Did Jesus choose only men? Did the Church?
Though not fundamental to the theory of AS, the idea that only men can be bishops (and priests and deacons) typically accompanies it. The theory is, Jesus showed that only men are qualified for those offices, for Jesus (and later, the apostles) chose only men to fill those offices. And a great deal of later theologizing about the image of Christ in the church and how the whole church is feminine in relation to God in Christ, etc., has followed. But what was the place of women in the NT church, and what ministries do we see them performing?
In Acts 1:12-14, we have a description of the Proto-Church, the first Christian congregation. Out of the 500 or so witnesses of the resurrection, those who believed and were close enough to participate regularly, formed a congregation of about 120 persons. That could be a symbolic number, but Luke isn’t into number symbolism the way John is, so let’s take that number as approximately correct. The eleven remaining apostles (here named), together with “the women” and Mary the mother of Jesus and Jesus’s brothers, form the original leadership core of that church. For I take it that “the women” does not refer to all the female members of the congregation, but to Mary Magdalene, to Mary wife of Cleopas, and perhaps to Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus. “The women” were those closest to Jesus, participated in his support, and stood ready to care for his body after his death.
This is not the whole church, but just the twenty or so persons who form the leadership of the whole 120. And there is a complementarity to those who were the subjects of Jesus’s most intense teaching (the apostles) and others, who were no less important – both as followers and as witnesses – but related to Jesus in a different way. The apostles may have been accorded a leading role to play in the teaching and directing of the activity (though, as I have shown, they were constantly upstaged by the Holy Spirit), but the others matter just as much. At this point, there is no teaching, other than “it happened” and “we saw it.” If the primary ministry of an apostle is to be a witness to the ministry, the death, and the resurrection, of Jesus, then all these people who might be considered leaders are “apostles,” at least of a sort.
Orthodoxy at this point does not exist. Mary and the other women are as authoritative for what Jesus would demand of his followers as the apostles. Their relationship gives them a personal authority not to be gainsaid. And the particular mention of Mary the mother of Jesus should give us pause. We Protestants find Roman Catholic devotion to Mary a stumbling block; nevertheless, she is something more in this company than just another member. Her mention, by name, in this leadership list means that her word counts for something.* If the teaching is yet to be formulated, the activity is simply prayer, the ordinary prayer of a Jewish synagogue. We might assume that the men led the prayers among the Christians, as they would the synagogue, but the women were present and participated.
Women are seen doing things we would consider clergy duties. Philip the Deacon has four daughters who prophesy; remember, at this time, prophesy includes preaching in church, not just communicating visions in private. In Corinth, Prisca is always listed ahead of her husband, Aquila, and both of them are given credit for correcting the formidable scholar Apollos. Phoebe, as mentioned before, is a deacon. Junia is said to be “renowned among the apostles.” Ben Witherington makes a very large case out of Junia and says that “renowned among the apostles” implies that she was considered an apostle herself, not just admired by them. He seems to be straining here, and I am not ready to say that the Apostle Junia is to be taken without a hefty grain of salt, but still, she has some connection to the apostles, which term could probably be construed more widely than just twelve guys back in Jerusalem.
Over against this, of course, we have Paul saying that women should not do certain things, and so on. This has to be understood to be written to the church in Corinth; in that selfsame church, women were engaged in prophesying. After all, in 1 Corinthians 11:5, whatever the purpose and meaning (then, or now) for women praying and prophesying with their heads covered, the point we should keep in mind is, this assumes that women were praying and prophesying in church. The later admonition about women keeping silence comes in a section about orderliness, about which the Corinthians apparently had many problems, and may be particular to that situation, and to some women but not others.
“It’s a man’s world,” the old saying goes, and the world of the 1st Century and the ages going forward was certainly no different; nevertheless, there seems to have an unfolding NT moment in which all kinds of new possibilities for women were open. Women were given responsibility and leadership in more ways than ever before, and in a time when official standards and job descriptions had not been formulated, were doing many things later restricted to men. How did this restriction come to pass? We don’t know. But as the Church regularized its processes, women were left out. The Church, which had been so different from the larger society, began to become more like it.
