Why a Masculine Priesthood is Essential

John Knox Preaching

My thoughts about feminism, equality, and authority have provoked a considerable amount of controversy. Beyond the original discussion that sparked this off (about a month ago now), many comments have been left beneath Andrew’s post. My own post from yesterday is followed by a great deal of detailed engagement with the issues in the comments. Jenny Baker, Hannah Mudge, and Danny Webster have all written posts in answer to my position (I have also left a comment on Danny’s post, to which he has responded). Amidst the outrage in certain quarters, there has been a lot of thoughtful engagement, for which I am very appreciative. Although it is unlikely that we will all end up agreeing, I believe that it is important to understand and engage with other perspectives—especially when articulated by intelligent, experienced, and charitable interlocutors—and that all of us will find our positions sharpened as we participate in the challenge of discourse. Hopefully, the exact location of our differences will also become clearer, perhaps even being broken down to a much less threatening size. Thank you to everyone who has pursued this discussion in this productive and generous manner.

I can understand something of the frustration of those within this debate who believe that I am being slippery or disingenuous, shifting positions to avoid being tied down. While I stand by everything that I have said to this point, I appreciate that it takes a considerable amount of patience to grasp my position. My viewpoint comes into existing complementarian-egalitarian debates at something of an oblique angle. People too easily presume that I am just an apologist for a standard complementarian line (such as one might encounter in the work of John Piper or Wayne Grudem). The result of this is premature judgments and serious mischaracterizations.

While I hold certain things in common with such as Piper and Grudem and my position is definitely complementarian in principle, I have some fairly far-reaching criticisms of complementarianism as most understand it. I believe that it unjustly marginalizes women within the life of the Church and society in many and various ways and tends to devalue them. I believe that women need to exercise far more prominent roles in the life and teaching of the Church, not just as a matter of permission, but as a matter of necessity. I disagree with the typical complementarian emphasis upon hierarchical frameworks for our understanding. I don’t share the understanding of the Trinity that often comes along with it.

On the other hand, I have a far more absolute insistence on male-only priesthood than almost any complementarian. Most complementarians rest their position primarily upon the exegesis of particular biblical passages that directly address the question of women in leadership. My position has much deeper and broader foundations. I believe that opposition to women in priesthood should not merely arise from the interpretation of a few isolated verses, but that it springs up from the very core of biblical anthropology, something that is reaffirmed throughout the biblical narrative. Genesis 1 and 2 are far more central texts for the opposition to women in priesthood than 1 Timothy 2 could ever be. I believe that support for women in priesthood is contrary to scripturally-informed reason and reflection upon reality and society, not just detached Bible verses. I believe that male dominance in power and authority in society isn’t just something biblically authorized or mandated—it isn’t just that women lack permission—but is an inescapable fact that God has established through his creation. Even when egalitarians seek to avoid it, it continues to reassert itself in their midst. I believe that the very tenor of the Christian faith is jeopardized by women priests.

While such statements will doubtless outrage many, I would request that, before people jump to condemnation, they first understand the reasoning underlying this position.

Within this current debate, what many people appear to have missed is that the challenge to the supporters of women in priesthood that I am presenting is rooted in a rejection of the pictures that govern their notions of what priestly leadership is. Most of the debates about women in the priesthood presume that we always know what priesthood is, the only question is whether women are permitted to exercise it. My argument cuts across this, claiming that the debate is generally operating in terms of a radically distorted notion of priesthood and that women are not able to exercise priesthood in the same manner as men—it isn’t just a matter of permission.

Debates about women ‘in leadership’ are fraught by the imprecision of our terminology, and the misleading pictures that implicitly govern our notions of what ‘leadership’ looks like. Near the heart of our problem is the fact that modern paradigms of leadership that are employed within the Church tend to be drawn largely from business, academic, and therapeutic contexts. Consequently, the skills that we look for from our ‘leaders’ are principally academic, management, and counselling skills. Of course, if this is what we are looking for, we will easily find them among women, often to a much greater degree than among men. Women can be incredibly gifted theologians, exegetes, teachers, guides, counsellors, managers, and directors. These skills are incredibly valuable in the life of the Church and should be recognized and affirmed and exercised in the life of it. Contrary to what people might think, at no point have the value and importance of women’s gifting in these areas been denied. However, priestly or pastoral leadership requires something more.

In contrast to much of the Church today, the paradigms of leadership in Scripture tend to be drawn from a more military context. Practically every one of the major figures in Scripture wielded a weapon and shed blood, or took life in other ways. While many want to argue that Jesus is some exception to this, in terms of which the whole pattern is redrawn, this is not the case. Alongside the images of Christ as the one led silent like a lamb to the slaughter, the New Testament presents us with the prominent image of conquering Lamb, who crushes his enemies. Just as Paul teaches that Christ judged the ancient Israelites, leaving their dead bodies scattered in the wilderness (1 Corinthians 10:1-11), so he teaches that Christ is taking the lives of unfaithful people in the Corinthian church (1 Corinthians 11:27-34).

The Bible is largely written by warriors and about warriors. These were men who made life and death decisions, who knew that the pull of pity could be very dangerous, who understood the vulnerability and fragility of life, who recognized that life is an activity with extremely high stakes and fraught with peril, who saw themselves as being involved in a huge conflict, called to fight and contend for things, who had thick skins, who protected the weak and vulnerable, who knew that there were boundaries to be guarded, who appreciated that we are surrounded by grave threats to the security and health of our communities and their moral integrity, who know that we need the nerve to take radical and painful action. These are the values that shape the biblical notion of pastoral and priestly leadership.

