Taking Scripture and Women’s Ordination Seriously: A Response to Blake Johnson and Lee Nelson

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.

Genesis 2

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.

For example,

  • 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.

Other Questions/Issues

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.)

21 comments

  1. Speculation, creative readings, and prayerful interpretations of Scripture have been done for so long now that we’ve clearly lost sight of basic meanings; likely an effort to run away from such a long-standing view many feel to be antiquated. But there is nothing older than God Himself. And if we are to believe Christ Jesus is the true Messiah and our only mediator and advocate, our place in the world has been established.
    All those opportunities for Christ to make one – just one – of the many women he encountered during his ministry to be an Apostle, and he chose not to. The message is clear.

    1. Hi Jason! Thanks for your comment. Aren’t all readings of Scripture supposed to be “prayerful interpretations of Scripture”? It seems like a big mistake to play “prayerful interpretations” against “basic meanings.” Do you mean “prayerful” as in “wishful”?

      You’re claiming that Emily McGowin’s reading of Scripture is speculative. But what leads you to say that, specifically? Is there a particular exegetical move that she’s made that strikes you as speculative?

      And you’re claiming that it settles the issue that Jesus didn’t select a woman as one of the 12. But what leads you to say that? What, in other words, determines where such a “regulative principle” ought/not to be in play?

      1. Joshua, Your responses come across as detracting from the issue, and of the plain meaning of Jason’s statement…
        I’m finding that your attitude towards the traditionalists frustrating, especially in your public venting about ‘thos people’ elsewhere. Witt is not the end-all authority on the issue, nor has his public engagement re:WO been any more charitable than his opponents in prior years. Further, this is a material which seems forced upon the public at every instance where the traditionalist voice is given on AP. I have recommended AP–strongly–in the past and do not do so any more. There are many reasons, but the handling of the debate is a good example, which was started by Dr McGowin’s first piece. AP knew it would be divisive, put up warnings beforehand, and then complained about it being divisive because people had a problem with it.

        Regarding this piece, that Dr McGowin seems to reject St JPII’s Theology of the Body means there’s not much left to read; that text is one of our last hopes against the gender and identity debates right now. If we don’t understand each other on gender the ordination issue is moot.

        Dr McGowin rightly points out what those who read the Task Force report would also conclude: no one in the ACNA is on the same page in ecclesiology, anthropology, and a host of other things. I’m very grateful for her shift in the article to the list of questions. It illustrates just how little Anglicans have in common, such that I wonder how the ACNA as constituted can hold together. This is a federation of churches, not a communion.

        She is right: understandings of what marriage is, what ordination is, what tradition is, what any of the sacraments actually mean, inform one’s conclusion on the WO issue. It is but a symptom of the ecclesial incompatibility (Is this a Reformed or Catholic movement; Protestantism, like Evangelicalism, means nothing now) that has always been at work since breaking with Rome. The problem with the WO issue is it is a fellowship-breaking matter for the traditionalists impacting the Sacraments themselves, unlike dissent on whether one is for Calvin or against, or one if falling in with Newman or not. These are matters which divide sacramental communion between what was a compelling ‘big umbrella’ of theologies, even ecclesiologies. Peace is possible between Low Church and High Church, but is not possible between Pro-WO and Traditionalists, even if the constitution enforces a tenuous survival-of-the-fittest truce.

        The shift in Canon Theologians (which include Dr McKnight and Dr McCaulley) makes C4SO no longer appear a safe Dual Integrity Diocese, but a single pro-WO integrity diocese. I would no longer encourage any priest with a commitment to moving forward, together, despite High Church/Low Church/Charismatic/Whatever differences to be involved. This has been my impression with a few other dioceses, but I was remaining hopeful for C4SO.

        One small comment to be fair to C4SO: this is not just an ACNA issue; it is an issue that needs to be settled between the GSA and GAFCON (viz. Nigeria vs Rwanda). The moratorium on female bishops illustrates this ongoing tension.

