On Radio 4’s Sunday programme at the weekend I happened to hear Bishop Victoria Matthews speaking about women in the episcopate.
This is a subject on which debate continues (indeed rages within the Church of England at the moment) and yet where people reach different — and according to the Church of England — equally acceptable, conclusions.
During the interview, however, Bishop Matthews advanced an argument which has become almost standard doctrine amongst supporters of women’s ordination and consecration, yet which I think bears careful examination.
This is what she said when asked how she responds to Evangelical questions about her episcopal rôle:
... in terms of a woman bishop I always remind them that to be an Apostle (and a bishop is the successor to the Apostles) two things are necessary. One is to be a witness to the resurrection and the other is to be sent by Christ into the world. Now, Mary Magdalene who was the first witness to the resurrection said, “I have seen the Lord.” Tick. And Jesus said, “Go and tell my brothers.” She was sent out. So Mary Magdalene herself was an Apostle. Therefore to say ‘all the men were Apostles’ [sic] isn’t strictly true.
We will pass over the question of whether a bishop is “the successor to the Apostles” (which many Evangelicals like myself would dispute).
The problem comes in the statement that “to be an Apostle ... two things are necessary.” And the question is whether Bishop Matthews is committing the fallacy of confusing ‘necessary’ with ‘sufficient’ conditions.
One version of argument being put forward may be framed as follows:
1. It is a necessary condition of being an Apostle to be a witness of the resurrection (Acts 1:21-22) and to be sent by Jesus to give witness to that.
2. Mary Magdalene was a witness of the resurrection and was sent give witness of it by Jesus (John 20:17)
3. Therefore Mary Magdalene is an Apostle.
This, however, does not quite work, as can be demonstrated by the following example:
A. It is a necessary condition of being a bishop to be the right age and to have served the requisite number of years as a priest.
B. I am the right age and have served enough years as a priest.
C. Therefore I am a bishop.
The point is that necessary conditions are not the same as sufficient conditions. The argument for Mary Magdalene’s apostleship only works if we say that the conditions put forward by Bishop Matthews are both necessary and sufficient.
At this point we must also add that we are talking about Apostles with a capital ‘A’. In order to sustain the argument that she can be a bishop and “successor to the Apostles”, Bishop Matthews affirms that Mary was an Apostle just like the male Apostles. We are not talking here about just an ‘apostolic’ action, in the same way that local priests nevertheless exercise an ‘episcopal’ rôle, but the Apostolic office.
Now it may well be that Bishop Matthews and others believe that the two conditions she advances are both necessary and sufficient. But if that is the case, it needs to be stated more clearly, and it has some interesting implications.
First, after the Ascension, there were arguably thirteen Apostles. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that Mary Magdalene and the ‘other’ Mary, the mother of James and Joseph, both met the risen Jesus and were sent by him with a message for his brothers (Matt 27:1-10). That message could hardly have been anything other than that Jesus was risen, and the argument deems going to the disciples ‘sufficient’ as far as commissioning is concerned, so on this basis we have the eleven Apostles and the two Mary’s.
However, as we know, there was a vacancy in the ranks of the Twelve which had to be filled. And we discover in Acts 1 that there were two others present who qualified as potential Apostles, namely Joseph (Justus) Barsabbas and Matthias who, we learn, have accompanied the others from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and have been witnesses to the resurrection (Acts 1:15-26).
So why are they not classed as ‘Apostles’, like the two Marys? The answer has to be that they had not been commissioned personally by Jesus to ‘go into the world’. However, that would also mean they could not have been present at the point described in Acts 1:6-11, when Jesus said to those present, “You will be my witnesses”.
If they had been present, they would have been ‘Apostles’. On the other hand, according to the argument put forward by Bishop Matthews, if these words had not been addressed to the eleven, then they would not have been Apostles, since they would not have received Christ’s specific commission.
It is not enough to argue that they were commissioned before the resurrection, so that the only thing lacking to their ‘Apostleship’ was actually to have witnessed the resurrection, since we cannot narrowly apply Christ’s teaching during his earthly ministry to just the Twelve. (At one time, for example, he sent out seventy-two ‘witnesses’ to himself.) If a commissioning before the resurrection is sufficient, along with being a witness to the resurrection itself, then the circle of Apostles is wider than the thirteen already identified.
The point is that, according to the argument, you don’t have to be told you are being made an Apostle to be an Apostle. It is sufficient to see the resurrected Jesus and hear the words telling you to ‘go’. So the circle of Apostles is both restricted to those who both witnessed the resurrected Jesus and were specifically commissioned by him with words that included directions to ‘go’, and it is widened to anyone and everyone to whom this applies.
