The arguments for and against women being ordained to the office of deacon, priest, and bishop in the Anglican Church do not receive much discussion in the Anglican Church of Aotearoa, New Zealand, and Polynesia. This is because the state of the play is fairly settled, with the usual suspects in arguments against such ordinations in the wider Anglican Communion (evangelicals, anglo-catholics) generally in our Kiwi context being unconvinced that God is against such ordinations. However a couple of events have prompted me to review my own thinking on the matter in recent days.
First, we hosted Rev. Professor Gerald Bray in our Diocese. Gerald is Editor of The Churchman (among other roles), and some of my reading of his editorials alerted me to the importance he attaches to the decision to ordain women to the priesthood in the Church of England (early 1990s) and to the current debate in that church over the possibility of approval being given to the ordination of women as bishops. This importance concerns the role of Scripture in the process of making decisions in the church, with a clear sight on the continuing debate over the ordination of partnered gay men and lesbian women, and the authorisation of blessings of same sex couples. One aspect of Gerald Bray’s thinking on these matters is that conservative evangelicals do not have consistent Scripture-based arguments for ordination of women and against ordination of partnered gays and lesbians.
Secondly, I notice that an important decision within the Anglican Church of Australia has been published (late September, 2007), whereby a tribunal with high authority on such matters has said that no legal impediment exists to proceeding to ordain women as diocesan bishops. That is, no rules need to be changed, which is a sigh of relief to those Australian Anglicans who wish to see women become bishops as they realise they would be unlikely to succeed with a change of rules given the opposition of the Diocese of Sydney to such ordinations (which also extends to opposition to the ordination of women to the priesthood). Thus a conservative evangelical such as myself has been reminded that I am in disagreement with conservative evangelicals such as Gerald Bray and Archbishop Peter Jensen whom I respect immensely and with whom I understand myself to share many cherished theological beliefs. The reason why I am in disagreement begins with a piece of autobiography!
More years ago than I care to remember, when I was a student at Canterbury University involved in the Christian Union (i.e. conservative evangelical student group), we had a constitution which forbade women from becoming President of the Christian Union. Women could take up any other role on the executive committee (except for Men’s Vice-President; men could take up any role except for Women’s Vice-President). The Canterbury University Students’ Association discovered this clause and asked us to change it – it may have been more of a threat, actually: change or else leave the Association (and the use of the CUSA building). Naturally we had a meeting about this and I recall being to the forefront of arguments to change our constitution. I do not recall any great profound theological contribution on my part. But what I do recall, both from that occasion, and from other interactions in the world of Christian Union activity, at Canterbury, at Otago, and nationally through Tertiary Student Christian Fellowship conferences and councils, is developing the conviction that where we find women who are gifted, able leaders, then gender discrimination should not prevent them exercising leadership at the highest level of church or other Christian organisation. I have known some remarkable women leaders. I have never observed failure in an organisation or parish where these leaders were in charge. (Of course, I have also known some unsatisfactory leaders and observed sad results from their leadership, but here is the thing: they have been both male and female!)
Naturally the question arises in the mind of a conservative evangelical, what about Scripture and its widely-understood prohibition of women at the highest levels of leadership in the life of the church? In my own thinking about this question I find myself drawn first to the experience of the early church and also before that to the experience of Israel. In Scripture we find that at certain times and places women rise up to positions of leadership which are all the more striking because of our recognition that the societies of ancient Israel and the Graeco-Roman Mediterranean world were patriarchal. Deborah (Judges 4-5), Abigail (1 Samuel 25) and Huldah (2 Kings 22) stand out from the Old Testament and stand alongside Prisca, Phoebe, Junia (Romans 16), and Euodia and Syntyche from the New Testament. (I am particularly intrigued by the latter two whom Paul describes as having ‘laboured side by side with me in the gospel’ (Philippians 4:3); not, ‘laboured subordinate to me in the gospel.’) The sense I get from the history of the earliest church as conveyed in the New Testament is that there was no universal rule applying on a timeless basis which prohibited women participating in the leadership of the church. The way in which references are made to women such as those mentioned above, and others (especially in Romans 16) without comment about any rules which were kept or broken by their example suggests we are wrong to respond to their examples, as some do, by saying ‘well, Prisca always taught with her husband by her side, and Phoebe was not a leader over anyone, she served and supplied the funds for the church to operate, and so on, so they all kept within the rules.’ That there was no universal, timeless rule applying is not surprising when we recognise that a hallmark of the Christian movement was freedom, in particular a freedom to be flexible about shape and structure of the movement as it took root in different places and in different cultures. Generally the early Christians, following the example of Jesus, dispensed with rules rather than made rules.
