After Church – Gender Prescription and Biblical Description

So yeah, confusing issues in the Anglican Church!

For those who don’t know much about Protestant politics in the modern era, the Episcopalian Church in America and the Anglican Church in Britain, although cut from the same cloth, are vastly different entities. Although the Anglican Church remains, traditionally, the head of all related churches, the Episcopalen Church actually has its own internal structure. So, when you read what happened above (that is, the Anglican Church voted against women becoming bishops by a slim margin), things get really, really confusing. The Episcopalians, for example, have homosexual clergy, but the Anglicans do not. That’s one big difference, off the top of my head; I’m sure there are many other.

The Anglican Church has three voting bodies for any major changes in Church political workings – the Bishops, Clergy, and Laity. The first two, obviously, had overwhelming support for the measure. The latter, however, became the crux of the problem when the issue came four votes short of passing – hence, no women bishops. That doesn’t mean they cannot be priests, however, and that creates a lot of confusion.

Anglican hierarchy’s very similar to the Catholic Church – it has its own archbishop (not quite a Pope, more a spiritual leader) and bishops, who each run the individual parishes they are allotted. Then there’s the priests, who run their individual churches. So, in the Anglican Church, women can run individual churches, but they cannot hold a higher leadership position.

Coakley’s article worries about whether the Church, in its mission to have women in higher leadership positions in churches, are kow-towing to the cultural majority rather than presenting a fully developed, and logical consistent, theology on the issue. I have the same concerns, though I imagine I’m coming from a distinctly different Baptist/Evangelical standpoint.

Let’s say, for example, that’s Scripture’s the ultimate authority over all else; I believe this wholeheartedly. Thus, in this issues, the answer seems quite clear: no. 1 Timothy 2 has this to say:

Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments, 10 but rather by means of good works, as is proper for women making a claim to godliness. 11 A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. 12 But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. 13 For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve.14 And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression. 15 But women will be preserved through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self-restraint.

From modern standards, this is unbelievably sexist. So the woman sinned first, and that’s why we have no women in leadership positions? Perposterous! What’s wrong with you, can’t you see that this was a misogynist book? Not so fast; we know from the Bible that women were, in general, allowed leadership positions throughout the early Church, even if we only know by the mention of women from Luke 8, for example:

Soon afterwards, He began going around from one city and village to another, proclaiming and preaching the kingdom of God. The twelve were with Him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and sicknesses: Mary who was called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others who were contributing to their support out of their private means.

Junias was a women disciple, as well, as we see in Romans 16:7, which states:

Greet Andronicus and Junias, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners, who are outstanding among the apostles, who also were in Christ before me.

There were definitely women in positions of leadership and administration. However, 1 Timothy 3 still has more to say:

It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to doAn overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money. He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?), and not a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil. And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he will not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.

Deacons likewise must be men of dignity, not double-tongued, or addicted to much wine or fond of sordid gain,but holding to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. 10 These men must also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons if they are beyond reproach. 11 Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, buttemperate, faithful in all things. 12 Deacons must be husbands of only one wife, and good managers of their children and their own households. 13 For those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a high standing and great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.

We see that Paul provides an allowance for the overseer (our modern equivalent of a pastor) to be a man only; either this reinforces patriarchal gender roles, or it’s actually how churches should run. We can list all the historical knowledge we want surrounding this verse: it was written in a time where women weren’t respected and couldn’t talk in public; Paul reinforces traditional gender roles to make the Christian Church more appealing to the population at large; he believed women were gossipers and busybodies, thus they weren’t fit for serve (1 Timothy 5). If we believe the Gospel, then all men and women alike are free, and thus structured offices aren’t an issue. Yet, we still have 1 Timothy telling people straight out: no women overseers.

How do you get to women clergy, then? It’s not a far jump if you use other resources as authoritative. There’s been a variety of such sources over time, including tradition (what’s come before), reason (the rational faculties of humankind) and experience (how I feel). These, over time, have been used to augment and create vast theological constructs and doctrines that we still hold today. Some use them to construct a theology out of the Bible’s text; others, seeing parts of the text to which they do not agree, place Scripture at a secondary level of authority for THIS issue only. That, my friends, is where I cannot go.

