In the past month or so, those of us in the Wesleyan theological tradition have been privileged to witness the ordination of numerous women and men for the ministry of Jesus Christ. While many denominations of the church perform the rite of ordination for ministry, the majority of Christians in the world limit their ordinations to male candidates. What is the biblical basis for the Wesleyan tradition’s unwavering commitment to the ordination of women?
To answer this question, it will be helpful to begin with the definition of ordination. While each denomination has tailor-made its own specific definition, it is broadly defined by the Encyclopedia Britannica as “a rite for the dedication and commissioning of ministers. The essential ceremony consists of the laying of hands of the ordaining minister upon the head of the one being ordained, with prayer for the gifts of the Holy Spirit and of grace required for the carrying out of the ministry.” This general definition, rather than one belonging to a particular denomination, provides a useful starting point for understanding the biblical basis for ordaining women (and men) who are called by God to ministries of word, sacrament, order, service, etc.
The Wesleyan tradition draws on numerous New Testament precedents for women alongside men in the ministry of Jesus Christ. Of particular note is the fact that, despite New Testament era social contexts that often denigrated and disrespected women, Jesus himself consistently treated women with dignity and respect and commended women for their faith, service, and evangelical witness. He included women as disciples and coworkers in ministry, as well as recipients of his grace, healing, and teaching.
While there is no evidence that Jesus himself formally “ordained” persons for ministry in the same manner as many churches today, he did authorize, direct, and send disciples, including women, to proclaim the good news of his resurrection and salvation. Most well-known among Jesus’s disciples were the twelve who are widely recognized in the New Testament and in church history as “apostles.” It was to these men that Jesus sent faithful female disciples, who were his first witnesses at the vacated tomb, to announce the good news of his resurrection. Of those identified in the New Testament, Jesus’s female disciples included Mary (his own mother), Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, Salome, the Samaritan woman at the well, Mary and Martha, Joanna and Susanna, and “other” (noted but unnamed in Scripture) women who were authorized by Jesus to follow, serve, and witness to his identity and mission as the Son of God. (For analyses of women’s roles in the New Testament, see, e.g., Dorothy A. Lee, The Ministry of Women in the New Testament: Reclaiming the Biblical Vision for Church Leadership [Baker Academic, 2021]; Elizabeth Gillan Muir, A Women’s History of the Christian Church [University of Toronto Press, 2019]; Janice Nunnally-Cox, Fore-Mothers: Women of the Bible [Seabury Press, 1981].)
Women in ministry mentioned in the New Testament book of Acts and epistles also serve as models and precedents. These include Tabitha, Mary, Lydia, Priscilla, the daughters of Philip, Phoebe, Junia, Euodia, Syntyche, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, Persis, Nympha, and others. Junia is identified by the apostle Paul as a fellow apostle along with her husband, Andronicus. The New Testament and other documents from the early church reference specific orders of ministry to which women were consecrated and/or ordained, including deacons and deaconesses, virgins and widows. In short, the New Testament provides a wealth of examples of women who were set apart, including some who were ordained, for the ministry of Jesus Christ in a nonsectarian sense of the term.
Historians have established that the practice of setting women and men apart in formal orders of ministry continued through the early church and early medieval periods of Christianity, although with variations across geographic and cultural contexts. This history is the secondary basis, after scriptural precedents, for the Wesleyan practice of ordaining women. We will explore this history briefly in a future blog.
Meanwhile, when we are privileged to witness the ordination of a woman by the church, we should remember that we are standing in a heritage that reaches back in history to the New Testament and Jesus’s own ministry on this earth. This woman stands in unison with many others who have ministered before us, including the women at Jesus’s vacated tomb, in amazement at being called and commanded to go and announce the good news of his resurrection. The faithful are blessed to see her kneel to receive the laying on of the bishop’s hands and to hear the prayers of the bishop and church for grace for the ministry to which she has been called. We should view her as standing in continuity with the martyrs and saints before her who have answered God’s call to give their lives for the greatest purpose on earth: the salvation of humankind in the name and Spirit of the risen Christ.