In 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