Having just read McKnight’s book, Junia is Not Alone, after reading Steve Holmes’ review on his blog, I have rather mixed feelings. McKnight makes a passionate case that the stories of women both in the Bible and in Church history have been ‘erased’. At the heart of his case lies the vexed issue of the translation of Romans 16:7, and the fact that for many years Junia was identified as a man, Junias, as theologians and Bible translators were supposedly unable to handle the possibility of a female apostle.
McKnight argues that Junia is an example for all women who God gifts to preach and lead in the Church. He claims that, if we were better acquainted with the biblical stories of women, we would see that Junia’s role as an apostle was nothing at all out of the ordinary or surprising, as she stood firmly in a line of strong and leading women in the Old Testament. Yet these characters have also been neglected or effaced, presumably on account of the Church’s desire to marginalize women. McKnight then mentions a number of women from Church history who have been subject to equal neglect.
Are the Stories of Women Effaced and Neglected?
I would love to see Christians better acquainted with the innumerable great women in the Bible and Church history. There is so much rich material there from which we can gain. However, McKnight seems to be making something closer to a conspiracy theory, suggesting that biblical women’s stories are purposefully neglected and, what is far worse, effaced.
However, I am not at all surprised that a generation of the Church with limited biblical literacy isn’t that well acquainted with characters like Deborah, Huldah, Priscilla, Phoebe, and Miriam. I am really not sure that this ignorance tells us a whole lot. How many modern Christians know the characters of, say, Jephthah, Jehu, Apollos, Philip, and Phinehas, as some examples of some key male characters from the same biblical eras, most of whom receive far more attention in the text than the female characters mentioned? How many Christians could discuss the books of Numbers, Judges, or 2 Kings at length? Could it be that the stories of characters such as Deborah, Huldah, and Miriam are merely collateral damage of our neglect of parts of the Old Testament that don’t fit tidily into our view of God or our understanding of our faith and seem either threatening or irrelevant?
In other words, I really don’t think that this is some conspiracy against women: it is just the fact that people don’t know their Bibles especially well, and certain books in particular. It is also on account of the fact that some of these characters just don’t receive a whole lot of attention in the text, and when they are mentioned, it is only in passing. How many sermons have you heard on Epaphroditus lately? I thought so.
Furthermore, having heard a grossly disproportionate number of sermons on the books of Esther and Ruth, and on characters such as Hannah, I wouldn’t be surprised if certain women of the Bible actually receive a great deal more attention than men of similar prominence in the text. In part this is because many of these texts work very well as self-standing stories, which can largely be abstracted from historical context. Characters like Huldah and Deborah get missed because the period of the judges and the period of the divided kingdom are somewhat less accessible or theologically uncomforting. The men of those eras are no less neglected. Mary is neglected because that is the Protestant thing to do (albeit not completely neglected: we hear about her at least once every year). The Song is neglected because it is awkward to preach in services where children are present. Is there a conspiracy of silence concerning the stories of women? I really don’t think so. And for those of us brought up in a context where the Old Testament was very much an open book, most of these stories are extremely familiar.
Similar things could be said about knowledge of Church history. Knowledge of Church history isn’t a whole lot better than biblical knowledge within the Church, and often tends to be focused rather narrowly on a few characters such as Luther and Augustine who stand in splendid isolation from their wider context and are often reduced to mere representatives of whatever denominational ideals we have imposed back upon them.
Obviously it is important to teach stories of the great women of the Bible. We all need examples of faith to which we can relate, and much good could be done through the celebration of the lives of great biblical women, and a deep acquaintance with the many female saints of history. However, modern Christians’ ignorance is not merely of individual characters, but of the larger histories and dramas in which they exist, larger dramas which can have a much more powerful effect when it comes to shaping our understanding of our place and role. A focus upon exemplary characters is helpful, but far more important is a firm grasp of the bigger pictures. The character example approach can also be incredibly selective, tailored to contemporary prejudices. Balance isn’t achieved by making sure that we speak as much about female examples of faith as male ones, but by telling the big stories, stories that transcend individual human actors, and are primarily stories about what God is doing. When you have a grasp upon the biblical narratives as a whole, you will have a far better sense of how much weight to give individual stories in terms of the whole, and will better be able to avoid making sweeping generalizations from exceptional cases. Also, while examples of faith are great, the big stories more clearly reveal the one in whom our faith is placed.
