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Christ, Revelation, and the Ordination of Women by Arthur A. Vogel from 'Towards a New Theology of Ordination: Essays on the Ordination of Women'

Christ, Revelation, and the Ordination of Women

Arthur A. Vogel

from Towards a New Theology of Ordination: Essays on the Ordination of Women, pp. 42-51.

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

Arthur A. Vogel, Bishop of West Missouri, was formerly Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Nashotah House. As a member of the Theology Committee of the House of Bishops, he wrote the report on the ordination of the Philadelphia Eleven. An abbreviated and amended version of this paper was distributed to the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church in June, 1973, a year before the Philadelphia ordinations.

Because Christian ministry in its very essence is a sending by Christ, no person—male or female—exercises a right in respect to it. No one has a right to ordination, and no one can demand ordination. Vocation, from the first calling of the disciples by Christ, has been seen as a call from God, not an impetus from human beings. Even when a person has felt called by God, the church has judged (as best it could) whether or not the call be genuine. It would be a perversion of its nature and a betrayal of its mission if the church were pressured by outside forces to act contrary to its mind in such a matter. Christ, not the social factions of the day, is the head of the body. That having been said, the question presently facing the church is, what kind of considerations prior to those of a given person preclude ordination? Does, for example, being female preclude it?


Let us look first at some of the arguments which are used against ordaining women to the presbyterate and episcopate.

  1. Throughout the Judeo-Christian tradition God the Creator has been referred to as the Father. Does not the Fatherhood of God give a uniqueness to a male typology and symbolization of God? As such, only males should be commissioned by ordination in the Father’s name for the roles assigned to presbyters and bishops in the liturgical and hierarchical life of the church.
  2. In the Incarnation, the Word took flesh as a male; thus only a male can sacramentally share in and represent the priesthood of Christ.
  3. Christ chose only men to be apostles.
  4. The church is the bride of Christ, and presbyters and bishops represent Christ to the church; women cannot represent the bridegroom.
  5. Equality between the sexes is not the same thing as identity of the sexes; “equality” does not mean “to do the same thing.” The ordination of women within the church involves different issues than those addressed by the women’s liberation movement in the secular community.
  6. Because of the respect for tradition in the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican Churches, none of the aforementioned Churches should unilaterally move to ordain women as priests or bishops. Contemporary ecumenical consensus is necessary for such a radical departure from tradition. Moreover, there would be serious ecumenical consequences for any Anglican Church with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches if an Anglican Church unilaterally ordained women to an order of ministry other than the diaconate.

Prior to presenting the positive argument which convinces me that women should be able to be ordained to all orders of ministry, I will respond briefly to the just-listed contrary arguments which are already in the field.

First of all, the Fatherhood of God does not seem to be an adequate basis upon which to exclude women from ordination to the priesthood because “Fatherhood,” when applied to God, itself transcends masculinity: God transcends sex in it entirety. The key to the issue in this regard seems to be whether the ordained priesthood should primarily testify to God the Father’s transcendence of everything created (including sex) and to God the Son’s transcendence of the Old Testament priesthood, or primarily testify to the descriptive, historical mode of God’s presence in the man Jesus Christ.

That God’s immanence in the world depends upon his transcendence—that God’s presence with us depends upon his difference from us—seems to give the primacy to God’s transcendence. God’s difference from us is always the first thing which must be stressed about him: only so can we begin to comprehend his love in coming to us.

Concerning the second argument that the Word took flesh as male, it has well been pointed out by Dr. E. L. Mascall that it was “male human nature” not a male human person in which the Word became flesh. Jesus was not a good man adopted by God. On the other hand, Jesus was conceived in the womb of a “female human person.” If the Gospel story of the virgin birth is accepted as historically descriptive of the birth—instead of being only a device for stating the religious truth that God is Jesus’ Father— then Jesus’ birth as a male takes on special significance. In a parthenogenic birth the child would have to be a female; if a son were born to a virgin by divine initiative, the genetic change involved would indicate a special purpose of God.

