Blogmatics: The Ordination Of Women

blogmatics2

This is the eleventh part of a series I’m calling Blogmatics. It’s an attempt on my part to lay out as best I can in as brief a manner as I can all the theological assumptions behind my blog posts.

This particular post is adapted from a post that originally appeared last year which I wanted to tweak just a bit and bring back as part of my Blogmatics series in order to talk about why I believe women, just like men, should be ordained.

 

“Women should be silent in the church.”

It’s a clobber passage that’s been used for centuries to keep men in control and women from fully participating in the life of the church.

But there’s a problem with taking these words of Paul as a once for all denunciation of women as ordained leaders in the church.

And it’s not just the fact that Paul also thanked women for their leadership roles in the church at the end of virtually every one of his letters in the New Testament, nor is it due simply to the fact that Paul also declared that in Christ, that is to say in the church, there is no Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female for we are all one, we are all on equal footing as Christian.

You see, if so-called “complimentarian” churches had been around that first Easter morning, there would be no Church today.

How well do you remember the Easter story?

Or perhaps I should say, Easter stories, because if you look carefully there are differences in each gospel writer’s account, specifically in the number of people that came to check on the tomb that morning. But there is one fact that all the gospel writers agree on.

Women were there while the men cowered in fear behind locked doors.

There’s also another fact the gospel writers all agree on – when the women at the tomb realized Jesus had risen he gave them clear instructions to “go and tell.”

If you ask me, that sounds a whole lot Jesus’ other famous “great commission.” Except, when Jesus told the other disciples to “go” into all the world, they didn’t yet have the full gospel to preach. It’s not until after the resurrection that the “good news” is ready to be proclaimed to the world and the first people commissioned by Jesus himself to go and preach this greatest of news were not men.

They were women.

If that’s not a ordination service happening that first Easter morning, then I don’t know what is.

Now, I’m sure there are many who may be wanting to cry foul because this bestowal of authority doesn’t look exactly like the ordination service you’ve seen or, like me, the services you’ve been a part of.

Let me assure you that that’s ok because those services don’t look exactly like what Jesus did either. But that too is ok, because the fundamental issue at hand is still the same. Both for Jesus’ commissioning of his disciples and our ordination services today, ordination is fundamentally about the bestowal of authority to proclaim the gospel and extend grace.

This sort of bestowal is exactly what we witness at the empty tomb. If the resurrected Jesus thought only men should have this authority, then he just as easily could bypassed the women altogether, appeared first at the home where the disciples were hiding, then waited for the women to arrive panic stricken from finding an empty tomb, and then commissioned the men to explain what happened.

But Jesus intentionally met the women at the tomb and intentionally bestowed authority upon them to preach the gospel and extend grace to the male disciples who were cowering in fear.

Let me pause quickly to address two issues that some may see in my argument.

The first is in regards to the administration of the sacraments, namely baptism and the eucharist. This administrative authority is part and parcel to any modern ordination service, the idea being that we are echoing Jesus’ command, or bestowal of authority, to his disciples to perform these rituals. However, the formality we attend to such bestowal of authority is not found in the gospels. Jesus simply tells his followers to “go” and do likewise, much the same as he told the women at the tomb to “go” and tell.

If we are going to connect the administration of the sacraments to the authority to preach based on Jesus’ command to “go” and do, then there is nothing precluding us from extending that same connection to women whom he also explicitly called to “go” and do. Perhaps ironically, the justification for doing so is found is the second issue I anticipate being raised against my argument for the ordination of women: Jesus’ 12 disicples were all men.

It’s true that the 12 disciples specifically listed in the gospels were all men, but me must keep in mind that the gospels also 1) record Jesus sending out 70 apostles whose gender isn’t mentioned, 2) make it clear that Jesus also had female disciples, i.e. Mary and Martha, and 3) were written and edited by men with a profoundly patriarchal view of the world.

But none of those things captures what should be for us today the real issue at hand – after the resurrection everything changed because the world was being made new.

We live post-resurrection and therefore must take into account what Jesus said and did after he walked out of the tomb. In that post-resurrection world we see a Jesus who boldly ordains women to preach the good news to the very men he previously ordained, but who were now hiding in fear because they didn’t really understand what that good news was all about.

In other words, men dropped the ball, so Jesus handed it off to women.

The key point here is that merely relying on the pre-resurrection narrative as a justification for not ordaining women is to render both the event itself as well as the transforming power of the resurrection totally and completely irrelevant.

But there’s more.

Both Peter and Paul, yes even Paul, clearly supported this post-resurrection way of looking at the world.

Peter, for instance, had his famous vision in Acts wherein a sheet descended from heaven full of unclean food he was told to eat. When he refused, God reminded him that a new day had dawned and new rules were being put into place.

