According to my understanding, the Quakers allowed women to serve as ministers as early as the 1800s. They believed that a spark of God resided in each person, regardless of gender, making all people worthy. In the mid-1800s the Congregationalist Church (now the United Church of Christ), ordained a woman. However, the woman’s status, as an ordained minister, was not acceptable to many in the church. A few years later, the church that is now the Unitarian Universalist church began ordaining women. The first ordination almost failed to occur because the church was concerned about negative repercussions. Around 1860, at the time when the RLDS church was forming around Joseph Smith III, the first Methodist woman was ordained. The practice of ordaining women was challenged, but by the 1950s, women could be full members of the clergy in the United Methodist Church. By the early 1900s, the Church of God and Assemblies of God were ordaining women. In the 1970s, Anglican and Episcopal churches began ordaining women. About ten years before the change in RLDS policy, leaders of the Jewish Reform tradition allowed women to become rabbis, and one year after the change in RLDS policy, leaders in the Conservative Jewish tradition permitted women to become rabbis. Before the year 2000, some Orthodox Jewish congregations began giving women the possibility for more ministerial authority.
The presence of women as ministers is not so surprising if one looks at some of the New Testament scriptures. As explained in the PBS series Frontline: From Jesus to Christ, Paul identifies Prisca, Junia, Julia, and Nereus’ sisters who served as missionaries with their husbands or brothers (Romans 16:3, 7, 15). Euodia is called an apostolic worker along with Paul according to his letter to the Phillippians. Women took leadership roles in early Christian meetings in house churches. Prisca is mentioned in I Corinthians 16:19, and Lydia of Thyatira in Acts 16:15, among others. Women also held offices, such as Phoebe, who was a deacon, and participated in important ways in worship including praying, prophesying, preaching, teaching, leading prayer, and possibly performing the communion meal according to a first century work called the Didache which stated that Christian prophets often had the duty of performing the Eucharistic meal.
Further discussion about the role of women as ministers can be found in the bloggernacle, such as in a post archived here at W&T on women and the priesthood from an LDS institutional perspective by Hawkgrrrl. Mormon Heretic has also written about the Melchizedek priesthood and women and about women ministers in early Christianity.
I was two years old at the time that Doctrine and Covenants 156 was adopted and women could be ordained, so I missed a lot of the controversy. Growing up as a member of the RLDS church, it was normal to have women in the priesthood, although it took time for women to be ordained in significant numbers. My pre-baptismal classes were taught by a Deacon who was a woman. She later become an Elder and currently serves as a pastor at the ripe age of 92. There were even women priesthood members in my family shortly after the policy change; two aunts were ordained as Priests.
Nonetheless, I was aware that there were very few women in leadership positions, such as High Priests (and specializations within the office of High Priest such as Evangelists, Bishops, Apostles, or members of the First Presidency). Some of this may have been due to biases of those processing priesthood calls for women. However, I expect that this gender discrepancy in the high priesthood was due to calls to the high priesthood primarily going to ministers who had previously served in other offices. Because women had not been allowed to be ordained, they often received a first call to Teacher, Deacon, Priest, or Elder. These offices share a local or congregational focus, whereas the offices associated with the high priesthood share a focus on the bigger picture in the Community of Christ. Over time, women have become better represented in all avenues of priesthood ministry.
Nineteen years after the ordination of women started in my church, I was ordained to the office of Elder. Less than two years later, I was ordained to the office of High Priest, and at the same time, my mother was ordained to the Office of Elder. When people spoke about my ordination to High Priest, it was my age, not my gender, that was often the source of their initial remarks; even this was done in a supportive manner. Now, the President of the High Priest Quorum is a woman, and a member of the First Presidency is also a woman, along with about one-third of the Apostles. This shows how much things have changed in a relatively short time in the Community of Christ.
