But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression. Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety.
-1 Timothy 2: 12-15
I have not had the opportunity to comment at length on Chalcedon’s series on women in ministry. As I have several different lines of thought, a post seemed more appropriate than a comment at this stage. In particular, I felt that the passage above needed confronting. This post will therefore have a few different sections, not in any particular order.
It is important to note that the English word “priest” is derived from the Greek word presbyter, which does not mean priest in the sense of a person who offers sacrifices. A presbyter is an elder (sometimes an ambassador in Greek or delegate). Presbyters were also elders who governed local communities (whether by holding office according to a local constitution or through wealth or local tradition).
This word seems to have entered Christianity from the synagogue, which is hardly surprising since many early churches were synagogues that had recognised Jesus of Nazareth as their Messiah or groups that had broken away from synagogues or Jews who formed new messianic communities.
In the synagogue, the elders were the board that helped to oversee the life of the synagogue and they probably took leading roles in certain ceremonies, supporting the rabbi. For this reason, many Christians have concluded that presbyters in the New Testament are really the boards of elders that oversaw local churches and/or clusters of local churches.
If churches had been licit in the early Empire, they would have been responsible for representing them to the local authorities or even to the Senate or Emperor. As it was, they may still have done this in a non-official manner. Indeed, when interrogating and investigating churches under superstitio law, the Roman authorities may generally have preferred to ask the elders about matters.
Nowhere does the New Testament use the sacrificer Greek word for priest, hiereus, as a synonym or adjunct to elder. Whenever this word is used, it refers to the Jewish priests in the Jerusalem Temple, sacrificing under the Mosaic Law, or pagan sacrifice of animals, or the Christian community being consecrated as priests to God in a metaphorical sense, extending the Torah’s description of Israel as a kingdom of priests.
For this reason, although it seems clear that the Orthodox and Catholic idea of eucharistic priesthood evolved from an early stage in Church history (and therefore churches descended from them or from the earlier stem-line have this concept), it is not certain that the Church in the days of the Apostles had it. Therefore, for dissenting churches that go by the Bible alone, and reject certain developments in teaching and praxis, the in persona Christi / in capite Christi line of reasoning is not relevant to the question of women in ministry, because they reject the hiereus / sacerdos interpretation of presbyter or the celebrant at the eucharist.
For these churches, the questions are simply these.
- Is it right for women to serve in leadership positions (oversight, management, teaching, church-planting, and representation of the church to outsiders)?
- Is it right for women to conduct the eucharist?
There are no universal answers to these questions within the dissenting communities, because they take different approaches to biblical interpretation, falling along a spectrum.
Some view Paul’s teachings as binding for all time. Therefore, they bar women from leadership positions (though they may disagree about what counts as a leadership position in the sense Paul intended in the above passage and related ones).
Others view the New Testament ethical tradition as a set of principles that have to be applied in context and consider that different contexts may yield different results. These may therefore allow women to serve in roles that would not be open to them in more “conservative” churches.
A third group adopt a middle position, which is that some of Paul’s teachings are binding, because they sit within the firm teachings of the Lord / Apostolic leadership, but others are not, being rules he imposed on the communities he was directly responsible for, and subject to context.
Reading 1 Timothy 2
Paul’s passage above appears simple, but I personally understand why, in this century and the previous one, churches have wondered whether it is an absolute bar to women serving in some areas of ministry. The following problems arise when reading this text more closely.
- Is Paul’s reference to himself meant to be taken as referring to (i) the authority he wields as a missionary over the churches he planted and/or (ii) personal preference?
- How exactly did Paul understand the opening chapters of Genesis?
- Would Paul have considered this teaching subject to change if circumstances altered (e.g. such as the level of education women received and/or the roles they were allowed to hold in commerce, government, and society generally)?
For my part, I do not consider Paul’s teaching to be particularly radical in context. In his day, women were not allowed to serve as rabbis or elders; they did not generally hold formal positions of authority within Roman or local governments and certainly did not serve in the legions. Power that they did wield in local communities was generally exceptional and unofficial, in the form of influence through connections with powerful men or as strong business women.
The picture is different nowadays with equality laws, changes in society generally, and the introduction of women into leadership positions in various churches. But two points are found in the passage that would seem to suggest changes in our societies do not affect the fundamental nature of the sexes and the plan and purpose of God for creation. (1) Paul asserts that Adam was created before Eve and (2) Paul asserts that Eve was deceived by the Serpent, but Adam was not.
The thrust of Paul’s teaching seems to be that men are ordained by God to have authority of women, and not the other way around. Note that Paul refers to the creation of Adam (i.e. before the Fall), not the pronouncement of God about relations between the sexes in the protoevangelion. Genesis shows man and woman working together in co-rulership over creation as the image of God, but it clearly teaches that Adam was made before Eve.
As for deception, Paul seems to be teaching that women are inherently more likely to be deceived, and therefore it is unwise to put them in teaching positions. This strikes me as very problematic (as is his application of the primacy of Adam above). I imagine that he would concede there were exceptions to this general rule; but I have no doubt that if he made such a concession, he would then add that it does not change the general calculus, and thus it is safer to err on the side of forbidding women to teach.
It may be true that, owing to the educational practices of the time and other cultural considerations, women would generally not be suited to teaching and other leadership positions – but does that mean we ought to be bound by Paul today? I think, to answer this question, we must make a careful consideration of Genesis and Paul’s use of it – but that is beyond the scope of today’s post, which is already lengthy. I intend to write about that topic subsequently.
The Anglican Communion
Lastly, I have a few comments about how this matter has been handled in the Anglican Church. While I spent four years attending an Anglican church at university (which was evangelical-charismatic) and some time at my college chapel (which was Anglo-Catholic and where I received communion from a lady priest, who was very kind to me), I am certainly not an authority on Anglicanism. However, four points do strike me in this controversy.
- The women-in-ministry issue is not truly isolated because the different factions and agendas form alliances in the Synod and in other contexts. Proponents of women in ministry may, in many but not all cases, also be proponents of other “liberal” agendas, such as gay rights, etc.
- For those who espouse a liturgical understanding of Christian priesthood, I really do not see how women can be understood as priests, given the reliance in Tradition in this schema and Tradition’s unequivocal opposition to women priests.
- I really do not know what the “official” position on priesthood is in the Anglican communion, since parts of the Anglican tradition tend in the dissenting tradition and other parts tend in the liturgical direction.
- I question the motives of many in pushing for women to be ordained to the priesthood and episcopacy – and motives do matter in Christianity. Where things are forced on people and no respect is shown for conscience, we violate Paul’s teachings in 1 and 2 Corinthians and Christ’s teachings about serving one another and bearing each other’s weaknesses in love. I believe this issue has divided the Anglican Church and harmed it in divers other ways.