for these congregational problems, there is, strangely, or rather, logically enough, a quite, simple answer at hand. The congregation which thinks it is not yet "ready" for a woman minister must of necessity be confronted with one. For most of the unfavourable judgements stem from utter ignorance.

Here, too, "learning by doing" can untie the knot. The congregation learns for itself that it is possible for God's Word to be preached by a female voice. It is no longer a question but a simple truth that a woman can be a pastor, and can, with the help of a church council, lead the congregation.

A Reformed congregation for whom the priesthood of all believers is an article of faith should not consider it a disqualification that a woman pastor is not and has no desire to be the traditional authoritarian stereotype, but rather as an opportunity held out to it.

Congregations can, of course, also learn these things from the reports of other congregations' experiences but a better and more direct way is via a woman assistant or woman pastor of their own, one who could also take her turn in the "conduct of business", via a "sick supply" or "holiday supply" woman pastor who steps into the breach where there is a "shortage of men!"

2. Women in the courts of the Church

The positive aspect: Another aspect of the question of equal rights for women and men is the representation of women in the decision taking bodies of the Church. As in the matter of women elders, the position here seems relatively better. In almost every case women are represented in these courts, mostly as a minority (25 to 30% is already a good percentage) despite the fact that they constitute a majority at the grassroots level. It is also possible here for a woman to be appointed as "chairman" or president of the General Assembly or Synod.

The negative aspect: On the debit side, however, is the fact that the "token woman'' is still a recurrent phenomenon. Although appointed to a committee in virtue of her "capacities", the "token woman" complains that she cannot get a word in edgeways, or, if she does manage to do so, her words make no impression, she gets no answers, is not even deemed worth any record in the minutes. This complaint is frequently heard. To give just one sample from many: "I was on numerous occasions frustrated by not being able to get any action/notice taken of matters I raised in the council."

Church authorities and congregations should also realize that women pastors, for all their trust in God, are not only capable of struggling and standing their ground but also in need of recognition.

It is welcome news, therefore, when women tell us in their letters that they receive such recognition and indeed are sometimes better placed in this respect than some men. But this, of course, is the exception rather than the rule.

[Henny Dirks-Blatt, "The Ordination of Women to the Ministry in the Member churches of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches", in Reformed World, vol. 38, December 8, 1985, pp. 434-443.]


* This study is not concerned with the question as to how far it is proper to speak of a "right to equality" in the Church or whether it is perhaps better to speak rather of the unity in Christ in which there is no longer any place for distinctions between women and men in the Church. We use terms like "right to equality" and "equal rights" simply because they are in current use in the churches.

**The figure would be larger if we included the data of the Reformed churches which do not belong to WARC. Most of them do not ordain women to the ministry.

***Such terms as "competition" and "promotion" hardly accord with a church setting, especially if the church in question is Reformed. But even if we believe that there are no distinctions between office holders, that all are therefore on an equal footing, and even if we believe that it is God who calls human beings into His service, we cannot ignore the fact that it is masculine criteria of selection which determine the call of a minister to a congregation and that there are "comfortable" and "difficult" congregations, and, even from a financial angle, "better" and "worse" congregations.

Tim Bayly

Tim serves Clearnote Church, Bloomington, Indiana. He and Mary Lee have five children and big lots of grandchildren.

Want to get in touch? Send Tim an email!