This change has been marked by a movement from a belief in doctrinal viewpoints to an emphasis on core values and principles that should guide decision-making at all levels of church mission. These core values include the belief in the worth of all persons, unity and diversity, continuing revelation, and the peace of Jesus Christ as a hallmark of Zion. The ordination of women and other related changes should be viewed in this context.
To me this all suggests that my church has begun to understand that its role as part of the Restoration tradition is not to identify with its heritage as an isolated people, but to instead focus on being a movement that brings restoration: that restores joy, hope, love, and peace in diverse communities, and restores dignity to the marginalized, bruised, and broken-hearted by proclaiming God’s Kingdom and God’s abiding grace and generosity.
Community of Christ Apostle Susan Skoor stated that message this way in a commentary on another section of the Doctrine and Covenants (D&C 163:3b,c):
“From the beginning, our movement has centered on Jesus Christ and the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth. ‘Keep my commandments and seek to bring forth the cause of Zion’ (Doctrine and Covenants 6:3, CofChrist numbering). Early experiments in community attempted to establish Zion with city charters and prophetic rule that set this ‘peculiar people’ against the cultural, religious, and political institutions of the day. But the people failed to live out the fundamental issues of justice and inclusiveness.”
Although I cannot speak to all peoples’ views on this change, I would like to share my view and experience as a high priest and woman serving in Community of Christ with you. Throughout RLDS church history, High Priests often served as pastors, Stake Presidents, and in other levels of church management. Although many High Priests still serve in these roles, the role of the high priest has broadened and deepened. This change has been freeing, allowing the Spirit breathing room to operate in and through the lives of ministers in this office (and other offices and callings, too). The biggest change for me that has emerged in this redefinition of the ministry of High Priest is that identity as a high priest is not exclusively tied to service within the institution. I preach, preside over worship services, teach classes, offer retreat ministry, help with regional youth camp, perform sacraments, mentor other priesthood members and church members, and serve in other capacities within the church. However, I understand that I am living the calling of a High Priest in any forum where I serve according to the promptings of the Spirit as best I can discern. (There are certain areas of emphasis that the Community of Christ has
identified as being central to the ministry of high priest. That discussion goes beyond the scope of this post.)
For example, I serve in official capacity as a high priest when I: (a) work with people from different cultures in my job as a manager of a community college tutoring center; (b) teach management courses; (c) participate in a small-group class on spiritual formation that isn’t sponsored by Community of Christ; (d) keep in touch with a recent widow or correspond with friends, family, and others ; and something as simple as (e) redesigning a form or procedure to be less bureaucratic or helping someone learn to cook a healthier version of a favorite meal.
In my opinion, when people begin to see church as not separate from the rest of life, and when we see ministry supported by, rather than owned and controlled by an institution, and when we see that all people can be called by God to serve in particular ways, then our mental limitations do not get in the way—to the same extent—of what God can do with any or all of us. However, the validity of that determination is above my pay-grade.
Returning to the findings regarding women holding leadership positions in early Christianity, the question emerges “what happened that the role of women was reduced until only a couple centuries ago? As Christianity grew, Christians began to gather in public places rather than in homes. Social conventions “won” over the principle of equality of people in Christ that was central to the gospel message, and as a result, women took a backseat to men in church leadership. I wonder how many times this (Christianity compromising to maintain social respectability) has happened throughout history and how much ministry and opportunity to live as the Kingdom of God on Earth has been lost. I also wonder if the worthiness of any particular class of people to serve faithfully as ministers of Jesus Christ is really determined by socio-cultural considerations of respectability rather than in alignment with the will of God. Jesus seemed to be aware of such considerations and also routinely flouted them. I wonder if a particular culture can rightly claim their way of doing things as being God’s way.
I obviously can’t speak definitively for God, but in my experience, people have been healed, loved, blessed, and guided by women ministers. People have been nurtured in discipleship by women ministers and have had powerful worship experiences that were led by women. If we are to judge prophets, and I would argue that this definition extends to all those who serve in the name of God, by the fruits of the Spirit (Matthew 7:16), then the harvest continues to be plentiful.