The final step to full inclusion in all leadership roles for women was not taken; yet, women retained some significant ministries, such as the deaconess. Deaconesses not only supervised the widows, but assisted in baptisms, at least of women. (People were baptized in the nude in the early days, and somebody had to help girls and women undress, and hold up the blanket, over which the priest would reach to touch their heads as they went under the water.) When monasticism became a thing, women became anchorites and conventual nuns (and, of course, supervised the other nuns).
And the tradition of women in leadership never really died out. Though the usual expectations of men (bolstered, no doubt, by quoting Paul in a prejudicial context) won out, women kept appearing in leadership. Montanism was the first great renewal movement in the ancient Church. In the late 2nd and early 3rd Century, it called for a more uncompromising purity, and it renewed the charismatic experiences of the NT church. It was led by a Prophet, Montanus, and two prophetesses. Epiphanius of Salamis in his catalog of heretical movements sums up Montanism more are less as “women prophesying – what can you expect,” sort of like Mark Twain’s comment about seeing a dog walk on its hind legs. Yet Montanism was orthodox in its theology; indeed, Tertullian, who came to accept Montanism, is the first theologian to define the Trinity. Schismatic it might have been, but not heretical. And in its attempt to recover the ancient gifts, it also attempted to recover women in clergy roles.
Later, in the early Middle Ages, the English took hold of the faith with great eagerness. The movement toward Christ was led by their nobility, who founded many monastic houses. They also placed their children in those institutions, where they were expected to rise to leadership. A peculiarity of Old English monasticism was the creation of side-by-side monasteries for women and men, ruled by an Abbess. The Synod of Whitby, held by King Oswy of Northumbria in 664, was instrumental in turning the English Church toward Roman practice over Celtic practice. The host for that meeting was the formidable Hilda, Abbess of Whitby. Five bishops came out of her ministry there, too. This royal daughter was not a passive spectator in the evangelization of the English.
Much later, we have women acting as spiritual mentors to male figures of great authority. Catherine of Siena convinced Pope Gregory XI to return the papacy to Rome from Avignon. Joan of Arc managed to put Charles VII on the throne of France. Teresa of Avila is called a Doctor of the Church for her reforms. The point I’m making is not just that these were remarkable women, but that they were able to speak for God to popes and kings.
Various renewal groups, some schismatic, have seen the employment of women in positions of church leadership, as, for instance, Quakers and Shakers. In Methodism, John Wesley could not deny his own mother the leadership role in her class meeting she was obviously exercising, and allowed other women to occupy leadership roles in the Societies. Later Pentecostal, Holiness, and Charismatic movement arising out of Methodism have been early adopters of full recognition of women among the clergy.
The point to be made here is that the idea of women in ministry, including ordained ministry, is not a new one. The practices of the NT seem largely to have lapsed by the time of St. Ignatius, only 40 years after the death of Paul, but there has been a continuing witness to the call of women to ministry across the centuries. This is not a 19th- or 20th- or 21st-Century phenomenon. The question then is, can the decisions about women in ministry taken in the 2nd Century be legitimately revisited? Must we always be as we always were – especially since we apparently weren’t always that way?
This is, fundamentally, the same question that faced John Wesley, in a different way, concerning the ordination of ministers in Methodism. And the same question had been faced earlier, in the Reformation.
Most churches that came out of the Protestant Reformation had come up against the intransigence of the Catholic hierarchy to reform. Not that they opposed reform; indeed, many bishops welcomed the reforms Luther started out advocating. But Luther was outmaneuvered by the Pope, and in the end no bishops would help Luther. So Luther then called upon the princes of Germany to act as “emergency bishops,” Notbischofe, to reform the Church in spite of its hierarchy. He also articulated the theory of sola scriptura to find a source of authority that would authorize his actions. John Calvin, on the other hand, was the first of these blank-piece-of-paper reformers who just decided to chuck everything and start over. But the Church of England was different. It was the only Reformation Church to have brought its hierarchy into the new Church of England. It tinkered with doctrine, but primarily it dumped its allegiance to the Pope. It wanted to reform the Church, but also keep its connection to the ancient past. It wasn’t starting a new church, but cleaning up an old one.
