Editor’s Note: Thank you to the Rev. Dr. Emily McGowin for writing this rejoinder to Fr. Blake Johnson’s and Fr. Lee Nelson’s responses to her original blog post about the in persona Christi argument against women’s ordination. While we invite this conversation (about McGowin’s original blog post) to continue in our comments section and elsewhere—and we plan to publish more about women’s ordination in the future—we will not be adding surrejoinder blog posts.
I am grateful to Fr. Blake Johnson and Fr. Lee Nelson for their responses to my previous blog post, “If Women Can Be Saved, Then Women Can Be Priests.”
I begin with a point of clarification: My piece was intentionally narrow. I offered a critique of the in persona Christi argument against women’s ordination to the priesthood. I was not offering a full argument for women’s ordination. It seems some confusion has resulted from those who assume I was doing the latter rather than the former.
With that in mind, I am glad to see Johnson and Nelson have broadened the discussion on this subject. They help to demonstrate that the conclusion one draws regarding women in the priesthood depends not only upon the christological issue I raised initially, but also a variety of other weighty matters, including biblical interpretation, how one draws upon the sources of the tradition, and more.
Beginning with Scripture
While both authors raise a variety of issues worthy of engagement, I want to begin with biblical interpretation (something Nelson faults me for not doing enough of). Since both Johnson and Nelson root their arguments in a particular reading of Genesis 2, I’ll focus my attention there. In what follows, I am drawing, in part, upon conversations with my Wheaton College colleague, Dr. Aubrey Buster.
First, in Genesis 2:21–22, the Hebrew word tsela’ does not mean “rib” as Nelson suggests.
It is translated “rib” by some Bible translations today, but that translation is not demonstrative of the best scholarship on the subject.
According to HALOT, the current standard Hebrew lexicon, there is no other occurrence in the Hebrew Bible where tsela’ means “rib”. In every other case, it is translated “side” (see p. 1030). The Septuagint translates the Hebrew with the Greek word pleura, which also means “side.” Even in cognate languages where it is used for animal or human anatomy, it refers to the side of the chest.
Why is this important?
Because the scriptures say Eve is constructed out of Adam’s side. Eve is derivative in the sense of being taken from Adam (like Adam was taken from the earth), but decidedly not derivative in the sense of subordinate to Adam; she is his side, one half of a whole. The theological point of Genesis 2 is not to emphasize the hierarchical difference between Adam and Eve, whether in terms of ontology, function, or roles, but their similarity. Put simply, Adam and Eve are made of the same stuff. Eve is not an alien creature. She is Adam’s side—his own flesh and bone—which Dr. John Walton calls Adam’s “ontological equal” (see The Lost World of Adam and Eve, p. 110).
Interpreters of Genesis note that chapters 1 and 2 appear to be intentionally subversive of the creation stories and cosmologies of the nations surrounding the people of Israel. The same holds true in the creation of woman. It was quite common in the cultures of the ANE to view women as creatures of inferior ontology in comparison to men. (Not just the ANE, of course, but in Greek thought, too, where the supposed inferior ontology of women becomes more institutionalized.) The biblical narrative is, in Walton’s words, “operating in the same room of discourse” as the ANE, but “Genesis has rearranged all the furniture”. The author is offering a subversive, countercultural perspective: one that affirms the full humanity and God-ordained status of women side-by-side with men.
Second, a close reading of the text shows that the task for which Eve is created is the same task for which the man is created.
Johnson rightly notes that God gives to the man a task, namely to “keep and to guard” the garden (v. 15), which parallels the temple service of the Levites (see Num. 3:8-9). And it is in the context of this task that God says it is not good for him to be alone (v. 18).
That is to say, is it not good for Adam to do his keeping and guarding work alone. Instead, he must have an ezer kenegdo (v. 18): an “ally (one who aids someone in accomplishing a task) of the same kind.” What is this ally-ship for, but for the task for which the man was created? Eve will be the one who helps him in accomplishing the task given him by God.
Others have written about the significance of ezer in Gen. 2:18, so I won’t duplicate their work here. I’ll simply point out that the word ezer occurs 21 times in the Bible: it is used twice to describe the woman in Gen. 2, sixteen times to describe God, and three times to describe an army aiding in battle.
- in Exod. 18:4: “…the name of the other, Eliezer (for he said, “The God of my father was my help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh”).
- In Deut. 33:26: “There is none like God, O Jeshurun, who rides through the heavens to your help, through the skies in his majesty.”
- And Ps. 33:20: “Our soul waits for the Lord; he is our help and our shield.”
The word ezer is never used to refer to aid in procreation and there is certainly never any sense of subordination in its usage (especially since it is used so often to speak of God himself!). In most contexts, ezer is referring to something related to the military, hence the translation of “ally” offered above.
