2005-08-02

An Affirmation of Women's Ordination

In a number of Anglican Churches (especially in the U.S., Canada, England, and Africa) you will find female priests. Ordination of women was one of the most hotly debated issues in the Anglican Church from the 1960's to the 1980's. It is still hotly contested by many Anglicans. For instance, the diocese next to mine does not ordain women to the priesthood, nor do they permit women priests to minister in their diocese. Much ink, and not a few unkind words, have been spilled over this issue in the last four decades.

I will try to explain the basic reasons for, and against, women's ordination. Before I attempt this, I want to make three admissions: First, I believe in women's ordination and my writing will reflect this. I will try to be fair, but I am not objective. Second, I will probably over-simplify things. This is a vast subject with many books written on it. Third, I have friends who are against women's ordination, and I once was against it myself. I respect the position of anyone who honestly opposes women's ordination for the sake of Christ (though I disagree with them). If you are in a Church that opposes women as priests, please ask your pastor for his view on the matter. With that said, let us talk about the four most common objections to women's ordination:

Objection 1:

It is un-Biblical for women to "teach or hold authority over a man", and this command is universally binding for all people in all places. This is a strong objection, and it comes mainly from two key passages (both from the New International Version Translation):

1Timothy 2.11-15: A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing--if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.

1Corinthians 14.33-35: As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.

In this translation (which is like most English translations) it seems to be fairly clear: Women cannot "teach" or "have authority" over any man. They must learn in "silence" and "submission". The reason is universal, and not cultural, since "Adam was formed first", and it was Eve who was deceived. Case closed, right? Not so fast. Many would argue with how these passages are translated.

First of all, the words here used for "man" and "woman" are also the same Greek words for "husband" and "wife". If you look at how Paul uses these words throughout his writings (and he uses them about 120 times), you will find something curious. He never seems to use them for all men and all women in general. Instead, almost every time he uses them, he is talking about men and women who are married or "engaged" to be married. That is, he is talking about husbands and wives specifically, not men and women in general. In fact, when Paul does want to talk about men and women in general, he uses different Greek words (see Rom 1.24-27; Gal 3.26-29). It seems clear from the context of these passages in particular, and all of Paul's writing in general, he is writing about how husbands and wives should treat each other in Church, not prohibiting all women from speaking in Church.

Secondly, we must think about the cultural situation that Paul was speaking to. In Greek culture, women had been oppressed for centuries. They were little more than property of their husbands, with no rights, and no voice in society. Suddenly, Paul preaches that men and women are all one in Christ and that they are all children of God and heirs of His Kingdom (see Gal 3:26-29). Women are made equal to men with equal voice, and in Church they were finally free to express this voice. Now, you have a Church full of women with pent up frustration over centuries of mis-treatment, and many want to get even with their husbands.

To top it off, women were not used to instruction. In Greek society, they never had been allowed more than the most basic education. They were not used to listening, did not know how to properly ask questions, and did not know how to learn. So imagine you are in Paul's church. The preacher is preaching. One wife loudly asks a question. Another turns to her husband and yells "See, I was right! You were wrong! You should have listened to me!" So Paul has to correct the situation, just as if he would have had to correct husbands or youth if they were doing the same thing. So, he tells wives that they can't treat their husbands this way. They need to learn. In the 1Timothy passage, he tells wives that they cannot "hold authority" over their husbands. The Greek word actually used there means "to domineer, browbeat, nag, or bully". Paul is simply prohibiting wives from "getting even" with their husbands in Church.

If you re-translated these passages in a more reasonable way, you would find that Paul is teaching about family behavior, not about women's ordination. Here is my translation:

1Timothy 2.11-15: A wife is to learn in tranquility and in all obedience. But I do not permit a wife to teach, neither to domineer her husband, but to remain in tranquility. For Adam was formed first [in time and rank], then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the wife was seduced [when] she fell into transgression. But she will be saved through the Childbirth [i.e. the birth of the Christ child, indicated by the Greek definite article "the"], if they will remain in faith and love and holiness along with good judgment.

1Corinthians 14.33-35: As in all the assemblies of the saints, the wives should keep silent in the assemblies. For it is not proper for them to keep chattering, but they should be subordinate, just as also the Law says (when talking about Sarah and her husband Abraham in Genesis 18:12). But if they desire to learn something, they should ask their own husbands at home. For it is shameful for a wife to keep chattering in assembly.

It is fairly clear for me that the Bible does not prohibit women's ordination, it merely puts a stop to dysfunctional family behavior.

Objection 2:

It is improper for a woman to minister in Christ's place, since Christ was a man. Many people believe that it is simply "unnatural" and feels wrong for a woman to stand in the place of a man: THE man, Jesus Christ. Jesus was clearly a man, as indicated by the fact that He was circumcised and that every Bible passage refers to Him as male. This is not disputed by anyone except the lunatic fringe. On this basis, it is argued, that only a man can stand in the place of Christ.

