Scoop commented on my last post thus:

I cannot read God’s mind but I can clearly see what He did in Scripture.

He breathed life into Adam and then made Eve from Adam; flesh of thy flesh.

He set Aaron up as being the High Priest of His first Church and even his sister was punished for thinking herself equal to Aaron.

Christ too, had many faithful and loving followers amongst women and yet not a single one was invited to His Last Supper which we Catholics see as the first ordaining of Bishops for His Church.

Christ breathes upon the 12 (men) and tells them that they can forgive sin: a type of blessing) and a very important role for the priesthood. This follows from he OT Church which passed blessings on by the laying on of hands to the first born son etc.

We see a man being ordained by the laying on of hands in order to replace Judas.

We see no other texts in the last 2000 years that the Church has ever ordained a woman as a priest or bishop.

Let’s look more closely to make sure that we are not doing what my last post suggested men have done, which is read into Scripture what they think is there, and then to use that as exegesis.

It would be equally true to say that we do not see Jesus breathing upon any men except Jewish men, and that the Apostles, in seeking a successor to Judas do not choose anyone except another Jewish man. Yet no-one would argue that only Jewish men could be ordained, so at some point something happened for which there is no scriptural warrant – that is non-Jews were “ordained.” The quotation marks are there advisedly, because the very use of the word “ordain” is a loaded one. Where, in Scripture, is the word “ordain” used about what the Apostles did? Again, as it is not there, it suggests that as tradition developed it seemed reasonable to apply that word to what happened to Matthias.

If we go back to the examples offered in earlier posts of Junia and Phoebe, I would hope to have made the case that they occupied positions of leadership and that they exercised “ministry”, which raises the interesting question of what that might have meant.

If we begin with the example of the priesthood. Let us follow Scoop’s wise advice and turn to Scripture. Surely, there we shall find something to help us, whom does Paul describe as a “priest”, and what qualifications were there? There are certainly plenty of “priests” in the Jewish Scriptures, and not only are they all men (as Scoop correctly points out with reference to Aaron and Miriam [for some reason while he gives Aaron his name, Miriam is just “his sister”]) but they are all from the tribe of Levi. Alas, here Scripture is not a great deal of help when we get to the New Testament. The word “priest” is never used, and the only use of the word “priesthood” is in Peter’s first epistle (2:5) where it refers to the priesthood of all believers.

Now it might reasonably be argued that the word “priest” is used, what else, might be said, is meant by the word “presbyter”? The answer to that is that, unless we wish to engage in the sort of circular argument which says Junia cannot be a female and an apostle, because women weren’t apostles, but if “she” becomes a “he” called Junias, the problem is neatly solved – and I suggest not going there for the reasons outlined at some length in earlier posts and by C451 – then we would have to admit that the Greek word is capable of a number of translations into English.

In Acts 14:23 and 20:7 the word is translated as “elder”, while in Acts 15:4, 6, 22-23 they are associated with the Apostles. In Philippians 1:1, Paul writes: “To all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons”, but at no point is anything said about gender here, and indeed, the only person specifically identified by Paul as a deacon, is Phoebe. But, I think I already heard someone cry, “hold on a cotton-picking minute Miss Hoff, with all the Scripture you’re citing, how come you missed 1 Timothy 3:13 and Titus 1:5-9, that wouldn’t be because they totally flatten your argument?” To which my answer is, I needed to deal with the question of the words “presbyter” and “priest” before saying something about these passages. So, to work, woman!

So, what is 1 Timothy 3 about? It is describing the moral character of an “overseer/deacon/bishop”. Where does it say these orders can be held only by men? Indeed, given that we have seen that there were women deacons, and even a woman Apostle, why do we begin by assuming what it is needs to be demonstrated? It only makes sense to say that these verses “prove” that only men could hold them on two conditions: the first is that we disregard everything just said about Phobe and Junia; the second is like unto it, which is that since women could not be deacons and apostles, it follows that these passages refer to men only. But precisely where does Paul say that? Or is this yet another example of reading into the text what we want to see?

What is plain to see is that Paul is describing the moral character of people holding office in the Church. No one but a fool would read this verse literally: “A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach”. Why, because it would make a total nonsense of the Romman Catholic and Orthodox view that a bishop must be celibate. Clearly, I hear the chorus (with which I agree), this is not saying that the bishop must be married; why then do we assume that the bishop must be a “he.” The male pronouns are ones inserted, and yet we know that often, in traditional English use, “man includes woman”. Why not assume that here? Ah, I forgot, “because we know that the church never ordained woman.” How do we know? Because the Bible uses the word “he” and 1 Timothy 3 supports that – except, as I have just deminstrated, it doesn’t.

