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September 29, 2013

Concerning Women’s Ordination: Hierarchy and Hermeneutics

Filed under: Theology,Women's Ordination — William Witt @ 6:47 pm

woman peeling applesI

n previous essays in this series on women’s ordination I have identified two very different groups who are opposed to women’s ordination – which I have referred to as “Protestant” and “Catholic” – and have noticed that their reasons for opposition are very different from one another. For the “Protestants,” the opposition is based on a hierarchical understanding of authority: women are subordinate to men, and should never exercise authority over men. For the “Catholics,” the opposition is twofold: (1) the tradition of the church: traditionally, the church has ordained only males; (2) a sacramental understanding of ordination: women cannot be ordained because the priesthood is in succession to the apostolate, and Jesus chose only male apostles; in presiding at the Eucharist, the presbyter represents Christ (in persona Christi), and a woman cannot represent Christ.

Although clearly advocating very different theological rationales, both groups claim simply to be representing the historic tradition of the church. In a previous essay, I have argued that the theological rationales being offered by both groups represent new theological positions in response to the recent recognition of the equality of women. Accordingly, neither group represents the “historic” tradition of the church; both offer new reasons for opposition to women’s ordination.

In the essays that follow, I will address the theological rationales behind these new positions for opposing women’s ordination. Because “Protestant” opponents represent very different reasons for opposition to ordination than do “Catholic” opponents, the two groups will need to be addressed separately. Whether one begins with the “Protestant” opposition or the “Catholic” is a somewhat arbitrary decision, but I have chosen to begin by discussing the Protestant position because its opposition is primarily based on what its advocates claim to be biblical grounds. Discussion of what Scripture actually says about men and women will provide helpful theological background for discussion of not only Protestant, but also, Catholic opposition to the ordination of women.

Complementarianism

Who is Wayne Grudem? That might seem to be an odd question to begin such a discussion. However, for those not informed about the discussion of women’s ordination among Evangelical Protestants in particular, the name is important to know. Although there are many Protestants who are opposed to women’s ordination – entire denominations (such as the Southern Baptists and the Missouri Synod Lutherans, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church), their related seminaries (Southern Baptist Seminary, Concordia Seminary, Westminster Seminary), and several parachurch organizations (Campus Crusade for Christ, Focus on the Family, Promise Keepers) – Grudem is the single individual who is most identified with the cause of opposition to women’s ordination among North American Evangelical Protestants. (more…)

September 21, 2013

Concerning Women’s Ordination: The Argument “From Tradition” is not the “Traditional” Argument

Filed under: Theology,Women's Ordination — William Witt @ 9:26 pm

Holy GrailI begin this essay with a story:

Back in the days when families still baked bread, a mother was teaching her daughter to bake bread using the recipe that had been passed down from her mother and her grandmother before her. After she had kneaded the dough and formed it into a loaf, she took a knife, cut off the end of the loaf, threw away the cut-off end, and proceeded to bake the remaining loaf that was left. Being a dutiful daughter, the young girl followed her mother’s instructions, but one day she asked an innocent question: “Mom, why do we cut off the end of the loaf, and throw it away before we bake the bread?” Her mother responded, “I’m not really sure. That’s just how my mother taught me to bake bread. We’ve always done it that way in my family. Let’s telephone your grandmother, and ask her why we do that.” So they telephoned the girl’s grandmother, and asked her why she had taught her daughter always to cut off the end of the loaf of bread before she baked it. She replied as her daughter had. “I’m not really sure. That’s just the way my mother taught me to to do it, so that’s how our family has always baked bread. Let’s ask my mother.” So they telephoned the girl’s great grandmother, who was quite elderly but still baked her own bread, to find the reason for this ancient family tradition. The great grandmother laughed. “When you were a young girl, and I taught you to break bread,” she told her daughter, “we only had one bread pan, and it was too small to hold the entire loaf from the recipe that my mother taught me to make, so I just cut off the extra. Years later, after you had grown up and were married, I bought a new bread pan, and I haven’t cut off the end of the loaf in years.”

I tell this story to make a point. A tradition is only as good as the reasons behind it. The same tradition done for different reasons is not the same tradition, but a new tradition. After learning the true story of why Great Grandmother had cut off the end of the loaf, the mother and daughter of our story might have decided to continue to cut off the end of the loaf when they baked bread – perhaps just as a way of honoring an old family tradition – but they would not have been keeping the old tradition, because they would not have been doing it for the traditional reasons. They would have been inventing a new tradition – the tradition of cutting off the end of the loaf “because we’ve always done it that way.”

One of the most frequently used arguments against women’s ordination is the argument from tradition: The contemporary church cannot ordain women because there is a universal tradition against it. In my first essay in this series, I distinguished between “Catholic” arguments and “Protestant” arguments against women’s ordination. The argument from tradition is primarily a Catholic argument; those who oppose women’s ordination for “Catholic” reasons link ordination to a sacramental understanding of orders and the sacraments that is often connected to a particular understanding of apostolic succession. Contemporary ordinations are valid only if they can be traced through an unbroken chain all the way to the time of the apostles. On such a view of ordination, an unbroken tradition is necessarily important because if someone is ordained invalidly, the chain of apostolic tradition is broken.

At the same time, the argument from tradition, while not as important for a “Protestant” understanding of ordination – which bases its case more on biblical exegesis – still has weight because the argument can be made that ordaining women is an innovation, something that Christians have never done. Protestants who oppose women’s ordination can argue that they are simply defending a position that all Christians held until recently because it is the self-evident teaching of the Bible, and it is the way that the Bible has always been interpreted.

