I partook recently in a voluminous exchange in a Facebook group I follow on the topic of Women's Ordination (WO). This is not a topic I've engaged with much. As a United Methodist, I take it for granted that women are fit candidates for ordained ministry. It's a settled question for us. But among other groups that I find myself relating to, it is a settled question, all right, but settled the other way.
Among the liturgical churches, there are groups that ordain women and groups that don't, and just bringing the subject up will turn apparent allies into heated opponents. Meanwhile, among those who call themselves Evangelicals, there are those who follow teachers like John Piper (the Reformed theologian) and those, like my Methodist evangelical colleagues, who disagree.
There are two common arguments offered by the proponents of WO. The first is the argument from Equity. That is to say, women should be ordained because they are equal as persons, and therefore it is unfair to withhold orders from them. I issued a mild warning to an evangelical colleague making that argument. I pointed out that appealing to secular ideology, however congenial to our society, means that others may make that argument, too -- others whom you would ordinarily exclude from orders on either doctrinal or moral grounds. And those who look at us from outside the Christian tradition certainly don't understand our pickiness about such things. In American society at large, Equity trumps Doctrine and Morality; it is up to the Church to make its case to defend its practices, not surrender to whatever is considered "fair" in our society today.
The Equity standard is not improved by giving it a supernatural patina. Some declare, as an article of faith, that God calls whom he wills, and it is up to us to acquiesce in recognizing those he so calls. Those taking this approach point to those claiming that call and demonstrating effective religious leadership as objectively demonstrating the will of God. But once again, there are many people who claim to be called, and many of them are talented in lots of ways, but to yield our right to consider whether to ordain them or not because it is asserted that God calls whom he wills lands us in some very strange territory. The form of the Equity (or the Equitable God) argument is precisely that made by those who are primarily interested in politics rather than prayer and also by those who say that their sexual lifestyle should not be a barrier to their ordination and employment.
The other common argument in favor of WO is an appeal to the text of the New Testament. Evangelicals who favor WO cite Biblical authority for their practice; of course, Evangelicals who don't favor WO also cite the NT in favor of their position. The essential problem of Evangelicalism generally, is that saying, "the Bible says" is not the trump card the one saying it thinks it is; indeed, all too often, Evangelicals are guilty of pulling their NT authority out of their back pocket.
Some "Biblical" responses are in fact non-biblical. Some of the weirder aspects of Calvinism, for instance, come from the fact that Calvin started with a system. All systematic theologies come to the Bible with what they think it means before actually consulting the text. That means that this part is emphasized, and that part de-emphasized, according to whether or not it fits the system already adopted for its interpretation. Meanwhile, there are other theologies that claim to begin with just the text of the Bible -- and especially, the NT -- but which in fact read back into the 1st Century text the understandings of their own day and age: Restorationism is a good example of this. Those who claim their polity to be that of the New Testament Church, merely, would have you believe that the norms of 19th Century America would be totally familiar to Sts. Peter and Paul. And both Calvin and Campbell would stubbornly insist, "the Bible says."
Obviously, we must have good exegesis of the NT to form our interpretation. That requires a thorough and sophisticated background of the languages and cultures of the 1st Century and of the way Scripture was handled in Second Temple Judaism as well as the Early Church. And among those who can claim to be expert in their handling of the NT-in-context are many who support WO. They appeal to the text of the NT, including passages by Paul often considered restrictive of women in ministry, to make their case that the NT Church was open to women in ministry generally -- and that we should be, too.
Among those frequently recommended to me as making the case for WO is Dr. Ben Witherington III, of Asbury Theological Seminary. His scholarly work has centered on women in ministry in the NT. He makes a formidable case. And I agree with his results. But I am slow to simply say, "Ben says" as a short cut to "the Bible says." Impressive as his case is, I have two problems with it.
First, his novel about Paul's ministry in Corinth made quite an impression on me. Note, this is a novel -- a piece of fiction -- but that should not be considered a defect. The story is there to put flesh on the bones, to bring before our minds the world of the 1st Century, and the Christians within it. So, all the cultural practices, details of geography, trade, dress, etc. are to be considered authentic. Likewise, the doctrines and practices of the 1st Century Church explained or portrayed in the novel are to be considered a plausible presentation of what it would be like to be part of that congregation in 1st Century Corinth.