        1. Hi Dentarthurdent, I’m sorry to hear that you can no longer recommend AP, or my Diocese, and that you’re convinced that “peace…is not possible between Pro-WO and Traditionalists.” Nevertheless, I do wish you well. May the Spirit move in surprising ways to unify Christ’s Church.

          1. I state the above with sadness and frustration more than internet-rage anger. Such frustration tends towards hyperbole and a certain kind of lack of precision.
            I should say, perhaps, “Long term peace” isn’t possible, hence impaired communion between dioceses, provinces, and non-universal recognition of Holy Orders. I mean peace, also within the umbrella of a particular institution: ACNA, regardless of persuasion can, ecumenically, peacefully work with NALC and LCMS alike. The CoB will have to settle more than what they have on the issue, whatever the argument for/against. This was one of the few conclusions of the Task Force report. The attitude of getting numbers up (therefore more bishops&laity to vote) on both sides to tip the scales one way or another feels petty, since from the start this was about a report, a theological assessment, and then submission to that assessment (wherein some will undoubtedly leave, as they are free to do in the constitution).

            I do want ACNA, as well as GAFCON to succeed, but there are a lot of hurt parties over this issue, and not a few on both sides were implicitly misled–if not lied to directly–at the get-go, which might not be so apparent for those in C4SO, since it was in AMiA and not a diocese at the formation.

            Oh, yes, Congratulations on your ordination, Father. I hope that your pastoral ministry may reach the lost and introduce them to this tradition… More conversion of minds and hearts on the ground and off the internet…

          2. Thank you. I sincerely appreciate (1) your engagement on this post and (2) your willingness to call me out for responding snarkily to a comment’s idiosyncrasy, instead of to its plain sense. Also, I agree with you that deciding this issue with numbers alone seems like a bad idea.

            Blessings to you and your ministry!

        2. Also, I take your valid point about the tongue-in-cheek nature of my initial response to Jason N. That was wrong of me. However, although I think I understand Jason’s overall reaction, I’m still confused by some of his terminology and specific phrasing.

          1. Yes, I’m so far persuaded that most of the heated parts of this debate stem from differences in terminology and phrasing–the ‘givens’ of a particular tribal worldview–more than argument itself.

      2. Regardless of the (now) subjective nature of Scripture, which is the real mistake, a tradition of providence has built what is often taken for granted today. And considering the ever-declining sizes of congregations, it seems rather obvious to re-visit our ancestral beliefs.

    2. Hi Jason! I have found the argument you make regarding Jesus’ apostles compelling in the past, but I have begun to question its persuasive power. What do you make of the fact that he also didn’t choose any Gentiles as apostles? Clearly an expansion/allowance was made there after Jesus’ direct early ministry in the life of the early Church.

      1. Regarding gentiles as Apostles, Christ’s initial calling was the Nation of Israel, and even John the Baptist came to minister to Israel in preparation for the Messiah. Jesus started His ministry only to the people of Israel. As you surely have read, Jesus sent out the Apostles on their first evangelistic mission with this order: “Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not; but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mt. 10:5-6).
        One of the bigger problems of the Western view of Christ was its penchant to strip the Jewishness from Christ’s life as His story was told. We all know He was a Jew, and considering his numerous references to His community and their tendencies to stick together, it’s no wonder why He didn’t chose gentiles as part of ‘The Twelve.’ (Yet, interestingly, it was the gentiles who actually continued the ministry and message of Jesus, as the Jews weren’t exactly treated with warm respect in that region after Christ’s time on earth had finished.)

        However, I’m curious to know why you question the persuasiveness of Jesus’ decision to choose only men as Apostles, which is such a vivid point in Christ’s life. We are to imitate Christ as much as humanly possible with others, as we read in John’s first letter to believers: “Whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.” (1 Jn 2:6).

        For centuries, the ultimate example of ministry was Jesus Christ. “But I am among you as he that serveth” (Lk 22:27). The words haven’t changed – we have. It’s up to us to realize this fact and learn from it to regain the truth. But to those who cry what I call “the D word” (discrimination), they have more work to do before they can be worthy to lead others. Just as during Christ’s ministry, men and women are not different from each other in Christ’s Church – only our roles are.

