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 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

(more…)

July 8, 2014

Anglican Reflections: What About Apostolic Succession?

Filed under: Anglicanism,Theology — William Witt @ 9:05 pm
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Four_ApostlesApostolic succession has had three different meanings in the history of the church.1

(a) In the second century, apostolic succession was important (over against gnosticism) because of the issue of historical continuity. A historical succession of bishops was one of the four marks distinguishing catholic Christians from their gnostic opponents. Those churches that recognized the canonical authority of Scripture, interpreted and summarized Scripture by the Rule of Faith, and worshiped in word and Sacrament were the same churches that could trace their history through a succession of bishops from the apostles. This is the argument used by Irenaeus in Against Heresies 3.3,4. The focus here is on succession of bishops as an assurance of orthodox teaching.

(b) The bishops are successors of apostles in the sense that they continue to exercise various functions exercised by the apostles: teaching, preaching, celebrating the sacraments, ordination.

(c) The most controversial understanding of apostolic succession is that the “grace” of ordination is handed down from the apostles from one generation of bishops to another through the laying on of hands.

(more…)

July 7, 2014

Anglican Reflections: What About Bishops?

Filed under: Anglicanism,Theology — William Witt @ 12:07 pm
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I received the following question in my email and thought it worth sharing my response:

I am having a hard time wrapping my mind around the defense for episcopal church government. I can see the case for a plurality of elders in the New Testament, but this would seemingly lend itself to either a Presbyterian or Congregational polity. What is the best defense for the role of bishops? Can we defend it from the New Testament? And how do Anglicans account for the plurality of elders, such as revealed in Philippians 1:1?

The following is my own argument, but is a summary of arguments that can be found in numerous sources. A bibliography occurs at the end.

BishopAlmost immediately after the Reformation, Anglicans acknowledged that the distinction between bishops and presbyters is not clearly articulated in the New Testament. Episcopacy was still defended, and a number of similar arguments have been used and repeated, beginning at least from the time of Richard Hooker.

The first issue has to do with the difference between exegesis and hermeneutics, that is, the difference between what Scripture meant in its original historical setting and how the church applies Scripture to its life today. The fundamental difference between Richard Hooker and his Puritan opponents had to do with the issue of contemporary application. Both Hooker and the Puritans agreed that Scripture was the final authority for Christian doctrine and practices, but they differed on what that meant for the contemporary application of Scripture. The Puritans subscribed to the “regulative” principle of biblical interpretation: whatever is not specifically commanded in Scripture is forbidden. Accordingly, they were opposed to such practices as the exchange of wedding rings, written liturgies (such as the Book of Common Prayer), hymns (apart from the Psalms), vestments, and bishops, insofar as the Puritans noted correctly that the New Testament makes no inherent distinction between presbyteroi (presbyters) and episkopoi (bishops). To the contrary, Hooker embraced a permissive understanding of biblical hermeneutics: whatever Scripture does not explicitly forbid is permitted. Moreover, Hooker distinguished between matters of doctrine and morals (which are unchangeable), and matters of civil and ritual law (which are changeable by the church). The famous distinction between moral, civil and ritual law is not original to Hooker; it can be found in Thomas Aquinas, in the Lutheran Confessions, and in John Calvin. Hooker also insisted, however, that the distinction meant that churches were free to adopt ecclesiastical practices that were not explicitly commanded in the New Testament as long as they were not forbidden. This included written prayers (liturgical worship, including the Prayer Book), practices such as exchanging wedding rings, and retaining the historic catholic practice of the three-fold order of bishops, priests, and deacons – even if that order is not explicitly commanded or found in the New Testament. (more…)

March 9, 2014

Concerning Women’s Ordination: Disciples of Jesus

Filed under: Theology,Women's Ordination — William Witt @ 5:57 am
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PDF Version of This Document

Previous posts in this series include:

Concerning Women’s Ordination: Preliminaries
Non-theological Arguments Against the Ordination of Women
Concerning Women’s Ordination: The Argument “From Tradition” is not the Traditional Argument
Concerning Women’s Ordination: Hierarchy and Hermeneutics
Concerning Women’s Ordination: Beginning with Genesis

“For Martha”

christ_in_the_house_of_martha_and_maryIn previous essays in this discussion of women’s ordination, I have identified two basic theological rationales endorsed by two different groups who oppose women’s ordination – a Protestant approach and a Catholic approach. Both oppose women’s ordination, but for very different reasons. Protestant opposition to the ordination of women focuses on hierarchy and authority, and bases its case on passages (especially in some of the New Testament epistles) that suggest that women should be in subordination to men or that women should not speak in church or teach men. Catholic opposition focuses not on authority, but on sacramental theology. It is claimed that women lack some essential characteristic that is necessary for administering the sacraments.

