March 9, 2014

Concerning Women’s Ordination: Disciples of Jesus

Filed under: Theology,Women's Ordination — William Witt @ 5:57 am

“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 was formulated first in the Medieval period, and then attaches to that theological understanding a reflection on its significance for women that first appeared in Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Inter Insigniores in the mid-twentieth century.1 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.2

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.3

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 church office.

In what follows, I will examine the significance of what the gospels teach about Jesus for its implications for the relations between men and women. (In subsequent essays, I will address 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 is addressed in later essays.) 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.

Christological Subversion

Why narrative and symbol? In the last several decades, theologians have focused on the theological implications of the fact that much of the Bible is written in the genre of narrative. In the earlier decades of the twentieth century, almost as much focus was placed on the significance of “symbol” and “metaphor” in the language of Scripture. In The Moral Vision of the New Testament, Richard Hays lists four different “modes of appeal to the text in ethical argument”: rules (“direct commandments or prohibitions”); principles (“general frameworks of moral considerations”); paradigms (“stories or summary accounts of characters who model exemplary conduct”); and, finally, symbolic world (“creates the perceptual categories through which we interpret reality”). Especially since the Reformation, much traditional theology and Christian ethics has focused on the specific “rules” or “principles” found in a “literal reading” of Scripture as well as using historical examples to provide precedents for contemporary behaviors. While the Bible does contain rules and principles that can apply to contemporary situations, not every historical incident mentioned in Scripture should be read as demanding a straightforward application.4 At the same time, the narrative and symbolic aspects of Scripture have to be read in an entirely different way from “rules” or “principles,” or “historical precedents,” yet are just as significant for Christian theology and ethics. As Hays points out:

To be sure, the gospels – especially Matthew – do contain stories that represent Jesus as a moral teacher, but the moral meaning of the Gospels cannot be limited to these explicitly didactic passages. Stories form our values and moral sensibilities in more direct and complex ways, teaching us how to see the world, what to fear, and what to hope for; stories offer us nuanced models of behavior, both wise and foolish, courageous and cowardly, faithful and faithless.

Accordingly, Hays insists, “the ethical significance of each Gospel must be discerned from the shape of the story as a whole.” In order to grasp the ethical and theological significance of the New Testament, “we must ask how Jesus’ life and ministry are portrayed in the story and how his call to discipleship reshapes the lives of the other characters.”5

A crucial hermeneutical implication that follows from the centrality of symbol (or metaphor) and narrative in the language of Scripture is what I call the principle of “christological subversion.”6 What do I mean by christological subversion? Christological subversion is a special use of irony or paradox that we find in many New Testament passages. Irony and paradox are literary devices that use words in ways that seem to mean the opposite of their original meaning or seem self-contradictory but actually, when we think about them, have a deeper meaning. Martin Luther was, of course, very fond of this kind of paradox: The power of God is hidden in the weakness of the cross of Jesus; the believing Christian is simultaneously just and sinner. The reason I use the term “christological subversion” is that throughout the New Testament the person or actions of Jesus take our normal conceptions of what should be the case and turn them upside down. So Jesus, the crucified peasant from Nazareth, is the King of the Jews. The Jesus who was declared guilty and crucified by the religious and political authorities of his time turns out to be the divine judge who pardons rather than condemns the guilty. Through his resurrection, the death of Jesus brings life.

The principle of christological subversion is found in the way that the narrative structure of the four gospels each in its own way develops a christology that is subversive of “common sense” and turns our world upside down.7

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus is identified at both the beginning and the end as the Son of God (1:1, 13:9). Although the reader knows this, the participants in the narrative do not, and, throughout the gospel, even Jesus’ close disciples do not understand correctly who he is or the nature of his identity as Son of God or Messiah. In addition, Mark subverts the “common sense” understanding of what it would mean to be the Son of God or the Messiah. For Mark, to be the Son of God means to be the crucified Messiah (8:31), and messiahship is redefined in terms of Isaiah’s image of the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53). To be a disciple of Jesus means to be called to suffering, to follow a crucified Messiah.

For Matthew, Jesus fulfills Moses’ role as a deliverer and law-giver. He is the authoritative teacher of the kingdom of God (as revealed especially in the sermon on the Mount). At the same time, although Jesus’ teaching is in continuity with the Torah, he radicalizes its demands. He calls for a radical righteousness of the “heart” that goes beyond the literal teaching of the Torah. Jesus’ disciples are to love even their enemies, not resisting evil. They are forbidden not only to commit adultery, but even to lust. At the same time, Jesus’ rigorism (“Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matt. 5:48) is accompanied by an equally extreme demand for mercy to those who fail to live it out (“forgive seventy times seven,” Matt 18:22).

In Luke, Jesus is portrayed as the Spirit-empowered servant of God who creates a restored Israel in which justice and compassion for the poor prevail. Luke’s gospel upsets conventions in standing in tension with the established social order. In particular, in Luke, we find an “eschatological reversal” that overturns the fortunes of the powerful in favor of the poor and the oppressed. Luke portrays women as having key roles in salvation history. Jesus’ parables in Luke subvert normal standards of righteousness as the God who is the Father of Jesus seeks out and shows his favor to “lost sinners” rather than those who are normally considered “righteous” (the Good Samaritan, the tax collector and the pharisee, the Prodigal Son, the lost sheep, the lost coin).

Finally, the principle of christological subversion can be found in the gospel of John’s use of the metaphor of “glory.” In the Old Testament, glory is ascribed to God because of his mighty deeds (Exodus 14:4). God’s power and wisdom are reflected in the created world (Ps. 19:1), the giving of the ten commandments (Exodus 24:16), and his presence in the tabernacle (Exodus 40:34-35). In the Old Testament, glory is used as a way of distinguishing the divine majesty and power from everything else in creation: “I am the LORD; that is my name; my glory I give to no other . . .” (Isaiah 42:8).

However in John’s gospel, as a prism focuses and refracts light, God’s glory is refracted and focused in Jesus, the Jew from Nazareth, who is also the “Word become flesh.” As the Old Testament indicates that God’s glory dwelt in the temple, so John deliberately uses the same imagery to say that God’s glory dwells in Jesus (1:14). As the Old Testament spoke of God’s glory being shown in his mighty deeds, so Jesus’ miracles also show the divine glory (John 2:11). John’s most shocking use of christological subversion occurs in Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer: “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you . . .” (17:1). The “hour” to which Jesus refers here is the hour of his crucifixion. In John’s gospel, glory is found not in fame, not in greatness or recognition or what the world thinks of as success, but in the Word who became flesh, who came to his own but was not recognized (1:11), who sought his Father’s glory, not his own, and who finally, was crucified. Glory is found in the self-abasement and crucifixion of the incarnate Word of God.

