August 19, 2015

Objections to My Essays on Women’s Ordination

Filed under: Theology,Women's Ordination — William Witt @ 6:39 am

I am pleased to discover that someone actually takes the time to read my blog. An Anglican deacon named Christopher Little has taken the time to address my series of essays on women’s ordination. I am happy to have my views challenged. I believe that what I have written is defensible, but, if not, the sooner I am corrected, the better. Little begins by addressing my first essay, “Concerning the Ordination of Women: Preliminaries.”

I began that essay by noting the names of a number of contemporary orthodox theologians and biblical scholars who embrace women’s ordination: T. F. Torrance, Ben Witherington, N.T. Wright, Richard Hays, Michael Gorman, Robert Gagnon, and Alan Padgett.

Deacon Little comments:

Now, it’s of course fallacious to argue or even imply that because a number of noted “orthodox Christians” defend women’s ordination (“WO” going forward) that Witt therefore stands in good company. It may be the fact that each and every one of these ostensibly orthodox Christians happens to be heretical on this particular issue, and defenders of the traditional view believe that they are in fact so, their commendable orthodoxy on all the other issues not withstanding. Also fallacious is the argument that “the number of orthodox Christians endorsing WO is not a small or insignificant group.” Size doesn’t matter in this discussion. What matters is whether or not WO is an unbiblical and uncatholic innovation.

It is of course correct that the number of adherents to a position does not determine its truth. At the same time, the number of those who disagree with a position does not determine its falsity. The point here was not to “count noses.” When there is disagreement about an issue, it does mean something that there is sizable disagreement. It is possible that one side is simply stupid or deliberately deceptive, but charity would not assume that without giving a fair hearing to the opposition.

I deliberately listed the above names because they are some of the most significant and respected scholars in late twentieth century and early twentieth-first century orthodox theological and biblical scholarship. T.F. Torrance was one of the most significant systematic and historical theologians of the late twentieth century. If one wants to know something about trinitarian theology, then one had better know Torrance. Christology, incarnational theology and atonement? Ecumenical theology? Sacramental and liturgical theology? The relationship between theology and modern science? Torrance.

The other scholars I mentioned are all experts on NT scholarship. Hays, Wright and Gorman are recognized authorities on Paul. Witherington has written critical commentaries on every single book in the NT, and his doctoral dissertation (later published by Cambridge University Press) was likely the first ever study of every single passage referring to women in the NT. It is still considered an indispensable work in the field. Gagnon’s book on homosexuality and the Bible is considered the definitive work in the field. Given that so much of the discussion about women’s ordination rests on the interpretation of passages in Paul, it might have some significance that perhaps the majority of contemporary NT Paul scholars say that there is nothing in Paul’s theology that would forbid the ordination of women. It might be significant if the foremost expert on what Paul says about homosexuality also says that nothing in Paul forbids women’s ordination. If we have Wayne Grudem (pretty much alone) on the one side, and a significant number of the most respected Pauline scholars on the other, that alone is worth noticing.

Deacon Little writes:

What matters is whether or not WO is an unbiblical and uncatholic innovation.

And, of course, that is correct. However, it is also the case that the people I mentioned are in fact experts in the area of both biblical studies and (in Torrance’s case) evangelical, ecumenical, and catholic theology. It is, of course, possible that these intelligent  orthodox theologians and biblical scholars suddenly become either “dunces,” dishonest, or “heretics” when they discuss the issue of women’s ordination, but it would be presumptuous to make such an assumption without first hearing what they have to say.

I wrote:

I have also known a number of orthodox ordained women clergy who are my friends, and whom I greatly admire, and, at the seminary where I teach I have been privileged to have as students women who were among the best students, finest preachers, and some of the most promising theologians of any of my students. I think it would be a great tragedy for the church to deny these women the opportunity to use their gifts and pursue their callings, but, even more, to be served by them. I am writing this series of posts primarily for these women.

Deacon Little comments:

So we see here something of the emotional motivation for Witt’s series of articles. He has close female friends who have been ordained to the priesthood and valued female students who are headed there. I again want to commend Dr. Witt for his honesty, because there’s a lot of emotional fuel here at work in his thinking and writing. Enough emotional fuel, in fact, to create a very bad argument.

I’m not quite sure why Little presumes that because I have had women friends who are ordained clergy that my primary commitments on this issue are emotional. I also have friends (including male clergy) who do not believe in women’s ordination. If my emotional commitment to my friends who do not believe in women’s ordination is not decisive for my disagreement with them on this issue, then neither should my friendship with ordained women be considered emotionally decisive for my endorsement. I am quite capable of being friends with people without allowing my friendships to be decisive about whether or not I agree with them. I would hope that is true of most people.

