Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

Table of Contents | Cover Page  |  Editors  |  Contributors  |  Introduction  |  Web Version


Representing a professional status in most religious organizations, ordination normally involves seminary training, internship, examination, and a vocational commitment or "calling." Religious organizations with a congregational polity typically have had a single ordination rite in which a commission comes from the local membership, with additional requirements or ratification necessary for denominationwide recognition. Organizations with an episcopal polity normally ordain clergy twice, first to a preparatory status, which normally is the diaconate, and second to a final status as presbyter, elder, or priest, allowing full pastoral, preaching, and sacramental activity and eligibility for consecration as a bishop. Several religious organizations recently have developed multiple ordination tracks that facilitate specialized ministries.

Although ordination is emphasized as a sacrament in Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican traditions, Protestant denominations have used ordination as a means to set apart clergy for certain leadership functions while affirming, to use Luther's emphasis, the "priesthood of all believers." Some religious groups have shunned ordination altogether, although officers or leaders may be commissioned or otherwise formally designated. The Jewish rabbinate, an ordained status formally accorded those who have mastered the rabbinical literature and are considered capable of deciding matters of Jewish law following years of formal training, also emphasizes educational, pastoral, worship, and community leadership functions. Although Muslims do not formally ordain religious leaders, the imam * serves as a spiritual leader and religious authority. The imam* in Shi'ite* tradition is directly descended from Muhammad, while in Sunni tradition the imam is a leader of worship in the mosque and an adviser on Islamic law, or Sharia. In Buddhist traditions, those formally admitted into the monastery, or Sangha, have been considered ordained. Monks, called priests where they perform community worship ritual functions, also have been leaders in education and political activism. Roles and responsibilities of ordained monks or priests vary by sect and host culture.

All religions ordaining clergy at some point in their development have limited ordination to men either by normative assumption or by explicit injunction, which not only has marginalized women from leadership opportunities but resulted in men controlling religious doctrine, scriptural interpretation, worship ritual, and governance. Although some evidence exists that women were ordained in a few Christian communities as late as the eleventh century, women have been ordained to the same office with the same denominational status and privileges as men only since the mid-nineteenth century. Neither the Roman Catholic Church nor any Orthodox tradition ordains women; some Anglican dioceses and conservative Protestant churches also do not ordain women.

Controversy surrounding women's ordination persists to the present day. Arguments for excluding women in conservative Protestant traditions have relied on scriptural justification (e.g., 1 Cor. 14:34-36, 1 Tim. 2:12). Roman Catholic exclusion has argued that the priest sacramentally represents the person of Jesus Christ, who was male. Male denominational leaders, including bishops, and male and female laity consistently have been more supportive of women's ordination than have rank-and-file male clergy, who have blocked or delayed women's ordination in several denominations or have generated backlash movements restricting opportunities for women's ordination and deployment. Examples of denominations where these strategies have been employed include the Southern Baptist Convention, the Episcopal Church, the Church of England, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia. Bishops in the Episcopal Synod of America refuse to recognize the priestly and episcopal acts of the denomination's ordained women, including allowing them to function in ESA dioceses, while numerous "continuing" churches have separated from the Episcopal Church over the issue.

Ordination controversies since the 1970s also have centered on sexual orientation. Some denominations restrict ordination to heterosexuals, while others require celibacy of all but legally married clergy. Only the Metropolitan Community Church, the United Church of Christ, the Unitarian Universalist, and the Reform Jewish traditions ordain nonheterosexual clergy without mandating celibacy.

Paula D. Nesbitt


K. E. Børresen, "Women's Ordination," Theology Digest 40 (1993):15-19

M. Chaves, Ordaining Women (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997)

The Perennial Dictionary of World Religions (San Francisco: Harper, 1989)

E. G. Hinson, "Ordination in Christian History," Review and Expositor 78(1981):485-496

J. G. Melton, The Church Speaks On (Detroit: Gale Research, 1991)

A. Swidler (ed.), Homosexuality and World Religions (Valley Forge, Pa.: Trinity, 1993)

M. Warkentin, Ordination (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1982)

B. B. Zikmund, "Winning Ordination for Women in Mainstream Protestant Churches," in Women and Religion in America , ed. R. R. Ruether and R. S. Keller (San Francisco: Harper, 1986): 339-383.

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