June 20, 2015

Yes, Virginia, There is Such a Thing as Fundamentalism or The Subject Matter of Christianity is the Subject Matter of Christianity

Filed under: Anglicanism,Ecumenism,Theology — William Witt @ 5:00 am
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Melancholy Much of what I have written on my blog has been addressed against what is called either (depending on which side of the Reformation one hangs one’s hat) Liberal Protestantism or Catholic Modernism. (One of the advantages of being Anglican is that one can embrace either heresy. When Anglican Evangelicals go bad they become liberal Protestants. When Anglo-Catholics go bad, they become Modernists.) Within the parameters of the church, I consider liberalism to be the greatest heresy today because it denies the central subject matter of the Christian faith as taught in the Scriptures, and summarized in the ecumenical creeds: the doctrines of the Trinity, the incarnation of God in Christ, the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Numerous essays on my blog address this heresy in one way or another. Even the issue of same sex sexual unions, which is the key issue of controversy dividing the Western churches these days, I regard as church dividing precisely because I see an inherent connection between affirming same sex activity and denying key doctrines of Christian faith. It is not a coincidence that the leading advocates of SSUs have also been functional unitarians and/or panentheists. (I think of people like retired Bishop John Spong, the late Marcus Borg, and Sallie McFague. Despite a caginess that makes her hard to pin down, I think it clear that Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori is solidly in this camp.) There are, of course, exceptions, including some theologians whom I have admired and who have influenced me: Stanley Hauerwas and George Hunsinger, in particular. However, they really are exceptions. Precisely because Scripture is so clear on this issue and it is tied so closely to the doctrine of creation (and, I would add, even the doctrines of the Trinity and ecclesiology), where one stands on SSU’s predictably indicates where one stands on creedal issues.

Advocates of theological liberalism/modernism in the church regularly refer to those who disagree with them as “fundamentalists,” and I have been the recipient of this accusation myself. John Spong’s book Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism is a typical example. The joke is, that for theological progressives, a “fundamentalist” is anyone who believes more of the Christian faith than the one using the epithet. For Spong, Jerry Falwell and Billy Graham were “fundamentalists,” but so was Karl Barth, and New Testament scholar N.T. Wright. If a fundamentalist is anyone who believes more than Bishop Spong, then the term is vacuous. To refer to N.T. Wright as a fundamentalist is just another way of saying that one disagrees with him, and, because he does not affirm one’s views, he must be either evil or foolish or both. The fundamentalist accusation saves the time of actually having to address the arguments of someone like Wright. (I have used Wright as an example precisely because his position is ambiguous. Wright’s “New Perspective” work on the apostle Paul has led him to be labeled a dangerous “liberal” by some advocates of a traditional Reformation reading of Paul.)

That a term can be misused does not mean that it cannot be used meaningfully at all. That Karl Barth and N.T. Wright are not fundamentalists does not mean that there are no such people. What is a fundamentalist? Historically, the term originated early in the twentieth century with the publications of a series of books entitled The Fundamentals, written by a number of conservative Protestant theologians in response to the rise of liberal Protestantism. With the separation of J. Gresham Machen from Princeton Seminary, the founding of Westminster Seminary and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, fundamentalism became associated with conservative separatist Protestantism. In the mid-twentieth century, the rising movement then known as Neo-Evangelicalism (associated with Billy Graham and institutions such as Fuller Seminary and Christianity Today magazine) distanced itself from fundamentalism as a conservative Protestant movement that was more academic, more ecumenical, and open to aspects of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. With the rise of the (political) religious right in the early 1980’s and the social and political division of the culture wars of the late twentieth century that divided not only political parties but also religious denominations, internal divisions over issues such as the inerrancy of scripture and women’s ordination, clear-cut divisions between what were now called conservative Evangelicals and fundamentalists once again tended to blur.

To describe fundamentalism by its history in this way could lead to the impression that fundamentalism is restricted to a particular historical phenomena within a specific religious tradition – that of conservative Protestantism. To do so would be to fail to locate the theological nature of fundamentalism, and would view it as an isolated phenomenon – which would be a mistake. Fundamentalism is not so much a particular movement within the specific religious tradition of Protestantism as a type that has appeared not only within Protestantism, but in other Christian traditions as well.