The Bible does not glorify war in itself, nor does it value the powerful over the weak. However, it recognizes the reality of war and the necessity of power: our world is shaped by conflict. The people of God are compared to sheep and the paradigmatic person at the heart of the kingdom is the little child, weak, defenceless, dependent, and vulnerable (Matthew 18:1-5). Those who value vulnerability and weakness in a deeply hostile world must be prepared to defend it. The priesthood is charged with this task. The shepherd who loves his sheep and tenderly carries them in his bosom must be prepared and equipped mercilessly to fight the wolves, the bandits, the thieves, the bears, and the lions. He must be prepared to lay down his life in their defence. Those who perform this calling are servants of the sheep, not lords over them. The shepherd must put his life in jeopardy for the sake of the lives of his sheep, valuing them above himself. In a strange inversion of values, some Christians seem to have the notion that being a priest somehow means that you are greater than others.

This model of priesthood is a profoundly masculine one, involving combat and guarding at its heart. The association between martial virtues and masculinity is a close one. It doesn’t merely arise from the fact that men are generally more powerful, physically stronger, more combative, and that they naturally possess a greater drive and aptitude for the exercise of dominance and mastery, although these are all part of the picture.

Although women can and have fought and killed in exceptional, extreme, or fortuitous circumstances—a few such incidents are recorded in the Old Testament (e.g. Judges 4:21; 9:53)—the normalization of women fighting and killing is quite contrary to biblical and Christian values. In contrast to our contemporary society, Scripture never presents men and women as fundamentally androgynous individuals, whose identities are purely contingent upon their varying individual characteristics and aptitudes. Men and women are different kinds of persons, the bearers of different symbolic and relational meaning.

Women are associated with the most intimate bonds and communion of society. Every woman, by virtue of her sex—irrespective of whether she is married or has children—is the bearer of a maternal form of identity. The very form and basic processes of her body declares this meaning and—again, whether or not she is married or has children—everything that she does and is is inflected and elevated by the fact that she represents this reality. It is within her body that the marriage bond is consummated. It is within her body that the bond between parents and children are forged. It is within her body that the child grows and upon her body that it feeds. A society that truly honours this reality will not send women to fight its wars. A civilized society values and fosters the beautiful vulnerability of its most intimate bonds and seeks to protect them as much as it can from subjection to the harshness of conflict and struggle.

This principle is applied more broadly. We do what we can to avoid fighting with women, not just physically, but also verbally, and in other manners. Although men are often rough with each other, we aren’t rough with women. When we come into opposition with women, we take a gentler approach than we do with men. We don’t personally attack women more generally and seek to protect them from attack. We treat women as non-combatants.

This instinctive sense of the need to treat women differently when it comes to combat is deeply wired in every civilized man. I have already remarked upon the way that it functions as a driving force, albeit in distorted ways, in egalitarian approaches to these conversations. The push for women in the priesthood is often framed in terms of women’s need for protection, the fact that they need to be affirmed, valued, listened to, and protected from marginalization. The ugliness of the debates on this issue are also shaped by egalitarian men’s drive to protect women from what they regard as attack (as C.S. Lewis once sagely observed, battles are ugly when women are involved—suddenly, everything becomes much more personal, because men hate seeing women hurt).

The problem, of course, is that the priesthood is a combative role. Opposition to women in the priesthood is driven by, among other things, our refusal to put women into combat for us. While many of us strongly share egalitarians’ concern to see women affirmed, listened to, respected, honoured, and prominent in the life of the Church, there are many ways that this should be pursued without putting them into the priestly/pastoral office.

One of the chief causes and effects of women in priesthood is a dulling of our sense of the priesthood as a role involving conflict. Women, as many supporters of women in the priesthood have argued, ‘bring their own styles of leadership.’ And these styles of leadership are typically light on the martial virtues. Opposition to women in the priesthood should not be confused with opposition to women’s exercise of these styles of leadership within the life of the Church. Rather it is opposition to the reshaping—and consequent abandonment—of the priestly ministry.

The stakes here are very, very high.

With the loss of this model of priesthood, we have lost something fundamental in our understanding of the tenor of the Christian faith more generally. We have reduced discipleship from the uncompromising and costly loyalty expected of the soldier to a looser appreciation of Jesus as a moral guide. We have lost sight of the threat of hell and judgment. We have defanged the world, the flesh, and the devil in our imaginations. We have reduced God, displacing images of God as Judge, Sovereign, Ruler, King, Avenger, Father, and Lord. Instead of a fatherly authority that stands more over against us, we want a more cosy, maternal figure, still ‘authoritative’, but in a considerably weakened sense. Christ’s Lordship is now something that we think that we establish in our lives, rather than a public truth and reality that we must submit and bow the knee to. We have airbrushed divine violence out of Scripture. We have reduced divine authority as exercised in Scripture to the level of an illuminating text for selective consumption in the private spiritual life. We have sentimentalized the cross. We have lost sight of the deep weight—the dreadful yet profoundly joyful solemnity—of Christian worship, seeing it as more casual. We have abandoned or attenuated beyond usefulness the notion of spiritual warfare. We have abandoned church discipline (when was the last time that an Anglican church delivered someone to Satan for the destruction of the flesh?). We no longer see the world as being in cosmic spiritual conflict and don’t conduct ourselves as those in the dangerous realm of occupied territory, readily compromising with the surrounding culture instead. We don’t believe that our souls are in peril and so are indifferent to the fitness of the leaders who are responsible to guard us. We value their personability and academic credentials over their backbone, refusal to compromise, and commitment to do whatever it takes to present us whole and with joy before God’s throne on that great Last Day.

