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Pro and Con: The Ordination of Women in the New Testament by Reginald H. Fuller from 'Towards a New Theology of Ordination: Essays on the Ordination of Women'

Pro and Con: The Ordination of Women in the New Testament

by Reginald H. Fuller

from Towards a New Theology of Ordination: Essays on the Ordination of Women, pp.1-11.

Ed. by Marianne H. Micks and Charles P.Price, Virginia Theological Seminary,
Greeno, Hadden &Company Ltd. Somerville, Mass., 1976

Reginald H. Fuller is Professor of New Testament at Virginia Theological Seminary. The most recent of his many books is PREACHING THE NEW LECTIONARY. He has lectured widely on the ordination of women.

Anyone who seeks to justify the ordination of women from the record of the New Testament has a difficult job. Jesus appointed only men to be his apostles, and Paul, it seems, was downright negative about women, going so far as to forbid them even to speak in church. If you regard the New Testament as a blueprint for all time, the case is settled and not worth arguing about. Let us here take a closer look at the New Testament evidence — both pro and contra —by four general categories: 1. Jesus; 2. The Earliest Church; 3. St. Paul; 4. Emergent Catholicism.

1. Jesus

CONTRA The recorded calls of disciples were all of men (Simon and Andrew, James and John, Levi, and the unnamed would-be disciples) .(1) Most modern scholars, a few Germans excepted, would agree that out of the wider body of the disciples Jesus in his earthly life chose Twelve for a particular role—to be signs of the New Israel that would come into being with the advent of God’s kingdom.(2) The Twelve were men.(3) If Jesus intended his church to have women ministers, it is argued, he would have included women among the Twelve. After all, Jesus did not scruple to break the customs of society in his day by, for example, healing on the sabbath or consorting with outcasts. Surely, had it been his intention he would have appointed women. Instead, they performed the subordinate service of looking after the bodily needs of Jesus and his disciples—a sort of women’s auxiliary.

ANSWER Of course Jesus appointed only men. But was Jesus legislating for his church for all time? Even when the gospels were written, the early Christians continued to believe that the end of time was coming soon. And although they arranged the teachings of Jesus (especially Matthew in his five discourses) to make it look like legislation for the church, even Matthew still thought the end was coming fairly soon. Scholars are divided in their views of what Jesus thought about the end. Some of the best scholars say that Jesus expected a fairly short interval to transpire between his own death and the End,(4) while others think that he expected his death to be followed almost at once by the coming of the End,(5) which in a sense it was, on Easter Day. These are the only two views tenable in the light of modern scholarship, and on either view, Jesus was not concerned to legislate for his church for all time. When the early church came to work out its arrangements for the ministry it did so without reference to what Jesus had done in his earthly life. They proceeded under the guidance of the Spirit. That Jesus appointed only males among the Twelve says nothing about the ministry of the church today, for it said nothing about the ministry of the church in the period immediately after Easter.

PRO Jesus was remarkably free in his dealings with women. Think of how he accepted the devotion of the woman who was a sinner (later, but mistakenly, identified with Mary Magdalene),(6) how he accepted the ministrations of women, — including Mary Magdalene—on his journey to Jerusalem, his encounters with the Samaritan woman and the woman taken in adultery. To have treated women fully and without reservation as persons was a remarkable thing in the ancient world, and particularly in Palestinian Judaism. There is nothing in Jesus reminiscent of the rabbinic prayer, “Blessed be the Lord who hath not made me a woman.” It would be wrong to ascribe this to humanitarian broadmindedness. Where Jesus departed from established custom, as he did in consorting with the outcast, he did so because God’s kingdom was breaking through in his own word and work, and that kingdom shattered the barriers erected under the law between men, and between men and women.