Well, it's not a bad novel. A little clunky here and there (I cannot for the life of me see a 1st Century person saying, "I love it when a plan comes together," that phrase being from the '80s TV show, The A-Team), but mostly, the story moves along and the characters are well-drawn. But as I read the book, I suddenly started making tetchy marginal notes where Witherington's Latin was faulty, or his portrayal of some detail questionable. Also, the plot turns on the villain making a slave his heir in order to procure his cooperation against the hero, which is hard to believe, both according to the villain's personality and also considering 1st Century legal and social practices. But the stunner was the presentation of a 1st Century Christian communion service. The presence of two un-baptized, not-sure-they-believe-yet persons in a liturgy is a major stretch; the idea that they would be included in communion is simply unbelievable. And the liturgy itself, so far as it is portrayed, both in language used and in the elements employed, was more like something done at an evangelical youth retreat of the last thirty years, than like anything the 1st Century Church would have celebrated, even conceding that it had not yet composed fixed texts or canons for the celebration of the sacraments.
So, appealing to Witherington's expertise is not something I simply concede. If his portrayal of 1st Century Christian life on such central matters as how communion was celebrated is so iffy, why should I accept as proven his assertions regarding the widespread recognition of women in ministry in the 1st Century? But even if his arguments track, and I agree with them, is that enough? The second problem I have with appealing to the Bible alone, as if you could simply say, Q.E.D. (or even, Q.E.F.) is that it assumes that we are at liberty to make whatever arrangements we please, so long as we can cite NT practice for it.
Establishing that things were done in a certain way in the 1st Century and can therefore be done so in the 20th or 21st Century is quite a leap. Are we to start baptizing for the dead, like the Mormons? Are we secure enough in our understanding of that passage to assert that we are at liberty to resume the practice? In regards to ministry standards, are the practices of many intervening centuries of no account? Surely, those who received the NT -- particularly those who did so in the same culture, within a single lifetime of the apostles' time -- had reasons for how they interpreted the NT, and for the practices they assumed were normative? Are we free to simply sweep them all aside, and say they were all wrong, but we -- we, the enlightened ones -- know better?
There is a tradition -- the Great Tradition, if you will -- that interprets the Bible. It starts even within the Bible itself, for the NT interprets the OT in a particular way. For instance, it is a commonplace to point out that in Isaiah 7:14, the word translated "virgin" in most Bibles, is actually the Hebrew for "young woman." It can imply virginity, but it can also mean simply, a young woman of marriageable age. Hebrew has a word that means, specifically, "virgin," but that is not the word employed. Meanwhile, the Septuagint uses the Greek word for "virgin," while choosing not to use the Greek word for "young woman." A peculiar choice by the translator in the 2nd Century BC, and would probably be corrected in all English versions of Isaiah, except that Luke -- along with the rest of the early Church -- believed that Mary was a virgin in fact as well as status and that made her son, Jesus, unique. So the NT Church and all Christians since have confessed the Virgin Birth of Jesus, and so have not only quoted the Septuagint in the text of Luke ("Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son") but have usually translated the Hebrew text of Isaiah according to apostolic exegesis instead of the plainer meaning of the Hebrew.
Likewise, the NT writers made a much bigger deal out of Adam than did, say, the Rabbis of Second Temple Judaism. So, we wrestle with both the idea of Original Sin and with the meaning of Christ as the Second Adam -- and Judaism does not. The apostles would say that they were guided by the Holy Spirit in their understanding of what the Spirit had revealed to Israel. Sometimes, Jesus himself is cited as the authority for a particular understanding of what had been earlier revealed -- as when he said that John the Baptist was the Elijah who had been promised to come before the Messiah.
We believe in the apostolicity of our faith. If the apostles say the OT is to be received a certain way, they not only had the Holy Spirit -- as, indeed, we do -- but they had personal acquaintance with and authority from Jesus himself, who instructed them in many things. Their opinion, being so much more closely related to the source of truth than we aftercomers', is to be considered determinative.
In doubtful cases, we also appeal to the understanding and experience of the early Church. We accept the Apostles' Creed as the basic symbol of our faith, not because we think the apostles wrote it (it dates from the 2nd Century), but because we think it is a reliable summation of their teaching. Likewise, we cite the Nicene Creed, the first version of which was produced in 325 and expanded in 380, as the touchstone of orthodoxy, even though it comes over two centuries after the last of the apostles had died and even uses at least one solidly non-bibilical expression (homoousion), because we believe it authoritatively sums up their doctrine.
