24 May 2002

There's been some discussion going on among Catholic bloggers (that wonderful and growing parish of St. Blog) regarding the ordination of women and the teaching of the church as represented by the apostolic letter of Pope John Paul II "Ordinatio Sacerdotalis." I thought I might weigh in on the topic a bit.

First, it might be instructive to note that there are still large sectors of Protestantism--entire denominations, including some sizeable ones--that do not allow the ordination of women to the office of presbyter. Even within those denominations that do allow for the ordination of women, there is often significant resistance and disagreement over the practice.

Second, I do believe, however, that a number of the Catholic commentators are right that certain notions about the nature of the church and worship that are characteristic of much of Protestantism do tend to make the prohibiting the ordination of women seem absurd. If worship is just people gathering to praise God together, then why must a male lead? If the church is just an assembly of individual Christians, then why is the ordained ministry so important?

Third, there are, nonetheless, biblical arguments that many traditional Protestants find decisive with regard to the ordination of women, whatever they may otherwise think about the nature of worship. Those arguments proceed from both wider biblical patterns about male/female relationships and from specific texts in 1 Corinthians, 1 Timothy, Ephesians, and elsewhere where Paul and others delineate how male and female are related and ordered, even in Christ. Attempts to deconstruct those texts to eliminate any permanent teaching regarding the relationship between male and female are, to my mind, unconvincing, even if some overly traditionalist readings of those passages must be abandoned.

Fourth, there is, of course, the text that is appealed to on the other side, Galatians 3:28 ("no male and female" in Christ). This text, along with its parallels in 1 Corinthians 12:13 and Colossians 3:9-11, are at the very center of Paul's Gospel. Yet, apparently Paul saw no incompatibility with his teaching here and elsewhere regarding the ordering of male/female relationships within the family and church. This observation, it seems, provides some prima facie evidence that Galatians 3:28 does not immediately entail women's ordination, not at least without some further argumentation (and there may be weighty arguments to be made). Nonetheless, Paul's teaching here does have profound religious, social, political, and economic implications.

Fifth, it is my view that Paul's shift from "or" ("slave or free") to "and" ("male and female") in Galatians 3:28 establishes the verse as an allusion back to Genesis 1 as well as indicating a recognition that the male/female relationship is not precisely analogous to that of Jew/Greek or slave/free. With regard to Genesis 1, it is the ties of marriage and kinship that are in view and Paul's primary point seems to be that, in baptism into Christ, our mutual relationships are no longer founded upon natural marriage and fleshly kinship and the kinds of social regulations that are tied to them. So for instance, Paul can make the startling statement elsewhere, that a husband does not have authority over his body, but his wife does (1 Cor 7:4). Moreover, he does seem to allow for a significant role for women within the life and worship of the church (e.g., 1 Cor 11:2-16). Still, Paul never uses these great freedoms in Christ to destroy all ordering between the sexes, but sees that ordering as meaningfully transformed within the paradigm of Christ and his Bride, the church (Eph 5:21-33), a relationship in the Spirit within the church that supercedes those based merely upon the flesh in the world.

Sixth, it seems to me that any discussion of women's ordination needs to be placed within a larger context regarding gender, God, creation, and the church. While it is true that God is not biologically male in himself, God is masculine in relationship to the creation, as a whole, which is feminine. Biological sexual differences are one specific symbolic manifestation of more basic relations of masculinity and femininity that suffuse all relationships between God and the creation. In this light it is not a matter of indifference that God the Son was incarnate as a male rather than as a female.

Finally, it should be remembered that the ordained Minister of the Word and Sacraments fulfills a dual role as he functions in persona Christi within the liturgy (and the notion of the minister acting in this way is common to classical Protestant traditions even if it absent from most of contemporary evangelicalism). The Minister functions, in Christ, both from God towards us and from us towards God--a dual role. Thus he speaks the Word of Christ to the congregation, in absolution and Gospel proclamation, so that the Word of the Minister is the Word of Christ himself. And he also ministers the Sacraments of Christ to the congregation, so that it is Christ himself who baptizes and Christ himself who offers himself to us in the eucharist. In these capacities, it is appropriate that the Minister be male as our Lord himself was.

It is sometimes objected, however, that the Minister is also the one who lifts up the church before God, gathering and offering up the prayers and response of the church to him. And since the church is the Bride of Christ, would it not then be appropriate for a woman to minster in this capacity? Is this bridal action not also the minister's role acting in persona Christi, where "Christ" refers to the gathered (feminine) Body? But this is a mistake, I think. When the minister acts on behalf of the gathered church in this capacity, he is still acting in persona Christi as Christ himself as (male) Head of that Body and not as the Bride herself. Christ is not only the one through whom God meets and serves his people, but also the one who offers up that people to God as Christ's Bride.

While, as a Protestant, I have little to say on the "infallibility" of the Pope's teaching, I can agree with him that, so far as I can see, the church doesn't have the authority to ordain women to the presbyterate and that this has been the constant and universal understanding of Scripture by the church. This, at least, is where my thinking currently remains.