Granting all that has just been said, however, God the Father might have explicitly chosen (and achieved by a virgin birth) to enflesh the Word in male humanity for reasons we would think of today as “social” rather than “theological.” The fact that only male witnesses were juridically acceptable at the time, and the fact that Jesus came to bear witness to the Father, would be sufficient grounds for the Father’s choice. But we must admit that such a reason might not have been sufficient ground for that choice either. The inconclusiveness of our arguments should be acknowledged. The point is, the actual choice of the Father of male human nature does not necessitate one theoretical explanation by human beings as over against another. Once more, the transcendence of God’s Fatherhood precludes our assuming too much for any human typological interpretation of his acts.

Moreover, even though the Word became flesh in the man Jesus, the human condition redeemed in Jesus contains within it the masculine and feminine polarities. There is no doubt that these two polarities are found within the redeemed community, the mystical body of Christ, and within the general, royal priesthood of the church.

It is argued by some that sexual difference prevents a woman from representing Christ’s priesthood and from participating in that priesthood in the ordained, representative order. This contention can be sustained, however, only if it can be further shown that there is a sense in which Christ’s priesthood is restricted to masculinity. Here the transcendence of God and his revelation to human beings in Christ again enters the picture. As Christ’s priesthood fulfills, surpasses, and terminates the Old Testament priesthood, the exclusion of women from the latter does not seem, in itself, to exclude women from the former. The transcendence of, and difference of Christ’s priesthood from, the Old Testament model might well be shown by the inclusion of women—someone different—in it.

The argument against ordaining women to presbyteral and episcopal ministries I think the strongest is the one noting that Christ chose only men to be his apostles. The argument is strong because its basis is descriptive rather than theoretical; it begins with a premise that everyone must accept. To depart from Christ’s action in this regard is to change the descriptive norm of the Bible. The Bible has been and remains a source of immediate comfort to people because it is not a theoretical text arguing to certain debatable conclusions. It is a book of testimony and witness about something which is claimed actually to have happened; the historical description of life and death which it contains is something with which we can immediately identify in our own lives. An argument based on Christ’s actual choices, therefore, is an argument based on the Bible’s highest level of Christian conviction: it is based on a description of what actually happened.

One cannot argue against Christ’s actual choices, for Christ has already made them. Granting the descriptive fact, however, one may still ask whether or not the action described in time past was meant to be a norm for all future time. We should again recall that only men could serve as witnesses in court in our Lord’s time and culture, and the apostles were sent to be witnesses. An analogy is sometimes offered between Christ’s attitude about slavery and the fact that he chose no women to be his apostles. The contention runs that as our Lord accepted slavery —and we no longer accept his lead there—so, although he chose only men to be his apostles, we need not follow his lead there either.

The analogy is not a good one, however, because too many extraneous elements can influence it. Too much depends upon a presumed knowledge of the intimate mind of Christ. Christ’s attitude toward slavery refers to an effect of his proclamation on society; besides, there is good reason to believe that Christ himself expected the parousia soon to occur. The choice of his apostles, on the other hand, involves Christ’s own “initiative of revelation”—not its effect on society.

For the reasons suggested above, I believe no interpretative argument for the ordination of women will ever have the immediate conviction of a description of the acts of Christ himself. That does not deny the possible truth of an interpretative argument about his acts, but it does state a fact proponents of the ordination of women should recognize.

The argument that the church is the bride of Christ and that women cannot represent the bridegroom has an immediate appeal and consistency. The argument is attenuated, however, when we go on to consider that the existence of holy orders is coterminal with the existence of the church in this world. Orders are sacraments, and sacraments are sacraments of the church. All orders of clergy stand within the church and so all orders necessarily partake of the nature of the bride, even when men are ordained to the orders.

I most heartly concur with the fifth contention that “equality” does not mean “identity.” In the order of redemption women are in no way inferior to men, and differences between men and women must not be ranked on a scale of superiority and inferiority. The oft quoted text from Galatians 3:38 in which there is said to be no such thing as male and female in Christ contextually refers to initiation into Christ, in contrast to the initiatory rite of circumcision in the Old Testament. To try to argue from this text to the ordination of women is, in my opinion, to extrapolate beyond the intention of the text.

