In previous essays in this series on women’s ordination I have identified two very different groups who are opposed 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 essay, 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.
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 (Southern 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 North 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. Grudem has also written a Systematic Theology, in which he articulates a Calvinist soteriology, verbal plenary inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, as well as his complementarian views. Most recently, Grudem has written Politics for the Bible: A Comprehensive Resource for Understanding Modern Political Issues in Light of Scripture,3 in which he argues for political positions that are basically in line with the “conservative” Republican movement in American politics, that is, lower tax rates, a strong military, a free market approach to health care, opposition to gun control, skepticism about global warming.4 While Grudem’s opposition to women’s ordination is not necessarily a direct consequence of his other theological and political views, those positions do make clear that he stands within the broad spectrum of the theological and political “Evangelical Right.”
How prominent is Grudem’s position? Grudem writes as if he is simply defending the church’s historic theological position. He certainly has had an influence far beyond his significance as a single theological writer, and there are, as noted above, entire denominations, parachurch organizations, and seminaries where “complementarian” theology would be normative. At the same time, Grudem is a single individual, and he represents a position that is not embraced by many (perhaps most?) Evangelical Protestants these days. In his book, Evangelical Feminism: A New Path to Liberalism,5 Grudem has a chapter in which he laments “Places Where Evangelical Feminism Already Has Much Influence.” In this chapter, he worries that what he calls the “evangelical feminist position” is the “dominant position” at such standard Evangelical institutions as Wheaton College, Azusa Pacific University, Denver Seminary, Fuller Seminary, Gordon-Conwell Seminary, Bethel Seminary, Asbury Seminary, Regent College-Vancouver, InterVarsity Press, Baker Books, Christianity Today, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and the Lausanne Committee on World Evangelism, among other organizations. The “Christians for Biblical Equality” website has endorsements from numerous Evangelical theologians and church leaders, and, of course, such prominent orthodox Evangelical Anglican theologians as N.T. Wright have made recent theological statements supporting women’s ordination. Is it more likely (as Grudem claims) that all of these people are part of a “new path to liberalism” among Evangelical Christians who have rejected the authority of Scripture, or rather, that his position represents only one position, and a position that many (in some places a majority of) Evangelical Christians do not hold?
What is “complementarianism”? Grudem provides a definition in Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth. Complementarianism is the position that (1) “men and women are equal in value and dignity,” but (2) “men and women have different roles in marriage as part of the created order.” At first read, few would disagree with this. All mainstream contemporary Christians believe that men and women are equal in value and dignity. And, certainly, men and women have different roles in marriage. After all, only a man can be a husband and father. Only a woman can be a wife and mother. But Grudem means more than this. By “different roles,” Grudem means that there is a permanent hierarchy within marriage. As part of the creation order, men always have a role of “headship,” by which Grudem means “authority over” women. Within marriage, this means that the primary responsibility of the husband is to “to provide for, to protect, and to lead his family.” The primary responsibility of the wife is “to respect her husband and serve as his helper.” Again, the “man’s responsibility [is] to provide for and protect, and the woman’s responsibility [is] to care for the home and to nurture children.”6 (These roles cannot be reversed.)
Essentially, this translates to a permanent hierarchical relation between men and women. Men lead, teach, and exercise authority. Women follow, learn, and submit to male authority. In addition, this hierarchical subordination translates outside the sphere of marriage as well, particularly in the area of the church, where men (and men only) exercise all functions of public leadership and authority. Women are allowed to exercise some forms of ministry within the church, but never in areas of public leadership or speaking, and never in ways that might involve exercising authority over men. Grudem provides a detailed list of positions that must be restricted to men: president of a denomination, senior pastor in a local church, preaching in the pulpit to the whole church, teaching Bible or theology in a seminary or Christian college, leading a home Bible study that includes both men and women. At the same time, Grudem suggests that both men and women can do the following: be director of Christian education, a Sunday school superintendent, choir director, administrative assistant to senior pastor, or church secretary, teach a high school Sunday school class, write a book on Bible doctrines or a commentary on a book of the Bible, teach a women’s Sunday school class or Bible study group, teach Vacation Bible School, teach as a Bible professor at a secular(!) university, be an evangelistic missionary, perform a baptism, help serve the Lord’s Supper, sing in the choir, give a testimony at a church service.
