One of the issues that has arisen in the ongoing debates about the consecration of women bishops is the representative nature of those we commonly call ‘priests’. Specifically, it is being asked what their gender has to do with their humanity and therefore their adequacy for the ‘priesthood’.
If one takes an ‘iconic’ view of priesthood, then this is clearly pertinent. If the priest somehow ‘embodies’ Christ in performing the functions of priesthood — particularly the celebration of the Lord’s Supper — then it might be worth asking whether a woman can do this in exactly the same way as a man.
The best negation of the argument that it makes no difference is perhaps that put forward by CS Lewis in his 1948 essay ‘Priestesses in the Church’. “Why,” Lewis asked, “should a woman not in this sense represent God?” He continued,
Certainly not because she is necessarily, or even probably, less holy or less charitable or stupider than a man. In that sense she may be as ‘God-like’ as a man; and a given women much more so than a given man.
Such assumptions are taken for granted today. But Lewis had a different objection. “The sense in which she cannot represent God,” he wrote, “will perhaps be plainer if we look at the thing the other way round.” The full force of his argument requires quoting at length:
Suppose the reformer stops saying that a good woman may be like God and begins saying that God is like a good woman. Suppose he says that we might just as well pray to “Our Mother which art in heaven” as to “Our Father”. Suppose he suggests that the Incarnation might just as well have taken a female as a male form, and the Second Person of the Trinity be as well called the Daughter as the Son. Suppose, finally, that the mystical marriage were reversed, that the Church were the Bridegroom and Christ the Bride. All this, as it seems to me, is involved in the claim that a woman can represent God as a priest does.
Now it is surely the case that if all these supposals were ever carried into effect we should be embarked on a different religion. Goddesses have, of course, been worshipped: many religions have had priestesses. But they are religions quite different in character from Christianity. Common sense, disregarding the discomfort, or even the horror, which the idea of turning all our theological language into the feminine gender arouses in most Christians, will ask “Why not? Since God is in fact not a biological being and has no sex, what can it matter whether we say He or She, Father or Mother, Son or Daughter?”
But Christians think that God Himself has taught us how to speak of Him. To say that it does not matter is to say either that all the masculine imagery is not inspired, is merely human in origin, or else that, though inspired, it is quite arbitrary and unessential. And this is surely intolerable: or, if tolerable, it is an argument not in favour of Christian priestesses but against Christianity. It is also surely based on a shallow view of imagery. Without drawing upon religion, we know from our poetical experience that image and apprehension cleave closer together than common sense is here prepared to admit; that a child who has been taught to pray to a Mother in Heaven would have a religious life radically different from that of a Christian child.
We should note that even in Lewis’s day, the argument that God has no biological gender was advanced to ‘deconstruct’ the language used about God. And we should note also that Lewis is well aware of the effects of such deconstruction. Far from the use of ‘Mother’ instead of ‘Father’ being the harmless exchange of one metaphor for another, it would (at least in his view) lead to a religious life, and therefore a religion, “radically different from that of a Christian”.
Hence for Lewis the iconic significance of the priest required that the priest be male rather than female, for with the Church, he says, “we are dealing with male and female not merely as facts of nature but as the live and awful shadows of realities utterly beyond our control and largely beyond our direct knowledge.”
But what if you do not share Lewis’s iconic view of the priesthood or his sacramentalism with regard to priestly function? What if, as I have suggested earlier, you would allow that anyone and everyone, including women, could celebrate the Lord’s Supper? Is there still room for saying that gender matters, either in relation to God or to Christ? And what implications, if any, does this have for our thinking about ministry?
Our thinking about gender in this particular context has not one but two starting points.
One is biology. And here gender is relatively straightforward, being essentially a component of the process of sexual reproduction. I say relatively because even here there are complications. Some species, for example, exhibit hermaphroditism, where a single organism can function as either the ‘male’ or ‘female’ partner.
Down at the cellular level, however, everything is clear. Whether one is talking about the vegetable or animal kingdoms, sexual reproduction involves the fusion of two gametes (cells with half the usual pair of chromosomes) to form a zygote (a cell with a full complement of chromosome pairs, one from each of the parent organisms).
All the rest, as they say is commentary. But the commentary is both considerable and variable and gives us little by way of ‘rules’ either of gender characteristics or behaviours. Male and female are not hard and fast concepts — not that they are not essentially clear cut within a given species, but that taken as a whole they do not justify us making statements of the form ‘all males look like’, or ‘all females act like’.
At this point, however, we must introduce the spiritual dimension, for as Lewis says above, in the Christian religion we believe that “God Himself has taught us how to speak of Him”. And he does this from very early on.
In Genesis 1:26 we read that God first deliberates about making human beings: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness ...”
Some, most notably the feminist theologian Phyllis Trible, have suggested that this adam is androgynous — a sexually undifferentiated ‘earthling’. But this is unsustainable for numerous reasons. Here we may note simply that the text goes on to speak of adam in the plural: “and let them rule over the fish of the sea, etc.” What ever God plans to make, there will be more than one of them.
And so we read how this works out in the next verse, which forms a poetic triplet (single Hebrew words are indicated by square brackets):
[And created he] [God] [man]* [in his image]
[In the image] [of God] [he created] [him]
[Male] [and female] [he created] [them].