2. The Earliest Church

CONTRA The Twelve forsook Jesus and fled at his arrest. But the resurrected One appeared to Peter and the Twelve and constituted them the foundation of the new Israel, as the earthly One had promised. The Twelve were all males, including Matthias, who replaced Judas. As the church began to expand, a larger number of “apostles” to whom the resurrected One appeared, headed up the mission. The earliest account of the Easter appearances ( 1 Cor 15: 3ff) does not mention women because Paul is carefully listing accredited witnesses to the resurrection appearances, and under Jewish law women were disqualified from bearing legal testimony. There were no women among the apostles. True, there were almost certainly women among the 500 to whom the Lord appeared at one time (1 Cor 15:6), but that does not make them apostles. To be an apostle, one must not only have seen the resurrected One (as the 500 did), one must also have been specifically called to be an apostle. As far as the leadership of the earliest church goes, it was all male. As in Jesus’ earthly lifetime, women occupied a subordinate position of ministering to the needs of the community. And as the community grow, the same principle was adhered to. The Seven, who were leaders of the Greek-speaking community, were males. Later on when the apostles had left Jerusalem, James and the elders took over the leadership; but it is out of the question that there were women among them.

ANSWER The situation of course is precisely what you would expect in a Jewish, Palestinian environment. At the same time there was a remarkable exception. The church believed from the earliest time that the tomb of Jesus was discovered empty by Mary Magdalene and some other women (the other names vary).(7) Of course the male disciples must have checked up on the women’s story later. They were probably in Galilee at the time and so could not have been on the spot to check at once, as in the later accounts in Luke and John. That looks like a bit of male chauvinism! The women are not to be denied the importance of their testimony—and this in view of the fact that under Jewish law women were disqualified from giving testimony. It was a remarkable community which based its Easter faith—this essential part of its faith—on the witness of women.

3. Paul

Here we come to some very positive stuff and also the most negative in the New Testament, as far as women are concerned.

Let us take the negative first, for it is this that has figured so largely in the discussions about the ordination of women.

CONTRA Paul taught the subordination of women to men: “. . . the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband [NEB: woman’s head is man], and the head of Christ is God” (1 Cor 11:3)

It is this statement which above all others incurred the oft repeated charge (even before the term became popular) that Paul was a male chauvinist. On the other hand, efforts have been made to limit or explain away the implications of this text. Thus the RSV translates “her husband” rather than “man.” Attractive though it is, it will not do. For in the context Paul is not talking about marriage but about public worship, not about the relations of husband and wife, but about men and women. Again, it has been suggested that “head” here means not superior authority, but source of being—the reference allegedly being to the story of Adam’s rib. Again this will not do. The series, God-Christ-man-woman, indicates a descending order of authority. To interpret “head” as source gets us into serious theological difficulties: it would mean that Christ emanates from God in the same way as Eve from Adam, and that man emanates from Christ in the same way as the source of his being. Only “head” gives a consistent sense throughout.(8)

Another explanation has been offered to the effect that Paul is here talking about the situation of man and woman after the fall, when God punished Eve by placing her under Adam’s authority: “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Gn 3:1G). We could then argue that in the Christian dispensation, when the effects of the fall are remedied, this subordination should no longer obtain. Quite apart from the question whether we can subscribe to the doctrine that the effects of the fall are entirely done away in Christ,(9) it is apparent from the context that Paul has man’s created nature in view, not his fallen nature. Thus a few verses further on Paul says:

For man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. (For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman far man). - 1Cor 11:7-9

Paul is giving a practical ruling: women prophesying (more about this later) are to be veiled. He bases his argument on Gn 1:26-27, the creation of man in God’s image, and Gn 2:7, 2l - 22 (the rib story). The same teaching about the subordination of woman to man is developed much further in the later New Testament, and we will look at it later. This is the strongest biblical argument against the ordination of women, for it is an exegetical and theological argument, not just a ruling (though it is adduced to support an ad hoc ruling, that women should be veiled when prophesying).

