Continuing from the question asked in the previous post, Nick writes:
…I’ve always been taught that women are not meant to be Priests or Bishops, and some of Paul’s writings seem to back this up. Question 2: Do women have a different role to play in the ministry, and if so, does it preclude them from serving as Priests or Bishops?
Nick is not the first person to write to me about this. The Anglican Communion has been wrestling over the question of the ordination of women for many decades now. There are Christians on either side of the question who wish to uphold the Word of God and respond to God’s call. It would be interesting to sketch out the history of this conversation, but perhaps it will be more helpful to those asking if we look at the theological question. This is easier said than done, given that the question of women’s ordination is front loaded, for obvious reasons, with questions of identity, politics, and sexuality, but for the purposes of this post I will stick to the argument from Scripture, as clarified by reason and tradition.
I should mention up front that some of you may find the argument I make here to be entirely not to your liking. If that is the case, I implore you to stick with it to the end. You will have an opportunity to show me why my argument is way off base. And if I have misunderstood the Word of God, frankly, I welcome the correction.
The Argument in Favor
There have been lots of good theological arguments made for the ordination of women by folks like Rowan Williams, Sarah Coakley, and even the late great Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner. All of these arguments, however, boil down to a single, simple principle: Why not? I do not mean to make light of this, as there is behind this “Why not?” a strong sense that God is, in fact, calling many women into ordained ministry, and that if we block their path to respond to His call we commit a very serious sin. Nonetheless, at its core, the argument for women’s ordination is grounded in the principle of equality. “According to the Bible, women and men are equally made in God’s image,” says the website of WATCH, an advocacy group in the Church of England working for the ordination of women as bishops. “Images and perceptions of women that demean that truth are still prevalent across the world and damage all women’s sense of identity and self-worth.” WATCH believes that the denial of ordination to women demeans them and denies them their God given equality. What possible reason could there be for doing a thing like that?
Problems with the Standard Objections
A coherent response to the question of women’s ordination requires a careful understanding of three distinct scriptural principles: the creation and purpose of maleness and femaleness, the doctrine of the Church, and the purpose of the pastoral ministry. Any theology that speaks to one or two of these but neglects the third is woefully incomplete. Opponents of women’s ordination have often relied too heavily on only one or two of these principles, leaving their arguments vulnerable to easy dissection. Evangelicals tend to stress God’s creation of men and women as different, but they often ignore the doctrine of the Church and give only a gloss to the theology of pastoral ministry. It is preposterous to argue that women cannot be ordained while simultaneously arguing that lay people can preach and preside over the sacraments. This kind of argument suggests that pastoral ministry only matters when we are discussing issues of authority and thus plays readily into the hands of those who quite rightly point to such an argument as sexism.
At the same time, however, Anglo-Catholic opponents of women’s ordination often over-emphasize their understanding of the pastoral ministry while failing to elaborate on how this ministry is inter-connected with the doctrine of creation. Anglo-Catholics assert that women cannot stand at the altar in the place of Christ because Christ was male and only chose men. But of course, Christ was also Jewish, which no one argues that Christian priests have to be. The framing of the argument by Anglo-Catholics often makes it sound as if men and women are of completely different orders of creation, which leads to the question of whether or not Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was sufficient to save the souls of women. As Saint Gregory Nazianzus said, “That which is not assumed cannot be healed.” If Christ’s humanity does not encompass the reality of both sexes at the level of being, than His incarnation was incomplete.
The Maleness of Christ and the Femaleness of the Church
All of that said, the story of salvation that the Bible tells us is not gender neutral. The story of creation in Genesis 2 reveals to us that God created human beings male and female for a purpose. The woman is taken out of the man, not as a kind of second class version of him but as a distinct kind of a person who complements and completes his gifts and strengths. The woman is called Eve because she is to be the mother of all living. The man is Adam and he is called upon to care for all of creation, including his wife. This interplay is repeated and emphasized anew in Paul’s description of both marriage and the Church in Ephesians 5. Husbands are to protect their wives, to guide them, to give all to their wives and families that God has given to them, and even to die for them. Wives are to receive the love of their husbands, to respect them, and to share that love with the world. The physical analogue to this is the biological act of sexual congress in which wife receives husband and bears his children.
