When discussing the ordination of women from a historical perspective there is a theological tension that must be observed. This tension is tested at various points by cultural perspectives that at different times and in different eras tend to push the discussion in different ways. In addition, there is a clear connection of the topic to salvation history. These theological principles begin in creation and are redeemed in Christ’s work.
To begin, let’s outline those basic theological concepts. First, God has created this world as an ordered creation. He created in six days. He created space and then he created living things to fill that space. Last of all God created humanity in his image to rule this space. The first parents are thus God’s representatives, serving under God but reflecting his rule over creation as they “order and subdue” it. (Gen. 1:28) They demonstrate this when Adam gives names to the animals in Genesis 2 and the basis for marriage is found in this task of ruling creation as a “one-flesh” union. (Gen. 2.24)
Secondly, the Church has persistently taught that all humanity, including men and women, are created in the image and according to the likeness of God (Gen. 1:26-27). The original parents lived in harmonious relationship with nature and with one another until the fall. The fall however introduced tension and upset this harmony. This would be keenly felt in the marital relationship between the husband and the wife. While there was divine order prior to the fall, the newfound tension of this order is revealed in the words of the curse to Eve, “Your desire will be for your husband and he will rule over you” (Gen. 3:16). The word “desire” here is the same word used in God’s words to Cain in the next chapter, “Sin is crouching at the door and its desire is to have you” (Gen. 4:7). Thus, “desire” is best understood as something that strives for mastery over another. The same sinful inclination is at work in men and women so that God’s ordered arrangement often conflicts with our own sinful desires.
The first clear theological concept is that God has created an ordered world with governing structures that reflect his purposes in creation. The second clear theological concept then is that we are all created in the image and likeness of God. We have a responsibility to treat one another with respect and honor. And yet, the sinful nature within all of us strives against this order. We strive against God with unnatural affections in an attempt to set ourselves above God and anyone else who might get in the way. These same attitudes are reflected in cultures and ages all around the world (Rom. 2). It is these attitudes that Christ came to redeem.
Christ’s work in redemption begins in his incarnation, works through his active ministry, and culminates in his death, burial, and resurrection. Christ became the second Adam (Rom. 5) who fulfilled the law perfectly (active obedience) and taught the true nature of God’s law which extends beyond our acts to our desires (Mat. 5). His sacrifice on the cross (passive obedience) is the atonement that reconciles God and humanity. As we are united to him through faith, our sins are paid and his righteousness is imputed to us. The Spirit which indwells believers continues the work of restoring the image of God in humanity. This process of renewal in our hearts and of relationships will continue until Jesus makes all things perfect at his return.
Thus, in Jesus’ incarnation we can look for clues about the relationship between men and women and God’s plan for its restoration. God brings his salvation to the world through the obedience of a woman. Mary, the mother of Jesus, actively fulfilled the promise of the protoevangelium in Genesis 3:15. The seed of the woman indeed crushed the head of the serpent. In reflecting on this passage Paul says later, the woman is saved through childbirth,” (I Timothy 2:15) that is through humble obedience to God in her God-given role. Mary is therefore a model for how God can use human obedience to accomplish his purposes in the world.
Jesus’ ministry also documents some important things for us to bear in mind. We know that Jesus appointed twelve apostles all of whom were men. This would not have been surprising in his culture. What is surprising is Jesus’ active engagement with women in his ministry. Jesus healed women (Luke 8), talked openly with women to the amazement of his disciples (John 4), and received worship from women (Mark 14). Jesus even made a point to clearly document the inclusion of women in God’s covenant when he defended his healing of an infirm woman in Luke 13 by calling her a “daughter of Abraham.” This title is not represented in Jewish literature from the period while “son of Abraham” was common. Jesus allowed women to sit underneath his teaching even praising Mary for “choosing the better part.” Like many of the cultural religious mores of his day, Jesus was willing to cross perceived boundaries to demonstrate the worth and value of all people. Women were actively engaged in the ministry of Jesus supporting it both physically and monetarily as Luke points out. He says,
And it came to pass afterward, that he went throughout every city and village, preaching and shewing the glad tidings of the kingdom of God: and the twelve were with him, And certain women, which had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary called Magdalene, out of whom went seven devils, And Joanna the wife of Chuza Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, which ministered unio him of their subsistence. (Luke 8:1-3)
Jesus therefore in his ministry showed great care and concern for all people including women. He recognized them as created in the image of God. He engaged them as individuals of equal worth. He allowed them places of learning and of service. And yet there are no examples of Jesus setting apart women for specific leadership roles as he did the twelve apostles.
