In Support of Women in Ministry as Bishops

I and many other Anglicans have celebrated this week the decision of the General Synod to allow women bishops. I have read many commentaries criticising the decision (mainly from other denominations and countries), and today came across a post entitled
Get With the Program, which argues against the change on three grounds: Church and State, Tradition, and finally (most importantly) Scripture. Much of my comment on the latter heading owes a huge debt to a wonderful article from 2012.

I don’t expect any of my comments below to necessarily change the view expressed above, but there is a fair bit of inaccuracy which I think needs to be addressed in a spirit of truth and love.

I have copied across and italicized sections of the original post for ease of understanding my response:

“First – Church and State

The Anglican church is a state church. It is the official church of the state known as the United Kingdom. It was instituted by Henry the Eighth to combat the Roman Catholic church which he thought had too much power and influence in the country and was outside of his control. So he simply banned the RC church, made everybody Anglican and he was the head of the church.

The ruling monarch in the UK has been the head of the Anglican church ever since, although they have typically not interfered in what they do for a long time. The bishops are automatically voting members of the House of Lords (Kind of like the Senate in Washington.).

In Prime Minister Cameron’s statement we see the state doing its thing again by trying to control the church. The head of the government was, through his open words, putting pressure on the church to do something he thought they should do. This is political correctness applied from the highest level possible down on what ought to be a Christ-centered organization.

One might wonder how the church is buckling under. One of the keys to this issue is money. Basically the government holds the swing money. Without UK government largesse a large part of the Anglican church would fold.

So, we can see that one would expect the church to help the state on issues of morality. In the UK, it is the state that forces the church to accept the morality of the day. In this case women bishops.”

The Church of England is the established church in the UK, meaning, amongst other things: the Monarch is the ‘Supreme Governor’ of the church (theologically Jesus is the head); the Church performs a number of official functions, and, the Church and State are linked.

Henry VIII started the process of creating the Church of England after his split with the Pope in the 1530s. Henry was anxious to ensure a male heir after his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, had borne him only a daughter. He wanted his marriage annulled in order to remarry. In 1534 after several failed attempts to persuade the Pope to grant an annulment, Henry passed the Act of Succession and then the Act of Supremacy. These recognised that the King was “the only supreme head of the Church of England called Anglicana Ecclesia”. Henry adopted the title given to him by the Pope in 1521, that of Defender of the Faith. His reasons were purely secular, not theological.

Not all bishops have seats in the House of Lords, which is the UK’s unelected upper House of Parliament. The Archbishops of Canterbury and York and the Bishops of Durham, London and Winchester are ex-officio members of the House of Lords. The remaining 21 places on the Bishops’ Bench are occupied by those English diocesan bishops that have served the longest. When bishops retire from their see (compulsory at 70), their membership of the House also ceases. Occasionally some have become life peers, and this is usually the case for former archbishops.

David Cameron’s comments in 2012 were directed at the lay members of the Synod – not the church. Under the requirements of the Synod the legislation required a two-thirds majority in each of the three voting houses for final draft approval. Whilst more than two thirds voted for the legislation in both the House of Bishops (44-3) and the House of Clergy (148-45), the vote in favour of the legislation in the House of Laity was less than two-thirds (132-74). The vote in the House of Laity fell short of approval by six votes. In total 324 members of the General Synod voted to approve the legislation and 122 voted to reject it.

The Church of England receives no money from the UK government, other than indirectly through tax efficient giving by its members. Around three-quarters of the church’s income (£750 million) comes from worshippers in the parishes – over £200 million is given tax-efficiently each year through Gift Aid and a further £60 million is recovered from the Inland Revenue in tax; £200 million is given in cash and donations by congregations and visitors; £250 million is raised through legacies, special events, the letting of church halls, bookstalls, fundraising and parish magazines etc; around 15 per cent (over £160 million) comes from the Church Commissioners who manage assets of £4.4 billion (at the end of 2008) on behalf of the Church; £50 million through income on reserve funds in parishes; £50 million through income on reserves in dioceses and cathedrals; £30 million from fees paid for weddings, funerals and chaplaincies. (source: Church of England website)

“Second – Tradition

Just as the RC church does, Anglicans trace their authority back to the Apostles. Even though they are only about 480 years old, they claim 2000 years of history. This will be the first time they have ever allowed women bishops. They are throwing out their own tradition, which was founded on scriptural interpretation.

