Our PCC has asked me to preach on why I believe that women should be Bishops, in advance of the synod debates. So here's my take on it. It's rather longer than the usual offering and will be preached with overheads. This is in place of the third Sunday of Epiphany.
Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.
Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her. Sermon
At our last PCC meeting I was asked if I would speak about women bishops in advance of the debate that we will be having at deanery synod soon. Let me say from the outset that we are going to be having women bishops in the Church of England; that is not in any doubt. The debates at the moment are about how to care for the spiritual needs of those who refuse their ministry.
I believe that my role today is more fundamental than that and is to do with brothers and sisters among us who are still unsure of the role of women in positions of leadership in the church, or who are sure it’s the right thing but not sure why. So what I’ve tried to do with this sermon is to address the most basic issues head on from the point of view of scripture. For many people there is a sense in which not accepting women as ordained priests and as bishops is based on what they believe the bible says.
Now we don’t have time to go through every relevant text, of which there are many, so we going to use just three to establish a principle for how we should read all of the texts. The specific question we’re asking is, are all pronouncements in the Bible absolute, or are some of them specific to a particular context?
So we’re going to look at two texts from the New Testament, together with the Gospel reading, and try and uncover what scripture really does say. But before we do that we need to be honest in acknowledging how we actually use scripture.
You see at the end of every reading we say, ‘This is the word of the Lord.’ Now at its most fundamental level that is meant to say something about how we treat the bible. However I suspect that we all mean different things by that phrase. For some of us there is a sense that the bible is God’s rule book for us and we need to take care to follow every word. Others may feel it is there to be used by the Holy Spirit for specific revelation, and for many there will be a sense of not knowing what the bible really is meant to be, other than something holy and special.
What I want to suggest to you this morning, as our foundation, is that a proper understanding of the bible requires that we acknowledge it to be a story of the spiritual journey of God’s people through the ages. What I mean by that is that there is a progression in revelation as the Lord moves his people from a limited knowledge and understanding to a greater and more complete understanding, and within that journey are a multitude of different cultural contexts and eras, so some of what is written in one place would be confusing if applied somewhere else.
Now for some of us there are immediately going to be alarm bells ringing because this could be interpreted as me saying that some parts of the bible can be discarded because they’re too old to be of value and we’ve moved on. That’s not what I’m saying. But what I do want to underline is that, even if we profess that the bible is all the word of God, we naturally still treat it as a progressive revelation whereby we discard some parts because they were culturally specific.
For example, who likes bacon sandwiches? Deuteronomy 14 verse 8 specifically prohibits eating bacon or even touching it. What about prawn cocktails or crab? Deuteronomy 14 verse 10 says, ‘Whatever (lives in water) but does not have fins and scales you shall not eat; it is unclean for you.’
Or how about those of you men who married women who were not virgins. Did you stone them to death? According to Deuteronomy 22:21 you should have done. I could go on, but the point is simple; we already treat the bible as revealing a progressive relationship with God that has developed in different contexts and different times. The trick is to understand what is culturally specific and what is universal.
We don’t keep some of those commandments anymore because we recognise that they applied to specific cultural circumstances and that is exactly the point: Culture has grown and changed and some of what was applied in the Bible simply does not speak into our modern situations.
For example, unless we understand the cultural specifics behind the letters St. Paul wrote we risk misapplying them in totally different situations for which they were never intended. So with that in mind let’s look at the first of the new testament passages where St. Paul writes to his dear friend, Timothy, at Ephesus.
First of all let me underline just how incredibly important the cultural context is in which we read this. At first sight to us this seems terribly inhibiting to women. But imagine you were a woman living in a Taliban stronghold in Afghanistan and you received this letter from one of your authoritative leaders. What’s the first thing that strikes you?
What are the first four words?
'Let a woman learn...' If you lived in a cultural context in which men did everything, ran everything, made all the decisions and had all the control, this would be the most liberating thing you had ever read; a command from a spiritual leader that the women should learn!
No longer should they be kept ignorant so that they were virtual slaves, condemned to a life of serving the needs of their husbands. Knowledge, one of the most precious gifts in the universe, was to be given. Now you can see just how important the cultural context of understanding scripture is. And there’s more to come.
The skyline at Ephesus was dominated by the temple of Artemis at which only virgin women could serve as priestesses, and where they utterly dominated the men. The reason I mention that is because of the second thing we read in this passage. Paul says that he permits no woman to have authority over a man, or at least that’s what our translations say.
The trouble is, they are translations and there is a huge debate over the Greek word used because in the other contexts in which it is found in the ancient world the word basically means ‘dominate’ not ‘have authority over’. Now that begins to tell us something of the cultural baggage Timothy was having to deal with. Women in the Ephesian church may well have been aping the local context of women dominating men in the Cult of Artemis.
But St. Paul is telling Timothy that they must not copy what is happening in the Temple to Artemis. The women are not to dominate the men. The cultural context seems quite specific; that Christian women should follow Christ in their behaviour, not virgin priestesses from the cult of Artemis.
The next argument from this passage is that St. Paul seems to use creation texts to show that Adam was formed first and then Eve, and so that there is always a basic order intended by God in creation, that the male should be regarded as being first and so women should universally not have certain offices that give them priority over men.
However I don’t think that’s what it can mean because it would mean Paul is being inconsistent. You see in Romans 5:12-21 Paul refers to humanity’s problems stemming from the sin of one man, Adam, beginning with the words, ‘...just as sin came into the world through one man...’ There’s no mention whatsoever of Eve here; Adam is blamed entirely.
