If Women Can Be Saved, Then Women Can Be Priests: A Critique of the “in persona Christi” Argument Against Women’s Ordination

Editor’s Note: The piece below represents the opinion of the author. Anglican Pastor does not take a site-wide position for or against women’s ordination. We do, however, require both clarity and charity. We ask that your responses to it do so as well.

After reading this piece, please see Lee Nelson’s response and Emily McGowin’s rejoinder.


The connection between christology and soteriology

A cornerstone of orthodox Christian theology is summed up in the phrase “what is not assumed is not healed”. The phrase is echoed by many early church fathers, but it is credited to St. Gregory of Nazianzus.

I teach this principle to undergraduates in my theology classes every semester when we are discussing the development of classical christology (the doctrine of Christ). And my students usually grasp the significance of this principle quite easily.

As the early church fathers sought to make sense of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, they recognized that if Christ were not fully human—human in every way as we are, yet without sin—then Christ could not redeem humanity.

Thus, Jesus Christ had to have:

  • a real human body,
  • a real human mind,
  • real human emotions, and
  • a real human soul.

In the words of St. Gregory of Nazianzus:

“For that which he has not assumed he has not healed; but that which is united to his Godhead is also saved. If only half Adam fell, then that which Christ assumes and saves may be half also; but if the whole of his nature fell, it must be united to the whole nature of him that was begotten, and so be saved as a whole” (Epistle 101, 32).

In this way, christology and soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) are intimately connected. To rescue us from the dominion of Sin, Evil, and Death, the Word, the Second Person of the Trinity, had to become like us.

As the divine Word, he could descend into the darkest depths of human sin and suffering without being overcome by them. And, as the Word-made-flesh, he could ascend to the heights of heaven following his resurrection—and bring us, now reconciled and united with God, along with him.

Implications

If “what is not assumed is not healed” is a crucial, non-negotiable aspect of orthodox Christianity, then we do well to consider carefully its implications.

For example, if the flesh that the Word assumed in Jesus Christ was ethnically Jewish, does that mean Jesus cannot save Gentiles?

The church has consistently answered: No, of course not. In the logic of “what is not assumed is not healed,” what matters in the incarnation is Jesus’ humanness, not his Jewishness.

(To be clear, Jesus’ Jewishness is crucial to his person and work. Without recognizing that Jesus was a first-century Jew, and all the religious, social, and cultural implications that entails, one cannot fully understand Jesus and what he has done on our behalf. But what I’m exploring here is the logic at work in orthodox reasoning about christology and soteriology.)

Indeed, it is precisely in the particularities of Jesus Christ’s person that he can save all people. The particularity of the incarnation is the pathway to the universality of salvation. “[H]e had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people” and “not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (Heb. 2:17; 1 Jn. 2:2).

As Beth Felker Jones says in her book Practicing Christian Doctrine, “Jesus does not come among us as a generic human being; he comes as we do, with particulars.” The truth is, there is no such thing as a generic human being. So, in order to be human, the Word had to become a particular human being, with ethnicity, culture, language, sex, gender, and more.

What, then, of Jesus’ maleness? Can a male Christ save women?

Yes, orthodox theologians reply. Yes, of course he can.

Why? Because in assuming the flesh and blood, soul and spirit, of a particular human being, the Word has assumed the flesh and blood, soul and spirit of all human beings—including women.

(It is worth observing that, according to orthodox Christian teaching, the human nature of Jesus Christ was formed in the womb of the Virgin Mary, without the contribution of male “flesh” whatsoever. The Word-made-flesh receives his human flesh from a woman. I am grateful to my colleague, Rev. Dr. Amy Peeler, for bringing this to my attention.)

Again, what matters for salvation is Jesus’ humanness, not Jesus’ maleness.

Now, what does all this have to do with women’s ordination?

Quite a lot, actually.

Many arguments are proffered against women’s ordination, some biblical, some theological, some historical, some even biological and psychological. Of course, there is far more to the arguments for and against women’s ordination than this short piece is able to address.

For now, due to space constraints, I choose to focus on one argument against women’s ordination that I find particularly theologically problematic: The assertion that women cannot represent Christ in the celebration of the Eucharist; the claim that women cannot act in persona Christi (“in the person of Christ”).

