In 1970 the Episcopal Church USA eliminated the canon for deaconesses and included women in the canon on deacons. In 1976 its General Convention approved the ordination of women to both the diaconate and priesthood. Eastern Orthodox Churches and the Roman Catholic Church condemned both moves, protesting that these changes were made unilaterally and against the ecumenical pattern of waiting until there was consensus among the oldest Churches.
One could say the ECUSA innovations were understandable if not acceptable. For they were responding to several centuries of clericalism, where the only ministry was for what we call the “Petrine charism” and required a collar around one’s neck. Several millennia of diverse and vigorous women’s ministry using the “Marian charism” were suppressed and ignored. The result was that gifted women, called by God to ministry, concluded that the only way to use their gifts was to get a collar and imitate the Petrine charism.
In this article we will explain the Marian charism as illustrated in both Scripture and Church history, show the evidence for traditional Holy Order in Scripture and tradition, and then consider the most common objections to the tradition. Finally we will make recommendations for the Church going forward.
In the beginning The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it (Gen. 2:15; ESV throughout unless otherwise noted). Woman was made as a helper fit for him (Gen. 2:20‒23) and was given the name Eve, because she was the mother of all living (Gen. 3:20). Adam’s task of working and keeping the land was different from the two tasks given to Eve: to be a fit helper for the man in his work and also to mother and care for the living who were born to her. A similar distinction of divinely appointed tasks can be seen in the NT Scriptures, with men and women receiving different charisms to accomplish what was needed for the successful proclamation of the gospel and the building up of the Church.
The Petrine charism
Jesus trained his disciples and taught them to do what he was doing by providing them with very specific on-the-job instruction. On the shore of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus commissioned Peter to feed his lambs and tend his sheep (Jn. 21:15‒17), to be the shepherd of his flock: to protect them, lead them, take care of them and serve them even as he himself had done (Jn. 10:14‒16). At his ascension, Jesus instructed all of his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you (Mt. 28:16‒29).
By the power and leading of the Holy Spirit, Peter and his fellow disciples were empowered to proclaim the gospel and shepherd Christ’s flock, the Church. This Petrine charism can be seen throughout the rest of the NT. Peter, as leader of the disciples, provided leadership for the Church (Acts 1:15‒26), preached and baptized those who were being saved (Acts 2:1‒41), healed the infirm (Acts 3:1‒10), and administered discipline (Acts 5:1‒11; 8:20‒24).
Through the teaching and leadership of Peter and the other apostles, the Church was unified in fellowship and fed through the breaking of the bread and the prayers (Acts 2:42). Deacons were raised up to help with administration and service, making sure that physical needs of the expanding flock were being met (Acts 6:1‒6). They were also commissioned by the Holy Spirit to preach (Acts 7:1‒53; 8:4‒13) and evangelize (Acts 8:26‒40) under the supervision of Peter and the apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 8:14‒17).
The ministry of Paul (Acts 13ff.) expanded the structure and leadership of the Church through the planting of new churches, preaching and teaching new converts and establishing local leadership in his fledgling congregations. His letters to these new leaders gave episcopal instruction on how to shepherd the flock and build up the Church in love. He provided both doctrinal teaching and practical guidance on the right ordering of church relationships, discipline, church practice and liturgy. He also gave instruction on leadership roles.
The pastoral epistles document the passing of this Petrine charism of church leadership on to the next generation, with counsel on the qualities and responsibilities of ordained leadership, the necessity for sound doctrine, the right ordering of church relationships and roles within the Church.
In the West, especially among the churches of the Reformation, virtually all ministry in the church came to be defined exclusively in terms of this Petrine model of ordained church leadership based on scriptural precedent. The Protestant pastor was always a man, whose ministry consisted of providing leadership; running the church; administering the rites of baptism, communion, marriage and burial; tending to the spiritual needs of the flock through preaching and teaching; and administering discipline when necessary.
Clericalism merely amplified this understanding—that in order to exercise any recognized ministry in the Church, one had to be ordained according to the Petrine model of ministry. Thus if women were to exercise a ministry in the Church, then they too had to be ordained.
Gifted women came to believe that limiting the ordained ministry to men was depriving them (women) of their own spiritual callings and preventing them from exercising their gifts for the building up of the Church. The problem was defining the parameters of women’s ministry by basing it on a Petrine model of ordination, which narrowly limits the scope of women’s ministry. It inevitably tries to shoehorn women into what is essentially a male charism for ministry. It is not a comfortable fit.
If Scripture is to be the basis for determining how the Church should best function, what does the NT tell us about women’s ministry? The ministry of the Marian charism is far broader than the Petrine ministry. It tends to rise up organically and, unlike the disciples, women are not told specifically as a group what their ministry will be. Their participation is more fluid and they receive their callings and instructions through the spiritual gifts they receive. The many things they do to minister to Jesus and his Church seem to flow effortlessly out of their natural gifting for nurturing and providing support, given to them from the beginning.
The Marian charism
The Marian charism is multi-faceted and multi-dimensional. It builds on gifts not necessarily exclusive to women, but innate in them to a greater extent. The Proverbs 31 woman of the OT exercises a wide variety of gifts in praiseworthy ministry both to her family and to the world around her. In the gospels, the gifts of this feminine charism are exemplified by Mary the Mother of Jesus and many other women.