Furthermore, in Gen. 2 there is no reference in the creation of woman to her function as “life-giver,” or any procreative purposes whatsoever until after the fall (Gen. 3:20). The only task that is given the man and the woman in the passage regarding the purposes for which they are created is the mandate to keep and to guard the garden, and to obey the command of the Lord (Gen. 2:15-17).
(Now, the creation narrative of Gen. 1 does indeed contain a reference to procreation. In that context, though, man and woman are created simultaneously in the image of God and blessed as a pair, just as the animals are blessed, to “be fruitful and multiply” [Gen. 1:28]. Fruitfulness and reproduction are not unique to humankind, but part of the plant and animal world in which they exist. What the text emphasizes, rather, is the dominion that God grants to the humans [“subdue it” in v. 28]. Furthermore, there is no sense in Gen. 1 that fruitfulness and multiplication are functions given to women exclusively; it is something the human couple shares.)
Finally, in contrast to Nelson’s translation, Adam is certainly not tasked with serving as a “gardener.”
As Johnson points out, because of its parallel to Num. 3:8 and other references to the temple, what’s being spoken of here is keeping and guarding the the place where God’s presence dwells.
This is priestly language describing a priestly vocation. And, once again, it is something Adam is not meant to do alone. It is precisely the work of preserving sacred space that Adam is unable to accomplish without Eve. In the vocation of tending to the place where God’s presence dwells, Eve is Adam’s “ally of the same kind” (ezer kenegdo).
Now, in fairness to Johnson and Nelson, they are not doing a strictly grammatical and historical reading of Gen. 2.
Instead, they are employing a typological reading, one clearly inspired, in my estimation, by Pope John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body.”
To be clear, I have no problem with typological readings of Scripture in general. But, I do have a problem when a typological reading imposes something that is alien to, or directly at odds with, the most natural and straightforward interpretation of the sacred text.
And this, I believe, is one of those instances. Those of us committed to the authority of Scripture must, at the very least, allow Scripture to speak for itself before assigning to it typological meanings that go beyond the intent of the original author.
Before moving on, and along the same lines, I want to offer a word of caution to those inclined to agree with Nelson’s interpretation of Gen. 2 and the “Theology of the Body” as a whole.
The notion that, as Nelson says, “sexual difference serves to show the relation between God and creation,” with men imaging God (father, gardener, giver) and women imaging creation (life-giver, mother, receiver) has deep conceptual resonance with the pagan cosmology of the Ancient Near East.
In fact, it is this kind of Canaanite cosmology, which closely linked human sexuality and the deity, that the creation narratives of Genesis 1-2 are expressly denying.
In their desire to find a unified essentialist theology of gender in the scriptures, I fear many are extrapolating the analogies of Christ and the church, Yahweh and Israel, husband and wife, in ways that are deeply harmful—both for our theology proper and our theological anthropology.
I therefore encourage my sisters and brothers to think more critically about these kinds of claims and to consider carefully whether their conclusions are, indeed, in continuity with the scriptures and the great tradition of the Christian church.
There are many more points of interpretive disagreement I could cite between Nelson’s and Johnson’s responses, but I find myself constrained by time and space.
Regarding the conclusions we draw from the Pauline corpus, like 1 Tim. 2:11-16, 1 Cor. 11:1-16; and 1 Cor. 14:34-35, I’ll simply say this: Nelson demonstrates precisely the kind of argumentation that Johnson rightly warns against—treating these texts simply as “knockdown verse[s]” against women’s ordination to the priesthood, rather than engaging carefully with St. Paul’s reasoning in its immediate and canonical context.
For instance, what does Paul mean about forbidding women to teach men (1 Tim. 2:12) when he assumes elsewhere that they will, in fact, do so? And, when they do, Paul says they should do so with their heads covered (1 Cor. 11:2-16) and in good order (1 Cor. 14:1-33)?
Whatever we are to make of this, it is by no means simple and straightforward. We should not insult our interlocutors by suggesting that it is.
I want to be very clear about my position: I do not support the ordination of women to the priesthood despite the Bible; I support it because of the Bible.
And I am by no means alone in this. I encourage those who argue against women’s ordination to the priesthood to engage the works of a great many respected and orthodox biblical scholars whose research on this subject directly refutes many, if not all, of the interpretive points Nelson and Johnson raise:
- Craig Keener (the new president of the Evangelical Theological Society),
- Scot McKnight,
- Ben Witherington III,
- Nijay Gupta,
- Cynthia Long Westfall,
- Lucy Peppiatt,
- N.T. Wright,
- Gordon Fee,
- Richard Bauckham,
- I. Howard Marshall,
- and Anthony Thiselton, among many others.
In my view, Scripture does not, in fact, define narrowly what men and women are ontologically, nor does it demarcate women’s and men’s functions based solely on their gender. Such notions have to be read into the text.
Instead, the scriptures provide an overarching vision for women and men as different, distinct, and mutually submissive partners in the Kingdom of God. This was God’s intention from the beginning and it is a partnership restored in the reign of God inaugurated by Jesus Christ. And this new creation is something the church gets to embody as an outpost of the Kingdom within this fallen world until our Lord returns.