Two observations follow:
Although Grudem insists that men and women are “equal in dignity and value,” but merely have “different roles” within the church, the difference in roles applies to only one sex. While women are excluded from certain roles in the church simply because they are women, men are excluded from no roles simply because they are men.
The above pattern of permissible church roles for women has a striking resemblance to the kinds of roles that women regularly would have played in American Protestant churches in the 1950’s, the time during which Grudem grew up: church secretary, choir director, singing in the choir, teaching children. Even the one area where Grudem allows a woman to exercise a form of public ministry – be an evangelistic missionary – was an area where women were traditionally allowed a certain freedom among American Protestants before the rise of the modern women’s movement. From my own childhood, I remember the “Lottie Moon Christmas Offering,” an annual collection in Southern Baptist churches to support mission work. Charlotte Digges “Lottie” Moon (December 12, 1840 – December 24, 1912) was a Southern Baptist missionary to China in the late 1800’s and early 20th century. While Southern Baptists still do not ordain women to minister in their own churches, their theology has not prevented them from honoring a woman who preached to and taught the content of Christian faith to non-Christians on the other side of the world. The kinds of roles that Grudem suggests for men and women in the home has a surprising correspondence to the kinds of roles that men and women played in the nuclear family of the 1950’s in such television shows as Leave it to Beaver, Ozzie and Harriet or Father Knows Best. One wonders whether “complementarianism” does not represent so much a concern for biblical authority as a nostalgia for a kind of Evangelical Protestant era that no longer exists.
How does complementarianism differ from the historic reasons for church opposition to women’s ordination? As I argued in a previous essay, historic opposition to women’s ordination was rooted in a notion of ontological inequality – that women could not exercise positions of leadership because they were less intelligent, emotionally unstable, and more subject to temptation. In contrast to this earlier position, complementarians insist that they affirm the essentially equality of women and men, which is all to the good. At the same time, insofar as they depart from the earlier rationale, the logic of opposition to women’s roles of leadership is the more difficult to justify. If women are not inferior to men in terms of intelligence, emotionally stability, or susceptibility to temptation, what is that essential difference that makes men capable of exercising leadership and authority, but not women?
The claim of a distinction between roles also makes less sense when it is noted that the distinction works only one way. Within the church, men are inherently capable of exercising roles that are reserved exclusively to men, but also to exercise all roles that women can fulfill. Within the church, it is only women who have exclusive roles, and specifically the role of being excluded from any position of public speaking, teaching, or exercising authority over men. In addition, there are some odd exceptions. Women may not teach the Bible publicly to men in the church, but they may write books or commentaries on the Bible, which men certainly might read. They cannot exercise ministry or preach in a church, but they can preach or teach the Bible to non-Christians in a missionary setting. (If their male hearers were to convert to Christianity, would these women missionaries now need to submit to the authority of these new converts and no longer be allowed to preach to or teach them?) Women cannot teach theology or the Bible in a seminary, but they may do so in a secular university setting. (But what if some of the students in the secular university were Christian men? Would the same female professor be able to teach a male student in a university setting, but not be able to teach the same male student in a Bible study that she could lead in her local church?)