The Church of England maintained that it still had bishops in AS. A later Pope denied this, in a ruling I find incomprehensible (the RCC accept the AS of the Old Catholics and the Unitas Fratrum, but not the C of E; but then, the C of E posed a challenge to the RCC that the Old Catholics and the Unitas Fratrum could not); nevertheless, the C of E insist upon it. The Puritans had wanted a more thoroughgoing reformation of the C of E, and they had a great effect upon it devotionally, and in part doctrinally, but they failed to make it more like Calvin’s blue-sky model.
In any case, one must understand that John Wesley was convinced that the C of E was “one of the best-reformed Churches in Christendom.” He thoroughly approved of its structure and its doctrine. He was deeply aware of the English church’s ancient foundations. In organizing and supervising the Methodist Societies, he did not see himself doing anything contrary to the doctrine and discipline of the C of E. Methodists were supposed to go to their own churches for the sacraments. Wesley himself and a few other clergy members of the Societies were happy to give communion wherever they might happen to be, but they could not possibly do so for all the Methodists – especially those in North America.
This is what made the collapse of the C of E in the newly independent United States such a catastrophe. The Methodists could no longer go to the longer Anglican church for communion and baptism. Some of the Methodist preachers in America wanted to go ahead and ordain themselves so they could assume a sacramental ministry to their own people; Wesley’s deputy Francis Asbury told them No. But something had to be done. Wesley tried to get the Bishop of London – or any proper bishop – to ordain some of his followers to go provide sacramental care for the Methodists in America. When the English bishops all refused him, he asked the Scottish bishops, who also turned him down.
Now, Wesley didn’t just pull his authority to ordain ministers for North America out of his back pocket. He didn’t say, “the Bible says,” and jump to do what he wanted, despite the lack of permission. He wrestled long and hard with this. He was a rule-keeper, and he wanted to do it right. He himself alleged two justifications for his act of ordaining Coke and giving him the authority to ordain others.
First, Wesley said over and over in his writings, that he believed that the will of God had been objectively demonstrated in the Methodist movement. He did not set out to create this revival; it had swept him up with everybody else. It was God’s doing. It was also blindingly obvious that he was responsible for it. He had been trying to fulfill his responsibility by recruiting a helpful bishop; then as now, “helpful bishop” is often an oxymoron when a reformer is asking. But God wanted the People Called Methodist to prosper, and Wesley couldn’t just throw up his hands.
He got his answer from studying Church History -- not just the Bible, and certainly not ideas of equal rights. His reading of certain historians (I think one was Bishop Stillingfleet, and I believe another was named King) reviewed much of what I have put in this essay, with particular attention to the practice of the NT church and the tradition of the pre-Nicene presbyters of Alexandria ordaining their bishop. Wesley reasoned that he was a “scriptural episkopos.” He had the community, and it was a Church in all but name. He had the responsibility. And if, originally, presbyters and bishops had been of the same order, then he had the inherent power to ordain. He just didn’t have the right to ordain under the canons of the C of E.
But then, the C of E was what one called a “national” church. It had been established by public law. What about where that law had no effect? And so Wesley resolved to proceed, under the assumption that the United States was a place where the laws establishing the C of E were of no effect. He “invaded no man’s right” to ordain preachers for there. And so he did.
His brother Charles was aghast. Even John was a bit shamefaced about it, chiding Francis Asbury for allowing himself and Coke to be styled “Bishops” rather than merely “General Superintendents.” Wesley was, for all his innovations, devoted to tradition. But this had been a rare moment of freedom, a moment when the pattern that had solidified in the 2nd Century could legitimately be re-opened. It was not a matter of dogma, but merely, discipline. And so, he acted. The Methodist clergy in North America wouldn’t be able to claim AS, but there was otherwise nothing deficient in their call and the recognition of it.**
This is why we teach in The UMC that the basic order of clergy in the church, the model, is Elder. Bishops are not a distinct, third order of ministry, but elders consecrated to a special task. For many years, we continued to ordain deacons as a probationary order; we have now made Deacon a final ordination of its own, equal to but different from Elder. (I would have done this differently, but that’s not the issue right now.) Our problem in many ways is that we keep confusing Conference membership (the original certificate of authority in the Methodist Societies) with ordination (the recognition by the Church of those set apart for sacramental and supervisory ministry). A lot of our inconsistencies can be put down to a habit of substituting union membership rules for theology. But I digress.
