The Altar and the Arena: What Slaves and Martyrs Have to Teach Us About Women’s Ordination

Editor’s Note: The piece below represents the opinion of the author. Anglican Compass 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.

Over the past several months, readers of Anglican Compass have engaged with many opinions on the topic of women’s ordination. One wonders, given the state of dual integrities within the ACNA and the ever-churning blog debates between our public intellectuals, what is the point of another take on this issue?

But stay with me, friends. At the risk of debate fatigue, I want to stir these waters once more because after reading these pieces, I believe we are missing several key points in the conversation. In fact, I believe we need to engage in a fundamentally different conversation—one that centers the debate in its proper theological home: baptism and the Person of Christ.

Proponents of the male-only priesthood have argued that a literal reading of scripture shows women clearly cannot have priestly authority in the church. They also propound that women’s orders would go against a natural order of male headship, established by God in creation, and perhaps even reflected within God’s trinitarian being. But these arguments redirect the issue away from its true theological foundation and veer into less than orthodox weeds. These are not christological positions and they don’t say much about our identity in Jesus Christ through baptism.

In what follows, I want to discuss how Anglicans have misused both baptism and the literal interpretation of scripture to uphold hierarchical social orders, a pattern of thought that closely mirrors ancient Gnostic exegesis, of which male headship is a prime example.

To counter that, I want to explore the biblical relationship between baptism and priesthood, as outlined in the book of Hebrews. Because Christ is two natures, his priesthood—his mediation—is his person, which has a direct bearing on how we conceive of our own priesthood. We see this clearly evidenced in the martyrdoms of Ignatius of Antioch and Blandina of Lyons, a woman who, as she dies, is depicted in persona Christi.

In their eagerness to support their understanding of tradition, Anglicans have sometimes compromised the Kingdom with cultural values, veering away from a biblical theology of human ordination and missing the reality of baptism. If we are to have a good faith conversation around these issues, this must be addressed. So come, let’s wade in the waters one more time.

Claiming Baptism Against the Bishop

In 1723, Edmund Gibson, the Bishop of London and ecclesial authority over England’s colonies, was faced with a crisis. What happens when slaves want to be baptized and taught the faith? The slaveholders, he knew, were adamantly against baptism or education of any kind, fearing it would lead to the slaves’ agitation against their social position. In fact, they were so desperate to prevent this that slaves who learned to read or who taught others to do so were brutally punished and killed.

Nevertheless, a group of slaves came together and wrote an urgent entreaty to the Bishop of London:

“We your humble and poor parishioners do beg Sir your aid and assistance in this one thing which lies as I do understand in your lordship’s brest which is that your honor will by the help of our suffering lord King George…release us out of this curel bondege and this we beg for Jesus Christ’s sake who has commanded us to seek first the kingdom of God and all things shall be added unto us. And here it is to be noted that one brother is a slave to another and one sister to another…and we are commanded to keep holy the sabbath day and we do hardly know when it comes for our task masters are as hard with us as the Egyptians were with the Children of Israel, God be merciful to us.”

Several things are at play here. First, in an act of cultural rebellion, they learned to read scripture and, more importantly, to read themselves into it theologically. They saw themselves in the enslaved children of Israel and understood that scripture laid out their freedom on the basis of baptism.

Second, they understood that the act of baptism made them parishioners of the church, members of a body which fundamentally changed their previous social relations. The cry of the slaves was that they were under the Bishop’s care and both he and they worshiped the same Lord Jesus Christ. It is a cry of hope and a desire to live in a new relationship of belonging in Christ, to throw off the oppression of evil. One could almost read this as a colonial-era Philemon, if Onesimus had penned the letter instead of Paul.

In that era, Christians could not own other Christians as slaves. Slaves therefore were always defined as idolators, heathens, fundamentally ‘other’. So when these slaves wrote to him as Christians, Bp. Gibson had a pastoral crisis on his hands. It isn’t known whether the Bishop saw this letter, although it was found at Lambeth Palace. But we do have his response in a letter circulated to plantation owners where he argues, based on 1 Cor. 7:20, that baptism in no way changes social relationships, but rather will make slaves better slaves because that’s what the New Testament commands—literally (Col. 3:22-23).

The Bishop, torn between his desire to uphold social order and his duty to increase the flock, took hold of his literal reading of St. Paul and attempted a classic Anglican via media: baptism would save the soul of the slave, but leave their body in its pre-established position in the social hierarchy. They would be “saved” in faith, but remain property in body. Slavery, the Bishop and his contemporaries (theologians like Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards) argued, is a cosmic structure, natural and God-ordained (Divided by Faith, Emerson and Smith, pg. 22-26). Salvation was open to all because all were made in God’s image, but it would in no way violate that “natural” created order.

