Yet just thirty years ago, most Evangelicals took the ‘Conservative’ view. In the Nottingham Statement, agreed at the second National Evangelical Anglican Congress in 1977, paragraph J6 states, “We repent of our failure to give women their rightful place as partners in ministry with men.” But then it immediately adds, “Leadership in the church should be plural and mixed, ultimate responsibility normally singular and male.”
For Evangelicals in the late 1970s, the ‘rightful place’ of women in ministry did not include being vicars, rectors or priests-in-charge (and would certainly not have included being bishops).
What has changed since then, of course, is the context in which we read the Bible. The triumph of late twentieth-century feminism has been quite remarkable. Yet we were also being warned in the 1970s that Christians needed to be ‘counter-cultural’, and so perhaps just as remarkable is the extent to which Christians fell into line with the culture at this point.
I am aware that many people, even in the Church, are offended by the Conservative Evangelical resistance to women’s ordination, but that in itself must not influence our theology. People are also offended by the cross and by the notion of God’s wrath.
At the same time, however, the case for the Conservative Evangelical position is not always clearly understood (nor, in my opinion, properly articulated). So here, for the record, is what I think on the subject.
First, I am persuaded that men and women are, as individuals, entirely equal in God’s sight because they are both made in God’s image. In Genesis 1:27, we read this:
“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”
The same point is reinforced in Genesis 5:1-2:
“When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. 2 He created them male and female and blessed them. And when they were created, he called them ‘Adam.’” (NIV “man”).
Incidentally, the NIV, like the KJV, is much closer to the Hebrew at this point than, for example, the NRSV, where the footnotes betray how much the latter is adapted to modern assumptions about gender and language.
Yet at the same time, it seems equally clear that in relation to one another, male and female are not simply interchangeable. Rather, there is a complementarity which reflects their gender differentiation. However, the relationship in which this matters supremely is that in which their gender also matters supremely, namely that of marriage.
Outside marriage, whether one is male or female should make little difference to how we interrelate, provided common decency is observed. Hence Paul says to Timothy that in his relationship with the opposite sex, he should simply treat “older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity” (1 Tim 5:2).
The gender of a sibling or a parent is normally of little consequence to us, except as regards matters of modesty. In the Church, therefore, we are all to treat one another like family — older people as we would our mothers and fathers, contemporaries and younger people as we would our brothers and sisters.
However, regarding marriage things are very different. First, gender is significant because sex is integral to the relationship. Secondly, the marital relationship is itself an outworking of the relationship between the Creator Redeemer God and his created redeemed people. As Paul writes in Ephesians 5:23, “the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour.”
These words are not optional, nor are they mitigated by the statement in v 21 that we should “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ”. Rather, 5:21 states the general principle, that we should submit, whilst 5:22-6:3 gives us some of the examples of those to whom we should submit. It would be as nonsensical to suggest on the basis of 5:21 that husbands should sometimes submit to their wives as it would be to suggest that parents should sometimes submit to their children.
As regards the ordination of women, therefore, this imposes certain caveats which we cannot simply ignore. (Of course, there are those in the Church who do ignore them, but I think they forfeit thereby any real claim to be Evangelicals, even if, by God’s grace, they may still be Christians.) One of the most important is indicated by what Paul writes earlier in 1 Timothy, in 2:11-12:
“A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.”
There are, of course, those who would simply brush these words aside, but part of being an Evangelical (whether Conservative or Open) is to refuse that option. However, we do not find in the New Testament a blanket prohibition on all women teaching any men. On the contrary, in the book of Acts, there is a clear instance of a man being taught by a woman:
Meanwhile a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. 25 He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. 26 He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately. (Acts 18:24-26)
Given that, as a good Anglican, I cannot “expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another” (Article XX), I have to ask how this behaviour by friends of the Apostle Paul can be consistent with his instructions to Timothy. (Incidentally, even if Paul was not the author of 1 Timothy, as some argue, the basic problem remains, since 1 Timothy is still as much part of Scripture as Acts.)
The most comprehensive answer, I suggest, lies in seeing the prohibition of 1 Timothy as relationally based, not simply based on gender per se. Specifically, the context envisaged in 1 Timothy, in which the teaching rôle of the woman is limited, seems to be one where marriage matters.
