How Has Modernity Shifted the Women’s Ordination Debate?

Perhaps through a flattering overvaluation of the part that we play in them as clergy or scholars, we often suppose that ideas and practices prevail in the social arena chiefly through strength of arguments. Consequently, we can easily overlook the frequently decisive role played by such things as shifts in political and institutional power, by demographic and contextual changes, and by the reframing of our discourses through the technological transformation of our media, institutions, and societies.

Following Peter Berger, many have used his concept of ‘plausibility structures’ to account for secularization and the loss of traditional religious faith. Our evolving sociocultural contexts and conditions establish underlying structures of meaning within which belief systems, ideas, and practices gain or lose plausibility. These structures are seldom examined or registered. They typically function below our threshold of awareness; only through concerted effort and determined attention can the conditions that determine how self-evident our beliefs and practices are, be themselves brought into the light.

Close consideration of plausibility structures is generally quite lacking in debates surrounding women in pastoral ministry. We principally occupy ourselves with rehearsing familiar arguments on various sides of the questions. While these arguments have evolved in some subtle ways and some have been largely abandoned, many of them are substantially the same as they were a couple of hundred years ago. However, the relative effectiveness of these arguments has changed markedly, in ways that will be difficult to understand apart from attention to the transformation of our underlying plausibility structures. Indeed, even when the arguments are the same, the distribution of weight between them has altered significantly. In particular, arguments from nature against the ordination of women have greatly diminished in their effectiveness, and opponents of women’s ordination have placed much more emphasis upon arguments from divine command and theological symbolism.

The plausibility structures for the ordination of women are sociocultural and institutional, not merely theological. And the theological plausibility of women’s ordination or prominent ministry depends heavily upon explicit and implicit ecclesiologies that are heavily influenced by, or which function in terms of, specific sociocultural factors and contexts. The widespread shift towards women’s ordination in the last century has largely arisen from rapid and far-reaching changes in our institutions and social structures.

Historically, the prominent ministry of women in the Church has tended to occur in contexts such as independent house churches, where churches very much remained in a narrow domestic realm. Alistair Stewart writes: ‘beyond the first Christian generation, there is little evidence of women exercising leadership within Christian circles, except, possibly, in those settings in which the domestic basis of the church was still prominent, and in which there were single households, and that this is the rationale behind the manifestation of female leadership in Montanist communities.’[1] As churches took on a more public and larger associational character, the conditions for such ministry rapidly died out.

In some contexts, it has been the emphasis upon internal spiritual or prophetic revelation, and a resistance to the supposedly stifling structures of church polity, that has provided the conditions from which prominent women’s ministry could arise. The Quaker movement affords examples of this dynamic, as do various charismatic and Pentecostal movements nearer to the present day.

The place of female lay preachers in the early Methodist movement illustrates other further conditions under which such ministries could arise. For John Wesley, the exigencies of an extreme and atypical situation required the extraordinary measure of appointing female lay preachers. Distinguishing his position from that of the Quakers in a letter from 1777, Wesley wrote: ‘The difference between us and Quakers in this respect is manifest, they flatly deny the rule itself (of I Corinthians 14) though it stands clear in the Bible. We allow the rule: only we believe it admits of some exceptions.’ For Wesley, the practice of lay preaching was also contextualized by a ‘high’ ecclesiology for which the regular ministry of the (exclusively male) ordained clergy and structures of church polity were important and, at least in principle, placed limits upon the scope, prominence, and power of lay ministry by their very existence. Where there was a shortage of male lay preachers, women could temporarily be called upon to fill the gaps in their ranks. In 1803, however, the Methodist Conference discontinued the practice of female lay preaching to mixed audiences, deeming that there were now sufficient male preachers. This development provides a background to George Eliot’s novel Adam Bede.