Later on, in his first epistle, after the ramifications of this new day had had more time to sink in, Peter reminds the church that through Jesus we are all members of a new, royal priesthood. Did you catch that? He said all. No gender usage there. He could have said all men, but he didn’t. That should tell us something.

Even Paul, as I said before, the apparent champion of “complimentarianism,” actually had pretty radical views about post-resurrection identity and equality. As he puts it so beautifully in his epistle to the church in Galatia,

“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Not exactly the words of a man convinced women had less standing in the church than men.

Now, yes, there are passages in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy wherein Paul talks about women not speaking or teaching in the church, but I have serious doubts about the all encompassing nature of these apparent commands to the church.

First, they appear to be very situationally specific, particularly in the case of the church in Corinth where female prophets were known to disrupt what were at that point in the church’s history essentially just small group gatherings in people’s homes and thus easily prone to disruption. Secondly, while the case could be made from the Timothy passage that the command is more broad based, it simply doesn’t jive with everything else Paul has to say about women in the church.

Paul is clear from both the Galatians passages as well as numerous other passages, that coming to Christ results in a fundamentally new identity which transcends all previous identity markers. Likewise, in every single one of his letters Paul is careful to thank specific women for their leadership in their local church. If Paul truly had no place for women in church leadership, then it would make no sense for him to go out of his way to thank them for taking on that very role of church leadership he supposedly prohibited. Which makes me come to the conclusion that either a) his words were intended for a specific situation or b) his words were not his own, but commands inserted later by followers uncomfortable with the thought of being led by a woman, or as Jesus would might say, they were uncomfortable with the last being first and the first being last.

Ultimately, though, there is a choice to be made.

It’s a choice between Paul and Jesus, between a literalist interpretation that seeks to limit the meaning of scripture to the letters on the page and a spiritual reading that the church has preferred for 2,000 which frees the Spirit to grant the people of God access into the deeper mysteries of God’s truth. This doesn’t mean we wholesale abandon everything in the Bible in favor of only what Jesus explicitly said. Far from it.

What it means is that we follow the ancient tradition of the church, admit that there are difficult and sometimes seemingly contradictory passages in scripture, and learn to recognize that, in the words of the great church father Origen, the difficulties that arise in the literal sense of the text have been placed there by the Holy Spirit to challenge us to dig deeper into the Spirit of the word, so that we can might in Wisdom, and so become the people God created us to be.

I know that there are many who will not agree with what my reading of scripture, but if the great reformers of the church were right, that there are moments in the life of the church when we much pause and ask ourselves whether or not what we are doing truly lines up with the teachings of Jesus or is simply our own cultural tradition, if that reflective work should be the ongoing responsibility of the church, then I believe the time has come for some serious and honest reflection about how the Body of Christ views and treats half of her members.

I am acutely aware that what I am saying flies in the face of what is for many nearly 2,000 years of church tradition.

But if ordaining women to preach the gospel is wrong, then Jesus himself stands condemned.

 

Grace and peace,

Zack Hunt

16 Comments
  • Melody Harrison Hanson
    July 26, 2013

    Thank you. Saving this.

  • Brian Pike
    July 26, 2013

    Whole-heartedly agree with everything you say in here, Zach! There are plenty of women I know in our conservative LCMS who would make great pastors 🙂

    One thing to keep in mind though is that we still live in a fallen world and while we might like to espouse gender equality, especially in full view of the resurrection, which shatters all of our labels, many guys still like to be in charge and often times have trouble accepting women in authority over them. To use Paul’s language, they find it a stumbling block.

    It’d be an interesting study to determine if more stay away from the church because of women pastors vs. how many stay away due to gender inequality…

    • forgedimagination
      July 27, 2013

      I’m not exactly sure how to respond to this line of reasoning.

      A “stumbling block” in whatever context you find it in Scripture, is when you put something that could legitimately be considered a sin in front of a believer who struggles with that issue. Like unclean food, etc.

      Women in leadership isn’t a sin, and if it “results” in a man feeling resentment, anger, pride, or whatever reaction is possible when a sexist man feels superseded by a woman, this reaction is not “caused” by the woman, but by his own sexist attitudes. That is something worth addressing.

      I don’t think it’s Christ-like to advocate that women remain oppressed and silenced by our patriarchal system because men are sexist– it’s also not fair to men, because it assumes that they are incapable of growth and change when challenged.

      And asking the question “would men leave church because of this?” is decidedly unhelpful. Men (and women) who feel strongly enough about this issue will find plenty of churches out there who fit them.

      Should we really be worried about retaining sexist men and women than we are about reaching out to a culture and society that views us with disdain because of our backwardness? Shouldn’t we be asking the question “who could we draw toward Jesus by changing our sexist, patriarchal Christian culture?”

