The mission statement of Nazarene Theological Seminary in Kansas City includes the intentional phrase "to prepare men and women for the practice of Christian ministry." At NTS this academic year, 63 women are preparing for ministry. The majority of these women are preparing for pastoral ministry in answer to God's call in their lives. They are committed Christians. They are actively pursuing the preparation process prescribed by the Manual of the Church of the Nazarene.
Many of them heard the call while they were teenagers, and they have never thought of doing anything else with their lives. They are not interested in making a statement about their civil rights for equal employment. They are not on a campaign to 'challenge the system.' Their only desire is to do the will of God. The Church of the Nazarene, through its educational institutions and district ministerial boards, has been cheering them on! And God continues to call women to ministry.
Yet the critical question that must be asked is: Will there be a place for them to serve? The challenge for our Nazarene colleges, universities, and seminaries is not only to educate women for ministry but also to encourage their placement in pastoral ministry assignments. Our cooperative process of calling and assigning pastors to local churches requires that both the district superintendent and the local church membership agree on the pastoral call. For several years now, the placement process has been difficult for women.
A district superintendent recently confided to me, "I would like to place some women as pastors on my district, but when I suggest the possibility, I face some stiff opposition from church boards, especially the women." Unfortunately, this district superintendent's experience is not unique. Yet even in the face of this opposition, God continues to call women to ministry in the Church of the Nazarene.
The arguments for restricting the role of women in ministry to certain age-level or gender-specific assignments are almost as old as the history of the Christian church. For centuries, certain denominational groups have struggled with the issue of the ordination of women, arguing over biblical passages that speak directly to the issue of women and authority in the church. Primarily from the apostle Paul, these passages include those that place qualifications on a woman's opportunity to pray and prophesy in a church meeting (1 Corinthians 11:3-12), call for women not to speak in public without authority (1 Corinthians 14:33-35), or restrict the teaching roles of women to exclude any influence over men by appealing to the order of creation (1 Timothy 2:9-15).
In each of these cases, Paul is speaking to a specific circumstance in the midst of a specific culture. The question for the church has been: Are these texts to be interpreted as specific instructions for those local first-century congregations, or should they be taken as universal commandments regardless of the century? There has not been agreement on this question.
On the other side of the issue, the apostle Paul also wrote, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28). Is Paul simply referring to the absence of distinction we share in salvation, or was he arguing for an equalitarian view of men and women, Jew and Greek, slave and free for ministry as well as for salvation? Are we to assume that some of the gifts of the Spirit usually associated with church leadership and pastoral ministry (e.g., 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4) are gender specific? Again, there has been much debate about how this passage is to be interpreted. Yet in the midst of all these questions of interpretation, God continues to call women to ministry in the Church of the Nazarene.
The arguments for restricting the role of women in ministry have appealed to historical particularity and precedence. Jesus was a man and chose male disciples. Throughout the majority of the church's history, it has been men who have been assigned to positions of church leadership and authority. Women historically have not had the cultural respect and appropriate education to be qualified for ministry.
Yet how does one deal with the fact that women were baptized equally with men or with the prevalence of New Testament women whom Paul often described as "fellow workers" in Christ, especially in light of the assumed cultural roles and place of women? How does one deal with the thousands of women throughout the centuries who have been at the front of significant spiritual movements only to be replaced by men as the movements became institutionalized? How does one deal with the absence of any statement about gender hierarchy in any of the early Christian confessions or creeds? Even in the heat of historical controversy, God continues to call women to ministry in the Church of the Nazarene.
While all of these biblical and historical controversies are alive in the broader Christian Church, they are not at the heart of the issue for the Church of the Nazarene.
We have, for the entirety of our history, believed in and practiced the ordination of women. It is embedded in our theology. We are among those who have chosen to recognize the call of God on women to serve as leaders in Christ's Church. Our official documents (e.g., the Manual) do not merely make allowance for women in ministry; we state our position in such a way as to expect that God will call men and women to ministry.
We are among those who see Paul's restriction upon women in spiritual authority as culturally appropriate for the pagan culture of those first-century communities but not normative for women ministering in the need pagan cultures of the 20th and 21st centuries. Our history is resplendent with the contributions of great women preachers and pastors like Mary Lee Cagle, Agnes Diffee, Estelle Crutcher, and Bessie Luisa Tsambe, who currently is pastor of one of the largest Nazarene churches in the world, in Maputo, Mozambique. Thanks be to God, He continues to call women to ministry in the Church of the Nazarene. We need them as much now as we ever have.
Despite these foundations, however, Nazarene history also is marked by the decline of women in pastoral ministry and church leadership. We have followed the pattern of institutionalization so that authoritative women at the front of our dynamic movement have been slowly but surely replaced by men in organizational positions of authority, including the pastorate. Our biblical and theological convictions didn't demand this shift. The shift was sociological and cultural. And our present hesitance and opposition to women in pastoral and church leadership roles aren't biblical or theological, but cultural, pure and simple.
It's time for our culture to live up to our convictions. Otherwise, God may start calling women to somebody else's movement.
Ed Robinson is director of Leadership Studies and Servant Leadership at Northwest Nazarene University's Wesley Center.