How does the new complementarian position differ from the new Catholic position in opposition to the ordination of women? In the most fundamental way. The new Catholic position no longer bases opposition to women’s ordination in any way on perceived differences in freedom to preach, teach, or exercise authority over men. In particular, the biblical passages to which complementarians appeal to support the subordination of women to men are simply no longer considered relevant for Catholic opposition to women’s ordination. Pope John Paul II in his Theology of the Body, interpreted Genesis 1 to 3 to mean that men and women are fundamentally equal in marriage. It is only as a result of the fall that women have found themselves subordinate to men. John Paul II regarded Paul’s assertion in Galatians 3:28 that there is “no male and female” in Christ to imply a fundamental equality between men and women within the family and the church. He interpreted Ephesians 5 – a classic complementarian proof text – to teach a mutual submission in light of verse 21. If wives are to submit to their husbands (verse 22), then husbands also are to submit to their wives. The pope stated: “All the reasons in favor of the ‘subjection’ of woman to man in marriage must be understood in the sense of a ‘mutual subjection’ of both ‘out of reverence for Christ.’ ” Roman Catholic author Sara Butler notes that “[t]his applies not just to husbands and wives but to all relations between men and women in the community of the redeemed.”7
Accordingly, defenders of Catholic opposition to women’s ordination are nonetheless emphatic that recognition of the equality of women implies that women can fulfill precisely the kinds of roles that complementarians would deny them. Butler notes the differences between the 1917 and the 1983 Code of Catholic Canon Law. In 1917, Catholic married women were considered to be “subject” to their husbands. Women were to be seated separately at liturgical services, excluded from the choir, and various church societies. Women “religious” were required to travel in pairs. Women were not allowed to participate in such activities as diocesan synods. In the 1983 Code of Canon Law, “women now have essentially the same juridical status as men in the Catholic Church.” Non-ordained women may now participate in diocesan synods, be members of parish councils, serve as diocesan chancellors, teach theology, philosophy, and canon law in seminaries. They can, if necessary, fulfill numerous tasks traditionally done by the ordained: they can preach, baptize, officiate at weddings, assist in parish care. Butler writes: “In principle, if not in practice, the equal access of women and men to the non-ordained ministries – apart from installation as lector and acolyte – has now been secured.”8 In other words, for Catholics, women can now perform all of those tasks that complementarians would regard as prohibited because of the differences between men’s and women’s “roles.” For Catholics, the single ecclesial responsibility still reserved exclusively to ordained males is celebration of the sacraments. Ironically, perhaps, this is one of those areas of ecclesial ministry that Grudem sees no need to reserve to males.
The Significance of Hermeneutics
A central issue for the discussion of the biblical texts to which complementarians appeal is the recognition that the crucial issues of disagreement are primarily hermeneutical, not exegetical. There are disagreements about exegetical issues, of course. For example, what did Paul mean by “headship” in 1 Corinthians and Ephesians? Was Junia a female apostle? However, while such issues are important, the key issue has to do with hermeneutics: How does the church apply what we find written in the Bible to our contemporary situation? Both sides agree that in significant portions of the Bible, women are subordinate to men. Both sides agree that St. Paul said in Ephesians that women should submit to their husbands, and elsewhere that women should be silent in church. The larger hermeneutical concerns center around what the significance of certain biblical texts was during the times when Scripture was written, and what their implications are for today.
The complementarian position is that the subordination of women to men is rooted in creation; God’s intention in creating humanity is that men should be in authority, and should teach, and that women should be subject to male authority, and should not teach or exercise authority over men. The position of Evangelical egalitarians is rather that the subordination of women in the Bible (particularly in the Old Testament) reflects the setting of Near Eastern patriarchal culture, but is no more a permanent divine intention than are other aspects of that Near Eastern environment. Concerning the New Testament, egalitarians tend to argue that the several controversial New Testament passages are either addressing specific situations that do not have universal significance, or that they have been misinterpreted as advocating hierarchy. While Grudem himself insists that the differences in interpretation amount to a clear choice between an acceptance of biblical authority (his own position) and a rejection of it (the egalitarian position, or what he insists on calling “evangelical feminism,”),9 he seems unaware that his own position involves just as much hermeneutical interpretation and application as that to which he is opposed. For example, Grudem interprets Paul’s statement that “the women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak” (1 Corinthians 14:34) to mean that women should not engage in public preaching or public teaching of men or exercise of leadership over men. But this goes beyond what Paul says. A literal reading of Paul’s words would be that women should be absolutely silent and never speak a word in a church setting. This seems to defy common sense, and to be in conflict with what Paul says elsewhere, so Grudem engages in a process of speculative hermeneutical interpretation; he does not subscribe to the literal meaning of what Paul actually wrote, but interprets this in light of what he thinks that Paul must have meant, and then arrives at suggestions at how this might be applied today. (For example, Grudem allows women to sing in choirs, to give public testimonies in a church service, and to teach Sunday school classes to children, none of which Paul actually mentions, and all of which would be in violation of a literal reading that “women should be silent in the churches.”)