        1. The reason I find the idea of Jesus only chooses men to be among the 12 less persuasive when it comes to women’s ordination than I used to is this: If Jesus only chose Jewish Apostles as the Twelve due to his specific cultural mission (as you note above) then it indeed makes sense that they were men, not women, to accomplish that mission in their cultural context. In the same way the Apostolic requirement of Jewishness for the 12 is expanded out to include Gentiles as the full scope of the redeeming work of Christ is revealed and worked out in mission, perhaps there’s room to consider the gender of the 12 in the same way we think of their Jewishness: essential for their specific mission, but not essential for the Apostolic mission in general. I think there are good biblical arguments (primarily around the idea of covenant headship and priestly function) to made…but I’m not sure this one holds up on logically when examined with consistent hermeneutics.

          1. I would caution you not to get the point about culture mixed up with gender. The main reason why the gentiles assumed the ministry after his Death is because all the Jews were essentially kicked out of the area – there just weren’t that many around. But a stronger case for men and women’s roles in the catholic church is only backed up by consistent hermeneutics. I find that it’s when we look outside of Scripture for answers with devices like pop-culture speculation, we get a heterodox life with the Church.

    3. Jesus also had many female disciples. Females not males anointed Jesus the Messiah. The Male disciples only found out about the resurrection from the female disciples.

      “Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.”
      John 4:39

  2. Blake Johnson is a personal friend, so perhaps it is of no surprise that I find his argument sweeping, thorough, and convincing. I do think that Emily McGowin has responded well here, and even perhaps charitably. Still, I find her argument in both her articles to to chafe in a way that is hard to put into words.

    Maybe it’s best to start with the kind of exposition of scripture and the great tradition that, in my estimation, IS compelling. In general it is not expositions that ask us see scripture/tradition differently that compel us, but those that move through a simple reading into greater depths, often by the aid of contextual clues, or harmonizing particulars into the greater whole, or etc. C.S. Lewis, for example, often reaches conclusions that would otherwise repel evangelicals, but he sort of woos them irresistably by moving them through what they have plainly seen already in scripture, history, nature, etc., into depths that make that beauty even more radiant. He doesn’t ask us to see things differently, but to move “further up and further in” to the truth that is already evident.

    This, ultimately, is where McGowin’s argument becomes unsatisfying. It’s not just that her arguments ask us to see in scripture or tradition something which seems to contradict a plain reading, though they certainly do. In quoting St. Gregory of Nazianzus, for example, she clearly reaches a conclusion that this particular father did not. Or consider her exposition of Genesis 2, which her present argument rests heavily upon. In that passage, God “formed the man of dust from the ground” and puts him in His garden “to work it and keep it”, God then decides “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” God had formed all animals “out of the ground” which the man then named, but still “there was not found a helper fit for him”. So God put the man to sleep and “took one of his ribs” which he then “made into a woman” and immediately He “brought her to the man”. To which the man proclaims, “She shall be called Woman/because she was taken out of Man.” Now, a compelling exposition might lead through what we may intuit from this story into the fuller depths of what this means for our engendered existence. But McGowin’s arguments seemingly do otherwise, asking us to see “rib” differently than we might plainly see it, “help” differently than we might plainly see it, Adam’s mandate differently than we might plainly see it, etc. If we view the story in that light, we might instead see, as she and others have seen, that the creation account is unique particularly in it’s subversive ontological equality of the sexes.

    The problem isn’t exactly that though, as I’ve stated before. To be sure, sometimes the truth is contrary to what a plain reading might suggest. Indeed, I find no disagreement with the ontological equality present in the creation (nor do I suspect that Johnson or Nelson do). The problem is not simply that, but even further, that her appeals to scripture and tradition are, by the end, made tepid. In discussing scripture, tradition, or nature, she makes a case for a different interpretation, but then, as if to preempt rebuttals, leads us to question whether any of those really have a unified voice anyway, whether their context impacts their relevance for today, whether as Anglicans we should even go down that road anyway. Appeals to Gregory of Nazianzus or to hidden histories of female clergy are later followed by questions of how authoritative the fathers should be in our current context anyway. Appeals to genesis 2 are followed by questions about the continuity of the new covenant, or whether scripture has any unified voice on the matter. Appeals to theology are later followed by questions about whether the church is still reforming and whether natural law can be contextual.