As a handmaid of the Lord (Lk 1:38 RSV), the Virgin surrenders herself completely to the Lord and to a life of spiritual openness (Lk. 1:38) and worship (Lk. 1:46‒55). She exercises the gift of prophecy along with her cousin Elizabeth (Lk. 1:41‒45). As a woman of deep prayer, she treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart (Lk. 2:19, 51). Other women share in her charism of spiritual openness. Mary of Bethany sits at the feet of Jesus, listening to the Lord (Lk. 10:42). On the morning of the resurrection, it is only the women who see the angels and encounter the risen Jesus (Mt. 28:2‒10; Mk. 16:5‒9; Lk. 24:4‒7; Jn. 20:11‒18).
A second vital aspect of the Marian charism is ministering directly to the body of Christ as spiritual mothers, nurturing adults and children and showing mercy to those in need. In the gospels, they minister to the physical body of Jesus himself. His mother Mary carries him, gives birth to him, nurtures and teaches him, raising him up in the fear of the Lord and in godly obedience to the Law (Lk. 2:51‒52). The sinful woman washes Jesus’ feet with her tears and anoints them with ointment, pouring out her great love for him (Lk. 7:36‒50). Just before His passion, another woman anoints Jesus’ head with expensive perfume, and he commends and praises her for having done a beautiful thing for him in preparing his body for burial (Mt. 26:6‒13).
The women of the gospels have particular gifts of faith and evangelism. They bear witness to the truth of who Jesus is, they point people to the Lord, and their personal testimony brings others to faith and obedience. At the wedding in Cana, Mary addresses the servants in faith, pointing to Jesus and exhorting them, Do whatever he tells you (Jn. 2:5). The Samaritan woman hurries to her neighbors, exclaiming excitedly, Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did and she brings a whole village to Jesus (Jn. 4:28‒30). Martha is put forward as the model of faith, confessing to Jesus: Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God (Jn. 11:27). Outside the empty tomb Mary Magdalene encounters the risen Jesus, who sends her to the disciples as an eyewitness to proclaim to them the good news of the resurrection: I have seen the Lord! (Jn. 20:18)
The gifts of hospitality and helps of many women, known and unknown, were vital to the ministry of Jesus, providing necessary practical support for him and his disciples. Martha and Mary welcomed Jesus into their home whenever he was in Jerusalem (Lk. 10:38). The women at the cross with Jesus provided crucial behind-the-scenes support for his ministry: When Jesus was in Galilee, they used to follow him and minister to him (Mk. 15:40‒41 NASB). While Jesus was ministering to the crowds, these women were busy taking care of his needs. They also provided financial support: among them were Joanna and Susanna and many others who were contributing to their support out of their private means (Luke 8:3 NASB).
These same gifts are evident in the NT church as well. At the beginning of Acts, the women were gathered together with the disciples in the upper room and with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer (Acts 1:14). The deacon Philip had four daughters who prophesied (Acts 21:9). In the pastoral epistles, the widow who has set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day is honored (1 Tim. 5:5).
Women continued to minister to the body of Christ, now present in his Church, through corporal works of mercy. In the town of Joppa, Tabitha was a pillar of the church, abounding with deeds of kindness and charity which she continually did (Acts 9:36‒39 NASB). When she died, Peter was called and the weeping widows showed him all the tunics and outer garments she had made for them. When Tabitha was raised from the dead, many believed in the Lord. In the pastoral epistles, elderly widows are to be supported who have brought up their children, shown hospitality, relieved the afflicted, and devoted themselves to doing good in every way (1 Tim. 5:9‒10).
Other gifts involve teaching, raising up the next generation of believers, and mentoring younger women as spiritual mothers in the Church. In Corinth, Priscilla and her husband Aquila explained more accurately the way of God to the eager preacher Apollos, who had known only the baptism of John (Acts 18:24‒26). Timothy, who had a Gentile father, was commended by Paul for the sincere faith instilled in him by his Jewish mother Eunice and his grandmother Lois and now dwelling in him as well (Acts 16:1, 2 Tim. 1:5). Titus is told to bid the older women in his church to teach what is good and so train the young women to love their husbands and children and contribute to the growth of healthy families (Titus 2:3‒4).
Wealthy women were generous in supporting the ministry of the Church. When Lydia was baptized as one of the first converts in Philippi, she begged Paul to stay at her house, supplied hospitality for his ministry, and helped catalyze the founding of a new church (Acts 16:14‒15). Nympha provided her home as a meeting place for the church in Laodicea (Col. 4:15).
These various feminine gifts of the Marian charism continued to be part of the Church’s ministry through the post-apostolic age and into the second millennium. Up to the time of the Reformation in the West, there were numerous influential ministries exercised by laywomen in the Church: Macrina (theologian with Gregory of Nyssa), Olympias (deaconess to John Chrysostom), Dominica (spiritual mother, lifelong service to the Christian community, gifts of healing prayer and prophecy), Hilda of Whitby (educator and diplomat), Walburga (missionary work with Boniface), Milburga of Shrewsbury (abbess, gifts of evangelism, pastoral care, physical healing, and spiritual deliverance from sin’s power), Clare of Assisi (foundress of Franciscan order to care for the poor), Hildegard von Bingen (mystic, herbalist, spiritual writer, composer), Catherine of Siena (mystic author, nurse of the critically ill, catalyst for reformation of the papacy), Teresa of Avila (mystic, reformer of the Carmelite order, businesswoman, prolific author on prayer).
