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The Biblical Evidence by Christopher Evans from 'Yes to Women Priests' edited by Bishop Hugh Montefiore

The Biblical Evidence

by Christopher Evans

from Yes to Women Priests pp. 16-29
edited by Bishop Hugh Montefiore
Published 1978 by Mayhew-McCrimmon Ltd
in association with A. R. Mowbray & Co Ltd
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

There are roughly three approaches which can be taken, and which are taken; in appealing to the Bible. There is first the text-quoting exercise. ‘It says this here, therefore that’, to which it is rejoined ‘but it says that there, therefore this’. This method is surely doomed from the start, in so far as it rests upon a position in which all biblical statements are given equal status across the board as being biblical, whether from Old Testament or New, from law, prophet, gospel or epistle, and individual statements may be pressed for implications of a normative kind, without any accepted criterion of what is of relative authority or validity, and with no referee to rule anyone out of court. This method, or something like it, is to be found within the New Testament itself. Thus in a passage bearing closely on our subject (I Cor. 11.8f.) Paul seeks for the purpose of regulating women’s dress at worship to establish doctrinally the subordinate position of women to men by an appeal to the second narrative of creation, where woman is taken out of man (Gen. 2.18-23); whereas an appeal to the first narrative of creation, that of man as man and woman alike (Gen. 1-27- in the view of some Jewish exegetes the creation of an androgynous being) could have led to a very different conclusion. It is true that not all appeals of this kind manage to stay the course, and some drop out; presumably for some reason they are judged not to be, or to be no longer, appropriate. Thus Fr J. N. M. Wijngaards in his extended pamphlet, which is a critique of the Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood issued with commentary by the-Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in January 1977, remarks that two of the previous traditionalist arguments from scripture do not appear in this document, the argument that as in scripture God is always spoken of as- male the human male is a better image of deity and representative of God in warship, and the argument that in scripture woman is by divine decree subjected to man as the head of the family and a fortiori head in matters of religion.’ Nevertheless, the Bible is so large and diverse that some of the texts treated in this way are bound to be in contradiction, and from this method of using them there is no other possibility than stalemate. And stalemate means that what has hitherto occupied the field in a particular Christian tradition continues to do so.

The second approach is a critical one; that is, it is Analytical and discriminatory. It aims to bring to light as clearly as is possible the circumstances, conditions and contexts in which something was said and done, and if possible to establish what is closer to, or the more immediate creation of, what the gospel is understood to be, is compared with what has been taken over from elsewhere and, perhaps, only partly brought under the impact of the gospel. The following example may be quoted from the conclusion of such an analysis and discrimination in an allied subject from a paper by the Swiss scholar Willy Rordorf on Marriage in the New Testament and in the Early Church.

There is a whole area of marriage morality, which, it would seem to me, is not really derived from the essence of the Christian Gospel. It is-found, to be sure, in the New Testament, but its sources-are not so much to be found in the message of Jesus or any of his apostles as in the general environment of the classical world. This area of New Testament ethics is often referred to by the German word Haustafeln, that is, those lists of laws far the family and the running of the house which we might simply call domestic duties.

These lists of domestic duties reflect the social structures and the rules of good conduct of the age. The Christian message is not interested in changing them. Rather it teaches the Christian to live. ‘in the Lord’ within the ordinary framework of his culture. It is among these relations between civil authorities and ordinary citizens, between master and slave, between parent and child, that we find the ideal for the relationship of man and wife, and this relationship is stated in about the same terms as we find in post-exilic Judaism .... In all the various versions of these lists of domestic duties, both in biblical and patristic literature, we find that a woman’s submission to her husband is the central theme. What is amazing is how this aspect of classical culture has so unsuspectingly been drawn into the Christian tradition. The apostle Paul even makes an attempt to base woman’s submission on an anthropological argument. In I Cor. xi he tries to prop up the rather curious dictum that women must wear veils in church. According to Paul man is made in the image of God while woman is a reflexion of man. But one almost senses that Paul is as uncomfortable with his argument as we are. This is especially evident when he says, ‘Nevertheless in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman’ (I Cor. xi. 11-1 2). This remark obviously weakens his whole argument.’