I still hear that chorus, this time thus: “Very ingenious Miss Hoff, but are you not forgetting the order used by Paul – bishops, deacons and then wives and women in general”? No, I am not, I am suggesting that given that there was a female apostle and at least one female deacon he might well be addressing both genders. The counter-argument only works if we presume what it claims to “prove” from Scripture.

Oh well, it might be argued, here is one of those feminist women arguing a novel case because of the times in which we live, it is all part of the dreadful trend that is destroying the Anglican/Catholic/Presbyterian/Lutheran Church. Clearly:

If the testimony borne in these two passages to a ministry of women in apostolic times had not been thus blotted out of our English Bible, attention would probably have been directed to the subject at an earlier date, and our English church would not have remained so long maimed in one of her hands.

Which dreadful modern feminist wrote this? That was a trick question. It was Bishop Lightfoot who was Bishop of Durham from 1879 to 1889 – he is “regarded as one of the greatest New Testament and patristic scholars of the Anglican tradition.” Lightfoot is also germane when we turn to the one question still to handle – the position of Bishop.

Lightfoot, a man steeped in Biblical history and one of the greatest Greek and Bible scholars of his day. Lightfoot did not :

regard the terms episkopos and presbyteros as entirely synonymous. He believed that the second of these had been taken over from the synagogue and was used especially to refer to the leaders of Jewish-Christian congregations, whereas episkopos was an equivalent term used mainly (if not exclusively) among the Gentiles. According to Lightfoot, the difference was one of flavour and reference, rather than one of substance, i.e., what we would now call an early example of ‘cultural contextualisation’.

A fuller discussion of the translation issues connected with the word “bishop” is offered in Loveday’s 2012 lecture in Chester, which I was lucky enough to be able to attend, and the text of which can be found here. Loveday concludes:

Overall what this shows is that most modern
translators (even the Catholic JB) have virtually ruled out the possibility that there might be any bishops in the Bible, illustrating graphically how Bible translationreflects not only the changing faces of historical scholarship, but the tradition andecclesiology of the translators.

So yes, tell me firmly that the version of the Bible you use to confute me is from your tradition and accepts its traditional ecclesiology, and I will respond, of course it does, but what it does not do is what Scoop says it does, and shows there were no women bishops. It shows, depending on your ecclesiology and translation that there were no bishops in the Bible until translators put them there.

A reasonable riposte, with which I would agree, would be to argue from tradition and to say that by the time of Ignatius there clearly was a model of what has been called a monarchical bishop, but that tells us only that by the early second century women may not have been playing the role we see them playing in Paul’s epistles. What it simply cannot do is to tell us that Paul was wrong in describing women as being in positions of leadership.

Paul tells is that in being baptised into Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile. Some in the Jerusalem Church were so cross with him that they told Peter off for saying that the old Jewish diatary laws were a dead letter, and it took a heated conference in Jerusalem to decide that despite everything the Jewish Scriptures said on the issue, Paul was correct. Paul also said that in Christ there was neither male nor female. Are we asked to believe that he did not really mean this and that what he really meant was that there is a real distinction, and that in spite of the fact that women were playing leading roles, they were barred from positions such as “bishop” which did not actually exist in Paul’s day? You might argue that there was no equivalent of the Council of Jerusalem on the issue, and you would be right. But might that not mean that no-one thought the issue a problem? Women were taking leading roles, as we have seen, so what?

In short, unless we use tradition to say you can’t have women in positions of leadership in the church, you are on shaky ground basing yourself on Scripture alone, which is why what Scoop says works for his church and for him. But if your tradition does not teach that in some quasi-mystical manner a “priest” represents Christ at Calvary and that as Christ was a man, a priest must be, then even there, your ground for denying the ordination of women is not as firm as all that.

What I wish to suggest in closing, is that none of this is anything to do with strident feminism or modernity, it is to do with there being neither male nor female in Christ, and it is to do with doing justice to the role women have played and can play in the Church. If that also involves questioning the male version of events and that makes me a feminist, then I suppose I can live with that. But it is not the result of wanting to be on trend, but to be in Spirit with the apostolic church.