See, I am fine with the idea that we use reason to look at Scripture; after all, the whole project of the Protestant Reformation applied reason to the indulgences given by the Catholic Church,  and how easily was its absurdity made clear? There’s a huge leap between those constructions and the modern academic theological enterprise. This seeks a rather insiduous project which finds things it doesn’t like and emphasize the things that it does – never thinking that such a cultural insertion into the faith might have devastating consequences. In fact, theology as a word spirals into total irrelevancy; when it seeks to fulfill certain “moral” ends, it loses its power and necessity by definition.

As Christian theology moves its way into the modern (or post-modern, depending) era, its content has become increasingly irrelevant to the general Christian population, especially the United States of America. The rise of the religious right, along with evangelical movements supporting an “inerrancy” or “inspiration” model of Scripture, have caused reactions from academia, ranging from a renewed mission to expose the Bible to the historical-critical method for the laity’s sake, to the creation of new theologies adding new adjectival descriptors such as “feminist”, “black”, or any number of other theologies eagerly speaking from the perspective of the “oppressed”. If there is a new perspective, someone has certainly written something about it.

If anything, such thoughts have arisen out of a profound need for prescriptive judgements from a liberal Christian perspective towards their Christian brethren who inhabit the cultural backwaters of the United States – otherwise known as anything between the east and west coasts of the United States. These “sheltered” people continue to live their existence out the same way they have for hundreds of years, with the same beliefs and, from the academic perspective, the same theology who continue to advocate seemingly antiquated positions. The goal, then, is to remove them from their problematic positions – in other words, how can modern theology drag them kicking and screaming into modern life?

This might appear a valiant eff ort on the part of the educated church leaders, but in many cases it is for naught. As in the recent case of the Catholic Church controversy over forced contraceptive handouts under the new American healthcare system, people of faith will cling to such beliefs until the bitter end, and even after the “culture” has had
its own paradigm shift. Why do evangelicals, for example, continue to reject the multitude of advancements made within the fi eld of theology, biblical studies, and the host of sub-fi elds literally extending Christianity’s grasp in intellectual spheres towards infi nity (relatively speaking)? Is there something just wrong about Christian belief in its classical form, or is it merely irrational to hold it in light of new intellectual resources – our reason and experience in the modern era?

Frankly said, most new theology is a misuse of the way human perceive religious belief, or even belief in anything at all. It seeks to o ffer an explanation of certain ideas and opinions about what Christianity is from a particular perspective – in other words, the “how” of the matter. As such, this normally intellectual, written exercise explains that which cannot be explained well, or even at all, about why Christianity remains captivating for those within its grasp. Certainly, much has been written about who God is, but our words can only reach by analogy, as Thomas Aquinas pointed out so long ago. However, it appears the telos of the project plays a new tune, one not entirely amenable to the methodology in use.

The reason for this disjunction remains the language used to express it – namely, human language has been understood incorrectly in regards to theological explication. “Belief” has been conflated with “fact”, and the two ships do not simply sail by each other, but crash in a grand cacophony of meaningless jargon and moralizing e orts to present one’s opinions as “truth”, whatever that might mean. A system of description cannot, at any time, entail prescription, and this is where the modern exercise careens off the tracks.

Thus, when any attempt of “theological reformation” happens, it needs accordance with some sources – the assumption of the postmodern thinker, being reliant upon the scientific method model, thinks that Christian belief’s a set of moral constructs built upon common agreement. We, the “conservative” Christians, do not see things in that light. We see Scripture as a description of the way things are. What happened here in the Biblical texts truly happened; the pronouncements it gives and the message it presents truly come from God. The canon as decided early in the Church days wasn’t assembled out of a hasty need to reinforce the power of one side over the other; it came to being from God’s providence.

And that, I think, is the central problem with the whole debate over women/gay clergy: is this what we, the Christian community, want to happen, or is this how God wants the church to function and operate on earth? Following God’s will and doing what we think is God’s will gives a very different tone to the conversation. If you see Scripture as authoritative, by light of rationalizing your personal opinion into an answer, you create a self-contradictory theology by definition. Why this part and not that part? Why this doctrine and not that?

We’re playing a dangerous game – either moving into self-contradiction or cultural resignation. Neither seems a good option, in my view. We need a Church that stands for its own convictions, not the continually moving whims of the populace at large. If “wisdom” goes before faith, we’re all in the hole, and Christianity continues its slide into irrelevance. As we see in Isaiah 29:14

“Therefore behold, I will once again deal marvelously with this people, wondrously marvelous;
And the wisdom of their wise men will perish,
And the discernment of their discerning men will be concealed.”

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.