Yet, this seems to be in direct conflict with what Paul says in Galatians 3:26-29. In this passage, Paul states: "You are all SONS of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, MALE NOR FEMALE, for you are all ONE in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and HEIRS according to the promise."

Note that Paul says three key things about women: They are ONE with men in Christ, not two. Not higher and lower portions of Christ, but equal. They are SONS of God. That's right, females are considered as "sons". In ancient Roman, Greek and Jewish culture, firstborn sons had the highest rank in the family. Daughters had the lowest rank. Yet, it does not say that females are daughters of God and males are sons of God. It says both are sons of God. They are HEIRS of God's Kingdom. In the ancient world, usually it was only the firstborn male son that was an heir and inherited everything from his father. Now, women, along with men, are co-inheritors of everything the Father has.

The operative question now is this: Since God gives all Christian women (and men) the highest offices in the world, that of "sons of God", heirs, ambassadors, and ministers (1Pe. 2:5-9; Rev. 1:6, 5:10; 2Co 5:16-21; Gal. 3:26-28), why then would He deny them the lesser office of serving Him as a deacon, priest, or bishop? Why would He deny them the ability to represent Christ at the altar, if they are able to represent Him everywhere else? It is not Biblical to assume that the lack of male genitals or chromosomes excludes all women at all times from pastoral leadership. If we have a problem with women representing Christ, we do not merely have a problem with women's ordination, we have a problem with Scripture.

Objection 3:

Neither Christ nor the Apostles ordained women as leaders in the Church. Yet, it must be noted that Jesus never appointed Gentiles either. In fact, women were far more represented among Jesus' followers than were Gentiles (remember Mary, Mary, and Martha). If we are to exclude women on this logic, then we should definitely exclude Gentiles from leadership as well.

Furthermore, it does not seem to be true that neither Jesus nor the Apostles ordained women. While we do know that none of the 12 Apostles were women, we do not know if any of the 72 disciples He sent out were women (Luke 10). We do know that women were prominently mentioned as key members of Jesus' band of disciples. They cared for Jesus’ personal needs (Mat 8:14-15, 27:55-56; Luke 8:1-3), and went to the tomb to embalm Jesus’ body (Mark 15:46-47). We also know that women were the primary witnesses of His resurrection (Mat 28:1-10; John 20:1-18). It was Mary who told all of the men He had risen! We also know that women functioned in all types of official leadership throughout Scripture:

+ There are several Bible passages authored by women (Exo 15:20-21; Judg 5:1-31; 1Sa 2:1-10; 2Ki 22:14-20; Luke 1:38-55).

+ Women were given the ability to teach and preach (or prophesy) by the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:17-18; 1Co 11:5).

+ Women led the Church as administrators and deacons (Rom 16:1-2).

+ They cared for the poor (Acts 9:36) as well as for widows and others (Acts 9:39; 1Tim. 5:3-16).

+ They hosted and presided over house churches, and even taught male believers (Acts 12:12, 16:15; 18:24-26; Rom 16:3-5; 1Co 16:19; Col 4:15).

+ They were even considered as fellow workers on the Apostolic mission field (Rom 16:3-4; Phi 4:2-3).

+ In at least one place a woman named "Junia" is called "outstanding among the Apostles" (Rom 16:6).

Objection 4:

Universal Church Tradition denies that women should serve as ordained ministers. It is true that women, throughout Church Tradition, have not been officially allowed to become priests or bishops. Yet, women have always functioned as teachers and spiritual guides throughout history, even if they were never given "official" recognition through ordination. Yet, sometimes new cultural situations force us to look at Scripture in new ways.

One example of this is slavery. Through 1800 years of Church history, slavery was allowed. It was looked down upon and discouraged, but no official statements were made that slavery was inherently anti-Christian. Then, in the 1800's, things came to a head. The Church was forced to really examine Scripture, and to hear what Scripture had actually been saying all along: Slavery is morally wrong and inherently anti-Christian. It is only allowable as a "sub-Christian" way to live, and every possible measure should be taken to end slavery in society.

I, and many Anglicans like me, feel that culture is doing a similar thing with women's rights. Culture is forcing us to go back to Scripture and realize what it has been saying all along: women have fully equal roles in Christ's Church. Note that this is different from changing what Scripture says to fit with society. This is allowing culture to give us a new horizon and vantage point, from which we may see that Scripture has always pointed us on a different trajectory than the patriarchal path the Church took for some 18 odd centuries.

In contrast, Scripture clearly gives women roles in leadership (see above). Indeed, the Church has implicitly recognized women in leadership for centuries, because nuns and laywomen have been treasured as teachers and spiritual guides by average Christians, kings, clergy, bishops, and even popes. Many women show the gifts of the Spirit for leadership, and several other Christian traditions have validated this by giving them pastoral and missionary roles. Now Anglicans are making this explicit, by ordaining gifted women to serve as deacons, priests, and bishops. It seems clear that Biblical criteria for ordination includes spiritual gifting, spiritual maturity, moral purity, and a sense of calling (see 1Ti 3; Tit 1). It does not, however, include someone's gender.
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