Fundamentalism has at least two characteristics: first, it is a distinctly modern phenomenon. It appeared at a time when Christian identity was threatened by the rise of modern secularism that has its origins in the Enlightenment, and when secularism was perceived to have infiltrated even the Christian churches. And, second, fundamentalism is reactionary. Fundamentalism identifies itself in terms of that which it rejects as much as or more so than what actually defines it. Once one recognizes that fundamentalism is both modern in origin and reactionary, it becomes evident that fundamentalism is not simply identifical with conservative or orthodox Christianity; one can also speak of fundamentalism outside of the narrow historical parameters of twentieth and twenty-first century American Protestantism.

How to identify fundamentalism? I have found the following three descriptions to be at least helpful. (more…)

December 25, 2014

Concerning Women’s Ordination: A Presbytera is not a “Priestess” (Part 1: Old Testament Priesthood)

Filed under: Theology,Women's Ordination — William Witt @ 12:16 am
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In Memory of Martha

Jairus ' DaughterIn previous essays in this series on women’s ordination, I have focused primarily on Protestant objections against the practice, dealing especially with issues of biblical exegesis. Beginning with this essay, I will be addressing Catholic objections, focusing primarily on issues dealing with sacramental integrity.

Strictly speaking, this first essay should not be necessary. As with a previous essay addressing non-theological objections to women’s ordination,1 I will be addressing an objection that is not actually a theological objection. Stated as succinctly as possible, the objection is that an ordained woman would be a “priestess,” and the Christian church does not have “priestesses,” but “priests.” This is an objection that one does not hear among Protestants, since Protestant churches do not refer to their clergy as either “priests” or “priestesses,” but as pastors. It is not an objection that is encountered in the theological literature, as, I think, most theologians realize that the term “priestess” is offensive, and those who advocate women’s ordination are not advocating the ordination of “priestesses,” but the ordination of women who will fulfill the same roles as male clergy, who, in Protestant churches are referred to as “pastors,” and in churches of Catholic tradition (Orthodox, Roman Catholic, many Anglicans) as “priests.” In personal experience, I have encountered the objection primarily in two venues: (1) on the bad-mannered no-holds-barred free-for-all of the internet, where the term is used regularly by those opposed to women’s ordination, and (2) in private conversation, where those opposed to women’s ordination are referring out of earshot to women clergy, for whom they use the term “priestess.” In both cases, the term is used disparagingly, with the conscious realization that the women to whom reference is being made would not use the term to describe themselves, and would find the term offensive. It is significant that those who use the term “priestess” are assuming as valid assumptions about women’s ordination that they know those who are in favor of women’s ordination would reject, and are addressing arguments that they know that those in favor of women’s ordination would not make. Since advocates of women’s ordination do not believe that ordained women are “priestesses,” to argue against “priestesses” is a classic example of a “red herring” argument. Nonetheless, since the argument does raise issues concerning the continuity between the Old Testament priesthood and New Testament church office, and the differences and similarities between Old Testament priesthood and pagan religions, it provides a helpful introduction to this next group of essays.

Lions and Tigers and Priestesses and Goddesses, Oh, My!

The first formal use of the argument of which I am aware is found in an essay by C.S. Lewis, “Priestesses in the Church?”2 As an Anglican, Lewis was objecting in 1948 to the possible ordination of women in the Church of England. In a short six pages, Lewis raises many of what will become the standard Catholic objections to women’s ordination, particularly issues about language and imagery concerning God as male and the symbolic implications of female clergy, objections that will be addressed in a later essay. Most significantly, Lewis uses the term “priestesses” and makes the argument I will be addressing in this essay. The single issue that is at the heart of his essay can be found in a succinct statement: “Goddesses have, of course, been worshipped; many religions have had priestesses. But they are religions quite different in character than Christianity.” Lewis goes on to say that the ordination of women “is an argument not in favour of priestesses but against Christianity.”3

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October 15, 2014

Reflections on the “new” Vatican position about homosexuality

Filed under: Ethics,Theology — William Witt @ 7:35 pm
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Melancholy I‘ve been noticing a lot of conversation in the last few days about the Vatican’s apparent “shift” regarding homosexuality, both in the secular press and among Christians. There is both celebrating (by secularists) and gnashing of teeth (by traditional Christians). Before they conclude either that the Vatican has finally “seen the light,” or that “the sky is falling,” people should read the document in its entirety: Relatio post disceptationem.

The document clearly affirms the historic Christian position on marriage. The key paragraph is probably the following:

Jesus Himself, referring to the primordial plan for the human couple, reaffirms the indissoluble union between man and woman, while understanding that “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning” (Mt 19,8). In this way, He shows how divine condescension always accompanies the path of humanity, directing it towards its new beginning, not without passing through the cross.

