Monday, December 12, 2011

Women's Ordination: My Conclusions; OR: What I Say When Some Jerk on the Bus Wants to Start With Me

This is the third part of my "utrum" paper, rebutting the arguments against women's ordination. Please note that any theological discourse undertaken with Jerks on the Bus is more likely to lead to a headache than a change of heart.

Responsio: I answer that it is theologically sound to ordain women.

Ergo: The strongest case against women’s ordination is the one based on teachings in the Pauline epistles [presented in The Case Against Women’s Ordination]. It is certainly dangerous to claim that the Christian church can simply disregard inconvenient scripture. However, there are ample grounds for valuing women’s calls to ministry over this interpretation of these particular scriptural passages.

Much of Paul’s other writing on gender is disregarded as clearly outdated, meant for people and problems of his own time and not for ours. For instance, immediately before the passage from First Timothy which is used against women’s ordination, the writer says, “women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God” (1 Tim. 2:9-10). Of course, this passage may still have something to say to our time, but few Christians take the admonition against hair-plaiting literally.

Moreover, First Corinthians has an extended argument about head-coverings for men and women, including this:
…any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head—it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil. . . . Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. (1 Cor.11:4-6, 13-15)
This passage, which includes a lengthy argument about creation and gender, stretches a full twelve verses, yet the wider church has judged hair length and head covering to be of little importance for our time. In this case, a lengthy and emphatic discourse on gender has been judged, and rightly so in my opinion, to be a product of and for Paul’s time, rather than an instruction for all time on the appropriate behavior of women.

If we consider this teaching about head coverings to be part of our tradition but not part of our task as Christians, why should we regard the words about women in the church any differently? Paul is no less emphatic here; these words are no more specific to Paul’s social context. In short, his teachings on women and authority need not limit the church’s ability to recognize God’s call of women to ordained ministry in our time any more than any other passages demand that contemporary Christian women wear veils.

The question of catholicity – faithfulness to the traditions of the church worldwide and through the ages – and women’s ordination is a complex one. On one hand, most churches throughout time and many around the world have declared that the ordination of women is not theologically sound; in recent years this has changed, but we must ask whether this change has to do with the guidance of God, or with the pressures of contemporary feminism.

Church history provides some parallel instances which may clarify this question: as we move further away from the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement, for example, it is clear that the churches which advocated abolition and racial equality, both in society and in the church, while this was still unpopular, were influenced not by the whims of the world, but by God’s will for the church.

It is important that the church move in response to God’s will rather than secular trends. Given the testimony of women called to ministry, the witness of scripture, and the history of the church, the ordination of women is theologically sound.

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