      • Brian Pike
        July 30, 2013

        Hi forgedimagination! I agree with all your comments 🙂

        I was never advocating the position that women shouldn’t be ordained; just bringing up the only shred of the tiniest bit of logic that would make sense to me and even then that doesn’t hold much water with me.

        I’m all for ordination of women, even if my views are different than the official views of the denomination I belong to (LCMS).

  • Josh Wren
    July 26, 2013

    Thank you for this blog and especially this post. Though yes you may be smacking 2,000 years of tradition, at the same time you may be also helping to correct the corse of Christianity as one would while trying to cut a straight line with scissors or in construction. Or more simply and harshly, as I would dare to call it, you are seeking to destroy the heresy of Complementarian ideology. Heresy may be too strong for some and even for myself (who is one quick to say things like that) though it may not fully/truly be a “heresy”.

  • Samuel Ogles
    July 26, 2013

    I’m a recent visitor to your blog though fastly becoming a fan. Thank you for doing great work against Christian dualism, strictly literal readings (the lowest level) of Scripture, and distinguishing between the cultural and the timeless messages of Christ.
    That being said, I think some of your arguments here could use some polishing and I’d love to hear some clarification from you or others in the future. Just some thoughts for this discussion. Apologies in advance for the length.

    1. To preach the gospel is not the same as ordination. All believers are called to preach the gospel but not all are ordained in the institutional sense on which you’re commenting. How would you tie the two together?

    2. Disciples are indeed important. But we can’t conflate disciples with apostles. Christ has 12 Apostles and many (i.e. the 70-72) Disciples. Should they be seen as interchangeable possessing equal authority? Why is the distinction made in Scripture even after the Resurrection?

    3. Why did Christ choose only men for his Apostles and those closest to him? Because he existed in a patriarchal culture? So do we. Should we follow Christ’s example and only ordain men on the sole basis that our society is built on patriarchy?

    4. “In other words, men dropped the ball, so Jesus handed it off to women.” Does this imply post-Resurrection equality in the way you’re arguing? Might it reduce women to second-choice/class?

    5. Paul does recognize women in leadership, but plenty of Christians believe women belong in Church leadership just not as clergy, moderate Catholics being such a group. Where is the convincing argument for Paul’s view one way or another?

    Peace!

    • forgedimagination
      July 27, 2013

      #4. Totally agree. That’s the same argument I heard about Deborah for most of my life– “no godly men were available, so God shamed all the men by choosing a woman to be a judge, saying “look, men, look what you made me do. I had to choose a WOMAN because you’re a bunch of pansies.”

      Sidenote: Paul called Junia “outstanding among the apostles.” Maybe there’s a difference between Apostle and apostle, but Paul did choose that word to describe a woman at least once.

    • Justin Mitchell
      July 30, 2013

      Very thoughtful response. That being said:

      “3. Why did Christ choose only men for his Apostles and those closest to him? Because he existed in a patriarchal culture? So do we. Should we follow Christ’s example and only ordain men on the sole basis that our society is built on patriarchy?”

      I’m not entirely sure which side you’re taking here. It sounds like you’re defending Zack’s point. If that’s not your intention, then my response would be this:

      How closely should we follow Christ’s example here?
      All the men Jesus chose as his Apostles were from the the same geographical region. Should we only ordain men who are from the middle-east, based on the fact that Jesus did it that way? I think there are many specific aspects you can pull out of Jesus’ ministry that are superfluous and circumstantial, and the fact that he chose only men to be his Apostles is one of them. I don’t think, for example, that we need to dress like Jesus, or speak the same language, or walk the roads he walked on, to follow him. I think we need to follow the heart of his life and his message, to love each other, to be his body on this earth, in whatever cultural context we’re placed in. The culture we’re in now recognizes (at least intellectually) that women are as valuable as men, and equally capable of serving in leadership positions. I’m proud of the fact that this country has female CEO’s, congress members, governors, mayors, etc.. And I will be just as proud to someday see our first female President. I think this is a huge step forward for our culture, and I think it would be a huge step forward for the church as a whole to embrace that same value in the capability of women.

  • Jim
    July 26, 2013

    An interesting post. Lots of theologians use the Galatians passage that says that all are equal, but then forget about the places where the Bible supports differentiated roles in society such as slaves (Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon. And even if you consider these pseudo-pauline, they are a part of the canon.) How do you work with passages like these that support these differentiated roles while maintaining that Galatians “Everyone is equal in everything” is normative for all relationships in the church?

    Jesus sent a couple of different people to “Go and Tell.” The Gerasene Demoniac (Mark 5) was told to tell his friends, much like the women were told to tell the disciples and Peter. It seems like statements to go and tell, which fits into the work of the priesthood of all believers, are qualitatively different from sections where Jesus says things to just the Eleven like Matthew 28:18-20 or John 20:19-23 where Jesus spends some lengthy statements on sending people. I guess my question is this, “Where do you draw the line between the priesthood of all believers and the pastoral ministry?”

