One of the issues that was raised in the consultation was a need for theological reflection on what the Bible says about men and women. This article by Ian Paul gives a broad overview of the arguments for and against the ordination of women. Although he specifically mentions the Church of England context, this overview applies to views of women in any leadership positions.
This is clearly a very large area of discussion, and a very sensitive one. It took 20 years between the Church of England deciding that there was, in theory, no theological objection to ordaining women and the final decision to bring forward legislation to enable this to happen.
I set out here what I understand to be the main arguments for and against women’s ordination from an evangelical perspective. There are other arguments too, related to women’s rights and the ordering of the church which come from liberal and catholic perspectives respectively. But evangelicals are going to be concerned first and foremost with what the Bible says.
The Argument Against
The argument against the ordination of women mostly centres on a number of specific texts in the New Testament.
1 Tim 2:12 ‘I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over men.’ This appears to be a clear prohibition on women having a teaching ministry or being in a position of overall leadership. Some see this as being of such importance that it must control our interpretation of all other New Testament texts on this subject, since Paul is setting out issue to do with the governance of the church, rather than the ordering of gifts in the context of worship.
1 Cor 11:3 ‘The head of every man is Christ, and the head of every woman is man.’ This suggests that ‘headship’ is a fundamental relationship between men and women in society. Although women may exercise headship (leadership) in certain contexts, they should not do so in contexts where men are present—in fact, their involvement in leadership might well be a sign that the men present are failing in their God-given role of headship. In fact, this text goes further and can be understood as suggesting that there is some sort of hierarchy within the Godhead itself—‘and the head of Christ is God.’ If there is a hierarchical ordering with God himself, then there should be hierarchical ordering within human relations as part of our being made in the image of God.
1 Cor 14:33f ‘Women should remain silent in the congregations. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission…it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the congregation.’ This can be seen as an outworking of the principle of headship and the ordering of women under men.
Eph 5:22 (and Col 3:18) ‘Wives submit to your husbands as to the Lord.’ This is another outworking of the principle of headship and ordering, again with a parallel drawn between husband/wife relations and the relation of Christ to the church.
Alongside these specific texts there is usually put a wider question of the way we interpret Scripture. Why should we change what the church has in previous generations understood to be the plain meaning of Scripture? It is sometimes then argued that this is the thin end of the wedge in undermining the authority of Scripture in the church, with the crisis in the church’s understanding of sexuality being an inevitable consequence.
The Argument For
The argument against the ordination of women appeals directly to the supposed ‘plain’ meaning of Scripture, and so can be set out fairly concisely. The argument in the other direction largely appeals for a more careful reading of these and other texts, and so needs to be stated more fully. It has several strands to it.
a. The interpretation of specific texts.
There are some specific problems with the ways the texts mentioned above are being read. In 1 Tim 2:13, the word ‘have authority over’ simply does not mean this; it is a bad translation, and any good commentary will point this out. The word in Greek is authenthein and this is the only place the word occurs in the NT. Although it looks very similar to the English word ‘authority’ it in fact means something like ‘misusing authority’ or ‘usurping authority.’ There is another perfectly good word in Greek for ‘to exercise authority’ which is used in other places in the NT—but that word is not used here.
In 1 Cor 11, there has been an enormous amount of debate as to the meaning of the word ‘headship’: is it about authority over, or is it more to do with the notion in the phrase ‘head of the river’, meaning source? (In fact, the concept ‘headship’ does not appear anywhere, only the concrete noun ‘head’.) If it is clear to Paul that man is head over woman, it is equally clear to Paul that it is a ‘disgrace’ for a woman to have her hair cut (1 Cor:6) and that this is ‘because of the angels’! This should at least make us pause before assuming we can translate Paul’s argument in any simple way to our own context.
In fact, the whole point of Paul’s argument in this chapter is to enable women to pray and prophesy in the congregation (1 Cor:5 and 1 Cor:13). This was a significant change from Jewish practice in the synagogue, and something which involved a ministry that carried authority (see how elsewhere in the NT the church responds to prophesies). Paul’s concern here appears to be to enable this to happen without causing offence to local culture.
In 1 Cor 14, the word ‘to talk’ has a sense of ‘babbling, chattering’ and comes in the context of a society where woman were significantly less educated than men and might well not have understood everything that was going on. And he has just argued for women to pray and prophesy in the congregation in a particular way (1 Cor 11), and that every member of the body is given a gift which they should exercise (1 Cor 12), so it looks as though he is assuming that women will contribute in some way.