With the loss of a male priesthood—or, more particularly, with the loss of a masculine priesthood—we have attenuated the reality of the Christian message. We have no effective symbolization of the authority of God within our churches. When that goes, all else is enervated. The empowerment and valuing of women—an imperative for any Christian church—will best be served, not by putting women in the office of guardians of the Church, but when we appoint strong guardians for the Church who are committed to empower and value women, to hear their voices and to recognize their gifts, and to exercise their own calling as the servants of all.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Controversies, Culture, Ethics, Scripture, Sex and Sexuality, Society, The Church, Theological, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

72 Responses to Why a Masculine Priesthood is Essential

  1. The Man Who Was . . . says:

    My thoughts about feminism, equality, and authority have provoked a considerable amount of controversy.

    Considerable amount? From this vantage point it, all seems like a fairly light kerfuffle, though obviously some of your and Wilson’s readers have strong objections to your position.

  2. CH says:

    How do you cope with the “priesthood of all believers”?

    • Thanks for the comment. You might get some idea of how I approach the priesthood of believers from this comment and the follow-up comment that I make after it.

      • CH says:

        So, if I understand accurately, women participate communally in the Church’s identity as a royal priesthood, but that participation doesn’t extend to them individually. Your view is that it would be inaccurate to understand them as individually performing priestly functions or occupying the position of priest. Is that correct?

      • First of all, the priesthood that we participate in is ultimately Christ’s. Male or female, we participate in this as members of a body, not as detached individuals. Ordained priests are not somehow gold star members of the royal priesthood. Rather, they act as authorized servants of Christ to his body, facilitating the living out of the Church’s priestly calling.

        Women are not second-class citizens of the royal priesthood. Rather, just as men can perform unique symbolic functions within the life of the Church, women do the same. For instance, in Scripture, we see the inseparable association of forming and filling. The first three days of creation are days of forming, naming, and taming. The second three days of creation are days of filling, generation, growth, and establishment of communion and the future. We see the same sort of relation between the work of Christ and the Spirit. Christ’s work is one of forming, establishing the foundation, fighting, securing power and authority, etc. The Spirit gives life, generating and regenerating, forms communion, brings God’s future, establishes loving bonds, etc. You can’t take separate Christ and the Spirit. Christ’s very title refers to the fact that he is the Anointed One—anointed by the Spirit. The Spirit is also the Spirit of Christ. You can’t have one without the other.

        When God created humanity he gave us a calling that corresponds to his own work. We are to exercise dominion, to tame, to name, to multiply, to fill the world with life, love, and communion, to move forward into the future. This is how we symbolize God’s rule on earth. However, from the very outset, we see that this vocation is ‘membered’. While the vocation is always a shared vocation, within which we must act together, sometimes the man is to the foreground and the woman is supporting him; sometimes the woman is to the foreground and the man is supporting her. At all points we depend upon each other and act on each other’s behalf. All of this applies when we think of the Church’s identity and calling.

        We all are fully part of the royal priesthood as members of the body. Men are not more members than women, just as the eye is not more of a member of the body than the hand. No one ‘individually’ performs priestly functions, just as no eye sees without seeing as a member of a larger body. The eye sees for the whole body, while relying on the rest of the body to perform vital functions for it.

    • It is also important to remember that every theological position that believes in some sort of ordained priesthood, whether or not they support women in the priesthood, needs to answer this question. It isn’t one that uniquely applies to those opposing women’s ordination to priesthood.

  3. The Man Who Was . . . says:

    It is important to note that the Bible does not exclude women from either the prophetic office or political office.

    • Indeed.

      Although there most definitely isn’t symmetry between men and women in biblical politics, we have several examples of women exercising important political roles. One thing that is worth noticing is the way that the politics is familial and gendered, though. Politics isn’t an androgynous realm, but one in which women participate as women, and men as men.

  4. I am returning to my break from commenting on the Internet now. Hopefully, I have left enough responses that anyone who is interested in understanding my position should be able to do so with just a little digging around.

    (I’ve left further comments here and here.)

  5. Fr. Chris Larimer says:

    Have you read Alice Linsley’s blog, Just Genesis? She left the Episcopal priesthood after her anthropological research forced her to recognize the deep binary worldview embedded in the Scriptures…esp. how feminism and homosexualism are the same categorical error in gender confusion.

  6. Hi Alastair,
    I realise you are returning to your break from Twitter. I am also on a break from Twitter but I have read your two most recent blogs and would like to make this contribution now.
    Many points have been raised by you and others. I will respond specifically now to what you wrote on spiritual warfare. I picked up a great sense of urgency in your final two paragraphs…’..we don’t believe our souls are in peril…’ I have a similar sense of urgency.
    My understanding of spiritual warfare, as presented by St.Paul in Ephesians 6, is that the ‘Armour of God’ consists of defensive rather than combative weapons – weapons intended to help us to protect the ground on which we stand and to protect ourselves and others.The only combative weapon mentioned by St. Paul in this passage is the sword, but he then elaborates on this and defines it as ‘the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.’
    There has been a ‘war of words’ on Twitter/blogs and, according to Ephesians 6, our defence in this war needs to be the word of God. It seems to me that a major difficulty on Twitter (and elsewhere!) is the different interpretations of the word of God.
    Last , but by no means least, in St. Paul’s passage about the ‘Armour of God’ he mentions prayer and asks for prayer for himself, that he may speak ‘boldly to make known the mystery of the gospel’.
    This is my prayer, too, for all called to be ambassadors for Christ. I certainly think of you as an ambassador for Christ, Alastair.

  7. mnpetersen37 says:

    This is completely unrelated to the substance of your post, but your post made me realize the interesting (in my opinion) point that Christians who want some sort of hierarchy of the sexes would be very strongly opposed to Dionysius the Pseudo-Aeropagate, whereas, people likely to appreciate The Cloud of Unknowing (though not The Celestial Hierarchy) may tend to be egalitarians.