    As for Paul’s interaction with women at the ends of his letters, it’s really hard to draw any firm conclusions from the hotly debated phrases that mention co-workers in the gospel as women. It’s tough to use these as evidence of Paul’s support of women’s ordination since we don’t really understand what Paul meant by “co-worker”.

    • Karen
      July 29, 2013

      Jim, thanks for your thoughtful comment. Informed by the Eastern Orthodox understanding of the nature of the Church (as also of Christian marriage) as a spiritual “Mystery” (in the biblical sense) of union between Christ and His Body, I think the distinctions you point out and illustrate from the Scriptures are extremely significant.

  • Joshua Barron
    July 26, 2013

    That place where Paul writes “be silent” to the women (1 Cor. 14.34)? He says the same thing two other times in that passage (vv. 28, 30) to two different groups that would certainly have included men (as well as women). What about that other word for “keep silent” that Paul says to women in 1 Timothy 2.11-12? Oh, yeah, in 2 Thessalonians 3.12 he says the same thing to men (“work in quietness”). It’s interesting how most English translations translate that word (hesuchia) as “silent” when applied to women but merely as “quiet” when applied to men.

  • Matthew Schramm
    July 27, 2013

    I think conclusion “b”, that “his words were not his own”, has the most evidence to support it and is the most likely explanation for Paul’s seemingly contradictory view on women. I remember reading somewhere (though I can’t seem to find it now, so I may have just dreamed this, haha, if anyone can back it up I’d appreciate it) that the passage in 1 Corinthians regarding women often appears in different places in different manuscripts, suggesting that it was inserted well after Paul had written it. Regarding 1 Timothy it’s common knowledge there’s doubt that Paul actually wrote any of the Pastoral Epistles, so I think that speaks for itself.
    Anyway, I really enjoy reading your blog, particularly this recent blogmatics series. Yours, Rachel Held Evans and Peter Enns are blogs I check daily, and I’m never disappointed.

  • Scott Lencke
    July 27, 2013

    Zack –

    Thanks for laying out much of your thoughts on the issue of women. I, too, find mutual shared roles of both men and women (or egalitarianism) as what God intended from the beginning and made clear in Jesus. Interestingly enough, I just posted an article looking at what I believe is the primary purpose of the Martha & Mary account in Luke’s gospel. Luke has a pretty strong emphasis on the role of women in the ministry of Jesus. I believe the Martha & Mary account links in to that.

    Cheers!

  • Bev Murrill
    July 30, 2013

    Thanks Zack; well thought out and well proven.

  • Karen
    July 30, 2013

    There’s certainly a lot of material in the Scripture for fodder for whatever side one takes in this modern debate (at least when the Scripture is looked at through a modern Protestant interpretive lens), and from an EO perspective, both sides miss the mark with their arguments. It seems to me to be significant, though, that the ordination of women has not been a live question throughout most of Christian history. (It has always been assumed within the Orthodox faith that women can be witnesses, ministers, teachers, preachers, leaders, and Saints.) I suspect that is because for most of Christian history, what Christians understood the role of bishop/presbyter in presiding over the Eucharistic Divine Liturgy to be (not to mention how it has understood this Eucharistic Divine Liturgy itself) is quite different from what Protestants of virtually every stripe now understand by the “pastorate” and by Christian “worship” in the wake of the Reformation and Radical Reformation.

    Some Eastern Orthodox have gotten on this Protestant bandwagon, but for most of us ordaining women to the Priesthood is not a live issue. Neither have I gotten the impression the “complementarian” or the “egalitarian” camp can adequately define Orthodox Christian womanhood. For us, the Mother of God defines it. Furthermore, she serves as the pre-eminent example of what a Christian should be for both men and women within the Orthodox faith. We hail her (and not one of the Saints who were men) as our “Champion Leader” in this sense.

    • Karen
      July 30, 2013

      I forgot to mention that there is a very early Christian tradition that lists the names of “the Seventy” sent out in Luke 10 by Christ.

      See more here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seventy_disciples

      These were all considered “bishops” in the early Church, and, yes, they were all men. In the Orthodox Church we honor them as a group during the liturgical year on January 4 (as well as honoring them as individuals on other days throughout the year).

      This does not negate the reality you point out giving the formal title given to Saints who were pioneer evangelists and missionaries within the early Church as “Equal to the Apostles” for both men and women, but it does put it in a different light perhaps. I’m also including a link to information about one of the first of these women Saints who were “Equal to the Apostles,” St. Photine (or Photini, a.k.a., the Samaritan woman at the well). It might interest some of your readers.

      http://orthodoxwiki.org/Photine_of_Samaria

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