The basic narrative structure of the four gospels demonstrates the way in which the principle of christological subversion affects the relation between metaphor and narrative in Scripture. A careful reading makes clear that the metaphors of Scripture cannot be read off the gospel narratives with a kind of flat-footed literalness. Rather, through the principle of christological subversion, the narrative accounts of Jesus’ incarnation, life, death and resurrection provide a context that gives meaning to the symbols and metaphors and in the light of which their meaning is re-defined. The writers of the gospel narratives use the principle of christological subversion to undermine straightforward and “literal” usages of ordinary language. Consequently, to allow a normative value to the metaphors and symbols of Scripture does not provide license to decide that we know ahead of time what those metaphors mean. Rather, it is by entering into the narrative logic of the canonical Scriptures that we discover the meaning of the metaphors and symbols, a narrative logic that subverts simplistic literalism. Theologically, the narratives themselves must be read in light of the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, but at the same time, it is the narratives that provide the proper interpretation to the meaning of such theological terms as incarnation, redemption, and Christology.

The Reformed theologian Karl Barth illustrates what I have called the principle of christological subversion in his discussion of the way in which Jesus related to and interacted with the social structures of his own time: the religious structures, particularly the Jewish temple, the political structures, namely, the rule of the Roman empire, economic structures, and, finally, the family. At one level, Barth suggests that Jesus’ stance can be described as a “passive conservatism”: “Rather curiously, Jesus accepts and allows many things which we imagine He ought to have attacked and set aside both in principle and practice and which the community in which the Gospels arose had to a very large extent overgrown.” Barth notes that “Jesus was not in any sense a reformer championing new orders against the old ones, contesting the latter in order to replace them by the former.” Jesus did not align himself and his disciples with any of religious or political parties. Jesus accepted that the temple was the house of God, and stated that the Jewish leaders “sat in Moses’ seat.” He insisted he had not come to destroy the law and the prophets. Jesus did not challenge the rule of the Roman empire, and he did not align himself with subversive groups such as the Zealots who wished to overthrow it. Jesus accepted that Pilate had authority over him, and forbade Peter to resist his arrest. Jesus did not challenge the economic system of the time, including the institution of slavery. Jesus’ parables accept the existence of masters and servants, of employees dependent on the good will of employers. He stated that the poor will always be with us. He accepted the existence of judges and prisons, that some will rule over others. He acknowledged the existence of the family.8

At the same time, however, Jesus’ stance toward these social orders is marked by what Barth calls the “freedom of the kingdom of God.” Although Jesus did not oppose any of these systems in principle,

He simply revealed the limit and frontier of these things – the freedom of the kingdom of God. He simply existed in this freedom and summoned to it. He simply made use of this freedom to cut right across all these systems both in His own case and in that of His disciples, interpreting and accepting them in His own way and in His own sense, in the light shed upon them all from that frontier.

This sovereign freedom of Jesus in relation to the social structures of his time meant that he inevitably clashed with these orders in a manner that displayed their “provisional” and “relative” character.9

For example, although Jesus accepted that the temple was the “house of God,” and paid the temple tax, he also made clear that he was not subject to the authority of the tax (Matt. 17:24 ff.). Jesus insisted that something “greater than the temple” was present in his person (Matt. 12:6), and that the temple would be destroyed (Mark 13:2). At his trial, Jesus was accused of having claimed that he would destroy the temple and replace it with one not made with human hands. The event that precipitated his arrest was his driving of money changers from the temple, insisting that they had turned the house of God into a den of thieves. Jesus’ attitude to the sabbath, one of the most sacred institutions of Old Testament religion is illustrated in his healings on the Sabbath as well as his claim that “The Son of man is Lord of the sabbath” (Mark 2:27).

In the realm of political order, the center of Jesus’ message was a call to repentance because the Kingdom of God was at hand. At the same time, God’s kingdom does not appear through political revolution. Jesus called his disciples not to resist evil, to go the second mile, to give their cloak to those who asked, to forgive their enemies. Nonetheless, Jesus did not hesitate to refer to King Herod as “that fox” (Luke 13:32), and responded to the Pharisees’ question of whether it was permissible to pay taxes with the statement: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:13-17). In his Palm Sunday entrance into Jerusalem, Jesus allowed the crowds to proclaim him as the “Son of David” (Matt. 21:9), and the inscription over his cross – “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” (Mark 15:25, John 20:19) – makes clear that Jesus was crucified as a political pretender.

While not explicitly challenging the economic order, Jesus radically called it into question because neither he nor disciples took any part in the acquiring or holding of possessions. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told his disciples, “Lay not up for yourself treasures upon earth . . . take no thought for tomorrow.” (Matthew 6:25). To the rich man who asked what he needed to inherit eternal life, Jesus replied, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” (Mark 10:20). When his disciples responded with astonishment at this demand, Jesus responded: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:25).

Finally, Jesus even challenged the ultimacy of the order of the family. Jesus himself remained unmarried, something foreign to Jewish culture. In Mark 3:31 ff., he asked “Who are my mother and my brothers?” and answered, “whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.” To the man who asked permission to bury his father before following Jesus, Jesus replied: “Let the dead bury their dead.” (Luke 9: 59 ff.). In perhaps one of his most shocking statements, Jesus said: “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:34-37).

Barth’s final assessment is that Jesus called into question every human order. All human institutions are to the kingdom of God which Jesus proclaimed as an old cloth to which one cannot merely apply a new patch or an old bottle into which one cannot put new wine: “For Jesus, and as seen in the light of Jesus, there can be no doubt that all human orders are this old garment or old bottles, which are in the last resort quite incompatible with the new cloth and the new wine of the kingdom of God.”10

The notion of “christological subversion” makes clear the radical nature of Jesus’ call to discipleship. On the one hand, Jesus simply accepted and did not challenge the existing social orders of religion, politics, economics, and family. On the other, the freedom of God’s kingdom so transcends all of these orders as radically to call them into question, and this radical challenge to existing order is what eventually led to Jesus’ crucifixion as a religious and political subversive.

The Social World of the New Testament

Before addressing the question of how Jesus’ practice of “christological subversion” might be relevant in a contemporary setting, it would be helpful first to look at the social situation in the world in which Jesus lived. An ahistorical approach to biblical hermeneutics assumes that honoring biblical authority is a straightforward matter of exegesis, determining the literal meaning of the biblical texts, and then applying that meaning in a “one-to-one correspondence” to a contemporary setting. However, contemporary Western culture is sufficiently different from first-century culture that a simple “one-to-one correspondence” is problematic. First-century Near Eastern and Mediterranean culture differed from contemporary Western individualist, post-industrial democratic cultures in a number of ways.