[In the image] [of God] [he created] [him]
[Male] [and female] [he created] [them].
In the first part of the triplet, adam has the definite article. But we need not translate this as ‘the man’ since frequently elsewhere (eg Gen 7:21) ha-adam simply means ‘humankind’. Nevertheless, as the second stanza shows, adam in this sense can be spoken of as a collective singular. To use a term which is now regarded as archaic, we are one ‘mankind’, not ‘men and women’ — a point brought out by Genesis 5:1b-2:
When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. He created them male and female and blessed them. And when they were created, he called them “man [adam].” (NIV)
And though it is common to regard Genesis 2 as being a separate ‘creation narrative’, actually it brings home rather neatly the point made in chapter 1: there is a singular ‘adam’ before there is a plurality of male and female.
This means, furthermore, that we must address at this point the question of a ‘Christological’ reading of the opening chapters of Genesis, for in the New Testament the first Adam is clearly seen as anticipatory of Christ, “a pattern of the one to come” (Rom 5:14), who is therefore a ‘second Adam’:
So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. (1 Cor 15:45)
And this is of enormous significance in terms of our salvation, for the argument runs that what is true of the first in a negative sense is true of the second positively. Thus,
... since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. (1 Cor 15:21-22)
When it comes to Genesis 1:27, therefore, we must hold the second and third stanzas in tension. God created a singular ‘man’ in his image and he created a plural ‘male and female’ also in his image.
Once again, we must understand this Christologically. The first point — that one man on his own can image God — must be true in order for what the Bible later affirms about Christ to be true also:
For he is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. (Col 1:15)
Christ’s imaging of God lacks nothing. Furthermore, it is necessary that he be the full image-bearer, for we ourselves derive our imaging of God from him:
And just as we have borne the likeness [eikon, image] of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness [eikon, image] of the man from heaven. (1 Cor 15:49)
But here we must be very careful and again we must be ready to read Genesis Christologically, for what do we mean by ‘Christ’?
In attempting to do theology, there is a danger of treating the person of Christ in isolation, as if Christ were an abstract concept or, more plausibly perhaps, understood comprehensively as a member of the Godhead. That, however, would not be true, for Christ as we know Christ — Christ as he is revealed to us — is not an abstraction, nor even just the Second Person of the Trinity. Rather, as 1 Peter puts it, he is the lamb “chosen before the foundation of the world” (1 Pet 1:20).
Indeed, he is the one whose character determines the world as we know it, since it was made not only “by him” but “for him” (Col 1:16). His very character is that of ‘Creator Redeemer’, and therefore though it does not require, it entails another.
And it is here that the third stanza of Genesis 1:27 comes into play: “Male and female (in the image of God) he created them”, for what we see played out in the history of creation and redemption is that God images his own image.
God is imaged in Christ, in whom dwells the fullness of God taking bodily form in his creation (Col 1:19). And as Christ is imaged in us, so God is imaged in that which he has created which is entirely distinct from himself.
Now something of this is surely what we see in Genesis 2. We are told in 2:18 that it is ‘not good’ for Adam to be alone — a word which means not ‘lonely’ but ‘the only one of his kind’ (cf Gen 44:20; Ex 18:14, etc). Similarly, however, in God’s plan for creation, it is clearly not his intention that Christ should be ‘alone’. On the contrary, through Christ God is “bringing many sons to glory” (Heb 2:10). Therefore,
Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers. (Heb 2:11)
But there is only one eternal Son who is “ the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word” (Heb 1:3). Therefore these ‘images of the image’ must be both ‘the same as’ and ‘quite different from’ the eternal Son, whose image they bear by derivation from him rather than by nature.
And this, I suggest, is the theological heart of the concept of gender.
Following a Christological reading of Genesis 2, we stand in relation to Christ as Eve stood in relation to Adam. He recognized her as ‘bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh’. In a real sense she was him — an image of the image-bearer. But in another sense, she was quite distinct from him — a being in her own right. And this is brought out in her name: she is an ishshah, not an ish — a woman, not a man (and later an Eve, not an Adam). But she is an ishshah precisely because “she was taken out of man” (Gen 2:23).
And all of this sets the stage for the comment in 2:24 which Paul will pick up and place at the centre of his understanding of the Church and of the nature of our salvation:
For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. (Gen 2:24, cf Eph 5:31)
This is why, in the great drama of marriage and sexuality husband is to wife as Christ is to Church, which is again as head is to body. Christ is not alone, for that would be ‘not good’ in relation to creation. Rather, it is ‘Christ and the Church’ which constitutes the ‘one new man’ (Eph 2:15) ruling over God’s creation.
The Psalmist expresses a sense of mystery in relation to Genesis 1:
what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honour. You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet (Ps 8:4-7)
Ephesians sees it fulfilled in Christ and the Church:
And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way. (Eph 1:22-23)
God is thus rightly and always in relation to us ‘he’. And in marriage the husband is always to the wife as Christ, and the wife is always to the husband as the Church.
What this means for the ministry is simply (!) that what we do in the congregation should follow what we see revealed in Christ. But that, of course, may be a challenge to all of us in many ways.Please give a full name and location when posting. Comments without this information may be deleted. Recommend: