Is There Conclusive Evidence for Women’s Ordination?
by Ann F. Castro
I’m a sports fan. This confuses many of my friends, who do not think it accords with other aspects of my personality. They see me as bookish and professorial, Anglo-Catholic and somewhat reserved. I am all those things, but I am a sports fan nonetheless. And occasionally this peculiar interest of mine provides a sort of metaphor for another aspect of my life. Take for instance the current manifestation of the instant replay rule in football. After years of either too much instant replay or not enough, a system has been devised that most people can live with. One aspect of the new system is that, in the course of each game, each coach gets two challenges to a field referee’s call—signaled by throwing a red flag onto the field. Then the challenged play is reviewed and a further ruling pronounced. If the challenge is upheld, the field decision is overturned. If the challenge is overruled, the challenging team is charged with a timeout and the original decision stands.
Now here is the part that is significant for my metaphor: The original decision will not be overturned unless there is conclusive evidence that the call was in error. There must be overwhelming proof that the original decision was incorrect and deserves to be changed. Not just a suspicion of error, not vague doubts, not even wishful thinking—conclusive evidence.
This system seems to be a rather solid approach and one that probably should be adopted in other areas of life besides football. In fact, I would like to reflect on one particular area in which I have applied this system myself: the ordination of women to the priesthood. For some time I was without a firm position on this question, and that in itself was troublesome; I prefer to have firm positions. My husband and several of my friends are opposed to ordaining women to the priesthood, and one of these friends spent a lot of time patiently explaining his position to me. Hoping that it would provide me with new insights and new approaches, I asked Bishop John Rodgers if there was any way in which I could participate in the study of this issue being undertaken by the Anglican Mission in America. He gave me the list of required reading and agreed that I could become part of the wider discussion, once the original task force had completed its work.
Starting the Search
As I dug into these volumes, I made several unexpected discoveries, which helped me towards a better understanding of both the topic itself and my own response to it. I suspect, however, that some of my discoveries were not exactly what the authors of the books had in mind. The first book I tackled was Beyond Sex Roles by Gilbert Bilezikian. Unfortunately, what impressed me most about this book was the author’s uncharitable attitude toward those who disagree with him.
He is in favor of women’s ordination, but he spends as much time making disparaging remarks about James B. Hurley (Man and Woman in Biblical Perspective), whom he has selected as a representative of the other side of the argument, as he does supporting his own position. In citing Hurley’s work, Bilezikian displays endless creativity in his vocabulary choices: “inappropriate,” “gratuitously,” “exploitation,” “hurriedly dismisses the argument,” “hodgepodge of Pauline teaching,” “tampering with the Biblical text,” “exegetical violence,” and so forth.
Bilezikian is also prone to prejudicial vocabulary choices when making his own arguments. It is clear that he subscribes to the feminist school of thinking that equates any male authority or headship with domination and would like to reduce men and women to a kind of innocuous androgyny. Here is a sample quotation, which illustrates Bilezikian’s technique (all italics are mine): “By maintaining women in dependency relationships, men guarantee the infantilization of their female companions. . . . Even more seriously, they become perpetrators of the satanic scheme, devised at the fall, of socializing women to live with guilt about the fact that they are women” (p. 211).
It is not that Bilezikian has nothing of value to say, but he seriously compromises his credibility by the use of such pejorative terms. This is a well-known rhetorical technique and this book jolted me into an awareness of how often it has been employed in this discussion and, therefore, how careful one must be to avoid it. In treating such a sensitive topic, one should be even more careful than usual to avoid prejudicial language and to represent any translated words as accurately as possible.
My next book, Women in the Priesthood? by Manfred Hauke, is a highly regarded work expressing the view that women should not be ordained as priests. My main difficulty with this book can be illustrated by the following two examples. In the section in which he discusses the differences between the sexes at a psychological level, Hauke maintains that human reason incorporates two different areas. One area, which he associates with abstraction and conceptualization, he calls “reason” (in the narrower sense); the other, which he associates with intuition and feeling, he calls “understanding.” It is his contention that “reason” is more characteristic of men and “understanding” more characteristic of women. Though he does not explicitly say so, the underlying message seems to be that reason is superior to understanding. At the conclusion of another part of this section he says,
In the sense that women possess a greater, less divided readiness for devotedness, they are, it would seem, more religious than men. Nevertheless, responsiveness alone is not ultimately decisive. What matters much more is having a clear goal before one’s eyes and constantly directing the various sides of human nature toward it, even if doing so clashes with some current mood or feeling. In respect to this, primacy must go to men. (p. 94, my italics)
These examples are but two of the many whereby Hauke defends an all-male priesthood by maintaining that, since men possess certain characteristics, they are, therefore, better suited to be priests. I was both surprised and disturbed by the amount of attention that Hauke gives to sociological, biological, psychological, and anthropological evidence. Because of the constantly changing nature of these disciplines, I am very skeptical about their value in this discussion. Even if such differences between men and women can be shown to exist to a certain extent, Hauke’s argument is based on generalizations and not inevitable distinctions. Any attempt to use such reasoning to determine suitability for ordination will eventually run into exceptions, and the argument will collapse.