Later in the same letter Paul returns to the subject and issues a further regulation: “The women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says” (1 Cor 14:34). This presumably refers to Gn 3:16, where God says to the woman after the fall: “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”

ANSWER. At first sight, these passages, especially the one in chapter 11, pose a very serious problem. We may disregard the regulations Paul lays down about women being veiled and men not, for these have never been taken as an absolute rule. Bishops wear mitres in church, the canons of 1604 allow clergy with “an infirmity of the head” to wear skull caps in church, and until recently some Anglican priests wore birettas in church. At one time all women (not only those prophesying, as Paul directed) were covered in church, but within living memory this custom has practically gone by the board in all denominations.What is more serious is that Paul gives a theological reason for the subordination of woman to man. She is subordinate to him because God created man in his own image, and woman only from man. (Paul almost suggests here that woman was not made directly in God’s image, but only reflects it from the man). Unfortunately Paul used scripture here in a way no exegete today would dare to do. He combined two quite different creation stories, Gn1:26 from P and Gn 2:7, 21-22 from JE.(10) As a result, he almost contradicted Gn 1:27, which insists that God made both male and female in his own image. From the P story alone you could not deduce that subordination of woman to man, but only that both actually bear God’s image. Why did Paul believe in subordination? Not because he first read it in scripture, but because he first took for granted the mores of the society in which he lived, and then he looked around for a scripture text to justify it. Advocates of the ordination of women should not feel too badly when their opponents accuse them of capitulating to the spirit of the age (women’s lib and all that). After all, Paul did very much the same thing!

As for the second passage, the contradiction with 1 Cor 11 is puzzling. In chapter 11 Paul allows women to pray or prophesy in church (but under a restriction: they must be veiled), whereas in chapter 14 he says roundly, no woman should speak in church at all. The answer to this puzzle is to be sought in the manuscript tradition. In some manuscripts verse 34- 36 appear after verse 40. This is a sign that the passage was probably not written by Paul, but interpolated later. And it is the same rule as is found in 1 Tm 2:11 - 12. So it probably comes from the same hand that wrote 1 Timothy. We will give our answer to the problem of 1 Cor 14:33 - 35 when we come to deal with “emergent Catholicism.”

PRO It is remarkable that Paul envisages women praying and prophesying in church (1 Cor 11) . He is not speaking about private groups, but about the public assembly of the church. It was prophets who presided at the liturgy in Paul’s time, who offered the prayers including the eucharistic prayer (1 Cor 14: 16—the Greek word for “thanksgiving” is eucharistia). It is therefore quite possible that at Corinth women did do just this! Yet Paul was not quite happy about it, for he placed a restriction on women prophets: they were to be veiled. Why? He offered theological reasons, which, as we have seen, are not convincing to scholars today. But there is something else at stake. Paul was very much worried about what is “proper” (1 Cor 11:13). People might be shocked at the goings-on in Corinthian worship so Paul tried to dampen it down a bit. Let the women be veiled! If what is “proper” is an important consideration in Christian worship, then what is proper (especially to the outside world today), may be the precise opposite of what it was in Paul’s time: it may be an actual hindrance to the gospel that women are not allowed to lead public worship, while such leadership is accepted in other walks of life. At one time in Corinth the church far outstripped the world in the place accorded to women. Now some might accuse it of dragging its feet.

There is also the famous text in Gal 3:38: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you all are one in Christ Jesus.” Many attempts have been made to rule this verse out of court in the debate on the ordination of women. We are told that it refers to baptism, not to ordination. It is true that the immediate context is baptism, as the previous verse shows: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal 3:27). Paul fought a great battle for the first of his principles: the equality of Jew and Gentile in the church. At Antioch he resisted the attempt of the Judaizers to have “separate but equal” eucharists for Jew and Gentile (Gal 2:11-14) . He would not have accepted the argument that it was all right because the Antioch church permitted Gentiles to be baptized! Paul fought that issue on the long view and he won. For no one today would doubt that Jewish and Gentile Christians may sit down together at the Lord’s Supper. Paul did not make an issue of slavery in his lifetime, though in the case of Onesimus he did hope that his master Philemon would release him. He was content to transform the personal relationship between Christian master and Christian slave and let it go at that. Even so, he did not restrict the point to baptism. (See Philemon, and 1 Cor 7:21- 24) . But in the 19th century it seemed to many Christians that Gal 3:28 demanded precisely that they work for the emancipation of slaves. To say that so long as slaves were admitted to baptism that was enough would no longer do.

Today we are in the same position with regard to the relation of men and women in the life of the church. Society has developed in such a way with women’s equality of educational opportunity that to refuse ordination now (whatever was the case in Paul’s time) is no longer compatible with Gal 3:28. This is a fundamental statement that far outweighs Paul’s negative statements about the place of women in the church.