The argument, in short, goes something like this: Because women have female bodies and Jesus Christ has a male body, women cannot serve as a sacramental sign of Christ in the Eucharist.

To be more specific, women cannot act in persona Christi because their female bodies do not correspond to the body of the male Christ. In this view, female priests are not just not allowed; female priests are false signifiers. In their female persons, female priests lie, as it were, about the male person of Jesus Christ, who is presiding sacramentally at the altar.

And, as a result, women must not represent Christ at the Eucharistic feast.

Today, very often, though not always, this perspective is linked to a form gender essentialism gleaned from Pope John Paul II’s “theology of the body” and his recent popularizer, Christopher West.

In the theology of the body, male and female are seen as ontologically distinct, two parts of the one whole of the imago Dei. This “natural” gender division then serves as the foundation for structured gender roles.

When it comes to the function of the priesthood, then, the male sacramentally represents Christ while the female sacramentally represents the Church. Within this perspective, to have a woman priest is to usurp and upend a fundamental ontological reality of the world God has made.

But this brings us back to our christological and soteriological principle: “what is not assumed is not healed”. If women qua women are fundamentally incapable—and, according to some Christians, even ontologically incapable—of representing the male Jesus Christ in their female persons, then that calls into question whether their female persons can be redeemed by the male Jesus Christ.

But, of course, we know that isn’t the case.

All human beings—Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free—are saved through the Incarnation of the Word (the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ).

The particularities of Jesus’ person—a poor, Jewish, male, unmarried, 30-something adult living in first-century, Roman-occupied Israel—are the means by which all human persons are redeemed. And, by becoming one with Christ in our baptism, all become partakers of his Royal Priesthood.

If that’s the case, then all persons are potentially capable of serving as sacramental signs of their Savior.

Responding to an objection: Aren’t redemption and sacramental representation different?

But, some might object: “Jesus, though male, can redeem women. But women can’t sacramentally represent Jesus because redemption and sacramental representation are two different things.”

I would respond: On what basis does the concept of sacramental representation rest?

Many things could be addressed on this front, but I’ll specify only a few.

First, the idea of sacramentality is rooted, in part, in the analogy of being.

An analogy does not require a pure one-to-one correspondence—indeed, in Christian theology it specifies the opposite. Between creature and Creator there are similarities, but never such that the dissimilarities are not always greater. Thus, all analogies between God and human beings are inadequate. They are able to speak some real truth, but always fall short in the end.

Similarly, the sacramental representation of the priest will always fall short of pure representation because it is based on analogy.

Second, sacramental representation means the priest functions not as Christ, but as an icon of Christ.

As William Witt has argued, priests are jars of clay, pointing away from him- or herself and pointing to Christ the High Priest, particularly as they share in his suffering (2 Cor. 4:5-10).

What is central is not physical similarity to the male body of Christ, but the priest’s participation in the pattern of Christ, the Suffering Servant. Insofar as the priest demonstrates this participation, the priest serves as a sacramental representation.

Finally, if the sacramental validity of the priesthood is based in significant part upon the sexed and gendered body of the priest (that is, a male body to match the male Christ), then we find ourselves in a bit of a bind.

As Sarah Coakley (among others) has shown, in the course of the Eucharistic service, the priest not only acts in persona Christi, but also in persona Ecclesiae, which, in the imagery of Eph. 5:22, is gendered female.

If a woman cannot act in persona Christi because her female body does not match the male body of Christ, then how will a man act in persona Ecclesiae when his male body does not match the female Church?

The answer, of course, is that they can; because the priestly body functions sacramentally, or analogically.

No matter which priestly body is the subject of scrutiny, all bodies inevitably fall short of a pure one-to-one correspondence between the sexed and gendered body of human beings and the Bride and Bridegroom they are meant to represent.

And that brings us back to the principle of analogy. No human body exactly, literally, univocally corresponds to our Great High Priest, Jesus Christ. But, they do not have to. They need only serve as analogues, which is, in fact, core to what sacrament means in the first place.

Let us return then to Gregory’s great insight, “what is not assumed is not healed,” and put my overall point as plainly as possible:

Conclusion: If Christ in his male body saves women through their shared humanity, then women, through their shared humanity with Christ, can represent Christ at the altar.

If they cannot—if, in their female bodies, women are incapable of serving as sacramental signs of the male Savior, Jesus Christ—then women’s salvation is in jeopardy, as is the salvation of all who differ from Christ in their embodied particulars.