Within this post I want to assess the significance that McKnight gives to Junia and other biblical women, especially as they relate to the question of the ordination of women. A couple of paragraphs of the following post have been posted as comments in another context. Many people have also helped me to sharpen my thoughts in this area. James Jordan’s thoughts on the liturgical difference established in the creation account have been helpful. Others have helped me think through some of these questions through conversation. If you are reading this, you know who you are. I don’t feel that it is for me to associate your name with a piece as controversial as this, though.
I can’t help but feel that Junia is the Jabez for the women’s ordination crowd: that one character mentioned in passing that provokes intense levels of assured speculation, and on whose significance immense weight is placed.
Yes, we have characters such as Junia, and numerous other important female figures in the biblical narrative. However, closer examination of the actual roles played by women and the roles not played by women doesn’t really seem to support the case of women’s ordination as strongly as originally suggested. The important point that, despite Jesus’ many close female followers, the Twelve were all male is commonly made. The identification of Junia as an ‘apostle’ doesn’t really tell us as much as we would like, given the numerous senses in which this term is used in the NT: there is not just one class of apostle.
McKnight quotes Chrysostom’s high praise of Junia. However, when read alongside Chrysostom’s rather extreme statements about the subordination of women within the life of the Church and their exclusion from leadership and teaching in other contexts, it seems that Chrysostom definitely doesn’t share the absurdly far-reaching conclusions that McKnight draws from this one text. Similar comments could be made about Paul. If women in positions of leadership and teaching over men was really so familiar from the Old Testament, why do we have verses such as 1 Timothy 2:11-15? Perhaps Romans 16:7 really doesn’t present such unambiguous support for women’s leadership after all.
The fact that Junia is mentioned with Andronicus raises further questions. Jesus sent out a wider group of disciples in pairs, and the missionary pair seems to have been a more general pattern within the spread of the early church. Within these pairs (not a few married couples among them, I would suspect), both of whom could be termed ‘apostles’, there seems to have often been a lead missionary and an assistant missionary. This follows the OT pattern where leaders had assistants, helpers, or protégés in various capacities (Moses and Joshua, Elijah and Elisha, Elisha and Gehazi, etc.). We see the same pattern with kings and queens, or rulers and their chief representatives. The question at the heart of women’s ordination is not whether women can play key and prominent roles within the life of the Church, but how they should relate to the leading authoritative office of the pastor, priest, or bishop, or whether their roles should primarily be ‘helping’ roles. The case of Junia doesn’t really settle this.
In fact, 1 Corinthians 9:5 might provide supporting evidence on this front. Paul speaks of the practice of ‘the rest of the apostles’, who ‘led about’ ‘a sister, a wife’ with them. This suggests that apostles generally came as husband-wife teams, with the husband taking the lead and the wife participating in and assisting in his ministry. In the third book of the Stromata, Clement of Alexandria (c.150-c.215) speaks of the apostles making their wives fellow workers in their ministry, and that the ministry of their wives was focused on women to whom the apostles would not have had access without causing ill will. It would also suggest that the man was always the lead apostle in such relationships. The pattern of a male lead apostle with a wife as his helper, ministering chiefly to women, fits both the historical record, the biblical text, Romans 16:7, and lends no support to the claims of those who want to claim that women exercised teaching authority over men in the early Church.
The Creation Pattern
The term ‘helper’, of course, is reminiscent of the story of the creation of Eve in Genesis 2, which Paul treats as paradigmatic for understanding the working of gender difference in the life of the Church (1 Corinthians 11:7-9; 1 Timothy 2:11-15). In the prototypical sanctuary of Eden, Adam was created first, and was the one given the priestly task of guarding and keeping the garden, the commandment concerning the forbidden food, and the kingly role of naming the animals. After Adam had been commissioned as the priestly guardian of the garden, Eve is created as an assistant and helper in his commission. Adam was both to lead in the priestly task, and to teach his wife God’s law concerning the Tree. The Fall involved an inversion of these roles. Their creation was oriented in key respects to the performance of this priestly task in the Garden (and later the wider world): one could well argue that in the second creation account, the primary difference between men and women is a difference in liturgical roles and the Fall hinged on a confusion of and failure to exercise roles in the realm of priesthood.
A few further points are commonly ignored in this area.