In doing this they are running over the wishes of their own lay members. This is lunacy. The lay members will eventually disappear from the churches because they aren’t following scripture (see below) and they might have government support, but they won’t have the people of God’s support.”

As you will have seen above, those against the decision are very much in the minority, both amongst the clergy and the lay members – this decision represents more than a 2/3 majority view of all Synod members.

We know from the Bible itself that women served as Apostles (Romans 16:7), Ministers (or deaconesses, Romans 16:1), Prophets (Acts 2:18, 1 Cor. 11:5), and Missionaries (Acts 18:18-19). They were the first witnesses of Christ’s resurrection, and were present to receive the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Part of the reason women held important roles in the early church had to do with the organization of House Churches, with the cultural role of women as the heads of the household in Greco-Roman society. (Jeffers, 1999) As Christianity became legitimized and moved from houses to basilicas the role of women diminished in the third century. Due to the assertion of the feminine in Gnostic heresy and pagan fertility cults the Church was pressed to distance itself from female leadership.

After the conversion of Constantine the Church began to officially dismantle the service of women, forbidding them to administer baptisms and communion. By the time of Augustine the Church had adopted the old Jewish views of women based on the Patriarchal Guilt view of Genesis 3. By the Middle Ages women were considered animalistic, beasts of burden and only allowed involvement in the Church by renouncing their sexuality and entering monastic orders (nuns).

The Reformation saw the beginning of emancipation of women based on the emphasis of sola scriptura (the idea that salvation is sufficient by scripture alone). Luther and Calvin lifted up the virtues of marriage and sexuality, but still considered women second class citizens. Luther’s argument of “the priesthood of all believers” became a cop-out argument for the denial of the ordination of women still used today.

The first defence of women’s ministry was argued by Quaker Margaret Bell in 1666. John Wesley in the 18th century recognized the call of women to preach, exhorting them to share their testimony in the Revival Movement.

The defence of women preachers grew in the early nineteenth century, resulting in the first ordination of a woman, Mary Antoinette Brown in 1853. Catherine Booth with the help of her husband founded the Salvation Army in 1859, writing many defences of women in ministry.

Still there was deep resistance in the Baptist camp, especially A.T. Robertson and John Broadus. The Pentecostal movement, with its emphasis on the gifts of the Holy Spirit welcomed women as preachers. After World War II there was significant backlash against women in ministry due to the influences of modernity and feminism that grew out of that war.

By 1950 women were all but barred from Bible Schools and Seminaries. With the rise of Fundamentalist Christianity the old views of the Medieval church began to resurge. In 1991 leading Evangelical J.I. Packer led an attack on women ordination through the publication Christianity Today. The Southern Baptist Convention had officially banned women’s ministry in 1984. Jerry Falwell Sr, founder of the Moral Majority went so far as to equate feminism with homosexuality. (Martin, 2006)

Today the road to ordination has less to do with biblical rhetoric and more to do with denominational policies based on conservative, hard-fought values or progressive liberal desire for change. (Hoggard-Creegan, 2001)

“Third – Scripture is Irrelevant

This is what scripture says:

1 Tim 3:1-7 – The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil. ESV

A bishop is an overseer, a person who oversees others. Some scripture translations even use the word bishop in the quoted scripture.

Could it be any clearer than this? According to God’s word a bishop must be a man.”

While it is seriously doubtful this was Paul’s intention, the actual Greek wording here is: mias gunaikos andra, “of one wife a husband.” In any case to suggest that Paul is preventing women from being elders in this verse is to ignore a very basic fact of Greco-Roman life in the First Century… churches met in the homes of elders, and the head of the household in that culture was the wife. Granted she had few rights under Roman law and men were by all means seen as superior, but the wife was the overseer of the home. (Jeffers, 1999)

Scandalous as it may sound but it also runs over the story of the first “overseer” or elder of the church at Phillipi, Lydia. Her story can be found in Acts 16:11-15.

‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ (ESV)
– Galatians 3:28

The Greco-Roman world was fully diverse in culture, and various religions claimed to ignore cultural bias, but they were clear anyway. Sexual bias varied but clearly existed. Paul and to some extent Peter spoke out against this view by declaring all equal in Christ, a message that resonated to the heavily oppressed people that received their message. (Jeffers, 1999)

‘I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae, that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well.’ (ESV)
– Romans 16:1-2

Here Paul is entrusting the teachings of his letter to the church in Rome to a woman. The word “patron” here in Greek, in the context of Religious Association, was a well-to-do person who invited members of that group into his or her home and was considered a prominent and honoured member. (Keener, 1993) Phoebe may have been an Elder in the Cenchreae church, but more likely she was a deaconess.

‘Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me.’ (ESV)
– Romans 16:7

The name “Iounian” or “Junia” is often claimed to be properly translated “Junias,” a Masculine Accusative term. However while there are plenty of instances of the name Junia in the Roman Empire of the First Century, there is no one by the name of Junias. It is said that Paul is speaking of a married couple who by strange coincidence happen to be Apostles. (Metzger and United Bible Societies., 1971)

Of course you wouldn’t get that from the ESV because the translation states “They are well known to the apostles.” The Greek here is ‘hoitines eisin episemoi en tois apostolois’, “who are notable among the apostles.” Now risking pedantry, ‘en tois’ is a primary preposition followed by a definite article, the preposition being that of fixed position, and implication of instrumentality. In other words it connects the initial pronominal adjective ‘hoitines’ and collects it into the dative masculine noun ‘apostolois’. So literally what it is saying here is “who are apostles.”

Biblical scholar and Anglican bishop N.T. Wright has criticized those who allow political polarization to influence their exegesis of scripture (Wright, 2004). Wright and Evangelical pastor John Piper have been locked in an exegetical battle over the Apostle Paul’s writings for decades. One could easily argue that the ordination of women is not a matter of biblical teaching, but rather biblical translation tainted by preconceived political attitudes.

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5 comments

  1. In Galatians 3:28 in God’s Kingdom there is neither Jew or Greek, slave nor free, man or woman. This means in God eyes women are unlimited like Deborah, Mary the mother of Christ, Dorcas, many women used by God to accomplish His work. Behind all successful lives, businesses and ministry is a woman.

  2. In response to applyingmybeliefs, the way I see it is that God is and always was a free thinking, mind changing, God who will continue to guide his people (us) in a way that He sees fit. If that means changing his mind that overseers must be men, so be it! I for one, am happy that he exchanged the Law for his son Jesus. We all know that in this world, there is always room for improvement and nobody knows this better than our God. Shall we move along with His times?

  3. I’m glad to see this post. I have long been miffed by Paul’s stance in 1 Corinthians 14:34 “As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says…for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.” To me it makes a mockery of 2 Timothy 3:16 “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching…”
    I know many, many fine women in the ministry, doing God’s work in a marvelous way.
    It is an honor and privilege that I am an ordained elder in my own church.
    So thank you for this post! I got lost in the fine print sometimes, but the main message did not escape me.

  4. Faith Unlocked – This is a good post, and I respect your views.

    I have some disagreements of course. One very important one is that of citing Rom 16:7 as proof that women were recognized as Apostles. This is what it says:

    Rom 16:7 – Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me. ESV

    It doesn’t say they were Apostles at all, it does single them out as noteworthy believers.

    I have no problem with women being recognized as prophets or deaconesses, that it scriptural.

    Also, the story of Lydia in no way indicates she had any position of authority. It is a story of her conversion.

    The Galatians verse (3:28) is a value statement, not a positional statement.

    The 1 Timothy scripture is very clear that an overseer (bishop) is to be a man, and yet you move from agreeing with that into a cultural reflection. I think that is a mistake. If we agree that “all scripture is God breathed” (2 Tim 3:16-17) then there is no mistake that God meant to say overseers must be men. The culture that existed then, or even today, is irrelevant. Either God’s word is true or it is not, even if we disagree with it or don’t understand it.

    Just because the majority votes something as acceptable doesn’t make it so. (Hitler was voted in by majority for example.) The church, being full of broken and sinful people, can make mistakes too. I think that overriding or ignoring the actual wording of scripture is foolishness.

    Let’s agree to disagree. We are siblings in the Lord.

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