The good news of “what is not assumed is not healed” is that this jeopardy is decidedly not the case. The Word-made-flesh has made provision in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension for the salvation of all humankind. As Gregory of Nazianzus insisted: “[God] has assumed humanity for our salvation … that by one and the same person, who was perfect man and also God, the entire humanity fallen through sin might be created anew” (Epistle 101, 34).

Do women demonstrate bodily differences from the God-man, Jesus Christ? Yes, of course they do.

But it is by virtue of those very distinctions that women offer a powerful sacramental sign of our Great High Priest and the new creation he has inaugurated in his body. And we who feast at Eucharistic tables presided over by women priests get to see glimpses of this new creation every Sunday.

Postscript: Further Reading

The argument offered here is inspired, in part, by the following resources. I recommend them to you for further reading:


Featured image by Adam Jones via Flickr.

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34 comments

  1. Ms. McGowin assumes the interchangeability of the sexes, and, that sex is merely a bodily reality. Jesus Christ had to be male, to be the 2nd Adam. Her most profound error though, is assuming an extra-biblical truism, namely that “What is not assumed is not healed.” By putting that general idea above the specific instructions of the holy scriptures, she is led to an extra-biblical conclusion.

    1. It is not clear to me that she is assuming the interchangeability of the sexes. She is assuming the common humanity of both male and female. Dorothy Sayers says lucidly in ‘Are Women Human?’ that English is impoverished because we only have the words man and woman and not the common word for both, e.g. latin has ‘vir’ and ‘femina’ but also ‘homo’. It is the common ‘homo’ that Dr. McGowan is referring to in her essay. What you disagree with her on, perhaps, is not that aspect of her argument but on the question of what is figured by the ministerial priest.

  2. Talk about a whopping non sequitut, not to mention a shameful piece of theological legerdemain. Her argument sounds like that of the small but vocal nest of feminists I encountered when I was in the Orthodox Church. The fact of the matter is that there is zero, zilch, nada support in the Fathers for women’s ordination. It’s why they never ordained one.

    1. I would encourage you, if you are open to persuasion, to read the evidence to the contrary in Gary Macy’s Hidden History of Women’s Ordination. In fact women were ordained well into the medieval period in different places. Moreover, even after Gregory VII’s consolidation of the cursus honorum concluding all ordination on priestly ordination, women continued to do almost everything associated with priestly ministry, i.e. preaching, hearing confessions, assigning penances, even presiding at the altar. One can point to the ministry of Hildegard of Bingen as only the most prominent example of this. http://www.amazon.com/Hidden-History-Womens-Ordination-Medieval/dp/0199947066/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=hidden+history+of+women%27s+ordination&qid=1569676708&s=gateway&sr=8-1

      1. “I would encourage you, if you are open to persuasion, to read the evidence to the contrary in Gary Macy’s Hidden History of Women’s Ordination. In fact women were ordained well into the medieval period in different places. (etc.)”

        Ah, but the devil is in the details of Macy’s work, is he not? 😉 Even Macy, it would seem, is not a proponent of women’s ordination in the Church of Rome, though many of his pro-WO readers have enthusiastically seized upon his work, oversimplifying it, as “proof” of their own argument. They will be profoundly disappointed at the end of the day.

        No, Mr. Pagan, Macy simply won’t do. One can take full measure of his work and still conclude that the Catholic Church’s position (Roman, Orthodox and conservative Anglo) is simply the culmination of a long period of task theology, the finding being that women may not be ordained to the diaconate, priesthood or episcopate. Rome has already essentially spoken on the matter, so the cause is finished there. As for the prospect of the Orthodox Church ordaining women, well, as the late Richard John Neuhaus once put it, “If there is anything certain in history, it is certain the Orthodox Church will never ordain women.” He’s right. The matter is closed for Catholic Christians.

  3. Talk about a whopping non sequitur, not to mention a shameful piece of theological legerdemain. Her argument sounds like that of the small but vocal nest of feminists I encountered when I was in the Orthodox Church. The fact of the matter is that there is zero, zilch, nada support in the Fathers for women’s ordination. It’s why they never ordained one.

