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 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…)