Which of these, do you think, was a better reader of scripture? The one who showed us Christ. The slaves interpreted their lives according to the scriptures, reading after the model of Peter and Paul. God’s word was for them, pro nobis, a Christological reading practice. They read scripture against their culture, against the “natural state of things” and their “place” within it and by doing so understood the logic of baptism. They saw that it was creation anew, that the Old Adam passes away as we are born of Christ, not returning to Eden, but discovering the New Jerusalem, as something neither gnostic nor dualist, but with a claim on real social relations and a claim on those with whom they were baptized: the Bishop, priests, and even their Christian slave owners. They knew that they should be free because they were free together in Christ.

Male Headship as Gnostic Anthropology

What we saw in Bp. Gibson’s response is sadly not a historical outlier. Christianity’s social imagination has often been hijacked to support less than biblical mythologies, especially in how it imagines bodies arranged within hierarchies of power.

As we look back at Bp. Gibson’s verdict, we can see the Gnostic worldview hardly concealed. Gnosticism taught that there were three human essences, each in a role of hierarchy over the next. Of these, it was only the top tier, the ‘spiritual’ humans, who were truly saved. Their redemption narrative grounded this belief in a pre-fall hierarchy of essences and they worked toward a return to that state by ordering and controlling humanity in the present. In Bp. Gibson’s response to the plantation owners, he inhabited this worldview (slavery is a cosmic structure), even while attempting a literal reading and application of the scriptures. Instead of preaching Christ crucified, he unwittingly inhabited Gnostic myth by differentiating African slave essence from European Christian essence and keeping them hierarchically aligned.

In our contemporary moment, I see this same interpretive tendency within the discourse on gender roles. Certain theologians have promoted a concept of male headship that reduces the complex notion of ‘head’ in the ancient world (see Lucy Peppiatt’s Rediscovering Scripture’s Vision for Women) to an authority/submission structure (a meaning taken from ancient military culture, not found in the New Testament). This concept is then grounded univocally in both the Trinity and creation, establishing a hierarchy of essentialized roles between the Father and the Son, and locating this structure for social order in a pre-creation, pre-fall world. Men and women are described as possessing “gifts” or “charisms” that correlate to an essential masculinity or femininity, existing always in a hierarchical relation. Salvation in this worldview means not just putting on Christ, but also putting on your essence as a male or female and accepting your place within the hierarchy God established before the fall.

The end result of this is that the worldview of male headship misappropriates the story of salvation to elevate a particular kind of male essence—one that sees itself as a universal principle, requiring the submission of other essences, whether those be non-white, female, or even land.

Perhaps it would better be named a principality or power.

St. Irenaeus of Lyons refuted this kind of gnostic thinking when he criticized the myth of hierarchies by showing how God’s whole economy of Creation and Redemption centered on the flesh of Christ, who is God’s Image and the true Human Being.

Christ, he reminded the Christians of his day, is the beginning, middle, and goal of creation. In creation, the adam was a type of the one to come, Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:14). Salvation’s goal is not Christ returning us to a pre-fall state, whatever idyllic mythology we project back onto the garden. Salvation is eschatological, the end and the goal, that has appeared in Jesus Christ in the present. We tend to think of salvation as moving from Adam to Christ, who restores what Adam was.


St. Irenaeus, St. Paul, and the Gospel of John all have it differently: Humanity is re-founded, re-created in Christ. The old (Adam) is passing away, the new (Christ) has come (Col. 1:15-20). To read the Genesis narrative as a description of male/female hierarchy in nature and role is to read it through the lense of our own cultural assumptions. In other words, if we’re not reading Genesis christologically, we’re likely to be reading it Gnostically. You need to know the end, Christ, to understand the beginning, the adam.

It is the person of Christ that stands against any gnostic mythology, any dualism, as the sole essence of creation.

The Difference Baptism Makes—In Christ, Out of adam

Not only do we fall into Gnostic mythology, but we also miss something fundamental about the incarnation itself if we think first of nature and look to Christ second. His person is two natures, uncreated and created.

He is the God-human.

I say human here purposely. In the New Testament the Greek word ‘anthropos’ is used of Christ, not the male ‘arsen’ which pairs with ‘gune/thelys’ female, which can signal gender or wife. This is important because in Christ’s anthropos there is no arsen/thelys (Gal. 3:28). The enmity between male/female in Adam has been reconciled in Christ, which is why Paul says in 2 Cor. 5 that we do not regard anyone according to the flesh, not even Christ. Christ shows us what it means to be human eschatologically, from the completion of creation back into history. Humanity isn’t going back to Eden. And that’s a good thing.

So, then, if we insist that Christians must conform to the pattern of some “natural” state—i.e., the roles of headship/submission—in order to to be fully human, what we’re really doing is rebirthing them into the Old Adam and interposing another mediator between ourselves and Christ. We’re choosing a baptism not into Christ, but into a social order of death.

