It was just a purple paper cone filled with tissue paper. The tissue was yellow and orange, the color of fire. The cone glistened with foil stars that coiled around its body. It was simply a handmade paper torch, but it had meaning. The torch commemorated fifty years of ordaining women in my denomination. I sat in the sanctuary holding mine and listened eagerly to the first generation of ordained women telling their stories. Though I wasn’t ordained yet, I was a young adult who was resolved toward that goal—but I hadn’t always been that way.
I remember feeling a deep wave of elation sweep across my weary soul, somehow quenching and rehydrating the strained, parched places inside of me. That’s how I felt when God first whispered my call to ordained ministry on a quiet afternoon by Lake Michigan. I had been getting it wrong. I had been trying to squeeze God’s plan for me into a mold that was more pleasing to my parents, my friends at the time, and if I’m honest, maybe even me.
My call to ministry left me with more questions than answers. What would a life of ministry look like for me, a young woman? Would I feel isolated from others in this role? Could I financially provide for myself doing it? My heart knowledge conflicted with the reservations in my head, so I brought my call to my college church and Bible study. That’s when I felt a deep pang in my heart too.
Though my church and Bible study affirmed my gifts, they did not affirm my call to ministry because of my gender. These groups came from a more conservative perspective than the denomination of my upbringing. All the same, I had been fueled by their passion for Christ and pursuit of God’s Spirit. I had shared joys, tears and prayers with them. I loved them. My campus Christian support system shattered as I wrestled on my own.
I wondered, “How could God call me to something and then not allow me to do it because of my gender, which he ordained? How could the call that he had prepared me for in countless ways be the undoing rather than culmination of the work of his hands?” I wrestled in the darkness, but God did not leave me without light.
I started praying, journaling, and mining the words of Scripture on my own. It was as if I was routinely climbing into the lap of the Father and listening as his words washed over me. As I leaned in closer, I heard words of strength. Words of hope. Words of commission. Those words resonated with the denominational experience of my past and fueled my eventual road to seminary, and the hard-won knowledge that I now write to you.
Those who oppose female ordination often point to I Timothy 2:11-15, which instructs women not to speak or have teaching authority in the church. While the reason supplied concerns the theology of creation, the genesis of these verses was the preservation of social order. Early Christian conversion was by household, and the church needed to underscore rather than challenge the existing patriarchal social convention to grow. Certainly, the sin of one woman could not discredit all women, for according to that same reasoning, would we not also have ample scriptural fodder to discredit men too? After all, two of Jesus’ hand-picked disciples denied him and betrayed him to death respectively, and Paul himself once persecuted the church. Rather, it is important to remember that these verses in I Timothy come to us in the form of an epistle. An epistle is a letter—something that was written to a particular people at a particular time.
Because the I Timothy verses come to us in an epistle, it is important to enlarge our lens for a greater biblical perspective of women in the Bible. Paul is the author of I Timothy, and he himself acknowledges females who are serving with him in Scripture. For instance, in Romans 16:1-16, he mentions approximately eleven women. He affirms and gives thanks for their ministry, so it is helpful to look to his own example in support of female ministry.
It is most instructive, however, to look to the life of Jesus. His ministry is very affirming to women. An example is that Jesus appears to women first after his resurrection. His resurrection is foundational to the whole Christian message, and he shares this teaching moment with women. What’s more, he instructs the women to preach by spreading the good news in the Gospel of Matthew. His choice gives credibility to the female witness, as Christ is the ultimate exemplar of our faith.
I have made that point about Jesus’ life in sermons that I’ve preached on Easter. Women have approached me afterwards in tears. They’ve spoken of feeling affirmed. They’ve asked me to share my message with their women’s group. It is as if Jesus’ resurrection message to the women in the Bible produces a kind of resurrection, a kind of lifting and commissioning, within them too.
Those who support female ordination often point to a Scripture passage ironically by Paul as well. Galatians 3:28 reads, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Both women and men have been made in God’s image according to Genesis. Just as our God is ultimately beyond gender, so too are we in the eyes of the Lord. Therefore, what matters in our faith lives is our spiritual gifts and how we use them in obedience to God’s call.
Perhaps the best way that we can heed Paul’s teaching is to dedicate ourselves wholeheartedly to his lifework—the furthering of the church. The church needs every gift and every voice who loves Christ today. As we find ourselves at the Easter tomb, how will we respond to Christ’s directive to share the good news? There are many ways that we can witness, including but not limited to the pastorate. I can almost see those early biblical women passing on the torch to you and me. I was wobbly when I first picked up mine, but after over ten years of ordained ministry, both my heart—and head—are singing.