I Get Mail: Concerning Women’s Ordination and Church Tradition

Woman Touching JesusI received the following comment from someone named Peter in response to my essay “Concerning Women’s Ordination: Women’s Ordination and the Priesthood of Christ (Biblical and Patristic Background)”:

When I read your comment that the reason that church tradition opposed w.o. due to their believing that women were intellectually inferior to men and not based on either the reformed view(headship) nor the anglo-catholic view (Christ was a male)my internal red flag went up. The idea that that 1900 hundred years of a unanimous christian tradition was based primarily on women being inferior comes out of the handbook of modernisation liberalism. Well I went and actually looked on the earliest tradition of the first five hundred years. The apostolic constitutions clearly speaks against w.o.based on on 1 cor.11:3. So it is inaccurate for you to say that the headship reason is not found in the early tradition. Empiphanius of salamis opposes it based on the apostles were andll men. Many of the fathers I searched they don’t give an explicit theological or cultural reason(including the one you state)but do give the reason of scripture being emphatically against it. The use terms such as “delusion”, “deception”, “heresy”. This clearly infers that the opposition is grounded in a theological reason not cultural. If women were viewed an unqualified due to a weaker ability issue than man than thAt would be an issue of prudence. Yet the language of the fathers is far beyond that of prudence. You also have crysostom who says very positive things about women, even supporting them teaching men in a non-liturgical setting, yet he opposes w.o. to the Presbyter. Clearly his reasons are not what you suggest. His homily on the passage in 1 timothy 2 is clearly a conveyance of the principle of headship. I could go on but I stated enough to show that your claim, in all due respect, does not hold up to historical evidence.

Dear Peter,

I apologize that I have not responded earlier. It has been the end of the semester where I teach, and I have had to put blog matters aside. You are incorrect that “The idea that that 1900 hundred years of a unanimous christian tradition was based primarily on women being inferior comes out of the handbook of modernisation liberalism.” You can be excused for not having read every one of the numerous essays I have contributed to this series, but the documentation for my claim can be found at length in my previous essay “Concerning Women’s Ordination: The Argument ‘From Tradition’ is not the ‘Traditional’ Argument”. In that essay, I include citations from East and West, patristic, Medieval and post-Reformation tradition in which Origen, Tertullian, Chrysostom, Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, Bullinger, Richard Hooker, and John Knox all attribute as the primary reason for not ordaining women to their ontological, intellectual, or moral inferiority. (These citations are representative enough to make the case. I could have expanded considerably.) The texts say what they say.

This is acknowledged by scholars who can in no way be accused of “modernisation” or “liberalism”: I cite Roman Catholic theologian Sara Butler, whose book against the ordination of women represents the new Catholic argument. Butler acknowledges that “until quite recently Catholic theologians generally did explain the Church’s practice, at least in part, by appealing to the difference and the ‘hierarchical’ ordering of the sexes. They appealed as well to the Pauline texts that prohibited women’s public teaching in the Church and their exercise of authority over men.” Furthermore, “Many Catholic theologians relied on the teaching of Saint Thomas.” However, notes Butler, “Because the contemporary magisterium has abandoned the view that women are unilaterally subject to men, it obviously does not supply this as the reason women cannot be priests.”

However, even if you were correct that this claim comes out of the “handbook of modernisation liberalism,” your objection would simply be an example of the genetic fallacy. The origins of an idea say nothing about whether or not it is correct. I address these kinds of fallacious arguments in my essay “Non-theological Arguments Against the Ordination of Women”.

2) Your comment about the Apostolic Constitutions is a misreading of my argument. I would never claim that pre-modern church writers do not cite passages such as 1 Cor. 11:3 or mention “headship” or refer to Scripture. Of course they do. Moreover, I acknowledge this not only in the essay on tradition I refer to above, but also in the several exegetical essays in this series where I discuss these passages.

However, the key issue here concerns hermeneutics — not just what does the passage say, but what do traditional authors claim is the reason behind the prohibitions against women teaching or exercising authority in these passages? The traditional argument is that women are prohibited from teaching or exercising authority over men because they are ontologically and intellectually inferior and (therefore) subordinate to men, and also more subject to moral temptation. It is this argument that is repeatedly used not only against the ordination of women, but against women exercising any position of leadership or authority over men in the church, anywhere or under any conditions. Insofar as contemporary churches allow women to teach or exercise leadership or teaching positions (whether in the church or elsewhere), but nonetheless insist that women cannot exercise ordained leadership, they have departed from the traditional position, whether they acknowledge it or not.

