Are Churches that Don’t Ordain Women “Outside the Will of God”?

I was reading an article by Dr. Jeremiah Gibbs stating that he is convinced that churches that don’t ordain women are outside the will of God and no longer a part of the Christian community. He doesn’t actually say they aren’t Christian but to suggest that churches that don’t ordain women are “outside the will of God” is equivalent to excommunicating them and declaring them to be heretical. For instance, Christians have always historically believed that the Church has been an infallible institution. Church authority, unlike Biblical authority, is directly derived from God because the Church itself is the pillar and ground of truth (1 Tim. 3:15) and itself is a divine institution. Thus, to be outside the will of God is equivalent to being outside the will of the Church. If Gibbs does not agree with this ecclesiology then he himself is outside the will of God and has no business telling others that they themselves are outside the will of God. He should himself work out his own salvation and get himself back inside the will of God.

I hope that Dr. Gibbs reads this article and becomes convinced that opponents of women’s ordination are in fact inside the will of God. Now, I myself would agree with radical egalitarians on a lot of things and I would even be tempted to join a radical egalitarian church if I didn’t have other significant theological problems with them. I myself was even in a radical egalitarian church for a while and even preached the radical egalitarian position. Of course, this was when I was a relativist (and the Evangelical Covenant Church, being relativist, worked out for me) when it came to dogmatism and as I shifted toward a more dogmatic position in affirming a more objective idea about truth, I no longer could stay in the ECC. Thus, as I’ve developed in my beliefs, I no longer perceive certain issues such as women’s ordination to be important. I consider there to be more major issues–the infallibility and divinity of the Christian Church, penal substitutionary atonement needs to be condemned, transubstantiation/consubstantiation, baptismal regeneration, confession, the seven sacraments, the seven ecumenical councils accepted by Catholics and Orthodox, Mary as Mother of God and Ever-Virgin, etc. All of these are major doctrines that many churches that ordain women don’t accept. Lutherans are realistically the only church that comes close to accepting them all but there are problems within their churches that accept women’s ordination–acceptance of gay marriage is prominent in the Church of Sweden and in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Episcopalians also come close but once more, they perceive truth as subjective, not objective and this creates problems of unity in their churches.

Back to Gibbs. The first point in Gibbs’s article is that sound Biblical hermeneutics require us to accept women’s ordination at all levels.

1. First and foremost, I believe that good biblical theology and hermeneutics (a fancy word for principles of interpretation) demand it. I’m not going to recreate the theological arguments here. I think the best job on this has already been done by N. T. Wright. But let me give you a few clues as to how we’ve often gotten this so wrong.

The New Testament is one of the most progressive documents in the ancient world on women’s issues. The authors never challenged the patriarchal system of headship because this was the legal designation of their day and there was nothing that they could do to change that (few [none?] of the early Christians had the necessary political standing). So they elevated women within the legal system that they had to the highest levels of legal leadership. We don’t have legal (or even cultural!) prohibitions to women’s leadership so we have the opportunity to carry out the biblical vision of equality of all people within the Kingdom of God. We have a biblical mandate to do that.

The problem is that there is some disagreement on how progressive it is on women’s issues. For instance, as noted by Met. Kallistos Ware, “it is not correct to state that women were generally excluded from the priesthood in the ancient world” (“Man, Woman and the Priesthood of Christ”, Women and the Priesthood, 25). “In limiting the priesthood to men, the early Church–while remaining faithful to its Judaic inheritance–was going directly contrary to the general spirit of surrounding pagan society” (25). One must also be able to explain in the ancient world places such as Egypt where women were in fact in positions of rulership. “Simplified views of the changing status of women from early Biblical times onward have been offered repeatedly, so often in fact that we have some trouble in approaching our problem from tabula rasa (Barrois, “Women and the Priestly Office According to Scriptures”, Women and the Priesthood, 58). To state that the Church was more or less “progressive” than other parts in the ancient world needs to be qualified. Many ancient cultures had women priests as vestal virgins. That’s not to say they became politicians.