The first-century world was an “honor culture,” in which honor and shame (or dishonor) were fundamental values.11 This honor culture had some of the following characteristics:

In contrast to contemporary individualism, first-century culture was “group-oriented.” “The focus of ancient people on honor and dishonor or shame means that they were particularly oriented toward the approval and disapproval of others.” People were motivated to pursue the qualities and engage in the behaviors that were valued by the particular group of which they were members, and to avoid qualities or behaviors of which that group disapproved.12

Families were particularly important as the family was perhaps the central group to which one belonged. Any behavior that tended to bring shame or dishonor on the family would be met by pressure to conform, and possible ostracism for failure to do so.13

First-century culture was also very hierarchical. The husband/master exercised almost absolute authority over subordinate members of the family: wives, children, slaves. The submission of wives to husbands was a standard feature of first-century culture, both pagan and Jewish. Silence was considered an important virtue for women. Roman law gave husbands “binding authority” over wives and daughters. The Greek writer Plutarch stated that it is proper for a man to rule his wife. The Jewish writer Philo suggested that a wife’s duty to her husband is like that of a slave.14 In Judaism, laws of inheritance, betrothal and divorce were to the advantage of the male. There was general agreement among both pagans and Jews that the domestic sphere was the proper place for women, rather than public places. The primary duties of Jewish women were domestic: “grinding flour, baking bread, washing clothes, breast-feeding the children for eighteen to twenty-four months, making the beds, working with wool, preparing her husband’s cup, and washing his face, hands, and feet.”15 Women were also skilled in crafts that could be sold in shops that were attached to the house or could be sold in the market.

While the culture of the Old Testament was patriarchal, with female subordination to men, in the New Testament period this seems to have become exaggerated, perhaps under the influence of Hellenistic culture. Rabbinic Judaism advocated a strict separation of the sexes, and there was a strict separation of men and women in synagogue worship, a separation which did not seem to have existed in the Old Testament period. Jewish literature of the time frequently contained negative evaluations of women. Educational opportunities for women were also generally restricted. Plutarch stated that education was only for “free men.” Jewish writers are not consistent about the extent to which women should be educated. While some rabbis forbade teaching Torah to women, others taught that both boys and girls should be given a knowledge of Scripture. The role of women in Jewish temple worship was restricted because of the regular problem of ceremonial uncleanness (Lev.15:19-33). Josephus stated that the testimony of women was not to be accepted in court.16 Of course, there were exceptions to the general exclusion of women from authority, financial independence, or education in first-century culture. There were some highly educated upper class women. Women did attend synagogue, and there were some women who learned the law. At the same time, it is important to recognize that these women are significant precisely because they were exceptions.17

First-century culture was also a slave culture. One in five Romans was a slave, and the percentage was higher elsewhere. A master had complete control over a slave’s family life, and slaves could not contract legal marriages.18

Finally, the relation between children and parents differed in significant ways from contemporary individualist culture. In the modern world, it is presumed that at some point after adulthood, grown children will achieve independence of their parents and are no longer under their authority. This was not the case in the ancient world, in which adult children were expected to remain under the authority of their parents well into adulthood.19

Focus on honor and shame had numerous consequences. Not only the family, but larger social groupings were also of major significance, reflected in the New Testament tensions between Jews and Gentiles. Public “shaming” was a chief means of social control. Examples include the “challenge-riposte,” in which one gains honor at another’s expense through posing a challenge that cannot be answered: “The gospels are full of these exchanges, mainly posed by Pharisees, Sadducees or other religious officials at Jesus, whom they regarded as an upstart threatening to steal their place in the esteem of the people.”20 Public challenges to honor were expected to be responded to in kind; failure to preserve one’s honor was shameful. The public crucifixion of Jesus was a particularly dishonorable example of public shaming; crucifixion was meant to publicly humiliate criminals, and to remind observers of the shameful end of those who strayed from the culture’s values.21

Jesus and the Honor Culture

How then might the principle of “christological subversion” address the question of the relation between men and women, more specifically, the question of whether there is an inherent subordination of women to men rooted in creation itself? In what follows, I will look first at how Jesus subverted the traditional honor culture, and, then, how Jesus’ actions undermined the honor culture’s treatment of women.


Jesus did not simply repudiate the traditional family structure, nor, given what we have already seen about the principle of christological subversion, would we expect him to. Rather, as Ben Witherington points out, “Jesus not only accepted but also strengthened the physical family’s bond in some respects.”22 For instance, Jesus affirmed the Old Testament teaching about honoring one’s parents (Mark 10:19). Jesus challenged a tradition that allowed the setting aside of property that should have gone to one’s parents by vowing to give it to God, i.e., a religious purpose, instead (Mark 7:9-13).

At the same time, Jesus subverted the way in which the family had been used as a means to uphold the traditional honor system. Jesus insisted that following him could disrupt traditional family ties and that loyalty to him superseded loyalty to family (Matt. 10:21, 34-37). By designating God as “Father,” Jesus provided an alternative “fictive kinship” system.23 Jesus identified his family not with his mother and brothers, but with “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matt. 12:46-40). In designating God as Father, Jesus also undermined traditional patriarchal understandings of what it means to be a father. Fatherhood is not to be defined by the expected actions of typical fathers, but by the character of the God whom Jesus called Father. Jesus’ parable of the “prodigal son” provides the challenging paradigm. The younger son in the parable acts in a way that is entirely disrespectful and unacceptable in first century culture: he is breaking all ties with his family, and, in effect, wishing his father were dead.24 After receiving his inheritance, the son behaves in ways scandalous in Jewish culture, moving to a Gentile country (“a far land”), squandering his money on “debauchery,” and, finally, working for a Gentile, herding unclean swine. When the son repents and returns to his father, which would have had the effect of disgracing the family in front of the entire village, the father acts in a manner entirely contrary to the traditional honor code. The father is waiting for the son to return, runs to greet him, and publicly receives him back into the home as his son.25 It is the older brother who abides by the traditional honor code, refusing to recognize the brother as any longer kindred. Yet the father persists, addressing both the older brother as “son,” and celebrating that the younger son, who, in effect, had “wished him dead,” has himself returned from death to life (Luke 15:32). As N.T. Wright notes, “this tale subverts the telling of the story which one might expect from mainstream first-century Jews . . .”26

The State

Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God subverted not only Roman rule and the delegated authority of Jewish leaders under the Romans, but also Jewish political movements such as the Zealots who wished to overthrow such rule. Two examples particularly illustrate this.

In Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, in which he was greeted as the Davidic king, Jesus engaged in a symbolic action which, with its allusions to Zechariah 9:9 ff., was “clearly messianic.”27 At the same time, the symbolic referent to Zechariah’s prophecy of a king who rides on a donkey rather than a war-horse points to a king who reigns from a cross rather than a throne.28

Jesus’ trial before Pontius Pilate focuses on this theme of the paradoxical nature of Jesus’ kingship. In all four gospels, Pilate asks Jesus some variation of the question “Are you the king of the Jews?,” to which Jesus replies ambiguously: “You have said so.” John’s gospel plays up the paradoxical nature of the encounter. To Pilate’s statement that Jesus’ own leaders have delivered him for trial, Jesus replies “My kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18: 35-36). To Pilate’s threatening question, “Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?,” Jesus replies, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.” (19: 11). David Bentley Hart writes of how “shatteringly subversive” Christianity was of the certitudes of the ancient world, and points to this scene as a particular example. Because the gospel is written in light of the resurrection, the meaning of the scene is reversed: “If God’s truth is in fact to be found where Christ stands, the mockery visited on him rebounds instead upon the emperor, all of whose regal finery, when set beside the majesty of the servile shape in which God reveals himself, shows itself to be just so many rags and briers.”29

The Honor Challenge

Jesus’ command to forgive subverted the dynamics of the “honor challenge.” Rather than respond to the challenge to one’s honor with an equal response of insult or perhaps violence, Jesus commanded his followers to respond to such challenges in a manner that reflected the alternative values of those whose God is the Father of Jesus, by not resisting evil, by turning the other cheek, by going the extra mile (Matt 5:38-41). Potential accusers must be reconciled; those who make unreasonable demands must be met with generosity; enemies must be loved and prayed for.30

Crossing boundaries

There are several areas in which Jesus’ actions “crossed boundaries,” subverting traditional Jewish distinctions between “clean and unclean,” between those “insiders” and “outsiders” within the Jewish version of the honor system. First, although Jesus’ mission was primarily directed to fellow Jews (Matt. 10:5-7; 15:24), on more than one occasion, Jesus ministered to Gentiles or non-Jews. In the case of both the curing of the Gentile centurion’s servant (Matt. 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10; John 4:46-54) and a Samaritan leper (Luke 17:11-19), Jesus commended the faith of non-Jews in contrast to the lack of response to his mission among his own people (Matt 8:10; Luke 7:9; Luke 17:18-19).

In the story of the parable of the Good Samaritan, a lawyer challenged Jesus’ honor by asking him a question that was intended as a “test” or “temptation” (Luke 10:25-38). The lawyer’s question about what one must do to inherit eternal life was, in essence, an attempt to get Jesus to identify the proper members of God’s covenant people. Jesus responded to this “honor challenge” with his own question, which in effect, challenged the lawyer’s honor: “What is written in the law?” That is, as a lawyer who was an expert in the Jewish law, Jesus’ questioner should already have known the answer to this question. The honor challenge continues as the lawyer asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Maintaining boundaries between men, women, and Gentiles was essential to maintaining order, and identifying the neighbor was crucial to establishing the boundaries. Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan shatters the boundaries. The man who has been beaten needs a neighbor, someone who will help him, and anyone will do. That a despised Samaritan is the one who turns out to be the neighbor rather than a priest, a Levite, or even an ordinary Jew, challenges the traditional hostility between Jews and Samaritans, and subverts the honor culture.31

Again, many of those whom Jesus healed belonged to categories of those who were excluded from full membership in the covenant people of Israel: lepers, the blind and deaf, demoniacs. Jesus shared meals with notorious sinners, specifically tax collectors and prostitutes. In all of these ways, Jesus crossed “acceptable boundaries,” and subverted the contemporary honor system. The effect of these cures was a sign that these who had been excluded from Israel were now included in the people of God. This association with and inclusion of outsiders was not only “deeply symbolic,” but also controversial and subversive.32

Return to Creation

Finally, Jesus’ assurance to his disciples that they do not need to worry about their economic needs, what they will eat and what they will wear, because they can trust their heavenly Father to provide for their needs (Matt. 6:25-34; 7:7-11; Luke 12:4-7), indicated that he saw in the dawning of the kingdom of God a return to the original creation order that reflected a pre-fallen world without care or anxiety. Jesus’ call to trust in God as Father challenged the curse of the world of thorns and working by the sweat of one’s brow that had resulted from the fall into sin (Gen. 3:18-19).33

Jesus and Women
How is the principle of christological subversion illustrated in Jesus’ relationships with women? Parallel examples can be found to each of the ways in which Jesus, in his relations with women, subverted the honor culture.

Crossing boundaries
Jesus’ relationships with women challenged the honor system by “crossing acceptable boundaries.” The story about Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well (John 4) shows him not only associating with non-Jews, but also associating with a woman in a way that was contrary to accepted practice. In the story, Jesus and his disciples first went through Samaria on their way to Galilee. This in itself was unusual, given that Samaritans and Jews were historic enemies. (Jews would normally have taken the “long way round” in order to avoid passing through Samaria.) Second, Jesus broke a social taboo by talking to a woman in a place with no witnesses. Jewish men did not initiate conversations with unknown women. Rabbis did not converse with women in public places. In addition, the woman Jesus talked to turns out to be a “sinful woman”; that she came to a well alone in the heat of noon day indicates either that she was a social outcast or that she wanted to make contact with travelers who might be passing through. Further conversation reveals that she has been married five times, and is currently living with a man who is not her husband. There are other surprising turns in the story. By asking the woman for water, Jesus placed himself in a position of need, and humbled himself to be served. This gave dignity to the woman by allowing her to use her resources to help a stranger. In the subsequent conversation, Jesus engaged the woman’s concerns in a matter that shows that he took her seriously. Jesus did not condemn the woman for her presumed immorality. In consequence, this Samaritan woman became the first missionary or witness to Jesus in John’s gospel, despite the traditional position that the witness of women is not reliable.34

Other gospel narratives include some of the same themes as this story of the Samaritan woman. The story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman whose daughter he healed once again has Jesus ministering to a woman who is not only a non-Jew, but a member of a group that is an historic enemy of the Jewish people, a “Canaanite,” a descendent of the original non-Hebrew inhabitants of Palestine (Mark 7: 24-30; Matt. 15:21-28). The story is one of the “problem passages” in the gospel insofar as Jesus at first refuses the request of the woman because she is not a Jew and only heals her daughter after she endures a humiliating exchange. Some recent interpreters have read the story as a case in which the woman changed Jesus’ mind, and his views expanded as the woman helped him overcome prejudices against Gentiles. This interpretation seems unlikely in light of other incidents (such as the healing of the centurion’s servant and the story of the Samaritan woman already mentioned). A more plausible interpretation is that Jesus had two audiences in mind, both the woman whose faith was tested and confirmed by the healing of her daughter, but also the disciples who begged Jesus to send her away. By healing the woman’s child and pronouncing the blessing “O woman, great is your faith!,” Jesus not only crossed a gender and cultural barrier, but also exposed and challenged the prejudices of his disciples who did not believe that his ministry should extend to Canaanites – historic enemies of Jews.35

Other incidents in which Jesus challenged current assumptions about “sinful women” include the story in which a “sinful” woman (presumably a prostitute) anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume in the home of the pharisee Simon (Luke 7:36-50) as well as the incident of the woman who was caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11). In both cases, Jesus challenged current expectations by offering forgiveness rather than condemnation.