3) Your reference to the Apostolic Constitutions is not an exception here. That AC mentions 1 Cor. 11:3 is not surprising. This is a standard passage in the discussion; I discuss it at length in my essay “Concerning Women’s Ordination: Women in Worship and ‘headship'”.

AC does not simply prohibit women in ordained ministry, but, as is typical, prohibits women having any position of authority whatsoever based on 1 Cor. 14:34 — that women are not allowed to teach — and also pointing out that Jesus did not send out women to preach. It is in this context that an appeal is made to “headship” (1 Cor. 11:3). The logic is that of (presumably) intellectual inferiority:”it is not reasonable that the rest of the body should govern [my emphasis] the head.” (AC 3.1.6)

As is all too typical, the passage goes on to warn of the particular tendency of women to moral temptation: “For such as these are wanderers and impudent: they do not make their feet to rest in one place, because they are not widows, but purses ready to receive, triflers, evil-speakers, counsellors of strife, without shame, impudent, who being such, are not worthy of Him that called them. For they do not come to the common station of the congregation on the Lord’s day, as those that are watchful; but either they slumber, or trifle, or allure men, or beg, or ensnare others, bringing them to the evil one; not suffering them to be watchful in the Lord, but taking care that they go out as vain as they came in, because they do not hear the word of the Lord either taught or read.” (AC 3.1.6). Elsewhere, women are described as being particularly tempted by lust for attractive men (AC 1.1.2), and as enticing men to commit adultery (AC 1.3.8). There are concerns expressed about men as well (AC 1.1.2), but in both describing men and women, the chief moral fault seems to lie with women; if a man entices a woman, it is because women are easily tempted by lust. If a women entices a man, it is because the woman’s beauty “compels” the man to lust.

As women are forbidden to exercise authority over men, they are forbidden to baptize, which is described as “wicked and impious.” Again, the appeal is to “headship,” but also to Gen. 3:16 — “he shall rule over you.” It is here (in connection with baptism) that the issue of women as “priests” is specifically mentioned: “For the principal part of the woman is the man, as being her head. But if in the foregoing constitutions we have not permitted them to teach, how will any one allow them, contrary to nature, to perform the office of a priest?” (Note that in the modern Roman Catholic Church, lay people — including women — are allowed to baptize in emergency situations.)

The argument is not spelled out in great detail, but the essentials are as I have argued in my longer essay mentioned above: The primary reason that women cannot exercise priesthood is that they cannot teach — not only in the church, but anywhere. The reasons that they are not allowed to teach are not spelled out in detail in AC, but what logic there is points to intellectual inferiority and moral susceptibility.

4) Yes, Chrysostom does say some positive things about women. I’ll take your word for it that Chrysostom allows women to teach in a non-liturgical setting — you don’t provide a citation — but Chrysostom specifically prohibits women teaching men: “Why not? Because she taught Adam once and for all, and taught him badly. . . . Therefore let her descend from the professor’s chair! Those who know not how to teach, let them learn. . . . If they don’t want to learn but rather want to teach, they destroy both themselves and those who learn from them. . . . [S]he is subjected to the man and that . . . subjection is because of sin.” (Discourse 4 on Genesis 1). Note that the concern here has to do with moral culpability.

Intellectual inferiority and moral culpability also appear as the warrants in Chrysostom’s homily on 1 Tim. 2:11-15:

For the sex is naturally somewhat talkative: and for this reason he restrains them on all sides. . . . Man was first formed; and elsewhere he shows their superiority. “Neither was the man created for the woman, but the woman for the man.” (1 Cor. xi. 9.) Why then does he say this? He wishes the man to have the preeminence in every way; both for the reason given above, he means, let him have precedence, and on account of what occurred afterwards. For the woman taught the man once, and made him guilty of disobedience, and wrought our ruin. Therefore because she made a bad use of her power over the man, or rather her equality with him, God made her subject to her husband. . . .The woman said, “The serpent beguiled me.” But the man did not say, The woman deceived me, but, “she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.” Now it is not the same thing to be deceived by a fellow-creature, one of the same kind, as by an inferior and subordinate animal. This is truly to be deceived. Compared therefore with the woman, he is spoken of as “not deceived.” For she was beguiled by an inferior and subject, he by an equal. Again, it is not said of the man, that he “saw the tree was good for food,” but of the woman, and that she “did eat, and gave it to her husband”: so that he transgressed, not captivated by appetite, but merely from the persuasion of his wife. The woman taught once, and ruined all. On this account therefore he saith, let her not teach. But what is it to other women, that she suffered this? It certainly concerns them; for the sex is weak and fickle, and he is speaking of the sex collectively. . . .