A difficulty permeating all discussion of the equality through difference of the sexes is present-day confusion about the nature of sexuality itself. Some people and schools of thought are clear about the matter, but there is little consensus among the totality of people and schools. Conflicting and competing views on the nature of sex are a complicating factor in the issue facing the church which the church will not be able to resolve by its own decision—whatever that decision is. Data will come from beyond its competence.

Finally, concern for tradition in the life of the Anglican Communion along with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, is an undeniable fact and should not be taken lightly. Tradition is a community’s lived fidelity to itself; Christian tradition must be fidelity to Christ. But the merit attaching to respect for tradition is based upon respect for the truth which tradition preserves. In the final analysis, it must be truth—tradition insofar as it is true—which the church follows in the name of Christ, not just custom. If the church (or a church) is convinced that something is true, departure from custom to embrace the truth must be construed as life in the Spirit of tradition. The departure would be from a tradition, not the tradition.

A truly ecumenical council of the church is desirable at any time about any major issue in the life of the church. But the realities of the church and the world being what they presently are—that is to say, the sin of human beings recognized for what it is—it is wistful, to say the least, to project an ecumenical council truly representative of Christendom in the near future. To argue that only such a council can determine the immediate choice of a church on the issue at hand is to deny the primacy of conscience in every Christian decision. Each person is called by God to give allegiance to the truth as prudently as he can in the circumstances in which he lives. Where general councils cannot be called, decisions must be made beneath that conciliar level, although they should always be made on the broadest consensus possible. The ecumenical consequences of an act by a church must be seriously taken into account in any prudent deliberation about the act, but, once again, truth—not the consequences of choosing the truth—must be the ultimate criterion in decision making.


Turning now to the positive argument I suggest for the ordination of women to the presbtyerate and episcopacy, we are led to consider the mystery of God’s most intimate life as we know that life in the revelation of Jesus Christ and the Spirit.

Many arguments against ordaining women to the presbyteral and episcopal orders are based on the Fatherhood of God. The Fatherhood of God is a “given” in the Christian revelation and cannot be compromised. The Fatherhood of God encompasses the relationship of every creature to God, but, in the fullness of Christian revelation—in the intimate life of God revealed to us—the Father is but one Person of the Trinity.

In traditional trinitarian theology a type of priority is claimed for the Father over the Son and Holy Spirit. But nowhere are creaturely categories more inadequate than in trying to describe God’s life. Thus, as soon as the priority of the Father is stated, it is given severe qualification. For example, the priority is said to be neither temporal nor essential: the Father did not exist before the Son and Holy Spirit, nor is the Father more God than the other Persons of the Trinity.

“Properly understood” no Person of the Trinity can be known apart from the other Persons: the Persons indwell each other, and the Persons can ultimately be described only by their relations to each other, not by derivation from a norm such as human sexuality. The uniqueness of the Christian understanding of God consists in the contention that the one God is, in some mysterious way, a loving, knowing community of Persons. The fullness of Person, even in God, is thus seen to be person in community. “Person” and “community” are not external realities: persons can be their full selves only in community, and true community is always a community of persons.

If the mysterious community of Persons in the Godhead were taken, as I think it should, as the primary Christian revelation of God’s nature, human persons in community would be seen to be better analogical symbolization of God than the sex of human beings taken individually.

Community depends upon difference. That truth is necessary to understand many of the ancient trinitarian controversies. The ultimate mind of the patristic church was, for example, that each Person of the Trinity is a complete and unique Person in himself: God is not just one Person who appears in different modes or masks. Thus a Greek word (hypostasis), which normally referred to concrete individuals became applied to each of the Persons of the Trinity in orthodox usage to show each Person’s distinctness from the other Persons. The terminology adopted—applying, as it did, to material entities in the world— was the most scandalous that could be used about a nonmaterial God. Use of the term proclaimed the distinctness and difference of the Persons of the Trinity from each other in a way which could never be compromised. Community is founded upon difference even in the Godhead, and the difference of the trinitarian Persons from each other cannot be diluted.