In Eph 5, the command for wives to submit is not (grammatically) a command. In fact, there is actually no verb in Greek, but the idea follows on from the general command (Eph 5:21) for us all to submit to one another, and the emphasis is on each wife submitting to her own husband—the word used has this specific emphasis. Despite some translations inserting a heading between vv 21 and 22, the text should read ‘21Submit to one another…22wives to their own husbands…’. It is notable that the NT never tells wives to ‘obey’ their husbands; this word is reserved for the relation of children to parents and slaves to masters.
b. The wider NT context
Within the wider context of Paul’s discussion of spiritual gifts and ministry, if headship is a controlling motif for relations between men and women, it does seem odd that he nowhere suggests that certain spiritual gifts are given to men only, and other spiritual gifts are given to women only. In fact, he appears to go to some lengths in 1 Cor 12 to argue that every member of the body is gifted in some way as the Spirit sees fit, and that we only function properly as the body of Christ if room is given for every member to exercise his or her ministry in accordance with the Spirit’s gifting. An example of this elsewhere in Paul’s writings is in Rom 16:7, where he mentions a ‘Junia’ who is ‘outstanding amongst the apostles.’ Some early copyists, and along with them some modern translators (who change the name to the masculine ‘Junias’) appear to have difficulty with this idea, but the most convincing reading of this is that a woman, Junia, was considered to be one of the early apostles.
It is also worth noting that evangelicals who oppose the ordination of women (based on the ‘plain’ reading) don’t usually promote the exercise of spiritual gifts of prophecy, healing and knowledge, despite these being equally plain in Paul’s writings.
Some claim that Paul’s discussion of these gifts are to do with problems in a particular context about the occasional use of gifts, in contrast to his discussion in 1 Timothy about governance of the church. But of course every letter of Paul is written to address a specific situation—that is the nature of letters. And it is clear in both Paul (for instance in Romans 8) and for Luke (in Acts 2 and elsewhere) that the coming of the Spirit is the defining issue for the nature and ethos of the church. We now live in the age of the Spirit, and this must shape everything to do with how we know God, how we make Christ known, and how we grow in grace. In this context Paul sets out a fivefold ordering of ministry in Eph 4:11, the second of which (after apostles) are the prophets, and this was clearly a ministry exercised by women in the New Testament.
Gal 3:28 (‘There is neither…male nor female, for you are all one in Christ’) suggests that Paul sees the effect of Christ’s death and resurrection as, at least in principle, returning us to an original state of equality (‘in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them’ Gen 1:27). In this context, it seems difficult to sustain the idea that one part of humanity should be subordinate to another—unless you do believe that this reflects the nature of God. But what can it mean for there to be hierarchy in the trinity? Hierarchy only matters when someone does not want to do something, but must do it because the person in authority over them orders them to. It is hard to see how this can make sense within the person of God, since God is one.
c. The wider context of change and culture
Why should the church change its understanding of an issue, when it has had a consistent view in the past? The answer is that sometimes we have got it wrong, and something makes us return to Scripture to check our understanding. This was the case at the Reformation on a whole number of issues; it was true in the eighteenth century about slavery; some would argue it has been the case about marriage and divorce. It is also worth remembering that although the Church of England has only just changed its position on women in ministry, the Salvation Army has had total equality in ministry for women for 100 years or more—which was initially strikingly counter-cultural.
The Bible is somewhat ambiguous about women’s roles. There are places in Scripture where men are centre stage, where men’s views are the views that count, men are the key players and the men are the heroes (and villains) of the piece. But there are others places where it is the women who count, where they take the lead, and they are God’s agents of salvation. The Book of Ruth, Proverbs 31, the story of Deborah in the Book of Judges, and Luke’s version of the birth of Jesus (where the men are virtually silent, in contrast to Matthew, where the women are silent) are some examples. This means that our response to this picture will change depending on our culture. In a culture where women are marginalised, uneducated and powerless, we may be happy to focus on the parts of the Bible that reflect this. But where women are as equally well educated as men and there are (officially at least) no barriers to their rising to high office, it is harder to ignore the places in Scripture where women appear to have a radical, culture-challenging equality in ministry.
Scripture’s ambiguity about women’s ministry is not matched by its view of homosexual practice, which is consistently and unequivocally condemned. That is why, for those who believe the Scripture is authoritative in all matters of faith and conduct, the arguments about women’s ministry and the arguments about homosexual practice are quite distinct and affirmation of one does not lead to the acceptance of the other.
Revd Dr Ian Paul is Dean of Studies at St John’s Nottingham