Embracing both the Petrine and Marian Charisms
After the Reformation, these Marian charism ministries were mostly lost in the Protestant world, leaving only one model of ministry in Church, that of ordained Petrine ministry. Whatever women did for the Church often consisted of such tasks as caring for the children, cleaning, cooking, preparing bulletins, washing altar linens, singing in the choir, tidying up afterwards, and other similar duties as assigned. Women were discouraged or even prevented from doing anything considered “ministerial” – that was the work of men – and the message they received was that their mostly mindless work might be necessary for the Church but was not esteemed or honored.
Western society came to hold the same views of the types of work that were appropriate for women. By the mid-20th century, gifted women in secular society began pushing back against the limitations that had been imposed on them. They sought to be treated as equal to men in all areas of life, whether it be jobs, education, family roles, or social relationships. This feminist pushback spread also to the churches. Women’s rights were soon piggybacked on to civil rights as a first-order justice issue. For women to fully use their gifts in the Church, they said, they must be ordained just like men in order to do what men do. What was missing from this equation was the Church’s recognition, acceptance, and blessing of the Marian charism of women, without which the Church is incomplete.
Both Petrine and Marian charisms are needed for the Church to be a complete and healthy body. We tend to focus on what can be seen in the Body—the feet, hands, ears, eyes and noses (1 Cor. 12:12‒26)—and often forget that it is the internal organs—the unseen ministries—that enable the external members of the Body to function well. In God’s economy, that which is hidden and modest is deemed most valuable and given the greater honor (1 Cor. 12:24b‒26).
This is a notion that is counter-cultural in a society which values “men’s work” as a “real job” and denigrates “women’s work” of nurturing, providing support, caring for the physical and emotional needs of others, raising children and attending to the spiritual formation of the next generation. It was not so in Jesus’ day, when rabbis exempted Jewish women from all positive commandments with a specific requirement of time, because whatever they would be doing at that time was more valuable to God and to society.
The concept that men’s and women’s ministries are not the same and not interchangeable is also counter-cultural in today’s world. In the beginning, Adam’s task of tending and keeping the garden was a visible work needed to bring forth fruit in the present. The two tasks given to Eve were less visible. She was to provide helpful support for Adam in his work in the present. As mother of all living, her focus was to be on the future and the successful raising of the next generation. Men are called to build up the Church in the present. Women are called to support the present work and plant for the future, laying the foundations of faith for the next generation to build on.
What would the Church look like if it were to restore the fullness of the Marian charism and its ministries that flow like water throughout the body of Christ? What would happen if the Church began to intentionally encourage and honor all the gifts that women have been given to build up the Church from the inside out and to lay foundations for the future? In reserving to men the Petrine charism specific to sacramental ordained ministry, the Church can make space for gifted lay women, support the release of their gifts and encourage them to create their own fruitful ministries in service to the Church, in their own families and within the larger family of God. Their ministries, carried out in partnership with those of men, both lay and ordained, would reflect more fully the order of God’s creation and serve to build up the Church both in the present and for the generations to come. The life and witness of the Church in the world would also be stronger and richer.
A male-only presbyterate
Paul is the most insistent NT proponent of a male-only presbyterate (1 Cor 14:33‒35; 1 Tim 2:11‒14; 3:1‒2, 12; Tit 1:5‒6). Since Paul makes much use of the Genesis 2 account of the creation, we will start there and note its emphasis on male leadership. First, God commanded the man and not the woman (the LORD God commanded the man, v. 16), suggesting here what is stated elsewhere in Scripture (Eph 5:22)—that the man is head of the family. Second, the woman is a helper to the man to assist him in obeying God’s command to work and keep the garden, and to be fruitful and multiply and steward the creation (1:28). Third, the woman is made from man—ex andros or out of man as Paul says in 1 Cor 11:8. Fourth, man takes the lead in marriage: a man shall leave his father (Gen 2:24).
Paul does not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man (1 Tim 2:12), which according to the tradition has meant teaching authoritatively from the pulpit, celebrating the Eucharist, and presiding over a congregation. A presbuteros is to be the husband of one wife (Tit 1:5‒6), which is the same requirement for the episcopos or overseer and the diakonos or deacon (1 Tim 3:2, 12).
Paul is adamant that these are not just his own opinions but come from the Lord Jesus. When he writes to Corinth that women should not speak in church authoritatively as leaders of a congregation, he adds, If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. (1 Cor 14:35, 37‒38).
Nor, according to Paul, was it a local policy to address a merely local problem. Women were not to lead congregations or preach authoritatively as in all the churches of the saints (1 Cor 14:33).
Paul also made clear that these rules were not remedial measures for a fallen creation. He appeals to events before the Fall: women were not to teach authoritatively or exercise authority over a congregation because Adam was formed first, then Eve (1 Tim 2:13). Women were to pray or prophesy with their heads covered because man was not made from woman but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman but woman for man (1 Cor 11:8‒9).
For Paul, then, male authority in the Church derives not from a fallen order but from the creation order. Male headship is not from sinful patriarchy but because of God’s original order for humanity. In fact, the form of the Fall reinforces male headship. Eve took the initiative rather than Adam, and did not consult with Adam. Adam should have protected her from Satan and reminded her of God’s commands.