There are places in Calvin and other Reformation writers that also testify to such consideration of legitimate emergency and exceptional situations (in his commentary on 1 Timothy 2:12, Calvin remarks: ‘God’s extraordinary acts do not annul the ordinary rules by which he wishes us to be bound’). Perhaps surprisingly, when the argument against women in prominent positions rested more upon nature, rather than narrowly upon divine command, there was more latitude to consider exceptional and extraordinary situations of women in such positions existing alongside and without conflict with the rule. However, such an understanding resists normalizing or regularizing such exceptional cases, or overturning the rule on their account.

I have briefly recounted these historical instances, as they help to highlight the novelty of the current situation, where there is majority support for women in the ordained clergy across mainline denominations. Prior to the twentieth century, prominent women’s roles in churches were limited to more domestic, anti-clerical, charismatic and ecstatic, or lay contexts. We must consider some of the factors that changed for the prominent and non-exceptional ministry of women to obtain significant traction in churches with more of an emphasis upon regular sacramental ministry, public order and polity, and in which prophetic and charismatic commitments don’t relativize or trump ordinary office. It will be difficult to understand such developments without close consideration of the radical transformation of our institutions and broader social order that has occurred during this period. These developments have resulted in a collapse of the plausibility structures that once limited the prominent ministry of women within the Church, even in those situations where such ministry was operative. The result of this is majority support for women’s ordination on one side and a pivot towards arguments from divine command or more abstruse theological considerations on the other.

Chris Schlect, in a deeply perceptive talk delivered for the Davenant Institute, explored how the rapid rise in support for women’s ordination came on the heels of some of the radical yet subtle ways in which the institution and life of churches were reframed in the early twentieth century.[2] Schlect observed how the church swiftly, yet largely unreflectively, adopted the habits and structures of scientific management, undergoing an administrative transformation in the process. Organizational efficiency and integration became central. Taylorist principles depersonalized and standardized structures that had formerly been personal, local, and irregular. As he observed, ‘[early 20th century American Protestants] partook of divine grace in activities that could be diagrammed on flowcharts, tallied in ledgers, organized in filing cabinets, printed in bulletins, and moved, seconded, adopted, and recorded in minutes.’

This transformation was both evidenced and advanced in everything from church architecture—Schlect observes the rise of denominational headquarters buildings and church office spaces to manage the new bureaucratic character of church structure—to the proliferation of church bulletins and form letters in congregational life. The irregularity and idiosyncrasies of local church organization started to evaporate as denominations standardized their record-keeping and pursued their greater concern for measurement, efficiency, predictability, and statistics. The proliferation of print, not only in publishing houses, but also in church life, shifted the centre of gravity of people’s religious bonds and identities away from the more personal and immediate bonds and belonging of local congregations to the mediated and impersonal bonds of the reading culture.

With the rise of this new organizational culture and its associated techniques and technologies, the depersonalization of structure, procedure, and function broke down traditional distinctions between male and female being, work, and tools. The system of scientific management neutralized gender, increasingly marginalizing personal factors and foregrounding functional ones. Of course, these developments were not merely operative within the life of the church—far from it! With the rise of such scientific management the traditional gendered life of communities was vanishing before the neutralizing effect of the new organizations. For people in congregations moulded by the homogenized society of the modern workplace, the gendered distinctions of traditional church order seemed increasingly foreign.

In these new organizations, administrative role usurped the place formerly occupied by personal authority and representation. Likewise, the institutional and organizational life of the church could increasingly be abstracted from its organic and concrete communal life. As churches started to adopt the forms and techniques of the new scientific organizations, while the names of their ordained offices might have remained the same (despite some churches replacing their pastors with ‘CEOs’, for most the institutional revolution that has occurred lies concealed beneath the traditional names), conceptions and perceptions of the character of those offices changed significantly. At the same time as these developments were occurring, the organic life of local communities was being attenuated by rising mobility, urbanization, and other forces of dislocation. Whereas the traditional church building was surrounded by a graveyard, the modern church building is surrounded by a car park.

