Why I Am a Christian

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Women's Ordination

     Of course, women should be ordained - as deacons! But as far as ordination to the priesthood is concerned, it comes up against a barrier. It has never been done before. It was unheard of for the first nineteen and a half centuries. It is contrary to the apostolic order. This fact is common ground on both sides. Therefore, the Eastern Orthodox must reject it because it violates the tradition they see as a seamless robe. Roman Catholics must reject it because the papacy and the magisterium have always rejected it. Protestants must reject it because it is contrary to the  principles of the Reformation. The aim of the Reformation, after all, was to get rid of all the extraneous doctrines which had accumulated over the centuries and return to the teachings of the early church. But at least it may be said that these innovations had been introduced by slow, hardly noticeable degrees, like a clock which gains a minute every day until it is striking twelve at dawn. They cannot now accept an innovation which everyone knows is contrary to the teachings of the apostolic church. The proponents are therefore forced into one of two positions, both heretical: either the universal church has been wrong since the time of the apostles, or its teachings were true only then, but not true for all time. They should be called out as to which position they take.
     Not only that, but, although their opinions may be sincerely held, they are essentially rationalisations of what they wanted to do anyway. Everyone knows that the only reason the movement came about was as a response to the women's liberation movement. This is a clear cut case of the church taking its cue from the world which, as the brother of Jesus pointed out (James 4:4), means being at enmity with God. And it was not just from the world as a whole, but one section of it: the left establishment which serves so often as an agenda-driver. The average man and woman in the street has always been more or less comfortable with their natural roles.
    In an age when women can be lawyers, bank managers, and even Prime Ministers, I saw one such screed declare, isn't it about time they could also become priests or ministers? It sounds reasonable at first sight, but it is the language of the women's rights' movement. It assumes that the priesthood is like any other career, and therefore, that women are being unfairly denied its advantages. Wrong! The priesthood is not an ordinary career. It is a calling to service. It should never be looked at as a means of personal gain or advantage. Anybody, male or female, who considers ordination a "right" is, by definition, unfit for ordination. (This, of course, also applies to every lay position, whether it be parish councilor, liturgical assistant, or singer in the choir. If you value it for the status involved, you are, by definition, unworthy of it.)
     It is also a red herring to talk about the piety, intelligence, and other admirable personal qualities which an individual woman may possess. An actress may be much better at her craft than any male actor, but she cannot play Hamlet, because Hamlet is a male role. As a parent, an individual mother may be much better than the child's father, but mother and father are not interchangeable roles. The priesthood is also a male occupation. The fact that so many of us men are inadequate to the task in each of these three positions does not mean that they should be occupied by those who are not qualified at all.
First Things
     Let's start off from the beginning. The early church possessed a very strong lay ministry. In Romans 16 twenty-eight people are mentioned, or which nine or ten were women. (The reason for the uncertainty is that they are all referred to in the accusative case, and it is unclear whether the second person in verse 7 is Junias, a man, or Junia, a woman.) It is extremely unlikely that all of the men were ordained. That is an important point we all have to grasp: we all have our part to play, men and women; it is not necessary to be a priest in order to spread the gospel, to teach, or even to preach. (There is such a thing as a lay preacher.)
     However, the first century church did have two ordained positions. The senior one was called a presbýteros or “elder” in the east, and an epískopos or "overseer" in the west. Some denominations use the terms, "minister" or "pastor", but it is the same position. These are, of course, the Greek words which gave us the English terms, "priest" and "bishop" respectively. It was only in the first half of the second century, when the need for further centralisation became apparent, that the two classifications diverged. There is any amount of textual evidence for this. Phil 1:1 is addressed to "all the saints which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons." Priests are not mentioned. 1Tim. 3 gives qualifications for bishops and deacons, but not priests. In Tit. 1:5, Paul instructs Titus to appoint priests in every town, then goes on in verse 7 to refer to them as bishops.
     Nevertheless, some confusion exists in the public mind because in English (but not necessarily other languages) we also use the word, "priest" to translate a quite different word, hiereús, a Jewish or heathen priest. When St Peter calls us to be "a holy priesthood" (1 Pet. 2:5) or a "royal priesthood" (1 Pet. 2:9), the word is hierátema. A hiereús was the one who offered sacrifices and performed other rituals in the temple on behalf of the laity. Although there is some overlap in function with a Christian priest, ultimately they are quite different positions.