Ephesians 5:21-33 interweaves this description of the roles of husband and wife in marriage with a mystical description of the relationship between Christ and the Church. In so doing, Paul affirms what he has said elsewhere about Christ as the new Adam (1 Corinthians 15:20-45 and Romans 5:12-14). Implicitly, the Church becomes the new Eve. Jesus acts as a husband to His bride in the way that Adam failed to act as a husband to his bride. Jesus gives everything to His bride, the Church, and she in turn is called to receive it, to respect her husband, and to share all that she has received with the whole world. The Church is Mother because God is Father. In other words, in relation to God, whatever our biological sex, we are all female.
A Masculine Office
How does all of this relate to the ministry? Many opposed to women’s ordination point to passages like 1 Corinthians 14:34-37 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15 as examples of concrete scriptural prohibitions on ordaining women. Feminist theologians have made counter arguments that these passages can be interpreted in different ways. Obviously, a thorough look at this issue has to take these passages into account, but even if we leave these passages aside, the weight of Scripture continues to press upon us the masculine nature of the work of the pastor.
If we accept the evidence of Matthew 16 and John 21 that the ministry of the apostles, passed on to the bishops and presbyters, is a ministry of standing in the place of Christ towards the Church, than it becomes clear why only men were called to this task by Jesus in the scriptures and by the early Church in the apostolic age, despite the fact that women held important roles in the Church and were generally regarded more highly by Christians than by the adherents of any other ancient religion. The work of the bishop and the presbyter is to stand before the people and give them the gifts of Christ, standing not just in the place of Christ but essentially in the place of Adam. Christ did not choose men because men are in any way superior to women. Rather, the work of pastoring is inherently masculine, just as the work of being the Church is inherently feminine.
This only answers half the question though. There’s an old joke that goes, “Do you believe in women’s ordination?” The reply is, “Believe it? I’ve seen it!” There is something patently absurd about arguing that the women who are currently occupying positions as priests and bishops are just playing dress up. I have known and experienced wonderful ministry from ordained women over the years. Most of the women in orders I have known have been fine servants of God who believe deeply in Christ. I would rather have an orthodox woman as my pastor than a heretical man any day of the week and twice on Sundays. Of course, my experience is not, in and of itself, proof that women can occupy the office, but if we believe that the power of the priest is found not in his being but in the Word spoken over him and through him, than it must follow that any person who has received that Word through the Holy Spirit and the laying on of hands is a true priest. To deny that is not only to deny the efficacy of the woman in question but to deny the efficacy of the Word itself.
But that does not change the biblical reality that the office of priesthood is an inherently masculine office. If a woman can exercise priesthood, she does so as an icon of Christ in His maleness, just as the gathered community that receives her ministry is an icon of the Church’s femaleness, even if every single person in the pews on a given Sunday is male.
This sort of bending of the iconography can have a disturbing effect on people’s reception of the faith, and that effect cannot simply be attributed to latent sexism. From a biblical standpoint, the chief argument against the ordination of women is sacramental, because it blurs our understanding of what the Bible teaches us that a priest actually is, which inevitably leads to misunderstanding who God actually is. C.S. Lewis put it this way:
What really divides us from our opponents is a difference between the meaning which they and we give to the word “priest”. The more they speak (and speak truly) about the competence of women in administration, their tact and sympathy as advisers, their national talent for “visiting”, the more we feel that the central thing is being forgotten. To us a priest is primarily a representative, a double representative, who represents us to God and God to us. Our very eyes teach us this in church. Sometimes the priest turns his back on us and faces the East – he speaks to God for us: sometimes he faces us and speaks to us for God. We have no objection to a woman doing the first: the whole difficulty is about the second. But why? Why should a woman not in this sense represent God? Certainly not because she is necessarily, or even probably, less holy or less charitable or stupider than a man. In that sense she may be as “God-like” as a man; and a given women much more so than a given man. The sense in which she cannot represent God will perhaps be plainer if we look at the thing the other way round.
