The Theological Case Against Women's Ordination

The Theological Case Against Women's Ordination

by The Right Reverend Stanley Atkins (see biography)

from The Ordination of Women: Pro and Con, pp. 18-28,
edited by Michael P.Hamilton and Nancy S.Montgomery, Morehouse Barlow Co, 1975.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions.

The question that the Episcopal Church faces is, “Do we have the right and the authority to admit women to the apostolic priesthood of the Catholic Church, by our own unilateral action?” It is necessary that all should understand that this is not a question about admitting women to the ministry—that was settled for us in 1862, when the first women deacons were ordained in our church. There are those who speak as though the word priest were simply the Episcopal word for Minister. Indeed, much of the writing that we have seen lately on this subject labors to prove that women may be Ministers, and in so doing misses the point under discussion. It ought to be obvious that those who would change the tradition of nearly two thousand years of Catholic Christendom must produce compelling reasons for such change. It does not seem that they have done so. Of course, those who do not accept the Catholic tradition about priesthood find nothing to argue about. It is legitimate to wonder why they imagine that their opinions should be listened to and acted upon by a Christian body which has always claimed that its presbyters are catholic priests. There is ample reason for this confusion between priest and minister in the Episcopal Church, because we have accustomed our people to seeing ministry and priesthood embodied in one and the same person. However, there is no reason in scripture why every Christian minister should be an ordained priest, just as there is no reason why every minister of the Church should be an ordained member of the clergy. That is a medieval assumption and not a scriptural one.

The word of God in Holy Scripture shows us a ministry that is predominately male. There are no exceptions in the Old Testament to the role of a male priesthood, though women are shown there as prophets, seers and judges. In the New Testament there are exceptions mentioned in Romans 16:1 and 2, and apparently in the first Epistle to Timothy. These passages refer to women deacons. (Some scholars think that 1 Timothy is talking about deacons' wives in the relevant passage, but they do not explain why the author takes pains to lay down standards for deacons' wives but not for bishops' wives.) However, the New Testament makes it clear that women played a great and honorable, indeed an indispensable part in the founding of the Christian church. This should not surprise us, since we can see that women had a very large place in the ministry of Jesus Christ. He did not shrink from giving great scandal to his contemporaries by his attitude to women, and he even allowed a band of women to travel with him and to support him out of their own funds, according to St. Luke. Women are near Christ both in his trials and in his triumph, and nothing is plainer in the scriptures than that Jesus Christ treats women as true “daughters of Abraham,” and in no way inferior to their brothers. Yet he does not choose any woman to be a member of the apostolic band, nor (unless Dorcas is an exception,) to be one of the Seventy.

St. Paul, in his Epistle to the Ephesians, tells Christians to be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. But he also goes on to counsel Christian women to “submit to your husbands as to the Lord,” alleging that the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the savior. (Ephesians 5:21ff.) These four verses, however, are followed by eight verses in which St. Paul speaks of the husband's duty to his wife in the terms of astonishing depth and vigor. In 1 Corinthians 11 there is the famous Pauline passage which states that a woman should pray and prophesy with her head covered, to signify her subordination. In chapter 14 there is the famous prohibition on women speaking in the church during public worship. This is repeated in 1 Timothy 2, where the writer forbids a woman “to teach or to have authority over a man.”

The New Testament emphasizes the dignity of womanhood, and it is a fact that the example and teaching of Jesus Christ have lifted woman in one culture and society after another to a position she did not have before. In many great religions, women have a lower place than men, but the New Testament emphasizes that men and women have a perfect spiritual equality before God. This is of course the burden of the famous verse in Galatians (3:28) of which we hear so much today. Moreover, in 1 Corinthians chapter 7, St. Paul holds up a standard of true and unselfish mutuality in sexual relationships that emphasizes the personhood of the woman as equal in value to that of the man. However, the New Testament teaches that in the family, for the sake of its order and unity, there must be leadership, and in the man-woman unity, responsibility for leadership ordinarily rests upon the man.

The little phrase “as unto the Lord” gives us a clue to the nature of this leadership. The relationship of the woman to the man is not comparable to the relationship of the woman to her heavenly Lord; but that which is done “in the Lord” is done as if it were for the Lord, and this is the mainspring of all Christian action. In Paul's mind, the “subordination” of woman to man is the subordination of Christ to the Father, and there is nothing penal, grievous or humiliating in that relationship, only a glad self-giving which is mutual. That is why St. Paul expresses the duty of the husband toward his wife in terms of “agape,” love that is totally unselfish, seeks not its own satisfaction, striving always for the highest good of the beloved at whatever cost to itself.

