September 9, 2014

The divide over ordaining women

The recent election of the Rev. Amy Butler as senior pastor of New York City’s influential and historic Riverside Church, as well as the installation of a number of other women at high-profile American congregations, has brought new attention to the theological divide among religious groups concerning the ordination of women.

where women can lead churches, ministriesWhile many major religious  denominations in the United States now allow women to pastor churches and synagogues, only 11% of American congregations were led by women in 2012, according to press reports of an upcoming National Congregations Study survey. That figure hasn’t changed since 1998. Many of the nation’s largest denominations, including Roman Catholics, Southern Baptists, Mormons (Latter-day Saints), and the Orthodox Church in America, do not ordain women or allow them to lead congregations.

Other religious groups have taken small steps in the direction of female ordination. For instance, while there currently are no women in the U.S. serving as Orthodox Jewish rabbis, a number of women recently were ordained by one Orthodox seminary as maharats, or female leaders of Jewish law, spirituality and Torah – but they will not be given the title of rabbi. 

A number of American churches, such as the United Church of Christ (whose members were once called Congregationalists) and the Universalists (who eventually merged with the Unitarians) started ordaining women in the 19th century. But it wasn’t until the decades following World War II that many of the larger and more prominent denominations began to allow women into leadership roles.

In 1956, the United Methodist Church and a part of what would become the Presbyterian Church USA ordained their first women ministers. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Reform Judaism, and the Episcopal Church followed suit in the early 1970s.

In recent years, women have ascended to a number of high-profile jobs in American churches. Many, including the Episcopal Church and the United Methodist Church, now allow women to be bishops and hold other top leadership positions. In 2006, for instance, the Episcopal Church, for the first time, elected a woman, Katherine Jefferts Schori, to be its presiding bishop, the church’s highest office.

Topics: Religion and Society

  1. Photo of David Masci

    is a senior writer/editor focusing on religion at Pew Research Center.


  1. Anonymous1 year ago

    I am in Presbyt USA and an ordained minister having been solo pastor as well as hospice and hospital chaplain. It was my calling since childhood but took years for me to learn our prevalence since 1956 in our denomination. It has been a lifelong wish that became fulfilled with support, success and joy. We need to see more female clergy on talk shows to awaken those who don’t know or approve for some churches still withhold their right. I realized this again when watching The View when it was apparent all hosts had not done their homework and lump all in one bag. I encourage all women who feel a calling to follow through chsnging churches if necessary. Youll never regret it. Rev CSS, Kansas City and Oregan state.

  2. Daffany Smith2 years ago

    Is there any reason you left out the Church of God in Christ in your stats on major religious groups that allow ordination of women.

  3. Kenneth Stevens2 years ago

    Maybe they think its not sound doctrine. All this change, do all christain churches have to follow each other now or latter? Ill prey about leadership
    rolls, and redefining sin as I understand it.

  4. Nora P. Bolcon2 years ago

    And the Roman Catholic Church needs to be next to ordain women priests, deacons and make women Cardinals. I pray for this form of justice in my church literally every day.

  5. Mark3 years ago

    Just wondering why the Assemblies of God/USA was not included in your survey/research? It is a major denomination (3.1 million in USA and 67 million globally).

    Since its founding in 1914 women have been credentialed by ordination. Women serve as missionaries and ministers.

  6. Cranmer3 years ago

    The price paid for the decision to consecrate female bishops in the Anglican/Episcopal line will be the loss of apostolic succession and invalidity of ordinations performed by female bishops.

  7. Muthyavan.3 years ago

    Referring to Bill comments what happen in 2000 years ago and the truth behind Jesus gender?. Moderern world is in need of complete erediction of slavery among humans. Women should have the freedom to education and make their choice of employment. Weather to head a religious sections or to rule a nation. It is high time not to confine this discussion to only to the Cristians. The way things are going today, it is essential an international agreement is reached. By passing all religious and rules of the lands which have been in practice for generations. Regognising the rights of humans weather it is a women or men. The right to access free education at all ages and as a birth right to choose their type of employment in anywhere.

  8. Stephen Reilly3 years ago

    TheChristian Science Church has always had two “readers”, usually a woman and a man.
    This religion has lost membership in recent decades, but was once a very strong force
    for equality of women.