    (Note that he seems to have coined the term “hierarchy”; and the common complementarian position could be described as “the male is a higher sphere that the female.”)

    • Jill says:

      Stumbled on this site today, a bit late. All of the world religions place women in the lower “sphere” and men in the higher either temporally and/or eternally. It is just how men see the world and themselves. Male focus tends to be on self in relation to other males. A male god or saviour figure is part of male attraction to self and other males (sometimes expressed erotically e.g. Orthodox liturgy comes across as deeply homoerotic with a priest, often an old male,surrounded by a host of serving deacons and young boys). Religion is nothing more than male narcaissim writ large and cast in a supernatural light. Priest or Wizard of Oz, same difference.

  8. Joy Roberts says:

    Dear Alastair, Thanks for this very clear presentation. It is really helpful. It is also becoming of the gospel the way you respond to opposition so graciously. We are praying for you much as you face the huge demands on your time and energies. Much love, Mummy.


  9. Excellent! You have hit the bull’s eye, my friend.

  10. Dirk says:

    “Amidst the outrage in certain quarters, there has been a lot of thoughtful engagement, for which I am very appreciative. Although it is unlikely that we will all end up agreeing, I believe that it is important to understand and engage with other perspectives—especially when articulated by intelligent, experienced, and charitable interlocutors—and that all of us will find our positions sharpened as we participate in the challenge of discourse.”
    Amen. When a teacher of mine said that homosexuals were possessed by the devil, I wish this attitude was taken. That way we would have found out the truth. Similarly I think we can all agree that when talking about whether black people can play a full role in public life, it would help if more charitable voices were heard from all perspectives.

  11. Whilst I have much sympathy with your position, my worries always come back to a notion of ‘essentialism’, ie that men and women have a distinct essence. That doesn’t seem to be the reality that I see; that is, I think there are some men who don’t have the martial virtues, and some (rare) women that do. To my mind the most essential thing – which you touch on briefly here – is to have a very clear understanding of the nature of the priesthood, and only then to ask whether any particular person, male or female, possesses the attributes to exemplify that nature in their own ministry. It is a fine distinction but quite a vital one I think.

    • Andrew W says:

      Starting from a blank slate, why would “essentialism” be bad? Are male and female “accidentally” different or “fundamentally” different? Note that a “fundamental” difference does not mean “different in all ways”, just that there exists at least one (or some) differences that mean the two categories are non-interchangeable.

      In honesty, my question cheats slightly. The biology of reproduction already makes a fundamental distinction between male and female. A female cannot act in the male role during fertilisation, nor a male in the female role, though an individual male or female can “accidentally” fail to act in either role. In contrast, while males are on statistically stronger than females, a given male can be specifically weaker than a given female without one or the other ceasing to be male or female.

      Our society, the “air we breathe”, is aggressively anti-essentialist, to the point of denying our biology. Scripture, in contrast, is not answerable to society, and thus we should ask of its agenda. In Genesis 1 says “in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them”, at once both affirming male and female as being in the image of God while creating a categorical distinction between them. How does this commonality but distinctiveness play out through the millennia covered by Scripture?

    • Thanks for the comment, Sam. You raise an important issue here, one which drives the discussion much further. I’ve written a follow-up post addressing your question here.

    • The essence of the Male and the female is the same, ontologically speaking. Both are created in the image and likeness of the Creator. Things can have the same essence yet not the same purposes.

      • Andrew W says:

        I think there’s a lack of clarity, here. The categories “of the same essence” and “not of the same essence” are not symmetric. There is only one way to be “of the same essence”; there are myriad ways to be “not of the same essence”, depending on the point under evaluation.

        If B is of the same essence as A, then A & B are in some way equivalent. If B is not of the same essence as A, and C is not of the same essence as A, then all we can say about B & C is that they are both not equivalent to A; no further equivalence is implied.

        Thus, it is entirely possible for man and woman to be ontologically different with respect to each other, yet ontologically equivalent (as mankind) with respect to animals or the rest of creation.

  12. Andrew W says:

    Why us the term “priest” in this context? For example, Samuel is not identified as a priest, nor is David, nor is Paul, and yet all are caught up in your descriptions. Is there a better description of what you are getting at than “one who stands before the altar and the people to offer sacrifices to God”, and if so, how would you describe it?

    • I don’t mention Samuel, David, or Paul in this post. That said, all of them perform priestly functions. Samuel leads the people in sacrifice on various occasions. David might do so too (e.g. 2 Samuel 24:25). David certainly plays a pronounced liturgical role. After the collapse of the tabernacle worship, there was a partial reversion to something more like an older form of worship, such as we see in the patriarchal era, with elements of priest kingship returning, for instance.

      I would follow Leithart in defining the priest as a household servant of YHWH, charged with managing and protecting his house, representing his rule, and serving and guarding his heirs. While the priest represents the authority of his master to the heirs, he does so as a servant of his master and as one who is fundamentally a minister to the heirs, definitely not as one with a higher status than them.

      • In 2 Samuel David’s sons are called “priests” and David was born in Bethlehem which was the home of a division of priests (Horites). David is a descendant of Rahab of Jericho, the wife of Salmon the Horite, the Son of Hur (Hor). Salmon is called the “father of Bethlehem” in 1 Chronicles 2:54. Rahab became the grandmother of Boaz who married Ruth. Salmon is a Horite name and is associated with Bethlehem (1 Chronicles 2:51). This connection of the Jews to the ancient Horites is why Jews call their parents and ancestors “horim.”

    • The Man Who Was . . . says:

      I was wondering something similar. Much of the controversy over women’s role in church is about when and where it is appropriate for women to speak and teach in church. How does teaching (and speaking) relate to priesthood?