A final pair of incidents deserving mention is the combined pair of stories in which Jesus both raised the dead daughter of Jairus from the death and also cured a woman suffering from a long term hemorrhage who anonymously touched him in a crowd (Mark 5:25-34; Matthew 9:20-23; Luke 8:42-48). Under Jewish law, Jesus should have been made ceremonially unclean both by his touching a corpse and by being touched by a menstruating woman. Instead, by raising the dead girl to life and by healing the anonymous woman, rather than being contaminated by ceremonial uncleanness, Jesus extended the realm of holiness by raising the dead to life and by making the ceremonially unclean to be clean through an act of healing. Although it is not spelled out explicitly, Jesus’ actions have implications for issues of women’s discipleship. In Jewish culture, rules about ritual uncleanness effectively cut women off from taking an active part in public religious practice. In his act of healing, Jesus made clear that women are not defiled or defiling and thus made it possible for women to participate fully as his disciples.36

Returning to creation

In Jesus’ challenge of current Jewish practice concerning divorce, there is a parallel to what we have already seen concerning Jesus’ teachings about wealth and poverty and the “return to creation.” In another of the many examples of the “honor challenge” that occur in the gospels, a group of Pharisees challenged Jesus whether it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife, appealing to biblical precedent (Matt. 19:3-9; Mark 10:2-12; cf. Deut. 24:1-4). Significantly, Jesus responded (as with the issue of wealth and poverty) by appealing to the original creation account. Mosaic law allowed divorce as a concession to human sinfulness as a consequence of the fall. However, Jesus claimed (appealing to the creation accounts of Gen. 1:27, 2:24), that God’s original intent in creation was that, in marriage, the man and woman created in God’s image should be joined together as husband and wife so that the two should become “one flesh.” Jesus concluded that anyone who introduces a third party into this relationship (through adultery) breaks the unity not only of the two parties, but also of God who has brought about the unity. By appealing to the original intention of creation, Jesus again reversed the curse brought about as a consequence of sin, but also spoke in a way that is liberating especially to women. Jesus assumed that it is men who are initiating the divorce, and that, by divorcing his wife, a man in essence forces her to commit adultery by forcing her into remarriage. The net effect is that Jesus rejected the traditional “double standard” concerning male and female sexuality, he challenged stereotypes about women as temptresses, but he also gave women greater security in marriage.37 Note also that in his appeal to creation, Jesus focused on the unity and likeness between men and women (as does the original Genesis account).38 He says nothing about an inherent hierarchy or ontological ordering by which men are created to lead or exercise authority over women.

Women as disciples of Jesus

It is significant that Jesus had women disciples. Kenneth Bailey notes four significant texts.39 First, in Acts 9:36, Tabitha (Dorcas) is called a “disciple” (μαθήτρια, mathētria, Gk. feminine).

Second, in Matthew’s gospel, when Jesus’ family attempted to approach him through a crowd, he addressed the crowd: “‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’” (Matt. 12:48-50). As Bailey points out, the text makes clear that Jesus is addressing his “disciples,” whom he identifies as brothers and sisters, that is, both men and women.

Third, in Luke 8:1-3, we read: “Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary called Magdalene, . . . and Joanna . . . and Susanna, and many others, who provided from them out of their means.” The text indicates that Jesus was traveling with a group of men and women who were his disciples. This would imply that they were spending nights in strange villages. Bailey notes that this is a practice that would not be allowed even in contemporary Middle Eastern culture, where women are allowed to travel with men, but must spend nights with their relatives.

Mary and Martha

Finally, there is the story concerning Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42), to which I now turn. The principle of “christological subversion” is illustrated throughout. The immediate context for the story is the same as that of the Good Samaritan, which just precedes it in Luke’s gospel. Both Mary and the Good Samaritan model the example of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus in ways that challenge first-century Jewish culture: a Samaritan was not supposed to be a model of what it means to be a neighbor; a woman was not supposed to sit at the feet of men as a disciple.40 When Mary sits at the feet of Jesus, she is, in effect, taking on the role of a disciple of Jesus (Luke 8:35, Acts 22:3). She is not simply sitting at Jesus’ feet during a meal. Commentators consistently make the case that “to sit at the feet of” is a technical formula meaning “to be a disciple of.”41 This was highly unusual in first-century Jewish culture. As Ben Witherington points out, women could attend synagogue, learn, and even be learned if their husbands were rabbis, but “for a rabbi to come into a woman’s house and teach her specifically is unheard of.”42 Mary’s sister Martha asked Jesus to rebuke her because she was, in effect, acting like a male, neglecting her duty to her sister to assist in the preparation of the meal, and bringing shame to her house by crossing a clear social boundary.43 Jesus’ response to Martha is not a rejection of her desire to serve, but a reversal of the notion of service. It is Jesus who has come to serve. He is the host, and Mary and Martha are his guests. The “one thing” that is important is not performing the typical domestic tasks that would have been expected of women in first-century culture, but listening to and becoming a disciple of Jesus.44

This key point of the story is so important – that Jesus accepted women as disciples in a manner contrary to the society expectations of the time – that it is necessary to respond to some objections raised by “complementarian” Wayne Grudem, who seems intent on deliberately de-radicalizing the implications of the story. Against the reading of scholars such as those noted above, Grudem insists to the contrary that there is nothing unusual going on in the story. Grudem claims that “everybody in Jewish society learned from the rabbis, so it is not clear that this citation proves anything special about Mary.” He also claims that “people commonly sat at the feet of those who were teaching,” so assertions about Mary’s discipleship claim more than the text supports. Grudem also writes that Jesus was simply commending Mary for listening to him, not making a case for women’s theological education.45

Grudem’s counter-argument flies in the face of the significance of “sitting at the feet of” as a technical formula, and also that rabbis did not go to the homes of women who “sat at their feet.” While women did indeed learn in the synagogue, it would have been unheard of for a rabbi to enter into the home of a woman to whom he was not married and teach her as a disciple – as Witherington points out in the quote above. Moreover, Grudem’ s statement that Jesus did not make a case for women’s theological training rather misses the point of the kinds of symbolic actions in which Jesus regularly engaged. Jesus did not set out to overthrow Roman rule, but when he rode a donkey into Jerusalem that was a symbolic action – a fulfillment of a prophecy in Zechariah – which was clearly understood as a threat to the political order, and a Messianic claim. When Jesus cleansed the temple, he did not overturn temple corruption, but he did engage in a symbolic action that passed judgment on temple corruption. When Jesus called twelve apostles, that was a symbolic action; the number twelve indicated that the apostles were representatives of a new Israel, since the nation of Israel were the descendents of the twelve sons of Jacob. Similarly, when Jesus taught a woman who “sat at his feet,” this was a symbolic action. Mary is extolled as a model disciple of the rabbi Jesus, a symbolic action that was subversive of the understandings of the permissible roles for women at that time.