Both arguments also appeal to Jesus, but do so for contrary reasons. The Catholic position emphasizes that both Jesus and his twelve apostles were all males. Since, it is argued, the ordained clergy represent Christ when they administer the sacraments – the ordained presbyter/priest acts as a representative of or “in the person of” Christ (in persona christi) – a woman cannot be ordained because a female presbyter cannot represent a male Christ. Conversely, the Protestant position has recently stressed an argument drawn from a novel interpretation of the doctrine of the Trinity. Protestant opponents to the ordination of woman have argued for a parallel between the eternal relations of the divine persons of the Trinity and the relations between men and women. It is argued that, although all three persons of the Trinity are ontologically equal, from eternity the Son has a “role” of subordination to the Father, and the Father has a “role” of authority over the Son. From all eternity, the Father commands and the Son obeys. Similarly, it is argued, there is a parallel relation between men and women. Men and women are ontologically equal, yet, just as with the Father and the Son, there is always a subordination of “roles” between men and women. Men always exercise authority over women, and women are always subordinate to men.

The Catholic and Protestant positions thus provide contrary reasons for not ordaining women to church office. For the Catholic position, women cannot be ordained because they do not resemble Christ. For the Protestant position, women cannot be ordained because they do.

At the same time, insofar as these ironically contrary reasons for not ordaining women appeal to Christology for their opposition to women’ ordination, they share a common characteristic. Both positions use highly abstract arguments that are somewhat removed from the actual narratives about Jesus in the gospels or the specific focus of the teaching about Jesus in the epistles. The Catholic argument presupposes a specific understanding of the role of ordained clergy in celebrating the eucharist that seems to have been formulated first in the Medieval period, and then attaches to that theological understanding reflection on its significance for women that seems first to have appeared in an encyclical of Pope Paul VI in the twentieth century. The Protestant argument makes highly questionable assumptions about the eternal relations of the divine persons of the Trinity, insisting that the “economic” obedience of Jesus to his Father that appears in the gospels (an obedience of the Son in his “mission” as God become human) is a direct parallel to an eternal subordination of authority and obedience in the “immanent” Trinity itself, and, furthermore, that this eternal obedience of the Son to the Father is directly parallel to a permanent role of obedience of women to men.1

Needless to say, neither of these arguments reflects a careful exegetical reading of what the New Testament actually says about Jesus. There are no New Testament discussions whatsoever about the role of ordained clergy in celebrating the eucharist, let alone what its theological implications might be for the ordination of women; nowhere in the New Testament is there a parallel drawn between the highly speculative theory about an eternal obedience of the Son to the Father in the immanent Trinity and a permanent subordination of women to men.2

At the same time, both positions are correct that a discussion of ordination and the relation between men and women rightly needs to focus on Jesus, and that what the New Testament teaches about Jesus is finally normative for what the church believes about the relations between men and women, and, ultimately for the question of whether women can be ordained to ordained ministry.

In what follows, I will examine the significance of what the gospels teach about Jesus for its significance for the relations between men and women. (In a subsequent essay, I intend to write about the same issue in the Pauline epistles.) In particular, I will focus on the question of subordination. Does the New Testament teach a permanent subordination of women to men, and does it do so based on the example of Jesus? (The essay will focus, then, on Protestant rationales for opposition to the ordination of women. The Catholic sacramental argument that a female presbyter cannot represent a male Christ will be addressed in a later essay.) In addition, in contrast to the highly abstract Christological arguments endorsed by both Protestants and Catholics, this essay will focus on the specific concrete teaching of the New Testament gospels, particularly the implications of their narrative and symbolic logic. (more…)

January 3, 2014

On “Lutheran” Anglicanism

Filed under: Anglicanism,Spiritualty,Theology — William Witt @ 7:56 pm
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Luther"Last summer, my friend David Koyzis started a conversation about why there are so many Baptists who call themselves “Calvinists,” but no “Lutheran” Baptists.

David might be surprised to know that there are Anglicans who call themselves “Lutherans.” They have historical connection with Trinity School for Ministry in connection with a former Dean/President, and every year I discover at least one or two new students in my classes who identify with this “Lutheran” Anglicanism. The recent publication of this book reminded me that “Lutheran” Anglicanism is alive and well, and has prompted me to post my own assessment of “Lutheran” Anglicanism.