  13. theoldadam says:

    Somehow I don’t see how God’s message of love and forgiveness to sinners needs to come out of the mouth of a person with the proper genitalia.

    Let’s give the power of God’s Word a bit more credit than that.

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  15. Harris says:

    If priesthood is other than metaphor; if it is uniquely appropriate for men, then are we not back to the original questions of the Early Church. If there is to be a priest, then there must be a sacrifice; an assertion of priesthood would seem to entail the embrace of priestcraft, of the Mass as offering. Leaving aside the host of societal relations raised by the assertion of male priesthood (e.g. how this relates to political leadership or governance of a corporation) there would appear to some significant questions of ecclesiology. as well. Holding this view, can children of the Reformation really avoid swimming the Tiber (or the Bosporus)?

  16. Paul Baxter says:

    While quite sympathetic with your positions on these things, I find myself asking a question:

    What is the nature of the relationship between OT priesthood and contemporary church leadership offices?

    I think you can see that there are a number of sub-questions, but pretty much all of them would be around the subject of how gender should play out in the contemporary church.

    • Paul Baxter says:

      Things being as they are, I’ve been looking through your pieces in the reverse order of how you posted them, and I now see that you have sketched out an answer to my question in your earlier post, in your comment to Mr Holmes.

      I suppose that, given the sheer variety in organizational structures in the contemporary church, specific offices would need to be thought about one at a time within their own context.

      This has been an interesting issue for me within my own church context. My own church fairly recently left the PCUSA for the EPC. The PCUSA, you are likely aware, is fully on the egalitarian side. The EPC has, to this point, taken the position that individual presbyteries and sessions may decide whether women may serve as ruling elders (roughly speaking, the governing board, for those of you not familiar with presbyterian dynamics). However there is now a significant move towards allowing women to serve as ruling elders (i.e. pastors) as well. I think some of that has come from the fact that a few female pastors from the PCUSA have wished to move into the EPC with their churches and are on balance more comfortable there. I met one such woman at a presbytery meeting.

      Also, I have been serving on my church nominating committee where we nominate elders for election to the serve on the session. We rotate two people on and off the session each year. Last year the committee found two women to serve, giving us three women and three men on the session. This year one of our committee members, a woman, has expressed her feelings that elders should be exclusively men, so all of our nominees this year are men so far. We’ll see if we can find two who are willing to serve. Last year it was difficult to find two of either sex who were willing.

      All of that to say that this is far from just an intellectual topic.

  17. Hi Paul,
    I’m interested in your comment about a woman committee member at your church who expressed her feelings that elders should be exclusively men.
    It’s got me thinking again about how the leadership has been ‘fleshed out’ at grass roots level in our local parish. In the last 17 years or so we’ve had two women priests – one at our church, and one at our sister church.One woman lay reader left our church and subsequently became ordained as a priest and now leads a church in another parish. Another woman lay reader made a prayerful decision not to enter the priesthood, as did our deaconess. Interestingly, one of our women priests told me she could not cope without the support of her husband. At present we have two male priests, both married.The wife of one priest is a wonderful preacher, and her husband, our Rector, regularly commends her.They describe themselves as complementarians.
    Personally, I prefer male leadership – but then it’s also true to say that I prefer a good female leader to a not-so-good male leader…pragmatic …

    And thank you, Alastair, for grasping the nettle!

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  22. Tim says:

    Sadly, your take on women’s and men’s roles in the Body of Christ reminds me of Thomas Jefferson’s attitude about miracles. He cut those parts out of his Bible, ignoring the text for his own preferences. Likewise, when it comes to what women can do in God’s kingdom, the Bible text is much more expansive than you conclude in this post.


    • Thanks for the comment, Tim. However, if you read the post above carefully (and my other posts will back this up), it should be clear that the post that you link misses my position entirely. It doesn’t even graze its shoulder.

      • Tim says:

        Thanks, Alastair. I think it goes directly to your point that women aren’t to lead. You say the Bible and nature clearly back up your position. The passages noted in the linked post say that God has put women in positions of leadership and evangelizing under both the old and new covenants.

      • Thanks for the response, Tim. I never said that women aren’t to lead. I said that women aren’t to be priests. There is a very significant difference between these two claims, especially when the term ‘leadership’ is employed as loosely as it is by people today.

      • Tim says:

        Thanks for drawing the distinction, Alastair. I see how you find them to be different.

    • More particularly, your comment seems to presume that, in opposing women in the priesthood, I am opposing them having a prominent role or voice in all other aspects of the Church’s life. That isn’t actually the case.

      My point is that the priestly/pastoral office has a very specific character and is consequently male-only. I believe that this office has been neglected in most contemporary Protestant contexts and the priestly/pastoral role redefined around academic teaching (as distinct from authoritative instruction in the faith), management, and therapeutic guidance. Where this notion of ‘leadership’ prevails, it is entirely natural that people should think of ordaining women to the priesthood. Such gifts can and should be used in the Church, but they are not sufficient to mark someone out as suitable for the priesthood.

      • Tim says:

        I can see where you are coming from on this. I read the passages about pastors and the role of all believers as not being so restrictive, but I get the distinction you are drawing.

  23. Protestants have trouble with this question of women and the priesthood because they don’t understand the distinctive nature of the priesthood and how this is a received tradition/gift which the Church has no authority to change. The priesthood points to Jesus Christ. It is Christological. Therefore, we must be careful to preserve the priesthood as it has been received, which includes preserving this for males only (and only males who live a pure life).

    • Harris says:

      It is less for not understanding than for a rejection of this appeal to tradition, all the more for the want of any biblical location of this term in the NT church. Of all the many terms for leadership in the NT, priest, ieros, is missing save obliquely in 1 Peter where the body collectively is identified as a “royal priesthood.” While the Protestant rejection of Tradition is in part epistemological with the appeal to the primacy of Scriptural authority, it is also a rejection of the sacramental economy concomitant with this view of priestly status.