So the references to The Apostolic Constitutions and Chrystotom do not make your argument at all, but rather confirm my point. The historical traditional argument against women’s ordination was based on ontological and intellectual inferiority combined with accusations of moral culpability.

5) You do not provide the citation for Empiphanius, so I can neither confirm nor dispute your point. If so, this would be an interesting early example of the modern Roman Catholic argument, but, again, the logical warrant behind the argument would need to be examined, which cannot be done without an explicit citation.

The King in a Manger: An Advent Sermon

Micah 5:2-5
Psalm 80
Hebrews 10:5-10
Luke 1:39-56

annunciationEvery generation has its crises, and my generation certainly had its share. I grew up on the tail end of the baby boom, and here are some of the things I remember from my childhood: the assassination of a president and his brother. The murders of black people with names like Emmet Till and of three civil rights workers in Mississippi. The burnings of black churches, and police dogs turned loose and fire hoses opened up on black marchers. The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Riots in Watts, Los Angeles. A decade long war in Southeast Asia, and students burning draft cards and chanting “hell, no, we won’t go.” Videos of soldiers and helicopters and machine gun fire in the jungle, and coffins wrapped in flags on the news every night. Students shot dead by national guards troops at Kent State, Ohio. A president who resigned from office in disgrace.

Looking back on all of this, it is quite surprising to think about the kinds of songs that we heard on the radio at the time. Despite deep divisions in the culture, and crisis after crisis that was truly depressing, some of the most popular songs were filled with hope: songs with lyrics like “What the world needs now is love, sweet love.” “This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, Harmony and understanding, Sympathy and trust abounding.” “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.” This was not just the left wing hippie counter-culture either. There was a singing group called “Up With People,” who were the short-hair polyester-slacks wearing alternative, but the message was the same – despite all of the bad news that was going on in the culture, there was hope for a better future. This optimism lasted for a couple of decades. As late as 1985, a huge group of popular singers got together to sing about the “world coming together as one” in a charity raising video called “We are the world.”

It would be hard to imagine anything like this optimism in contemporary popular culture. Ever since terrorists drove two airplanes into the World Trade Towers on September 11, 2001 and the economy collapsed in 2008, there has been a massive cultural shift. If there is a single mood that dominates culture today, it would seem to be that of fear. 1 John states that “perfect love casts out fear,” but the converse is true as well. Perfect fear casts out love. And as fear dominates, so does mistrust, and people are divided. In the 1960’s, polls indicated that about 5% of the populace would have been uncomfortable if their grown-up children were to marry someone who voted for the other political party. In modern polls, that number has risen to about 50%. In recent weeks, the news has been dominated on the one hand by stories about presidential candidates promising to build huge walls to keep out immigrants and promising to ban Muslims from visiting the United States, and, on the other, of hundreds of students at Yale University marching to demand the firing of a faculty member who defended the right to free speech. The Rev. Jerry Fallwell, Jr., President of Liberty University, recently told his students that they needed to arm themselves as he pointed to the gun he carried in his own back pocket. We seem to be a nation that has lost hope for the future. In place of the traditional theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, the culture seems to have embraced what might be called the a-theological vices of fear, distrust, and mutual anger.

There is a Christian alternative to this, literally, thank God. We find it in the Old Testament reading from Micah and the gospel reading this morning.

Micah is one of the supremely neglected books in the Old Testament. Micah is known primarily for two passages – Micah 4:3, which speaks of a time when nations “will beat their swords into plowshares” – and Micah 5:2 (this morning’s passage), the prophecy about a ruler who will come from the town of Bethlehem, which is cited in Matt. 2:6 as referring to the place of Jesus’ birth. But Micah is a lot more than these two passages. The historical prophet Micah was contemporary with the prophet Isaiah, and Micah includes themes that have a lot in common with the book of Isaiah: sin and forgiveness, the uselessness of sacrifice without justice, the notion of a faithful remnant. Perhaps the two central themes in the book of Micah are those of divine judgment and hope for the future, and these are placed side by side in a manner that so confuses scholars that many of them suggest that the book of Micah as we have it must be a composite work. Would it make sense for the same historical prophet to simultaneously preach a message of divine judgment and a message of hope?

Regardless of the speculations of scholars, in the canonical book as we have it, passages about judgment and hope occur side by side. Theologically, I think that this makes sense. This morning’s passage, which Christians often read as a rather straightforward prophecy about the birth of Jesus, is a prime example. The context of the passage begins in the previous verse, which was not read in the lectionary, and speaks of judgment: “Now muster your troops, O daughter of troops; siege is laid upon us; with a rod they strike the ruler of Israel on the cheek.” Verse 11 of the previous chapter, speaks of “many nations” gathered against Zion or Jerusalem. The context of the passage is that Jerusalem’s enemies have been gathered against her, and intend to destroy the city. Jerusalem is under siege, and it has reached the point where Israel’s enemies have physically struck the ruler of the people in the face with a rod.