    That, for what its worth, is what is ultimately so unsatisfying: McGowin’s appeals to read scripture & tradition contrary to a plain reading are seemingly reinforced (?) by an erosion of their authority in the first place. It leaves me with the sense that “subversive ontological egalitarianism” is what we are being asked to see as beautiful, and while scripture and tradition are certainly deployed, they are a trustworthy and authoritative vehicle only insofar as through them we can see exalt that other beauty.

  3. This is an excellent article!

    Some of these points are SCATHING to the complimentarian argument!

    One thing often overlooked to help your point on the significance of woman being created out of man’s side is revealed in Proverbs 8:

    “I, wisdom, dwell together with prudence; I possess knowledge and discretion…
    By me kings reign and rulers issue decrees that are just; by me princes govern, and nobles—all who rule on earth…
    My fruit is better than fine gold; what I yield surpasses choice silver. I walk in the way of righteousness, along the paths of justice, bestowing a rich inheritance on those who love me and making their treasuries full. “The Lord brought me forth as the first of his works, before his deeds of old; I was formed long ages ago, at the very beginning, when the world came to be. When there were no watery depths, I was given birth, when there were no springs overflowing with water; before the mountains were settled in place, before the hills, I was given birth, before he made the world or its fields or any of the dust of the earth. I was there when he set the heavens in place, when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep, when he established the clouds above and fixed securely the fountains of the deep, when he gave the sea its boundary so the waters would not overstep his command, and when he marked out the foundations of the earth. Then I was constantly at his SIDE. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind.”
    Proverbs 8:12‭, ‬15‭-‬16‭, ‬19‭-‬31

    Key words quoted from Genesis 1-3: “wisdom,” “rule on earth,” “fruit,” “full,” “deep,” “foundation,” “SIDE,” ect…

    Proverbs personifies the Messiah as the wisdom (logos/word) that was created out of the side of Yahweh himself and created the world. In other words, God created woman out of the side of man because that’s how God created wisdom and the Messiah out of himself and then also how he created the world.

  4. Two questions to add to Dr. McGowin’s list.

    Why is the passover lamb male (Ex. 12:5)?
    What relationships are there, if any, between Christ our Passover, the Sacrament of the Altar, and the Celebrant who is the sacramental sign of the presence of Christ to the gathered church at worship?

    And two more.

    Is reality sacramental?
    Is reality hierarchical?

    As I think about this subject, those are four questions I return to.

    Resources that assist my reflection are “Via Media” by E.L. Mascall, “The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism” by Louis Bouyer, and Robert Sokolowski’s works on the theology of disclosure: “The God of Faith and Reason” and “Eucharistic Presence.”

    Grace and peace.

    1. Fr Greg,
      These are fantastic questions, especially the last two. The WO issue connects first and foremost to core issues of gender and identity, as well as what the Sacraments mean, not just how many.
      Theology of the Body is helpful, but there are many others.

      I’d also recommend a new essay on The North American Anglican talking about ‘In Persona Christi’ that’s related to your remarks.

  5. Again, I find it essential to point out that Canon McGowin has not made a case for women’s ordination, but for women serving in ministry in general, a notion with which I wholeheartedly agree. I must make my case short, as unlike Canon McGowin, I am not a New Testament scholar. Through her argument it becomes clear that when McGowin is talking about the priesthood, she means something different from that which the catholic Church has maintained through the centuries, and that which was maintained in Anglicanism’s adherence to the three-fold order of male-only ordained ministry (at least til these latter days). The English Reformers did not depart from this discipline and teaching because, firstly, they saw it in Scripture; secondly, because they saw it clearly in sacred tradition, and lastly, because they thought it supremely reasonable to do so.