Rordorf then goes on to say that he is not criticizing, in the sense of sitting in judgment upon, the early church for having uncritically adopted the social structures and patterns of conduct of its environment, and he says why; but then he states conclusions in respect of the present. ‘The new social structures will need a new set of Christian ethics and a new Christian social criticism. It would be anachronous to try to realize some ethical standards of the New Testament times in the twentieth century. Worse than an anachronism it would be an inhuman legalism, and that certainly was not the intention of the exhortations of the first Christians. In our society it would make no sense to preach the obedience of slaves to their masters. In fact, if anyone were to try it we would consider his preaching intolerable. It is the same with the submission of women to their husband’s (3)

Here is an attempt to analyse and to discriminate in what is a kindred subject to our own-and it may be noted that the lists of duties to which Rordorf refers, while in Ephesians, Colossians and I Peter they are limited to the relationships of husband and wife, parents and children, masters and slaves, are extended in the Pastoral Epistles to cover ministers in the church. This approach does not end with analysis and discrimination, but makes an attempt to discern what is primary, in the sense of being closer to what is judged to be the creative core of the gospel, and what is secondary in relation to what has been judged primary, and so to assign relative degrees of authority. The approach is, however, undeniably difficult to sustain, and it will be vulnerable at many points. Quite apart from the problem of distinguishing between what one chooses to call analysis and discrimination and a superior attitude to others who do not see it that way, it is only successful to the extent that the successive steps of the analysis carry conviction as they are being made and that deductions drawn from material which is often fugitive in character and full of lacunae are granted as the most likely explanations of the evidence at hand. And it is never able to establish an authority like that of an inspired, inerrant scripture. It is, nevertheless, how the majority of biblical scholars do in fact work, and feel themselves compelled to work, in the conviction that, whatever its faults and limitations, this approach answers the nature of scripture itself; and brings to light more clearly the character of scriptural statement.

For what would seem often to emerge from analysis of kind are situations in the early church where thought is still in movement, where there is tension arising from is sources, and not only between persons or groups but in the same person. This is especially evident in Paul, whose epistles in fact provide the bulk of the evidence from which the early development of the church, at least in some areas, may be glimpsed. Thus in Gal. 3.28 Paul asserts as the consequence of the gospel, and of the justification, faith, baptism and divine sonship which proceed from it, that ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one (man) in Christ Jesus’. This is an assertion in principle of an unparalleled equality and freedom over against the racial, social and sexual distinctions which obtained in the world, including the Jewish world from which the gospel had come. There are no first or second class believers. But this equality was ‘in Christ’; that is, it was an eschatological fact belonging to the new world and the new creation heralded by Christ, already glimpsed by virtue of what Christ was and is, and in some sense a present reality. In what sense, however, and with what practical consequences for the life of the Christian and of the Christian communities in the racial, social and sexual spheres, had still to be discovered and worked out. And in this working out the same eschatological perspective could operate in a different direction. Thus, in I Cor 7, where Paul is engaged in working it out in the particular circumstances of the Christian community at Corinth, it is the nearness of the end (7.29) and the consequent conviction that the present world order was on the point of passing away (7-31) which prompt the judgment that the Christian should remain in that state of life in which he had been called-if a Jew a Jew, if a Gentile a Gentile, if a slave a slave (no mention is made, of masters), if unmarried then unmarried so far as was possible, and if married then. married except in certain conditions of a mixed marriage. There is evidently here considerable tension. On the one hand the distinctions between male and female held to have been established at creation, and those between Jew and Gentile and between free and slave brought about in history, are annulled in the sphere of salvation. ‘There is, then, in the eschatological community of Christ no longer a person whose primary characteristic is woman nor any person whose primary status is man’ (4) On the other hand these distinctions do not themselves belong within the sphere of salvation but to the sphere of the world, and the institutions they have brought about are those of a passing world and are spiritually irrelevant.