Women as witnesses

Given the low value that was attached to the testimony of women in the first-century Mediterranean world, another example of the principle of christological subversion is the emphasis that the gospels place on the testimony of women. We have already seen the example of the testimony of the Samaritan woman in John’s gospel. She provides a parallel to another unlikely witness, the demoniac from whom Jesus cast out a “legion” of demons (Mark 5:1-20). It is in the events surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection that the gospels bring the testimony of women to the fore. As Ben Witherington states, “Perhaps the most surprising reversal [of male-female expectations] was that Jesus’ women friends and traveling companions, not the Twelve or even the Three [Peter, James, and John], became the primary witnesses to the crucial final events in Jesus’ earthly career – the events surrounding His death.”46 With the exception of the “beloved disciple” (John 19: 26-27), all of Jesus’ male disciples are portrayed in a negative manner during the events of his crucifixion. Judas, one of the twelve, betrays him. Peter denies him three times. The rest of the twelve flee. It is women who stay with Jesus at the cross. The only males who are portrayed positively in the crucifixion scene are the Gentile centurion who recognizes Jesus as the Son of God, and one of the thieves crucified with him. After his crucifixion, it is women who are the first to visit his tomb, and women who provide the first and primary witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection. While the women believe immediately, the male apostles are portrayed as both doubting the testimony of the women as to his resurrection, and hiding out of fear during the time of his first post-resurrection appearance to him. In the gospels, it is women who are portrayed as Jesus’ most faithful disciples during the time of his passion, and women who are the first witnesses concerning the truth of his resurrection from the dead. It is women whom the gospels portray as the church’s first evangelists.

Servanthood and Submission

Finally, christological subversion is evident in what Jesus teaches about servanthood and submission. Alan Padgett helpfully distinguishes between two different understandings of “submission” in the New Testament. The Greek words translated “submit” or “submission” in the New Testament are usually ὑποταγη (hypotagē) or ὑποτάσσω (hypotassō). Generally, the words simply mean the ordering of one thing under another. Sometimes the words mean what “submission” normally means in English, the involuntary obedience to an external authority. In this sense, the terms can be used in a military or political setting. While such obedience may be voluntary and willing, the key thing to remember is that it requires obedience to an external authority. Padgett refers to this as “Type I submission.” Advocates of complementarianism write as if this is how the term is always used in Scripture.47

However, when used with the middle voice (which has to do with actions that one does to oneself), the term can take on the sense of a voluntary submission to another person out of love, humility, or compassion. Padgett calls this “Type II submission,” a form of mutual submission, the taking up of a voluntary role of a servant or slave in relation to another.48 I will discuss this notion in more depth when I examine the apostle Paul’s discussion of the relation between men and women in Ephesians 5 in another essay,49 but, for now, I want to look at how this notion finds its roots in the teaching of Jesus and how “Type II submission” subverts and undermines the logic of “Type I submission.”

The prime example of someone taking up such a role of servanthood toward others is Jesus, who taught a model of leadership as servanthood to others.50 There are three key passages in the gospels where Jesus makes clear his own understanding of what it means to exercise leadership among his disciples.

In Mark 9:35, Jesus responds to the question that his disciples had been asking among themselves about which one of them was the greatest by telling them, “If anyone would be first of all, he must be last of all and servant of all.” In the parallel version in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus responds to the question “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” by giving the example of a child: “Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 18:4). Jesus thus reverses normal understandings of leadership and authority. Those who wish be be great in God’s kingdom must become humble, like children.

In Mark 10:35-45, Jesus responds to the request of James and John that they would be honored with prestigious positions in his kingdom by pointing them to suffering and, eventually, to the cross. Unlike the Gentiles, who lord it over one another, and who rule by exercising authority, Jesus’ disciples are voluntarily to take on the role of slaves in their relations with one another: “But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.” Jesus points to his own example, and eventually to the cross to explain the meaning of what it means to be his disciples: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:44-45).

Finally, in John’s gospel, in the story of Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet during his last meal with them, we find another example of Jesus’ subversion of the honor system. By washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus deliberately took on a task that only a slave would have done. Peter’s adamant initial refusal to allow Jesus to wash his feet illustrates the discomfort this produced. By taking on the role of a slave, Jesus engaged in humiliating and shameful behavior, which, in turn, led to a lowering of Peter’s own status.51 Again, Jesus spelled out the clear meaning of his actions: “For I have given you an example that you also should do as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who has sent him.” (John 13:16).

More will be said about the role and significance of apostleship in a separate essay (and specifically the significance of Jesus’ choice of twelve male apostles),52 but, given what Jesus says about identifying leadership in terms of taking on the role of a servant to another, it is also important what Jesus does and does not say about authority in regard to his apostles. It is noteworthy that the authority that Jesus gave to his apostles was authority over demons and unclean spirits, as well as over illness and death (Matt. 10:1, 8; Mark 3:14-15; 6:7-30, Luke 9:1). When the gospels use the word ἐξουσία (exousia, “authority”) in reference to the apostles, it is always in reference to their authority over non-human enemies of the gospel, never to human beings. Even in the case of Jesus giving to Peter the “keys” to “lose” or “bind,” the authority has to do with the proclamation of forgiveness of sins, not with teaching, preaching, or power over others (Matt. 16:19, 18:18). When Jesus forbids his disciples to rule as do the Gentiles (Matt. 20:25), the words used to describe the forbidden behavior – κατεξουσιάζω (katexousiazō, a verbal form of exousia) and κατακυριεύω (katakyrieuō) mean to “have control” or “bring into subjection.”53 What does it say that the kind of authority of men over women that complementarians insist is essential to the gospel seems to be the kind of authority of one person over another that Jesus explicitly forbids to his disciples?

These three stories make clear that Jesus repudiated the notion of authority as a simple hierarchical top-down structure, in which some simply exercise authority over others whose responsibility is simply to submit. There are indeed leaders within the Christian community, as there must be leaders in all communities, but leadership in the Christian community is interpreted in terms of self-denial and service to those whom they lead, not in terms of authority over or control of others. Jesus’ understanding of servant leadership in terms of what Padgett calls Type II submission is incompatible with and in direct contrast to Type I submission.

As Carrie Miles points out, this is another example of an undoing of the curse occasioned by the fall into sin by a call to return to the original creation. In a fallen world, anxiety about material well-being leads to an obsession for control, power over others, and status, especially for men. Jesus’ teaching about servanthood repudiates this need for control, since Jesus’ followers can trust the God who is their Father, who clothes the lilies of the field, and numbers the very hairs of their heads. This does not mean that there are no positions of leadership in the Christian community. It does mean, however, that Jesus’ followers must treat one another as true equals, not inferiors, without considerations of such things as status, or wealth, ethnic differences, or, indeed, gender. All Christians are called to serve each other mutually, and to abandon the fallen quest to pursue status and power by attempting to control or exercise power over others.54


The purpose of this essay has been to address the relevance of the person and teaching of Jesus for the question of the ordination of women. Both Catholic sacramentalists and Protestant complementarians are correct that Christology is crucial for a theology of ordination. However, in contrast to the highly abstract theories of eucharistic representation or eternal trinitarian subordination, I have taken a more concrete approach, a reading of the relevant material in the gospels to discover what Jesus actually taught and how he actually interacted with women, and, more specifically, whether one can look to the example of Jesus either to exclude women from ordained ministry or to find precedent for the notion that women should always be subordinate to male authority.