  4. One of the pathologies of the Protestant Reformation is that it eventually came to embrace pluralistic theologies, quite in accordance with its principle that well-meaning scholars could arrive at differing stances in their quest to discover “new light breaking forth from Scripture” and hence could posit new understandings that should be classed as adiaphora. This is why Will Witt, whom the author cites, refers warmly to “PhD Anglicanism.” The Protestant theological academy thus supplanted the authority of the Fathers and the Church’s bishops.

  5. With regard to priestly representation, what is lost in this viewpoint is a real grasp on the fatherhood of God. As a counterview to this article, C.S. Lewis’ “Priestesses in the Church?,” fleshes out what is lacking in this redefinition of ordination.

    “Goddesses have, of course, been worshipped: many religions have had priestesses. But they are religions quite different in character from Christianity.” -C.S. Lewis

    1. I love C.S. Lewis, but I think this is one of his poorest essays. There are several places where it might be criticized (the BVM was not present at the descent of the Spirit on Pentecost? God is essentially masculine? Feminine theological language is a “horror” to Christians?), but the main criticism is that he focuses on practical arguments and misses the whole theological rationale–the rationale presented by Dr. McGowin. The church has not had priestesses, and it does not have them now–there are only priests, both men and women, who participate in the one priesthood of Jesus Christ. Just as there is also no such thing as a “Christianess”–simply Christians, both men and women, baptized into Christ.

  6. I enjoyed reading the article and appreciate the thoughtfulness with which the subject is addressed. Perhaps we can say that the priest is an icon of Christ, the One and only Priest. At the Eucharistic assembly he stands (Christ does, with the priest) at the head of the assembly in order to complete the reality of the gathering of the church as the body of Christ. The gathered assembly doesn’t just represent the church, but is the church made up of all those who have united themselves to Christ: whether male or female, slave or free, Jew or Greek, etc. etc.

    The gathering as the body of Christ is clear but what about the head? It seems to me only the one who looks like Christ can adequately fulfill that role. That needs to be represented clearly.

    A second aspect is that the priest serves as a father, after the fatherhood of God begetting children by water and the spirit to the new life of the kingdom. The fatherhood image is quite distinct from motherhood image. We can’t lose that connection with God the father.

    1. Without a doubt, this is the theology that undergirds the ministerial priesthood for Roman Catholics, but it is not so for Anglicans and Orthodox. For this cf the essays by Bishop Kallistos Ware and Elisabeth Behr-Sigel in The Ordination of Women in the Orthodox Church, which argue that that priest primarily stands in persona christi corporis or ecclesiae, not capitis. What is figured in the ministerial priesthood is not fundamentally different than what is figured in the participative priesthood of the people. But it is this priesthood gathered, summed up, and figured. Facing east in the anaphora is the posture of receptivity of the one sacrifice of the head, and versus populum the posture of distribution of what is received from the head.

    2. Hey, Fr. Lawrence!

      The celebrant doesn’t need to look exactly like Jesus- the author of this article pointed out that if that were the case, priests would have to be Jewish men. (They’d probably even wear turbans and Galilee-style robes and sandals!)

      Also, the fatherhood analogy sounds great, until you realize that God is not the Father in a traditional sense, and is even described throughout the Bible at times in a feminine sense (for example, in Matthew, Jesus desires to take Jerusalem under his wings like a mother hen would). If God’s nurturing, disciplinary, watchful parenting were limited to one gender role, then I’m not sure His parenting would sound very sufficient. Do we want the priesthood to represent a limited fatherhood when we know God’s role on our lives is so much more complex than that?

  7. No, women are not able to be priests as the very term “priest” pertains to the catholic consensus. That consensus is fixed on this question and no jurisdiction has authority to change the received Tradition.

    1. Petitio principi. The consensus is the very thing that is in question, both in terms of history (for which see my comment above about the documentary and artifactual evidence that women in fact were ordained into well into the medieval period), and in terms of the symbolism of the priest’s representation (on which there is no agreement between Catholics and Orthodox, much less Anglicans). Moreover, Roman Catholics do not recognize the validity of Anglican orders full stop. They are ‘absolutely null and utterly void’ according to apostolicae curae. Any putative appeal to Vincentianism is misplaced on this question.