      However, as I understand Alstair’s position, his is not one of Christology, but that of a sort of Natural Law, where the male priesthood is constitutionally required, that is properly the function of men generally. This in turn opens his argument to a set of what are basically political objections; it is not clear how relations constituted by Natural Law within the church do not also obtain outside. Here is the deep strength of Tradition and Rome, where male priesthood and the full participation of women in society can co-exist. As with many other arguments from Natural Law, this can (and does) seem an appeal to something of a tautology — I do not think his case is as clearly established inasmuch as the office itself of priest/pastor remains unclear (see his response immediately above). Is a priest (ieros) the same as a pastor (episkopos)?

  24. The received tradition to which I refer is much older than Roman Catholicism. It is the tradition received from Abraham and his ancestors which is embodied in Melchizedek and fulfilled in Jesus Christ, for it is attested of Jesus Christ: “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.” (Heb.7:17)

  25. Steve Holmes has written a post that appears to be an indirect response to this one. I wrote the following as a comment on Dr Holmes’ post, but thought that I would also repost it here:

    Am I correct in thinking that this is an indirect response to my post?

    I think that you neglect the fact that not all arguments drawing attention to gendered characteristics claim to be sufficient arguments against a given practice, nor frame their case in quite the way that you suggest. For instance, I argue against women in the priesthood/pastorate on certain grounds that would categorically exclude all cases. I might reference such things as the pre-Fall order, biblical precedent, Christ’s institution, scriptural teaching, the tradition, the capacity of men to symbolize the material hiatus between God and his creation involved in the symbolization of his authority to and within the Church, etc. Many of these arguments are not sufficient by themselves, but they do exclude all exceptions.

    However, alongside such arguments, it is possible to make arguments about the negative things that can result when the principle of a male-only priesthood is abandoned. Such arguments don’t need to be airtight arguments against any woman ever becoming a priest. While they may be articulated in the context of an absolute opposition to women in the priesthood—as mine was—all that they are arguing is that, in turning their backs on an male-only priesthood, supporters of women in the priesthood are also turning their backs upon a masculine priesthood, and that this shift has significant and deleterious effects. Ambivalence to secondary gendered characteristics invites distortions of the priesthood and our theology on various levels. While I don’t intend for this argument to bear the entire weight of my position, it has its place in the discussion. It may not be sufficient to ground my own position, but it directly challenges the positions of many of my interlocutors, for whom ambivalence to secondary gendered characteristics and traits when it comes to the priesthood is typically an implicit yet seldom challenged commitment (am I correct in my vague memory that you have previously argued in favour of something closer to a gender equalized pastoral ministry?).

    The fact of gender difference confronts us on many levels. My recent interactions with you focused on the impossibility of the sort of egalitarian society that many envisage. My argument wasn’t founded upon the claim that each and every male is X or female is Y, but that men and male groups are as a general rule more naturally oriented—and not just for pathological reasons—towards the creation of power and power structures than women and female groups are. While in small samples this fact may not be so clear, when we look at the bigger picture, it is harder to avoid. As an analogy, I know a family with nine boys and no girls, but this isn’t counterevidence against the claim that the boy-girl sex ratio at birth tends to be around 1.07 (such a fact will become clearer the larger the population sample). The larger pattern of male power—one that continuously asserts itself in all sorts of cultures worldwide—needs to be given attention in its own right.

    My argument is that there are good reasons why this pattern emerges and that, without fundamental changes to the structure of human nature, it isn’t about to go away. None of this rests on universal claims about each and every man and woman (something that I emphasized in my comments). It is a fact about human societies, like the sex ratio. It is also something that egalitarians and feminists need to deal with more directly, as their vision bumps up against this reality in various ways. Even if we could ‘engineer’ a society that was supposedly more egalitarian—much as we might engineer a society with a peculiar sex ratio, but perhaps I repeat myself…!—we need to consider how such a society would relate to the broader human society, where the more basic natural pattern asserts itself, and what would have to be sacrificed in order to attain such an end.

    My later arguments took the discussion to different territory. I first addressed how priesthood requires masculine traits. These traits are definitely not the only traits that are required by the priesthood, but they are essential. Then I went further to present a more essentialist case for gender difference. One could perhaps argue that these three parts of my argument represent three levels of analysis: 1. Male dominance in power as a broader fact of human societies; 2. The necessity of certain traits for the priesthood that are masculine in character, i.e. traits that, in their more pronounced forms, are more characteristically found among males; 3. The existence of a fundamental and universal difference between men and women grounded in characteristically distinct modes of relationship and symbolization.

    • My reading of your post is that the “gendered characteristic” in question is more relational in nature: whether other people will relate to the pastor as they would relate to a man, or as they relate to a woman. That seems to be a pretty binary characteristic. I will always relate to a man as a man, and to a woman as a woman.

      • It isn’t just about how other people will relate to us—although that is something that follows—but about the sort of relational and symbolic beings that we are, irrespective of how people relate to us. The mode of relational being that we are may be particularly disclosed in actual fatherhood or motherhood, but the mode itself is deeper and broader than this, written into the form of our bodies and naming our unique potentials. And, yes, this is a strongly binary characteristic.

  26. Hi Alastair,
    Thank you again for your thoughtful and thorough blogs and posts on this subject.
    I have read Steve’s post and your response to it and much though I’d like to respond to specific points, I feel that it is outside my area of expertise.
    However, I will say that female members of our church significantly outnumber male members.Our church may be atypical in this respect but I suspect that it isn’t. When I wonder about possible reasons for the discrepancy between the numbers of males and females who attend church, I find it impossible to rule out fundamental gender differences between men and women as a factor. We have two male priests in our church at present and it is hoped by many that more males will be drawn into the church.
    Thank you again.