Schlect’s focus was upon the earliest stages of this transition, which has advanced considerably since that time. While he drew attention to the place of a broadening print culture—which enabled denominations and local churches to forge religious identities and ‘communities’ that were increasingly mediated through print—the rise of new mass, online, and social media has dramatically transformed and contextually resituated the traditional pedagogical and political functions of the Church. Which, in turn, allowed a vast, nebulous and mutating ‘parachurch’ realm to emerge, casting the formal ministries and polity of the Church into shadow. Lines between traditionally gendered realms of discourse, already blurred by mass media and modern print culture, have been further effaced by the context collapse heralded by the Internet and social media. With this has come increased uncertainty about what constitutes ‘teaching’ within the life of the Church and the legitimacy of traditional limits upon women in this activity. Is a woman blogging or speaking at a televised Christian conference ‘teaching and exercising authority’ over men?

In this new environment, rather than their formal ordained offices naturally arising out of, depending upon, and representing the organic structures of a robust grassroots communal life, churches increasingly had to engineer and ‘astroturf’ their own communities. Now, the centre of gravity for new religious identities, moving away from local communal solidarities towards ideological alignments, the enjoyment of constructed and abstracted communities, and the consumption of print and visual media. The new administrative structure of churches required large staff teams that coordinated activities and programmes for increasingly alienated and atomized congregations, attempting to construct a simulacrum of community from the unpromising raw materials of contemporary society.

As church office floated free of the structures of personal authority that obtain in more organic larger communal settings, the more natural rationale of exclusive male ordination sank into obscurity, seemingly an atavistic reversion to a less enlightened age. The modern organization, by virtue of its depersonalization, displaced authority from persons and vested it in impersonal systems and institutions, within which workers, whose ‘personal’ lives were hermetically sealed off from their ‘professional’ lives, could be empowered to administer that authority, without ever needing personally to manifest it. For people accustomed to such social order in their daily lives—as most Christians are today—lingering opposition to women’s ordination will seem to depend upon inscrutable divine command or unreconstructed bigotry.

The plausibility structures that historically sustained male-only ordination have largely collapsed in modern society, undermining even those contexts where a semblance of traditional orthodox form is maintained. It is imperative that this shift be considered in terms of the plausibility structures established by our social forms, as, without such consideration, the cause and nature of the shift won’t be understood. We may also fail to appreciate the degree to which this same shift has also imperceptibly occurred beneath the reassuring façade of conservative Christianity.

Transition to such an order of administrative authority from one of personal authority has resulted in under-considered changes on various other fronts. Within the Church, the displacement of authority characteristic of modern institutional structures can result in a reframing of the character of the clergy’s authority. Rather than personally symbolizing and exerting the authority of the Church as fitting guardians of their congregations, contemporary clergy can function as a dependent ‘empowered’ class, performing gender-neutralized institutional functions, while deriving their authority entirely from the institutional authority of their church body, which as office-holders they have been granted to administer.

The fact that the pursuit of female ordination has often been characterized precisely in terms of ‘empowerment’ and the equitable distribution of institutional administrative authority is noteworthy, even if it is seldom closely examined. The underlying assumption is of a detached and impersonal institutional authority that is distributed to dependent parties. The less clergy are expected to exhibit and exert a personal authority and the more dependent they are upon an empowering institutional authority, the more the supposed guardians of the Church will function as a sort of eunuch class: administering, influencing, and being empowered and protected by the authority of another party or institution upon which they are profoundly and overtly dependent. Such a class is vulnerable to direct challenge and will tend to exert indirect power, by appealing to the institution to protect them from opponents, by employing their administrative capacities, and by exerting their considerable social influence.

Even though our institutions may seek to neutralize gender, their actual life is still shot through with the continuing, albeit now dissembled, reality of gender. The shift to dependence upon displaced authority is one that has accelerated with the advance of women within our various institutions—political, academic, corporate, and ecclesiastical. With this shift there has been a constriction of the more typically male dynamics that characterized the agonistic realms of contestation that formerly ordered our public structures of political accountability, ideological debate, justice, and class relations. In their place have arisen new dynamics of dependence. HR departments come to eclipse the traditional place of unions. People in positions of nominal authority increasingly self-characterize as vulnerable or adopt the posture of victims, while appealing to institutions and employing administrative mechanisms to protect themselves from direct opposition and confrontation.

