Women's ordination: the illusion of equality


The proponents of women’s ordination (WO) often rely upon certain tactics of rhetoric and deflection, which preclude reasonable opposition. Terms of high emotive charge are used to piggy back unwarranted initiatives for premature change, the effects of which have not been judiciously, democratically, or biblically validated. This tactic serves to hold the church hostage over special-interest social issues by deferring to an over-simplified and inaccurate social justice paradigm where the church is cast as the “oppressor”, and certain special interest groups as being “victims” of alleged oppression. I call this paradigm subversive, because when using words like “oppression” and “discrimination” leftist proponents are borrowing on the interest from the conceptual capitol of another word. A word which evokes respect and nostalgia, and that has become all but pedestrian at the proverbial discussion tables of American political and social discourse – this word is “equality”. 

Equality is in effect, the conceptual antidote to such unsavory social phenomena as oppression, repression, abuse, discrimination, victimization, etc. The ideal of equality is that ubiquitous ingredient which anyone who wishes to usher change, of policy or procedure, in our fractious society must harness. It stands to reason then, that the idea of equality is the underlying philosophical concept from which the agenda of WO derives its political clout and social momentum. Hence, to question WO is to question feminism, and to question feminism is to question equality. That is where the subversion comes in. These brazen changes to biblically validated church policy are paired with the idea of equality, and as such are jockeyed beyond the purview of reasonable debate. 


Now, I am not writing this article to broadly criticize the idea of equality, as it seems to have done much good in our secular society. Some quintessential examples are the forcible rescinding of the Jim Crow laws, and the development of Woman’s Suffrage. Arguably both of these examples where motivated by social aspirations toward equality. But, is the noble notion of ideological equality helpful, or applicable in all situations? To answer this question we first need to address our understanding of equality, and derive an operational definition of it. 

Definitions of equality

In my observation, most errors in the application of the term “equality” derive from the misunderstanding of the concept itself. Issues of equality can be boiled down to two types: issues of human value, and issues of sameness. Issues of human value refer to issues of the value of life, intrinsic worth, or fundamental acceptability of a person as being a member of the human race. All people being of the same life worth are deserving of the same basic treatments of love, respect, and ethical regard. As such I would term this kind of equality as substantive equality, since it relates to the substance of life value. 

Issues of sameness, on the other hand, refer to similarity of aptitude, ability, advantage, or perspective. As diverse people in an imperfect world, we do not all have the same abilities, the same aptitudes, or the same advantages, and we cannot possess exactly the same perspectives. In light of these insights then, when examining the issue of WO, it seems to me that the concept of equality is misapplied at best, and at worst exploited by those who would erode the sound Biblical traditions of our church to coerce culturally popular change for the advancement of their own personal agendas or self-aggrandizement. 

When trying to decide whether or not it is right to change the churches stance on WO, it is first necessary to determine whether we are dealing with an issue of substantive or functional equality. If it is a substantive issue, that is to say an issue of treating women as of the same value and respect as men, then steps should be taken to amend the discrepancies in policies and procedures that perpetuate that unfairness. However, if the issue is found to be one of functional equality, then what we need to do is assay whether those differences are expressed harmfully or helpfully in regards to the overall benefit of the church body. 

Looking at relevant research can be invaluable in helping us perform these two tasks, and the question of role differentiation becomes one of evidence: Biblical, historical, and scientific. Our initial questions could be: Were the Biblical authors who advocated differentiation of leadership within the church just enslaved to errata of archaic cultural confusion? Are the roles of men and women, where important, interchangeable? If not, does the scientific evidence contradict the Biblical prescriptions of role differentiation set forth in God’s word and codified in official church policy?  