Lovely and inspiring though all this is, should we not ask if this view of the man-woman relationship is tenable in these days? And is there any validity today to the masculine imagery of God as Father? This is the way that he has taught us to think of himself. Without doubt, the imagery of the Bible is substantially male imagery. But is this normative for all times, or is it just picture-thinking that has been made obsolete? Is it anything more than anthropomorphism? When one looks at these passages in Genesis and in the New Testament, it seems easy to suppose that the writers are expressing themselves in images and concepts which they have adopted from the civilization and culture in which they lived. They are “conditioned” by their culture, and are using the imagery and mythology of their time. We are bound to ask how their imagery and mythology are related to the revelation of God and his purposes.

Some people want to separate the imagery and mythology from all essential relationship to divine revelation. They believe that in some sections the Bible can be shown to be dependent upon, and shaped by, imagery and mythology. Those parts, though valuable, cannot be essential, and can be dropped from the consideration of what is normative for us today. We shall be left then with the kernel of divine revelation. At first sight, this idea has something to recommend it. Does Paul really mean that all Christian women for all time shall wear veils upon their heads? Even if we accept the significance that Paul gives to the veil, can we not imagine that the principle for which he contends could be signified in some other way in another civilization? But surely great care is needed here. Let us not put ourselves into the position of saying that although the Holy Scriptures, the voice of God, cannot disentangle what is divine from what is merely cultural, we can. If the world rests upon the great tortoise, then what does the tortoise stand upon? If the first century is culturally conditioned, and we are able to see that, who will let us see how deeply we have been conditioned by our own culture? Fr. Avery Dulles, SJ, says that once we have allowed the presence of mythical elements in the Bible, we have to ask the question are they still myths as they appear on the pages of scripture? He thinks not. He says that when the myths and symbols have been taken over by scripture, they are met and answered by Divine Revelation; they are purified, broken and sublimated. Instead of the myths and images exerting a determining influence over revelation, we must think of revelation controlling them, bending them to its own service. Hoskyns and Davey obviously think along these lines too. They see the relationship between the anthropological elements in scripture and the divine revelation as part of the problem of the meaning of history. History, when interpreted solely in terms of itself, is meaningless. To interpret the masculine imagery that is found in the scriptures solely in terms of its origins, its cultural conditioning, and to write it off as no longer relevant, is to interpret sacred history in terms of itself, and to reduce it to meaninglessness. The masculine imagery about God in scripture is not shaped by cultural and anthropological elements solely so as to vitiate its authority. God has taken and used cultural influences and he bends them to his own purpose of self-revelation. God did choose a patriarchate for his chosen people, when there were many models of matriarchy available. He chose the flesh of a man for the incarnation, though there were many images of goddesses in the Levantine world. He extended Christ's apostolic commission to twelve males, although there were many women prominent among the disciples. This discrimination cannot be ascribed to simple cultural conditioning; it is part of the divine self-revelation. To say otherwise is to say that God chose the wrong culture and the wrong century for the Incarnation of the Word. One should not have to defend oneself against charges that one thinks that God is male, surely. But the Son of God is the son of Mary, and his maleness is one of those minor miracles which cluster around the greatest of miracles, the Incarnation of the Word of God. He is the son of his mother, his whole genetic inheritance is from her alone, but his maleness is the Father's edict. The commingling of sexual attributes in God is a great mystery. An equal mystery is the specific sexuality of his incarnation. The maleness of Jesus Christ cannot be separated from the masculine imagery used in revelation. He is the express image of the Father. He perfects the revelation of the Father, and he guarantees it. To say that cultural influences determined the sex of Jesus, is to compromise his relevance for womankind. Because a man is representative of humankind in an eminent degree, the sexuality of Jesus is no barrier to his redemption of woman. To think otherwise is to say that the historical Jesus is not an essential element in revelation—an unnecessary and unChristian yielding to Bultmannism.