Such a transition has already advanced far within the Church. As the clergy are increasingly recognized to be operating with a profoundly borrowed authority, our conceptions of pastoral ministry have evolved with the loss in the weight of the personal authority exerted by our ministers. Rather than functioning as the immune system, backbone, and guardians of the organic communities of congregations, the clergy are increasingly understood in terms of the performance of therapeutic, administrative, and narrowly didactic functions of institutions for individual religious consumers.

Partly as a result of this, disputes on matters of theological substance are increasingly mired in concerns about internal social relations. Rather than robustly spearheading an external focus of church unity in common mission, a ministry for which the traditionally masculine clergy was particularly apt, the clergy have become preoccupied with an internal focus of unity, with more typically feminine concerns about sensitivity, inclusivity, equality, etc. dominating the discourse and often marginalizing more properly theological concerns. These social concerns, while indisputably important in their proper place, can easily result in all sorts of theological and institutional compromise and enervation when they subvert the more agonistic and agentic ministry, of establishing and guarding boundaries and advancing mission, that the clergy has historically represented.

None of us are immune to the impact of these changes, which have deeply and extensively affected the various social imaginaries within which we operate. We should not simply deplore or regret these developments, which have been positive and ameliorative in many respects. While they are not without attendant costs, many of the possibilities that new media and social order afford women are beneficial, not merely for them, but for the Church and society more generally. Nevertheless, the problems that these developments admit on many fronts are considerable; it is essential that we properly reckon with them if we are not to pay an unnecessarily heavy price for our gains. Until we register and understand their character and appreciate the various ways that our thinking and practices have shifted under the influence of these social and institutional developments, it will be difficult to understand the contemporary plausibility of women’s ordination—among a great many other issues—and the exact character of the break that this represents with traditional conceptions of the Church and its ministry.

  1. Alistair C. Stewart, The Original Bishops: Office and Order in the First Christian Communities (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014), 351.
  2. Davenant Institute, “3. Cultural Change and Ecclesiastical Office. Dr. Christopher Schlect.” YouTube video. 2nd April 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fZ9ticGPql0.


Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) works for the Theopolis and Davenant Institutes. He is an author of Echoes of Exodus: Tracing Themes of Redemption Through Scripture (Crossway, 2018) and the forthcoming Heirs Together: A Theology of the Sexes. He participates in the Mere Fidelity and Theopolis podcasts, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, posts regular videos on theology on his YouTube account, and tweets at @zugzwanged.


'How Has Modernity Shifted the Women’s Ordination Debate?' has 1 comment

  1. March 7, 2020 @ 9:10 am Angus J

    I don’t have time to produce a well-consided contribution, but just to throw something into the melting-pot of ideas, which is coming from very near the limits of my knowledge.

    I wondered if the author would find useful in thinking about these subjects the concept of paradigm shifts – originally applied in the sciences by Thomas Kuhn, but later extended to other fields of knowledge. I haven’t come across Berger’s concept of plausibility structures before, and I’m playing around in my head with how they might be related to paradigms. Perhaps it might be that paradigms are the foundations on which plausibility structures are built – so if the foundations are moved, the structures collapse. (Though maybe the article describes changes more akin to paradigm creep rather than a sudden paradigm shift.)

    Recently I came across a very interesting article which introduced me to the phrase ‘transparadigmatic dissonance’ which (after I had recovered from the momentary mind-blowing effect of getting my head round it) I realised was a concept that could be applied to many areas of theology, life, the universe, and everything. The article appears here: https://everythingstudies.com/2018/04/26/a-deep-dive-into-the-harris-klein-controversy/ (see footnote 12). (The fact that the author, John Nerst, titled his blog ‘Everything Studies’ piqued my interest immediately.)

    I’m not sure if my comment is entirely relevant to the article, but if this is new to Alastair’s understanding I hope it might be interesting; if I’m mentioning something he knows about already, my apologies.

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