Similarly, the Apostles recognized and implemented Jesus’ vision for restored relationships in the unfolding of salvation history. They recognized the equal value of all people regardless of race or gender in Christ. Galatians 3:28 reads, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” Various oikonomoi or house law codes were shared as part of the writings of the apostles. Ephesians 5 is perhaps the best known and most instructive for us. While Ephesians 5:21 points out the reality of mutual submission in Christ for all people, it goes on to outline the relationship between husbands and wives. Redemption means that instead of each member of the marriage striving for mastery over the other, that mutual submission was in order. Wives were to submit to their husbands as unto the Lord (Ephesians 5:22). Husbands on the other hand are called to follow the example of Christ in loving their wives as Christ loved the Church giving all of himself over freely and fully in obedience to the Father (Eph. 5:25).
This is also seen in the service of women in the earliest churches. Peter quotes Joel to document that both “sons and daughters” would prophesy in the latter days (Acts 2). Women were important examples of faith raising up their children in the fear and admonition of the Lord, teaching them from the Scriptures (2 Timothy 3:14-15). Some women of means provided significant support to the church by hosting churches in their homes (Col. 4:15). Others by word and action played an important role in the early missional advancement of the Church through their individual witness and their mentoring of young Christian leaders (Acts 18:26, Priscilla and Aquilla as the teachers of Apollos).
It cannot be overstated how radically countercultural such a move was. In first-century Israel, women were generally confined to the domestic sphere. They had a separate court in the temple. Though they attended synagogue worship they sat separately from the men and in some cases their area was divided from the men by a curtain. Rabbis never taught women students and indeed the synagogue educational system was only for male children. It was scandalous for a non-related male to even engage in a conversation with a woman outside the home. Jesus’ ministry held space for women and recognized their spiritual value.
The same principle continued in the early church. The church recognized male headship as part of God’s designed order and it was reflected in ordained church leadership which was confined to men. Nevertheless, women served in a number of different capacities and had active roles in Christian service if not in ordained leadership. Part of this was certainly cultural. Paul specifically wants nothing to hamper the effectiveness of the Gospel. This is clearly the background for certain gender-based proscriptions we see in some parts of the New Testament like I Timothy 2:12 and I Corinthians 11:5. And yet, even though women were expected to pray veiled in recognition of the appropriate ecclesial order (I Cor. 11:10), they were still expected to pray (I Cor. 11:13). Prayer was only one of these ministries.
In the earliest years of the New Testament church, we know from Scripture that there were both prophets and prophetesses. This was a fulfillment of Joel 2 as Peter indicated in his sermon on Pentecost. Clearly women served in this role as well since we know that the evangelist Phillip had four daughters all of whom were designated as prophetesses (Acts 21:9). But the presence of prophets or prophetesses was not a continuing role or a regular office in the early church for men or for women. There are no biblical qualifications for the role of prophet in the New Testament and no examples of prophets in orthodox communities as we move into the second generation of the early church.
The fullest evidence we have of women’s service in the earliest Christian community was in the role of widows. While the term in Scripture has reference to women whose husbands had died, it comes to be more than a simple descriptor. In the first century, women who were left widowed had little opportunity for employment. They were typically forced to remarry or to seek their support in other ways. Paul counsels younger widows who are still capable of bearing children to remarry and recognize the worth of their service in the home (I Tim. 5:14), but he encourages older widows to live in service to the church. He even lists qualifications for the role in ways similar to the qualifications listed for elders and deacons. Widows should be at least sixty years old, the faithful wife of one husband. She should have a good reputation evidenced by hospitality and caregiving. She must be a humble and active member of the congregation having “washed the feet of the saints,” and ultimately be devoted to God and “every good work” (I Tim. 5:9-10). This list is not simply a list of qualifications but also a list of service that the church expected to continue. The widows received their subsistence from the common support of the congregation and would travel from house to house meeting physical and emotional needs, providing care and support for younger mothers and their children, those who were ill, and generally facilitating much of the benevolent ministry of the congregation. Titus 2:3-4 exhorts the widows to, “teach what is good and train the young women/wives to love their husbands and children.” As we will soon see, the office of widows would continue to expand until the medieval period when it is effectively subsumed into women’s religious orders.
The other category for female service in the early church is more clouded and surrounded by significant debate. Deacons were a recognized office in the early church. Deacons served underneath the presbyters or overseers and were tasked with administering the external affairs of the congregation and the benevolent ministry of the congregation. Qualifications for this office are given in I Timothy 3 following a discussion of the qualifications for presbyters/overseers. In I Timothy 3:11 there are specific qualifications listed for either the wives of deacons or for women serving as deacons. The interpretation of this text is ambiguous because the Greek word for “woman” and “wife” is the same word. Interpreters are divided in their understanding.
Those who advocate for deacon’s wives argue that they are mentioned in the discussion of deacons because they will certainly have an active role in the ministry of their husbands. Certainly, given the demands and expectations of the culture they would have to be active participants in meeting the needs of women in the congregation. As such, deacon’s wives must provide good examples of mature and godly womanhood.