Jesus' choice of men for his apostles is congruous with the masculine imagery used in scripture, and with the historical incarnation of Jesus Christ. Our Lord's statement, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father,” combines both imagery and representation. The visible flesh of Jesus Christ is, and will always be, the road to the Father. The meaning of the historical life of Jesus has a meaning which is beyond history, which alone makes sense of history, and it must not be interpreted in terms which will evacuate it of all meaning. The choosing of the Twelve cannot be separated from the history of Jesus. The Twelve and their successors are the personal representatives of Jesus Christ, they continue his mission and this representation of the Father. Their masculinity maintains the historical imagery of Christ, just as his maintains the imagery of the Father. Christ's choice of men as apostles was not accidental. It cannot be read as evidence of his unwillingness to challenge contemporary ideas. It was not the result of his social conditioning, nor was it an act of accommodation on his part. He chose men to be his apostles in order to fulfill the symbol of Fatherhood which he used for the creator of the natural order. The apostles represented the church, and the modern priesthood represents the people of God today. The people have given their voices in recognition of the priest's special calling. In this sense also, women deacons represent the people. What is central is the divine authority with which the apostles represent Christ. They are representatives of God. They are not merely notional representatives. What Christ grants, the Father grants; his acts are the Father's acts. Furthermore, one must emphasize the fact that the apostles are in some sense antecedent to the Church, and that the Church was dependent upon their prior apprehension and acceptance of Jesus as the Christ. It is their witness, their authority, which provides the Church with the capability to make known to the world the meaning of the mission of Jesus Christ and the redeeming love of God revealed in him. The church which confronted the world had to be created by the witness of the Spirit speaking through the apostles. Therefore, in a sense, it is true to say that the apostolic minister's priestly relationship to Jesus Christ is prior to his relationship to the Church. His priesthood is not exercised apart from the church; it is exercised on behalf of Jesus Christ within the church.

The notion that an all-male priesthood is somehow defective because not sufficiently representative, is an argument against the priesthood of Jesus Christ. If one thinks that sexual correspondence is necessary for a truly representative ministry, it is possible to argue that an all-male clergy has an advantage over a bi-sexual clergy. The man-priest symbolizes more clearly the maleness of Christ which is the emblem of his masterfulness as our Savior. It is true that the church is bisexual, but the priest's representative relationship to Christ as his ambassador is prior to his relationship to the church as its liturgical agent. C.S. Lewis argued that a church which ordained women as priests becomes less like a church, because its order then witnesses a degree less clearly to the spiritual reality which makes the church; namely, the lordly saving ministry of Jesus Christ himself. In the Army, said Lewis, one salutes the uniform, not the wearer. One wearing the masculine uniform can, provisionally and until the parousia (the second coming of Christ), properly represent the Lord to the church, for we are all, corporately and individually, feminine to him. In the orders of creation and redemption, what man is to woman is an emblem of what God is to us all. We are dealing with male and female, says Lewis, not merely as facts of nature, but as shadows of realities, live and awful, utterly beyond our control and largely beyond our direct knowledge. Where knowledge lacks fullness, as it does here, we are m no position to innovate.

In churches which have no doctrine of priesthood, the ordination of women as Pastors, Superintendents, is easily conceded. If our priests are only in essentials ministers, there can be no intrinsic objection to women as pastors. Dr. Tillich has stated that the protestant pastor is essentially a lay person, differing from other lay persons only in his professional training and knowledge. If ministerial priests possess in truth a sacerdotal character by an intrinsic participation in Christ's high priesthood, of course the nature of the case is different.

This has a bearing on the subject of our ecumenical commitments. To say, as did the Standing Ecumenical Commission of the Episcopal Church, that our refusal to make women priests or bishops is a hindrance to unity, is patently absurd. The COCU churches have no doctrine of a ministerial priesthood different in kind from the general participation in the priestly nature of the church. On the other hand, in our conversations with Rome and the Orthodox, we have proceeded on the assumption that our sacred ministry is the same as theirs. This assumption needs to be proven, and may conceivably be mistaken. Therefore, it seems to some of us that the Episcopal Church does not have either the right or the authority to make a profound change in the priesthood of the Catholic Church on its own initiative. The General Convention of the Episcopal Church has no more right to change the Catholic priesthood than it has to change the Catholic creeds, or the Catholic Canon of scripture.

