Women in church leadership is the church issue in the public domain in the UK at the moment, and serendipitously the focus of a short series of sermons in my local church, hence my posts on the topic. The role of women in church is not a topic about which I relish posting for by their nature such posts are polemical rather than edifying. Also, I am not insensitive to the fact that my views find little resonance with many Christians today and none with the liberal establishment. However, engaging in the polemic and unpalatable is often what loyalty to God involves. Specifically, loyalty to God and his revealed will in Scripture means, in my view, defending male leadership in the church and opposing egalitarian voices (that is those who contend for both male and female leadership in the church).
I say ‘defending’ for complementarianism or patriarchy (male leadership) has been the overwhelmingly orthodox and established form of leadership in the Christian Church since post-apostolic times. It was the basis of organized religious life in God’s OT people, whether of the patriarchs or the national Covenant Community,Israel. And I would argue, despite egalitarian protests, it is the pattern of life in God’s New Covenant Community, the Church. It is not simply that God’s people (OT and NT) lived in a patriarchal culture and tolerated it but that patriarchy (male-leadership) is affirmed, in both OT and NT, as God’s revealed order in this present world. The NT (as the old) , I contend, teaches both implicitly and explicitly male leadership in the church, the new creation people of God who are one in Christ.
Now as Dylan said in the 60’s ‘the times they are a-changing’, however, that we shouldn’t criticize these changes (as Dylan insists) is simply chronological hubris. And the C21, like every preceding century, is not free from hubris. NT Wright has written a piece criticising the notion that the church should simply ‘get with the programme’ of modern society. He writes,
‘It won’t do to say, then, as David Cameron did, that the Church of England should “get with the programme” over women bishops… The Church that forgets to say “we must obey God rather than human authorities” has forgotten what it means to be the Church. The spirit of the age is in any case notoriously fickle. You might as well, walking in the mist, take a compass bearing on a mountain goat.’
He points out too the chronological snobbery that assumes what society now applauds must necessarily be right and good, the ‘but surely you can’t still believe that in the C21?’ mantra. Citing C S Lewis, he writes,
“But that would be putting the clock back,” gasps a feckless official in one of C. S. Lewis’s stories. “Have you no idea of progress, of development?”
“I have seen them both in an egg,” replies the young hero. “We call it Going bad in Narnia.”
Lewis nails a lie at the heart of our culture. As long as we repeat it, we shall never understand our world, let alone the Church’s calling. And until proponents of women bishops stop using it, the biblical arguments for women’s ordination will never appear in full strength’
Wright goes on to observe,
‘If the Church had allowed prime ministers to tell them what the “programme” was it would have sunk without trace in fifty years. If Jesus had allowed Caiaphas or Pontius Pilate to dictate their “programme” to him there wouldn’t have been a Church in the first place.’
Lewis and Wright are surely correct and Wright is equally correct in asserting that for Christians, only biblical arguments can make the case for women’s ordination. Only when these are made will the case for women’s ordination ‘appear in full strength‘. The trouble is Wright’s ‘biblical arguments’ are far from imposing. Granted, he is writing a blog post, however, having just asserted the need for solid biblical arguments revealing the ‘full strength’ of the egalitarian position, one assumes his sharpest and most compelling evidence will be marshalled, yet the arguments proposed are so weak they pixelate.
Wright’s case is constructed around three women.
‘All Christian ministry begins with the announcement that Jesus has been raised from the dead. And Jesus entrusted that task, first of all, not to Peter, James, or John, but to Mary Magdalene. Part of the point of the new creation launched at Easter was the transformation of roles and vocations: from Jews-only to worldwide, from monoglot to multilingual (think of Pentecost), and from male-only leadership to male and female together.’
Wow! What a lot of freight this meeting with Mary is asked to bear. I can hear it creaking ominously. Jesus inaugurates in this meeting with Mary, according to Wright, egalitarianism in the church (a point missed it would seem for some twenty centuries).