     A Christian priest was, and is, the head of the local congregation. His role was to lead the congregation in worship and to administer the sacraments. So closely did the early church connect the latter function with spiritual headship that, when the positions of priest and bishop were ultimately separated, the priest was permitted to administer the sacraments only in the absence of the bishop. At the same time, as the person, theoretically at least, with the widest knowledge of theology, he was the one ultimately responsible for teaching, and to ensure that the other teachers ie catechists, deaconesses, and (nowadays) Sunday School teachers, did the job properly. This position was always male. There exist bishop lists for most of the major cities of the Roman Empire, and not a single woman is mentioned.
     The second ordained position was that of diákonos, or "servant", from which we derive the word, "deacon". The institution of the order is usually traced back to the ordination of the seven in Acts 6:1-6, although the name was not applied to them as such. They were essentially the assistants of the priest/bishop, involved in the material matters of the church. To quote the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 1961 edition:
In the Patristic age, when the office was normally held for life, their functions varied from place to place. They commonly read or chanted the Epistle and Gospel at the Eucharist, received the offerings of the faithful, and inscribed the names of the donors in the diptychs [the lists of those to be prayed for], assisted the priest in the distribution of Holy Communion or distributed it themselves, directed the prayers of the laity during the service, and gave the signal for penitents and catechumens to leave the church at the beginning of the Canon. . . . The original office of collecting and distributing the alms gave them considerable importance and the archdeacon, the chief deacon of a given place, became the bishop's principal administrative officer.
     As such, the office of deacon would appear to be a bit of a dinosaur. Its duties have been taken over by a variety of other officers, both clerical and lay. Here in the western churches, a deacon is essentially a trainee priest, although in the Eastern Orthodox churches a man can choose to remain a deacon for life.
     As a matter of fact, the only individual actually referred to in the Bible as a deacon was Phoebe in Rom. 16:1, a reminder that, in the early church, women were also deacons. To quote the Oxford Dictionary again:
The deaconess devoted herself to the care of the sick and the poor of her sex; she was present at interviews of women with bishops, priests, or deacons; instructed women catechumens, and kept order in the women's part of the church. Her most important function was the assistance at the baptism of women, at which, for reasons of propriety, many of the ceremonies could not be performed by the deacons. When, therefore, adult baptism became rare, the office of deaconess declined in importance.
     Originally, they were older women, presumably no longer bound to the care of children. The minimum age was fifty in the third century, reducing to forty in the fifth. The connection is obscure between deaconesses, widows, and canonical virgins. Widows were expected to pull their weight (1 Tim. 5:9-12). Philip the deacon had four virgin daughters who prophesied (Acts 21:9). Later in the century they and their father moved to Hierapolis in what is now Turkey. Presumably they had some official role in the church apart from prophesying, which even a married woman could do. Even before the advent of the monastic movement there are occasional references to virgins being supported by the church. It is more likely that they had some official role rather than that they were old maids with no husband to support them.
    As no postal service existed in the Roman Empire, St Paul apparently decided that Phoebe's intended visit to Rome would prove a good opportunity to write the Epistle to the Romans. This suggests that Phoebe was a widow of independent means. Lydia (Acts 16:14) was certainly of independent means, even though she was not a deaconess. I mention this in order to point out that, although the economic position of women in the ancient world would have prevented most from becoming priests, it would have ruled them out completely, if that were permitted. Of course, it need hardly be added that, after Christianity became the official religion, with large numbers of nuns receiving financial support, there would have been no practical bar to ordaining women.

The Bible
     It is important to understand that the New Testament makes no reference to women's ordination, any more than it does to, say, polygamy, because the issue never arose. The masculinity of the priesthood was simply taken for granted, and never questioned. Texts commonly cited against it, such as the instruction in 1 Cor. 14:34-5 for women to keep silent in church concern a much lesser matter: decorum in the church service. (It also reveals that the Corinthian church service was much more chaotic and rough-and-ready than we would accept today.) Likewise, 1 Tim. 2:8-10 is advice on decorum in church, and it then goes on to verses 11 and 12: "Let a woman a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent." It has frequently been pointed out that the word for "have authority" is not the regular one, but a term with more negative overtures. Also, Greek, like many (perhaps most) languages, makes no distinction between "woman" and "wife", or between "man" and "husband". So it could easily be translated: "I do not permit a wife to teach or to have authority over a husband" - an important consideration in a house church, and not yet obsolete in our own time. More about this later.