In addition, I have leaned on two specific hermeneutic tools – a narrative reading of the gospel texts, as as well as the principle of “christological subversion” – to shed light on how Jesus’ teaching and mission challenged the hierarchical “honor system” of first-century Middle Eastern and Mediterranean culture. Narrative interpretation provides guidance in interpreting the symbols and metaphors of the gospels. We find out what such terms as “kingdom of God” or “Fatherhood of God” mean not by examining abstract general notions of “monarchy” or “paternity” in general culture, whether of the past or the present, but by how the gospel narratives re-define those terms by giving them a new meaning.

The principle of christological subversion shows that, while Jesus did not set out to overthrow the first-century honor culture, his teachings and actions undermined it. Jesus did not join the Zealots in a political revolution to overthrow Roman rule, but his proclamation of the “kingdom of God” more radically undermined the claims of Caesar than did the Zealot embrace of political revolution because it made all political claims subservient to the absolute demands of God’s rule and sovereignty. Jesus did not overthrow the hierarchical structure of the patriarchal family of the first century with its absolute rule of the paterfamilias over wives, children, and slaves, and the confining of women largely to the domestic sphere. Instead, by identifying God as “Father,” Jesus offered an alternative “fictive kinship system,” in which the God who is the Father of Jesus re-defined what it means to be “Father,” a Father who both welcomes the returning prodigal and demands a loyalty that transcends that of the biological and social family.

The principle of christological subversion is clearly evident in Jesus’ relationship to women. First, Jesus treated women as human beings, not hesitating to cross cultural barriers in order to engage women equally as men, and equally capable of being his disciples. Jesus’ association with outcasts, “sinful women” such as the Samaritan woman at the well or the woman who anointed his feet, the Gentile Canaanite woman, as well as his curing of a woman whose illness made her ritually unclean, removed barriers that prevented these women from full participation in religious life.

Second, Jesus actually had women disciples. Women provided Jesus with financial support, and accompanied Jesus on his travels. Jesus taught women (such as Mary and Martha) and expected them to learn from him in a manner that evokes the teaching of a Jewish rabbi of male students. These women disciples of Jesus were among the first public witnesses to Jesus, and, when Jesus’ male apostles deserted at his crucifixion, stayed by him in his death and were the first to witness to and proclaim his resurrection. When the male apostles failed, the women were faithful disciples.

Jesus’ teachings had specific relevance to the question of the status of women in relation to men. Over against the honor culture, with its concerns for hierarchy, power and control, and economic security, Jesus appealed beyond the fallen world characterized by the curses of Genesis 3 to advocate a return to the original creation. Jesus identified the Torah’s permissibility of divorce as a concession to human sinfulness, and instead appealed to the creation accounts of Genesis 1 and 2 to affirm the status of marriage as a permanent partnership between a man and a woman. This teaching elevated the status of women in first-century culture, contrary to rabbinic teaching that permitted both polygamy and the divorce of wives by husbands, both practices that put women at an economic disadvantage. Significantly, in doing so, Jesus emphasized the equality of husband and wife, while saying nothing about “roles” of male rule or female subordination.

It is noteworthy that in Jesus’ teaching in general, there are no examples of specific teaching addressed to men as males or to women as females. While Jesus used women as figures in many of his parables, Jesus’ teachings are such as can be followed by any disciple, whether male or female. There is no evidence that Jesus ever gave specific instruction to women or to men about specific gender roles or responsibilities. When a woman called out to Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!,” he replied “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (Luke 11:27-28).

Finally, Jesus’ teaching about submission and servanthood further undermines any notion of a permanent subordination of women to men. The one area where Jesus’ teaching might be expected to address traditional gender roles would have been in the area of submission and servanthood, given that in the hierarchical structure of first-century honor culture, one might expect that a rabbi would remind subordinates like wives and slaves of their responsibilities to submit to their superiors. To the contrary, Jesus’ teaching about servanthood was addressed not to subordinates but to those who strive for positions of authority and leadership, instructing them that the leadership he expected of his disciples is a reversal of the temptations of the “honor culture” to strive for status and control of others. To the contrary, “greatness” among Jesus’ disciples is identified with voluntarily being a slave to others. The distinction that Alan Padgett makes between “Type I submission” and “Type II submission” is a further example of the principle of christological subversion. One discovers the meaning of “submission” for followers of Jesus not by turning to a standard lexicon to discover how the term was used by pagan contemporaries, but rather to the gospels themselves to discover that Jesus radically redefined the concept of leadership and submission by turning its usual meaning “upside down.” Jesus defined submission and servanthood not from the “top down,” but from the “bottom up.” Those who wish to be disciples of Jesus should remember that he gave instructions about submission not to subordinates but to those “in charge.”

It is arguably anachronistic to look to the teaching and mission of Jesus to assess whether women in the twenty-first century can be ordained to church office. Jesus did not ordain anyone, and discussion of church offices (roles of bishop, presbyter and deacon) appear in the New Testament only in the later epistles, describing a situation decades after Jesus’ earthly mission. At the same time, however, the manner in which Jesus’ teaching and mission subverted first-century assumptions about the proper cultural roles of men and women, as well as the way in which he related to women, both strangers and disciples, is relevant to the question of women’s ordination, specifically to the question of whether there is anything about Jesus’ teaching and mission that might count against the practice. The implication of this essay is that there is not. Nothing in Jesus’ teaching or relations with women implies a permanent subordination of women to men, grounded in a creation order. To the contrary, what he taught about the equality of man and woman in creation would seem to affirm the opposite, and what he taught about servanthood challenges traditional cultural assumptions about authority and power over others rather than affirms it. That Jesus had women as disciples in a manner quite at odds with first-century Jewish culture points in the direction of a challenge to those who would restrict the roles of women disciples of Jesus rather than those who would affirm them.


2 For the Catholic argument, see Sara Butler, The Catholic Priesthood and Women (Chicago: Hillenbrand Books, 2006); for the Proestant trinitarian argument, see Wayne Grudem, Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth (Sisters OR: Multonomah Publishers, 2004), 45-48, 405-433.

3Exegetically, Grudem draws on 1 Corinthians 11:3 and Ephesians 5:23. That either of these passages has anything to do with an eternal subordination of the Son to the Father and the subsequent parallel with male-female relationships is, to say the least, questionable. I discuss these passages in the following essays: “Concerning Women’s Ordination: Mutual Submission,”; “Concerning Women’s Ordination: Women in Worship and “Headship,”’s-ordination-women-in-worship.

4 Presuming the opposite is a standard hermeneutical mistake. In the nineteenth century, apologists for slavery appealed to the existence of slavery in the Old Testament, and to Paul’s exhortations to slaves to obey their masters in the New Testament as warrant for the justification of Christian slave-holding. See, for example, Philip Schaff, Slavery and the Bible: A Tract for the Times, Chambersburg, PA: M. Keifer & Co’s Caloric Printing Press, 1861.