Note that at the rate Gibbs is going, as soon as we get to fifth century Byzantium, we should expect to see women in priestly and episcopal office. Is there such a case? No. Perhaps because the Bible isn’t as progressive as he thinks it is. There are in fact Christians who attempt to ordain women but they are considered heretics. Perhaps Biblical hermeneutics cannot settle this issue alone. Met. Ware points out responses given by Tertullian, the Apostolic Constitutions, St. Irenaeus to the Gnostic Marcosians, and St. Epiphanius to the Montanists and to the Collyridians (31). It seems that Gibbs presumes this is the first time the Church has faced such an issue in its institution and has had to come with a position of whether it should ordain or continue with the flow of the culture at that time. But Christianity was pretty diverse in its early goings and eventually many positions were either declared orthodox or heretical and the Church did in fact come across dealing with this position. Also, the Romans didn’t have much strictness in terms of religious observance as long as you worshipped their gods which was the real problem. A women in a priestly office in Christianity would not have been a problem for the Romans at all as they even themselves had vestal virgins who were their own priestesses. Gibbs’s contention of the “progressiveness” of the New Testament compared with that of the modern day Church on this issue is too simplistic to take seriously.

Gibbs’s next contention is as follows…

2. Secondly, the culture has shifted so far on this issue that we have exchanged our place as the socially progressive institution that we were for generations for the place of a culturally backward one. Now the church may have to be “culturally backward” on some issues because culture sometimes simply goes in a wrong, immoral, and untruthful direction. On this issue it seems clear that culture has gone in the right direction and the church’s insistence otherwise is a great discredit to her (the church is historically spoken of in the feminine) ministry. We are increasingly pushing ourselves to the margins of culture.

This assumes that the goal of Christianity is to adopt every single position in the culture at a given time. The problem here is that culture changes. Jesus never changes (Heb. 13:8). Cultures even vary from place to place. For instance, in Asian cultures, women are expected to be subordinate. So I guess declaring women to be equal in every respect to men would fail in keeping up with Asian culture, right? No. Asian culture doesn’t matter. Of course, Asian culture matters to the Asians. Again, adopting the cultural position of a particular time ain’t always the brightest idea for the Church to take. And besides, you just applauded recently the Church’s break with the culture of ancient Rome at the time so where is the justification now that the Church should break with the culture? The Church though should be influencing the culture, not adopting it. If it should embrace culture, then should Christians also be for abortion? Contraception? Gay marriage? Obviously, the Church should not adopt every aspect of culture and you agree with this so where is your justification that the Church needs to adopt this position.

3. This is a justice issue and much of the church has gotten it wrong. What is actually happening in most churches? Women are in leadership. They are leading classes, organizing service and outreach, organizing fellowship events, and managing the day to day operations. But when the real decisions are made- the ones that people with influence want to be the ones making- women are excluded from the conversation. It is unjust to use women’s ministry gifts but to then exclude them from leadership decision-making. Some churches have an explicit practice of doing this. Others do so in practice as the real decision-making gets moved to the meeting after the meeting that takes place in the parking lot.

This is a problem between the radical egalitarian and the opponent of women’s ordination. As I’ve mentioned, opponents of women’s ordination see this as a liturgical issue. Hence, the idea to implement women in the priesthood needs to be observed as a theological issue, not a justice issue. As noted, “when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well” (Heb. 7:12). As such, for most opponents of women’s ordination, they would seriously question that a women priest won’t tamper with the accepted theology of the church. Indeed, this is why while I agree with much of the radical egalitarian position, I find myself in a church that does not accept women’s ordination. In many churches that accept that women should be priests there has been radical departure from Christian orthodoxy (Quakerism, Epsicopalianism, Anabaptist denominations, etc.). Not saying this is true of all churches that ordain women. But in addition, an opponent of women’s ordination may also see the priest as an icon of the divine bridegroom and hence it is a theological contention that forbids women to the priesthood. Men and women are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27) but only together do they form that image. Man is in the image of Christ, woman in the image of the Holy Spirit, etc.

