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>Women Priests and Church Tradition by Rosemary Radford Ruether from 'Women Priests'

Women Priests and Church Tradition

by Rosemary Radford Ruether

from Women Priests, Arlene Swidler & Leonard Swidler (eds.), Paulist Press 1977, pp. 234-237.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

Rosemary Radford Ruether holds a B.A. from Scripps College and an M.A. and Ph. D. from Claremont Graduate School. At the time she taught at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. Her many publications include The Church Against Itself, The Radical Kingdom, Liberation Theology, and with Eugene C. Bianchi, From Machismo to Mutuality.

This section of the Declaration states unequivocally that there has been an unbroken tradition throughout the history of the Church, universal in the East and the West, of excluding women from priestly ordination. This unbroken tradition is then given a normative character, on the assumption that what “has always and everywhere been the custom” of the Church must reflect the guidance of the Holy Spirit and is defacto infallible and unchangeable. This unbroken tradition as norm is further pronounced to be based on “Christ’s example.” It is said to be still normative today. Presumably this means that it is still normative everywhere, East and West, in the whole Church. This norm is then stated to bc “God’s plan for his Church.”

This argument from unbroken tradition as binding norm is undoubtedly the central argument of the whole document, superseding and, in effect, dictating the arguments from Scripture and theology. Most critics of the document have regarded this statement of unbroken tradition as unassailable, at least as a fact, although not necessarily as a norm. In this one area the Declaration unquestionably states a fact: that the Church has never conferred priestly ordination on women. One cannot question this fact, although one might question the extrapolation from it of a norm and the assignment of this tradition to dominical intent and practice.

However, when the question of unbroken tradition is looked at more deeply and more broadly, it becomes clear that it crumbles at both ends: both in the argument from dominical foundations and in the maintenance of contemporary continuity. Moreover, it should be obvious that the Declaration was called into being precisely because the tradition is no longer unbroken and the dominical foundations of this historical tradition are no longer unquestioned! Thus the statement on the historical continuity of this tradition in the Church is first of all called into question because the very circumstances which occasioned this Declaration testify to the opposite case!

Let us examine three aspects of this statement on the normativeness of the tradition: 1) the origins of the tradition in dominical injunction and New Testament practice; 2) unbroken continuity in the practice of the Church, both East and West, and everywhere continuing unquestioned to today; and 3) the extrapolation from long-established practice into theological norm.

Without duplication of materials that will be covered in other comments, it is evident that the weakest link in the chain of tradition lies precisely in its foundations in Jesus Christ. Without this foundation assured, the rest of the chain of tradition falls to the ground. The questioñ of the dominical foundations of this tradition of excluding women. from ‘ministerial priesthood’ lies precisely in the definition of priesthood assumed throughout the document. It is assumed that the concept of priesthood of traditional Roman Catholicism was, in fact, founded by Christ, conferred by him on an exclusive group of twelve male apostles who, in turn, became the foundation of the line of episcopal apostolic succession from which priestly ordination flows; and that women were, from the beginning, excluded from this line of apostolic sacerdotal ordination

But it is evident to anyone with even an introductory-knowiedge of Church history that the concept of priesthood of traditional Roman Catholicism is a historical construct that emerged gradually in the history of the Church. There is not a trace of such a concept of priestly ordination in the practice of Jesus himself. Jesus himself was not a priest in the meaning of that term in his own day. The title more properly used for him in the context of the religious organization of his own day was rabbi, not priest. Rabbinical ordination was not clearly established in Jesus’ time, and there is no evidence that Jesus was ordained as a rabbi. The role of rabbi was still seen as something that arose somewhat freely and was acclaimed by groups of followers.(1) It is in this sense that Jesus is a rabbi and functions as preacher, teacher and exegete in his hometown synagogue (Lk 4:15 95). But Jesus did not belong to a priestly family. Thus he could not have been a priest in the context of Judaism and is never shown functioning as a priest in the temple cultus.