  9. Lutheran Lady3 years ago

    The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America also elected its first female churchwide presiding bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, in 2013.

  10. David Cassens3 years ago

    FYI – you may find this link helpful when referring to the Eastern Orthodox Church in America.

    Thank you.

  11. Edward3 years ago

    The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) has recognized women ministers for 360 years. Several of the groups that broke away from the Methodist in the late 1800’s had women as ministers. On the day of Pentecost Peter, quoting Joel 2, proclaimed that the day had come when both the sons and daughters should prophesy.

  12. Robert Weitzeil3 years ago

    The Christain Church (Disciples of Christ) also ordains women and currently has a wiman serving as General Minister and President our highest office.

  13. Bill3 years ago

    God became a male only because, in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago, only a male could accomplish God’s work. Jesus’ gender was only a culturally determined condition, and in no way a cause, of our Salvation.
    Let us pray that the Church reflect on this truth — Jesus’ gender was not causal of Salvation — and eventually ordain women as well as men and thus proclaim it since is now obscured. And, yes, eventually, women bishops and cardinals, and who can suggest a good reason why there should never be woman pope?

    1. Bill3 years ago

      No, God became a men because God became a man. Scripture is clear that women should not be in leadership in the church. That goes back to creation when woman was created to support the man, as his partner; not as his leader. The femi nist movement simply is not biblical. Deal with it.

      1. kris Sharp1 year ago

        You mean lead like hide and run away when Christ was arrested, tortured and executed and buried or lead like stay with Christ through all those things? You know the hard things women did and men ran away from? Vocation/ordination and leading are not the same things. In the Catholic tradition the leader is a servant. It’s not a power trip or position of favor. Women run and founded catholic schools/universities and hospitals, are in charge of religious education at the parish level, teach, some devote their lives to God. Women are doing plenty of the speaking and preaching and leading.

    2. Paul Adams3 years ago

      Yes, in answer to your last question, because everything else in your post is unsupported assertion. As for the “culturally determined condition” argument, it is quite the contrary. Priestesses were very common 2,000 years ago – in polytheistic religions and cults. The priesthood was reserved for males not as a cultural but a theological matter – hence the big exception to priestesses was monotheistic religions and it still is among the orthodox – Jews, Christians (Catholic and Eastern Orthodox), and also Muslims.

      The current fashion for priestesses among the more “culturally conditioned” modern(ist) proponents reflects just that – current fashion, not theological considerations. Reading debates among Anglicans in England and Wales on this issue shows the strong contrast between supporters of women’s ordination and episcopacy on one hand and those opposed on the other. The supporters cite liberal, politically correct positions without reference to theology. Their arguments, if that is not too generous a term, could, equally well and in the exact same terms, have been made by liberal secularists without a trace of Christian belief.

    3. Nora P. Bolcon2 years ago

      I agree with you that we must for justices sake ordain women to priesthood now but I think we need to make women Cardinals now too because there is literally nothing in our current church law preventing the Pope from making women Cardinals tomorrow. Cardinals do not have to be ordained or male even at this moment in time in our church law. Change both now and we will even out the church at upper and lower levels quickly.

  14. Pastor Kay Rohloff3 years ago

    Don’t forget Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America!

  15. Rev. Peter3 years ago

    They left out one very important person, Saint Paul he said that he did not allow women to become teachers but he said that they should be silent in the churches.

    1. Bill3 years ago

      Like many other statements in the Bible, this one is culturally conditioned. Further, it expresses what St. Paul says of his own personal convictions, not what the whole Church should always do.

      1. Bill3 years ago

        Only your approach is culturally conditioned. My guess is you are either part of one of those denominations mentioned or part of the emerging church movement that say Scripture should be interpreted acvcording to the shifting sands od the culture.

    2. R. Kilgour2 years ago

      Reverend, with all due respect, you are terribly misguided (as so many of us are unfortunately), regarding your understanding of Holy Scripture and in this instance of what Paul was referring to — please obtain a copy of “Questions and Answers About Women’s Ordination” editors Martin Hanna and Cindy Tutsch, Pacific Press, 2014 at your earliest convenience (Kindle or softcover). I have read this most excellent Bible study — it brings Christ’s truth to light. God Bless.

  16. OhYeah3 years ago

    Don’t forget The Salvation Army!