The one area where my friendship with ordained women was decisive was that it provided the reason for me to write this series of essays. I have other projects I would prefer to work on, and I would have preferred someone else write these essays. However, no one else was doing it, and so, as I stated, I decided to do the job because I care about these women.

Deacon Little adds:

But Witt also begs an essential question when he refers to these women’s “calling” to the priesthood, for the very question to the apostolic and catholic Christian is whether such a “calling” can even exist.

I would only be “begging the question” if I somehow assumed that my assertion here was itself an argument, and that I had no actual warrants for my position beyond the assertion. But setting out those warrants is the entire purpose for this series of essays. Of course, I did not provide the warrants in this essay. It is, as I state, preliminary to the discussion. After the essays have been read and my arguments have been addressed would be the time to decide whether I was “begging the question.”

I wrote: “My path to Anglicanism and my path to the approval of women’s ordination was the same path, and the theological arguments that led me to the one were of the same kind of arguments that led me to the other.”

Deacon Little comments:

Here we get a glimpse into the long-standing nature of Witt’s emotional attachment to the proposition that women may be ordained to the Anglican priesthood. He confesses that he rejected the traditional view of ordination he encountered of his free church past, and that this was one of the reasons he was attracted to Anglicanism — at that time represented in North America by The Episcopal Church.

Here I fear that Little has simply misread what I wrote. I did not say that my commitment to women’s ordination was one of the reasons that I was attracted to the Episcopal Church. I wrote: “My path to Anglicanism and my path to the approval of women’s ordination was the same path, and the theological arguments that led me to the one were of the same kind of arguments that led me to the other.”

My path to Anglicanism was somewhat peculiar. The only Southern Baptist studying theology at a Roman Catholic seminary, I decided at the end of the period working on my Master’s degree to become an Anglican because, during my time at seminary, I immersed myself in the specific theological issues that were the focus of disagreement at the time of the Reformation, and came to theological conclusions that led me to Anglicanism. That decision had nothing to do with women’s ordination. I wriote something about that process here.

In the same way and at about the same time, I came to endorse women’s ordination for theological reasons, after having done a great deal of reading on the issue, both in favor and opposed. In both cases — becoming an Anglican, endorsing women’s ordination — I followed a similar process: doing the necessary research, weighing the theological arguments, coming to a reasonable conclusion – but there was not a causal connection between the two positions.

Little concludes that my summary of the difference between Protestant and Catholic objections to women’s ordination is largely accurate, but then adds:

Witt’s assessment at this point is more or less correct, although I would argue that there really isn’t such a neat and clean distinction between “Protestant” and “Catholic” arguments as he seems to suggest. While it’s true that Evangelical opponents of WO tend not to argue along liturgiological, ecclesiological and other theological lines as Catholics do, it isn’t true that Catholic defenders of the traditional view tend to shun the biblical argument for male headship in home and church.

Little is correct that there does exist some overlap among Catholic and Evangelical opponents of women’s ordination – especially among Anglicans. What he does not acknowledge is that what he calls “Catholic defenders” who embrace arguments for “male headship in home and church” are at odds with the official position of the Vatican. Modern Roman Catholic theology (including Pope John Paul II himself) is officially egalitarian. As Sara Butler writes: ““Because the contemporary magisterium has abandoned the view that women are unilaterally subject to men, it obviously does not supply this as the reason women cannot be priests.”1

Deacon Little expresses dissatisfaction with my distinction between exegesis and hermeneutics:

Both the “Protestant” opponents of WO whose emphasis is on the exegetical approach and “Catholics” who emphasize the theological approach understand well the role that understanding of 1st-century culture plays in conservative hermeneutics, but they would argue that the pertinent biblical material in this case is not culturally conditioned, say, as Paul’s comments on slavery would be. Surely Witt understands that liberal Episcopalians would argue that the Bible’s proscription of homosexual behavior is just as much “culturally conditioned” as is its proscription of WO, and thus because of such a “hermeneutical” consideration 1st-century religious culture must give way to 21st-century secular culture. So, it would seem Witt’s argument proves too much. If neo-Anglicans can undo 2,000 years of tradition with respect to WO on the basis of “hermeneutics”, liberal Anglicans can do the same with respect to homosexual behavior. He can’t have it both ways.

