There has been a great deal of fury over the decision of the General Synod of the Church of England to not ratify legislation to appoint women as bishops.
There is much around the web on the theology of women as bishops and leaders but I suspect that many aren’t aware of some of the key reasons why the Church of England has, over many years, come to believe that women should be bishops. So, this post is aimed at doing a couple of things. I want to look at a biblical case for the ordination of women as Bishops.
One of the main problems for much of the Church has been that the debate has centred on justice for women or that this is the 21st century and that it is natural for women to be leaders. Or its about “progress”. This in one sense is understandable in a world that is for all intents and purposes biblically illiterate. Tom Wright writing in the Times points out the problem with this:
We, of all people, ought to know better. “Progress” gave us modern medicine, liberal democracy, the internet. It also gave us the guillotine, the Gulag and the gas chambers. Western intelligentsia assumed in the 1920s that “history” was moving away from the muddle and mess of democracy towards the brave new world of Russian communism. Many in 1930s Germany regarded Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his friends as on the wrong side of history. The strong point of postmodernity is that the big stories have let us down. And the biggest of all was the modernist myth of “progress”.
The case for this must rest on a better base than mere “progress”. The core for a Christian is the Biblical case for this. The Biblical case is so much stronger than many of its critics will allow for.
Firstly, there needs to be a recognition that the life and resurrection of Jesus trump society and its mores. Jesus was born into a patriarchal age where women were considered as lesser than men. Jesus never treats women in this way. Indeed the people he treats worst of all and has conflict with are the religious. Jesus treats them as equals. He tells Martha that Mary has chosen the better way because she sat at his feet as a disciple (Luke 10:38-42). Who is the first person to see the resurrected Jesus and told to spread the news of Jesus? It is Mary Magdalene. Tom Wright again points out:
All Christian ministry begins with the announcement that Jesus has been raised from the dead. And Jesus entrusted that task, first of all, not to Peter, James, or John, but to Mary Magdalene. Part of the point of the new creation launched at Easter was the transformation of roles and vocations: from Jews-only to worldwide, from monoglot to multilingual (think of Pentecost), and from male-only leadership to male and female together.
If we were left to the Gospels things might feel a bit clearer but we seem to have some awkward bits of Paul’s letters to deal with. However, the apparent misogyny of Paul has been kept going, I believe, by our own patriarchal society and through the Constantine settlement that saw the political state mitigate the radicalness of the Church.
So, we see in Romans 16 the introduction of Phoebe – a deaconess in the church (though the NIV with a conservative mindset translates the greek word diakanos as a servant). An obvious leader – and the person Paul sends his letter with and who would have read out the letter to the congregation.
Or we see Junia in Romans 16:7 described by Paul as an apostle.
Or Paul’s glorious claim in Galatians 3:28
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
So lets take one of the more problematic passages that is often seen. That of 1 Timothy 4:8-15. The NIV has the translation:
I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing.I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.
I don’t let women take over and tell the men what to do. They should study to be quiet and obedient along with everyone else.
This explanation suggests a corrective both to myths about Artemis, who was created first and only subsequently took a male consort, and possible misunderstandings of Paul’s own teaching. In Rom 5.14 and 1 Cor 15.22, Adam is said to be the origin of sin; misreading this as Adam the first male (rather than Adam the first human being) might suggest that women had no part in sin, which Paul corrects here by noting that ‘the woman’ was deceived. Elsewhere (2 Cor 11.2), Eve’s deception becomes an example of what is possible for both men and women; the point here is not that women are more sinful than men, but that they are just as sinful as men.
The final, to our ears, rather bizarre bit about being kept safe through childbirth is an exhortation not to get super-spiritual and see childbirth as something to be avoided in this current Messianic age. Childbearing is hard enough without seeing it as something that would put your salvation at risk!
Altogether then this passage is about mutuality – about the value of women as disciples and about the value of them learning. It is based on a life situation with the issues and problems that it faced. So, for women this meant not ruling the roost but it did not mean that they could not be leaders.
I believe that the time has come for the church to repent and welcome women in their rightful place and that includes them as bishops in God’s Church.
Another useful read is an article by Tom Wright