Because Anglicans have been living with female bishops, priests, and deacons for a half-century, we tend to forget that this is a recent, unbiblical innovation against a tradition that stretches back more than three thousand years into our Jewish roots. Therefore it is easy to miss the numerous corroborations in Scripture that are on the plain surface of the text.
For example, God’s names. God names himself in Scripture as a “he.” In the Old Testament YHWH is masculine in reference. In the New Testament God’s name is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Father and Son are obviously masculine. The Spirit, while grammatically neutral, often takes a masculine pronoun. Feminine pronouns are never used for God in the Bible. While males and females are both made in the image of God and God therefore has female aspects, they are still “his” aspects. He is never said to be a “she.” Jesus says he would have liked to gather Jerusalem to himself as a mother hen gathers her brood (Mt. 23:37), but he never calls God “mother.”
Adam names. As the great OT scholar Gerhard von Rad observed, naming in the biblical world was an act of authority. Adam was chosen to name the animals, and God brought Adam to Eve to give her a name. These were symbolic actions that people in the ancient world understood to be signs of Adam having authority over Eve.
Adam, not Eve, represents the human race. Throughout Scripture it is Adam who represents all of God’s human creation. Christ is the second Adam (1 Cor. 15:45); in Adam all die (Rom. 5:12, 14; 1 Cor. 15:22). God uses a man, not a woman, to represent humanity—both in creation and sin, and in redemption and righteousness: Just as sin came into the world through one man . . . much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. (Rom 5:12, 17).
Junia (which could also be a man “Junias”; Rom. 16:7): Some think of Junia as a female apostle because Paul says she and Andronicus are epistemoi en tois apostolois. But the ESV translates this phrase, well known to the apostles. Paul might have been using apostolos here to mean “messenger,” as he did in 2 Cor. 8:23 (as for our brothers, they are messengers [apostoloi] of the churches) and Phil. 2:25 (I have felt it necessary to send Epaphroditus . . . your messenger [apostolon] and minister to my need). The NRSV rendering (Andronicus and Junia . . . are prominent among the apostles) is dubious because it conflicts with every other reference in the NT to apostles as males, and other translations such as the ESV make better sense of the literary and theological contexts.
Of course there are difficult situations, both in Scripture and modern life, where spiritual headship seems ambiguous. Because Barak was not willing to lead without the help of Deborah, she—the prophetess, judge, and mother in Israel—reluctantly joined Barak when he routed Sisera and all his chariots (Jdg. 4‒5). There is no indication that Deborah fought in battle, but she clearly strengthened Barak when he needed it. Timothy’s mother apparently gave young Timothy spiritual direction because her husband was not a believer (2 Tim. 1:5; Acts 16:1). So while there are difficult and extraordinary situations where women must exercise spiritual headship, the home and Church should always try to return to the biblical order. Hard cases make bad law, and abnormal situations should not dictate regular order.
The divine pattern: family
Scripture makes clear that Holy Order reflects a pattern of family that stretches from heaven to earth, from the Trinity to the home and Church. God the Father is the head of the divine family that is the Trinity, the father and husband is called to head the family in the home, and the male Messiah Jesus (Christ) is the head of his Body, the Church. Paul deliberately connects the words for Father and family in order to show that family is the connecting pattern and male leadership is the norm: For this reason I bow my knees before the Father [patera], from whom every family [patria] in heaven and on earth is named (Eph 3:14‒15).
And once again, Paul indicates that the ordering of headship in this pattern of family goes back before the Fall. The headship of the husband in the nuclear family, which is a type of Christ’s headship of the family of the Church that is His body, is rooted in creation, not the fallen order. After saying that wives are to submit to their husbands because the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church his Body (Eph 5:22‒23), Paul grounds this order for the nuclear family in the pattern for marriage in Genesis 2 given before sin entered the picture: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church (Eph 5:31‒32).
Scripture’s point, taught by the tradition for three thousand years, is that the God of Israel has revealed himself as a divine family headed by the Father, and that this pattern of male headship is replicated in the families of the home and Church.
Mark Twain once said, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.” Similarly, it is not difficult to see that Scripture and the tradition teach male headship in the family of the home and the family of the Church, both patterned after God’s Fatherhood in the Trinity and his creation. The problem is not that these texts are unclear but that it is impossible to square them with the modern rejection of hierarchy in the home and Church.
Moderns often presume that headship is arbitrary and will always oppress because it involves power. While painful experience in a fallen world might point to this as conclusive, all this changes in Christ’s relationship with his Church. Christ is the Head of the Church, and as she submits to his headship she grows in joy and fruitfulness. As E.L. Mascall put it, the fundamental relation of the Church to Christ “is not one of inferiority but of membership and reception of communicated sonship. And behind St Paul’s thought about the man and the woman we must surely see the story of the creation of Eve from the side of Adam, in which the fundamental relation is not one of inferiority but of mutual perfection and of derived partnership: I will make him a helper fit for him (Gen. 2:18).”
But while for Mascall Christ’s headship means that male headship in home and Church is not inherently oppressive, some Anglicans disagree. Not only do they see all notions of headship as oppressive, but some among them argue that any case for headship arguing from the Trinity requires an Arian view of the Son. Besides, they say, we don’t know enough “about the immanent Trinity to say very much at all,” and “the analogy between the divine Persons and human beings” is not “remotely apt.”