But even here there are differences. Of the three areas concerned, the racial, social and sexual, Paul, in the first, the relation of Jew and Gentile, does draw conclusions of a practical kind such as to challenge and change the existing order, and to give effect in the present to the new humanity in Christ. For whatever concessions he may have made in the particular instances of Timothy (Acts 16.3), of Titus ( Gal. 2.3), or of the apostolic decree (Acts 15.29-the matter is not clear), lie opposed all these, including Peter himself, who demanded some measure of Jewishness, and the food rules which went with it, as a necessary part of the Christian way of life, as betraying the freedom of Christ; and as a consequence in his apostolic and evangelistic practice he brought about an actual equality between Jew and Gentile as fellow workers which was to become part of the permanent structure of the whole church. In the relationship of men and women, on the other hand, while he enunciates in his instructions on marriage ‘in the Lord’ a mutuality and equality of rights and responsibilities which are in marked contrast with the doctrine of male dominance which obtained elsewhere, especially in Judaism-it is the judgment of the American scholar W. Meeks that ‘Paul presupposes and approves in the Corinthian congregation an equivalence of role and a mutuality of relationship between the sexes in questions of marriage, divorce, and charismatic leadership of the church to a degree that is virtually unparalleled in Jewish or pagan society’s (5) he-is unable to carry this through consistently, and is occasions prepared to fall back on conventions end based upon this doctrine. Similarly, while in the personal instance of the slave Onesimus, which the letter to Philemon has preserved to us, Paul may be requesting (though not ordering) that the returned slave be given his freedom as a Christian brother (Philemon 16), he evidently saw no need to generalize from this and to require the abolition of the institution of slavery as such, even within the Christian community. The problem of interpretation here, if the interpreter . is not content simply with as adequate an analysis and exegesis as possible of what Paul once said and why he was led to say it, but is looking for authoritative guidance from Paul for Christian decision in the present, is where the emphasis is rightly to be placed. Since we do not, and with the best will in the world cannot, share the identical eschatological position and perspective of Paul, and when the social and sexual structures of our society may be significantly different, is it his particular judgments in bringing these together which are prescriptive, or is it rather his theological vision of the new humanity in Christ and the fact that in his own time he knew himself to be committed to a struggle to give effect to it?

These problems, with additional difficulties besides, obtain in the only New Testament passage which could be said to deal with the question of women ministers in the church-and even there the bearing may be indirect. This is the discussion of various aspects of Christian worship as it was taking place in Corinth .which occupies chapters 10 to 14 of I Corinthians. There is first the statement in 11.15: ‘But any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled dishonours her head.’’ The unavoidable implication of this statement is that women in Corinth took such a public part in the Christian assembly at Corinth as went with the exercise of the gift of prophecy - whatever that may have been and involved. As C. K. Barrett comments: ‘The verse is meaningless unless women were from time to time moved, in the Christian assembly in Corinth, to pray and prophesy aloud and in public (not simply in family prayers and other small groups-Bachmann). If moreover Paul had though it wrong for them to do so he would certainly not have wasted time in discussing what, in these circumstances, they should do with them heads; he would simply have forbidden the practice’ (6) Whether it is the Lord’s Supper that is under consideration throughout chapters 10-14 and this prayer and prophesying took place in the context of its celebration, or the Supper only begins to be considered at 11-17 and the prayer and prophesying belongs to a separate service of the word, is a matter of debate. (7) Even if the latter were the case, it would probably be an anachronism to make a clear distinction between sacrament and word, as later came to be done, sometimes with the implication that the service of the word was in some way less representative of Christian worship than the sacrament. Whether the prophecy by women-or by anyone-would properly be called a ‘ministry’ exercised by ‘ministers’ depends on the sense in which these terms are being used. In the light of 1 Cor. 12.4-29 it would appear that prophecy was one ministry amongst others, but the epistle itself provides no evidence for judging whether there was at Corinth A ‘ministry’ in what became the more normal meaning of the term, i.e. a presbyteral ministry, or whether one or other of the presbyters ‘presided’ at the Eucharist, or what the relation might have been between such ministers and prophets. The argumentation upon which Paul embarks in 11.2-16 to lay a theological foundation, along with appeals to custom, for the subordinate place of women is not. then, made in order to remove the right of prophecy from them but to regulate it, perhaps to prevent its becoming an occasion for the assertion of emancipation as such. But this latter point is not clear, as it is also not clear whether the veiling of women to which he appeals is a Greek custom which had either been introduced along with their conversion to Christianity or was now being introduced by Paul for the first time at Corinth.(8) Dr M. D. Hooker expounds the obscure-and in the course of the argument unexpected-statement of 11.10: ‘For this reason a woman ought to have authority (exousia-one would expected “veil” here) on her head because of the angels' to mean that the veil is to be worn not as a sign of her subordination to man, but rather as a sign, both that in worship she is no longer simply- reflecting ‘the glory of man, as she does when unveiled, and also that as declaring God’s word in prophecy she has authority and power from God. (9) Finally, at the end of this whole section on the conduct of Christian worship at Corinth comes the injunction in 14-34f.: ‘The women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.’ This stands in plain contradiction to 11.5, and the various attempts to avoid the contradiction are special pleading. (10) Barrett sees only two possible explanations; the first, which on balance he prefers, that these verses are a marginal note written in the spirit of the Pastoral Epistles (cf. I Tim. 2.11f.) and incorporated into the text, the second, that Paul has been informed of an outbreak of female loquaciousness peculiar to Corinth, and he disciplines it in the same way as he had disciplined the male prophet over length of speech (14.30). There is plainly here much to try the patience of the commentator, and Barrett aptly appends here a comment of Calvin on this last passage, which could apply to others also: ‘The discerning reader should come to the decision, that the things which Paul is dealing with here are indifferent, neither good nor bad; and that they are forbidden only because they work against seemliness and edification.'(11) To which, however, it could be added that what is seemly and edifying in one context can in a, changed situation become unseemly and unedifying.