What is being addressed seems clearly to be an issue of pastoral response to what are described as “wounded families” and “irregular situations.” A number of such “irregular situations” are referred to: African polygamy, children born outside the context of marriage, civil marriages (a problem for Roman Catholics, since non-church marriages are not recognized), religiously “mixed” marriages, non-remarried divorced, remarried divorced, cohabiting couples, homosexuals.
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October 2, 2014

Concerning Women’s Ordination: Speaking and Teaching

Filed under: Theology,Women's Ordination — William Witt @ 5:50 am
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head coveringIn the last few essays in this series on women’s ordination, I have focused on the handful of passages in the writings of the apostle Paul to which complementarians regularly appeal to justify their position that women should always be subordinate to men and should not exercise authority over men in the church. In the previous two essays, I have focused on the two lengthiest passages in Paul’s writings discussing questions of the relationship between men and women: Ephesians 5:21-33, in which Paul discusses the relationship between husbands and wives, and 1 Corinthians 11:3-16, in which Paul talks about disorderly practices connected with the ways in which men and women were leading church worship. I have argued that there is nothing in these passages to suggest a subordination of women to men or a hierarchical order defined by a position of permanent authority of men over women. Appeal to Paul’s metaphor of “head” (Greek kephalē) to justify the complementarian position of “headship” as authority of men over women represents a misunderstanding of how Paul used that metaphor, and is reading into the text something that is not there.

In this essay, I will address two much shorter passages in Paul’s writing which, in the end, provide the strongest biblical warrants to which complementarians appeal, the “last resort” to which appeal is made if all else fails – 1 Corinthians 14:33b-36 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15. (Indeed, these two passages are often the first resort in less formal settings.) At first glance, a straightforward reading of English translations of the passages, especially when select verses are read out of context (as they often are), makes it seem as if Paul intended to forbid any public role to women in worship: “As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches.” (1 Cor. 14:34b-35); “I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” (1 Tim. 2:12.)

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September 12, 2014

Anglican Reflections: What About Priests?

Filed under: Anglicanism,Theology — William Witt @ 12:01 am
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Lamb of GodThe New Testament uses the words episkopos (“bishop”) and presbyteros (“elder”) to refer to those who exercised office in the church, along with diakonos (deacon). It uses the word hiereus, equivalent to English “priest” or Latin sacerdos to refer to Old Testament and Jewish priests (Matt.8:4; John 12:51, Acts 5:27, Heb. 7:14), to the High Priesthood of Jesus (Heb. 4:14), and to the priesthood of the entire church as the people of God (1 Peter 2:9, Rev. 20:6). The New Testament never uses the word hiereus to refer to persons who hold office in the church.

Nonetheless, Anglicans have continued to use the word “priest” to refer to those who hold the office of presbyter, to the consternation of some. Richard Hooker wrote that he preferred the word “presbyter” to “priest” because he would prefer not to offend those who are troubled by the word. The Anglican Reformers rejected the notion of eucharistic sacrifice, and so rejected any notion of priesthood that implied sacrifice. As Richard Hooker asked, “Seeing then that sacrifice is now no part of the church ministry how should the name of Priesthood be thereunto rightly applied?” Hooker believed that the term “priest” was permissible in reference to one “whose mere function or charge is the service of God,” and specifically in reference to the celebration of the eucharist: “The Fathers of the Church of Christ with like security of speech call usually the ministry of the Gospel Priesthood in regard of that which the Gospel hath proportionable to ancient sacrifices, namely the Communion of the blessed Body and Blood of Christ, although it have properly now no sacrifice.” In the end, Hooker did not think the word itself is very important: “Wherefore to pass by the name, let them use what dialect they will, whether we call it a Priesthood, a Presbytership, or a Ministry it skilleth not: Although in truth the word Presbyter doth seem more fit, and in propriety of speech more agreeable than Priest with the drift of the whole Gospel of Jesus Christ.” (Laws 5.58.2-3.)

There are two key aspects of ordained ministry that touch more directly on the “priestly” aspect of ordination in Anglican tradition than the use of the word “priest” as equivalent to “presbyter.”

