Several years ago, I wrote an essay entitled General Convention and Its Aftermath: Non-theological Interpretations and a Theological Alternative, which was published in The Trinity Journal For Theology and Ministry, fall 2008. In this essay, I looked at the explanations that were being offered for the theological crisis that overtook the Episcopal Church after General Convention 2003, and argued that the dominant evaluations were based on pragmatic or secular political considerations, and that the issue needed to be addressed in a properly theological manner instead. The three primary non-theological arguments (1) echoed the political rhetoric of the culture wars, (2) argued against a so-called “Fundamentalist” takeover of the Church, (3) and argued for diversity over against exclusivity. In each case, the evaluation leaned more on emotional rhetoric rather than careful argument, and in no case were properly theological concerns addressed. I argued that the real crisis in the Episcopal Church was a loss of theological integrity, that the ordination of a practicing gay bishop was symptomatic of a loss of faith in the key doctrinal subject matter of Christian faith, and that the real dividing issue was not about sexuality but about Christology and the meaning of salvation.
Concerning women’s ordination, I find an uncomfortable parallel between the kinds of arguments used by advocates of the new “inclusivist” theology in the Episcopal and other mainline churches, and many of the arguments used by opponents of women’s ordination; in both cases, many of the arguments are not properly theological. Many of the arguments used by opponents of women’s ordination are reverse-mirror images of the kinds of arguments that were used by advocates for the ordination of a gay bishop a decade ago.
In what follows, I want to address some of these non-theological arguments against women’s ordination. The following sections in italics are my summary of actual non-theological arguments against women’s ordination that I have encountered. They are used frequently enough as to be considered “standard” arguments.
The practice of ordaining women was introduced into the church by liberal theologians. The ordination of women is part of a radical secularist egalitarian agenda, and those in favor of women’s liberation share these same secularist assumptions. So-called “orthodox” advocates for women’s ordination “stand on the shoulders” of these radical liberals, and ultimately share the same questionable egalitarian assumptions.
There is also an inherent connection between the ordination of women and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. Both are based on the same individualist assumptions; both use the same egalitarian arguments, and embracing one cause inevitably and logically leads to the other. So there should be no surprise that the ordination of women in the Episcopal Church was followed shortly after by the ordination of a gay bishop.
A quick glance at the above arguments reveals a kind of “funhouse mirror” reverse logic to the liberal arguments I referred to in my earlier essay. If advocates of “inclusivism” argued that their opponents are part of a “right-wing” conspiracy, opponents of women’s ordination argue that advocates are part of a “liberal secularist” conspiracy. If advocates of “inclusivism” argued that their opponents are part of a “fundamentalist takeover” of the church, opponents of women’s ordination argue that advocates of women’s ordination are part of a “liberal takeover” of the church. If advocates of “inclusivism” argued in favor of “diversity” against the “exclusiveness” of their opponents, opponents of women’s ordination argue for “hierarchy” or different gender “roles” in contrast to the “egalitarianism” of their opponents. In each case, the arguments rather cancel each other out. How does one assess whether a “right-wing conspiracy” is worse than a “liberal” one, or vice versa, whether the real “takeover” is on the part of fundamentalists or liberals, whether inclusiveness and diversity are better than exclusiveness, or, rather, whether, traditional gender roles are better than egalitarianism? Several of the above arguments are also logically fallacious. Even if true, the argument that women’s ordination was originally advocated by liberal Protestants, is a post hoc, proper hoc fallacy. It does not follow that, because many of the advocates of women’s ordination in the 1970’s were theological liberals, that there is an inherent connection between advocacy of women’s ordination and liberal theology. Many who argued for civil rights for racial minorities just preceding the period that women’s ordination first became an issue were also theological liberals, but it does not therefore follow that to be in favor of civil liberties for racial minorities is to stand on the shoulders of liberals, or that to be in favor of civil rights for racial minorities will inevitably lead to liberal theology. As the old saying goes, even a broken clock is right twice a day. While not right about everything, liberals may well have gotten some things right. Presumably, liberals who marched for voting rights and racial equality in the 1960’s were right about that, and we would not want to go back to the days of racial segregation or the time when African-Americans had to use separate drinking fountains and ride in the back of buses simply because some of the advocates of civil rights (such as William Sloan Coffin) were theological liberals.