We must therefore include Joseph, Matthias and others in the group that saw the risen Christ, but exclude them from the ‘inner circle’ to whom Christ said, “You will be my witnesses.”
Thus, according to the argument, Joseph is not an Apostle, because he heard no words from Christ telling him to ‘go’, whereas Matthias is an Apostle because he was ‘commissioned’ to ‘go’ through being chosen by lot.
At this point, however, we might ask why, given that there were thirteen Apostles in the room, they did not simply pick one of the two Marys. Was it that Peter and the others did not yet understand who qualified as an Apostle? But if they didn’t, how is that we can be sure we do? Was it that to be one of the twelve, you had to be a man? There is no indication that women were considered, since if they had been then the two Marys again would have been prime candidates. Whether one likes it or not, the argument for Mary’s Apostleship specifically raises the question of gender in relation to ‘the Twelve’.
Above all, we must reiterate that, according to this argument, whilst many people saw the risen Jesus (Paul famously refers to “five hundred brothers at one time” — 1 Cor 15:6), at no point did Jesus utter words to them to the effect of ‘go and tell’. Otherwise, like the Apostles in Acts 1, the general ‘commissioning’ plus the specific witnessing of the risen Jesus would, according to the argument, make them Apostles.
We must also consider Andronicus and Junia, mentioned in Romans 16, who some argue were also Apostles. Not everyone would accept this, but if they are then we have to ask on what occasion they both saw the risen Jesus and were specifically told by him to ‘go’. The simple answer is that we don’t know, but (according to the argument) such a situation must have occurred. Of course it may have included others — again we don’t know — but it was not enough that they simply saw Jesus and, later on their own initiative, testified about him.
At the same time, however, we must also observe that ‘Apostleship’ as here defined was not a necessary condition to bearing an effective and powerful witness to the risen Jesus. By any argument, Stephen and Philip were not Apostles. Indeed, Philip needed the ministry of the Apostles to complete what he had begun in Samaria (Acts 8:5-17), with regard to the giving of the Holy Spirit.
But it is not suggested, even in Acts, that this ministry is always necessary. The word of God multiplies even where it would seem that the Apostles (including Paul) are not personally the means to that end (cf Acts 13:49; ). And when Paul encountered some disciples at Ephesus who had not received the Holy Spirit, his question did not seem to focus on whether or not they had heard the gospel from an Apostle.
Certainly by the time we read the letter to the Galatians, it is clear that the effective spread of the gospel and the accompanying outpouring of the Spirit has passed far beyond the personal reach of the very small number of Apostles we can firmly identify.
So despite the argument that Apostleship consists in seeing the risen Christ and being specifically and personally sent by him into the world, the Apostles do not have exclusive ‘rights’ either to the ministry of gospel proclamation or the ministering of the Holy Spirit.
And at this point it is appropriate to ask in what sense the episcopalian bishop is a “successor to the Apostles” as Bishop Matthews claims, for most such bishops do not, in fact, have personal evangelistic proclamation as the defining element of their ministry. Nor, in point of fact, do they have the ‘necessary and sufficient’ personal qualifications to be an Apostle. One might, at a stretch, say their consecration is the equivalent of Matthias’s ‘commissioning’, but obviously they have not seen the risen Christ, and so just as Joseph Justus was excluded on one criterion, so modern bishops are excluded on the other.
I doubt, however, that this is what Bishop Matthews has in mind. Rather, I am sure she means that her ‘Apostolic’ office consists in (and differs from the ‘priestly’ office) in overseeing and governing the church. That being the case, however, we must add a number of other qualifications to our emerging picture of New Testament ‘Apostleship’. Principally, it now means that those who (a) saw the risen Christ and (b) received personally or collectively from him a commission to ‘tell’ someone else were thereby authorised and equipped to oversee and govern the church.
Now we certainly see in Acts the Twelve exercising this function, though they seem to be assisted by a wider group referred to as ‘the elders’ (Acts 15:2 — in Jewish terms, the latter would be the normal community leaders, also found in the synagogue system). But according to the argument being advanced, we must assume that Jesus’ ‘go and tell’ command implied, though it did not specify, ‘and govern the church’.
At the same time, we must argue that the ‘Apostolic’ office could be detached both from the personal witnessing of the resurrection and from the personal commissioning to ‘go and tell’ and be handed on, in the form of governance, to successors, including those who neither witnessed the resurrection nor received a personal commission.
