In the conversations surrounding ordination and specifically the ordination of women to gospel ministry, many things need improvement, chief among them our lack of charity toward one another as sisters and brothers in Christ, members of the same Body. Today, though, I want to address what I see as the primary defect in the argument in favor of women's ordination.
Many of the voices advocating for women in ministry, women in church leadership, and/or women's ordination are shouting in the key of feminism, overwhelming questions of Scripture and tradition with objections about RIGHTS and EQUALITY and FREEDOM. This is a fundamentally flawed posture toward ministry. Certainly, concerns about rights and equality and freedom have their places, but, equally as certain, their place is not at the front of an argument about ministry.
We church-y people seem to have forgotten what "ministry" means. It literally means service. It is the servant's task to minister. The most basic idea about ministry is that it is not a right. One more time, to let it sink in: Ministry is not a right. More than that, gospel ministry is a calling, so that those who have received the call are compelled to fulfill it. As the apostle Paul says,
Paul did not have a right to be an apostle, though he was one. He was an apostle by virtue of his calling. (Note–of course!–that it was this apostolic calling that afforded him certain rights as an apostle. Read both of the Corinthian letters to see this fully developed, but look especially at 1 Cor 9). Paul did not have a right to preach, he had a commission to preach! This commission meant suffering, it meant financial and material loss, it meant the loss of friends, it meant repeated prayers that he would be bold in this intimidating task (Eph 6:19-20).
Those who advocate for full and equal participation in gospel ministry for both women and men are missing the point if they think that this is an issue of women's rights in the same way that equal pay and freedom from sexual harassment is an issue of equal rights. This is a misguided idea because, again, ministry is not a right. It is a calling. The language of "rights" rings hollow and worldly when we are talking about picking up the mantle of service.
We need to be be far, far less worried about women's rights in this discussion, and far, far more concerned with the right of the Holy Spirit to call, compel, and commission whom He will.
Those who oppose women in church leadership are very happy to cast the entire question as an outgrowth of secular feminism. There was, you may remember, an in/famous sermon on this topic by an influential Adventist preacher in which he spent several minutes talking about the feminism of mid-century and pinpointed it as the source of this question. Of course, this is a red herring, as the issue of women in church leadership goes waaaaaaayyyyyy earlier than that. The Adventist church was talking about it in the 1880s and it had nothing to do with voting rights or bra burnings. (Discrediting the cause by linking it to 1970s feminism is also a genetic fallacy, but few people seem to care about that either.)
The question is not about who has the right to choose ministry for themselves. The question is about God's right to choose whom He will.
This post is not a close examination of the biblical texts under dispute, nor a scrutiny of history for clues about the permissibility of women in ministry, women in church leadership, or women's ordination to gospel ministry. Those are very worthy investigations and I have done them myself. From that study and in prayer I have come to the conclusion that spiritual gifts (among them apostleship, prophecy, evangelism, pastoring and teaching [Eph 4:11]) are not given on the basis of gender, but as the Spirit wills (1 Cor 12:11), and that spiritual gifts and calling are given on the basis of our shared participation in Christ (1 Cor 12:12-13); this shared participation, this being "in Christ," means "there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus... heirs according to the promise." (Gal 3:28-29)
Therefore, it is my view that the Holy Spirit may call some women into leadership among His people (Miriam, Deborah). He may call some women to instruct men in the gospel (Priscilla). He may call some women to be prophets (Huldah, Anna, Phillip's daughters). He may call some women to be apostles (Junia). And it is His right to do so.
Recognizing the Holy Spirit-ordination of women into the gospel ministry with full ecclesial authorization (what we currently call "ordination") is important because to reject, de-legitmate, or neglect His movement is an affront to the Spirit's authority and to His right to do with us whatever He wants. If He wants to give a frail 17-year-old a vision for the little flock, we should honor His right to do so, and pay attention! If He wants to use two young upstarts to bring the truth of justification by faith in 1888, we should recognize His full right and authority to do so, and pay attention! If He chooses a woman to preach the gospel, to lead a congregation, to instruct youth in the Scriptures, to disciple, to represent His redemption drama in their lives–well, we better say Yes to His decision. Ellen White didn't have a right to become a prophet. Jones and Waggoner didn't have a right to preach the message of justification by faith. And nobody in the world has a right to shepherd God's people and represent His remnant church.
But we all have a holy obligation to recognize the Spirit's right to anoint His sons and His daughters.