It is partly as a result of the frequently inconclusive, results results of an analytical approach-inconclusive generally, because the character of the material does not allow otherwise-that there emerges a third type of approach to the Bible as a court of appeal in matters of Christian faith and life. This approach is to start from what is immediately in front of one and presses for recognition or from what a considerable number of those whose judgment one trusts feel, or one feels oneself, to be urgent in respect of Christian life and thought, and then to ask the questions whether there is anything in scriptural statement which stands in its way, blocks it or rules it out; whether there is anything which is to be judged deeply rooted theologically and spiritually in the Bible which says that this is not right; and whether what appears to stand in the way does so because it is deeply rooted in the theology and spirituality of the Bible or because it is deeply rooted in the particular cultural environments in which the biblical revelation has taken place.

It is from within this approach that two of the arguments most commonly advanced are probably to be considered. There is the argument, firstly, that the choice by Jesus of only men far his apostles was a deliberate act having as part of its intention to rule out women as possible representative ministers in the church he was founding, and secondly the fact that the incarnation of God took place in a Son establishes as from the mind of God himself that he is to be represented incarnationally and sacramentally only by the man. These are arguments peculiarly difficult to assess. Evidently for some who are concerned with the matter they constitute the heart of it, but they also bring to light the widest possible divide, for to those who are convinced by them they tend to appear self-evident and decisive, with the authority of God behind them, while to those not so convinced they appear as having little or no cogency, and as somewhat ludicrous in their claim to a deductive knowledge of the inner workings of God.

The second of the two arguments is strictly speaking doctrinal rather than scriptural, and in its own terms admits of being stood on its head. For it could be argued that if incarnation is really to be incarnation it involves a necessary consequence a commitment by God to whatever conditions of life and thought are prevalent the time and place concerned, of which male dominance in all matters might happen to be one. A doctrine of incarnation in any form is bound to bring with it the questions whether, when and how a line is to be drawn between what is essential to the divine truths which are to be conveyed to men and what is relative and contingent in the conveying of those truths. ‘God’s Word became human in its forms of expression. Teasing out the divine message from the form in which it was embedded is not always easy. But it is absolutely essential in theology. The question whether some word or deed is intentional or only part of the framework, spells life or death for theological meaning.' (12)

This is what is involved, though now with a more specifically scriptural reference, in the first argument, that concerning Jesus and his choice of the apostles. There are, of course, a whole cluster of problems attached to this, at least when it is advanced in what has been the more traditional form that the choice of the twelve was the appointment by Jesus for a future universal church of apostles as foundation ministers, whose function was to be continued in an apostolic succession of bishops along with presbyters and deacons. For whether and in what form Jesus envisaged a ‘church’, whether he himself named the twelve ‘apostles’ as Luke asserts (Luke 6. 1 3), what the choice of the twelve signified in relation to the rest of his mission and work-the only statement about them from his lips during his earthly ministry is that they were as a body to be (In the new world’, Matt. 19.28, ‘at my table in my kingdom’, Luke 22.30) the eschatological co-judges of the (twelve) tribes of Israel-what the relation was between this function and the universal mission to which they are represented as having been committed through the resurrection, and what actual part they played as a body in the early life and development of the church-all these have been, and still are, hotly debated questions, and in view of the character the New Testament evidence are inevitably so. Nevertheless, though these problems may somewhat blunt the edge of the argument in its more traditional form, they do not dispose of it. For there was presumably some connection, even if we cannot say precisely what, between the choice of the twelve by Jesus in the course of his mission on the one hand and the resultant church and its ministry on the other, and the question may still be asked whether this original choice was intentionally a male one, and as such prescriptive in the early church when it came to create a ministry, or whether in both cases it was male because the culture of the time, whether Palestinian or Graeco-Roman, did not allow of any other and precluded that any other should even be entertained. But the problem then is, how could we possibly know the answer to such questions?