     However, the important thing is that was not about the important issue of ordination, but the lesser one of decorum. If a woman could not be leader under such circumstances, how much less in a more formal setting! Only after that reference are the qualifications of a bishop discussed. It is assumed that he will be male; according to 1 Tim. 3:2, he must be "a one-woman man". (I think this is a better translation than "husband of one wife". Polygamy did not exist in that society, and there was no objection to a widower remarrying. I feel Paul was objecting to a man with a roving eye - although a man who divorced the wife of his youth for another woman would also get short shrift.) The same qualification is given for priests in Tit. 1:5. Returning to 1 Timothy, a deacon must also be a one-woman man (3:12). However, when discussing deacons, verse 11 says: "The women  likewise must be serious, no slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things." It is unlikely that he means the deacons' wives, because the bishop's wives are not discussed. It appears to be another confirmation that women were ordained deacons, but never bishops/priests.

The Rationale
     Strictly speaking, we do not need to find a rationale for the policy. This has been the universal policy of the church from New Testament times; there must have been a good reason, whether we can divine it or not. On the contrary, the onus is on those who wish to change it to prove that it was established for no good reason, or for reasons which are no longer valid. In point of fact, however, the rationale is not too difficult to discern.
     First of all, a woman cannot be the spiritual head of her husband because "the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church" (Eph. 5:23). I know there are some people who would prefer it wasn't so, but the fault obviously lies with their attitude rather than with the word of God which, in any case, simply restates the position held by every society on earth.
     Secondly, as C. S. Lewis pointed out in an essay on the subject, the priest is the representative of God. I noticed some websites where this was questioned, but of course it is the case. A priest stands in God's place as the authority figure, and also in the three things which he alone is authorised to do: absolve, bless, and consecrate (ABC). And God has always been seen as masculine. The original languages always use the masculine pronoun and adjectives for Him. He is our Father in heaven. The Son is the bridegroom and the church the bride. The world would look very different if the symbols were reversed, just as it would if we talked about "Father Church" rather than "Mother Church". This does not mean that women are not also created in the image of God, but that both sexes display different aspects of His nature, and one of the functions of marriage is to demonstrate the relationship between God and the church. As Lewis put it:
     It is painful, being a man, to have to assert the privilege, or the burden, which Christianity lays upon my own sex. I am crushingly aware how inadequate most of us are, in our actual and historical individualities, to fill the place prepared for us. But it is an old saying in the army that you salute the uniform not the wearer. Only one wearing the masculine uniform can (provisionally, and till the Parousia) represent the Lord to the Church: for we are all, corporately and individually, feminine to Him. We men may often make very bad priests. That is because we are insufficiently masculine. It is no cure to call in those who are not masculine at all.
     Thirdly, there is simple human nature. In itself, this is not separate from the other two, for marriage, patriarchy, and the human need for God are all part of His plan. Be that as it may, have a look at your own congregation. Unless you attend chapel in the army, or some such institution, I can guarantee, with a confidence approaching certainty, that there will be more women than men present. In Australia the average ratio is 60:40. If the congregation is small, women will be even more in evidence. This is not a failing on their part; rather the reverse. As the more religious sex, they are the last to leave a declining congregation. On the other hand, large, growing, and dynamic congregations almost always have a more even proportion of men, and the men automatically seek out leadership roles, as they do in secular life. Have a think about it. There may be no reason why a woman should not serve on the parish council, but if it were dominated by women, you would wonder what was wrong with the men, why were they leaving it all to the ladies. Not only that, but if the husband and father attends church, the children will be much more likely to follow suit. This is why heretics such as the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Mormons always ask to speak to the head of the house. Apart of simple courtesy, they know that if they can get him involved, the rest of the family will most likely fall into line, whereas if they don't, he will cause all sort of trouble.
     Women have never had a problem with the patriarchal structure of the church. The same is true of children. As a Swiss study revealed, the example of a father is much more effective than that of a mother in whether their offspring continue with church. The problem has always been to attract male heads of families, to make them understand that church is not merely for women and children. Anyone who thinks this will be achieved by making the church leadership feminine has a lot to learn about human nature.