In the human order, sex is one type of difference among persons and so is constitutive of human community. There can be human community among persons of the same sex, but the Judeo-Chritian tradition has always seen sex in its communal role. In the creation story as told in the second chapter of Genesis (v. 18), God created woman because “it is not good that man should be alone.” Woman was therefore created to constitute the fullness of human community. The first chapter of Genesis (v. 27) indicates that the “image of God” extends to both male and female.

All of these factors taken into consideration, a convincing case can be made that the communal, trinitarian nature of God would better be shown by a presbyteral community embodying the fullness of human difference in community, as God created that difference, than could be shown by an all-male community alone.

This is the place to make one or two more remarks about the Fatherhood of God. We have already noted that God transcends sex, so the “Fatherhood” of God does not mean God is male. We have also noted that mother love and father love are constitutive of human relations and that, after the example of Christ himself, Christians are told to call God Abba. Because God as Abba, Father, transcends human sexuality we should not be surprised to find that attempts to explicate God’s Fatherhood in terms of male typology alone prove woefully inadequate. God, as source of mother love, contains and manifests that love eminently within his Fatherhood. Julian of Norwich, a fifteenth century English anchoress, never wished to compromise the Fatherhod of God or maleness of Christ, yet she spoke of the “Motherhood” of God and even called Christ “Mother Jesus,” when she compared him feeding us with himself in the Eucharist to a mother’s feeding of her child.

As described by Erich Fromm, mother love founds us in being, making us secure and glad to be alive. Mother love is unconditional, the love of acceptance and nurture. That very love of acceptance, mercy, and nurture — characteristics of mother love — is intrinsic to the understanding of God as “Father” in Joachim Jeremias’ chapter “Abba,” in The Central Message of the New Testament. Jesus Christ, our acceptance by and nurture from the Father, reveals that the Father cannot be understood in terms of abstract, male typology alone. Such a revelation by a Son is testimony that he is, indeed, the transcendent Word of a unique and transcendent Father. Through our acceptance and unconditional love by the Father through the Son we know it is good simply to be alive. That is the feeling infants should first receive from their mothers.

Turning from remarks about “fatherhood,” we may well turn our attention toward “priesthood.” Let us look at the New Testament doctrine. There can be no doubt that in the New Testament Jesus Christ is the one and only great High Priest. His priesthood is unique, taken from no human being. It is also a well-known fact that nowhere in the New Testament are ministers called priests. In 1 Peter 2;-9 Christians are said to be “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation,” in a manner referring directly to Exodus 19:6, “and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” The priesthood of Exodus 19, it is pointed out, applies to Israel as a collective whole (the reference is not to a priesthood distributed to individuals); it is not a priesthood of the Levitical type. The latter is a particular priesthood instituted for ritual, cultic purposes. The royal priesthood of Israel involves the community as a whole and is primarily concerned with Israel’s witness to God before the nations of the world.

The suggestion is made that Christians should not confuse the particular, ritualistic priesthood (based on the Levitical model) with the royal priesthood of the whole People of God (based on the Exodus model). Viewed in that perspective, the particular, ordained priesthood is not a “specification” and “intensification” of the royal priesthood every Christian enters by baptism. Thus it would be wrong to argue that, since men and women are already found within the royal priesthood, no new theological issue is involved in admitting women to the particular priesthood. But whatever view a person takes of the relation of the particular priesthood to the royal priesthood, one point is clear: the particular priesthood exists for the enablement of the universal, royal priesthood. Witness in the world to the allsufficiency of Christ’s High Priesthood is the purpose of the universal priesthood of the church. The particular priesthood exists for, and is in the service of, the universal priesthood.

The ordained ministry is called into being for the royal priesthood—for the community—to enable it to be itself and to make its witness in the world. In a basic way, the needs of the royal priesthood are determinative of the particular priesthood. In its witness to the Fatherhood of God, the witness of the royal priesthood to the world is a ministry of reconciliation. That being the case, specialized Christian ministries, including the particular priesthood, must themselves be enabling agencies of reconciliation. The purpose of all Christian ministry is to build, not destroy, godly community.

To ordain women to the presbyteral and episcopal orders is, I believe, to take something of a chance, but I also believe the chance is worth taking if it is done by community for community.

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