Neurologic and Task Performance Differentiation

Men and women are equal in value, but they are not the same. There is myriad evidence to suggest specialization of certain kinds of functioning in brains of the respective sexes. For instance, men and women perform similarly well on broad based intelligence scores derived from standardized intelligence tests, but the methods by which their brains achieve these performances are different. One study by Haier, Jung, Yeo, Head, and Alkire 2005, found that when engaged in intelligence reasoning women used primarily white matter localized in the frontal lobes, whereas men used grey matter distributed throughout the entire brain. Incidently, Grey matter represents information processing centers in the brain, whereas white matter represents the connections between those centers, and the more of it the faster the communication between those centers. (Zaidi, 2010)

 Other studies abound, but perhaps the most robust body of evidence concerning differential performances between the sexes is in the areas of spatial ability and language ability. Men have consistently shown an advantage in spatial abilities in tasks involving such skills as depth perception, trajectory estimation, stationary and mobile targeting, and rotation of objects in the mind’s eye. Women have consistently displayed advantages in language abilities, in for example, tasks involving such specific skills as verbal memory, verbal fluency, and speed of articulation. (Kimura, 1992) 

The neural correlates of these specialized tasks show different patterns and regions involved for men and women. In one example, Clements, et al. (2006) found that when engaged in a phonological task male brains showed activation only on the left side of the brain, whereas female brains showed greater levels of activation in both hemispheres. This same study found the opposite pattern for visual-spatial tasks, with men showing greater levels of bilateral activation, and women showing activation only in the right hemisphere. 

When one begins to look, there is a host of research which clearly demonstrates differences in structure and in the activity patterns of the brains of the respective sexes. Men tend to have thicker right hemispheres, and women tend to have thicker left hemispheres. (Sowel, et al., 2007) Also, women typically have ten times the amount of white matter in their brains that men do, and men typically have six and a half times as much gray matter in their brains as women do. (Haier, et al. 2005) These examples are of course just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, and for those interested, a much more complete list of the neurological and hormonal research concerning sex differences in the human brain can be reviewed in Zaidi (2010), as listed in the reference section of this article. 

Moral-motivational Specialization

Perhaps some are inclined to ask, why all this chatter about spatial and language specialization in the two human brains? What does spatial ability and language ability have to do with WO? Well to put it simply, if we see marked differences in these areas of functioning, we can expect to see differences in other areas as well, areas that may be more pertinent to the role of an ordained church pastor. One such key area is the function of moral reasoning. 

The disciplines of philosophy and ethics have long recognized that people rely upon four different primary modes of reasoning when faced with moral dilemmas and decisions. These modes of reasoning are termed: egoism, utilitarianism, deontology, and altruism. (Pojman, 2009) Egoism is perhaps the most elementary and obvious and can be characterized as the drive to increase one’s own welfare. Utilitarianism can be defined as motivation to maximize pleasure and minimize pain for the majority of parties involved, another term for this kind of moral thinking is “well-being”. Deontology means to place motivational emphasis on universal moral principles that transcend boarder and epoch; this kind of reasoning relies on concepts of justice and fairness, and is sometimes referred to as principlism. (Batson, pp. 206-208, 2006 ) Altruism, could also be termed “care ethics”, and describes motivation to increase the welfare of specific individuals or groups other than oneself; it is concerned with empathetic orientations to specific relationships. (Batson, p.197, 2006) Considering these definitions and the previously mentioned neural evidence of specialization we might expect to see differential preferences for unique schema of moral reasoning between the genders.

The famous Lawrence Kohlberg, while conducting the research upon which he based his theory of moral development found that men were more prone to use deontological reasoning to address moral dilemmas. (Gilligan, 1985) His research involved presenting subjects with morally sensitive vignettes with long series of follow up questions aimed at teasing out underlying more reasoning. (See Lawrence Kohlberg 1927-1987, n.d.) 

From this he derived his model of stage based moral development. According to Kohlberg, the transition from mid-level to higher level stages of moral development can be characterized as a conceptual transition from reasoning based on personal needs and social convention to reasoning that emphasizes the principles of justice with universal application. That is to say, as one develops in moral complexity, the motivational foci of one’s moral reasoning shift from more immediate concern with interpersonal/relational consequences, to concern with overarching universal implications for society. (Gilligan, 1985) 

Kohlberg’s model did not bode well for women, who tended to score in lower-mid level stages of moral development where conceptions of “good” are typified by what pleases or helps others and is approved of by them. (Gilligan, 1985). Carol Gilligan, was a colleague of Kohlberg, and rightly criticized his work for misjudging the female moral perspective. She remonstrated that women where inadequately assessed and unfairly classified in Kohlberg’s model. She set out to conduct her own research to exonerate women from their ignominious classification as morally undeveloped, and to demonstrate that they typically possess different moral schemas. (Jorgensen, 2006). She conducted her own research, using methods similar to Kohlberg’s but designed to pay attention to women’s priorities in moral motivation. She found that when faced with moral dilemmas women tend to view solutions in terms of relational factors: the wish not to hurt others, the hope that conflicts can be solved in ways that avoid hurting anyone, goodness is service and meeting one’s obligations and responsibilities to others, etc. (Gilligan, 1985) 