We agree that “models of the Trinity” have sometimes been used mischievously, and that these models have at times been constructed in ways that are remote from the clear testimony of Scripture. But we believe that while the Trinity is a mystery beyond human comprehension, Scripture makes clear some things that we can know about the relations among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Among those things is the Father’s headship over the Son and the Spirit. It was the Father who sent the Son, not vice-versa (Jn. 4:34; 5:36; 6:38; 8:29; 14:24; 17:8). The Spirit proceeds from the Father (Jn. 14:26). Sometimes Scripture refers to the Spirit of the Son (e.g., Rom. 8:9) but it also testifies that the Son sends the Spirit from the Father (Jn. 15:26; Acts 2:33). As both the Creed and Scripture tell us, Jesus’ kingdom shall have no end (Lk. 1:33; Rev. 11:15), but after the end of history the Father is still head: Then comes the end . . . . When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all (1 Cor. 15:24, 28). Jesus told the disciples at the Last Supper that he would not drink of the fruit of the vine again until I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom (Mt. 26:29). Paul tells us, The head of Christ is God (1 Cor. 11: 3). Elsewhere he suggests the Father’s headship of the Trinity (Eph. 1:3; 4:6), as does Peter (1 Pet. 1:2). In Revelation the Lamb is distinguished from the One who sits upon the throne (Rev. 4:2; 5:1, 6‒7, 13).
Scripture makes clear what the Creed pronounces, that the Son is “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God . . . one in being with the Father.” We reject Arian views of the Son, as Scripture and tradition do.
The upshot, then, is that there is a relation of eternal headship in the Trinity, where the Father is always the head over the Son and the Spirit, with the second and third Persons as equal in essence and nature but under the Father’s headship. This is reflected in the home and Church. It should not be surprising. After all, we are made in the image of the Trinitarian God and as we have seen, it is the Father [patera] from whom every family [patria] in heaven and on earth is named (Eph. 3:14‒15).
Just local problems
Anglicans have also objected that Paul’s strictures on ministry were simply “correctives to specific abuses in the early Christian movements.” That is, they were local or temporary problems. The women in Corinth and Timothy’s churches were interrupting and asking inappropriate questions. They were not willing to learn the Law in silence. They were insisting on teaching in a formal manner that would usurp local authority or lord it over men.
Yet, as we have seen, Paul wrote that these were his rules in all the churches, not just some, and that this was from the Lord not himself. It is clear that women could speak (prophesying in Corinth, e.g.) and teach (Priscilla and Aquila teaching Apollos, e.g.) in some circumstances, but not in a way that would exercise authority over a congregation. There is no suggestion in Scripture that these rules were merely temporary. Instead, the foundation is God’s creation order.
Concessions to Greco-Roman patriarchy
Proponents of women’s ordination have also argued that NT restrictions were “tactical and temporary concessions to the ambient Greco-Roman patriarchy in the first century.” That is, patriarchy was the order of the day in ancient culture. Paul and Jesus knew of no other social or religious possibility, and both realized that gender egalitarianism would ruin the Church’s chances for growth. But their revolutionary treatment of women pointed to future egalitarian roles in the Church.
This objection makes sense if Paul, for example, did not know of other possibilities. But he did. The ancient world was full of altars and shrines with priestesses. Ephesus was dominated by an enormous temple to Artemis (Diana), led by a female priest and her female assistants. So female presbyters in the early Church would not have been revolutionary. They were all over the Mediterranean world, and particularly in the backyard of one of the early Church’s most important centers. Yet none of the elders in the church at Ephesus was female (Acts 20:17‒38); all the articles and pronouns designating the elders are masculine. And as we have seen above, every instruction about headship in the church limits it to males. There is not one female priest or elder in either the Old or New Testament. The only female priests we know in the early Church were in its heretical branches—among the Montanists and Gnostics.
Jesus was revolutionary indeed—permitting women to sit at his feet learning from him, to travel with him, to talk with him in public in ways that broke social conventions, and to be his first public witnesses. He could have appointed a woman as one of the Twelve, but he did not. To ordain a woman to headship in the Church, representing Christ at the Eucharist, suggests not only that Christ was wrong to choose only male apostles but also that God was wrong to have chosen his Son to become a man and not a woman. In sacramental ministry the celebrant at the Eucharist stands in persona Christi (in the person or place of Christ), reenacting the Last Supper. As C.S. Lewis argued, to say that a woman can represent Christ at the altar is to deny that Scripture is inspired when it taught us to speak of God with masculine imagery.
Would Jesus have approved of women as heads in the home or Church if ancient culture had changed its approach to patriarchy? Not likely, because ancient culture already accepted goddesses and female priests. Furthermore, if the Bible had grounded its rules for leadership in the fallen order, then an argument for female headship might have worked. But the Bible grounds these rules for the family and Church in creation and makes it clear that these reflect an eternal order.
Jesus undid patriarchy?
Another objection is that Jesus “reverses the centuries-old deprecation of women in Israel since the Fall.” That is, Jesus undoes the patriarchy of ancient Israel by the way he treats women. According to Kenneth Bailey, he accepted Mary of Bethany into the men’s part of the house to study and become a teacher herself. As N.T. Wright puts it, while all the men fled Jesus, the women were the first at the tomb and so were apostles to the apostles.