But surely Little is aware that there were defenders of chattel slavery in the nineteenth century who would have argued that what Paul said about slavery was not “culturally conditioned.” Of course, I am aware that theological liberals argue that the Bible’s prohibitions of homosexuality are culturally conditioned, and that opponents of women’s ordination (whether Protestant complementarians or Catholic sacramentalists) argue that male-only ordination is not culturally conditioned. It is precisely because disagreements like this are possible that simple appeals to either Scripture or tradition will not resolve the issue – why the questions of (1) slavery; (2) same-sex sexual activity; and (3) women’s ordination, are a matter of hermeneutics – how to apply what the authors of the Bible said addressing issues of first-century culture to our different current cultural situation. Nineteenth-century advocates of chattel slavery argued that none of (1), (2), and (3) were culturally conditioned. Conversely, modern advocates of same-sex unions argue that (1), (2), and (3) are all culturally conditioned. Contemporary opponents of women’s ordination argue that (1) is culturally conditioned, but not (2) and (3), while orthodox proponents of women’s ordination argue that (1) and (2) are culturally conditioned, but not (3). That’s not quite my argument — I don’t argue when addressing exegetical questions that the biblical writers held views about women that can be ignored because they were culturally conditioned, but rather that the complementarian arguments are misreadings — but the point is clear. Simple appeals to Scripture and tradition will not resolve the issue; nor will simple assertions that biblical references to slavery are culturally conditioned, but traditional opposition to women’s ordination is not. If I can’t “have it both ways,” neither can opponents of women’s ordination.

1 Sara Butler, The Catholic Priesthood and Women: A Guide to the Teaching of the Church (Chicago: Hillenbrand Books, 2006), 47.


  1. Hello Dr. Witt,

    While I am not yet settled in my own mind on this subject, I did want to say that there are others certainly reading! As an Anglican, I have found your essays very helpful guides to the pro-WO side of the argument, filling a gap of heavier theological treatment (vs. proof texting). I do hope at some point you might address the ecumenical angle to this (I.e. whether our relations with the EO or RCC should weigh). Regarding the response above as well, I wondered what you thought about the use of the word “heresy.” I find that term troubling when used on this subject, as that seems overstated.

    Thanks for the time put into these. As a prospective ordinand in the ACNA these issues interest me a great deal.


    Comment by CarterS — August 20, 2015 @ 7:41 pm

  2. Thank you, Carter, for commenting.

    I understand the concern about ecumenical implications. At the same time, I do not think that this should be the deciding issue for the following reasons:

    1) Even if there were no disagreement with Roman Catholics about women’s ordination, there would still be the problems of (a) papal authority and infallibility; (b) continuing dismissal of Anglican orders as “absolutely null and void”: Cardinal Ratzinger’s Commentary on Ad Tuendem Fidem made clear that Apostolicae curae on the invalidity of Anglican ordinations is an example of “those truths connected to revelation by historical necessity and which are to be held definitively”; (c) reception: despite the attempt by John Paul II to silence discussion on this topic with Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, consistent surveys of Catholic opinion indicate that over 60% of Catholic lay people support women’s ordination as well as married clergy. I did my graduate studies in Catholic settings, and (while this is simply based on my own experience), I more than once heard Catholic theologians say that there were no valid theological arguments against women’s ordination. I never once heard a single one of my Catholic professors make so much as an affirmation (let alone an argument) in favor of the “traditional” position. One could dismiss this by assuming that these were all “liberal” Catholics; however, that was not the case. I did study under some “liberal” faculty, but I also studied under some of the most careful and thoughtful “orthodox” Catholic theologians at the time. For example, I studied liturgy under the late Edward Kilmartin, S.J., considered one of the finest liturgical theologians of the twentieth century. (I intend to discuss his views in a future essay.) He was entirely trinitarian and christocentric in his theology; he argued in favor of women’s ordination.

    Regardless of how many times popes make “definitive” statements against women’s ordination, Catholic teaching on “infallibility” indicates that without “reception,” there can be no claim to infallibility. Francis Sullivan, S.J.,one of the foremost Catholic authorities on the magisterium has stated:

    “Official documents, then, have proposed three ways of establishing that a doctrine is taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium: consultation with all the bishops, the universal and constant consensus of Catholic theologians and the common adherence of the faithful. The C.D.F. has not invoked any of these criteria in support of its assertion that the doctrine excluding women from the priesthood has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal magisterium.

    THE CHANGES IN CHURCH DOCTRINE that have actually taken place in the course of history show that a tradition could hold firm until advances in human knowledge or culture obliged the church to look at the question in a new light. Through honest reexamination of its tradition in this new light, the church has sometimes come to see that the reasons for holding to its previous position were not decisive after all. There is no denying the fact that many of the reasons given in the past to justify the exclusion of women from the priesthood are such as one would be embarrassed to offer today. No doubt, better reasons than those have been presented in the recent documents of the Holy See.