There is only one head, one source for Christians: the divine-anthropos Jesus Christ. When, as St. Paul says, we were baptized into Christ’s death, our former source in the adam (male/female) of death was ended—thanks be to God—and our new life is only and exclusively the life of the divine-anthropos, Jesus Christ.

To state it bluntly, asserting an Adamic male headship is to adhere to Gnostic mythology and to insist on the continuation of male/female as idealized identities based in headship is to get Christ’s work precisely backwards, leaving unreconciled something Christ has fundamentally put to death by his death. He doesn’t perfect the Adamic archetype. He brings it to death and raises himself as the new eschatological Human Being. He has, by the blood of his cross, put to death all divisions caused by the fall, whether male/female, master/slave, Jew/Gentile, and has raised instead the Human Being, who is known and justified by faith. Because Christ is two natures, our baptism into him transfers us out of what we are by nature into what he is in his person: infinite God united to flesh, a new mode of being.

A New Priesthood—Hebrews and the Priesthood of Christ

With the acknowledgment of a new mode of being human, we must also ask some fundamental questions about the priesthood itself. Christ’s priesthood, Hebrews tells us, is of the order of Melchizedek. Why then has the church often implemented a version of the Levitical priesthood, when Christ’s priesthood is of a completely different order?

The Levitical priesthood was a caste, males of a specific tribe set apart for Israel’s rituals, whereas the priesthood of Melchizedek was not based on any natural qualities that would group him within a holy caste. “No father, no mother, no genealogy” (Heb 7:3). He is a priest of God not because of his nature, but because of God’s calling.

That is Christ’s priesthood also, not according to any natural qualities (male, female, Jew, Gentile), but by the will of God. This is the priesthood Christ shares with us through baptism and his personal calling, one in which we belong not by nature but by faith in him who called us. Priesthood under the new covenant has also been re-founded, re-created in Christ. Just as there is now one Human Being (anthropos), Jesus Christ, so also there is now only one priest, one mediator, and his priesthood is based in his Person, not in the natural qualities of his divinity or his humanity (although it does not exclude them). It arbitrarily privileges certain human particulars to say the priesthood after Christ is a caste of Christian males, whether ethnically Jewish or Gentile. More seriously, it disregards the reality of the new covenant and mars the priesthood with supersessionism.

If we imagine that Christ’s body, composed of the baptized, must still uphold the regulations of the old covenant, have we really understood baptism in the first place? Or is there an aspect of our Adamic identity we want to preserve from the death of baptism, a toe or heel of maleness kept out of the water, through which we try to be justified by nature? The very thing we withhold from the death of baptism is that which will cause us to stumble, a place where death is still at work.

If we are justified to be priests by our maleness, then we might as well bring back the lambs for slaughter. St. Paul said as much about circumcision. Why is this any different?

“She is the Form of Christ”

So what does it mean to be in persona Christiasanthropos? What is the Human Being and how do we, as the body of Christ, embody that through baptism?

It is Pilate, ironically, who lifts the curtain for us as he presents the robed and thorn-crowned Jesus to the crowd.“Look at the Human Being,” he declares, or in the Greek “ ἰδοὺ ὁ ἄνθρωπος” (John 19:5). Here is the anthropos, a martyr, in passion and death—which in Christ is life. This is the Imago Dei, the goal into which the male/female adam is called to be recreated.

Christ is the Human Being in the Holy of Holies of his Temple—his body—from which streams of living water flow and of which the church, the new humanity, is born.

It is in the lives of the martyrs that we can see the revealed anthropos most clearly. In his Ecclesial Histories, Eusebius chronicles the story of Blandina, a slave girl from Lyons, France, who is brought to the arena for torture and death. Eusebius recounts the testimonies of several martyrs, but it is that of Blandina that strengthens everyone.

“Blandina, through whom Christ showed that things which appear mean and obscure and despicable to men are with God of great glory … [She]was filled with such power as to be delivered and raised above those who were torturing her by turns from morning till evening in every manner, so that they acknowledged that they were conquered, and could do nothing more to her. And they were astonished at her endurance, as her entire body was mangled and broken; and they testified that one of these forms of torture was sufficient to destroy life, not to speak of so many and so great sufferings.

But the blessed woman, like a noble athlete, renewed her strength in her confession; and her comfort and recreation and relief from the pain of her sufferings was in exclaiming, ‘I am a Christian, and there is nothing vile done by us.’ … [Then she] was suspended on a stake, and exposed to be devoured by the wild beasts who should attack her. And because she appeared as if hanging on a cross, and because of her earnest prayers, she inspired the combatants with great zeal. For they looked on her in her conflict, and beheld with their outward eyes, in the form of their sister, him who was crucified for them, that he might persuade those who believe in him, that every one who suffers for the glory of Christ has fellowship always with the living God.” (emphasis mine).