Certainly the evidence that society in Palestine, and in most other places, was orientated. upon the man as father husband, owner and natural leader in all things is overwhelming. Judaism was a heavily male religion, with the woman having a secondary and derivative position. It could hardly have been otherwise when the superiority of. the man was so deeply embedded in the religious tradition, so far as mankind itself was concerned in the stories of creation, and so far as Israel was concerned in the stories of the founder figures, the patriarchs (the word is significant; could those who sere to judge the twelve tribes thus founded be other than men?), in the story of salvation in the Exodus and in a multitude of ways in the Law which had proceeded from it, judges and prophets (with Deborah a solitary exception), priests and wise men, up to the priests, scribes and rabbis of the first century AD- In the circumstances to have appointed women to a representative position in the 'true' Israel that was being created would have involved simultaneously, and over and above whatever was intended by appointing a ministry, a gigantic revolution in the accepted pattern of things.

It is. perhaps, the force of these considerations which has led the authors of the recent Roman Catholic document on the matter, to which reference has already been made, to juxtapose the choice of the apostolate by Jesus and the gospel evidence concerning his attitude to women, to argue from the latter that it shows him as by no means simply conforming to social custom but on the contrary as departing widely from it, and by this; route to reach the conclusion that in the face of such a revolutionary attitude towards women his limitation of the apostolate to men must have been deliberate and intentional, and therefore doctrinally authoritative. Again the argument, even in this fresh form, is difficult to assess. It may well be that scattered elements in the gospel picture, especially the Lukan gospel picture, do bespeak an attitude to women very significantly different from what is known of rabbis, prophets, preachers, religious leaders-or whatever category Jesus is to be placed in for the purpose of comparison here-in first-century Judaism. Fr Wijngaards, in rebutting this form of argument, probably goes too far in the other direction in claiming that all the instances of Jesus’ dealing with women come under the head of the exercise of compassion without raising the question of women as such at all. especially as later he admits that the Lukan picture in the gospel and in Acts calls for some explanation, and himself offers the explanation that Luke sought to teach that new developments were to be expected in the church, which developments were implicitly contained in Jesus’ actions and words. (13) But whether the evidence, such as it is, can bear the heavy, probative weight that is being put upon it here, and can be used as a foil to establish as proven the deliberate and intentional character of the limitation of the apostolate to men, is another matter Along this line also it would appear that stalemate is possible, and again because the material of the gospels is not of such a kind as to permit of certain answers to this type of question. As Fr Y. Congar has put it in his personal testimony: ‘I would simply say that, to my view. the prohibition of the feminine priesthood is not of divine law. But I add: what authorises one to say that this restriction is only of a socio-cultural nature? I deny that one can say this with absolute certainty.’ (14)

It is the case, however, that there are theologians whom this argument against the ministry of women in the church has once been powerful and valid, but who have come to abandon it. What has happened when such a view is abandoned. and no longer held to be valid? It is not that a different conclusion is reached on the basis of a fresh appreciation of the authority of individual texts, or of a series of texts, or that a new analysis of what is primary and what secondary has become decisive. What is generally involved is a kind of conversion of attitude towards the scriptures, to what they are authoritative for and in what way they are authoritative. And this can result in a statement as precise as that of Karl Rahner when he writes: ‘The practice which the Catholic Church has of not ordaining women to the priesthood has no binding theological character .... The actual practice is not a dogma. It is purely and simply based on a human and historical reflection which was valid in the past in cultural and social conditions which are presently changing rapidly." (15)


1 Did Christ Rule Out Women Priests? (Mayhew-McCrimmon. 1977). pp. 19f.

2. Journal of Ecclesiastical History, vol. XX, 1969 pp. 198f.

3. Ibid.. p. 199.

4. R. Scroggs, ‘Paul and the Eschatological Woman’, Journal of the
American Academy of Religion
, vol. 41, 1972, p. 288

5. The Image of the Androgyne: Some Uses of a Symbol in Earliest
Christianity History of Religions, vol. 13, no. 3, 1974, pp. 199f.

6. The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Adam & Charles Black,
1968). p. 250

7. H. Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians (Fortress Press, 1975), p. 182.

8. Conzelmann, op. cit., pp. 184-186.

9. Authority an Her Head: An Examination of 1 Cor. 11.10.
New Testament Studies, vol. X, 1963. pp. 410-416.

10. Conzelmann, op. cit., p. 246

11. Barrett, op. cit. pp. 332f

12. Wijngaards, op. cit., p..16.

13. op. cit., pp 35f and 73ff.

14. Cited be Wijngaards, op. cit., p.52

15. Cited by Wijngaards, op. cit., p. 53.

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