The background — Nottingham and the NT
We begin with history — in 1977 Resolution J6 of the Nottingham Statement, produced at the second National Evangelical Anglican Congress, stated,
We repent of our failure to give women their rightful place as partners in mission with men. Leadership in the Church should be plural and mixed, ultimate responsibility normally singular and male.
‘Plural and mixed’ is certainly the pattern of ministry we find in the New Testament churches — to give one example, Romans 16 names several women ministers.
In the 1970s, however, shared ministry was a fairly novel concept in the Church of England. ‘House groups’ were a revolutionary idea as was the phrase ‘every member ministry’. In 1977, these proposals were radical regarding plurality of leadership, but fundamentally traditional regarding gender and leadership.
Since then, we have ‘moved on’ regarding the issue of gender, and both Anglicanism and evangelicalism have become deeply divided – as exemplified by Lis Goddard and Clare Hendry in their joint book The Gender Agenda (Nottingham: IVP, 2010).
This illustrates how two people can both believe they are being faithful to Scripture and come to practically incompatible conclusions. It is also a reminder of the theological principle formulated by Dire Straits: “two men say they’re Jesus, one of them must be wrong” (or both of them). Furthermore it shows that there is still a debate to be had, even so many years on from 1993.
Personally, I think there are weaknesses in the arguments advanced both by Goddard and Hendry. Nevertheless, I am still unpersuaded overall that the outcome advocated by Goddard, which would introduce women as Anglican incumbents and now bishops, actually takes us in a direction more compatible with Scripture than what was expressed in the Nottingham Statement.
An historic struggle
Historically, the Church of England, like all the mainstream churches, has struggled to resolve its structures of ministry with its doctrine of the ministry.
Our structures are post-apostolic. The preface to the Ordinal in the BCP is very careful:
It is evident unto all men diligently reading holy Scripture and ancient Authors, that from the Apostles’ time there have been these Orders of Ministers in Christ’s Church; Bishops, Priests, and Deacons.
NB, it says “these Orders”, not “three Orders”. There are ‘these orders’, but it is evident to anyone diligently reading holy Scripture that they are by no means the same as we have today.
The NT has deacons, but they are not ‘probationary priests’. Rather, they are an office in themselves, and almost certainly it was an office open to both men and women (cf Rom 16:1).
The NT has presbyters, but they are not to be confused with the ‘priests’ of the OT — which of course is easily done when you use the same word for both — and there is more than one per congregation.
And the local bishops of the NT are one and the same thing as the local presbyters.
Roger Beckwith in his Elders in Every City shows that the formal pattern of ministry was probably based on the synagogue model, meaning that the presbyter-bishops would have been responsible for running and governing the community and in some cases, though not all, for teaching.
But even this leadership would have been mixed, and it is clear that the ministry at least was ‘plural’ to use the NEAC phrase.
Our problem is that we are trying to fit NT principles to a context that in many respects is not like the NT.
Ministry: ‘charismatic’ or ‘pragmatic’
And there is another difference between then and now. Then, the principle for selection was ‘pragmatic meritocracy’, exemplified by Romans 12:3-8:
For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you. 4 Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, 5 so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. 6 We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. 7 If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; 8 if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.
What you should do in the church was assessed ‘on merit’. The person gifted in serving should serve, the gifted teacher should teach, etc.
Hence Titus (1:5-9), when he is left in Crete to appoint ‘elders in every city’, is given a list of outward, observable qualities to look for in those he should appoint.
That, however, gave way to what I would call a ‘charismatic aristocracy’ model which prevails to this day. The ministry is something to which you are called by God, and for which you are empowered from without — usually attributed to the gifting of the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands.
In our context, however, this may not reflect the practicalities to which Scripture refers.
Where this matters in the gender debate is that people are given an authority by ordination which may well not correspond to the realities of relationships established on other grounds recognized by Scripture.
Liberty and restraint
In some important ways, the NT presents an egalitarian and easy-going model of male-female relationships.
We have seen that women were heavily involved in the ministry. We also see a liberty in the way that men and women are called to relate to one another. In 1 Tim 5:1, Paul writes,
Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, 2 older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity. (1 Ti 5:1-2)
In the family, gender differences call for modesty, but not for separation. There is no uneasiness about the genders mixing, nor is there a suspicion of women generally.
This even carries over into the area of ministry. In Acts 18 we read about Priscilla and Aquila in their encounter with Apollos. Apollos, we are told,
... 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. (18:24-26)
Notice that apparently both Priscilla and Aquila are involved in teaching Apollos.
Yet elsewhere in the NT there are some evident restraints on the rôle of women. 1 Tim 2:12:
I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. (1 Ti 2:12)
Also 1 Cor 14:34-35,
... women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. 35 If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church. (1 Co 14:34-35)
How can we have both? Context is king.