On the other hand, some argue that the absence of any reference to the wives of elders or overseers in the preceding list of their qualifications means that the specificity of I Timothy 3:11 indicates an actual office rather than simply a relationship. No matter how one interprets this passage, it is clear that deaconesses or deacon’s wives were active agents of the church’s ministry of support to the congregation. It is also clear that the early church recognized the office of deaconess for some time in certain parts of the Mediterranean.
Again though, while the active roles given to women in ministry were robust and remarkable in such a strictly gendered society, there are no examples in the orthodox church of women serving in liturgical functions or in administrative leadership roles for the entire church community. The writings of the early church bear this out. The third century document on church order called the Didascalia discusses how deaconesses serve, for the sake of propriety, to assist women converts who are preparing for baptism and instructed them afterward. In addition, they were assigned tasks of charitable service. Still, a strong distinction is maintained even between deaconesses and deacons who did have certain liturgical functions. “A deaconess does not bless, nor perform anything belonging to the office of presbyters or deacons, but only is to keep the doors, and to minister to the presbyters in the baptizing of women, on account of decency” (Didascalia, 8.3.XXVIII).
The Apostolic Constitutions, a document of church order that originated in Syria and dates from the late fourth century, says much the same. Here, deaconesses are typically assigned two primary roles. Like male deacons they “guard the doors of the churches” and escort women to their places. Secondly, they perform tasks associated with charitable service. This includes visiting the homes of the women of the congregation, aiding the sick, and distributing alms to those who had need.
Interestingly, an earlier document from the West, the early third century (circa 215 AD) Apostolic Tradition usually attributed to Hippolytus of Rome does not mention deaconesses at all. Instead, he focuses upon the role of widows and virgins which have become conflated by this time. While he does not develop their duties other than pointing out the utility in their service of prayer and fasting (23:1-2) he does clearly indicate that their role was not anything like an ordained position.
When a widow is appointed, she is not ordained, but is chosen by name. If her husband has been dead a long time, she is appointed. If it has not been a long time since her husband died, she may not be trusted. If, however, she is old, let her be tested for a time. For often the passions grow old with those who give them a place in themselves. The widow is appointed by word alone, and then may join the rest of the widows. Do not lay hands upon her, for she does not offer the oblation, nor does she have a liturgical duty. Ordination is for the clergy because of liturgical duty. The widow is appointed because of prayer, which is a duty for all (10:1-5).
The absence of deaconesses from this writing has led many scholars to believe that the rise of deaconesses in the late third and fourth century in the East was a new development. This development, they argue was necessitated by a growing catechetical function and shifting liturgical practice that in a strongly gendered society required female deacons for the sake of propriety. There is a significant lacuna in apostolic writings related to such an office. Typically, this is explained in light of the growing hierarchical structure of ordination practiced by the church. As the office of deacon came to embrace more of a liturgical rather than a charitable role, and as the office of deacon came to be considered a stepping stone on the way to ordination as a priest, the office of deaconess fell away.
In any case, the testimony of the early church is clear that while there were active roles of ministry for women, these positions were not part of the ordained clerical structure. The second century church father Tertullian is instructive for us in this regard. He says, “It is not permitted to a woman to speak in the church; but neither (is it permitted her) to teach, nor to baptize, nor to offer, nor to claim to herself a lot in any manly function, not to say (in any) sacerdotal office” (On the Veiling of Virgins, 9).
While the office of widows continued unabated for a time, it also began to shift in function. In the earliest communities the associated duties were those shared with deaconesses. The early Christian emphasis on celibacy and prohibition against second marriages led to the lowering of the recommended age for widows from 60 as in Paul to 50 (Apostolic Constitutions). In addition, many in the early church embraced celibacy so that you had virgins who had effectively made themselves widows by forsaking the custom of marriage. This afforded women significant freedom in a male-dominated culture and allowed them the time and energy to devote themselves to spiritual disciplines rather than caring for a family. These virgins would soon be classed together with the widows and the church. Eventually, both orders would cease as this embrace of asceticism led to a cenobitic monasticism which would flourish through the Medieval period until the Protestant Reformation.
The magisterial reformers likewise insisted upon male ordination and leadership. Martin Luther was a champion of the priesthood of all believers and the necessity of Christian service for all Christians. At the same time, in his treatise On the Councils and the Church (1539) he says,
the church consecrates or calls ministers, or has offices that it is to administer…(and)…it is however, true that the Holy Spirit has excepted women, children, and incompetent people from this function, but chooses (except in emergencies) only competent males to fill this office, as one reads here and there in the epistles of St. Paul that a bishop must be pious, able to teach, and the husband of one wife – and in 1 Corinthians 14:34 he says, ‘The women should keep silence in the churches’. In summary, it must be a competent and chosen man. Children, women, and other persons are not qualified for this office, even though they are able to hear God’s word, to receive baptism, the sacrament, absolution, and are also true, holy Christians, as St. Peter says (1 Pet 3:7 – Luther’s Works, American Edition 41:154, 155).