    In her exegesis of Scripture, I’m not certain that I find myself in vast disagreement over potential readings of the texts she cites, potential readings do not trouble me. It is what she leaves off that I find to be problematic, including allegorical, canonical, and typological readings as well as a myriad of biblical texts that undercut her assertion that gender differences are unclear.

    Furthermore, Canon McGowin relies almost exclusively on historical-grammatical critique of the biblical texts in question. While she says that she herself appreciates typological and, I assume, allegorical readings, her reliance upon this method is what produces her results. Today, I was reading a lecture given by Benedict XVI (yes, I know, another pope, please forgive me this) in which he writes:

    “Scripture has been opened up anew by historical-critical scholarship and, I admit, locked up anew as well. It has been opened up anew: thanks to the labors of exegesis we hear the Word fo the Bible in a completely new way in its historical originality, in the variety of a developing and growing history, with its tensions and oppositions, which are at the same time, its unexpected richness. But in this way Scripture has also been locked up anew: it has become the object of specialists, and the layman, indeed even the professional theologian who is not an exegete, can no longer dare to speak about it at all, so that it plainly appears to be removed from the realm of spiritual reading and meditation as well, because anything that could result from that would necessarily smack of dilettantism. Scholarly erudition becomes a fence around Scripture, which is not accessible to the nonspecialist. A the same time, however, this Bible is no longer read within the context of tradition but entirely on its own makes its all-encompassing demand on theology in a new way; the latter must prove itself in light of that demand, has to enter into it, and cannot emerge without being changed.” (Theology and Preaching in the Dutch Catechism)

    This was the point of my first rebuttal, that McGowin does not read Scripture within the context of the tradition, or even just in a basic canonical way, which we in the ACNA are committed to doing (see the Jerusalem Declaration). And she freely owns this fact because she finds not only that the tradition is malevolent on this issue, but that the uncovering of supposed historical readings overturn that tradition. Scripture reading by this method (and some would say bias) alone leaves the reader free to discover desired ends in various texts quite freely. But, again, as Anglicans we do not have that luxury. We read as members of the living body of the catholic Church, and must freely defer to those who came before us. This is the ecclesiological reason that not only the English Reformers, but the Continental as well, placed such a high emphasis on the teaching of the Fathers, and not merely with regard to their soteriology, but with regard to their teaching sacramentology (which is explicitly typological) and ecclesiology (that too!).

    So, to put it bluntly, it does not matter that she can name a laundry list of theologians who share her opinion. I can share thousands that hold the catholic view. Many of the theologians she cites are committed merely to a position that women can and should serve in ministry. Many of them hold explicitly Protestant notions of ordination. It should also be noted: all of them are still alive. Where is the democracy of the dead, to use Chesterton’s phrase?

    But, in the end, Canon McGowin leaves me shaking my head, yet again, in her last paragraph:

    “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.”

    If that meaning is not obvious, then why rally behind such a dramatic alteration of holy orders? (She asks numerous other questions that deserve answering, but I might ask – if the answers are not clear, again – why the change?) What she really means is that by casting doubt on the meanings of various texts using one specific and quite limited method of exegesis, a low-lying Jenga piece must be pulled, on which much of the tower depends. In this, maybe I can clarify what I meant when I said that McGowin doesn’t take Scripture seriously. What I mean is this: having only a hammer (historical criticism), every supposed problem is seen as a nail, when it might be seen as a feature, indeed when it should be seen as a feature. If gender difference, seen so overwhelmingly in Scripture (while I agree that men and women are of equal dignity and made in the image of God) is an obstacle, shed some doubt on it, and the problem goes away. If male-only orders is a problem, a little doubt there, and the so-called problem rights itself. The seeds of doubt are sown, and Sacred Scripture no longer has any authority outside of what scholars can firmly tell us. To say that I am underwhelmed by this line of reasoning would be an understatement.

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