But that is not the whole story. Paul had a number of women colleagues. He refers to Prisca, with her husband, as his “fellow workers”, the same word he uses to describe Apollos (1 Cor 3:9), Timothy, and lesser known colleagues like Epaphroditus (Phil 2:25) and Clement (Phil 4:3). He speaks of Phoebe as a “minister”,(11) the word he uses elsewhere of his own apostolic ministry, and of the ministry of his colleagues.(l2) There are also Euodia and Syntyche (Phil 4:2 - 3) and Junia (?), Tryphaene, Tryphosa and Persis (Rom 16:7, 12). It would be an anachronism to ask whether they were ordained. Modern scholarship, both Catholic(13) and Protestant,(14) is agreed that ordination as such did not come into the church until after the time of Paul.(l5) We can certainly conclude with recent French Roman Catholic scholars that “Paul is much more positive—much less of a misogynist—than is generally thought.”(l6) That Paul was able to break with the conventions and customs of his age and culture to such an extent can only be due to his strong sense of the newness of what had come in Christ, to what modern scholars would call, in their jargon, ”realized eschatology".

4. Emergent Catholicism

A few years ago a young American scholar published a paper with the intriguing title, “What Became of Paul’s Eschatological Women?” We might rephrase it and ask why was it that the church soon abandoned the freedom with which Paul approached the question of the ministry of women. We are now dealing with a number of documents which, though purporting to be by the apostles and belonging to the apostolic age, nevertheless are now widely acknowledged to belong to a later generation. Such writings are: Colossians,(17) Ephesians, the Pastoral Epistles (i.e., 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus), and 1 Peter. Acts also belongs to the same period. These writings were all written somewhere between 70 and 105. Claiming to be by apostolic authors, they sought to adjust the apostolic teaching to the changed conditions of the sub-apostolic age. The original witnesses were dying out, the church was obviously here to stay, the second coming was indefinitely delayed. Moreover, the church was faced by the threat of false teaching of the kind which goes by the name of gnosticism.(l8) The church’s response to this new situation was to develop its organization, and to adapt its ways to the surrounding society. In this period there was great empasis on law and order in family and social life. The emphasis which we have already seen in the genuine Paul on subordination of women (1 Cor 1 l), qualified though it was by Paul’s sense of the newness of life under the gospel, was developed without Paul’s corresponding emphasis on the newness. Thus we get a series of household codes in which wives are taught to be subject to their husbands (Col 3: 1 8 ff; Eph 5: 2 1 ff; Ti 2: 1 - 1 off). In addition it was in this period that the first evidence for ordination occurs (1 Tm 1:18; 4:14; 2 Tm 1:14; Ti 1:5; cf. Acts 14: 23). This ordained ministry consisted of people like Timothy and Titus (“apostolic men” as Bishop Gore called them), and of bishop-presbyters (the titles appear to be interchangeable in the Pastorals and Acts),(l9) and of deacons. There were also widows who provided only auxiliary services. The ministry of the Word was performed by presbyter-bishops, i.e. only by men, and women were expressly forbidden to speak in church:

Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. - 1 Tm 2: l 1 - 14

We have already suggested that this was written by the same hand who interpolated 1 Cor 14:34 - 36 (see above) . Once again, recourse is had to the Genesis creation stories to justify the subordination of women. This later writer, though a member of the Pauline school, has dropped one side of his master’s teaching (1 Cor 11:5; Gal 3:28) and developed only the other (1 Cor 11:3, 7-8). As a result the freedom which Paul had allowed for the ministries of women prophets in Corinth, of Euodia and Syntyche at Philippi, of Prisca and Phoebe and others, had to be surrendered to the needs of a later day. What then happened to Paul’s eschatological woman? She was sacrificed to the needs of consolidation, of accommodation to the mores of contemporary society, to the threat of gnosticism. The answer to our question is that Paul’s eschatological woman had probably become a gnostic!