Suppose the reformer stops saying that a good woman may be like God and begins saying that God is like a good woman. Suppose he says that we might just as well pray to “Our Mother which art in heaven” as to “Our Father”. Suppose he suggests that the Incarnation might just as well have taken a female as a male form, and the Second Person of the Trinity be as well called the Daughter as the Son. Suppose, finally, that the mystical marriage were reversed, that the Church were the Bridegroom and Christ the Bride. All this, as it seems to me, is involved in the claim that a woman can represent God as a priest does…
Indeed, if we look at the development of discourse in the Church since the ordination of women, this is exactly what has happened. We avoid using gendered language for God. Instead of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, we are taught to pray to the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, or worse, the Earth-Maker, Pain-Bearer, and Life-Giver. We reduce God to a series of functions, denying His essential personality as He has revealed Himself to us. We argue that Jesus could have just as easily been a woman. And this language not only turns the revelation of God on its head, it also undoes the relationship between God and us through which we receive salvation. If Christ could have been a woman, than perhaps the Bride of Christ could be a man. Those who wince at the use of male pronouns for God are just as likely, if not more so, to wince at female pronouns for the Church. But calling the Church she isn’t some sort of quaint practice, like the way we sometimes refer to ships or machinery as ladies. If the Church is not she, than we cannot receive Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, nor can we nurture the world with His love. If the Church is not she, than we are still dead in our sins.
The effort to ordain women as priests and bishops ran largely along political lines in the American Church, relying heavily on secular arguments about feminism and human rights. The same sort of argument has prevailed in other parts of the Communion, although it is worth noting that the vast majority of the Anglican Communion continues to reserve at least the episcopate only to men. The theological question that has never been explored and answered is how, if at all, a female priest can serve as an icon of the male Christ, performing a function that is inherently masculine. Truthfully, this is the question that should have been answered before the ordination of women became a de facto reality, and it is a question that probably would have been best answered at the level of the Communion itself, not by individual provinces, given how much our ecumenical relationships have been affected by this decision.
Yet even as I write this, I cannot help but be painfully aware that there are women in orders who may read this and find it offensive or insulting. I certainly do not mean it to be that way. I would imagine that if I were a woman in orders or seeking orders, feeling very strongly that my calling to the ordained ministry is from God, it would be incredibly difficult to separate the theological question from the question of personal identity. Nonetheless, I think that is exactly what we have to be able to do if we are going to be faithful to God’s Word. This is ultimately a question of how we understand the authority of Scripture and what place it holds in our common life. How we wrestle with this matters almost as much as the question itself.
While I fully affirm the genuine ministry of the women in orders I have known, it does seem that the weight of the biblical and patristic witness comes down in favor of an exclusively male priesthood. However, I am hopeful and even eager to see a theological argument that proves this not to be the case.
Tell Me Why I Am Wrong
To that end, I would like to invite a thoughtful response to this from someone willing to argue the opposite position. I would be especially pleased if this response were to come from an ordained woman and I will happily publish such a response as a guest post on this site. Provided, of course, that we establish a couple of ground rules: Agreement that Scripture is the highest authority for the Christian Church; agreement that the whole of Scripture is inspired and so, as Article XX puts it, we may not “so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another”; and finally, agreement that the maleness of Christ is not entirely accidental but actually has something to do with what Scripture reveals about how Christ saves us. Without this very basic starting point established, it is simply too easy for the conversation to descend into something that is no longer recognizably historical Christian theology. Anyone who is interested in making the case for women’s ordination here, along biblical and historical lines, please write to me at conciliaranglican[at]gmail.com.
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