When I was deciding if I should seek ordination, a friend and fellow pastor said to me, "I'm not sure where I stand on women's ordination. But I think you should get ordained." I laughed, unsure of how he holds those conflicting ideas together, but recognizing that for all of us, myself included, seeking God's will on this issue is rarely cut-and-dried. It is a process of study, prayer, listening, repentance, and discernment.
As someone who was uncomfortable with the ordination of women for years, but is now an Anglican clergyperson who will (God willing) be a priest soon, I often end up in conversations where I find myself in the ironic position of wanting to defend those who disagree with my ordination.
As I talk about women's ordination and read great discussions about the role of feminism in the church, this is what I want to remind those on "my side" of this issue on behalf of my brothers and sisters against women's ordination.
Objection to women's ordination is not equivalent to sexism.
Laura Ortberg Turner's recent article for Her.meneutics reminds us of the valuable legacy of first-wave feminism and the tragedy of widespread physical and sexual abuse of women. Too often the global plight of women is ignored or belittled in the church. Too often women are devalued and denigrated in the church. Too often sexism isn't treated as the sin it most certainly is.
However, we must decouple sexism and the objection to women's ordination. We do the church and Christian feminism a disservice when we use belief about women's ordination as a litmus test for sexism.
While some may oppose women's ordination for sexist reasons, others do so out of a genuine, even uncomfortable, conviction about the meaning of particular Greek words and the witness of Scripture. Friends, teachers, and pastors against women's ordination nevertheless encourage and disciple me in ways that profoundly benefit my life and ministry. (Likewise, I've met people who are for women's ordination but treat women in sexist ways.) It isn't fair for those who are against women's ordination but still encourage and value the gifts of women to be implicated in injustice.
When we reductively equate opposition to women's ordination to sexism, we ignore the complexity of the issue and the messy process of communal discernment in a church body. This false equivalency gives too easy of a pass to those on both sides—allowing them to take a position, sit comfortably with their ideological team, and no longer grapple with the larger, more invidious problem of sexism in the church and the wider world.
Too often, we ascribe ulterior motives of misogyny to those against women's ordination or accuse those who are for it of being self-seeking. Instead, let's assume the best motives for those who disagree with us—those who are against women's ordination are trying to be faithful to Scripture, not oppressive to women.
And here is where I find unity with those who disagree with my ordination: We each desire obedience to God's word and want the church to be who God intends her to be, even as we lovingly argue about the role of women in leadership.
We must offer hospitality to those with whom we disagree.
Those who want to retain unity in the church—especially us ordained women and female church leaders—must ensure that we preserve room for those who disagree with us or who aren't certain about this issue.
Most denominations currently take a hard line on women's ordination. They allow women's ordination and marginalize anyone against it as oppressive. Or they disallow it and marginalize anyone who advocates for it as a theological liberal. (My own tradition of Anglicanism has recently made headlines over the embroiled battle about female bishops in England.) It is a shame that fewer and fewer communities can be found where women's ordination isn't a line in the sand, dividing the faithful from the errant.
I found myself troubled by the precedent, however well-meaning, of the RCA's removal of their conscience clause, which allowed dissenting pastors to opt out of women's ordination. Now, in one more denomination, this issue is a dividing line. Those who are uncomfortable with women's ordination in the RCA must violate their own consciences or risk exclusion from their denomination, forced to find another community or begin a new one.
As a Protestant and as part of a recently splintered communion, I recognize that there are legitimate reasons for division and even, at times, for denominations to fracture. But women's ordination need not be a communion breaker. There is frankly more ambiguity in the Scriptures about the role of women in the church and about ordination itself than most other doctrinal issues. Believers earnestly wrestling with the same biblical texts can differ on this issue.
It frustrates me when those against women's ordination too easily dismiss hermeneutical and theological arguments for it. But likewise, we must not forget that the prohibition of women's ordination is a valid view within historic and evangelical scriptural interpretation, and, therefore, I dearly hope that those for women's ordination will extend hospitality to those who differ, especially when objection to women's ordination is the minority view in a particular community.
Our mutual goal is serving Christ and his bride.
In conclusion, yes, we must appropriate the best truths in feminism and work to ensure that men and women are equally treated as God's mutual image-bearers. And yes, a church must provide clear and meaningful ways for all members, men and women, to use their gifts to serve the church. I hope that denominations will be increasingly open to the ordination of women, and I'm filled with gratitude and wonder that I am ordained.
However, it is harmful when denominations that ordain women demand that clergy fall in line on this issue or find a new church. As long as there are those in my communion who pure-heartedly believe Scripture precludes women from ordination, I want to allow room for them and to serve the church alongside of them. I hope they will do the same for those of us for women's ordination. Our mutual love for the church compels us to seek to grow together into him who is our head, even if our growth is painful, messy, halting, and incomplete.
Tish Harrison Warren is a transitional deacon in the Anglican Church in North America. She and her husband work with InterVarsity Graduate and Faculty Ministries at The University of Texas at Austin and have two young daughters. She writes regularly for The Well, InterVarsity's online magazine for women, and was featured on The White Horse Inn. She's newly on Twitter at @Tish_H_Warren.