Immediately following this description of complete humiliation, Micah tells of another ruler, who will not be humiliated. This ruler is a king in the style of King David. He comes from Bethlehem, David’s home town. This new ruler will turn the situation around completely. As the young David was a shepherd, so this ruler will “feed his flock,” his people, the remnant, composed not of the powerful of the nation, but the weakest. Micah writes in chapter 4, “In that day, declares the Lord, I will assemble the lame, and gather those who have been driven away and those whom I have afflicted, and the lame I will make the remnant, and those who were cast off a strong nation, and the Lord will reign over them in Mount Zion from this time forth and forevermore” (4:6-7). Not only that, but this new David will be the ruler not only of the remnant of Judah, but apparently also of the lost northern kingdom of Israel that had previously gone into exile – “the rest of his brothers shall return to the people of Israel” (5:3). Under the reign of this Davidic ruler, the current hopeless condition of Zion will be completely reversed. While the people of Judah are currently threatened by their enemies, they will finally live in security. The new ruler will bring them “peace.”

We have to say that, as a prophecy to the historical nation of Israel, this passage has not been fulfilled, at least not yet, at least not as it was likely understood at the time. Many Israelites did return from exile, but not all. There never was a new king like David who brought about the hoped-for peace and stability.

This leads us to the gospel passage, and particularly to Mary’s prayer, known traditionally as the Magnificat, a prayer that has been recited traditionally in the Evening Office of the church – vespers if you are Roman Catholic or Lutheran, Evening Prayer if you are an Anglican. The political situation at the time of Jesus’ birth was similar to that of the time in which Micah wrote his book. Since their return from exile in Babylon, the Jewish people had been living in their land, but they had struggled from the beginning with opposition, and found themselves the victims of war, and ruled by their enemies. The Maccabees defeated the invading Greeks, but their dynasty turned out to be rather a disappointment. They were certainly not the Davidic rulers. The pagan Romans were the current bunch of bullies in charge, along with their puppet king, the half-Jewish Herod, who had done anything but bring peace, justice, and stability.

We find in Mary’s prayer an echo of the themes we have already seen in Micah. First, there is a contrast between judgment and hope. The Lord – he who is mighty – “has done great things” (Luke 1:49). He has exercised judgment by casting down the mighty from their thrones, while he has offered hope by looking on the humble estate of his servant (1:52,48). Through the promise given to her, Mary sees herself in continuity with similar promises given to prophets such as Micah: “He has helped his servant Israel in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and his offspring forever” (1:54,55).

There is, as in Micah, a reversal of fortunes. The powerful – the oppressors – have been cast down and the humble exalted – “he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things” (1:52). There is the promise of God’s mercy to a “remnant community” – “His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation” (1:50).

And, finally, there is a new Davidic King, who will fulfill the hopes of prophets such as Micah. When the angel Gabriel appears to Mary at the Annunciation, he tells Mary that she will bear a child, “who will be called Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (1:32-33).

Of course, the central themes of the Magnificat, and, of the entire gospel narratives, are intentionally ironic. This new King who is supposed to rule from the throne of his ancestor David, is a baby whom Luke tells us was born in a manger, a cattle trough, because the only hotel in the small town of Bethlehem was flashing a “no vacancy” sign. No one except for a few shepherds seems to have noticed this baby at all (2:1-20). When we read the parallel account of Jesus’ birth in the gospel of Matthew, we find that when the traveling magi checked in with King Herod, he responded to their quote from this morning’s passage from Micah about a king who would bring security and peace to the Jewish people, by having all the babies in Bethlehem killed – just to make sure that no such king would ever do any such thing (Matt. 2:1-12).

When Jesus spoke to his followers about his own understanding of leadership, he contrasted the leadership of this world with what he expected of his disciples: “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves” (Luke 22:25-27).

The gospels tell us just how successful this son of Mary was in bringing down the mighty from their thrones. One of the mighty himself, Pontius Pilate, questioned Jesus: “Are you the king of the Jews?” (Luke 23:3). Pilate made a point of showing Jesus who was really in charge, by having him nailed to a cross on which was written the sarcastic charge, “This is the King of the Jews” (Luke 23:38). And, of course, the witnesses to Jesus’ crucifixion enjoyed this supreme irony with the kind of biting cruelty that reminds us that what happens on social media these days is nothing new: “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself” (23:37).

Of course, we know how the story turns out because we know about Easter Sunday. The resurrection of Jesus is the supreme reversal of fortune. By raising Jesus from the dead, his Father did indeed “scatter the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.” He exalted the one who was of humble estate, and acknowledged him as the king who is like David, the one who will shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord. The risen Jesus fulfilled the promise to Abraham and his descendents by creating a community of followers who are to rule by being servants of one another, and not by imitating rulers like Herod or Pilate. The risen Lord Jesus Christ, the one who is anointed with God’s Spirit as David was anointed with oil, has filled the hungry with good things; he is the bread of life; those who come to him shall not hunger, and whoever believes in him will not thirst. Those who eat his flesh and drink his blood enjoy true food and true drink, and, as he has promised, he will raise them up on the last day (John 6:35, 53-58).

So what does this story about a crucified and risen Davidic king have to do with the fear that dominates our current culture? We can speculate that the culture is so fearful because its hopes have been disappointed. All the singing about the dawning of the Age of Aquarius and harmony and understanding brought about nothing more wonderful than people having to stand in long lines and take off their shoes before they can get on an airplane. “I’d like to teach the world to sing” has been replaced by worries about whether or not some illegal immigrant might be taking my job, and worries about whether or not these refugees might really be terrorists.

But the church does not need to fear these things because the church has not placed its hope in saviors who cannot save. We, at least, are not supposed to place our faith in earthly rulers, either kings like Herod or American politicians who repeatedly make promises they never deliver. We place our faith in the king who was born in a manger. We can also trust because we can afford to be patient. We await in hope for a king whose promises are secure, and we know that he can keep his promises because he has already defeated the greatest threat to any promises– death. And because we do not need to fear death, we do not need to fear anything, or anyone.

Our loyalty is also to another community – not any political or social movement or identity group, but the church which is Christ’s body because we are united to the risen Christ through sharing in his body and blood. This is a community which has been founded on trust, not fear, and which can be content to be powerless because we realize that death has been defeated by resurrection. We are called not to rule, not to try to make things turn out right, but to serve one another, as the king who was born in a manger became a servant for us. We are the servant subjects of a king who ruled from a cross.

As an aside, I think that this has significant implications for how Christians should think about politics. For the last generation, we have seen Christians losing our status in the culture as post-modernity has replaced Christendom. Conservative Christians fought back against this by attempting to use Caesar’s weapons to fight the church’s battles. We lost the “culture wars,” and we lost badly. At least one way in which Christians have responded to this loss is to echo the same kind of anger and mistrust that is currently characteristic of the culture as a whole. If you google the words “Why are Christians . . .” the top “autocomplete” is “Why are Christians so mean?” We need to re-think what it means to be the humble servants of the God whose service, as the Collect from the Book of Common Prayer puts it, is “perfect freedom.”

This does not mean that everything is going to be “all right,” that nothing bad can happen to us, at least not this side of the eschaton. We place our hopes in a crucified ruler, and Jesus has made clear that to follow him means to take up his cross. The New Testament scholar, Michael Gorman, has summarized what it means to be a disciple of Christ in the handy word “cruciformity.”

This also means that the way that the church governs itself cannot simply follow the business success models of the culture around us. Ayn Rand and Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs are the last role models that the church should emulate. Jesus really did call us to be servants of one another. This does not mean that we will never be disappointed even in that community who are supposed to be servant disciples of Jesus – the church. Far from it. For two thousand years, Christians have often looked more like Herod and Pilate than Jesus, even in the way that we treat one another. Even in churches, even in seminaries, there are going to be times when we will be hurt and disappointed. Some wag once said that you can find out everything you need to know about original sin by just spending enough time in the average church choir.

But that is all the more reason for us to be kind to one another, tender-hearted to one another, to forgive one another (Eph. 4:23), to remember that we serve one who has loved our enemies as he loves us, and who became a servant to us when we were sinners by dying on a cross for us. Of course, this is not an easy thing to do. Forgiveness does not mean that we believe that people are basically good, or that we ignore bad behavior. To forgive is to recognize that people really do bad things, and it is those really bad things that we need to forgive. But if Jesus has forgiven even me, then I can forgive my room-mate or my wife or my husband or my priest or my senior warden or that difficult old lady in my congregation who wears the ugly hats; perhaps even my systematic theology professor.

In the end, it is Jesus, the king who was born in a manger, who brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate not by wielding a sword but by carrying his own cross, who enables us to trust and not to fear. In these last days of Advent, we await his coming and the establishment of his kingdom in hope, when he will shepherd his flock so that we who are his people and God’s entire creation will dwell secure, and he will be our peace.