5 Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1996), 72-73.

6 Richard Hays uses the expression “eschatological reversal,” while the late John Howard Yoder used the expression “revolutionary subordination” to mean much the same thing as what I call “christological subversion.”

7 With the exception of John’s gospel, the following summaries echo Hays (73-137), although the readings here are characteristic of standard contemporary New Testament commentaries on the gospels.

8 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV, 2: The Doctrine of Reconciliation, G. W. Bromiley, trans. (London, New York: T & T Clark, 1958) 171-175.

9 Barth, 171.

10 Barth, 177.

11 “The culture of the first-century world was built on the foundational social values of honor and dishonor.” David deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship and Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 23.

12 deSilva, 35

13 deSilva, 28.

14 Plutarch, Uneduc. Ruler 2, Mor. 780C; Philo, Hypothetica 7.3, 7.14; cited in Craig S. Keener, Paul, Women and Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1992, 2004) 165.

15 Ben Witherington III, Women in the Ministry of Jesus: A Study of Jesus’ Attitudes to Women and Their Roles as Reflected in His Earthly Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 4.

16 Plutarch, The Education of Children 1.51, 1.8c, 1.9d, 1.14b, Moralia 1.22-3, 38-9, 44-5, 66-7; cited in Ben Witherington III, Women in the Earliest Churches (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 16; Josephus, Antiquities 4.8.15; cited in Keener, 163. For the above description of first-century Jewish and Mediterranean culture, see deSilva, 80, 81,183, 184; Tikva Frymer-Kensky. In the Wake of the Goddesses: Women, Culture and the Biblical Transformation of Pagan Myth (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 214; Keener, 159-167; Witherington, Women in the Ministry of Jesus, 1-10; Women in the Earliest Churches, 5-23.

17 Keener, vi-ix.

18 deSilva, 190, 192.

19 I. Howard Marshall, “Mutual Love and Submission in Marriage,” Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy, Ronald W. Pierce and Rebecca Merrill Groothius, ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2004), 188.

20 deSilva, 29.

21 deSilva, 51.

22 Witherington, Women in the Ministry of Jesus, 11.

23 deSilva, 195; N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 430.

24 R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 301; Wright, 129.

25 Wright states: “senior members of families never do anything so undignified at the best of times, let alone in order to greet someone who should have remained in self-imposed ignominy.” Wright, 129.

26 Wright, 126.

27 Wright, 491.

28 M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VIII (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 403-404.

29 David Bentley Hart, “God or Nothingness,” I Am the Lord Your God: Reflections on the Ten Commandments, Christopher R. Seitz, Carl E. Braaten, eds. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 64-65.

30 deSilva, 70-71; Carrie A. Miles, The Redemption of Love: Rescuing Marriage and Sexuality From the Economics of a Fallen World (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006), 70-71; Wright, 290-291.

31 “Jesus’ parable . . . shatters the stereotypes of social boundaries and class division and renders void any system of religious quid pro quo.” Culpepper, “Luke,” 326-339.

32 Wright, 191-192, 431.

33 Miles, 78-79. See especially my previous essay, “Concerning Women’s Ordination: Beginning with Genesis,”

34 See especially Kenneth Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2008), 200-216; Witherington, Women in the Ministry of Jesus, 57-63; Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John,” The New Interpreter’s Bible Volume IX (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 565-573.

35 Bailey, 217-226.

36 Witherington, Women in the Ministry of Jesus, 70-75; Miles, 61-62.

37 Witherington, Women in the Ministry of Jesus, 40-45; Miles, 58-59.

38 On Genesis and subordination, again see my previous essay “Beginning with Genesis.”

39 For what follows, see Bailey, 192-193.

40 Culpepper, 232.

41 Witherington, Women in the Ministry of Jesus, 101; Culpepper, 231; Bailey, 193.

42 Witherington, Women in the Ministry of Jesus, 101.

43 Culpepper, 231.

44 Witherington, Women in the Ministry of Jesus, 103.

45 Grudem, Evangelical Feminism, 163, 164.

46 Witherington, Women in the Ministry of Jesus, 118.

47 Alan Padgett, As Christ Submits to the Church (Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic, 2011), 38, 59. Grudem and Piper write: “[T]he term always implies a relationship of submission to an authority.” John Piper and Wayne Grudem, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1991), 493n. Grudem states: “What Paul has in mind is not a vague ‘mutual submission’ where everybody is considerate and thoughtful of everybody else, but a specific kind of submission to an authority . . .” Grudem, Evangelical Feminism, 190.

48 Padgett, 38-39.

49 “Concerning Women’s Ordination: Mutual Submission,”

50 Padgett suggests that the model of “mutual submission” originates with Jesus. Padgett, 49. Also see Miles, 72 ff.

51 O’Day, 720-728; Miles, 74-76; Padgett, 55-56.

52 “Concerning Women’s Ordination: The Argument From Symbolism Part 1 (God, Christ, Apostles),”

53 Aida Besançon Spencer, “Jesus’ Treatment of Women in the Gospels,” Walter L. Liefeld, “The Nature of Authority in the New Testament,” Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy, Ronald W. Pierce, Rebecca Merrill Groothius, Gordon D. Fee, eds. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 126-141, 254-271.

54 Miles, 72-76. Padgett states similarly: “Jesus rejects this common, worldly way of thinking about authority as a kind of hierarchy of ‘power-over.’ Instead, his disciples must be the servants of all . . . In terms of the life, ministry, and teaching of Jesus, the reason for this utter change of attitude and behavior from man’ centered hierarchies of power is absolutely decisive . . . The way of the cross is directly tied to taking up the role of a servant. Servant leadership is the sign of greatness and precedence in the reign and realm of God.” Padgett, 45, 52.


  1. Bill,

    Please do not worry @ visits! I know you’re praying, I know you’ve been sick, this article is worth 20 visits!!!

    I’m so grateful to have your cogent & concise mapmaking here. The focus on hermeneutics and ” christological subversion” is absolutely spot on. I love the way you build the argument and stay in the text.

    Much love,

    Comment by Martha — March 9, 2014 @ 10:19 am

  2. Wow! I have a few little questions, and there are many particular insights that I would be underlining and highlighting if this was a book, but they are insignificant in light of the overall argument. I love that you went with such a BROAD sweeping look at the themes of Jesus’ ministry, and how he was subverting and liberating all over the place; it places his actions toward women in a much more balanced context. Jesus wasn’t exactly a women’s libber; his attitude toward women was just one perfectly logical bit of him turning the world upside down.


    Comment by Rebecca — September 19, 2014 @ 12:45 am

  3. Rebecca,

    I had added a plugin to my blog that allows you to print the post either as a pdf or simply “as is.” You can then underline and highlight all you want. Click on the little PDF or “printer” icon at the top of the article.


    Comment by William Witt — September 19, 2014 @ 10:27 pm

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