Before I give my own assessment of Lutheran Anglicanism, I should perhaps say a little about my own acquaintance with Luther and Lutheranism before I encountered the “Lutheran” Anglicans. During my years at graduate school, I came across Luther as part of my studies, and knew several Lutherans who were fellow students. I studied Luther primarily in courses on Christology and liturgy, and included a chapter on Luther in my dissertation. My assessment of Luther was mixed. I appreciated most Luther’s Christology and his sacramental theology, although I found his theology of the ubiquity of Christ’s ascended human nature problematic. I was less happy with Luther’s Bondage of the Will, where I thought he could have learned a thing or two from Thomas Aquinas or Augustine. Luther’s failure to distinguish adequately between natural and moral freedom combined with a failure to distinguish adequately between foreknowledge and predestination led to a determinist doctrine of human will and divine predetermination that made God responsible for sin. Luther’s way of stating the distinction between the “hidden” and “revealed God” was rightly repudiated by Karl Barth as undermining the fundamental theological thesis that God is in himself who he is in his revelation. I was also less than happy with Luther’s “law/gospel” hermeneutic, which, while it had some validity for interpreting certain passages in Paul’s letters to the Galatians and the Romans was largely a case of eisegesis if imposed on the Bible as a whole. As a Reformation Christian, I embraced Luther’s doctrines of sola scriptura, and justification by grace alone through faith alone, not because they were Luther’s but because I believe them correct – although I tended to understand the Reformation sola’s through Anglican eyes.

As part of my doctoral research, I read quite a bit in modern secondary literature on Luther. I read not only Luther, but became familiar with some of the key hallmarks of Lutheran theology – the Augsburg Confession, and much of the material in the Book of Concord. I also became familiar with a few modern Lutheran theologians: Soren Kierkegaard, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Gustaf Aulen, Helmut Thielicke, and contemporary Lutherans such as Wolfhart Pannenberg, Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson, Gilbert Meilaender and David Yeago. Overall, my assessment of Luther and Lutheranism was mostly positive.

I discovered a very different “Luther” and approach to “Lutheranism” among the “Lutheran” Anglicans, a kind of Lutheranism I had never encountered before. This “Lutheran” Anglicanism was a variant on a way of reading Luther that Lutheran theologian Gilbert Meilaender calls “dialectical Lutheranism”1

Dialectical Lutheranism is distinguished by the following key characteristics: (more…)

October 27, 2013

The Trinitarian Unity of the Church: A Sermon on Ecumenism

Filed under: Ecumenism,Sermons — William Witt @ 6:31 pm
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Ephesians 4:1-16
John 17:11-26

TrinityThe epistle reading from Ephesians and the reading from John’s gospel are perhaps the two single most frequently cited biblical passages about the unity of the church. Certainly unity is a central theme in both passages: Ephesians 4 rings the changes one the word “one”: There is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all (Eph. 4:4-6). John has what is sometimes called Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer, where he prays that his followers will be one even as he and the Father are one (John 17:11,22). And, of course, unity is one of the four classic marks of the church: The church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.

What is the nature of the church’s unity that is such a major theme in these passages? There have been numerous answers to this question given in the history of theology. The 39 Articles and the Lutheran confessions speak of that unity in terms of activities that the church performs: The church is where the word is rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered. The Roman Catholic Church has historically placed that unity institutionally: The church consists of all those who are in communion with the pope, the bishop of Rome. Anglo-Catholics have focused on historical continuity. The church is rightly found in those churches who can trace their succession through a series of bishops to the apostles. In the last century or so, many of the Orthodox have focused on Sobornost, a notion of the church as a community or fellowship based in freedom and love. In the last several decades, Christian ethicists such as Stanley Hauerwas have focused on the understanding of the church as a community of character, of Christian discipleship as a path of virtue whose primary focus is following the way of Jesus in the non-violent way of the cross.

What all of these descriptions have in common is that they are descriptions of the church from our point of view, from the ground up, as it were. Sometimes it helps to look at things from a different point of view. What is different about the way in which Ephesians and the Gospel of John look at the unity of the church is that they look at things from the opposite point of view, not from the ground up, but from the top down, from a God’s-eye point of view, as it were.