Attitudes & Three Events
By this time, I was beginning to feel the need to acknowledge and deal with two aspects of my own thinking that were interfering with my ability to come to a firm decision. I realized that, because of these attitudes, I had, at one level, wanted women’s ordination to be accepted. For one thing, I am very much aware that there are, and always have been, men in the Church who prefer an all-male priesthood because it allows them to feel superior to women and to enjoy their positions of power. It is common for these men to use arguments such as those mentioned above to defend their position.
My thinking had also been influenced by the fact that I teach at a seminary (Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry) attended by conservative evangelical women who hold orthodox positions on most doctrinal issues. Why would I not want these women ordained as priests, as opposed to the many men whose denial of basic Christian theology and morality is rapidly tearing the Church apart?
I had never been a crusader for women’s ordination, but I had inwardly fought against adopting the opposite position. By allowing into the debate my own anger at the way women are often treated in the Church and my relationships with many godly women who are either already ordained or seeking ordination, I was indulging in subjectivity and “experiential” reasoning. Now I was going to have to set aside both of these attitudes and take a good hard look at Scripture to arrive at the truth. As I explained to a friend, it wasn’t a matter of whether women could do the job or of whether any particular woman was a godly person and had done a lot for a particular church, it was a matter of whether this is what God wants.
It was suggested to me that I lay out all the passages of Scripture that are used by both sides in this debate and see what they have to say. I was willing to do this, but had not yet gotten around to it when I took up my third book. At this point, lightning struck. Three things happened in a relatively short period of time, each of which added a dimension or twist to my thinking. First, the adult education class at my church decided to discuss an article by a friend and colleague of mine, Dr. Rodney Whitacre, entitled “The Biblical Vision Regarding Women’s Ordination.”
I had read this article before but had found it annoying and uncongenial; I was not ready to hear what Whitacre had to say. Now, however, I was ready, and I found several of his arguments extremely persuasive. The one that made the most impression on me was his statement that we, as Christians, are to manifest the life of God within the world and that part of what this means is that our relationships with one another should reflect the relationships within the Trinity. We are to be “imitators of God” (Eph. 5:1) and “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4).
Since within the Trinity relationships of both subordination and equality exist, it would seem logical to see these same relationships reflected in our lives. Though this paradox is just one among the many that characterize the Christian life, it is one that men and women have a particularly hard time with, both within the Church and without. Now, however, I was prepared to grant it and incorporate it into the discussion.
The second event was a “debate” at Trinity between Dr. Whitacre and another faculty member, Dr. Leslie Fairfield, on the topic of women’s ordination. They had done this before, and I hadn’t been particularly convinced by either side, so I was curious to see what my reaction would be this time around.
I was very disappointed. I suppose I was hoping for the heavens to open and God to give me some sort of sign. But nothing particular happened. Except, in a strange way, something did. When I thought about it afterward, I realized that only Dr. Whitacre had debated the topic at hand. He had presented a variety of reasons why the pattern of male headship seen in Scripture was meant to be a permanent situation and indicated that only men could be called as priests and bishops.
Dr. Fairfield, however, had not countered with a similar defense of women’s ordination but had instead presented a strong defense of women in ministry. Not the same thing! As I discovered when I got around to reading my third book, those who truly understand the complementary relationship between men and women, and understand that submission does not in any way imply an inferior status, are deeply committed to giving women every opportunity to use their gifts for ministry. They simply maintain that it does not accord with Scripture to understand that God calls women to headship.
Third Event & Third Book
Finally, I wrote to a friend who has very good insights and often has a unique way of presenting them, asking if he had anything to contribute to the discussion. He replied that he didn’t know all the arguments and so could not really speak to those, but on principle he was opposed to this kind of change, especially when something had such a long tradition behind it. “The ambition of a woman seeking ordination strikes me as contrary to the spirit of the gospel,” he wrote.