With this background in mind, the most discussed passage in respect of women in leadership, 1 Timothy 2:11-15 (addressed to the church in Ephesus), seems more than a little curious. First, a very clear rule is laid down, ‘Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness’ (v. 11). Then a personal ruling is given, ‘I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent’ (v. 12). The mood here seems a long way from Paul’s affectionate respect and collegial concern for Phoebe, Prisca, Junia and company. It’s also some distance from Paul’s baptismal inclusiveness in Galatians 3.28. I suggest we are entitled to wonder if some circumstance – a difficult and demanding one at that – has provoked the rules of 2:11-12.
A further hint of this difficulty is found in 1 Timothy 2:15. Here a very long exegetical story must be cut short for our present purpose, but we begin by observing that in complete contradiction of Pauline teaching on salvation through faith in the completed work of Christ on the cross, this verse implies that women will be saved by a work of their own, bearing children. Surely this verse does not mean what it appears to say. My own suggestion, taking a cue from 1 Timothy 4:3 with its concern about false teachers in the Ephesian church who ‘forbid marriage’, is that what 1 Timothy 2:15 means is ‘Contrary to those false teachers who argue that marriage imperils one’s salvation, woman will not lose their salvation through bearing children, rather they will be saved even though they bear children, providing (as with all Christian men and women) they persevere in faith, love, holiness, with modesty.’ But whether this particular suggestion carries conviction or not, 1 Timothy 2:15 certainly invites us to ponder the peculiar circumstances of the Ephesian church addressed by Paul through Timothy. As a matter of fact, so does 2:12 which uses a rare Greek word, authentein, translated above as ‘to have authority over’. Why use this rare word? Again, is it possible (as some commentators think) that Paul was not addressing the ordinary situation of one person being in authority over others but the situation in which one person (here, one or more Ephesian women) exercises an unhealthy domination over others (here, men in the congregation). In turn, in respect of 1 Timothy 2:13-14, is Paul challenging the process by which women have become dominators of men: like Eve of old they have first been deceived (by the false teachers) and then they have led their husbands astray?
Again, let’s be clear that a very long exegetical account is required here to work through the many issues these verses raise – a small book’s worth and not a few paragraphs in a web column! But the gist of the argument is discernible: there are grounds for contemplating that 1 Timothy 2:11-12, much quoted by conservative evangelicals in support of refusing the ordination of women to the priesthood and to the episcopate, involves rulings relating to extraordinary circumstances (which, to be sure, could arise in any generation and in any culture) and not to the ordinary situation of the church.
If this argument be accepted then much of the Scripture-based opposition from conservative evangelicals to the ordination of women to the priesthood and to the episcopate collapses. This in turn allows conservative evangelicals to embrace the spirit of the New Testament which is remarkably open to the involvement of women in every aspect of church leadership. This spirit is, of course, demonstrated in Jesus’ own ministry and mission, where we find women disciples (e.g. Luke 8:2-3), and women associated with the key salvific events of the cross and the resurrection as primary witnesses. In our present context in which boards and committees of human persons sit in evaluative judgement of people as they seek acceptance for ordination and apply for appointments, we can ourselves demonstrate this spirit of openness by considering each applicant on the basis of the calling discerned within their lives and the gifts and abilities recognised in their service of the gospel, without regard for whether they are male or female!
This argument, as already indicated, requires a more detailed exposition if it is to carry weight. In brief, I would see it needing extension through consideration of passages such as 1 Corinthians 11:2-18 (where one point to be made is that male ‘headship’ pertains to marriage and not to church leadership) and 14:33-36 (which is similar in sentiment to 1 Timothy 2:11); supported by consideration of the ‘tendency’ within the New Testament to affirm and advance the equality of men and women in the kingdom of God; and strengthened by considering the achievement of the cross in effecting transformation of fallen humanity, including the implication of 1 Timothy 2: 14 that women are prone to being ‘deceived’. But I offer this argument as a demonstration that conservative evangelicals can support the possibility of women being priests and bishops in the Anglican Church without diminution of commitment to upholding and honouring the authority of Scripture.