In other words, women tended to reason morally from what can be termed, and ethic of care. It is clear from Gilligan’s writings that she was wanted to demonstrate that women were not inferior in their moral reasoning, but rather that they had different inclinations and priorities when applying their moral reasoning to solve problems. I believe she succeeded.

Extrapolating these findings to our own present issue of WO, might we consider that these manifest differences in preference in moral reasoning follow from a design that was intended to allow men and women to help each other in complimentary ways? Might it be that men and women have specific functional aptitudes and perspectives on morality? May we conclude these are not functionally the same, but that they interact to produce a more morally complete outcome? Those of us who believe that God endowed men and women with different and interdependent strengths from the beginning, have no qualms answering, “of course”. But let us take a quick look at what the discipline of ethics has to say about the respective types of moral reasoning in question. 

Justice Ethics and Care Ethics: Strengths and Weaknesses

In the discipline of ethics, it is well recognized that both justice based and care based moral reasoning are accompanied by different sets of advantages and problems. (Pojman, p. 97, pp. 131-134, 2009  ) Altruism’s reliance upon specific contact relations is both a strength and a weakness. It has the advantages that it is a very powerful moral motivator, and it is very specific. The perfect example of this kind of moral motivation is that care a mother feels toward her children. She cares about them very powerfully because of her unique relational responsibility as their mother, and she cares about them very specifically because they are her children. They are an exclusive group. Consequently it becomes clear then, that the drawback of care ethics is that the scope of the empathy felt by the moral actor decreases as one moves outward from them in sphere of relativity. (Batson, pp. 203-204, 2009) That is to say that Altruism is contact based, and as such can only apply to those entities and persons whom the moral actor has had contact with, or can imagine having contact with. One cannot truly feel care or empathy for someone they have had not ever encountered or imagined, and as such altruism is consequently vulnerable to bias.

Deontology, on the other hand carries a risk of being too abstract and vulnerable to rationalization. (Batson, p. 208, 2009) The weakness in using this kind of moral motivation is that in its abstractness the rule can be misconstrued by the moral actor either in confusion or deception. When this happens the rule can become so removed from reality that it loses the human element and ceases to be of practical use to the group. The rabbinical legalism during the time of Christ, regarding Sabbath keeping, comes to mind as an example. Even in our own legal justice system we struggle with the abstractness of moral imperatives. Take for instance, the many nuances of homicide we have adopted into the ledgers of our legal codex: premeditated murder, intentional manslaughter, negligent manslaughter, justifiable homicide in defense of a victim, to name a few. (See The Law Offices of Daniel Jensen, n.d.) Of coarse each of these comes with their own specific penal ramifications. More positively though, deontology (principlism) has the distinct advantage of defining moral motivation that most thoroughly transcends reliance on self-interest or on vested interest in specific others and groups. (Batson, p. 209, 2009) In this regard it is the most resistant to bias of all the forms of moral motivation.  

Moral Structure in the Church

Morality matters. The church is a moral organization. The dual considerations of the church seem to be human relationships with God and human relationships with other humans. Humans have damaged those relationships by their involvement with a fallen cause on a fallen planet. Subsequently the church is then primarily concerned with how to fix the divine relationship so both God and his creations can once again coexist in harmony and peace; this is to say that the church’s paramount concern is to address sin. The Bible clearly defines sin in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20), also as transgression of the law (1 John 3:4), and as unrighteousness (1 John 5:17). It is adherence to the law and avoidance of sin that define how we show love to God (Deut. 5:16) and to other people (1 John 5:1-3). Clearly than, sin is just another word for immorality. The Ten Commandments are examples of biblical moral imperatives, and accordingly match all the characteristics of objective moral imperatives as described in secular ethical literature. (Pojman, p. 7, 2009)

When it comes to top tier decision making we need people who demonstrate as much an absence of bias as possible, and the aptitudes of men are catered to these positions. They excel at applying the integral logic of fairness and justice above all else. At the same time, and in equal measure, we want to avoid a system of cold rule-following, that disregards the importance of people, their feelings, and their unique needs. After all, how could we truly extract principles form their bearing on the real people whom they were designed to apply to? This is where the aptitudes of women will prevail. Their penchant for empathetic understanding renders their direct involvement in the ministry indispensible. By promoting care, and exhorting toward compassion, they add clarity to the idea of love, which must be central to our goals. 