First, the ministry is not to be envisaged in ‘professional’ terms, as a ‘job’ that a woman can carry out as competently as a man, and which she has an equal ‘right’ to perform. Still less is the ministry to be conceived in terms of power and domination, as a ‘privilege’ from which woman is being unjustly excluded. ‘It shall not be so among you’ (Mt 20:26). The Church is not a power structure or a business enterprise, but the Body of Christ; the ministerial priesthood is not a human invention devised for purposes of efficiency, but a gift of God’s grace. Far from being a ‘right’ or ‘privilege,’ the ministry is always a call to service, and this call comes from God. … Any discussion of the ordination of women which poses the question in terms of ‘rights’ distorts the issue from the star, for it presupposes an utterly false notion of priesthood.
Secondly, the ministerial priest is not envisaged in terms of democratic politics, as a kind of deputy merely exercising by delegation the royal priesthood that belongs to the Christian people as a whole. On the contrary, the ministerial priest derives his priesthood not by delegation from the people but immediately from Christ. As Justin Martyr (d. c. 165) affirms, ‘The twelve apostles depend upon the power of Christ the eternal priest,’ and the same is true of their successors the bishops.” (Ware, 44-45)

Here, once again, Gibbs finds himself outside the will of God and hence outside the Church. Finally, Gibbs contends…

4. It is time to raise up a generation of women to share in equal leadership of the church. I serve as the Director of the Lantz Center for Christian Vocation at the University of Indianapolis. The two main functions of our work are to help young people discern God’s call to ministry in all kinds of career fields (health care, social work, science, accounting, etc.) and to train those that are called to church ministry (pastors, youth ministers, missionaries, etc.). It is a regular occurrence for me to meet really gifted young women that I’m convinced God has called to pastoral ministry.

This is not a reason, this is an opinion. But concluding remarks–I don’t think Gibbs is willing to excommunicate Tertullian, the author of the Apostolic Constitutions, St. Irenaeus, and St. Epiphanius, St. John Chrysostom, St. Thomas Aquinas, or Martin Luther which indicates he most certainly objects to the position of the infallibility and divinity of the Church in the first place (after all, these men are outside the will of God and being outside the will of God is equivalent to being outside the Church). This indicates that Gibbs is basically the pot calling the kettle black on this issue. And he might not even be calling the kettle black. What is most important for me to realize in the issue is not my own feelings and perceptions about who may or may not be right on this issue but to realize that those who contend against women’s ordination do ultimately have 2,000 years of Church tradition going for them.

About Emperor Thomas I

Catholic monarch of the New Roman Coalition. Consecrated to the Apostle Thomas, the Holy Martyr Sigismund, and the Holy Martyr Olaf II.
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2 Responses to Are Churches that Don’t Ordain Women “Outside the Will of God”?

  1. Jim says:

    I have never considered the testimony of church history in regards to this matter until just now, reading this post. It would make sense to assume that if the church believed women should be ordained, there would be ample proof of ordination being extended to them.

    There isn’t. That says a lot to me! In other words, if Paul’s admonitions were simply cultural, the church had plenty of years to figure that out, and we would expect to see father after father stating this.

    You said:

    “There are in fact Christians who attempt to ordain women but they are considered heretics.” Do you know the reference for these heretics by chance? It would be helpful to read up on it.

    • Giorgio Otranto has done excellent research into Pope Gelasius’s work. A summary of it can be found here.

      St. Epiphanius of Salamis’s Panarion carries out his deposition of the Montanists and the Collyridians. Tertullian’s Veiling of Virgins though many of Tertullian’s insights need to be taken with skepticism as he also says some things about women which have later been rejected by the Church–such as his criticisms of St. Thecla. Irenaeus’s Against Heresies contains his condemnations of the Gnostics for having women serve at the altars (and numerous other condemnations as well).

      I personally don’t think that “silence” on a position “proves” or “disproves” a position. For instance, the New Testament is silent on whether infants should be baptized or not and yet we still baptize infants.

      Now, I will note, there is ample (though not indisputable) proof of them receiving Holy Orders to the diaconate in the Byzantine Church up until the sack of Constantinople. But there were never ordinations to the priestly or episcopal office in ancient Byzantinium. Episkopa is used as an honorary title for some women who were wives or female relatives of bishops (as bishops were allowed to be married up until about the 10th to 11th centuries). And there is actually an example of one women who actually was mistakenly ordained (but because it was a mistake to begin with, it can hardly be considered the rule).

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