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.