    The question that remains in my mind is whether it is a clearly established fact that the bishops of the Catholic Church are as convinced by those reasons as Pope John Paul evidently is, and that, in exercising their proper role as judges and teachers of the faith, they have been unanimous in teaching that the exclusion of women from ordination to the priesthood is a divinely revealed truth to which all Catholics are obliged to give a definitive assent of faith. Unless this is manifestly the case, I do not see how it can be certain that this doctrine is taught infallibly by the ordinary and universal magisterium.”

    The Orthodox are, of course, another question, but in some ways there is even less chance for ecumenical convergence with them — even apart from the question of women’s ordination. Among traditionalist Orthodox, the standard approach to ecumenism is to assume not only that the Orthodox Church is the “one true church,” but that all Western churches are “apostate.” Ecumenism for these folks means conversion to Orthodoxy.

    At the same time, among more ecumenical Orthodox, the position against women’s ordination is not univocal. I think, particularly, of Metropolitan Kallistos Ware.

    The long and short of it is, I am highly in favor of ecumenism. At the same time, I think that the only proper way for ecumenical relations to move forward is that those of us who are Reformation Christians need to recognize that there are reasons that we are not Roman Catholics or Orthodox, and that progress can only take place if ecumenical discussion is a two-way street.

    Given my strong approval of women’s ordination, I think that this is something we actually need to bring to the table — in the same way that we might need to bring to the table our convictions about the freedom of clergy to marry or that no real progress toward reunion is possible as long as Rome insists on papal infallibility or the invalidity of Anglican ordinations

    As for accusations of “heresy,” yawn. I think it would take some real effort to make a theological case that advocacy of women’s ordination is not simply mistaken, but “heretical.” “Heresy” has to do with a position that is not only theologically mistaken, but touches on the center of Christian faith in such a manner as to distort the central “subject matter” of Christian faith. So Arianism is a “heresy” because (as Athanasius argued), only God can save, and, if Christ is not divine, but only a creature, then he cannot save us.

    I don’t see how one could reasonably argue that “male only” clergy is essential to the heart of Christian faith in the same way that Nicene and Chalcedonian orthodoxy are at the heart of Christian faith. Disagreement about this issue is more along the lines of other disagreements between Christians, that while, important are, to some extent, adiaphora. As an Anglican, I disagree with Roman Catholics about transubstantiation, with Lutherans about ubiquity, and with Presbyterians about polity. I don’t think that their views are “heretical.”

    At the same time, I do think that the advocacy of same-sex sexual unions is not just adiaphora, but heretical, and that is because, contrary to the oft-repeated statement that there are only seven passages in the Bible that deal with homosexuality, the entire message of Scripture from Genesis 1 to Revelation 21 presumes that heterosexual marriage and both the complementary difference and at the same time corresponding sameness and equality between male and female are crucial to God’s intentions for humanity in creation and redemption. However, it is my own readings of what the Bible says in these same passages about the complementarity and equality of male and female in creation and redemption that has led me to question exclusively male ordination.

    Comment by William Witt — August 20, 2015 @ 8:49 pm

  3. Thank you for the response, Dr. Witt. The Roman Catholic perspectives are interesting, thank you for citing some of those. I will have to take a look, and I would agree that the papal office would still present an insurmountable obstacle, though I wonder about the wisdom of creating *more* obstacles to reunion, but your point is still well taken.

    Interesting thought about bringing it to the table. I am still unsure, partly because I tend towards the High Church and if something has been held by the tradition I am automatically skeptical of changing it. That said, I have read your articles and I do admit I am so woefully unfamiliar with the traditional arguments myself that I mostly avoid this topic for fear of sticking my foot in my mouth. If, as you contend, the tradition has mostly made an ontological distinction between men and women, then I will have a big problem with the tradition at that point! To me, the Scriptures seem at least ambiguous, and a strong case seems to be valid for pointing to certain contextual details for understanding them and the limitations of their prohibitions. As a man with a daughter, who is open to her being in any vocation she so chooses short of ordination itself, I am living in a bit of a contradiction and need to sort out if the priesthood is off-limits and why if I am going to keep holding that position.

    Agreed on heresy. If it does not contradict the Creed, then I won’t call it heresy.

    I also wondered if you had any perspective on the ACNA task force on the WO subject, and where you think we may end up? If that is not appropriate to talk about at this point in the process, then no problem, but I am curious as to what their recommendation to the college of bishops will be.

    Many thanks.

    Comment by CarterS — August 24, 2015 @ 8:09 pm

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