  8. Emily, I liked what you said and how you said it. This needs to be said. The

    For further thought, here is a quote from Bridge and Phypers, from their book: Communion: The Meal That Unites?:

    “At the Last Supper, Jesus claimed that his death would be the sacrifice which would ratify this new covenant. So those who trusted him would be forgiven their sins and made into God’s new people. Thus, the eucharist is not simply an individual affair whereby the worshipper “makes his communion”. In the eucharist the church worships and should be conscious of its calling as the body of Christ.”

    The Christology and soteriology that you bring out ring true.

  9. Thanks to everyone who has commented. I do not have time to respond thoroughly to every critical point, but I’ll say a few things in response.

    First, I was explicit in this piece about addressing one aspect of the argument against women’s ordination. I did not pretend to be comprehensive. If I thought the argument for women’s ordination only rested on this argument, i would not support it. Thankfully, that is not the case.

    Second, the argument I have laid out here does not necessarily lead to a denial of sexual and gender differentiation. I do not deny real differences between the sexes. I deny, however, that those differences result in women qua women being disqualified for the priesthood.

    Third, “not accepted by the whole church” is not, in itself, an argument. The “whole church” also continues to deny the validity of Anglican holy orders. The same is true of the statement that the Fathers never supported women’s ordination. The Fathers also generally saw women as physically, intellectually, morally, and spiritually deficient. They were capable of being mistaken–or, at the very least, inconsistent.

    Fourth, I won’t say more on the matter of the fatherhood of God because I think both Jonathan Warren Pagán and Thomas Kelson have spoken quite ably on the subject. I agree with what they’ve laid out here.

    Finally, if readers have concluded that what I said above truly constitutes blasphemy (or heresy, or the like), then I’d encourage them to reach out to my bishop, Todd Hunter with C4SO. He will want to know if one of his deacons is teaching something heterodox.

    1. Emily, thank you for this excellent piece. I fully agree. I’m also grateful to Jonathan Warren Pagan for his insightful responses in the comments section.

  10. Thank you, Emily! I grow so tired of Christians thinking there is any significance to sex or gender when it comes to spirituality or function. These are accidents of biology and say NOTHING about our humanness.

    You’ve really done the best job of explaining why same-sex marriages should be sanctioned, blessed, and supported in the Church! God bless you!

    1. I’m only replying to this in hope that people who read it and are quickly tempted to eat your red herring in one bite will actually read the article more carefully than it appears you have before resorting to sarcasm, which serves no one.

  11. Are people aware that the Anglican in North America is ordaining and installing women as rectors, priests in charge, and vicars ? Is this happening in every diocese ? No, it is not. My issues with clergy have never been about their gender, race, ethnicity, age, …. If it bothers you, okay. If it does not bother you, okay.

  12. Its only an issue if Jesus says its an issue. He has come for all and is in all. It is and continues to be a mystery. Jesus constantly uses the “unworthy” and makes them worthy. Thanks for your heart…

  13. This is excellent. Thank you, Dr. McGowin. And though there are, as you acknowledge, other objections to the ordination of women, I think the supposed inability of women to stand in persona Christi is the primary one–and also the most damaging when its logic is played out, as you have so ably demonstrated. Thank you, again.

  14. The scripture that recently came to me about this issue is this: ‘Love covers a multitude of wrongs / sins.” This month I’m in the process of leaving my former Western Rite Orthodox parish for an ACNA parish ten minutes from my house. I won’t go into the reasons for this here.

    My new parish has three women deacons and the head rector is a man. I see that the head rector’s covering is and remains over this parish.

    Do I believe personally in the ordination of women? No.

    Do I believe women should be head rectors of a parish? Heaven’s no.

    Nevertheless I like and respect these women and receive in this church under their ministry and the head rector’s.

    I’m tired of being picky. This issue is above my pay grade, and I’m letting the issue go.

    My personal suggestion for the ACNA is that at some point in the future, grandfather out women as vested sacramental ministers while allowing them to have paid pastoral positions at the same level of pay as the men. The women can still be chalice bearers, etcetera.

    If I were an emperor, this is what I would decree happen. But I’m not. I’m just going to accept the situation, love and pray for the churches, and let God address it in His time and way.

    Blessings in Christ

  15. My comment has nothing to do with the content of this article but with the title. I wish people would think more carefully when writing them. The title of this article is a non sequitur, and it automatically casts a negative light on the article itself. I found myself waiting for that shoe to drop as I read. Fortunately, the author doesn’t make such a mistake.

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