There are problems with these arguments. Bailey ignores the counter-witness of the rest of the New Testament. Jesus chose not to include this Mary or any other woman among the Twelve. Bailey is right grammatically to say that the Greek in Acts 20 could permit women within the scope of masculine pronouns and articles, but he ignores literary and theological contexts. Those contexts strongly imply that Luke did not intend women to be included among the elders.
Wright makes similar moves, but without accounting for Jesus’ choice of apostles, Jesus’ Jewish context (where female priesthood was unthinkable), and the clear prohibitions in the rest of the New Testament texts. Besides, acceptance of Wright’s suggestion would violate Article 20 in the 39 Articles, which forbids the Church from “so expound[ing] one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another.”
In sum, because the prohibition of a female presbyterate is the plain sense of Scripture, proponents of a female presbyterate must make one place of Scripture repugnant to another.
The dirty word
We might note in passing that all these critics of the tradition assume that patriarchy is inherently oppressive. And no wonder, for recent studies of the term have so concluded. For sociologist Sylvia Walby, patriarchy is “a system of social structures and practices in which men dominate, oppress and exploit women.” Historian Gerda Lerner explains it as a system inherited from ancient Greece and Rome in which “the male head of the household had absolute legal and economic power” over males and females in his household, and by extension means “male dominance over women in society in general.”
With these definitions generally accepted today, to label anyone a patriarchalist is enough to dismiss that person. No argument is needed, for the hapless soul has been smeared with one of the dirtiest words imaginable. But we suggest that if patriarchy means simply the “rule of a father,” which is the literal meaning from its Greek roots, or as the Oxford English Dictionary states, “government by the father or eldest male of the family, or a family, tribe, or community so organized,” then God invented patriarchy. And if his patriarchy is loving and respectful of human difference, then all patriarchy is not oppressive. No more than democracy is inherently oppressive because some democracies are oppressive. Or higher education is inherently abusive because some universities are abusive.
Our conclusion is that while there has been plenty of oppression in the way that fathers and priests have abused their positions of headship, the phenomenon of male headship is not inherently abusive. In fact, God’s system of patriarchy is fundamentally beneficent and generous. It honors women and exalts their gifts.
The tradition has taught that there is one Holy Order in three degrees. It is ontological, which means that it changes the inner being of those on whom it is conferred. This is true of deacons no less than priests or bishops, and is one reason why the tradition has restricted all three degrees to men.
Richard Hooker, the preeminent Anglican theologian of the Reformation period, affirmed this ontological character of ordination for “clergy” who are “either presbyters or deacons” (Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity 5.77.8): “Christ hath imparted power . . . a kind of mark or character and acknowledged to be indelible. . . . and maketh them a special order consecrated unto the service of the Most High in things wherewith others may not meddle. . . . they are a distinct order” (Laws 5.77.2; orig. emph.).
The Ordinal in the 1662 BCP affirmed this ontological character of Anglican ministry by adding the Bishop’s prayer for a priest at the laying on of hands, “Receive the holy Ghost for the Office and work of a priest in the Church of God. . . . Whose sins thou dost forgive, they are forgiven; and whose sins thou dost retain, they are retained. And be thou a faithful Dispenser of the Word of God, and of his holy Sacraments.”
The 2019 BCP suggests the same in its ordinal for both deacons (“Receive the Holy Spirit for the Office and work of a Deacon”) and priests (“Receive the Holy Spirit for the office and work of a Priest in the Church of God. If you forgive the sins of anyone . . . .If you withhold forgiveness . . . . Be a faithful minister of God’s holy Word and Sacraments.”
Both the discipline and the liturgy of the Church throughout its early history insisted on a very clear distinction between male deacons and female deaconesses. Based on this early Church model of ministry, women cannot be ordained as deacons but may be set apart for ministry as deaconesses. They would exercise a variety of ministries under the authority of the rector or bishop, such as pastoral care, counseling, caring for the sick and poor, teaching, spiritual formation, prayer ministry, preparing candidates for baptism and confirmation, assisting at baptisms, leading Morning and Evening Prayer, and conducting other forms of social and educational work.
Scripture speaks of Phoebe as a diakonos or servant (Rom 16:1) but limits the diaconate to men: Deacons are to be husbands of one wife (1 Tim 3:12). The gynaikas in 1 Tim. 3:11 have different qualifications from those of deacons, are evidently doing something other than what male deacons do, and so are best translated by the plain sense “wives.” The word diakonos is used by Paul to refer to the office of deacon only in Phil 1:1 and 1 Timothy where it is used in conjunction with episkopos. Elsewhere it is the generic term for “servant” or “helper” (Rom 15:8; Gal 2:17; 1 Thess 3:2; Col 1:7, 23, 25; 4:7; Eph 3:7; 6:21; 1 Cor 3:5; 2 Cor 3:6; 11:15, 23; 1 Tim 4:6; Titus 1:9).
In the early Church, the ministry of deaconesses was separate from that of deacons. They were not ordained as deacons but were set apart as deaconesses for ministries in keeping with their Marian charism. This continued after the apostolic era. In the Apostolic Tradition (c. 215), only bishops, priests and deacons were ordained by the laying on of hands. All other ministries—widows, lectors, virgins, subdeacons and those with healing gifts—were expressly forbidden to receive the laying on of hands because “ordination is for clerics destined for liturgical service.” The diaconate was limited to men. Women in other ministries were set apart for service to the Church by the bishop with prayer only and were excluded from liturgical functions.