Both Ephesians and the Gospel of John point to the unity of the church first in the unity of the Trinitarian persons. The church is one because God is one. But God is not simply one as a monad. God is a unity of love between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In Ephesians, Paul writes: “There is one body and one Spirit . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4-6). John records Jesus’ prayer “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us . . .” (John 17:21). We might read John’s approach as binitarian rather than trinitarian, except that in Jesus’ Last Supper discourse in John, he had already talked at great length about the Comforter, the paraklete, whom Jesus says, he will “send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father.” (John 15:26). So the church’s unity originates first in the unity of the Trinitarian persons. Again, the church is one because the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one. (more…)

October 22, 2013

Concerning Women’s Ordination: Beginning with Genesis

Filed under: Theology,Women's Ordination — William Witt @ 6:58 pm
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Adam and EveThe doctrine of creation is crucial to a number of related theological issues, and theologians have appealed to it when addressing numerous issues. Often theologians have engaged in a speculative exercise in which they distinguish between a created and a fallen world to address issues that initially might not seem directly related to the doctrine of creation. For example, theologians interested in the relation between Christian faith and politics have sometimes speculated about whether there would have been government if there had been no sin. Augustinians (and Lutherans) have tended to understand government as primarily concerned with justice, and, in particular with restraining and punishing evildoers in a fallen world. So, they have argued, there would have been no need for government if there had been no fall. To the contrary, Thomists (and some Calvinists) have suggested rather that the purpose of government is to promote the common good, and, even in an unfallen world, government would have existed. For example, even in an unfallen world, if people drove automobiles, there would need to be some way of deciding whether drivers should drive on the left or the right side of the street. How one answers this question will largely determine whether one sees the present function of government as a necessary evil, and, accordingly, limited largely to military and police functions, or, rather, whether one sees executing justice as only one of government’s functions, which would also include numerous public goods as well: highways, national parks, promoting the arts, public education, economic assistance to the poor, having a positive role in promoting a healthy economy, publicly funded health care.

Similarly the distinction between “natural law,” “ceremonial law,” and “civil law” that one finds in theologians and theological traditions as diverse as Thomas Aquinas, Richard Hooker, John Calvin, and the Lutheran Confessions, presupposes a distinction between the kinds of laws that are rooted in the nature of creation itself, and the laws that would exist only in a sinful world. (Thomas Aquinas argues, for example, that there would have been no private property and no need for laws against theft if there had been no sin.) Contemporary discussions about sexuality, particularly the question of whether Christians should approve of same-sex sexual activity, ultimately must address this question of “natural law,” that is, what was God’s original intent in creating human beings as male and female, and what bearing does this have on sexual ethics?

In the area of soteriology, theologians have speculated about such things as whether the Word of God would have become incarnate even if human beings had never sinned – the Medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas answered “no, while Duns Scotus answered “yes.” In the Reformed tradition, supralapsarians and infralapsarians disagreed about whether the doctrine of election presupposed a fallen or unfallen humanity.

For similar reasons, the doctrine of creation is important for assessing concerns about women’s ordination. The interpretation of Genesis 1-3 has played a major role in the discussion of women’s place, not only in the church, but also in marriage, and culture. The crucial question has to do with the interpretation of Genesis 3:16b: “Your desire shall be for your husband; he shall rule over you.” Is this verse a command, a curse, or a description? Is it a command that is a furthering of a subordination that was nonetheless part of God’s intention in creation, or, rather, a punishment or curse in response to sin, or, neither part of God’s intention for creation or a curse, but simply a description of the way things are in a fallen world, and thus a departure from God’s intention in creation? To be specific, if human beings had never sinned, would women be subordinate to men? And, even if subordination is only a consequence of the fall, is that subordination something willed by God or something to be overcome as much as possible? (more…)

September 29, 2013

Concerning Women’s Ordination: Hierarchy and Hermeneutics

Filed under: Theology,Women's Ordination — William Witt @ 6:47 pm
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woman peeling applesIn previous posts in this series on women’s ordination I have identified two very different groups who are in opposition 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 hierachical 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 post, 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 posts that follow, I hope to 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 (Southrn 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 American Evangelical Protestants. In 1991, Grudem and John Piper edited Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism,1 a series of essays that marked the beginning of the theology of “complementarianism,” and the formation of a group called “The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.” Since then, Grudem has become the chief spokesperson for complementarianism, publishing several subsequent books and articles, most notably in recent years, Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth: An Analysis of More than One Hundred Disputed Questions,2 an 800 page book responding to Evangelical advocates of women’s ordination. (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
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Holy GrailBack 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 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 post 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 or 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. (more…)

September 14, 2013

Non-theological Arguments Against the Ordination of Women

Filed under: Theology,Women's Ordination — William Witt @ 7:51 am
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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 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. (more…)

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