Moreover, the argument can also be turned on its head. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in response to a letter written by eight white Birmingham clergy (including two Episcopal bishops) calling for a cessation of civil rights demonstrations being led by “outsiders.”1 King’s letter is considered a theological classic, making the case for the political implications of Christian faith. Presumably, these clergy who opposed King were “orthodox” in their theology. Would one want to draw the connection that there is an inherent connection between “orthodox” theology and opposition to civil rights? Granted that there is a chronological proximity between the time in which liberal theology came to ascendancy in the Episcopal Church and the approval of women’s ordination in the Episcopal Church, it does not follow that the connection between the two is either straightforward or that there is a clear theological connection between women’s ordination and liberal theology – any more than the resistance to the civil rights movement and racial equality by some “orthodox” Christians in the 1960’s implies a logical correlation between Christian orthodoxy and opposition to racial equality.
Nor does it follow that the connection is a common commitment to a secular agenda of egalitarianism. Drawing such a simplistic connection shows a rather short-sided view of history. I would suggest that there is a connection between the ordination of women and a social movement for liberty and equality, but its roots lie further back, much further back. The first advocates of the ordination of women made their case not in the 1960’s, but a century earlier, immediately after the American Civil War. It is not a coincidence that the case for women’s ordination was first made right after the emancipation of African slaves and that the first advocates of women’s ordination had also been abolitionists.2 It is also not a coincidence that many of the leaders of the women’s suffrage movement were Christian women, and that women’s suffrage followed in the aftermath of the liberation of the slaves. It is also not a coincidence that the modern case for women’s ordination appeared immediately after the modern civil rights movement. They are connected, but the connection is not secularist, but specifically Christian.
In the introductory Christian ethics course I teach, I have my students read a number of documents tracing the rise of Christian social ethics. The first is Martin Luther’s “Against the Murdering, Thieving Hordes of Peasants.”3 Among Luther’s contributions to theology was his notion of secular vocation, that a secular calling to be a magistrate or merchant was just as much a divine calling as the vocation to ordained ministry. Luther’s notion of Christian liberty was an equally significant theological contribution. Luther was appalled, however, when those involved in the Peasants’ Revolt appealed to his ideas to argue for social implications of equality and social and economic freedom. Against the peasants, Luther insisted that the freedom of a Christian was a spiritual matter, and had nothing to do with political or social liberty.
In the next few centuries, however, theologians embraced the social implications of Christian liberty that Luther refused. John Wesley made the argument in his “Thoughts on Slavery” that Christian freedom includes not only spiritual freedom, but freedom in one’s person, and thus slavery is incompatible with Christian faith.4 William Wilberforce was the Evangelical Anglican member of Parliament who led the campaign to abolish the British slave trade, and John Newton’s hymn “Amazing Grace” was written by a former slave trader who, after his conversion, eventually became an abolitionist.5 The abolitionist movement in the United States was also led by Christians, both whites and blacks who were former slaves.
After slavery, Christian thinkers addressed the question of worker’s rights. The Roman Catholic social encyclicals Rerum Novarum, Quadragissimo Anno, Pacem in Terris, as well as Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes argued that the Christian gospel provides salvation not only to individual Christians, but also renews and advances culture, and promotes liberty and equality among all peoples.6 Although the focus of the earlier encyclicals was on the rights of workers (in opposition to the errors of both socialism and capitalism), Gaudium et Spes went beyond this to speak of issues of war and peace, the arts, and the Christian family. Significantly, Gaudium et Spes made a significant advance over previous Roman Catholic teaching by speaking of the equality of women in the same context in which it spoke of the equality of workers: “Where they have not yet won it, women claim for themselves an equity with men before the law and in fact.” Gaudium et Spes consistently writes of both men and women rather than simply men, and states: “Women now work in almost all spheres. It is fitting that they are able to assume their proper role in accordance with their own nature. It will belong to all to acknowledge and favor the proper and necessary participation of women in the cultural life.” This is a significant shift from earlier Catholic teaching. (There are significant parallels to the social teaching of the Catholic social encyclicals in other Christian movements of the time. Among Anglicans, the so-called “Christian Socialism” movement, associated with figures such as F.D. Maurice, B.F. Westcott, and, later, Charles Gore, is a parallel.)7
Given the significance of the Civil Rights movement of the following years in the United States, and of the later anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, it is perhaps surprising that Gaudium et Spes says little about race. Significantly, it does prohibit discrimination either on the basis of race or of sex: “Nevertheless, with respect to the fundamental rights of the person, every type of discrimination, whether social or cultural, whether based on sex, race, color, social condition, language or religion, is to be overcome and eradicated as contrary to God’s intent.” Given the little attention that Gaudium et Spes gave to racism, Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was timely.
In the light of these advances beyond the limitations of Luther’s understanding of Christian liberty, it is evident that in the last several hundred years Christians have come to recognize that the notions of Christian liberty and equality have implications not only for salvation, but also for social liberty as well, including freedom in one’s person, freedom in the work place, racial equality, and, finally, equality between the sexes. It is this notion of Christian freedom and equality that is the impetus for a properly orthodox case for women’s ordination, and not a secularist notion of egalitarianism.
Granted, for every advance in understanding of Christian liberty and equality, there have been secular counterparts. The counterpart to the anti-slavery movement and the social concerns of Evangelicals in the nineteenth century was the secularist French Revolution. The counterpart to concerns about the rights of workers expressed by Christian socialists and Catholic social encyclicals were the Communist Manifesto and Marxist socialism. The counterpart to Martin Luther King, Jr’s non-violent marches were the Black Panthers and the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) with their calls for political revolution. And the counterpart to orthodox Christian calls for the ordination of women is no doubt secular feminism. And, just as Luther was opposed to the demands of the peasants, so there have been orthodox Christians who opposed all of the above movements. Neither secular parallels nor opposition by some Christians invalidates the legitimacy of the gradual recognition by Christians of the last several hundreds of years of the implications of Christian liberty and equality, including the ordination of women.
Is there, then, an inherent connection between the ordination of women, the ordination of practicing homosexuals and the collapse of orthodoxy in the Episcopal (and other mainline) churches? There is a connection in the sense that those liberal Protestants who have embraced both women’s ordination and gay liberation, view both as a further implication of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, and that these same people have succeeded in taking over the leadership of the Episcopal Church and other mainline denominations. However, liberal Protestantism is not a new movement. It existed well before the issue of women’s ordination. For example, Karl Barth and the Confessing Church resisted a German Christian Church that endorsed Nazism that was also a largely liberal Protestant Church, but which certainly did not embrace the ordination of women. (And, no, this is not an example of Godwin’s Law. I am not saying that either contemporary liberal Protestants or opponents of women’s ordination are Nazis.) Just as orthodox Christians can agree with liberal Protestants in embracing racial equality, while disagreeing with liberal Protestants about endorsing same-sex unions, so they can endorse women’s ordination without endorsing same-sex unions. And they can endorse the ordination of women while remaining orthodox Christians, indeed, not in spite of their orthodox faith, but because of it. (As I mentioned in the first essay in this series, it is significant that many of the most prominent orthodox Christian critics of same-sex sexuality have also been advocates of women’s ordination: Richard Hays, Ben Witherington, N.T. Wright, Robert Gagnon, etc.)
But the practice of ordaining women was the beginning of the collapse of orthodoxy in the Episcopal Church (or other mainline churches). A key question is whether women’s ordination has caused more harm than good to the church. Even a cursory examination shows that the consequence of women’s ordination in the Episcopal Church (or elsewhere) has been a disaster. Wherever women have been ordained, theological compromise has followed.