We must ask if egalitarianism is indeed established by this event? To be sure, it is shrewd of Wright to regard egalitarianism as a post-resurrection and new creation phenomenon thus neatly dismissing any patriarchy in the creation narrative and the OT at large. More significantly, it effectively neutralises (by placing in a past and now redundant era) the very awkward fact (for egalitarians) that Jesus chose twelve apostles, all male. It is new creation inaugurated in Christ’s resurrection, says Wright, that introduces egalitarianism and this is signalled and symbolised by the first witness to the resurrection being a woman who is entrusted with the task announcing this momentous fact to the disciples.
Is Wright right? Can the text bear the freight it is asked to carry? A few questions demonstrate it cannot.
Does the text hint in any way that it is signalling and defining a new order in gender roles? Does the subsequent NT refer to this event as the basis for an egalitarian ecclesiology? Does the rest of the NT lead us to believe that this incident may have even implicitly signalled a game-changing egalitarianism? The answer is uniform, self-evident and negative.
Mary’s meeting with Jesus in the garden was private not public, unofficial and not official. Interestingly when Paul cites witnesses to the resurrection to the Corinthian believers he does not include the appearance to Mary. He says that Jesus was seen by Cephas (Peter), then by the twelve and then by over 500 brothers at the same time (1 Cor 15:1-5). Likewise in Acts, it is the resurrection appearances to the apostles that Luke flags up as verifying the resurrection (Acts 1:1-3). The public and official witness is exclusively male. Telling the others she had seen Jesus is likely to have been informal and certainly not something we can readily equate with authoritative teaching or leadership far less with inaugurating a new structuring of gender roles in the home, church and society. Nor is there later NT reference to this incident as signalling egalitarianism that one may expect if it were such a game-changing sociological event.
Given Wright’s premise (that new creation introduced egalitarianism) we may expect leaders in the early church to be fairly evenly balanced between male and female but this is not the case. Indeed, when in post-resurrection the apostles choose someone who was with Jesus during his ministry to replace Judas, we may expect, if Wright is correct in his premise, a female disciple to be chosen (perhaps Mary Magdalene herself) to help ‘right’ the imbalance; a case for positive discrimination if ever one existed. But no, the chosen replacement is male and not by accident rather masculinity is a required criterion (Acts 1:21-26). Throughout Acts the leadership of the Church continues to be male. The deacons chosen in Acts 6 were all male. Church elders were male (1 Tim 2). In fact, the church, male and female, does not have a gender-neutral name but is given the male generic title ‘brothers'(hardly an appropriate title for a new self-consciously egalitarian body in a patriarchal culture, as Wright would have us believe). No, Wright, in his quest to find female leaders, is obliged to resort to two names that appear but once in Scripture, in Romans – an implicit confession his case is weak.
Does Mary’s witness to the resurrection signal a radically altered role for women in God’s new society? Do the NT writers (all male) develop from this incident an egalitarian theology? Far from it. Instead we find them asserting that gender roles in the church find their origin not in new creation but in the original creation. It is to the garden of Eden that the writers turn not to the garden where Jesus met Mary. Far from the NT championing egalitarianism, female leadership in church is explicitly outlawed (for some did try to introduce it) based on the creational order of Adam and Eve, an event that the NT writers do invest with sociological significance (1 Cor 11:1-16; 14:33-35; 1 Tim 2:11-15). Wright tries to negate the force of these explicit texts by claiming that ‘serious scholars’ disagree about their meaning. Well there’s a surprise. Scholars always disagree over that which they do not wish to obey, in this they are ‘men of like passions’ with the rest of us. For thousands of years ‘serious scholars’ understood these texts but now, just when society embraces egalitarianism, they are found to be a morass of exegetical difficulty – forgive my skepticism.
The simple fact is that in this inaugurated stage of new creation (which happened as Wright says, at the resurrection), living as it does in the midst of the old creation, all that belongs to the Pre-Fall order of creation is honoured by it. In fact, the order of the original creation should be upheld and revered in this world by God’s new creation most particularly; while the world may overthrow it, the church will extol it and exemplify it. It is worth noting that many who insist on creation ethics as the basis for ecological concerns and even marriage squirm embarrassingly to extricate themselves from its patriarchal order. There is a patent dishonesty here.