First, teaching and leadership and their associated offices and roles are not univocal phenomena, but come in many different forms. Some are completely restricted to men, others are overwhelmingly dominated by men, still others are treated in a manner far more indifferent to gender, and some may be dominated by women, or even exclusive to them. At the heart of the women’s ordination debate is the question of women exercising priestly leadership, not of women exercising leadership per se. The offices of priest, king, and prophet are not the same. Although we find queens and prophetesses in the life of Israel, in contrast to the cults of the surrounding nations, YHWH’s cult did not involve priestesses. Although we find women exercising various prominent roles in the NT, we still do not find women being leaders of the liturgical assembly.
Even within these offices and roles there are differentiated forms. Some über-prophets inaugurate new covenant orders. There are lead prophets and helper/assistant/apprentice prophets, leaders of schools of prophets and their followers. The ‘prophetess’ of Isaiah 8:3 may have been named such, not because she was a prophet in her own right, but because she participated in her husband’s ministry. There are prophets with different levels of revelation, from uncertain dreams and dark visions, to ‘mouth to mouth’ revelation (Numbers 12:6-8). There are chief and high priests, regular priests, and assisting Levites. There are Spirit-anointed kings and regular kings, Davidic kings, and non-Davidic kings. There are priest-kings, prophet-kings, and priest-prophets, and figures such as Moses and Christ, to whom all of these offices are ascribed. There are apostles who are members of the Twelve, apostles who witnessed the resurrected Christ, apostles who were sent by a particular church, apostles who performed miracles and others who didn’t, apostles who were personally commissioned by Christ and others who weren’t. I have argued above that there were also apostles who (probably like Isaiah’s wife) enjoyed the title because they were made coworkers by their apostolically commissioned husbands. Even within the Twelve we find distinctions, with Peter as a sort of lead or chief apostle, and James and John as next to him. In my experience, arguments for women’s ordination often treat these categories as if they were homogeneous, and do not take sufficient cognizance of the huge differentiations that can exist within them.
Second, gender conditions these roles in all sorts of different ways. The sex of animals was stipulated in the Law for various sacrifices. Male animals were stipulated for leaders, female goats or lambs for a commoner’s sin offering (peace offerings are primarily related to the eaters, rather than to the offerers). The existence of socio-liturgical genders suggests that this is not an area where biological sex is a matter of indifference. The priest himself played a symbolic and representative role in relation to the congregation, and as such his gender was a matter of importance. The gendered frameworks for relating the people of God, their leaders, and God don’t disappear in the New Testament.
There is also no such thing as a woman king or woman prophet: there are queens and prophetesses. There are some things that certain kings and prophets do that no queen or prophetess could do. A prophetess could not symbolize God’s relationship to his people as Hosea did, or a queen as Solomon did in his Song. This is all related to the fact that God identifies himself as Father and Husband, and refers to himself using masculine pronouns.
Similar observations could be made about Deborah the judgess, an example to which frequent appeal is made. Deborah’s form of rule contrasts with that of the other judges in several respects. Deborah does not lead directly as the other judges do, but is seen as one who relays God’s commands to the people, the commands of the husband to his bride, or the father to his children. Barak does much of the work that is more generally associated with the major biblical judges as the frontline military leader, while Deborah judgeship is initially associated with the giving of legal decisions (Judges 4:5), perhaps akin to the minor judges of the book (Samuel’s role as a judge seems to have been predominantly of this character too). The other judges go out to judge and lead Israel in battle: Israel comes up to Deborah to be judged. When Deborah does go out, she only does so at Barak’s insistence (and Barak is perceived to be weak, and is told that he will not be the one who gets the great honour). None of this is to denigrate Deborah’s significance. It is just to point out that even when a woman does occupy such a rule, it is occupied in a manner conditioned by her gender.
Deborah describes herself as a ‘mother in Israel’, gendering her role. Her role as judge arose under exceptional circumstances, as civil life in Israel had collapsed (Judges 5:7), and she seems to be trying to re-establish it by serving as a mother figure who raises up Barak and his generation to take leadership. She protects and leads the people in their childlike state (the woman is presented as a key guardian of her children, while the primary task of guardianship in relation to the wider order falls to the man), but seeks to hand over guardianship to a man fit to exercise the role when the opportunity arises. Deborah’s guardianship is the temporary guardianship of the mother, which lasts as long as the minority of her children, and needs to be relinquished when her son comes of age, provided that he will assume his role. As such, Deborah’s leadership is very much the leadership of a ‘helper’. The fact that a woman killing Sisera is presented as a minor judgment upon Barak for his lack of faith merely underlines the fact that it was a particular humiliation for a woman to do what was his task as the man who was supposed to be leading and guarding the people (although Jael smashing Sisera’s head in with a tent pent is a powerful image of the role that the woman plays in the crushing of the serpent’s head).