The leaders of our churches must be the kinds of men and women we find most adept at the types of moral reasoning and motivation that will best represent the churches moral goals. The Bible gives us the optimal gender prescriptions, and that should be enough, but besides this the research evidence gives us auxiliary support for this arrangement. To this extent men and women are not functionally equal, and their roles are not interchangeable. To swap the roles designated to the genders in the church is to disrupt the balance of specialization and interdependence gifted to them, and designed to maximize their mutual moral benefit. One role is not superior to the other, but they are not interchangeable. 

Some argue that a discrepancy in monetary remuneration is the problematic factor which necessitates reform and signifies an issue of substantive inequality between the genders. If this is the case then we can review the situation and possibly create a specific female position in the churches of comparable pay to that of the ordained pastor. I for one would be in favor of such action. Nevertheless, we should not disregard the inhering authority of the GC. We should be patient and wait for the GC to determine the best ways of interpreting the biblical prescriptions for gender roles in our church. 

An intrinsic level of authority and unique servitude rest in the role of the ordained pastor; he is in a unique position to act as the face and mouth piece of the church. He speaks on moral issues, and can mediate disputes with moral implications within the church. He also acts as the symbol of Christ, being the head of the earthly church. His authority is important, and is tied to his moral reasoning. It is folly to presume that the role of the ordained pastor is a token position open to all willing comers. Paul made it clear that it was a special position designated to a unique kind of person. (1 Timothy 3:1-7) 


Friends, I have endeavored to present a body of neurological evidence that men and women utilize the brain in different ways. After this we examined a body of descriptive social evidence to suggest that men and women reason differently using different schema of moral decision making. Subsequently we reviewed a philosophical body of evidence regarding the advantages and disadvantages of the different kinds of moral reasoning each gender tends to use.

Of course, none of this serves to diminish the sound bedrock of biblical evidence that is well established in support of gender roles in the home and the church. Furthermore, it seems clear to me that the confluence of evidence justifies a common sense system that harnesses specific gender advantages in the form of complimentary roles. Having males in top tier pastoral leadership is neither oppressive nor antiquated, but rather such policy is morally beneficial to all and symbolically appropriate of God’s intended order.


Adventist Today. (2012). Pacific Union Conference votes to authorize the ordination of women to gospel ministry. Retrieved June 19, 2013, from http://www.atoday.org/article/1354/news/2012/august-headlines/pacific-union-conference-votes-to-authorize-the-ordination-of-women-to-gospel-ministry

Bateson, D. C. (2006). Orchestrating prosocial motives. In D. L. Rhode (Ed), Moral leadership. (pp. 197-212). San Fransisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. (n.d.)

Gilligan, C. (1985). In a different voice: women’s conceptions of self and morality. In H. Eisenstein & A. Jardine (Eds.), The Future of Difference (n.d.). New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. 

Haier, J. H., Jung, R. E., Yeo, R. A., Head, K., & Alkire, M. T. (2005). The neuroanatomy of general intelligence: sex matters. NeuroImage, 25, 320-327. 

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Jorgensen, G. (2006). Kohlberg and Gilligan: duet or duel? Journal of Moral Education, 35(2), 179-196. 

Pojman, L. P. (2009). Ethics: discovering right and wrong (6th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadworth Cengage Learning. 

The Law Offices of Daniel Jensen. (n.d.). Murder vs. manslaughter. Retrieved June 18, 2013, from http://www.danieljensenlaw.com/articles/murder-vs-manslaughter/

Thomas, R., & Long, R. (n.d.). Lawrence Kohlberg 1927-1987. Retrieved June 18, 2013, from http://relong.myweb.uga.edu/

Zaidi, Z. F. (2010). Gender differences in human brain: a review. The Open Anatomy Journal, 2, 37-55.