But what about all that passed between, say, AD 95 (approximately the last we hear of the apostle John) and 313, when the Edict of Milan made Christianity a legal religion, and the Church emerged from the shadows to take its place in the public society of the Empire? Do you think the Christians of those two Centuries had simply lost contact with the Church of Paul and Peter? They lived in the same Empire, used the same language, worshiped in the same way in the same churches, and had to make the case for their faith to both Rabbinical authorities and Imperial magistrates. No doubt there was a lot of development, but there was no break.
And what do we make of the Sub-Apostolic Fathers? Men like Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp? These men lived within a single lifetime of the apostles. Some of them knew the apostles. They have left us a number of writings, some of which bear on the topic of ministry in the early Church. In reading them, we see the link between the NT and the later history of Christianity.
The problem is that we don't know this stuff. We don't study it. We content ourselves with an intensive (we think) study of the NT. Then we jump several hundred years to study the history of the great Ecumenical Councils. They we jump again to the High Middle Ages, and then the Reformation. We neglect the history, so we cannot put together a coherent, connected story of the development of Christian Orders.
Some hypothesize that the Church "fell" under Constantine, that it somehow lost its faith and became a mere tool of the secular state. This is absurd, but those asserting it at least know who Constantine was, so they are one up on the people who don't. Others fall back on Reformation polemics to claim that "the Catholics" or the papacy took over the faith and corrupted it with all kinds of paganisms and whatnot, making it somehow something to be swept away uncritically. This is also absurd.
Nevertheless, we find it convenient to blame the Emperor Constantine or "the Pope" for a break in the transmission of proper belief and practice. Doing so means we are free to re-create real, proper Christianity -- supposedly on a foundation of sola Scriptura. Of course, the Scriptural norms we assert we are appealing to is the Scripture as we understand it, from our distant perspective, and not as those understood it who received it from the hands of those who first shared their hand-written copies of Paul's letters from church to church. They, too, believed in the unique authority of the NT; after all, some of them were willing to face torture and death rather than deliver their copies up to the public magistrate.
Going back to the early Church to make our case for the structure of ordained ministry means we have to deal with the lion in the path: Apostolic Succession (AS). The liturgical churches, particularly, the Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican Churches, though they disagree with each other on who is in AS, nevertheless all teach the doctrine of AS; that is, that the apostles were the first bishops of the Church, and passed their authority to their successors in the episcopacy. Consequently, only those who can show a lawful succession from bishops themselves properly in succession of the first bishops, the apostles, have valid orders. This means that most Protestants can't even pretend to qualify, for the Reformation and succeeding movements form a break, indeed, with the past.
For Methodists, we derive our authority to ordain from John Wesley, an ordained priest of the Church of England. AS was part and parcel of Wesley's ecclesiology, and he sought long and hard for some bishop, somewhere, to provide ordination for some of his preachers in America, lest the Methodists there be left without the sacraments in the wake of the American Revolution. In the end, he ordained some preachers himself. In doing so, he made an argument. He said he believed himself to a scriptural episkopos, with the power to ordain, though not the right to ordain within the jurisdiction of the Church of England. America being now outside that jurisdiction, he said he invaded no man's right in exercising his innate power to ordain.
Well, you can disagree with that argument, if you like. But Wesley is not just pulling this out of his back pocket. And in claiming to be a scriptural episkopos, he is not just saying, "the Bible says." He is making an argument from history. He is asserting continuity in doctrine and practice, even in the admitted irregularity of his actions.
I have occasionally engaged my friends in churches claiming AS on this topic; not that I thought I could compel their assent to the validity of our orders, but just to show that we had an argument to make. We aren't pulling it out of our back pocket. We are taking all the evidence into account -- not only what the Bible says, but the record of the early Church as well.
It is my belief that we need to make the case for the validity of Methodist orders from the Great Tradition. In doing so, we will discover along the way principles which can also be used to make the case for the full inclusion of women in the ordained ministry of the Church: a case that is not dependent upon secular ideology, nor upon merely asserting that "the Bible says." And this I propose to do, in Part Two of this essay.