First, there is the reference to ‘submission’ in v 11. It is very easy to carry out a word search of this an related terms to see how it is used in the Bible. What we find is a range of relationships where submission occurs. Amongst them, we are to submit to God, Christ submits to the Father, servants are to submit to their masters, we are all to submit to earthly rulers, children should submit to their parents and, of course, wives are to submit to their husbands (Eph 5:24; 1 Pet 3:1 — the Peter reference, incidentally, means we cannot reject the latter concept as being ‘just Paul’).
What we do not find, however, is a general submission of women to men, and that, I believe, is because the ‘submission’ in question depends on the marriage relationship: “the husband is the head of the wife”. (For reasons I cannot entirely develop here, I believe 1 Cor 11:1-16 should also be understood in these terms.) I usually find it easy to persuade married Conservative Evangelicals colleagues of this line of argument by suggesting I might otherwise be ‘head’ of their wives, and that their wives should also be in submission to me.
It is also significant that 1 Timothy 2:13-14 uses the paradigm of Adam and Eve to support that position of vv 11-12:
For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.
Adam and Eve were, of course, man and woman, but they were also husband and wife, and what is true of them is in relation to one another is therefore not universally of all men in relation to all women and vice versa. Why does it matter that Adam was formed first? The answer is that Eve was formed for him — to relate to him as wife, and he to her as husband. Hence I would suggest that the marital relationship is certainly in view.
Finally, the argument of 1 Timothy 2 is rounded off in v 15 by a reference to childbearing, and also a switch of persons from singular to plural (though this is obscured in some translations, but compare ESV, KJV):
But she [NIV “women”] will be saved through childbearing — if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.
Childbearing is, of course, expected to take place within marriage. Could it be, therefore, that the emphasis switches from the woman (“she”) to the couple (“they”)? I offer this as a suggestion.
However, we might also notice the reference to “propriety” which looks back to v 9: “I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes ...” What is interesting here is that when Peter offers the same instruction (1 Pet 3:3), he has the relationship of husband and wife specifically in view.
Finally, we may go back to the example of Priscilla and Aquila with Apollos, and consider it in the light of Galatians 6:6: “Anyone who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with his instructor.” Taken together, this suggests that teaching in the New Testament church could be more intimate than the scenario of a talk a sermon given to a sedentary, and largely passive, audience. The persons in Galatians 6:6 are singular: “his” and “instructor”. But likewise the persons in 1 Timothy 2:12 are singular: “a woman” and “a man”.
All this suggests that the overall determining issue regarding women and men in ministry in the Church is the relationship of marriage. For Priscilla and Aquila together to explain the way of God more adequately to Apollos was not a problem, but for Priscilla to do have done this to Aquila, as his teacher or instructor in the faith, would have been a problem because it would have subverted their relationship as husband and wife, as described in Ephesians 5 in terms of ‘Christ (the husband) and the Church (the wife)’.
As regards the ordination of women in the Church of England, then, the issue becomes one of whether this would likewise be subversive of the husband-to-wife relationship. Personally, I find it difficult to see how a woman can be the vicar of a church of which her own husband is a member without this happening. A vicar, rector or priest-in-charge is not merely an administrator. That person is also a pastor to the congregation, both collectively and individually. However, the congregation members are also in other, crucial, relationships, including (in many cases) marriage.
The Bible, however, does not allow us to see marriage as merely one relationship amongst others. On the contrary, it transforms a man and a woman into a husband and a wife — no longer simply individuals made in the image of God, but a one-flesh-union embodying something of the relationship between Christ and the Church. We cannot, therefore, have other relationships within the Church, including pastoral relationships, subverting this relationship.
Two other comments remain to be made. First, this view does allow a certain flexibility about teaching rôles. If it was possible for Priscilla to participate in teaching Apollos, it is clearly not impossible for other women to participate in teaching men. Again, there are some teaching rôles, such as lecturing in theology, where the relational aspect of the teaching rôle might be considered relatively unimportant, and so not subversive of the husband-wife relationship. This might also mean that women could address ‘mixed’ meetings such as a College Christian Union, or speak in Church, under the mandate in 1 Corinthians 11 that allows women as well as men to prophesy.
Secondly, there will undoubtedly be those who find this analysis inadequate. I would only ask that they offer criticism constructively and that, if possible, they present a better synthesis of the biblical material.
Given the divisions this issue is currently causing, the least we can do is try to make progress in our understanding together.
Revd John P Richardson
13 June 2007