From all this, a complex picture of Apostleship emerges.
To be in the original group of Apostles, it is necessary, but not sufficient, to have personally witnessed the resurrection. With this qualification, however, it is sufficient to be accounted an Apostle to have also received a commission from Jesus to ‘go’ with a message about him. Justus and Matthias both had the first necessary qualification, but only Matthias received the second (though not verbally from Jesus, but rather the lot falling on him). It was this that qualified Matthias, in Peter’s words, “to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside” (Acts 1:25).
Incidentally, we cannot equate the drawing of lots with the later ‘call’ of the Church, since the former action is specifically designed to exclude human intervention and leave the result in God’s hands. One way to replicate this is by drawing lots ourselves, but it is not a specific part of any current selection process.
All this further presumes that neither Justus nor Matthias, nor anyone else known to us outside the circle of the eleven who had witnessed the risen Jesus, was present on the occasion recorded in Acts 1 when Jesus said to the Apostles “you will be my witnesses”. Had they been present, they would already be accounted Apostles with the eleven and the two Marys.
However, if any similar utterances were made during Jesus’ other resurrection appearances, including for example that mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15, then all those present must be deemed thereby to be ‘Apostles’. Furthermore, something of this sort must be invoked if we are to include Andronicus and Junia ‘amongst the Apostles’. There could also be others, of an indeterminable number, who were similarly Apostles on the same grounds.
All this means that it is receiving Christ’s personal commission (though this may be done collectively, not just individually) which is finally and sufficiently determinative of ‘Apostleship’, even though witnessing his resurrection is a necessary condition.
However, the resulting ‘Apostleship’ (Acts 1:25) is not confined to witnessing to others about the risen Christ. On the one hand, we find others doing the same, whose ministry is even accompanied by ‘signs and miracles’. On the other hand, we find the twelve exercising a ‘governance’ rôle in the community. The command ‘go and tell’ therefore automatically entails governance, even though this is not specifically part of the commissioning and there is no evidence of either of the Marys exercising this aspect of the Apostolic rôle.
This, however, is fundamental to the argument, since it must then be applied to the ministry of others who have neither seen the risen Christ nor been directly commissioned by him but who, nevertheless, are deemed be heirs of the Apostles specifically in their ministry of governance — Apostleship here being equated with episcope. However, this episcope does not entail a ministry focussed on ‘going and telling’. Rather, what is finally transferred to those who have neither seen the risen Christ, nor directly received his commission to ‘go and tell’, is a ministry which is not explicit in the commission but is deemed of the essence of Apostleship.
All this is terribly complicated, though it may, just, be plausibly maintained.
There is, however, a simpler solution, which is to say that whilst seeing the risen Christ was a necessary aspect of being included in the original Apostles — and the New Testament contains several indications of this — being then commissioned by him simply to tell someone else was not actually sufficient.
Rather, what was ‘sufficient’, in addition to seeing the risen Christ, was commissioning as an Apostle. Those who received this commissioning to ‘apostleship’ like Matthias and Paul, were Apostles. Those who did not, like the two Marys and Justus, were not. (This does, of course, leave Andronicus and Junia as potential Apostles, but in itself this is not germane to the alternative position being put forward here.) And what this Apostleship entailed, whilst it included ‘going and telling’, was expressed in giving definitive teaching and ruling.
Thus in Acts 2:42 we read that the believers “Devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching ...”. Again, we see in Ephesians 2:20 that the Apostles form part of the ‘foundation’ of the Church (reaffirmed in Rev 21:14) and it is by teaching that the Apostles govern the Church (Eph 4:11, 14). It could, furthermore, be argued that it is handed on to a contemporary bishop who teaches the church and guards its teaching ministry (as is expected in the Prayer Book ordinal).
The question of whether this is a proper post for a woman, however, would have to be settled other than by an appeal to the ‘Apostleship’ of Mary Madgalene. On the one hand, it has to be admitted that we find no hint of her exercising such a teaching and governance rôle in the church. On the other hand, it does seem that the distinction between ‘necessary’ and ‘sufficient’ qualifications for Apostleship need to be clarified and maintained.
Personally, however, I doubt that Mary Magdalene qualified on either count, blessed though she was.
Personally, however, I doubt that Mary Magdalene qualified on either count, blessed though she was.
John RichardsonPlease give a full name and location when posting. Comments without this information may be deleted.
11 July 2011
11 July 2011