Insofar as Jesus is seen as establishing a new priesthood in the New Testament, this is never described as a new priestly caste similar to the old temple priesthood. The term “priest” (sacerdos; hiereus) is used in the New Testament either for the whole “priestly people” of God (1 Pet 2:5) or for Christ alone (Heb 7:15). The book of Hebrews, traditionally used as the foundation of the idea of priestly ordination in Catholicism, in fact specifically excludes the idea that the new eternal priesthood of Christ could be the basis of a new priestly caste who are “many in number” (Heb 7:23-28).

There is a variety of leadership and ministerial roles and functions mentioned in the New Testament: followers and disciples of Christ, witnesses of the resurrection, members of the pentecostal community, apostles, prophets and teachers, workers of miracles, healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in tongues, deacons, elders and bishops. Women, in fact, were included in most of these categories. In the ministry of Jesus they are a part of the inner circle of followers, are sent as witnesses of the resurrection and are named among those in the pentecostal community upon whom the Spirit of prophecy is conferred. They appear as apostles and traveling evangelists, prophets and teachers. Stories, such as the Acts of Paul and Thecla, in the early Church clearly see them as healers, miracle workers and capable of conferring baptism. Paul specifically names one woman, Phoebe, a deacon (not a deaconess) (Rom 16:1), a fact deliberately obscured in the Declaration. The inclusion of women in the diaconate is clearly continued in the period of the Pastoral epistles (1 Tim 3:11) despite their negative injunctions against women’s leadership.

Women appear to be excluded in the Pastoral epistles from two types of emerging ministry: bishops and elders (both thought of as teaching ministry, rather than sacerdotum). It should be evident, therefore, that priesthood is not a concept that defines ministry in the time of Jesus or the apostolic Church, that there were a plurality of types of ministerial functions, and that women are included in those types of ministry that are earliest in the Church (disciple, witness, evangelist, apostle, prophet and teacher, charismatic healer and miracle worker) and become excluded only as another line of ministerial function not prominent in the earlier Church of Jesus, Acts or Paul, becomes dominant: the ministry of bishop, elder, and deacon. But even here they are included in the diaconate throughout the New Testament and into the first four centuries of the Church. Moreover, this second line of ministry—bishop, elder and deacon—is not modeled on priesthood, but on synagogue leadership which, at this time, rigidly excluded women from learning and teaching, contrary to the earliest practice of Jesus and the Church.(2)

The sacerdotal concept of ministry emerged gradually in the Church. Even at the end of the second century, when the concept of apostolic succession becomes prominent, the succession discussed is not that of priestly power, but of teaching tradition:(3) i.e., rabbinical succession of teaching, not sacerdotal succession of sacramental power. The priestly and sacramental concept of ministry in Christianity comes to predominate in the late third and fourth centuries and is closely associated with the elevation of the Christian ministry to the status of a sacred caste within the established Church of a Christianized Roman empire.(4) Cultic priesthood is now seen as a clearly separate caste, socially as well as ecclesiastically, and enjoys special privileges of social caste conferred by the Roman emperor.

It is during this period (the fourth century) that there is a distinct revival of the Old Testament concept of temple priesthood and an identification of it with the Christian ministry. With this identification comes the revival of purity laws which strictly exclude women from priesthood and even from proximity to the sanctuary. It is this concept of cultic priesthood that becomes most strictly exclusive of women. But it should be evident that this concept of priesthood is not of dominical foundation, is not normative in the apostolic period, and evolves gradually in the Church through changing historical circumstances.

Even with this more priestly concept of ministry we cannot say that there is a totally unbroken tradition of exclusion of women. (5) In the Medieval period not all traditions regarded women as necessarily excluded from priesthood. Both queens and abbesses received investment with the insignia of episcopal jurisdiction.(6) Moreover it became traditional in Mariology to speak of Mary at the foot of the cross as exercising a eucharistic priestly function.(7)

But the clearest break in the tradition of excluding women from ordination has arisen in the last century in the Western Churches. In 1852, the Congregational Church ordained the first woman seminary graduate, Antoinette Brown. Since that time there has been a steady change in the practice of excluding women from ordained ministry in branches of Western Christianity. Nor does this change remain limited to those who have the nonpriestly concepts of ministry, but it has steadily moved into the more traditional Churches which value ideas such as priesthood, eucharistic cultus, and apostolic succession. In the 1930s Methodism moved to grant ordination of women and in 1956 full ministerial status (conference membership). Since that time, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Episcopalians have also made the change to admit women to ordained ministry.