There is also a fundamental theological disagreement at the heart of the issue. Complementarians insist that male-female hierarchy is rooted in creation itself, and represents God’s intentions for humanity for all times and all places. The fall into sin has aggravated and distorted dimensions of the essential difference between men and women, but the fundamental subordination of women to men is not the result of sin. To the contrary, egalitarians agree that there are fundamental differences between men and women, and that men and women are indeed complementary to one another in various ways; however, the fundamental subordination of women to men is the result of sin, not God’s intention for humanity in creation.10
Despite Grudem’s claims, such fundamental theological differences cannot be resolved by a straightforward literal reading of the handful of biblical texts to which he appeals. First, the key theological points at issue cannot be settled by a literal reading of the texts. For example, Grudem insists that female subordination was intended in the original creation, apart from the fall; yet the first mention of female subordination does not occur in Scripture until Genesis 3:16, in which God tells Eve after the first sin that “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” A plain-sense reading of the text would suggest that female subordination was a consequence of sin, but Grudem provides a series of arguments to make the case that female subordination can be inferred in Genesis 1 and 2 even though it is not explicitly mentioned.11 However, the very need for inference demonstrates that the complementarian position does not derive from a straightforward literal reading of Scripture. In addition, other key New Testament passages on which Grudem’s argument depends (1 Corinthians 11, 1 Timothy 2:15) are notoriously difficult to interpret. What is the discussion of head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11 actually about? If this passage is teaching that women are supposed to be in subordination to men, then why does the actual Greek of verse 10 say that a “woman ought to have authority (exousia) over her head” (that is, it is the woman’s own authority), precisely the opposite of the misleading English translations that imply that a woman’s head covering represents her husband’s authority over her head? What is the social setting that Paul is addressing in his discussion of Adam and Eve in 1 Timothy, and what could he possibly mean when he says that “women will be saved through childbirth”? A careful reading of the original Greek of Ephesians 5 casts doubt on the complementarian interpretation, misleadingly encouraged by standard English translations, that it is wives (alone) who are being asked to submit to their husbands. Numerous exegetes agree that Paul is teaching mutual submission. Grudem places a tremendous amount of weight on the interpretation of the metaphor of “headship” that Paul uses in 1 Corinthians and Ephesians, insisting that the Greek word kephalē when used as a metaphor in these passages can only mean “have authority over,” but numerous competent New Testament scholars have argued in recent years that, while this is a normal understanding of the metaphor in modern English, it was not necessarily the case for the understanding of the Greek usage of the metaphor at the time that Paul wrote. The above are just some of the problems with the complementarian insistence that advocates of women’s ordination are willfully rejecting the plain teaching of Scripture.
As Methodist theologian Alan G. Padgett has noted, “careful biblical exegesis is an essential and happy obligation, but it is not enough. The Bible is the word of God and contains all things necessary for salvation. But the Bible does not always answer our contemporary questions.”12 Padgett reminds us that exegesis is necessary, but exegesis alone will not give rise to Christian ethics. As someone who teaches both systematic theology and Christian ethics in an Evangelical seminary, I am astonished at what seems to me to be a kind of naïve biblicism in the complementarian approach to reading Scripture.
I would suggest that there is a kind of historical parallel to the debate between complementarians and advocates of women’s equality and ordination in an earlier disagreement in church history. In the debate between Puritans and Anglicans in the sixteenth century, disagreement settled around a basic question of biblical hermeneutics. Puritans advocated a regulative principle of biblical interpretation: whatever was not specifically commanded in Scripture was absolutely forbidden. To the contrary, in his The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Anglican Divine Richard Hooker advocated a permissive hermeneutic for interpreting Scripture: whatever was not specifically forbidden was permitted. But even more, the Puritans seemed to have had a simplistic understanding of how to read the Bible – one that assumed that it was only necessary to read a biblical text to understand not only what it meant at the time it was written, but also how it might be applied in the church at a later time. Against this, Hooker established principles of interpretation based on differences between natural law, revealed law, and positive law. According to Hooker, although Scripture contains many examples of divine precepts and laws, not everything that is either recorded or taught in Scripture is intended to be normative and valid for all time. What Hooker calls “positive law” may have had an application for a particular time and place in the history of revelation and salvation, but does not necessarily have permanent validity. Of great significance for contemporary application, merely historical statements recorded in Scripture cannot be presumed to provide permanent warrants for later Christian practice. Hooker asked: “When that which the word of God doth but deliver historically, we counter without any warrant as if it were legally meant, and so urge it further than we can prove it was intended, do we not add to the laws of God, and make them in number seem more than they are?”13 Accordingly, in applying the teaching of Scripture to contemporary settings, the church has to exercise reason – what we would today call “hermeneutics” – to determine which parts of Scripture have permanent validity for contemporary Christian practice, which have continuing relevance, and in what manner, and which simply are not for practice in the church today. This is not placing the authority of the contemporary church over the authority of Scripture. It is to take the authority of Scripture seriously by recognizing that not everything in Scripture has a direct contemporary application.