Yet McKnight claims that Deborah ‘subordinated men’ and that she was ‘Ms. EveryOne in those days: she was president, pope and Rambo bundled in one female body.’ One could wonder whether he had read the text at all. Her rule is practiced in a manner more akin to that of a vice president in the absence of the president, she has no authoritative liturgical office, and she merely accompanies the army: she does not fight herself.
The Anomaly of Woman Leaders in Scripture
Third, women as authoritative leaders of the people of God in any role is incredibly anomalous in Scripture, and is openly portrayed as such (Deborah is described as ‘a woman, a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth’, just to make sure that we grasp how surprising it is that a woman is acting as a judge of Israel). We are told of over a dozen judges, but only one of them was a woman. We are told of forty-two kings and queens of Israel and Judah (that number is from memory, so might be worth confirming), and only one of them, Athaliah, was a ruling queen, gaining the throne as the wicked queen consort after the death of her husband King Jehoram. As the only non-descendant of David to sit on the throne of Judah before the exile, and the wicked daughter of Ahab and Jezebel, the sign of a dangerous alliance with the evil Omrides, she could hardly be said to have any sort of divine sanction. All of the other queens (Esther, Jezebel, etc.) are queen consorts or queen mothers. No provision is made for priestesses. There are more women to be found among the prophets, but none among the first order of covenant-founding prophets, such as Moses, Samuel, Elijah, or John the Baptist. Nor are there any women among the prophets who received the highest level of revelation preserved for us in the canon. Of all of the ‘apostles’ of whom we know, only one was a woman, and we can only speculate about what role she played, as she only receives the most passing of mentions. There were no women among the Twelve.
All of which raises the question: who are the ones who are really misrepresenting the biblical emphasis in this matter?
‘Masculine’ Virtues in Leadership
Finally, certain roles are strongly conditioned by virtues and qualities that are regarded as particularly masculine. The great priestly leaders of the people of God were marked out by their preparedness to employ sacred violence without pity in the service of God’s holiness. The tribe of Levi was already marked out as one of the two violent tribes in Genesis. The Levites were set apart for service after slaying 3,000 of their brethren after the golden calf incident. Phinehas thrust the spear through the Midianite and the Israelite and was given an everlasting priesthood as a result. Samuel was the one who hacked Agag in pieces, when Saul failed to do so. The Israelite army temporarily has a sort of priestly status when called together for holy war, which suggests that the priests were regarded as a sort of standing army.
This pattern continues into the New Testament. Paul, Peter, James, and John all seem to have been men characterized by a sort of avenging zeal, zeal which was broken and harnessed for God’s service. Peter, the one who cut off the High Priest’s servant’s ear, later became the one proclaiming the divine death sentence on Ananias and Sapphira. Paul was the former persecutor of the Church, who called for the ecclesiastical death sentence of excommunication to be applied without pity or pause in the case of continued sexual immorality (note the allusion to the OT death penalty in 1 Corinthians 5:13).
The priest’s business was death. He was the man of knife, fire, cut flesh, and spilt blood. The priests were the crack troops who manned the moral and cultic boundaries of the nation, and were praised for being able to rise above all pity when judgment was necessary. The priest as the elite sword-wielder, who will not show mercy in the defence of truth when all others fail, and will not spare, pity, or compromise when others do, seems to be a pretty consistent theme in relation to priestly leadership in Scripture, yet rather noticeable by its absence in current understandings of pastoral ministry. The capacity to exercise agonistic, uncompromising, and strong leadership from the front, when such leadership is called for, seems to have been peculiarly characteristic of that which was expected of the priests, as the moral guardians of the nation.
Although life is the chief characteristic of the new covenant, death is still present at the threshold. We enter into new life through death, and the judgment of death must be cast on all those that reject the new life in Christ. The pastor, like the angel, is the one charged with keeping the threshold (and the pastor can be referred to as an angel – Revelation 2-3). The pastor is also called to be a specialist in death, even though he is no longer charged with cutting up animals. He has to be able to be a firm and uncompromising wielder of the sword of the Word, executing judgment upon the enemies of God, and preparing the people of God as sacrifices to ascend into God’s presence through the Spirit, cutting them to the heart (note the parallels between Peter cutting 3,000 people to the heart as chief apostle on the Day of Pentecost and the Levites’ slaying of 3,000 of their brethren at Sinai) and dividing joints from marrow.
