In North America only 10% of pastors are women. In some denominations the number is close to zero depending on a denominations  particular interpretations of scripture.

On this podcast of Advent Next, we ask Dr. John Reeves from Andrews University Seminary, a professor of Church History, to explain the history of the ordination of women in order to gain insight into the present controversy of ordaining women to leadership in today’s churches. 

According to Dr. Reeves, the shift towards an exclusive male presence in pastoral positions actually began in the third century. This was a time when the church began adopting the values of the Roman society in which they lived. If we travel back to the first century however, “church” was a private affair, which largely occurred in the home rather than in the public sphere. Here, it was common for women to be reputable leaders in their community. However, in the second century when worship shifted from private to public spaces, the church faced criticism from secular authorities because of their female leadership.  

Not only is there evidence of female leadership in scripture with the commendation of Phoebe, but even female apostles. 

Phoebe is called a “diakonos of the church in Cenchreae.” Diakonos is the masculine Greek word for servant, a term Paul uses to describe himself in His work of serving the churches. We also see Junia, who Paul and early church fathers recognized as an Apostle.

So when did the church become gender exclusive in who they allowed to pastor churches? This shift occurred when the biblical concept of “laying on of hands” was transformed into a mystical term called “ordination.” Originally, the church would “lay hands” on someone as a sign that they supported the mission to which that person was called. This sign of support was for a specific task and for a time. However, this act morphed into a more sacramental concept when the church shifted their focus from the “priesthood of all believers” to a hierarchical church structure that needed to re-institute a priesthood for the administration of the eucharist.

The eucharist, which was once administered for the remembrance of sin, began to be offered as an offering for sin. This “sacrifice” necessitated a priesthood and soon the church attempted to replicated the Old Testament system of priesthood. Yet, oddly, this priesthood did not require the participants to adhere to any of the other requirements of the Old Testament priesthood other than being male.

 On this episode, Dr. Reeves describes this history of women and ordination in detail.