It is seeking to assert one’s own desire and one’s own vision of how one might best answer God’s call, contrary to the Tradition of the Church. Look at it in terms of Pascal’s wager: If God wants priestesses and I choose (as a woman) to serve through humility in a non-ordained capacity, I will certainly not offend my Lord. If God does not want priestesses and I choose (as a woman) to seek ordination, I am essentially an idolater of my own will.
And there it was. So far I had only allowed Scripture and reason into the debate; but what about tradition? For the vast majority of the life of the Church, the male priesthood has been an accepted fact. So why would we change that? The obvious reason would be that new evidence has been presented to show that the church fathers and the long tradition they represent have been in error and so the decision needs to be changed.
When the Episcopal Church decided to ordain women and then made this an official position, they threw the red flag onto the field. The problem, I now realized, is that they had not played fair in terms of the instant replay rule. They assumed that the original decision was in error, because they wanted it to be, and never really looked, without bias, at the evidence. So that was my task. I had to decide if there was conclusive evidence to overturn the original call.
I do not know what my reaction to my third book (Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, John Piper and Wayne Grudem, editors) would have been, had I started my reading there. I suspect that it might have been similar to my reaction the first time I read Dr. Whitacre’s article. But now I was ready for it, and everything fell together. The authors supplied the missing piece in my thinking by presenting the order imposed by God on human relationships not just as a right thing but also as a good thing.
Dr. Piper explains in his introductory essay that there are two ways to recommend a vision of manhood and womanhood. One way has to do with rational argumentation concerning factual evidence. The other way, however, addresses the question, “Is the vision beautiful and satisfying and fulfilling? Can I live with it?” Therefore, he writes, “We must commend the beauty as well as the truth of the vision. We must show that something is not only right but also good. It is not only valid but also valuable, not only accurate but also admirable. . . . The vision is not onerous or oppressive. It does not promote pride or self-exaltation. It conforms to who we are by God’s good design. Therefore it is fulfilling in the deepest sense of the word” (p. 33).
This was exactly what I needed to hear and the point at which I needed to hear it. The friend who had spent the most time talking with me about this question is a strong NT (“intuitive thinker”) in Myers-Briggs classification terms. I have great respect for him, and I thank him for his apparently endless persistence and patience. I almost certainly would not have reached this point without him. But as an NF (“intuitive feeler”) I knew I needed something more, and this book provided it.
The book made abundantly clear that, just as the Ten Commandments are not there to make our lives miserable but to free us to live righteously, the ordered relationships described in Scripture are somehow for our good and therefore a good thing. The authors of this third book really believe, and demonstrated convincingly, that men and women are completely equal as persons in Christ and that in placing men in headship and requiring women to submit to this, God was not trying to make our lives miserable. He was, in a way we may not fully understand, trying to protect us from ourselves and to provide a framework for us to live out our identities as Christian men and women.
In all honesty, I have to admit that at this time I do not fully understand this, but I believe that Christian humility requires us to admit that there are many things about the ways of God that we do not, and perhaps, as his creatures, cannot understand. In this frame of mind I was prepared to take an honest look at Scripture.
Looking at Scripture & Interpretations
I should say here that, as is so often true, the journey to this point is the main story. The arrival was almost an anti-climax. I could fairly well have predicted what I was going to find. But being an honest scholar, I did the work anyway. I am not going to walk through all the arguments and passages here. Those familiar with the debate know what they are, and others have labored long in outlining and analyzing them. I will present a few examples by way of illustration.
First, however, I should present my basic working assumptions. There are many who do not share these assumptions and, for this reason, will probably also not be willing to grant my conclusions. I believe, however, that they should form the basis for all study of Scripture.
The first assumption is presented in 2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, [and] for training in righteousness” (NASB). All Scripture, not just the parts that we like. The second assumption is that Scripture cannot contradict itself. Any apparent contradictions exist for one of two reasons. The first reason is that some material is not designed to present “the facts” but to tell a story and/or show some particular facet of a single truth. The second reason is that we, in our humanness, are unable or unwilling to understand what is being said.