In addition to the symbolic purposes of the priesthood (which to my mind make women occupying the office as impossible as a man being a mother, a matter of fact and not merely permission), these observations would seem to show that God has a preference for predominantly ‘masculine’ virtues in this particular ministry context. The biblical vision of new covenant pastoral ministry is far more akin to that of the priestly guardianship and fatherhood than it is to the nurturing and spiritually therapeutic role that modern priestly and pastoral ministry often predominantly tends to focus upon (although the pastor obviously needs to play a nurturing role too). The ‘teaching’ that the priest is charged with (and which 1 Timothy 2:12 forbids a woman to exercise over a man), is not mere instruction, but authoritative and ruling teaching: the priest is charged with inculcating and guarding ‘orthodoxy’, ensuring that the holy things are not profaned, and that those who profane the temple of God are judged. Many people within the life of the Church can play a role in instructing us in the truth, but it is the priest who has the peculiar responsibility and increased accountability in this area.
The movement away from this model of priestly leadership comes with a blurring of the boundaries in the life of the Church. The moral, theological, and relational boundaries of the Church are no longer guarded as they once were, and in the name of such things as sensitivity, relevance, and tolerance, teachings and practices that were previous firmly rejected become tolerated. Church discipline becomes a rare occurrence. The Church no longer operates on a war footing, with the pastor as a military commander. The Church also becomes overly focused upon the internal axis of its existence, on private spirituality, and loses sense of itself as a sharply distinct culture that proclaims, defends, and presses its creed against all others.
How Ought we to Regard Gifted Women in the Life of the Church?
What ought we to say about women who are obviously gifted teachers and leaders? The Church in many quarters has much work to do in order to value the ministry of women as it ought. However, the way to address this is not to treat all roles as if they ought to be indifferent to gender, or as if they should exhibit gender equality. Rather, the solution is to recover and celebrate the numerous prominent roles that women can play within the life of the Church. We need more female spiritual directors, lay teachers, theologians, commentators, scholars, churchwardens, vestrywomen, treasurers, vergers, sacristans, elder women (different from elders), deaconesses, lay chaplains, leaders of Bible studies, missionaries, etc. The ministries of women in the Church should not be limited solely to ones involving dealing with children and other women, and much more use should be made of women’s gifts of spiritual guidance and insight, administrative ability, and theological wisdom. If we were to push in this direction, we might find that the life of the Church would be considerably enriched, and that the clergy-laity opposition would become far less dominant in our thinking, as both clergy and laity would have prominent and valued forms of ministry.
We should be more attentive to norms. Overwhelmingly male leadership in certain realms is not merely common, but should be treated as normal and healthy. Grossly unequal representation of men and women in certain positions of leadership should not automatically be assumed to be an injustice to be rectified (although we should always be attentive to possibilities of injustice). Exceptional cases should not be pressed against the norm. History’s witness to female warriors such as Mulan and Joan of Arc is not an argument in favour of equal representation of men and women in the military, for instance. It is merely evidence that some norms have certain exceptions.
Conversely, those opposing the ordination of women should be more flexible when it comes to these exceptional cases, where the norms might not apply in the same manner. Even though women can never be priests, there are situations where a woman may by virtue of unusual circumstance, or peculiar gifting, play a role that women would not usually play. Deborah might be an example of this, Joan of Arc another. In both cases they were not ‘subordinating men’ but playing a critical helping role in raising up a man of limited strength to take over rule, when other leadership had failed. These situations may be more common in the current context, in which many churches have a serious lack of men, and even more so of spiritually mature men. A woman of spiritual maturity and with leadership ability that makes her stand out from the rest of a small congregation may well end up exercising a sort of priestly oversight, guardianship, and teaching leadership in that context. Like Deborah she would be leading as a mother and a helper until such a time as a man became spiritually mature enough to take over. When there is no man to step up in certain areas of leadership, the woman may have to do his job for him. Such cases are anomalous, and not arguments against the norm. There are also innumerable examples of women exhibiting a considerable overlap of areas of gifting with many priests, often exceeding them in many respects.