At the Council of Nicaea (325), Canon 19 (on receiving Paulinists back into the Church) states, “Clergy must be rebaptized and then ordained by a bishop of the Catholic Church . . . . The same thing must be done with respect to the deaconesses [but] they have received no laying on of hands and are thus therefore to be counted among the laity.”
Later ordinations made very clear distinctions between the ordinations of deacons and deaconesses, using different prayers and ordination rubrics for each order to specifically identify and distinguish their different charisms and ministries. Only the heretical Montanist sect ordained women to the same diaconate, presbyterate and episcopate as men.
The biblical model for resolving Church disputes
The Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 is the biblical model for resolving disputes about new rites in the Church. Some Christians wanted new rites for the circumcision of gentile believers. There was much debate. Paul and Barnabas were appointed to discuss this question with the apostles and elders in Jerusalem (v. 12). Resolution was gained only when it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us (v. 28), to the whole church (v. 22).
Thus the rule for the early Church in resolving disputes was to accept only rites that accorded with Scripture as understood by the whole church. The early Church leaders believed not only that Scripture was the Word of God, but also that the Church of the living God [is] a pillar and buttress of truth (1 Tim. 3:15). Their criterion was Scripture as understood by the whole Church.
Rites for women’s ordination have been approved without the consent of the whole Church. They have come from a minority of the world’s churches, and from churches that are heretical and dying. This is a new and (mostly) Western development.
The ACNA College of Bishops conceded this in 2017 when it concluded that women’s ordination was a “recent innovation” with “insufficient scriptural warrant.” This new way of understanding man and woman in the Bride of the Messiah deviates from the way the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church has understood Holy Order for two millennia. For these reasons, women’s ordination has been divisive, and will prevent Anglican churches who embrace it from full communion with the largest and oldest Christian churches in the world. We make our argument, then, not only for the sake of fidelity to Scripture but also for the sake of unity in God’s church.
Summary and recommendations
We have argued several things. First, that Scripture is clear on Holy Order. In both Testaments it rejects female headship in God’s Church and calls for male-only headship. That means a male-only presbyterate/priesthood and diaconate.
This Order is based on God’s creation order, which he established before the Fall. It is also consistent with Scripture’s portrait of the Father’s eternal headship over the Son and the Spirit.
Second, the Western Church has exalted the Petrine charism at the expense of the Marian charism. We need to encourage and honor women’s special gifts of nurturing the present Church and planting for its future. These are gifts of spiritual mothering, faith, evangelism, prayer, prophecy, teaching, mercy, helps, hospitality, and various kinds of leadership.
Third, the movement to ordain women to the presbyterate/priesthood and diaconate is recent, (largely) Western, and divisive. It has gone around—rather than followed—the biblical model for resolving disputes.
We recommend four things.
First, Christian boys and girls today should be given instruction in biblical manhood and womanhood—what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman. Exploring and teaching this biblical anthropology is essential for the health of nuclear families and society.
Second, we should pay attention to recent experience in the West, especially in The Episcopal Church and the Church of England, which has shown that men are generally unwilling to serve under the spiritual leadership of women. This is sometimes for the wrong reasons, but it is also because men are created by God to lead spiritually. If Anglicans perpetuate female headship in the churches, many men will feel they have good reason to leave a feminized church to women altogether.
Furthermore, we should observe that arguments for women’s ordination in these two Churches used the same hermeneutical methods that were later employed for an actively gay priesthood, in both cases rejecting the plain sense of Scripture (a Reformation hermeneutic) for the sake of cultural imperatives. This pattern is likely to play out in other churches like the ACNA that ordain women for Holy Order. After all, if the sexes are interchangeable in Holy Order, why not also in marriage?
Third, courage will be needed to follow the biblical ordinance on Holy Order. This will offend many, but it will also attract many. True evangelism and faithful obedience always run the risk of offense.
Fourth, we recommend a moratorium on the ordination of women to the diaconate and presbyterate/priesthood until this question is resolved by a Church-wide consensus. And in order to help provide women with institutional space for the use of their gifts in ministry, new orders of deaconesses should be established such as those already instituted in the Reformed Episcopal Church.
- See, for example, Rome’s response in 1977, https://www.nytimes.com/1977/01/28/archives/excerpts-from-vaticans-declaration-affirming-prohibition-on-women.html. In 2008, Walter Cardinal Kasper expressed the same frustration with the Episcopal Church’s refusal to wait for ecumenical agreement: http://www.christianunity.va/content/unitacristiani/en/dialoghi/sezione-occidentale/comunione-anglicana/relazioni/dichiarazioni-comuni/misc/en3.html. ↑
- This essay is a major reworking and revision of a paper we presented in 2017 to the bishops of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). ↑
- See Aidan Nichols, Holy Order: Apostolic Priesthood from the New Testament to the Second Vatican Council (N.p.: Dominican Council, 1990; reprinted by Wipf and Stock, n.d.). ↑
- Mascall, “Women and the Priesthood of the Church” (London: The Church Literature Association, 1960), 33‒34. ↑
- “The Holy Orders Task Force Final Report,” for the ACNA College of Bishops, 2017, https://adoc.church/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/ACNA-Provincial-Holy-Orders-Task-Force-Report.pdf, 266. ↑
- Generally the Fathers eschewed the term “eternal subordination of the Son” because that was a favorite term for Arians, and the Fathers did not want to appear to suggest that the Son was in any way ontologically inferior to the Father. Instead, as they agreed at Constantinople in 381, he is “God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God.” But as church historian Philip Schaff wrote, “The Nicene fathers still teach, like their predecessors, a certain subordinationism [his emphasis], which seems to conflict with the doctrine of consubstantiality [the Father and the Son sharing the same substance]. But we must distinguish between a subordinationism of essence (ousia) and a subordinationism of hypostasis, of order and dignity. The former was denied, the latter affirmed.” Schaff pointed to Hilary of Poitiers, the champion of Nicene doctrine in the West, who used with Athanasius and Tertullian “comparisons of fountain and stream, sun and light,” which “lead to a dependence of the Son upon the Father.” Even the words of the creed quoted above suggest this: the Son is God of God, Light of Light, True God of True God. Schaff notes that the later Nicene fathers give “the Son and the Spirit only their hypostases [distinctive Persons] from the Father, while the essence of the deity is common to all three persons, and is co-eternal in all.” Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 8 vols (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), III: 681‒82. Chrysostom and Augustine shared a similar perspective. In Chrysostom’s commentary on the 1 Corinthians 15 passage about the end when the Son subjects himself to the Father, he writes, “[This shows the Son’s] great concord with the Father, and that He [the Father] is the principle of all other good things and the first Cause, who hath begotten One so great in power and in achievements.” In a homily on Philippians 2:5‒11, Chrysostom argues that the Son emptied himself voluntarily and was not “constrained” to do so, nor did he do so in order to show the “superiority of the Father, but his own inferiority. For is not the name of the Father sufficient to show the priority of the Father? For apart from him, the Son has all the same things. For this honor is not capable of passing from the Father to the Son.” Chrysostom’s point is that while the Son is equal in deity to the Father since he “has all the same things” that connote ontological equality, he is inferior in the divine taxis or order: their very names Father and Son, he explains, show that the Father has priority. John Chrysostom, Homily 39 on First Corinthians, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. 12 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 239; Homily 7 on Philippians, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. 13 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 213. Augustine is famous for ridding any subordinationist theme from his massive De Trinitate. Yet, as Schaff notes, “he too admitted that the Father stood above the Son and the Spirit in this: that he alone is of no other, but is absolutely original and independent; while the Son is begotten of him, and the Spirit proceeds from him, [the Spirit] proceeds from him in a higher sense than from the Son.” Augustine adds that the debated passage in 1 Corinthians means not that the Son has given over the kingdom to the Father in a literal sense but that his mission will be completed when the church is able to see the Father through him: “That is what is meant by ‘When he hands the kingdom over to God and the Father,’ as though to say ‘When he brings believers to a direct contemplation of God and the Father.’” Augustine stresses that the Son and Father are not two persons as we think of persons (separate personalities) but two modes of the one divine being. The Son’s mission as vicegerent for the Father is completed, and now he has a new mission, showing the Father to his Body, the Church. The Son has delivered the kingdom to the Father in one sense, but it is still the kingdom the Son had won by his blood. Schaff, Schaff, History of the Christian Church, III: 684-85; Augustine, The Trinity, trans. and ed. Edmund Hill (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1991), 1:15; 15:47. ↑
- Ibid., 263. ↑
- Ibid., 272‒73. ↑
- Ibid., 263. ↑
- C.S. Lewis, “Priestesses in the Church?” in Ben Jefferies, ed., No Other Foundation: Essays on Women’s Ordination in the Anglican Church (Omaha: North American Anglican Press, 2021), 47. ↑
- “The Holy Orders Task Force Final Report,” 267. ↑
- Kenneth Bailey, “Women in the New Testament: A Middle Eastern Cultural View,” Theology Matters 6/1 (Jan/Feb 2000) 2. ↑
- N.T. Wright, Surprised By Scripture (HarperOne, 2014), 70. ↑
- Sylvia Walby, “Theorising Patriarchy,” Sociology 23: 2 (May 1989): 213–234. ↑
- Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 238–239 ↑
- Nichols, “The Reformers and the Council of Trent,” in Holy Order. ↑
- Aimé Martimort, Deaconesses: An Historical Study, trans. K.D. Whitehead (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1986; orig. Les Deaconesses ); see chaps 1-7, especially “The Liturgy for the Ordination of Deaconesses.” This sums up his study: “However solemn may have been the ritual by which she was initiated into her ministry, however much it may have resembled the ritual for the ordination of a deacon, the conclusion nevertheless must be that a deaconess in the Byzantine rite was in no wise a female deacon” (156). Deaconesses had no strictly sacramental office and were not near the altar during a Eucharist when a priest was presiding. ↑
- Besides, as the NET Bible notes, “It would be strange for the author to discuss women deacons right in the middle of qualifications for male deacons.” ↑
- Martimort, Deaconesses. ↑
- We agree that since the vestry is responsible for “the temporalities of the congregation” and not “spiritual leadership” (ACNA Constitution and Canons c.6 s.5), women may serve on vestries. ↑
- “A Statement From The College Of Bishops On The Ordination Of Women,” Sept. 7, 2017, https://anglicanchurch.net/college-of-bishops-statement-on-the-ordination-of-women/ ↑