What does this latest period of the New Testament teach us then? Not that the rules it lays down are valid for all time. As a matter of fact, the ministry continued to adapt itself to later needs. In the second century “monepiscopacy” (a single bishop in each central city church) replaced the presbyterbishops of the Pastorals and Acts. Adaptation and flexibility were the keynotes of ministry in the New Testament period. Its regulations are nowhere prescriptive for all time. If in Paul’s churches women were allowed to exercise a full ministry of the word (and perhaps even of sacrament), though under a single restriction of being veiled, and if in the sub-apostolic age women were silenced; if too in Paul’s churches there was no ordination, and if by the time there was ordination there was no ministry of women apart from the widows, the New Testament says to us that the church is free to adapt its ministry to the needs of the age. The two motives that led to the restriction of the ministry of women—that society accepted the principle of woman’s subordination and that women were too often prone to the temptation of gnosticism, no longer obtain today. If women today are as well educated as men and have the same place in society, if too there is no reason to suspect that women, more than men, will be prone to false teaching, then, so far as the New Testament is concerned, there is absolutely no reason why the full ordained ministry should be denied to women. In fact, we should be able today to implement Gal 3: 28 as has not been possible since Paul.


1. Mk 1:16-20 par.; 2:13-14 par., Mt 8:19-22 par.

2. Mt 19:28; cf Lk 22:28 - 30. For the authenticity of this saying, which has been questioned, see R. H. Fuller, The Foundations of New Testament Christology (N.Y.: Scribners, 1965), pp. 123 - 24.

3. There are variations in the lists of the Twelve, but the names are invariably male: Mk 3:16 - 19 par., Acts 1:13 - 14.

4. See e.g., Oscar Cullman, Christ and Time (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1964).

5. The most famous instance of this view is in Albert Schweitzer’s Quest of the Historical Jesus (London: Black, 1910), pp. 368 - 69.

6. The confusion is straightened out by Raymond E. Brown, S.S., The Gospel According to John (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966), pp. 449 - 54.

7. For the nucleus of historical tradition enshrined in the Marcan story of the empty tomb see R. H. Fuller, The Formation of the Resurrection Narratives (N.Y.: Macmillan, 1971), pp. 52- 57.

8. Some will be troubled by Paul’s subordinationist Christology here. That is however not our present concern. Suffice it to say that Paul wrote at a very early stage in the development of Christology and was uninhibited about subordinationist statements which later would have seemed unorthodox. See also 1 Cor 15:28 for another subordinationist statement in a different connection.

9. “. . . this infection of nature doth remain, yea in them that are regenerated.” Article IX.

10. See any Old Testament Introduction or Commentary on Genesis. See e.g., Charles M. Laymon (ed.), The Interpreters One-Volume Commentary on the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 1971), pp. i - 3.

11. E. g., 1 Cor 3:5. “Deaconess” is probably an anachronism in Rom 16:1.

12. See Burton Scott Euston, The Pastoral Epistoles (New York: Scribners, 1947), p. 226.

13. See the remarkable collection of essays by French Roman Catholic scholars, Jean Delorme (ed.), Le Ministere et les Ministeres Selon le Nouveau Testament (Paris: Seuil, 1973).

14. Hans van Campenhausen, Ecclesiastical Authority and Spiritual Power in the Church of the First Three Centuries (Stanford, CA.: Stanford University, 1969).

15. This means that Acts 14:23, while good evidence for what went on in Luke’s church, is an anachronism so far as Paul is concerned (so Easton). Ordination expresses two things: divine appointment and ecclesial recognition. These things were expressed differently during the Apostolic Age.

16. Henri Denis and Jean Delorme in Delorme, op.cit. , 506.

17. How many would regard Colossians as Pauline ? For our purposes this question does not matter, since, while Col is evidence for a subordinationist view of women (testified also in the Pauline homologoumena), it offers no evidence for women in the ministry, pro or con.

18. More properly one should speak of “gnosis” in this period. Gnosis means a tendency of thought which antedates the great gnostic systems of the second century, to which the name gnosticism should properly be confined

19. This is clear in Acts: compare Acts 20:17 with 20:28, which speaks of the same group as “elders” (Greek: prestyteroi) and “guardians” (RSV; Greek episcopoi = bishops).

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