“Prominent Among the Apostles:” Women in Ministry and #ChurchToo

St. Junia, “Prominent among the apostles”

As #ChurchToo continues to unfold, the call for women in leadership has grown both in traditions which ordain women and traditions that do not. Even before the latest round of abuse revelations, the Catholic Church was beginning a conversation about ordaining women as deacons. Now is the time for full equality, and that means ordination.

Arguing for women’s ordination is not to say that women are somehow more pure or less sinful then men, nor is this to deny that women are somehow incapable of sexual abuse. We must remember that nuns ran the infamous Magdalene laundries in Ireland.  Women served as elders at Willow Creek, and a woman in ministry helped cover up an investigation into Bill Hybelss wrongdoing. The accusations leveled against nuns running an orphanage in Vermont are chilling.

But the issue isn’t whether women are capable of abuse. It’s about our common humanity.

To deny women leadership in the Church is to claim some ontological difference between men and women, to claim that women are somehow “other” or inferior to men. And yet even from creation, the Triune God affirms that all of humanity is created in the divine image. Throughout the Old Testament, God affirms this equality by calling women to lead Israel, to wage war, and to prophesy. Jesus affirms this equality by sending out Mary as the “apostle to the apostles.” Even Saint Paul, for all of his “women should stay silent” rhetoric to some communities, served alongside women like Phoebe the deacon and Junia, “prominent among the apostles.”  Scripture affirms and re-affirms and re-affirms again the essential equality between male and female.

Nevertheless, the Church has constantly turned its back on this essential equality. Instead, we have set up structures of power that more closely resemble the ancient Greco-Roman household than the divine οικονομια. In the Greco-Roman household, the pater familias lords over the household, including wives, children, clients, and slaves. It is a system in which male headship is paramount, and even a cursory glance of Roman history shows how abusive the system was. The divine economy of salvation, by comparison, turns the world on its head. Those in authority are not lords but servants, caring for the widow and the orphan. The lofty are cast down, the lowly are lifted up. (For a longer discussion on this topic, see Rachel Held Evans’ essay “Submission in Context”.)

In the process of silencing women, we’ve set the stage for abuse. We’ve clung to the old Roman system rather than God’s divine plan. When our starting point for gender and sexuality is that some people are inherently “less than,” we communicate that those very people are less deserving of love and honor.* By marginalizing women from the outset, we not only silence their voices but establish a hierarchical view of the Church which promulgates abuse. That hierarchical and exclusive structure is a clear sign of the Church’s values, as if to say that the male bishops, priests, and deacons are who the Church truly loves.

Once that power structure is in place, the dam has been breached. Abuse flows from the top down, from the pater familias to the slaves, from the bishop to the laity.

We see it time and time again. Al Mohler is more concerned with protecting CJ Mahaney than the children at Sovereign Grace churches. Bishops are more concerned with protecting priests than children and seminarians. Those inside, those closer to the top, matter more than those closer to the bottom.

Ordaining women, then, is a vital part of participating in God’s economy and, through that economy, communicating to the entire world that the Church values all people.

Comedian-cum-lay theologian Stephen Colbert unpacks this a bit more in his own reflection on hearing a female priest celebrate Mass for the first time. He says:

When I heard a woman say ‘This is my body,’ the freshness of hearing a woman say that gave the message a universality that it always should have….

That universality is lacking when we prevent women from serving as bishops, presbyters, and deacons. And when we try to block the universality of God’s image, we do damage to women and the entire Church.

A recent study highlights the link between seeing women preachers in one’s own tradition and a woman’s sense of worth and standard of living. Our theological convictions have practical importance; simply put, bad theology brings about bad things. Abusive theology brings about abuse. An oppressive theology of gender and ministry is detrimental to women and to everyone else. Ordaining women is a reminder that women are image-bearers, and it’s an important message to women and everyone else that they are co-equal with men.

Moreover, when we exclude half the Church from positions of ministry, what we are telling abuse survivors is that the Church doesn’t care — and by extension that God doesn’t care. To exclude women from the pulpit and the cathedra is to tell those who have been oppressed that the old power structures are alive and well in the ecclesia and that God has abandoned them to the bottom of the heap.

This past summer was a remarkable time in the life of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Six synods elected new bishops, and all six of them were women. Included in this number is the back-to-back election of our first two African-American women to serve as bishops. (And when extended to include re-elections, eight of the eleven bishops chosen were women.) What this means is that new voices are being heard, new people are experiencing God’s plan for equality, and new women — children and the elderly — are seeing bishops who look like them, reminding them that God calls all of us to serve the Church. Here, in a denomination that is still mostly-white and, just fifty years ago, didn’t ordain women, the old hierarchy is being reformed. This summer’s elections send an important message to Lutherans and other Christians the world over: all who bear God’s image are called and their lives matter.

In other traditions, the debate rages on. Some, especially in the SBC, will go out of their way to ensure that a woman never preaches. At the SBC’s flagship seminary, Albert Mohler has spent a quarter century driving out those who would let a woman preach; today, women are explicitly denied enrollment in courses on homiletics. Other times, the prohibition results in rhetorical gymnastics. In many Baptist parishes, a woman may give a testimony, she may talk, she may read Scripture, but she can never preach. She may lead a ministry for children or weddings but never have authority over a man in the congregation; she may be a leader, but never of men and never as deacon or elder.

In the Catholic Church, women may preach — but never at Mass, never during the liturgical high point of the week, never on the major solemnities. And so the people in the pew get the message: some things are off-limits. Some people just aren’t allowed to because they are “other,” because their vocations don’t matter, because the Church doesn’t need their voice, because God values them less than men.

Our members know when we’re splitting hairs. They know when we’re going out of our way to disqualify others. They get the message. Southern Baptist seminarian Elizabeth-Anne Nordgren Lovell puts it this way:

Calling it something else doesn’t seem to be solving any problems. If anything, it is making things worse.

Fellow Candler alum Elizabeth Rogers, facing the realization that members of her congregation drew the line at the pulpit, that bad theology threatened to shackle her vocation, offers a simple refrain:

SHE is going to preach.

As the Church faces a crisis of its own making, as our sinful systems facilitate abuse, it’s time to re-affirm the essential equality of all people, to open up our pulpits and our cathedrae to all who are called, to have our hierarchy reflect our theology, and to affirm that every single person, regardless of age or gender, bears the image of God.

*A similar process can be seen in how theology has been used to argue for racist positions; for more on that history, cf. Stamped from the Beginning.

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