My third assumption is that words have meaning. They are not subject to endless maneuvering to get them to mean what someone wants them to mean. This is not to say that we do not have an obligation to pursue the full lexical range of a given word, using whatever tools we have available, and to determine which specific meaning or nuance is operative in a given context. I am, after all, a linguist; this is what I do. But I have seen very dubious word studies put forward in an attempt to wrest a meaning from a passage that just isn’t there.
A few specific examples have been helpful to me in my study. The first one goes back to a Bible study in Colossians in which I recently participated. This example shows clearly the danger of taking passages out of context, a risk to which people on both sides of the debate are susceptible. Colossians 3:11 (“where there does not exist Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free, but Christ is all and in all”), though it does not specifically mention male and female, bears a striking resemblance to Galatians 3:28, which is regarded as a touchstone passage by those claiming that all distinctions between men and women cease to exist once they are “in Christ.”
Yet it is followed only a few verses later (3:18) by one of the “household code” passages, beginning with, “Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.” Is there a contradiction here or not? Working from the assumption that Scripture cannot contradict itself, we would have to say that there is not. Paul does not seem to be nearly as bothered as moderns by the assertion that all are of equal status in their relationship to Christ and yet are still required to submit to the created order. In fact, it would appear that this is precisely how we are to live in order to be “in Christ.”
Hand in hand with this is the argument presented in Dr. Whitacre’s article. To quote from this article, “In St. John’s Gospel, Jesus says both, ‘The Father and I are one’ (10:30) and ‘The Father is greater than I’ (14:28). In His Incarnation and especially His Passion and death, Jesus shows us both the godliness of subordination and submission and the sacrificial nature of godly authority.” A pattern is set in the life of the Trinity and is maintained throughout Scripture that equality and hierarchy are not contradictory. So Jesus clearly valued and respected women, far beyond the cultural norms of his day, yet did not select any to be among the Twelve. So Paul shared various aspects of his ministry with women, yet specifies that certain orders are for men (Greek andres) only. This point is so important that the book of Genesis needed two creation accounts to get it across: the first showing the equality of male and female, and the second the headship of the male.
No Conclusive Evidence
I am aware that not everyone will agree with the interpretations put forward in the previous two paragraphs. Some would say that these passages allow for varying interpretations. It cannot be said, however, that any of the other interpretations amounts to conclusive evidence. And here is where many scholars go astray in their desire to find things in Scripture that are not really there.
Though there is a strong tradition that Mary Magdalene occupied a position of honor in the early Christian community, calling her an “apostle,” in any sense other than that in which all Christians are apostles sent to bear the gospel message, cannot be supported by Scripture. Mary of Bethany was a devoted disciple of her friend Jesus, yet calling her a “rabbi in training” because she sat at his feet to learn from him is a rather fanciful interpretation. The point is that we simply do not know. We are not given the kind of details that would allow anyone to use these passages to make definitive statements about the specific roles of the women involved or to derive from these examples a warrant for overturning the established practice of the Church.
Other arguments based on the interpretation of a specific word or phrase also fail to produce conclusive evidence. I will mention just a few of these. First, attempts have been made to translate the word kephale (“head”) in a way that would remove any connotations of authority. This just won’t work. “Head” is the only logical translation to cover all the various situations in which the word is used. Furthermore, in the relevant passages, it is being used as a metaphor and therefore can have different levels and dimensions of meaning.
Second, we will never know in this lifetime whether the Junia or Junias mentioned in Romans 16:7 was a man or a woman and whether or not he or she was an apostle. The text just will not yield a definitive answer. Finally, there is the troublesome word authenteo (1 Tim. 2:12). Since it appears only this one time in the New Testament, it is difficult to be one-hundred-percent certain of the meaning. But usage elsewhere suggests that some kind of exercise of authority is implied. There is no linguistic evidence for one theory I saw advanced that it means “to participate in fertility rites.”
So where does all of this leave us? Clearly a challenge has been issued. At the time of the challenge, however, there was no instant replay, no immediate review of the evidence by those making the decision. Since then, almost all of the participants in the debate have been either those who are not interested in doing the review because they are already convinced of the rightness of their own position or those who would rather not think about the issues but just do not want women in their ballpark.
What is needed, therefore, is a careful review of the evidence by people who are willing to suspend their previous bias and ask the hard questions. My personal experience has been that, on further review, I am not able, at this time, to find any conclusive evidence that would require the original decision to be overturned. For this reason, I would have to conclude that the play should stand as called.
Ann F. Castro is Adjunct Professor of Greek at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. She is active in lay ministries at Grace Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh. She and her husband Dwight have one son, Jon.
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