Women’s Leadership in Society
To sum up certain of the points made to this point, women are neither permitted nor able to exercise the office of a priest. The lead priestly role was given to the man at the creation. The woman can participate in her husband’s role, but only as a helper. The role of priest is gendered in further ways, as the priest represents and images God’s relationship with his people. The gendering of biblical priesthood is as intrinsic to the role as the gendering of the role of fatherhood is. No slight is made upon the gifts and competencies of women in excluding them from it. In Scripture, priesthood also privileges certain traits and strengths that are especially associated with men. Certain women can exhibit these traits, yet these traits are far more common and more widely desirable among men.
This order is focused upon the worship of the sanctuary, the starting point where the direction of life is set, and from which it flows. However, similar patterns can be observed in other, wider or secondary spheres of life. The Scripture seems to ascribe a similar sort of ‘priestly’ role to the husband and father in a family. He is the one chiefly responsible for establishing, upholding, and protecting the moral and cultural boundaries and norms of the household, and ensuring that his children are raised in the truth. He is the one who must be prepared to lay down his life to defend his wife and children. He stands on the frontline of the family, as the primary representative of and defender of his family in the relationship with the wider society and world. The wife is his vice-president and chief counsellor in relation to that role, which he undertakes to serve her and his family. In turn, he must support and empower his wife in her role, subordinating his own concerns to hers.
Understanding the leadership of the husband as a priestly leadership, after the analogy of the pattern of the sanctuary, helps us to appreciate more clearly what is and what isn’t involved here. Priestly leadership is authoritative leadership in regard to the elementary and foundational things of life. The priest is the one who secures the foundation, and the one who guards the boundaries. The priest’s leadership is protological leadership. It is leadership concerned primarily with the law, rather than with the richer realms of wisdom and vision. It is leadership that is at its most prominent in the period of institutional immaturity, and which gradually becomes less prominent in the life of the community over time. This sort of male priestly leadership, practiced properly, should progressively move into the background and end up primarily involving empowering service of women in their perfecting and glorifying ministry, which comes to occupy the foreground.
If the life of the family is lived on four axes (borrowing a model from Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy), one could argue that the men are primarily active on the axis relating the family to the wider world, with the women as helpers, the women are primarily active on the axis that relates the family to the future, with the men as helpers, the men are primarily active on the axis relating the family to its moral and cultural norms and its past, with the women as helpers, and the women are primarily active on the internal axis of the family, within which the community of the family is formed, with the men as helpers.
Parallels between the role of women and the role of the Spirit should not be missed: the Spirit is the one who brings the future and forms communion. The Father is the initiator and author, who establishes the mission. The mature Son is the one who fights and dies for his sister-bride and his younger brothers.
Similar comments could be made about the Church. If you look at virtually any Church, the congregational life and the knitting together of it as a community is primarily accomplished by women. In a similar manner, the flowering of the life of the Church occurs as the ministries of women in its life start to become more prominent and widespread. This is not occurred through the displacing of the male priestly ministry, but through the expansion of lay ministries as the Church grows out into the wider world. In wider society a similar pattern applies. A country without father figures loses sight of the boundaries and norms and becomes vulnerable to attack, infiltration, and corruption. A country that effaces women cuts off its future and becomes violent and fragmented.
In the more general cultural sphere of society, women leadership is not treated in the same way as it is within the context of worship and the family, however, leadership does not cease to be gendered, and many forms of authority and leadership will be dominated by men, not on account of some dark patriarchal conspiracy, but because the sexes are generally gifted differently in different areas. The task of laying down one’s life to defend the boundaries of society from attack, for instance, is still primarily regarded as the task of sons who have attained to maturity.
In Scripture, authority is symbolically masculine, as it originates with a God who stands over against us (a symbolically female deity will usually be accompanied by a downplaying of the Creator-creature distinction, and a tendency to place stress upon some original unity), and who refers to himself with masculine pronouns. This masculine character of authority means that men can ‘image’ authority in a manner that women can’t, although women can represent authority (as a wife can represent her husband, for instance). This creates a distinction between ‘priestly’ forms of leadership that can image authority, and ‘helper’ forms of leadership, which can only represent it (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:3-10).
One will often also be able to recognize differences between ‘helper’ forms of leadership and ‘priestly’ forms of leadership between men and women, even in this wider realm, authority being parsed differently, depending on the person who exercises it. A helper form of leadership, for instance, has a less direct relationship to authority, but tends to displace primary authority onto institutional structures, some deeper social identity, or the office as distinct from the person occupying it. Such leadership does not stand over against people in the same way in which a leader that personally identifies strongly and directly with the authority of his office does. ‘Priestly’ leadership that images final authority over men and women is overwhelming the preserve of male leaders.