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September 14, 2013

Non-theological Arguments Against the Ordination of Women

Filed under: Theology,Women's Ordination — William Witt @ 7:51 am

Canaanite WomanSeveral years ago, I wrote an essay entitled General Convention and Its Aftermath: Non-theological Interpretations and a Theological Alternative, which was published in The Trinity Journal For Theology and Ministry, fall 2008. In this essay, I looked at the explanations that were being offered for the theological crisis that overtook the Episcopal Church after General Convention 2003, and argued that the dominant evaluations were based on pragmatic or secular political considerations, and that the issue needed to be addressed in a properly theological manner instead. The three primary non-theological arguments (1) echoed the political rhetoric of the culture wars, (2) argued against a so-called “Fundamentalist” takeover of the Church, (3) and argued for diversity over against exclusivity. In each case, the evaluation leaned more on emotional rhetoric rather than careful argument, and in no case were properly theological concerns addressed. I argued that the real crisis in the Episcopal Church was a loss of theological integrity, that the ordination of a practicing gay bishop was symptomatic of a loss of faith in the key doctrinal subject matter of Christian faith, and that the real dividing issue was not about sexuality but about Christology and the meaning of salvation.

Concerning women’s ordination, I find an uncomfortable parallel between the kinds of arguments used by advocates of the new “inclusivist” theology in the Episcopal and other mainline churches, and many of the arguments used by opponents of women’s ordination; in both cases, many of the arguments are not properly theological. Many of the arguments used by opponents of women’s ordination are reverse-mirror images of the kinds of arguments that were used by advocates for the ordination of a gay bishop a decade ago.

In what follows, I want to address some of these non-theological arguments against women’s ordination. The following sections in italics are my summary of actual non-theological arguments against women’s ordination that I have encountered. They are used frequently enough as to be considered “standard” arguments.

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September 9, 2013

Concerning the Ordination of Women: Preliminaries

Filed under: Theology,Women's Ordination — William Witt @ 7:31 am

christ_in_the_house_of_martha_and_maryThe following is the first in a series of essays on the question of women’s ordination. This is something that I have not addressed on my blog up to this point, for a number of reasons. Most of what I write, I hope to be in the flavor of what C.S. Lewis called “mere Christianity.” I prefer to be an apologist for Evangelical Catholic theology from an Anglican perspective. Theologically, my approach tends to be ecumenical, looking for areas of agreement and consensus among orthodox Christians. On the occasions where I have ventured into polemics, it has been in response to the challenges of those who reject this perspective. So I have consistently written against liberal Protestantism, which I think is the great heresy in the church today. I have engaged in argument against those who have challenged the catholicity of Anglicanism on such questions as the development of doctrine. But there are some issues on which I have not written precisely because I have preferred to avoid the kinds of heated polemics that these issues raise. I have not yet written on Christianity and politics. I have not written on women’s ordination.

However, in recent years, a number of people have asked me to write something on women’s ordination, either because they wondered what my position was, or because they knew my position and wanted me to put it in writing. I do endorse the ordination of women, and it is a position endorsed by numerous orthodox Christians. T. F. Torrance, Ben Witherington, N.T. Wright, Richard Hays, Michael Gorman, Robert Gagnon, and Alan Padgett are just some of the male orthodox biblical scholars and theologians who have written in favor of gender equality or women’s ordination or both. The number of orthodox Christians endorsing women’s ordination is not a small or insignificant group. Unfortunately, for whatever reasons, they are not as vocal as those opposed to women’s ordination, and, especially among orthodox Anglicans lately, the loudness at least of those opposed to women’s ordination has reached such a crescendo (at least in public discussion) that one might get the impression that this was a decided issue.

I have also known a number of orthodox ordained women clergy who are my friends, and whom I greatly admire, and, at the seminary where I teach I have been privileged to have as students women who were among the best students, finest preachers, and some of the most promising theologians of any of my students. I think it would be a great tragedy for the church to deny these women the opportunity to use their gifts and pursue their callings, but, even more,  to be served by them. I am writing this series of essays primarily for these women. (more…)

September 4, 2013

What is the Greatest Sin? A Sermon on Pride

Filed under: Sermons — William Witt @ 7:03 am

Ecclesiasticus 10:7-18
Psalm 112
Hebrews 13:1-8
Luke 14:1,7-14

Lamb of GodA generation ago the Christian essayist Dorothy Sayers wrote a kind of imaginary catechism in which she summarized what she thought people of her time actually believed about Christian faith. It included the question “What does the Church call sin?” And the answer was: “Sex . . . getting drunk; saying ‘damn’; murder’ and cruelty to dumb animals; not going to church; most kinds of amusement. ‘Original sin’ means that anything we enjoy doing is wrong.”1 In another essay, she mentions a young man who once said to her, “I did not know there were seven deadly sins; please tell me the names of the other six.”2

I would like to ask the question this morning, “What is the greatest sin?” I think that fifty years after Dorothy Sayers, a lot of people still think that the church believes that sex is the greatest sin. Perhaps the only sin. At least the conservative or orthodox church is thought to believe that. On the other hand, a good argument could be made that the progressive church believes that “lack of inclusiveness” or “intolerance” is the greatest sin.

It might be interesting to ask people to set aside their assumptions about what they think Christians believe is the greatest sin, and answer the question in their own way. What do you think is the greatest sin? Murder? Hatred? Betraying a friend? Certainly these are things that people do that cause real harm, and everyone would agree that they are morally wrong. The Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson suggests that all societies endorse the content of the second table of the Ten Commandments – the commandments that prohibit lying, stealing, murder, and so on, because any society that does not prohibit these things will not last long as a society.3

What might surprise people is that historically the Christian church has not specified any of these as the single greatest sin. (more…)

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