John Calvin, similarly commenting on I Timothy 3:1-7 says, “Having forbidden women to teach, he [Paul] now takes occasion to speak of the office of a bishop. First, that it may be more clearly seen that it was not without reason that he refused to allow women to undertake so arduous a work; secondly, that it might not be thought that, by excluding women only, he admitted all men indiscriminately.” The Protestant reformers extending to the radical reformation maintained the traditional perspective of a male clergy.
It was not until the rise of pietism in the middle of the seventeenth century that we begin to see a significant shift in the role of women in the Church. This specifically happens with the Quaker movement. George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, wrote a work entitled, “The Woman Learning in Silence, or the Mystery of the Woman’s Subjection to Her Husband” in which he advocated an active role for women in ministry including prophesying and teaching publicly. While the Quakers did not practice ordination, believing that only God could call and ordain ministers, many women would become famous (or infamous) for their public leadership among the group.
John Wesley, the father of methodism, also provides an impetus to greater active engagement of women. Early in his career he was opposed to it describing one difference between his movement and Quakerism being that the Quakers allowed women to preach to a church assembly. Later, he would provide instructions and counsel for a number of Methodist women whom he empowered to “exhort” but not to “preach.” He said, “In public you may properly enough intermix short exhortations with prayer; but keep as far from what is called preaching as you can: therefore never take a text; never speak in a continued discourse without some break, about four or five minutes.”  Still, there was no official ordination and no regular ministry associated with his permission.
Revivalism and the rise of the Evangelical missionary movement continued to afford significant opportunity for women to engage in ministry. The traditional boundaries for leadership, thus removed from local congregations, further blurred the lines of what sorts of actions and service were permitted for women. Women continued to work as lay leaders and to head Christian organizations. We see the rise not only of women teachers but of evangelists, missionaries, and eventually pastors as we enter into the middle of the nineteenth century. The first known woman to be officially ordained as a minister in America was Antoinette Brown who was ordained by a small rural Congregationalist church in South Butler, New York to serve as their pastor in 1853.
During this same time in the Northern Randall churches there were a small number of women evangelists and speakers recognized. They were not however ordained and their ministries typically ceased when they were married. This practice however, likely impacted the eventual ordination of a small number of women among Free Will Baptists in the 20th century who were generally associated with Randall churches on the frontier in western Missouri, Nebraska, Kansas, and Texas. In almost all of these cases, the women were active in mission work or revivalism, closely assisted their ordained husbands, and rarely pastored churches on their own.
Nevertheless, outside of certain sects, Wesleyan groups, and groups with strong revivalist leanings, the established churches typically continued to reject women’s ordination. This largely, monolithic position would be challenged afresh by the twentieth century rise of Pentecostalism and the movement for women’s suffrage. The question of whether to ordain women to clerical ministry would soon separate churches, both Pentecostal and mainline. The latter group of churches would continue to divide over a number of different theological positions that would come to be associated with “modernism” or “liberalism.” Outside of Pentecostal groups, more conservative groups generally continued to reject women’s ordination. Among the remaining mainline denominations, women’s ordination would become common by the 1970s.
Outside the Wesleyan movement and more Pentecostal leaning church groups springing from it, the question of the ordination of women has been one that has divided Evangelicalism. This reality is however a relatively new development. We see no evidence of women’s ordination in the orthodox church from the Apostles until the time of John Wesley. Even Wesley distinguishes between the office of teaching and preaching and church administration. It is not until the twentieth century that we begin to see a significant movement toward women’s ordination in Protestantism. This trend has continued to be rejected in Roman Catholicism and the Eastern Orthodox church. It is beyond my task to judge the practices of any age other than my own. But the testimony of history is clear and virtually unanimous in advocating for an active role for women’s engagement in ministry on the one hand and a clear prohibition against women serving in an ordained, clerical capacity on the other.
 John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, trans. William Pringle, Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 55.
 John Wesley, Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament (London: Wesleyan-Methodist Book-Room), n.p.
 John Wesley, The Letters of the Rev. John Wesley, 8 vols., ed. John Telford (London: Epworth, 1931), 5: 130.
 Ruth A. Tucker and Walter Liefeld, Daughters of the Church: Women and Ministry from New Testament Times to the Present, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 1987), 259. See also I.D. Stewart, The History of the Freewill Baptists, 2 vols. (Dover: Freewill Baptist Printing Establishment, 1862) I: 188, 191, 308-10, 318, 338, 377, and 391. Women preachers mentioned included: Mary Savage, Sally Parsons, and Clarissa Danforth, among others.