     Our society has reached the sorry pass where it needs to have explained to them the facts of human nature which previous generations understood instinctively. Certain things are hard-wired to our genes, going back to the days when men were hunters and women were gatherers. In those days the man who went hunting with a group of male buddies brought back more meat, and thus raised more children, than the one who did it by himself or, worse still, took his wife along with him. The people who organize the Men's Shed movement and those who made the old "buddy" movies know more about male bonding than the politically correct opinion mongers of today. (There is an excellent discussion here about the attraction of Eastern Orthodoxy to men.)
     They ought to go back to some of the older books, such as Men in Groups by Lionel Tiger (1969). With an abundance of examples, he demonstrates that:
  • In all societies and subcultures, male activities have greater prestige, despite a lack of objective evidence of their superiority, and the fact that the same activities might be performed by women in other societies or subcultures. (This, of course, is accepted without question by the women's lib movement; they want men's jobs, and despise women's work, because they take it for granted that masculinity is superior.)
  • When traditional women's work gains increased prestige ie it pays more, men start to infiltrate it. Eventually, it is no longer a woman's occupation.
  • Conversely - and this is the important one for our discussion - once women start to infiltrate a man's field in any numbers, the men start to leave it and find one of their own. The ones who remain become contaminated, in the view of others, by the femininity of their occupation. He makes a comparison with "white flight" when ethnic minorities move into a residential area.
But . . . but . . .
     I can see a couple of well-worn objections coming up, so I had better examine the fallacies on which they are based.
     (1) "We have a female minister and she is very good." For that matter, I have met women who are six feet tall, but I still assert that women, on the average, are shorter than men. This is the fallacy that an exception can overrule a generalisation. When applied to something we all know, such as the heights of the respective sexes, we can easily see the fallacy, but people always trot it out to protect their favourite ideology. A generalisation, by definition, implies exceptions. It is something that is generally true ie true more often than not, not invariably true.
     In this case, it misses the point entirely. Go back to what I said about a brilliant actress trying to portray Hamlet. There is no reason to believe that a priestess, in general, would be inferior to a man in terms of intelligence, virtue, social skills, and any number of desirable personal attributes. What she lacks is the charisma of masculinity implicit in headship. An individual woman may possess personal qualities sufficient to overcome this disadvantage, but the average for the position will be dragged down.
     (2) "We ordained women and the sky didn't fall down." I've heard this stated in defense of far worse policies. This is the fallacy that any bad effects must happen right away, or not at all. A society and an organisation can live on its moral capital for a long time, but eventually it will be exhausted. In this case, there might even be some immediate gains. In religion, as in politics, the radicals always assume they will win in the end, so even while women's ordination was being debated, women were being trained for the job. The result was an immediate surge in new priests to partially fill the gap in ordinations. But what you will not see is the men who do not train for ordination, and the people who do not come to fill the pews. Moreover, it takes time for the proportion of women priests to reach critical mass, and the time span will be generational in scope.
     And it is already happening. The denominations which have ordained women have, by and large, not prospered. They are still declining. The reasons are no doubt numerous, and cannot be pinned down to any one factor. It is just that they have now added another factor to the list. In trying to be "relevant", they have made themselves even more irrelevant to the average person. Of course, it needs hardly be added that those denominations which were already dynamic and expanding didn't feel the need to ordain women. It even shows within denominations. In Australia, for example, the one section of the Anglican church which is actively expanding is the large Sydney diocese, which does not ordain women.
     There is one other problem. It is the thin edge of the wedge. You should be aware that a number of denominations are currently tearing themselves apart over the issue of homosexuality. (This is also a really good way to make your congregations collapse.) Even that is a proxy for a larger issue: whether the church shall be guided by the Bible, or by the latest left wing trend in the culture wars. Now, I will not accuse all, or even most, of the supporters of women's ordination of also supporting sexual deviation. However, I will state with a high level of confidence that virtually all of the current heretics started off campaigning for women's ordination. Having  forced through a policy which was contrary to the spirit of the Bible, but not exactly forbidden by it, they have now moved on to championing something completely forbidden by the Bible. Why not? Their original impetus was not the Holy Spirit, but the spirit of the age.