As I said at the beginning, the interpretation of Scripture is not the only area within which we must adjudicate the question of women’s ordination to the priesthood.
For the sake of clarity, I think it will be helpful to acknowledge some of the many questions raised by Johnson’s and Nelson’s responses:
On the subject of Scripture and its interpretation:
- What does the narrative of Scripture have to say about the meaning of being created male and female? Does Scripture indeed teach discrete roles or functions in the world and Christ’s church based on gender?
- Does the canon speak with one voice on the subject of women and women’s “roles”? Or is there discernible development/movement within the canon?
- More specifically, is the New Covenant best understood as continuous or discontinuous with the Old Covenant in regard to ecclesial leadership; namely, the priesthood?
- How are we to interpret the passages in the letters of St. Paul, which seem to restrict women in some instances (1 Tim. 2:11-15; 1 Cor. 11:1-16; 1 Cor. 14:34-35), while freeing them and assuming their leadership in other instances (1 Cor. 12:1-31; 1 Cor. 14:1-33; Gal. 3:28; Rom. 16:1-16; Phil. 4:2-3)? What is the best way to interpret these passages so as to make sense of all of the evidence in the canon?
On the subject of the tradition:
- Does the great tradition of Christianity speak with one voice on the subject of women in leadership, particularly, sacramental leadership? If not, what do we make of dissenting voices or practices within the tradition?
- What do we make of recent findings that suggest that significantly more expanded roles for women were operative in the earliest days of the church? Does this have any impact on our perspective on and interpretation of the tradition?
- Does tradition need to be interpreted within its own contexts? Or are the voices of the tradition permitted to speak without regard to their own social and cultural norms (particularly in regard to their views of women)?
- Along similar lines, are the conclusions of the early church fathers regarding women and women’s roles normative for Christians today? If so, why? And how so?
On the subject of the Anglican Communion’s relationship to other catholic bodies:
- Are Anglicans mainly Protestant or mainly Catholic, or something else entirely? And what impact does that have on our theological method and church practice?
- Are the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox Church on the matter of women in the priesthood normative for the Anglican Communion?
- More specifically, are the teachings of Pope John Paul II, particularly his “Theology of the Body,” which are often brought to bear on this issue, to be understood as normative for Anglicans today?
On the subject of theological method:
- Are arguments from natural law, upon which much of the “Theology of the Body” is based, appropriate within the Anglican theological tradition?
- Is our conception of natural law context-free? Or, are our notions of what is “natural” in some way shaped by our social and cultural context—not to mention our fallenness and the fallenness of our world?
- Should our biblical exegesis be constrained by the perspective of the church fathers? Or, is there room for ecclesia semper reformanda (“the church always being reformed”) within Anglican theological method?
- Does the apparent work of the Holy Spirit in setting apart and empowering women for priestly ministry today—not just in the West, but in regions all over the world—have something to contribute to the discussion? Certainly, experience alone cannot be normative within the Anglican tradition, but can it be permitted a seat at the theological “table”?
I could go on, but I’ll stop here.
The point is this: Johnson, Nelson, and I disagree on the matter of women’s ordination to the priesthood, not because I do not take the authority of Scripture seriously (I most certainly do), but because we have different answers to a number of vitally important questions.
For instance, I do not accept the premise that Nelson’s version of gender essentialism is taught by Scripture, nor do I find the church fathers teaching the same.
As I tell my students, every text has to be interpreted. Whether we’re talking about the tradition or the scriptures, “nature” or the church fathers, all these “texts” must be interpreted. And since the Anglican tradition does not have a Magisterium like the Roman Catholic Church’s, which can declare an issue definitively settled for all time (i.e., John Paul II’s apostolic letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis), Anglicans must engage in the hard work of interpretation ever mindful of the fact that people of goodwill are going to disagree.
Moreover, this list of questions also makes clear that, because of the interplay of so many weighty matters (i.e., biblical exegesis and hermeneutics, historical and systematic theology, liturgical and sacramental theology, biology, sociology, and culture), the question of gender and its implications is probably one of the most complicated and challenging subjects facing the church today. This conversation is going to continue—as it should. And I hope we can continue to do so with humility and charity befitting sisters and brothers in Christ.
In some ways, it would be easier if we still lived in a time when women were assumed to be physically, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually inferior to men. Then, the argument would be moot, as it was for many years of the church’s history. Obviously, inferior persons should not serve as priests in Christ’s church.
But we now know with certainty that women are not inherently inferior to men. Though essentially distinct in important ways—ways we are just beginning to understand—church leaders, biblical scholars, and theologians must consider carefully what these distinctions mean.
Despite claims to the contrary, the meaning of gender difference is not, in fact, clear and obvious, and neither is the question of what impact that meaning should have on the structure of Christ’s body, the church.
(Want to learn more about women’s ordination debates within Anglicanism? Start with these resources.)