How to think like an evangelical catholic about the proposal to ordain women as pastor-bishops

Confessing Anglicans are divided on the question whether women’s ordination is in accord with the teaching of Scripture and consistent with the doctrinal heritage of the Church. On the one hand, there is great exegetical disagreement regarding the status of women in pastoral ministry in the New Testament itself. That, certainly, is the really decisive question for a Church committed to the authority of Holy Scripture. On the other hand, there is disagreement about how the Church should relate exegetical findings to the received traditions those findings sometimes challenge. This second problem is more subtle, and less frequently addressed today. But the question itself is an old one, and the Reformers had to face it head on. And face it they did. In this piece, I explain the method that Martin Luther formulated as a solution to this problem, in hope that it will help confessing Anglicans faithfully navigate the theological challenges we face today.

Quick aside for those Anglicans who aren’t keen on brother Martin: while I learned this method from Luther’s 1539 treatise On the Councils and the Church, the old doctor would be the first to admit it isn’t his own invention. In substance, he borrowed it from St Augustine. The Reformers to the south and west of Wittenberg—England’s included—borrowed it too, either directly from Luther or Augustine or often enough from both. Neither Calvin’s Reply to Sadoleto (also 1539) nor Jewel’s Apology of the Church of England (1562) differs substantively from On the Councils and the Church in the articulation and application of the evangelical catholic method. Indeed, in their adherence to it, a real consensus comes to the fore. Not, to be sure, that the method was entirely irenic in either its formulation or its effects: for the old evangelical catholic consensus differentiates the Lutheran, Reformed, and English Reformations from both the papal traditionalism of the Church of Rome on the right and the radical/Anabaptist application of sola-qua-nuda scriptura on the left.  

But back to the matter at hand. The method can be summed up easily enough: evangelical catholics assume the basic trustworthiness of the tradition they have received. Even so, they test everything in the clear light of Holy Scripture (1 Thess 5.20, 1 John 4.1). In the event of a manifest contradiction, the evangelical catholic Church rejects an evil tradition and holds fast to the good of Scripture. But if the received tradition is either supported by Scripture, or at the least is not contradicted by Scripture, it is the way of wisdom, peace, and love to retain it. So there are three steps: 

  1. Welcome tradition as a gift more likely to bless than to curse.
  2. Test everything, searching the Scriptures to see whether these things are so (Acts 17.11).

Then, either:

3.a. Abhor what is manifestly evil (i.e., whatever contradicts the Bible); or

3.b. Cling to what is certainly (i.e., scripturally) good with a confident and cheerful heart; or

3.c. Receive what is probably (i.e., traditionally) good with humble gratitude. 

In sum: “Honor your father and mother”—and, “We must obey God rather than men.” The spiritual and exegetical method summed up in that italicized “and” is the basic evangelical catholic stance vis-à-vis the question of Scripture and tradition. 

That might sound a little abstract, so let me illustrate the principle with two examples. First, consider the most wholesome doctrine (and very full of comfort) of justification by faith alone, quite apart from our own works or deservings. In this case, Luther and the whole camp of high church Evangelicals agreed that the inherited late medieval tradition of piety, ritual, and theology stood in manifest contradiction to the teaching of the Bible. No number of pious works, no number of Masses sacrificed, no degree of intense self-scourging can placate the wrath of God and merit eternal life. Jesus Christ already did that, once-and-for-all, when he died on the Cross for our sins. The free gift of his righteousness is just that, a free gift, received by faith alone. Here, the ancient scriptural consensus of the prophets and apostles outweighed and overruled the more recent traditional consensus of the church fathers and the medieval schoolmen. And therefore, the Reformers resolved to hold, with St Paul, that we poor sinners are justified by faith apart from works of the law (Rom 3.28; cf. Article 11). 

By way of contrast, consider the contentious issue of infant baptism. In this case, Luther and the rest of the evangelical catholics received the inherited tradition, found nothing in the Bible that manifestly contradicted the practice—and in fact strong evidence to support it: St Peter’s explanation on the day of Pentecost that “the promise” is not only for adult believers in Messiah but for our children (Acts 2.39); the NT practice of baptizing entire households (Acts 16.15, 31-33, 1 Cor 1.16); the illumination of these facts by Paul’s decided yet unselfconscious identification of circumcision and baptism at Col 2.11-12—and therefore retained it. 

In short: in the case of justification, the Reformers followed the manifest and plain witness of Holy Scripture against a manifestly and plainly unscriptural tradition. In the case of infant baptism, they welcomed tradition as at least consonant with the best possible exegesis of the relevant texts. 

Other examples of the application of the method include—for all evangelical catholics—the hearty embrace of the ancient confessions regarding the majesty of the Holy Trinity (Nicene & Athanasian Creeds) and the reality of the hypostatic union of the divine and human natures in the one Son of God and Mary (Chalcedonian Definition) and even the structure and shape of holy Church’s Word-and-sacrament liturgy. For the more conservative amongst the evangelical catholics, the application of the method also included a fairly extensive retention of medieval ritual (viz., amongst Lutherans, and to a lesser extent in the Church of England as well) and/or of medieval polity (viz., in the Churches of Sweden, Latvia, and England). In the former case, some radical re-/deformers veered into what would later be called Socinianism. In the latter, the vanguard of the Swiss Reformed pilloried Luther as a crypto-papist, and the brilliant John Hooper caused no little trouble to Ridley and Cranmer over the eminently adiaphoral issue of vestments at his consecration as bishop. But high church Evangelicals stood their ground, on the basis of the Word of God as that incomparable Word had been received in the tradition of the catholic Church. 