The above observation is a misleading one. Certainly the ordination of women with liberal Protestant convictions in the Episcopal Church (and elsewhere) has been one of the major factors in the collapse of orthodoxy in the mainline churches, especially since many of these women have been advocates of a revisionist feminist theology. The problem here, however, is not the sex of the people holding the theology, but the theology itself. There have been numerous male theologians who have embraced the same liberal Protestant theology, and their theology would be as dubious, even if it had not a single ordained woman advocate. The question should rather be addressed on a case-by-case basis. One could equally ask, has the admission of men to clerical status been a blessing or curse to the Christian community? Which men under which circumstances, at which period in history? Athanasius? Arius? Cyril? Nestorius? Innocent III? Martin Luther? Cardinal Wolsey? Thomas Cranmer? John Calvin? William Laud? Dietrich Bonhoeffer? The bishops of the Deutsche Christe? Michael Ramsey? Rowan Williams? Karl Barth? Rudolf Bultmann? John Spong? N.T. Wright? All were/are male. All were/are ordained.
A more helpful question would be: Has the ordination of women of orthodox theological convictions been (on the whole) a blessing or curse for the church? By women with orthodox theological convictions, I mean women such as the women who teach at or are students at the seminary where I teach, or the ordained African women who come there to study, who gladly embrace every article of the Creed, and affirm without hesitation the authority of Scripture, but differ on the particular question of women’s ordination. Equating such women with Kathrine Jefferts Schori or Mary Glasspool is as unfair as equating N.T. Wright with Jack Spong.
But no one has a “right” to be ordained. Those who advocate women’s ordination are appealing to a language of individual “rights” that is incompatible with Christian orthodoxy.
The question of a “right” to ordination is a fallacy of ambiguity. Certainly, no individual as an individual has a “right” to ordination. However, this applies to men as well as women. The proper theological question has to do with whether the church should refuse ordination to a particular group of human beings as a class simply because they belong to that class. Arguments must be made as to whether women as a class cannot be properly ordained. Whether such arguments are valid is the crucial issue. Pointing out that no individual as an individual has a right to be ordained is a red herring.
The argument in favor of ordaining women is the same argument as the argument for ordaining men.
Premise: Some human beings should be ordained.
Minor premise: Women are human beings.
Conclusion: Therefore some women should be ordained.
To the contrary, argue the opponents of women’s ordination, that is the wrong major premise. The argument should rather be:
Counter premise: Some male human beings should be ordained.
Minor premise: Women are not males.
Conclusion: Therefore no woman should be ordained.
Scripture (presumably) speaks of the ordination of males to the presbyterate.8 However, it is not self-evident in the passages where it does so whether those males are ordained in virtue of their maleness or in virtue of their humanity. The initial plausibility is that they are ordained because of their humanity because the kinds of things that they are required to do are the kinds of things that human beings in general are capable of doing, for example, preaching, teaching, leading others, or, (although not mentioned in Scripture), administering the sacraments. If an argument is to be made against the ordination of women, it needs to be an actual argument that makes the case that only male human beings can be ordained by virtue of something specifically significant to their being male, and that excludes women from being ordained by virtue of something specifically significant to their being female. The burden of proof is thus on those who oppose women’s ordination.
It is indeed the case that no individual has a right to be ordained, but the question to be addressed is not about individuals but about a class of human beings. No individual male human being has the right to be ordained, but the advocates of male-only ordination certainly believe that males as a class have a “right” to be ordained in a way that women as a class do not. Should the church discriminate against a particular class of human beings as a class when it comes to ordination?
But the church discriminates against all kinds of classes of human beings when it comes to ordination. Unbelievers cannot be ordained; the mentally defective or the insane cannot be ordained. Practicing homosexuals cannot be ordained. Children cannot be ordained. That women as a class cannot be ordained is no more problematic than that these classes cannot be ordained.
To the contrary, none of these are cases of discrimination against a class of human beings simply because they belong to that particular class. In each case, the barrier to ordination is not against a class simply as a class, but against a defect in an individual that specifically prevents that individual from properly exercising the duties of ordination. These defects can be remedied, in which case the particular individual can be ordained. An unbeliever can become a Christian, in which case he can be ordained. If the mentally defective or the insane were restored to full mental capacity or functional mental health, they could be ordained. Children cannot be ordained because they are not of sufficient maturity to exercise adult responsibility, but once they become adults, they can be ordained. The prohibition against ordaining homosexuals is not a prohibition against a class, but against a behavior. The church does not ordain those who engage in same-sex sexual activity for the same reason it does not ordain adulterers, or single people who are not chaste. This refusal is not a discrimination against a class of human beings, but against behaviors that are deemed to be incompatible with Christian discipleship.
To the best of my knowledge, the prohibition against the ordination of women is the only case in which the church discriminates against a particular class of people solely because they belong to that class. They are not discriminated against because of an incapacity. Women can preach. They can provide pastoral leadership. There is nothing either in their capacity to inform intentions or physical limitations that would prevent them from celebrating the sacraments. The presumption against women’s ordination is not then based on a moral disqualification or physical impairment. It is a discrimination against women as a class simply because they belong to the class.
Any argument against women’s ordination needs then to be a properly theological argument, and it needs to make the case that there is something in the very nature of women as a class that makes it inappropriate or inherently impossible to exercise ordained ministry.
Attempts at such theological arguments will be addressed in later essays.
1 Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html.
2 For a now-classic Evangelical account, see Donald W. Dayton with Douglas M. Strong, Rediscovering an Evangelical Heritage: A Tradition and Trajectory of Integrating Piety and Justice, 2nd. Edition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014).
3 Luther’s Works, Robert C. Schultz, trans. and ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1967), vol. 46:49-53
4 John Wesley, “Thoughts Upon Slavery,” (London: 1778); http://docsouth.unc.edu/church/wesley/wesley.html.
5 For a recent biography of Wilberforce, see Eric Metaxas. Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2007).
6 “Rerum Novarum: Encyclical of Pope Leo XII on Capital and Labor,” http://w2.vatican.va/content/leo-xiii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_15051891_rerum-novarum.html; “Quadragesimo Anno: Encyclical of Pope Pius XI on Reconstruction of the Social Order,” https://w2.vatican.va/content/pius-xi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xi_enc_19310515_quadragesimo-anno.html; “Pacem in Terris: Encyclical of Pope John XXIII on Establishing Universal Peace in Truth, Justice, Charity, and Liberty,” http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-xxiii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_j-xxiii_enc_11041963_pacem.html; “Gaudium et Spec: Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World Promulgated by His Holiness Pope Paul VI,” http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19651207_gaudium-et-spes_en.html.
7 Frederick Denison Maurice, Social Morality: Twenty-One Lectures Delivered in the University of Cambridge (London and Cambridge: Macmillan, 1869); Brook Foss Westcott, Social Aspects of Christianity, 3rd Edition (London: Macmillan, 1900; Charles Gore, Christ and Society (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1928.
8 However, (as New Testament scholar Philip Payne points out), apart from Jesus Christ himself, who is identified as the “bishop/overseer of your souls” in 1 Peter 2:25, the New Testament never specifically identifies any man with the title of bishop/overseer or presbyter/elder. Rather, the terms are generally applied to groups and not to specific individuals; Philip B. Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 453. See my essays “Concerning Women’s Ordination: Women’s Ministry in the New Testament (Office)” and “Concerning Women’s Ordination: Women’s Ministry in the New Testament (Bishops, Presbyters, Deacons) or a Presbytera is not a “Priestess” (Part 2),” http://willgwitt.org/theology/womens-ordination-office; http://willgwitt.org/theology/concerning-womens-ordination-womens-ministry-in-the-new-testament-bishops-presbyters-deacons.