A bi-polar community
In the NT, the Church is a bi-polar community, in the same way that society generally was bi-polar. There was the community of the whole, gathered, body and there was the community of the household.
And the household was fundamental not just socially but theologically.
Parenthood is conceived of as being derived from the character of God himself — within the godhead there is a ‘Father-Son’ relationship, but this also extends to ourselves. We call God ‘Abba’, and we are his children by adoption.
The fifth commandment, “Honour your father and your mother”, therefore has an abiding relevance. In Ephesians 6:1-3 Paul writes,
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2 “Honour your father and mother” — which is the first commandment with a promise — 3 “that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.” (Eph 6:1-3)
The family was a community within which the faith was lived and taught. So Paul continues in Eph 6:4,
Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord. (Eph 6:4)
This would be the pattern of Jewish families but was also found more generally. The church — or for other purposes, the school — could be a place for instruction. But this was balanced by the home where the children learned the essentials of life and faith from their parents.
Husbands, wives and bishops
The life of the household, however, is focused on the special relationship between husbands and wives. Thus, going back to Eph 5:21-2, we read that we are to be,
... submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. 22 Wives, [submitting] to your husbands as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour.
And this, really, is the crux of the modern debate.
The egalitarian lobby places the emphasis on v 21: “submitting to one another”. In practice, it argues, the submission of husband to wife is no different from the submission of the wife to the husband.
Howard Marshall takes this line in Discovering Biblical Equality (Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 2005). For Marshall, marriage is due to go the same way as slavery. We don’t have slaves submitting to masters, and we won’t have wives submitting to husbands.
Of course, it could be argued that whilst we have abolished slavery, we have not abolished marriage or families. Moreover, given that we still have employers and employees, it could be said that what we have today is the reformation of a relationship, not its abolition.
Nevertheless, the trouble is, especially in the present Anglican context, whilst there is pressure to move away from the biblical model of marriage, there is no corresponding pressure to reform the unbiblical model of ministry.
On the contrary, one of the crucial arguments against the various proposals for alternative provision for those opposed to women bishops is that if a woman bishop’s authority is in any sense diminished then she is ‘not a real bishop’. Submission to her authority in the hierarchy is seen as of the essence, even while submission in the home is being denied.
Of course it could be said if we allow hierarchy in the marriage, why not in the Church? And in fact the NT does encourage us to submit to church leaders (13:17).
But it is difficult to see how we can argue against the Ephesians model of marriage because it is inherently hierarchical (as Marshall does) and at the same time argue for an inherently hierarchical understanding of episcopacy.
Either we have both (if that is what the NT teaches), or we have neither.
Steering a path
The present debate is not straightforward. However, we are in danger of making a difficult situation worse and making things even more imbalanced than they are already.
The home is already weakened as a place of spiritual nurture and is in danger of being made worse.
The question to ask ourselves is this: if we followed the NT pattern of the household and the family, what sort of leadership would emerge in the congregation? And in particular, how would the rôles of men and women in the congregation reflect the pattern of family life?
Theologically, the concerns of the NT arguably focus on preserving the right relationships in the household.
David Broughton-Knox in one of his essays writes,
It would be anomalous if when Christian families come together in the larger grounds of the Christian congregation, heads of homes were subject to the rule of those who, at home, would be under their headship.
I think that is a very good governing principle, though it poses immense challenges to us regarding the home and household.
However, Knox adds a couple of interesting riders:
But apart from this easily understood restriction [in the congregation] which arises from the position in which God the creator has placed men and women with regard to one another in the family setting, the ministry of women is as wide as is that of men, and is largely identical with that of men, because apart from the different endowments and functions which the distinction of sex involves, the abilities of men and women are similar and their opportunities are similar.
And then he goes on:
In the modern organization of the ministry the ordained minister does many things besides that of exercising the dominion of Christ in the full congregation through teaching his word. In fact, some ministers hardly exercise this ministry at all. All these modern ministries are as open to women as to men and there is no point in making artificial distinctions between the same God-given ministry by different places to stand when speaking or different clothes to wear.
And he concludes:
The New Testament does not consider the anomaly when Christian men are incompetent, ill-prepared or unwilling to discharge the teaching ministry. In this anomalous situation it may well be that what is normal must give place to what is beneficial. (D Knox, Church and Ministry, Selected Works [Kingsford NSW: Matthias Media, 2003] 244-5)
The challenge for us is twofold — first, not to do anything in the congregation which would contradict the teaching of the NT about husbands and wives and households and families.
Secondly, to begin to do in our households and families what the NT clearly expects by way of the exercise of responsibility.
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