I originally intended my account of my change of position on women’s ordination to be two or three posts–perhaps five at most. This is now the ninth post, and I probably have a couple more left in me.
Throughout the series, I have tried to be fair to the complementarian side by presenting its interpretations of Scripture as its proponents would. Some converts are eager to disparage their formerly-held position; I have no desire to do so, because I do not consider complementarians to be enemies, but rather allies in service of the gospel.
As I turn to the subject of history, however, I will express my opinion about the negative consequences of complementarianism in the church and in society. I do not intend to come across as “triumphalist,” but part of my change of position was realizing that complementarianism has done some damage to the church’s gospel witness. My complementarian brothers and sisters must remember that my criticism applies to myself as well, as I was a complementarian for many years.
Anyway, let’s get to the arguments over church history and authority…
Once I reached the point of accepting that egalitarians had compelling arguments for reading patriarchal biblical texts as exhibiting a redemptive trajectory relative to culture, I still had two objections to ordaining qualified women as elders. In this post I will address the witness of church history, and in the next post I will take up the association of women’s ordination with theological liberalism.
All branches of the church until relatively recently (the last century-and-a-half), and sizable branches of the global church today (Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches, many conservative Protestants) did not ordain women. As I have written previously, I tend to be of a conservative orientation in matters of religion; while I affirm Scripture alone as the authoritative Word of God, I am a confessional Protestant, not a biblicist. The historic interpretation of Scripture in the church carries significant weight in my assessment. It was therefore difficult to accept the notion that both the Eastern and Western churches were wrong on this for so long, and that the Roman, Eastern and Oriental churches are still wrong.
The various answers I discovered to this first objection are quite complicated, as questions of history, authority, trajectory, and hermeneutics intertwine.
Christians of all stripes must acknowledge that there are plenty of issues that the universal church has been wrong about, or that large branches of the church have gotten wrong for a long time. The Protestant Reformation was in part a recognition that the Western church had maintained an unbiblical doctrine of justification for centuries. Until the eighteenth century, most Christians believed slavery to be permissible, even justifying it on biblical grounds. Even to this day, the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Churches teach doctrines that I believe are contrary to Scripture (and they believe the same thing about my tribe). Unless we are prepared to say that church doctrine was perfect in, say, AD 100, or AD 325, or AD 500, we must allow for the possibility that the church could have been wrong for a long period of time and eventually come to a correct position. (It also means that it is highly unlikely that you or I have the precisely “biblical” position on one-hundred percent of theological issues right now–a fact which should inspire humility.) This is a thoroughly Protestant view of the church and its doctrine, which I hope will resonate with my Protestant complementarian friends.
The argument that “the church has been wrong about slavery, so it could have been wrong about women’s ordination” is not decisive, but it opens the door a crack. The next step would be to consider whether women were in fact involved in ordained ministry in the early church, and their stories were later suppressed. As we have seen previously, there do appear to be examples of women in the New Testament who are called “deacon” and “apostle,” in just about as official a capacity as there could have been at that time. Other evidence from the Patristic era has been gathered as well. It is also possible that rather than consciously suppressing these stories, later historians interpreted the stories of these women through their prior assumption that women could not hold ordained office and therefore these women must have been unofficial leaders.
It should also be emphasized that the modern complementarian idea of women being “equal in worth and essence” while subordinate in role is actually not much found in the Christian tradition until about the middle of the 20th century. Until about the 1960s, Christians in the West thought women were inferior to men in worth, essence, strength, intelligence and ability. To be fair to Christians, until the 20th century most Westerners (and perhaps non-Westerners) considered women to be intellectually and psychologically (not to mention physically) inferior to men. So, both complementarians and egalitarians are operating with the relatively recent (and true!) realization that men and women are “equal in worth and essence,” but complementarians cannot claim precedent in that regard.
In case you haven’t studied this subject, here are some examples of what many Westerners–Christians and non-Christians–thought of women in eras past:
- Evidence from Greek thought, Roman law, and church teaching.
- A well-respected psychologist who works on gender issues: “To simplify broadly, two main explanations have been put forward for why men have dominated culture and ruled the world. The first was accepted nearly everywhere until the twentieth century: that men were naturally superior to women. The forces that created human beings, whether they involved a divine power or the natural processes of evolution (or some combination), made men to be better and created women to help and serve men.”
- It’s not just religion, but also “naturalistic” science that considered women to be inferior: The history of the human female inferiority ideas in evolutionary biology.
Don’t get me wrong–I’m glad that complementarians regard women as equal to men in essence. I also don’t think it’s fair or constructive to bash individuals or societies of previous eras who held views that we now consider to be wrong or harmful. Individuals, movements and cultures need to be understood on their own terms, in their historical contexts. But if complementarians wish to distinguish themselves from patriarchalists by asserting that women and men are equal in worth and essence, much of church history does not support their position.
So then we come back to the question: Is there biblical and early-church evidence that women held positions of leadership, even ordained office? Yes, there is evidence, which is thankfully being recovered by historians:
- Women in Church History: Footnoted and Forgotten?
- Lynn Cohick, Women in the World of the Earliest Christians
- Kevin Madigan & Carolyn Osiek, eds., Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History
- The Neglected History of Women in the Early Church
…and there is thankfully much more. If we don’t approach the historical evidence with the prior assumption that women never served as ordained elders/overseers, then we can see that they did in fact hold such roles. This does not mean that a majority of elders or overseers were ever women–far from it. Remember, most cultures in which Christianity has been widely practiced have been patriarchal, and so men were more likely to have been learned enough to serve as authoritative leaders. But women leaders are part of the church’s heritage and must be integrated into our understanding of proper interpretation of Scripture.
Sometimes it’s asserted that egalitarians bear a significant burden to explain how their position could possibly be in line with the historic teaching of the church. This is fair. But it is also fair to press complementarians to demonstrate how their position can be properly distinguished from sheer patriarchy (i.e., the belief that men are superior to women in worth, essence, etc.). Given the patriarchal history of Western culture, the complementarian has a steep hill to climb.
My next post will address the association of women’s ordination with theological liberalism.