In other words Paul is using the creation narrative completely differently. Why? Simples? In Romans he’s making a different point because it’s a different context. To the Romans he’s trying to make a point about how Jesus, one man, could remove the sin that one man, Adam, brought into the world.
In both these cases Paul is trying to make an argument and using a creation text to illustrate what he means. If you try and teach both his metaphors as universal absolutes they contradict each other because in 1 Timothy he says sin came through a woman whereas in Romans he says it came through a man.
The context is everything and when St. Paul is writing to Timothy at Ephesus he is trying to stop the women of that church from bringing the ways of the Temple of Artemis into the worship of the one true God. This also accounts for the childbearing argument.
Again if the priestesses which led the Temple of Artemis were all virgins who dominated the men you can see here that in this context St. Paul is making a valid, if rather radical point, that, again in this context the women may need to marry and have children in order to live a radically different life from the one they once had under Artemis.
Whilst virginity may be highly prized in some parts of the church, in this context it had become idolatrous and was therefore getting in the way of their relationship with Christ.
It’s a little like Jesus telling the rich man that he had to sell all his worldly goods if he wanted salvation. It was not a universal command to us all but a specific one to a man whose personal context was that riches were in the way of his relationship with God. So for the women of Ephesus, the exalted position of virginity, highly prized by St Paul elsewhere, might need to be given up in this context because virginity had become an idol for them.
All of this is a long winded way of me trying to make it as clear as I can that, when we’re reading specific commandments in the Bible we must be crystal clear about the context in which they are made because they were real letters written to real people in real situations and what was needed in one place might be different from what was needed elsewhere.
But, as I said above, some pronouncements in the Bible are indeed universal. One such is our second reading. It is still couched in a particular context, which in this church was the Galatian church which had been infiltrated by those Paul called Judaisers. These were basically people who insisted that if you were going to be a Christian, you had to also keep the Jewish law; all of it; in its entirety. Basically they were reducing Christianity to being just another Jewish sect.
St. Paul was writing to them to try and persuade that in Christ people were set free from the tyranny of trying and failing to keep the law, and instead lived under the grace and forgiveness of Christ. Now clearly for us the verse which is of greatest importance is the one which says,
‘...there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’
I believe that St. Paul was specifically noting here that, if the Galatians went back to the Jewish law, they would have to reintroduce circumcision and put back the divide between men and women, and he specifically wanted to avoid that!!! The societies of that period had treated men and women very differently, with women being controlled by men. The advent of Christ had changed all that and St. Paul wanted to avoid a loss of the freedom that had come.
In the early churches, before we lost our nerve, women did take on leadership roles in the church, and this was clearly intended by Christ by the way he included women. Now I know that some people will say, why then did he only choose men as his disciples? They will say that it proves only men can be church leaders. But that’s rubbish.
You see you could just as easily say that he chose twelve Palestinians who were circumcised and had beards. I only qualify in having a beard; does that disqualify me from leadership? Of course not. The reason the twelve were following him was cultural. Jesus was seen as a rabbi. All rabbis were men.
The disciples of a rabbi were chosen by the rabbi because he felt that they could learn under him to do what he did. Therefore Jesus could only choose men as his disciples; culturally speaking they were learning to be rabbis like him.
But in all other respects Jesus interacted with women in a way that no other rabbi would do. We know that Mary, the sister of Martha, sat at his feet to learn. Women were not permitted to do that, but Jesus positively encouraged it. Women financially supported Jesus and were among his followers, taking an active role, and as we read in our Gospel reading, the first witness to the resurrection was a woman, Mary of Magdalene.
What makes that so specifically important is that under Jewish law at that time a woman was not permitted to be a legal witness, but Jesus chose to show himself first to her. It was no accident. He could have shown himself to John and Peter, but he waited for them to leave the tomb and for Mary to be alone.
What’s more there is plenty of evidence that in the early church Mary Magdalene became known as ‘The apostle to the apostles.’ The reason for that is Jesus sending her, where the word apostle means ‘one who is sent’, to the apostles to deliver her testimony, ‘I have seen the Lord.’ Jesus counted her as the one who should deliver the first news of the resurrection.
So to those who detract from the ministry of women as bishops, I would have to say that, if it was good enough for Jesus to send a woman then with the biggest news of all time, why on earth should we be questioning whether he is sending women now? If St. Paul said that, ‘In Christ there is no male or female,’ shouldn’t we be rejoicing that through Jesus, God is restoring his intended order to creation.
Let me remind you that Genesis 1:27 says, ‘So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.’ In other words it is only when you have men and women working in partnership that you see the full characteristics of the image of God.
I cannot tell you how much of a blessing it is to work alongside Rachel and Margaret and have a different set of insights on ministry. And when I spend time in the company of women and see how they are more likely to work together than in competition I realise just how much the Church of England needs their ministry as deacons, priests and as bishops.
If God created us in his image as male and female then I would go so far as to say, without women, the house of bishops is biased and incomplete. For the Church of England to grow and thrive we need to follow the direction of scripture which, I believe, makes it clear that God’s plan for us requires men and women to be working together in every part of the church.
And for me, if the next Bishop of Birmingham was a woman, I would be quite content, for if she were God’s chosen minister to the diocese, then I would pledge allegiance to her God-given authority, and from my heart I believe it would truly be God-given. Amen.
J. J. Davis, First Timothy 2:12: The ordination of women and Paul’s use of creation narratives,
L. Goddard and C. Hendry, The Gender Agenda, IVP, 2010.
Women and the Church (WATCH) www.womenandthechurch.org