Wright is wrong, Mary does not signal a new egalitarian ethic in God’s new society, what she does demonstrate is that a heart devoted to Christ, as Mary’s was, will receive blessings that the less devoted heart will miss. It was love for her Lord that held Mary at the cross while most fled. It was this same love that brought her to the tomb on the first day of the week before all others and kept her there when others had gone. Devotion is gender-free. But the rewards of a devoted heart and the order God has placed in his new society are two different things and not to be confused.
To support his contention that Mary signals an egalitarian church order Wright offers two NT examples of women in leadership. To all but the most jaundiced eye these examples must appear weak in the extreme, even faintly ridiculous. If this is the best egalitarians can put in the window to prove women’s leading role in the early church then they should shut shop. Wright’s examples have a whiff of desperation about them. His first is Junia.
Junia(s), Wright informs us, is female and an apostle. In fact, the sum total of information we have about Junia(s) in the NT is contained in these words found in Romans 16,
Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to/among the apostles, and they were in Christ before me. (Roms 16:7)
Junia has become an egalitarian cause célèbre carrying on her shoulders as she does the responsibility for providing a clear example of female leadership in the NT. I say ‘her’ with some diffidence for while it is probable, it is by no means certain that Junia(s) is a woman. Further, it is certainly not clear that ‘well known to/among the apostles’ implies Junia(s) is herself/himself an apostle. It may be just as readily, and more plausibly, understood that the apostles knew of Andronicus and Junia (a husband and wife team?) and held them in high regard. Given the explicit texts supporting patriarchy we are obliged to understand the more ambiguous reference to Junia(s) in a way which harmonizes with these which makes Junia someone well-known to the apostles the likely interpretation. However, even if the text is understood as Junia being an apostle, she is clearly not one of the twelve and we must remember the noun ‘apostle’ has also an non-technical ordinary sense, simply meaning ‘messenger’ or ‘envoy’ and saying nothing about church leadership (Phil 2:12; Cf. 2 Cor 8:23; Jn 13:16); Andronicus and Junia may simply be messengers or envoys sent from one church to another, or a husband and wife missionary team each functioning within their God-given gender roles. If the proof for active female leadership in the early church depends on Junia’s credentials as an apostle it is thin indeed.
Wright, to my mind, scrabbles around even more desperately in his second example. The sum total of what we know of Phoebe is again found in Romans 16 where we read,
Rom 16:1-2 (ESV2011)
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae,that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well.
‘Within a few decades, Paul was sending greetings to friends including an “apostle” called Junia (Romans xvi, 7). He entrusted that letter to a “deacon” called Phoebe whose work was taking her to Rome. The letter-bearer would normally be the one to read it out to the recipients and explain its contents. The first expositor of Paul’s greatest letter was an ordained travelling businesswoman.’
I think he hopes the flourish of rhetoric will mask the audacity of his claim. The conclusion of his last sentence leaves one flabbergasted. Wright makes theological quantum leaps larger than many secular evolutionists do in their discipline though like them he seems unfazed and unabashed. We are not told Phoebe is the letter-bearer? Where is the proof that the letter-bearer read it out to the church? And more insistent still, where is the evidence that the letter-bearer exposited it to the church? Wright’s sweeping assertions and leaps of logic beggar belief. Let’s not be swept along by his rhetoric; let’s not mistake rhetoric for what is actually revealed, for the rather more prosaic truth is that Phoebe was a servant of her home church and was visiting Rome. We are not told that she carried the letter to Rome; Wright extrapolates from a conjecture and creates a mythology, ‘ The first expositor of Paul’s greatest letter was an ordained travelling businesswoman.’. Can we trust biblical scholarship like this?
If this case presents the strongest plank egalitarians stand on then it is not merely ominously creaky but collapses under them.