There is a certain flexibility here that both traditionalist Roman Catholics and radical reformers found (and continue to find) baffling. “You’re trying to have your cake and eat it too! Pick one or the other. If you keep infant baptism, which can’t be clearly proven from Scripture alone, then you’d better come home to Rome; but if you reject Trent’s doctrine of justification by faith-working-through-love as an unbiblical tradition, you’d better go all the way and become a Baptist. As matters stand, you’re neither hot nor cold—and the Lord may soon spit you out of his mouth!” So, at any rate, appeared the theology and churchmanship of the high church Evangelicals to many of their sixteenth-century contemporaries, as it often appears now. 

But the Roman/Baptist objection rests on a misunderstanding of the evangelical catholic method that united the several strands of the Reformational via media. With the Church of Rome (and the East, for that matter), evangelical catholics delight to honor the tradition of their fathers and mothers; but with the radicals, they have resolved if scripturally necessary to follow the example of St Peter and obey God rather than men. 

In each instance, against formalistic dogmatisms to the left and to the right, evangelical catholics insist that the details need to be worked out in patient exegesis on a case-by-case basis. There is no single abstract theological principle—i.e., either naked Scripture or unfailing Tradition—that automatically gets things right every time. There is, rather, the practical method summed up by the “and” uniting the Fifth Commandment and Peter’s bold word at Acts 5:29. In each individual case, whether it be the nature of justification, the practice of infant baptism, or the ordination of women as priests, the evangelical catholic Church will honor what she has received, carefully test this inheritance in the light of Scripture, and only then—prayerfully and prudently—render judgment.

Now to put a fine point on what has perhaps not yet been emphasized as strongly as it needs to be: because evangelical catholics desire to honor their fathers and mothers in the Faith, they will only ever renounce them if a clear, plain, and manifest text from Scripture demands that they do so. With respect to justification by faith alone, this condition obtained in the sixteenth century as it does today; and so, in the sixteenth century if not always so vigorously in the twenty-first, faithful men took courage and stood against a great tradition and a big powerful Church in order to confess the truth of the Word of God and honor the Gospel of his crucified Son whatever the cost. But with respect to infant baptism, no clear text, no “slam-dunk” argument from any prophet or apostle, demanded a like sort of faithful and—in its sincere intention—traditional rebellion against inherited tradition. So, the Churches of the Augsburg Confession as well as the Reformed Churches that derive from them (on the continent and in England and Scotland) kept baptizing babies, washing away their sin in Christ’s blood, ingrafting them into his body, and bringing them into the family of our good Father. 

If confessing Anglicans today think it meet, right, and our bounden duty to continue in the tradition of this Protestant traditionalism, then, when presented with a proposed innovation in either the doctrine or the discipline of the Church, we need to ask: 

1. What is the received tradition? 

2. Are there any Scripture texts that manifestly contradict this inheritance? 

3.a. If so, then we must obey God rather than men. 

3.c. But perhaps there are no such manifest texts; in that case, we will trust what we have received

and honor our fathers and mothers. 

3.b. And indeed, if there are any Scripture texts that support the received tradition, we will be

further confirmed in retaining it. 

That is the Protestant-Augustinian or evangelical catholic method that Luther, Calvin, and Cranmer would bid us follow as we search the Scriptures to see whether these things are so.

Now, if God’s great sinner in Wittenberg were around, he might add something like this: “Woe to that man who, for the sake of his tradition, makes void the Word of God (Matt 15:6)!” Such is the well-known battle cry of the defiant Protestant. But left to itself, it is only a half truth; and five centuries of ongoing ecclesial balkanization indicate its incompleteness. Less well-known, yet no less important to a catholic Protestant like Luther, is its necessary complement: “Woe to that man—be he priest, bishop, patriarch, or pope—who, without the support of a clear text of Scripture, dishonors his father and mother, ‘follows his own spirit’ (Ezek. 13:3), ‘speaks visions of his own mind’ (Jer 23:16), and thus makes void the Word of God (cf. Isa 8:20, Jer 23:9-40, Ezek. 13:1-23)!” 

These two woes, the “evangelical” and the “catholic,” correspond (by exegetical necessity) to the conserving-Reformer’s attempt to abide by, and thus obtain the rich blessing that derives from, his principled desire to honor his ecclesial fathers and obey the Word of God at any cost. For at the bottom of this principle, there lies a simple love for and trust in the majestic, powerful, and saving Word of the LORD. His Word abides forever, and in comparison to it all flesh—no matter how holy, wise, traditional, relevant, etc. it may appear—is grass (Isa 4o:6-8, 1 Pet 1:24-5). And in the Church, good little under-shepherds know that the strange sheep of Jesus never eat grass. Their only food is the Great Shepherd’s Voice (John 1o:3-5), viz., the life-giving Word that the Son of Man himself speaks to his people in Scripture, sermon, and sacrament. Luther’s method is presented here in hope that it will help confessing Anglicans recover something of our own heritage, not at all for the sake of mere traditionalism, but to the end that we Anglican sheep may learn to stay nearer to the wholesome teaching of the Word.

Dr Phil Anderas

Phil Anderas (Priest, ACNA; Pastor, NALC; PhD, Marquette) is a missionary theologian with operations based in Milwaukee. He is a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians and author of Renovatio, a book about Martin Luther, St Augustine, and the way God makes forgiven sinners holy.

'How to think like an evangelical catholic about the proposal to ordain women as pastor-bishops' has 1 comment

  1. March 29, 2022 @ 8:45 am Padre Miguel

    Thank you for the article. So what is the conclusion that one is draw about women in Holy Orders? You’ve given the “how to think” but not the “what to think.” It would be great if you would write a follow up article answering the question of women in Holy Orders using your own proposed three question matrix.

    Very much a fan of your writings. Keep it up!


Would you like to share your thoughts?

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

(c) 2024 North American Anglican