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September 10, 2014

Concerning Women’s Ordination: Women in Worship and “Headship”

Filed under: Theology,Women's Ordination — William Witt @ 8:40 pm
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head coveringThere are four central passages in the Pauline epistles appealed to by complementarians to argue against women’s ordination or church leadership, based on an inherent subordination of women to male leadership and authority. The first is Ephesians 5:22-33, in which Paul exhorts women to “submit” to their husbands, drawing a parallel between Christ as the “head” of the church and husbands as the “heads” of their wives. I have already discussed this passage at length, arguing that, to the contrary, Paul is asking not for a specific subordination of wives to husbands, but a mutual subordination of all Christians to each other. Moreover, although Paul certainly affirmed that Christ exercised authority in relationship to the church, his use of the metaphor of “head” in relationship to Christ was not in the context of authority, but in the context of a kenotic self-emptying, of a voluntary taking on the role of a servant in relation to another, and in providing nourishment and support to another, what Michael Gorman refers to as “cruciformity,” and what Alan Padgett refers to as “submission II.”1

Ephesians 5 is distinguished from the other three passages in that the subject matter of the passage concerns household relations, and so does not touch directly on the place of women in the context of church worship. To the contrary, 1 Corinthians 11:1-1-16 focuses on problems concerning worship, and is one of three Pauline passages that are the lynchpins of the complementarian argument excluding women from participation in church office. The other two are 1 Cor. 14:34-35, and 1 Timothy 2:9-15. While complementarians appeal to other passages of Scripture to argue for female subordination – the creation narratives of Genesis 1 and 2, the role of women in the Old Testament, Jesus’ relationship to the apostles and to women in the gospels, Ephesians 52 – it is only these three passages that provide specific references to the status of women in the context of worship in the churches of the New Testament. In what immediately follows, I will discuss 1 Corinthians 11; I intend to discuss the other two passages later.

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August 19, 2014

Anglican Reflections: What About the 39 Articles?

Filed under: Anglicanism,Theology — William Witt @ 8:33 pm
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CranmerBroadly speaking, the 39 Articles stands within the tradition of Anglicanism as “reformed catholicism,” or, more specifically, a reforming movement within the western catholic church. (This contrasts with more radical Reformation movements, such as the Anabaptists, and, arguably, the Puritans,who viewed themselves as completely breaking with western catholicism to return to the pristine Christianity of the New Testament.)

The Articles are largely an ecumenical document, the majority of whose statements fall broadly within the parameters of “reformed catholicism.”

Arts. 1-5, 8 affirm historic creedal Nicene and Chalcedonian Christianity.

Arts. 9-10,12-13,15-18 affirm the positions of a moderate Augustinianism. Even art. 17 does not teach a specifically Calvinist doctrine of predestination. There is nothing about negative predestination (reprobation or double predestination). The election that is described is corporate and “in Christ.” (“In Christ” was added to the original 42 Articles.) “Arminians” such as Richard Hooker were able to affirm this article, to the chagrin of strict Calvinists.1

Arts. 6, 7, 11 affirm the sufficiency and primacy of Scripture as well as justification by faith, which are commonly held Reformation positions, although even here, an argument could be made that the position on Scripture is consistent with that of the patristic church, of Eastern theologians such as John Damascene, and Western theologians such as Thomas Aquinas. Anglican theologians such as Cranmer, Jewel, and Hooker make clear that (contrary to the Puritan hermeneutic), Anglicans do not understand the “Scripture principle” in a “regulative” sense.

The “controversial” articles are those articles, especially beginning with Art. 19, “Of the Church,” in which the position of the Church of England is set over against that of other contemporary Reformation-era churches, usually the Tridentine Roman Catholic position, but sometimes that of other Reformation churches, usually those of the Radical Reformation. (Arts. 38-39 are addressed against Anabaptists).

Which of the articles have been “controversial” in the history of Anglicanism and today? Art. 22, repudiating purgatory and icons; Art. 25, concerning the number of sacraments, and seemingly forbidding elevation of the consecrated host; Art. 28-29, which seem to reject any notion of bodily presence (not simply transubstantiation, but also the Orthodox or Lutheran positions) and elevation of the host; Art. 31, which appears to reject any notion of eucharistic sacrifice. Generally, Evangelical Anglicans have tended to be happy with these articles, and Anglo-Catholics unhappy. Conversely, Art. 27 seems on a literal reading to affirm baptismal regeneration, a position not embraced by a good many Evangelical Anglicans.2

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August 17, 2014

A Wedding Sermon

Filed under: Sermons — William Witt @ 5:55 pm
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Song of Songs 2:10-13 and 8:6-7
Psalm 127
Revelation 21:1-7
Mark 10:6-9

For Paul Hunter and Christina Vance

angelusI am honored to preach this morning for the wedding of two of my former students, both of whom I am exceptionally fond. Although faculty do not have favorite students, if they did, Christina and Paul would have been two of my favorite students when they were at Trinity School for ministry, where I teach.

I want to make just a few comments about the lectionary readings, beginning with the gospel. The gospel reading points back to the creation narratives of the first two chapters of Genesis, the first book in the Bible. The context is that Jesus is being asked about whether divorce is ever permissible, and he responds by quoting the 2nd chapter of Genesis: “From the beginning of creation, God made them male and female. Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife. So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Matt. 19:4-6; Gen. 2:24) The Bible begins with marriage. In Genesis 1 we are told that God said, “Let us make the human being in our image, after our likeness. . . . So God created the human being in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen. 1:26-27) The first chapter of the Bible tells us that to be a human being is to be created in the image of God, and to be created in the image of God is to be male or female. It is only as male and female together that we as humans reflect what it means to be created in God’s image.

In Genesis 2, we are told that God created woman because the first human being was alone, and needed a partner. “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the human being should be alone.” (Gen. 2:18) In Hebrew, the word for “human being” is ha’adam, which is the same word as the name “Adam.” The English language has historically not made a distinction between human being and male human being. English often uses the word “man” for both. But Hebrew does use different words for generic “human being” and “male human being.” The Hebrew word “ha’adam” does not mean male human being, but simply “human being.” It is only when God brings the woman to the human being – to Adam – that we first find the use of the word for “man” or “male human being” in the Hebrew text: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she called be called woman, because she was taken out of man.” (Gen. 2:24) It is only when the female human being – the woman – comes into the picture that the original human being is recognized as a male human being – a man.

The point is this, both Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 make it clear that men and women are made for each other, and what it means to be a human being is defined by our relationship to other human beings. Those of us who are men – male human beings – are human beings only as we are in relation to women – female human beings. Women – female human beings – are human beings only as you are in relation to us – male human beings. God intended us to be with one another, and marriage makes this clear. It is marriage that is the foundation of all other human relationships. As human beings, we are not meant to be alone; we are not human beings alone, but only with one another. So the first thing that marriage teaches us is that human beings need one another. We are made to be together.
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August 4, 2014

If God is for Us: A Sermon

Filed under: Sermons — William Witt @ 12:12 am
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Psalm 78
Nehemiah 9:16-20
Romans 8:35-39
Matthew 14:13-21

fishI begin my sermon this morning with a question: What’s going on in the lectionary? During the Season after Pentecost, what is sometimes called “ordinary time,” the lectionary practice is to read through one of the synoptic gospels chapter by chapter and an accompanying epistle the same way. Because the New Testament readings are sequential like this, there is not usually any evident connection between the gospel reading and the epistle reading. What Matthew is saying in his gospel may or may not have anything to do with what Paul is saying in the epistle to the Romans.

Whether it was intended by the lectionary compilers or not, I think that there is a parallel between the epistle and the gospel readings this morning. Let’s begin with the epistle. Romans 8:31-39 is the climax of everything Paul has been writing up to this point in the letter. The main theme in the lectionary reading is God’s love, and is a repetition of what Paul had already said in Romans 5:1-11. In Romans 5, Paul wrote, “[W]e rejoice in our sufferings . . . because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. . . . God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (5:2,5,8) In this morning’s reading, Paul says, “For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” What Paul writes here is a continuation of what we read in last week’s lectionary reading: “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (8:31-32)

If God is for us, who can be against us? Paul lists a number of things that might suggest that God is not for us. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger or sword?” (8:35) People often list just the kinds of things that Paul mentions here as proof that there is no God, or if there is a God, he is not for us, but against us. If I am suffering tribulation or distress, perhaps that means that God has abandoned me. If I cannot provide food for my family, perhaps that means that God does not care for me. If the world is full of violence and war, perhaps that means that there is no God, or God would prevent such things. If Christians suffer persecution, perhaps that means that there is no God because if there were a God, certainly he would protect those who claim to believe in him.

Paul has one response to all of this. We know that God is for us because of an event, something that has happened – the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We know that God is for us because he has given us his Son. In giving us his Son, God has revealed his nature. God has show us in Jesus what he is like. God is love. (more…)

July 24, 2014

Concerning Women’s Ordination: Mutual Submission

Filed under: Theology,Women's Ordination — William Witt @ 9:46 pm
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weddingIn previous essays in this series on women’s ordination, I have distinguished between the two different kinds of arguments used against women’s ordination by those I have designated “Protestants” and those I have designated “Catholics.” Protestants have focused primarily on issues of hierarchy and authority: women cannot be ordained because of an inherent subordination of women to men. In the church and family (at least), men always exercise authority over women; women never exercise authority over men. Because ordination has to do with authority, women cannot be ordained. Women cannot exercise positions of leadership in the church; they cannot preach; they cannot teach men. Catholics have focused instead on issues of sacramental theology: In performing sacramental actions, the ordained act as representatives of Christ. Since Jesus is a male, no woman can represent Christ. Women can exercise other roles in the church, including roles of pastoral leadership, preaching, and teaching. What they cannot do is celebrate the sacraments. Because ordination has to do with celebrating the sacraments, women cannot be ordained.

I have focused so far on Protestant opposition, whose advocates designate their position as “complementarian”: women and men are equal in status, but exercise different complementary “roles.” The term “complementarian” is misleading, since the sole way in which the roles “complement” one another is that men always exercise authority, and women always submit to male authority. I have also focused on the Bible, specifically the creation narratives in Genesis and the teaching of Jesus and his interactions with women because the doctrines of creation and Christology are crucial to the debate. I have argued that both Genesis and the gospels actually count against the complementarian position. Far from suggesting that there is an inherent hierarchical relation between men and women, both the creation narratives and the gospel narratives point in the opposite direction. Genesis 1-3 teaches that men and women are equally created in the image of God, and the subordination of women is a consequence of the fall into sin, not part of God’s intention in the original creation.

Looking to the gospels, we find that although Jesus lived in a highly patriarchal culture, he deliberately subverted hierarchical relations between men and women by challenging the “shame culture” of the first century Mediterranean world, by treating women as equals, by having women as disciples. In his call to his disciples voluntarily to take on the role of servants to one another, Jesus challenged the notion of hierarchical relations between men and women rather than endorsing it. Nothing in either Genesis or the gospels teaches or implies an essential ontological subordination of women to men.

However, although complementarians appeal to Genesis and the gospels to argue for female subordination, the primary complementarian arguments against women’s ordination come from the epistles of the apostle Paul. Paul has no extended discussion of a theology of the relations between men and women. Instead Paul’s views on men and women and how they relate to one another occur in places in Paul’s occasional theology in which he writes about men and women in the context of some other issue: household management, worship in the church, whether the single should marry. It is this handful of occasional texts in Paul’s letters that have become central to the debate.

Complementarians appeal to two kinds of texts to support their position: texts advocating submission of women to men; texts restricting women’s activity in worship, either in speaking or teaching. In addition, in two letters (1 Corinthians and Ephesians), Paul uses the word kephale, the Greek word translated “head” in English to describe the relation between men and women. This single word kephale is so central to the complementarian position that complementarians regularly use the term “headship” to describe their position, even when discussing passages where the word kephale does not appear. For example, Wayne Grudem refers to “male headship” in his discussion of Genesis 1-3 although the Hebrew word for “head” that would have been translated kephale in the Greek Septuagint appears nowhere in the creation narratives. George Knight entitles the two main chapters of his book on The Role Relationship of Men and Women, “Submission and Headship in Marriage” and “Submission and Headship in the Church.”1

Readers of Paul have responded to this handful of Pauline texts in different ways. Complementarians have appealed to them as the definitive lynchpin in support of their position. Secular and liberal Protestant feminists have instead treated these passages as an excuse to dismiss Paul as an irremediable sexist. Other Christians, who recognize the canonical status of Paul’s writings and appreciate Paul’s crucial significance for Christian theology, especially his account of redeeming grace centered in the cross and resurrection of Christ, the Christian liberty that is a characteristic implication of his theology of grace (Gal. 5:1), and his affirmation of the fundamental equality of men and women in their unity in Christ (Gal. 3:28), read these passages with a kind of discomfort, perhaps wishing that Paul had not written them, or, in some cases, relieved that he did not.2

In recent decades, however, there have been numerous biblical scholars who have argued that a more careful reading of these passages does not support the subordinationist reading. What Paul writes is not inconsistent with the egalitarian position of Genesis or the gospels, and Paul should neither be appealed to as an advocate of male hierarchy, nor dismissed as a sexist. In the next several essays, I want to look again at these controversial passages in Paul’s epistles. In this essay, I am going to look at Paul’s discussion of the relationship between husbands and wives in Ephesians 5 because I believe that it is the key New Testament passage laying out Paul’s understanding of the relationship between men and women. Other passages need to be understood in the light of this passage.3

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