Unshared Assumptions: Gender and Genesis

What does the Bible say about women priests? The answer is clear: directly, it says nothing.

Rather than ending the discussion, that fact immensely increases it. It begins with how you read the Bible. Here are some variations:
1. Episcopal Bishop Charles Bennison view is, “The Church wrote the Bible, it can rewrite it.” Biblical truth in his understanding is never absolute and is always subject to amendment by contemporary perspectives,
2. Another view notes the Bible says nothing directly about computers or airplanes either, but few have Christian scruples against them. As the 39 Articles puts it: “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary for salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man.” Therefore, we are free to figure this out on our own.
3. Others see the Bible is a book of rules and wise thoughts. All that is needed is the appropriate proof-text not refuted by more weighty proof-texts. If only there were a verse that said (choose your option) “Women are (forbidden) (permitted) to be priests,” that would solve it
4. If God wanted us to have women priests, he would have said so in the Bible.
5. If God is opposed to women priests, he would have said so in the Bible.

Christianity is unique in that its validity depends on real historical events. In contrast to the five points above, the basic purpose of the Bible is to report that history of salvation, of God’s loving creation, and his restoring it from the mess we have made. Christianity is a personal relationship with Jesus who at the center point of real history, a weekend in the First Century, died and rose again for us. The Bible tells us so. It tells us, not as religious drama, but as historical fact. God is creator, Jesus rose again as savior, in real time at a real place. Because many see religion as kind of a parallel universe to “secular” history, they don’t grasp that the earth is the Lord’s, all of it, and therefore Biblical reports are not in a separate realm, but in the same historical world as Caesar and Napoleon. They may be tempted to read the Bible as a timeless rulebook, as noted above, similar to how the Koran or Torah is read.

Look not, however, for rules and directives. Look instead for the all-encompassing historical message of the Bible, a sweeping worldview, the news of God’s grace in action. The report begins a long time ago, in Genesis, as should we.

There we find that God has created the world, gradually. He then created our species in his own image, male and female (Gen. 1:27), to manage planet earth. The dominion granted them to do this is given to both (Gen. 1:28-30). The woman is created from the man’s rib. She and he are therefore the same flesh (Gen.2:18-24). In contrast to many other viewpoints, ancient and modern, the woman is not an inferior being, but is created as the man’s equal, and both bear the divine image, equally. If Genesis is sacred Scripture (as Judaism, Islam and Christianity all affirm), this basic equality and shared image and dominion cannot be denied.

The Genesis view makes man and woman also complementary parts of the same flesh and inter-dependent. As Paul puts it, “the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does.” “Likewise, also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does”(Romans 7:4). Both genders, being born again in baptism, are granted a royal priesthood (1Peter 2:9) to exercise dominion and offer the earth to God in their stewardship of it.

Together, very much together, responsible for each other, we are therefore called to operate the earth according to God’s will, each of us given our own unique qualifications to perform our unique vocation. When churches limit their terminology of ordination to only a “ministerial” or “priestly” (read “churchy”) vocation, they deny this royal priesthood.

This terminology usually defines ordination as a paid career choice. It sees clergy as the people who run and represent the Church. As one example, I frequently hear “permanent” deacons (deacons not transitioning to priesthood) described as “lay deacons.” For many, the difference between lay and clergy depends on whether the Church pays you or not. And if it is a career, should not both genders have equal rights to this paid position?

The vocabulary reflects the worldview. It has so permeated that it is difficult to recover the real thing. But priesthood was not a career in the early Church, it was a way of being. I have pointed out to many new priests that one reason they are called “Father” is because they have been ordained to a situation similar to fatherhood: it is 24/7, not a day job, it is what you are, not what you do, and no salary is paid.

We need to begin from the very basics to redefine what we mean, using a Biblical worldview. This is neither the assumption of the conservative, defined by Church practice of the past few centuries, nor of the liberal, defined by the standards of the modern age. Being faithful to Biblical teachings means reflecting the categories and vocabulary of Biblical thinking and of the early Church in how we operate and speak.

Next week; what would Jesus think about women in the priesthood (and how I know).