    • Thanks for the comment, Christine.

      Your church isn’t atypical. The male-female ratio in the Church of England is currently somewhere around 35-65 and the gender gap has doubled in my lifetime.

      There are a few things to note here. First, in general in other religions the ratio tips slightly in favour of men, at least in the UK. Second, the ratio varies between Christian traditions and denominations. Almost all churches in the UK have a significant female majority, although the Church of England’s is more pronounced than most. From what I gather, Orthodoxy in the West tends to have a gender ratio that tips in favour of men. Third, the ratio also really varies from country to country. In countries where Christianity has been driven from public life or driven underground, it seems that women particularly dominate in churches. I suspect that the significant attendance of men in a church is as good a barometer as most for the church’s presence to more public life. Fourth, there are other factors to take into account. For instance, the average age of the person in the Church of England pew is over 60. As men die younger than women, this goes some way to explain the difference.

      I think that gender in church attendance and involvement is a very important detail to reflect upon. I also believe that there are definitely gender issues at play here, both in our more contingent cultural forms of gender identity and more absolute gender differences and the way that churches frame their identity relative to these. For instance, the historian Callum Brown has argued that a certain symbiosis developed between the church and the values and spaces of women in the UK, leading to men becoming disengaged and regarding it as a womanly realm. For instance, the church de-emphasized and even resisted martial values and became a more ‘effeminate’ context, which sought to domesticate men, seeking to conform men to a feminine model of piety, rather than recognizing and harnessing more masculine virtues. I think that there is something to this.

  27. Hi Alastair,
    Thank you for your reply, which I have just read with great interest. I’m especially interested in your comment that the gender gap has doubled in your lifetime. I joined the CofE in 1993 and the years following that were a time of flux for the church because of the ordination of women.

    Thinking back on that now I find it difficult not to connect the continued decline of male attendance in the CofE with the ordination of women.There does seem to be a stronger male presence in the Catholic church I attended on several occasions with my parents.

    I’m also interested in your comment about the ratio tipping in favour of men in other faiths in the UK. As a teacher and significantly as a supply teacher, I came into contact with many members of the Sikh and Muslim communities in the Coventry area and I have certainly been aware of a strong male presence in worship in these communities. I have little experience of the Orthodox Church other than via some Lithuanian family friends and there was a strong male presence in that church.

    Your comment about the average age of people in the pew in the CofE and the fact that men die younger than women is certainly a factor in the CofE nationally. The average age in our church is slightly different in that we have a large number of children aged from birth to 16, including many boys. This is largely because the wife of our rector is a childrens’ minister with the Church Army and she liaises with several church schools in the Bedworth area (I think there are five) and with the parents of the children. Our main problems with low male attendance are with older teenage boys, young adult males and older adult males.Many women, including younger women, have husbands who are reluctant/unwilling to come to church.

    I think the whole of your final paragraph is highly relevant and I must check out Callum Brown. A visitor to our church – I can’t remember his name! – also commented on the way the church attempts to conform men to a feminine model of piety. I also thought then of the extent to which we ‘feminise’ Jesus and focus more on ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’ and less on his boldness, outspokenness and brilliant ‘forensic’ questions (e.g. ‘If I am telling you the truth, why don’t you believe me?’ Also, St Paul:’Have I become your enemy because I told you the truth?’)

    Oh, I’ve got a bit carried away with this!

    Thank you again!

    • Hi Alastair, I have just posted a brief response on Steve’s blog. It is awaiting moderation.

    • Angus J says:

      David Murrow covers the subject of the feminisation of the church in his book ‘Why Men Hate Going to Church’. I do not give this book my unreserved recommendation as it is of very variable quality. Some of it is based on very dubious shallow stereotyping and pop-psychology, but there are some gems among the straw, and the last few chapters are pure gold – if you can get that far without throwing the book out of the window, that is.

  28. Sandy Ruskin says:

    You note “I believe that male dominance in power and authority in society isn’t just something biblically authorized or mandate… but is an inescapable fact that God has established through his creation.” I have not read everything you’ve written, but wanted to check that you would not understand male dominance as a form of life that is generated “post” the fall, but as an ineluctable structure formed by God and sewn into the grain of the universe? In creation, I am presuming you would argue, God created male humans qua male humans to be dominant and more powerful than female (and animals). If that is the case, does Jesus fail to live into the dominance demanded by the warrior archetype?

    You then claim that “the very tenor of the Christian faith is jeopardized by women priests” and yet you then note that “women are not able to exercise priesthood in the same manner as men”. I would like to be clear whether you believe that it is possible for a woman ministerial priest to exist? Is a woman in some sense “pretending” ministerial priesthood and the church going along with it? On the basis that it is impossible for a woman to be a ministerial priest, have we churches that fail to be churches without their “head shepherds”? Or, is it the case that women priests do exist and that these women are jeopardizing the tenor of the Christian faith on account of their inability to exercise the priesthood in the “same way”? Have women stepped into a space and discerned a new form of ministerial priesthood that is practised slightly differently, and it is this that concerns you? Were women to be exercising ministerial priesthood “in the same way” as men, I can then see that they would be open to the accusation of not living into their female nature so there’s a slight double bind.