All these changes were made with the most careful consideration of Scripture, theology and the status of the tradition as norm for exclusion of women. The fact that all these branches of the Church, after such careful deliberation, have uniformly moved to reject the normative status of the tradition of exclusion of women from ordination clearly represents today a contrary body, not only of opinion, but of tradition, against the normative status of this tradition. Nor is it accidental that these changes have happened in those bodies of Christianity most open to historical criticism of Scripture and tradition and thus most sensitive to the distinction between binding theological norm and historical practice, which, however long-lived, may not be theologically binding.

Finally one must ask whether the mere longevity of a practice counts absolutely as norm, especially when its dominical foundations are in doubt. A parallel can be given for the justification of slavery. Historically the justifcation of slavery and of the subordination of women were closely linked. Both groups were seen as dependents within the patriarchal family and both excluded, as dependent and non-free persons, from ordination. Although earliest Christianity appears to reject slavery theologically (Gal 3:28), the justification of slavery as a legitimate institution parallels the justification of the subordination of women in the New Testament (Eph 6:5-9; Col 3:22-25; 4:1; 1 Tim 6:1-2; Titus 2:9-10; 1 Pet 2:19). The Church Fathers and scholastic theologians continue to justify slavery as a legitimate institution within the “fallen order of nature.”(8)

It is only at the end of the 18th century and among the left wing groups of the Church, such as Quakers (who also pioneered the inclusion of women in ministry), that we find this tradition challenged. Only grudgingly was the tradition in favor of slavery abandoned by the Churches in the mid-19th century following the civil abolition of slavery. Today virtually all Christians would consider this tradition abhorrent. Yet it is evident that it has as much claim to being an “unbroken tradition of the Church” as has the tradition of exclusion of women from ministerial ordination. And, historically, the two issues were, in fact, closely intertwined in their rationales.

Long-established practice cannot be considered ipso facto normative for the simple reason that humanity, including the humanity of the Church, is sinful. The gospel does not establish pcrfection in the Church at the beginning , but establishes a vision of total redemption that is largely still unrealized in society. The history of the Church is one of gradual unfolding of further implications of this full realization of the gospel, especially for categories of persons—slaves, women, other races—not at first fully accepted. The norm of the gospel is not something established already in the past to be merely imitated from past practice. But it is an ideal that is ahead of us, symbolized as the Reign of God, which we strive to more and more completely realize. Thus, in dealing with any past tradition, one cannot assume normativeness merely from the fact of past practice. But one must examine it theologically and critically to see whether it does, in fact, conform to the full norm of the Reign of God, which is the true norm of the gospel.


1. The basic study on this is Eduard Lohse, Die Ordination im Spätjudentum und im Neuen Testament (Berlin: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt. 1951).

2. H.R. Niebuhr and D.D. Williams, The Ministry in Historical Perspective (New York: Harper and Row, 1956), pp. 14-23.

3. Tertullian, Praes. Adv. Haer. XXI, Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 111, 3.

4. Niebuhr and Williams, op. cit., pp. 58-79.

5. Clara Maria Henning, in Religion and Sexism: Images of Women in the Jewish and Christian Traditions (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974), p. 279.

6. Joan Morris, The Lady Was a Bishop (New York: Macmillan, 1973), pp. 16-23 and passim.

7. J.B. Carol, Mariology (Milwaukee: Bruce, 1959), Vol. II, pp. 377ff.

8. David B. Davis, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (Ithaca, New York: Cornell, 1966), pp. 62-90. See, for example, Augustine City of God XIX, 15.

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