In recent years, several writers have addressed how to read Scripture in such a way as to respect its original historical setting, and how to make the attempt to apply the teaching of Scripture to a very different contemporary setting, and to do so in such a way that Scripture retains its authority. In one contemporary parallel to Hooker’s hermeneutical recognition that not everything in Scripture is intended as an admonition to be followed for all time, New Testament scholar Ben Witherington distinguishes between those things that Scripture “teaches,” and those things that it merely “touches on.”14 Witherington suggests various hermeneutical principles for reading and applying Scripture in a contemporary setting, and notes that making the transition between two very different cultures in different historical periods is not a simple task: “The basic rule of thumb is that while principles remain the same, practices often do and should change with the differing cultural situations.”15 Other examples include the hermeneutical principles that Richard Hays suggests in his now standard textbook The Moral Vision of the New Testament,16 the series of essays contained in The Art of Reading Scripture17 and Knowing the Triune God: The Work of the Spirit in the Practices of the Church,18 the canonical approach of Brevard Childs,19 John Webster’s Holy Scripture,20 or recently, N.T. Wright’s Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today.21 Such approaches do not compromise the authority of Scripture. They do recognize that there is a difference between what Scripture teaches, what a modern interpreter understands it to have taught, and how contemporary Christians might apply that teaching today. They also are clear that contemporary application of the teaching of Scripture is not the kind of simple move that complementarians seem to make from “women were subordinate to men in various places in the Bible” to “women must be subordinate to men at all times and in all places.”
Future essays will address the specific exegetical questions that are central to the complementarian position.
1 (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1991)
2 (Sisters, OR: Multonomah Publishers, 2004).
3 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010).
4 Grudem’s approach contrasts with that of my friend David Koyzis, who argues in Political Visions and Illusions: A Survey and Critique of Contemporary Ideologies (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003) that the embracing of any political ideology by Christians – conservative, liberal, nationalist, democratic, socialist – is a case of idolatry.
5 (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2006).
6 Grudem, Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth, 25, 29, 44.
7 Sara Butler, The Catholic Priesthood and Women (Chicago/Mundelein, ILL: 2006), 34-37
8 Butler, 30-31, 33.
9 “[M]any people in leadership are deciding that the egalitarian view is just not what the Bible teaches.” Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth, 51; “The common denominator in all of this is a persistent undermining of the authority of Scripture in our lives,” Evangelical Feminism, 261.
10 Contrast the statements of the complementarian “Danvers Statement” (1987), and egalitarian “Men, Women and Biblical Equality” published by Christians for Biblical Equality: “Distinctions in masculine and feminine roles are ordained by God as part of the created order . . . . Adam’s headship in marriage was established by God before the fall, and was not a result of sin.” (Danvers Statement) “The Bible teaches that the rulership of Adam over Eve resulted from the Fall and was therefore, not a part of the created order . . .” (CBE); cited by Grudem, Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth, 29.
11 Grudem, Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth, 30-42.
12 Alan Padgett, As Christ Submits to the Church: A Biblical Understanding of Leadership and Mutual Submission (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 14.
13 Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity III. v. 1; cited in Stephen Sykes, “Richard Hooker and the Ordination of Women,” Unashamed Anglicanism (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 88.
14 Ben Witherington III, The Living Word of God: Rethinking the Theology of the Bible (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2007).
15 Witherington, 169.
16 Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation, A Contemporary Introduction to Christian Ethics (NY: HarperCollins, 1996).
17 Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays, eds. The Art of Reading Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003).
18 James Buckley and David Yeago, eds. Knowing the Triune God: The Work of the Spirit in the Practices of the Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001).
19 Brevard Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments: Theological Reflection on the Christian Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992).
20 John Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
21 N. T. Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today (NY: HarperCollins, 2013).