A focus on authority being masculine need not exclude women from occupying leading positions in society. However, it means that when they do so, their leadership will tend to take a different form from that of many males. In certain contexts this different form of leadership may be considerably more effective. It also means that men will almost certainly be more represented in many areas of leadership.
Finally, does this character of authority disempower women? Under the biblical model of authority, no, it ought not to. The one who exercises authority is a servant and a minister to others, exercising it on their behalf, placing their needs and concerns above his own. Biblically, the minister of authority does so in order to empower others, not subordinate and dominate them.
We can see this at work in the Scripture, where the woman is presented as the chief counsellor of her husband, and as the one with privileged access to his heart. The man may have the authority and direct power, but the wife has an immense indirect power to harness the heart of her husband and other men and turn it to the direction that she desires. We see this in such bad cases as Herod and Herodias, Ahab and Jezebel, Solomon and his wives, but also in positive cases such as David and Abigail, and Ahasuerus and Esther. We also see it in God’s constant attention to the prayers of his people. The woman is the one who inspires and directs action.
Although some see the manipulative wife as proof that the wife should just ‘keep in her place’, it seems to me that such a wife is rather an example of a God-given power used for ill. The contrast between Esther and Herodias is informative here. In both cases they are promised up to half the kingdom (Esther 5:3, 6; Mark 6:22-23) and end up giving counsel that leads to the taking of a man’s life. However, the contrast is stark: Esther’s counsel is good and designed to save the righteous from their enemies; Herodias’ advice is evil, calculated to destroy and silence the faithful prophet.
The good husband uses his authority to serve the interests of his wife, and puts it at her disposal to empower her. Since one more controversial comment is hardly going to attract that much attention after all of those already made above, let me end by observing that I don’t think that feminism has really changed much at all on this front when it comes to the fundamental dynamics of authority in society. Society is still primarily founded upon male power and authority, vested in government, the legal system, the police force, and the primarily moral authority of such as fathers and clergymen.
As a group women represent a far more vulnerable group than men (largely because they are vulnerable to men) and so society has always needed to make provision to protect women. In the past security for women was provided through the family and a patriarchal structure. This traditional familial structure, while providing a measure of security and protection for women, tended to abuse and mistreat them in various ways, constraining their horizons and limiting their opportunities. The structure of society is primarily created and enforced by men. Although some women will be more dominant than many men, the most dominant and powerful figures in any given society will tend to be male. Women need protection to a degree that men do not as they are both more vulnerable as a group than men, and are also exposed to many risks that men are not.
To escape the limits of oppressive family structures, and to achieve equal opportunities in the wider world of business and education, etc., women needed legal protections and government involvement and protection to take over from the old family structure. While men were expected to take unreasonable behaviour in the workplace, for instance, on the chin and stand up for themselves, the movement of women into traditionally male workplaces necessitated many more protections to be put in place. Where formerly the family had borne the primary responsibility of protecting and providing for women, in many ways that task has been shifted to the government and the legal system.
The actual underlying direct power and authority in society hasn’t really changed hands as significantly as many seem to think. There have obviously been shifts, but the chief gains have been made by the leveraging of the key male-dominated institutions that are most powerful in our society to empower women against the men that they relate to more immediately, and by limiting the scope of ‘priestly’ forms of authority, by ‘displacing’ authority as much as possible. The fundamental logic of authority remains, though.
This is not to attack the genuine gains that have been made in this area. However, it should serve to encourage us to work with the grain of the world as God created it, rather than against it. Strong and uncompromising masculine leadership, ministered in a biblical fashion for the sake of others, empowers everyone, and not just the one who exercises it, while a departure from this pattern compromises society, to the detriment of all. In certain contexts, most particularly in the life of the Church and the family, such leadership can play an incredibly important role. The fact that many women feel oppressed and marginalized rather than strengthened and given an ever-growing space for their own ministries by the way that such leadership has been exercised is a good sign that it has been approached poorly. Although this lengthy post has concentrated on tackling the claim that women should be ordained pastors and priests, such a position would have been far less likely to have arisen had we a clearer grasp upon and fuller practice of the empowering and liberating form that the ministry of authority takes for those for whom it is ministered. My hope is that we take clear steps to address our own failures in this matter.