Editor’s note: As we mark our 200th anniversary, we look back at the Outlook’s coverage of issues in the church that are still relevant today. This article was published in March of 1953 and presents a Reformed theological discussion of the role of women in ministry. In order to give us perspective on the present, it helps to look back and get a sense of how far we have come and how far we have yet to go. This article is reprinted just as readers in 1953 would have experienced it, advertisements and snippets from other articles included.
MARCH 16, 1953
IN MANY WAYS the position of the Reformed churches regarding women is similar to the positions of other churches. In a word, that similarity consists, on the one hand, in a traditional discrimination against women who, for various reasons, are regarded as subject to male leadership and authority; and on the other hand, in a modern movement toward emancipation and equality which in our time has seen the growth of numerous women’s groups of all kinds. A third common factor should also be added: the current vigorous discussion regarding the place and status of women in the church. I propose to say something about these three items as they reflect Reformed faith and practice.
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It is often said that Christianity gave a new status and dignity to women, and evidence can be piled up to demonstrate that over against paganism this is a striking fact. It is also true that in the early church women played an important part. Yet the fact remains that with some exceptions the traditional subjection of women was the universal view in all the churches until fairly recent times. Indeed, it may be said that this was the universal view outside the churches as well as inside. In the Reformed churches one can find a monotonous reiteration of the reasons for the subjection of women. Sometimes these reasons are Biblical, more often they follow the sociological patterns of the times.
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The modern emancipation of women and their increasing place in the life and work of the church requires some attention. Involved in this movement are sociological, ethical, pragmatic, economical, and ecumenical factors. Perhaps so far as the church is concerned the equality of women has lagged behind similar movements in secular life, but the contrast between our times and any other period of church history is certainly arresting. Practically every denomination andcommunion, including the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches, is interested in this movement, and the recent histories of individual churches reveal an astonishing activity by women. This is so apparent and obvious that it has led to the jibe that the Christian church today is the largest sorority in theworld!
Which of Two Reasons?
While the Reformed churches in modern times have given an ever-widening area of service and responsibility to women, the ministry as such, with a few exceptions, has been restricted to men. What does that mean? There are perhaps two interpretations: either there is something about the ministry which according to Reformed theology excludes women from consideration, or the sheer inertia of the traditional subjection of women has prevented up to now what would seem to be the next logical development in the modern emancipation of women. According to this latter interpretation, we may possibly look forward to the day in the not-too-distant future when women will have full status with men in the Reformed churches.
So far as the first interpretation is concerned, that there is something about the ministry as such which excludes women, there is not, in my judgment, any warrant for this view in Reformed thought.
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It would appear that there are three major perspectives involved in bringing the subject into focus: the sociological, the theological and the ecclesiastical.
(1) Sociological. It is a sobering and humiliating fact that the various movements in modern times for the emancipation of women have owed more to sociological and secular forces than to the witness or impact of the Christian church. There is more equality of status and opportunity for women in government, education, social work, industry, the medical and legal professions than there is in the church. This plain fact is a rebuke and indictment of the Christian church today. Why is it that the church seems to lag so far behind secular society in championing the great social causes of our day?
A few years ago when the question of the ordination of women in the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., was being discussed, a New York pastor, in opposing the idea, remarked:
“Women are not temperamentally fitted to be ministers …. Women are not especially good at keeping other folks ‘ secrets and that is one of the things a minister must do. Women are apt to be influenced by their feelings in matters of belief rather than by sound judgment . … Women are usually too kind and sympathetic with other women” (quoted by J. Paul Williams, “What Americans Believe and How They Worship,” 1952, p. 204).
Whatever we may think of ordination, this kind of reasoning, or prejudice, let us say, will only serve to convince those on the outside that the Christian church has absolutely nothing to contribute to the question of women in society.
It would be a mistake, of course, to assume that the problem of women’s place in society has been met or solved by sociological or secular forces. A special committee of the United Nations has been at work on this matter, and the more it is considered, the more complicated it becomes.
World Council Study
(2) Theological. Face to face with the sociological rebuke to the churches, the World Council Commission on women in the church has deliberately provokedthe study of the Biblical and theological approach to the question of man-woman relationships. As we have already noted, scarcely anything of importance has been done along this line. The traditional appeal to a few scattered verses in the Bible must give way to a more theologically informed interpretation of the Christian doctrines of creation, redemption, and the new life in Christ. The voice of the Christian church on the question of women, in other words, must be articulated not as a faint echo of what secular social opinion is already saying, but it must have a Biblical accent and a theological tone.
Only One Aspect
(3) Ecclesiastical. The question of the place of women in the church must not be allowed to bog down on the highly controversial problem of ordination and equal status. This, to be sure, is an important and crucial matter, but ordination is only one aspect of the problem. It is conceivable that women might be givenformal “status” and be denied actual “function.” And it should be said that many women who are themselves involved in the World Council Commission are careful to emphasize that their main concern is not to launch an offensive against the barrier of ordination.
It may be that before ordination can be considered on its merits, a great deal of preliminary work must be done in integrating the various forms of women’s work now in existence so that it rightly becomes a real part of the church’s life and not a mere adjunct or derivative kind of service. The consideration andsolution of the problem of the place of women in the church must, of course, be a matter of ecumenical concern and action, but let me say that I believe that theReformed tradition has its own distinct and positive contribution to make. That contribution, it seems to me, will result from an intelligent and honest relating of our Biblical and theological heritage with what has here been called our functional view of the ministry.
HUGH T. KERR JR. is professor of theology at Princeton Theological Seminary.