To say that it will forever remain impossible for a woman to share the priesthood would be to go too far. The Holy Spirit will guide the church into all truth, and he will find a way to make known the truth. No one would wish to be found to be fighting against the Holy Spirit, but a persisting tradition of nearly two thousand years of church order should not be set aside lightly, particularly when one observes that this tradition has persisted through all changes of culture and technology. The present controversy seems to be marked by a radical provincialism. Not every change or trend in western civilization justifies a complete reshaping of the Christian tradition. We have seen lately the rise and fall of several new theologies which were called into existence to conform the church's proclamation to new and exciting developments in western culture. It has turned out that western culture is only American subculture, and that the trends have been much less lasting than had been expected. We should be wary of surrendering to “culture.”

We ought not to surrender to clericalism either. A thoroughly medieval view of the church informs much of the present controversy. It is taken for granted that the clergy are the ecclesiastical power-structure. If women are to have their rights as Christians, obviously they must become part of the power-structure. This seems to me to be the most dismal prospect that is revealed to us by the controversy. We shall be admitting to the priesthood women whose great abilities will simply reinforce the present perception of the clergy as the decision-makers in the church. They will be under the strongest pressures to conform to male images of priesthood and ministry, partly because of their anxiety to excel, and partly because of a desire to be accepted. They will thus be tempted to betray their vocation as women, and to become carbon copies of men. They will suffer and the church will be impoverished.

There is a question which the church has not faced, and which it does not seem anxious to face. That question is, “What is the nature of the apostolate of the laity, and what is their role and authority in the life of the church?” The Holy Spirit is given to the whole Body of Christ. He parts his gifts as he wills. It is evident that the laity are second class citizens in the Episcopal Church, and it is equally evident that this is contrary to the example of the New Testament. There is no reason why a minister should be a priest, and equally there is no reason why a minister should be a member of the clergy. At present, women chafe at being restricted to the diaconate. That order has a dignity and a power which the modern church tries to stifle. Deacons ought to sit in the General Convention, they ought to have the right to preside over parishes, and they ought to have restored to them their leadership of the church's organization and its charitable work. To achieve this would require only some canonical changes. To restore to the laity the dignity of being Christ's ambassadors, true representatives of their Lord and his church, requires a change of heart on the part of clergy and laity alike. That is a much more difficult matter. Nevertheless, the church claims to be in the business of changing men's and women's hearts. She ought to be able to change her own, by God's grace.

To sum up: 1) The faith and order of the Anglican Communion are the faith and order of the Church Catholic. We have no authority to change that order by admitting women to the episcopate and priesthood without a consensus of historic Christendom. 2) The sexuality of Jesus is no accident; it is the flesh of his incarnation by God's own act. This male image is continued by Christ's choice of male apostles, and their choice of apostolic men to succeed them. This cannot be dismissed as “cultural conditioning” without disparaging the Jewishness of Jesus. 3) The persisting tradition of two thousand years in church order reveals the mind of the Spirit for the future of the ministry of the church. Christian priesthood has consistently been male through cultures of varying sexual patterns. To obey the Spirit, we must be faithful to this history. 4) The priests of the church have no priesthood of their own; they participate in Christ's priesthood. Ordination is a gift of the Holy Spirit which bestows this participation. It is not the creation of the church to do with as it will. It is to be given only to those congruous with the example of Jesus Christ, the authority of holy scriptures and the witness of Christian tradition. There is no right to priesthood.

I wish to acknowledge my indebtedness to the writings of Fr. Avery Dulles; Messrs. Hoskyns and Davey; Fr. Robert Terwilliger; the Reverend H. Earl Daughterty of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Dr. J.I. Packer; Fr. Joseph Barker, CR; my sometime teacher and tutor, the Reverend E. J. Bicknell, DD; and to many others.

Biography

The Right Reverend Stanley Atkins has been the Bishop of the Diocese of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, since 1970.

Bishop Atkins was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, and attended King's College, University of London. Ordained in 1939, his ministry in the United States has included being rector of St. Paul's Church in Hudson, Wisconsin, and vicar of St. Thomas Church in New Richmond, Wisconsin, from 1955 to 1961. From 1962 to 1969 he was Archdeacon of Milwaukee. In 1969 he was awarded an honorary D.D. from Nashotah House in Wisconsin.

Bishop Atkins was a deputy to General Convention from 1958 to 1967. He was consecrated Bishop Coadjutor of Eau Claire in 1969.

In addition to his duties as bishop, he serves as a Chaplain of the West Province of the Community of St. Mary and is a trustee of Nashotah House.


Bottom Bar

Copyright (c) 2007: All of the texts and techniques (pedagogical and relational)
displayed in this site are copyrighted materials.