The case for WO
I started out saying that I would make the case for WO in UM understanding, but that in order to do that, I would need to make the case for Methodist orders first. It’s been a long way around the mulberry bush to get to this point, but here we are. The case for full inclusion of women in the ministry of the church relies on the same process by which Wesley finally set himself to ordain his own preachers for the Methodists of North America.
When we examine the NT, we see a variety of leadership roles, including those usually associated with the clergy, being shared by women. We see women given titles we assume are ministry titles. We conclude that in that moment, women were being given, if not full equality with men, nevertheless, a kind of equality that had never been given them before, and that in that unformed moment, roles were open to them in church leadership. “Neither male nor female” in Christ Jesus was more than a slogan, it was also practice.
As the pattern emerged in the 2nd Century, the moment faded. There is no point at which we can see men saying, “go back to the kitchen,” but nevertheless, it became less possible to consider women in ministry. Finally, we reach the point at which men like Epiphanius don’t even need to prove the heterodoxy of certain teachers; he only needs to prove the teachers were women. Nevertheless, women continued to come to leadership – and be given leadership – in many parts of the Christian movement. No matter how firmly women were told the great apostle had excluded them, they never quite believed it. Perhaps, at bottom, it can best be described as I put it, above, about the exclusive power of bishops to ordain: it was never a matter of dogma, but only a matter of discipline. At some point, the rules were written so.
But if the rules are merely a matter of discipline, not dogma, then there may come a time when the rules can be changed. When the NT moment can be revisited, and we can re-open the path to full clergy membership for women: not merely as a matter of equity, nor because we can squeeze the Bible until it says what we want, but because we can demonstrate, on a historical – a continuing – basis, that women have always been called by God. Indeed, looking at what women have done in the church, both where they were officially permitted to exercise that leadership and where they were not, we would say that the grace and calling of God have been objectively demonstrated in the fruits of their ministry. The time to recognize that came, for Methodists, in 1956; for some of our sister churches, it was earlier. By that time, we had seen women in Methodism serve as class leaders, as lay speakers, as missionaries and deaconesses, as unordained local pastors; once again, the grace and calling of God were objectively demonstrated through their ministries. In removing the last barrier to ordination as elder (and eventual election to the episcopacy) we didn’t change what the church is, or what a clergyperson is, we only went back and took an always permitted option, albeit one rarely exercised since the 1st Century. And so long as the women we ordain are right in their doctrine and their morals, then they are fit candidates for the ministry of the church. We are free to act upon our consciences, and we have. The issue, for us, is now settled.
It is settled the other way for many groups, I know. They are good people, and I don’t issue this long essay as a polemic against their position. This is for the followers of John Wesley. This is how to talk about the issue without veering off into mere ideology or over into a context-less Biblicism. AS is right in one respect, that apostolicity is more than merely a matter of doctrine. It should also mean we believe in history: we can show how who we are today is in continuity with who we used to be, all the way back to the beginning.
*I have often said, in emphasizing the continuity of the English Church Tradition, and the place of Methodism within it, that I could celebrate a Sarum Mass (in English) and it would seem so familiar that nobody in a Methodist church would turn a hair at any of it, except for the frequent references to Mary. Perhaps we Protestants need to revisit her place in our theology and worship language. There are many UM churches named after Paul and Peter, and not a few named after Wesley or Otterbein, but the absence of a “St. Mary United Methodist Church” would seem to indicate the lack of something important in our consciousness.
**The story that Wesley had been consecrated a bishop by the Eastern Orthodox Bishop Makarios while the latter was residing in London, and thus was legally as well as scripturally a bishop seems to be a fable invented later by Methodists who hankered after a claim to AS.