Blandina was a slave. Not only that, she was a female slave, the lowest position in the cultural hierarchy. Her social status bordered on the non-human. And yet, as Eusebius recounts it, truly this woman was in persona Christi.

Her baptized body transgresses every boundary the hierarchy has erected. She is in persona Christi because Christ shares his life with her and co-suffers with her, “not on the basis of a legal requirement concerning bodily descent, but by the power of an indestructible life” (Heb. 7:16). His indestructible life is her life, her cross is his cross, his communion is the communion she offers by the testimony of her body and blood, which is also the Church’s seed.

Have we grasped the truly sacramental nature of martyrdom, of being the anthropos? Ignatius of Antioch described his imminent death as becoming “the pure bread” of Christ, explaining that he would become the eucharist as the lions ground his body to pieces. “When I shall have arrived [at martyrdom],” Ignatius wrote, “ I will be the Human Being.” Are we able to embrace testimony like that? Like Blandina’s? Or have we lost a vision of the eucharist as a martyric event in which all the baptized share?

If instead our sacramental worldview reduces in persona Christi to necessitating “the male form of Christ,” we are utilizing a docetic form of persona: he seems like Christ, approximates Christ’s form only in maleness. This use of persona is more pagan than its meaning rooted in trinitarian and christological discourse. To be in the person of Christ, to understand the anthropos, look instead to the martyrs. Look to the bodies broken, the blood spilled, the life in death.

It is not Adam (or Eve) at the altar or hanging before the wild animals in the arena. It is Christ the Human Being in the body of Ignatius, in the blood of Blandina.

If women are in persona Christi in the arena, they are in persona Christi at the altar.

“What He Cannot By Nature Have”

So where does this leave us, then? In the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, the preface to Holy Baptism says:

“Forasmuch as all men are conceived and born in sin, and that our Savior Christ saith, none can enter into the kingdom of God, except he be regenerate and born anew of Water and of the Holy Ghost: I beseech you to call upon God the Father, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that of his bounteous mercy he will grant to this Child that thing which by nature he cannot have; that he may be baptized with Water and the Holy Ghost, and received into Christ’s holy Church, and be made a lively member of the same.”

That thing which by nature he cannot have.

We cannot have the life of Christ, much less be priests in Christ’s church, by nature. Stipulating a certain nature to qualify for the priesthood is anti-baptismal. Our calling to be priests exists always within our primary calling to martyrdom, to be the Human Being. As many as have put on Christ in baptism, who are thus becoming the eschatological anthropos, they also can be called to ordination.

Any disagreement among Christians is an opportunity to discern the mind of Christ (Phil 4:1-5). As the debate on ordination continues in our communion, I hope that we will not be satisfied with anything less than the whole Christ. Sadly, Anglicans have a history of adapting to cultural hierarchies, whether that be slavery, gnostic mythologies of gender, or even subordinating the Trinity to a cultural idol of social order. A literal reading of Scripture won’t save us from that theological misdirection.

For that, we need a christological reasoning that re-centers this debate in the life and death of Jesus Christ, the God-human, and the priesthood of his body and blood.

If you are baptized into Christ, you are a new creation and are justified by faith to be a priest following Christ’s priesthood. To quote Dr. McGowin’s first piece on Anglican Compass, “by becoming one with Christ in our baptism, all become partakers of his Royal Priesthood.” Because both men and women are called to be Christ’s witnesses, to be the anthropos, they are both called to be in persona Christi, to embody the life of martyrdom, whether in the arena or at the altar.


  1. What a thoughtful, careful and encouraging post. Thank you so much, Aaron!

  2. Let’s look at this from a different perspective altogether, one of equality. If it is true that we are all equal in the sight of God – what is it that God sees, if not the inmost being of each person He has created? And seeing that, is He unaware that on a fundamental level, women are innately more attuned to him than men? It is to women that He has given the gift of bearing and nurturing the unborn child in the womb. It is to women that He has given the gift of physically feeding the newborn child. It is to its mother that each child turns first in times of crisis, and it is to God that a mother turns first when things go wrong with or for her child. In Judaism, the tribal connection comes through the woman, not the man. And Jewish mysticism tells us, ‘God counts the tears of women.’ The symbiosis between God and Woman is undeniable.

    I submit that the male priesthood was ordained by God in the interests of equality. He knows He has the hearts of women, and He knows that men tend to want to do things themselves, acknowledging their need for help (of any kind) as a last resort. The office of priesthood raises a man to the level of women, forces the man to acknowledge his absolute dependence upon God. It is through fatherhood that a man can come to know God; but it is through the fatherhood of the priesthood that a man is guaranteed to come to God. With apologies to the men reading this – when it comes to developing the relationship between God and Man, men need all the help they can get.

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