    My response to this post is written from my position as a Christological pacifist (and an Anglican to boot) and so it is to the point in your argument in which you argue that it is the warrior motif within which ministerial priests ought to be identified. I would argue, strongly counter to your position, that Christ very much re-imagines priesthood as a male who /gives/ his life for the sake of the world to win salvation. Instead of shedding the blood of others, he sheds his own blood. Even when Christ returns in Revelation as a conquering Lamb, there is no word of requiring the bloodshed of any people. Sure, the event is awesome and terrifying (Jesus returns as King Lamb, so to speak), but there is no mention of bloodshed so much as men hiding behind rocks. The great day of wrath being upon the world and nobody being able to stand is often reinterpreted such that “every knee will bow”. Even the overcoming of the enemy is unbloody in the sense that it requires no /additional/ bloodshed; the blood that has already been spilled in Christ. It’s not the priest’s ability to shed blood that matters so much as their recognition that it is the Lamb’s blood that was shed in order for victory to be won. Your claim that the lamb is a conquering warrior by the quotation of “These will make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb will overcome them” seems to fit much better the theme that the Lamb overcame the enemy in the giving up of his own life (as a woman in childbirth, for example) than that the lamb is required to be violent. Therein, I believe, lies the uniqueness of Jesus. The conquering lamb crushes /even/ his enemies through giving up his life for them.

    I like your observation that the bible was very much written by warriors and about warriors, I sometimes wonder whether this makes it a somewhat dull text for women, especially given the lack of women as both authors and subject material. However, I am hopeful that your observation has now been overturned. A new understanding might see God requiring warriors in prayer rather than warriors behind drones. God understood through the bloody human history that human nature defiled by (amongst other things) male dominance could only be redeemed by one man’s refusal to dominate any longer.

    I don’t necessarily disagree that “Those who value vulnerability and weakness in a deeply hostile world must be prepared to defend it”, but defending it is not something that excludes women (for whom defence of infants is second nature). The more interesting question is whether those who value weakness must be prepared to kill for it? Does the warrior priesthood require soldiers who would shoot the intruders with guns hidden under the altars or does it require people who would stand in the way of bullets? I think you conflate combat with guarding. I don’t disagree that guarding is vital for the shepherd, but I would strongly assert that violent combat is a necessity.

    It is only within the Protestant tradition, in addition to the Lutheran, Anglican and Old Catholic denominations (which I’d slightly resist characterising as Protestant) that women have been received as priests. I have suspected for some time that the traditions which made this change are those which had already lost power in the eyes of the world. They did not lose power once women were received as priests, but it was once they had lost power that they were able to identify a ministerial priestly charism amongst women. I am aware that opponents would recharacterise and restate this is in the negative, but the question of whether the church is called to be a powerful public body (the warrior?) rather than a homeless hostel is a related political question.

    I enjoyed your claim that we’ve “airbrushed divine violence out of Scripture”. I think that’s definitely something that the Revised Common Lectionary has done, and I’m wondering whether you’d blame that on the influence of women? However, at the heart of this question lies a deeper one concerning the nature of the church and the acceptability of warfare.

    I would observe that traditions which do not allow women to be ministerial priests (or their stated equivalent) do not appear to be places in which women’s gifts as speakers, teachers, exegetes, directors and theologians are acknowledged or promoted. Important here is the possibility that one might receive some form of monetary allowance (not necessarily a salary) for the use of their time, not because money is vital to do the work, but because time is costly.

    Finally, you note “The empowerment and valuing of women… will be best served… when /we/ appoint strong guardians for the Church who are committed to empower and value women” and here I wonder about the identity of the “we”? The choice of who should occupy positions of ministerial priesthood, one in which I would argue that power both flows from (as servant) and to (as royalty) is and should not be in the hands of men who force their wills upon women to stand down or who block their approach.

    • Ian says:


      Your points about Christ subverting the warrior image are needed insofar as they capture the surprising upset of the theologia crucis, but asserting that there is no bloodshed other than Jesus’ own when he returns as conquering Lamb is incorrect. Revelation 14 culminates in the devastation of all the Lamb’s opponents: “the winepress was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the winepress, as high as a horse’s bridle, for 1,600 stadia.”

  29. Sandy Ruskin says:

    Sorry, “violent combat is a necessity” should, of course, read “violent combat is NOT a necessity”.

  30. Minnie says:

    Hey! Do yoս use Twitter? I’d like too follow
    you iff that would be ok. I’m absolutely enjoying your blpog and look forward to neww posts.

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  35. Hi Alastair
    Just stumbled over your blog for which I give thanks and praise. It is rare to find such closely argued, yet utterly gracious prose. The Blessing of God rest upon you!

    This is one of a number of your articles I’ve printed off for further reflection. I’m very interested in your line regarding symbolic difference. For several years I’ve been influenced by Orthodoxy, and the Eastern take on these matters, which they more or less like to gently remind we Western Christians :-), goes back to Christ and the apostles, takes very much this line.

    One particularly fine example of this is found in the writing of Paul Evdokimov, Women and the Salvation of the world. Well worth a read! (His ‘Sacrament of Love’, on marriage, is the best by a country mile I’ve ever read on this)

    I’ll introduce myself further on your ‘front page’ at some stage, but for now a big thank you for giving me so much to ponder on my Advent retreat

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  37. Angus J says:

    I admit to being entirely bemused by a blog post which appears to be based on what seems to me to be the entirely false premise that there is any sort of priesthood in the New Testament era church other than a) the high priesthood of Jesus (after the order of Melchizedek, since Jesus was of the tribe of Judah, not the priestly tribe of Levi) and b) the priesthood of all believers (individually and corporately, both male and female), which comes from believers being ‘in Christ’ (and therefore presumably also of the order of Melchizedek, since Gentile believers are not Israelites of the tribe of Levi, either.).
    My belief in the invalidity of women being ordained to positions of teaching and authority over men in the church is based on New Testament teaching on the qualifications required for presbyters (Gk. presbyteros) and overseers/bishops (Gk. episcopos) and other passages; and also the pattern that can be seen from Genesis onwards of male representative headship.

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