A Few Thoughts on Women Bishops


The modern movement for Women’s Liberation followed the French Revolution with its call for “liberty, equality and fraternity”. Mary Wollstonecraft wrote in 1792 the Vindication of the Rights of Women. Her biographer summed up her views as follows: “Women are human beings before they are sexual beings; mind has no sex; society is wasting its assets if it retains women in the role of convenient domestic slaves and ‘alluring mistresses’, denies them economic independence, and encourages them to be attentive to their looks to the exclusion of all else.” Much has been written since. Following the resulting cultural shift, in 2010 the Church of England wants to make women bishops. Why is there a problem?


In the early church women had high status. Because of the exposure of unwanted female infants, it seems that in the contemporary Roman world there were 140 males to 100 females. Not unsurprisingly in the church with its opposition to infanticide (and abortion) women soon outnumbered men. The Christian church with its stricter morals was particularly attractive to women. But the high status of women goes back to Jesus who undermined any prejudice against women. He treated women in a natural and unselfconscious way as real persons. He was concerned to teach the open hearted Mary of Bethany and he revealed the true nature of worship to, of all people, a Samaritan woman. Paul then followed Jesus’ example. He had no distinction of status with regard to his fellow workers whether male or female. These included Phoebe, a deacon, at Cenchreae (Rom 16.1) and at Phillippi there were Euodia and Syntyche, “women who had contended at my side” (Phil 4.3), and Lydia, a great business woman (Acts 16.14). At this time in the Jewish morning prayer a pious Jew could thank God that he was made “a Jew and not a Gentile, a free man and not a slave, a man and not a woman”. It was quite seismic, therefore, when Paul wrote to the Galatians when tempted back to Jewish ways, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female … in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3.28).

However, while there was this recognition of female equality, at the same time all the apostles Jesus commissioned were men and all the presbyters/priests (literally “elders”) or bishops (literally “overseers”) appointed by the apostles were male. And Paul is clearly against authoritative teaching by women: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man” (1 Tim 2.12). It is true that early on there was some resistance to an exclusive male presbyterate by the heretical Gnostics. But such attempts to ordain women failed in the mainstream of the churches. Epiphanius in the 4th century says that the Gnostics justified this on the basis of Gal 3.28 (above). But he countered by quoting 1 Cor 14.34 and 1 Tim 2.12 (above) and drawing attention to the fact that Paul referred to the order of creation in 1 Cor 11.8. Only in the modern age has the ordaining of women become a live issue, with some of the free churches leading the way. Some more established churches then followed. It is now reported that in the Church of England half those in training to become clergy will be women. But why is there still opposition?

Theological problems

At the heart of the issue are two fundamental questions: “what is the nature of men and women?” and “how do we decide the answer?” Should we take our cue from Mary Wollstonecraft and her assertion that “women are human beings before they are sexual beings” or the Bible?

Jesus, in his ethical reasoning and especially with regard to sexual matters, insisted on going back to God’s creation intention in Genesis. Genesis teaches that the only difference in human kind before the Fall is that between male and female. Therefore, as has been well said, “to be human is to share humanity with the opposite sex.” We were, and are, created human males or human females, not just humans. Sexuality is not subsequent to creation. Some Greeks tried to say that sex was not part of the created order but subsequent to it. There was a myth of a sexless hominid who was first created and then subsequently split in two. Jumping the centuries, Marx and Engels also argued that sexual difference, apart from minor biological plumbing differences, was due to historical evolution and not essential. But Genesis is clear. Fundamental sexual difference is a matter of creation, not history.

Genesis also teaches male and female equality in the created order. Genesis 1 verse 27 says: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” They then were equally given the mandate to be “fruitful and increase” and “rule over” the created order (v. 28). But in Genesis 2 there is a difference between male and female, with the man being the first to hear God’s command (vv 16-17) and then being required, presumably, to pass it on to his wife. But this priority does not mean any superiority. This was only a problem after the Fall in chapter 3. Then the woman is told: “your desire will be for your husband and he will rule over you” (v 16). The man, it is being predicted, will take advantage of the woman’s sexual drives and will exploit, dominate and subjugate her.

So sexual chaos and male domination is part of this world as sinful. That is why the feminist reaction is understandable and much is reasonable in the face of wrong prejudice. Such prejudice you find in Plato (the Greek philosopher): “a bad man's fate was to be reincarnated as a woman;” and another Greek philosopher, Aristotle said: “females are imperfect males accidentally produced by their fathers’ inadequacy.” Among the religious it was not only Jews that had negative views of women. The Hindu Ghandi once wrote: “a Hindu regards himself as Lord and master of his wife, who must ever dance attendance on him,” while in Islam it was said that Allah made men superior to women. Feminism, however, over-reacts and wants too little, not too much. Common sense says that we need to get back to God’s intention from the fallenness and male domination of Genesis 3 and so not only back to Genesis 1 but to Genesis 1 and 2 – to equality and difference, to men and women being “equal but different”.


But do we not have to adapt to a changing culture? After all, in the Bible we see the nomadic Israelites adapting to the settled agricultural life of Canaan; then to an urbanized mercantile economy under the monarchy; and, in the post-exilic period, to being a small part of a great empire, first Persian, then Hellenic and then Roman. In New Testament times we also see the gospel transplanted from a Jewish and Palestinian environment to a Gentile environment around the Roman world. So do we not now have to adapt to a 21st century culture with its full equality but little difference between men and women, and so make women bishops?

The problem is twofold. First, neither in Old or New Testament times were some fundamental insights ever traded away. Women were never “institutionalized” in the leadership. Charismatic figures like the judge, Deborah, and prophetesses like Huldah and Philip’s four daughters were ministering and respected and honoured for what the Holy Spirit did through them. But they were not institutional figures. In Old Testament times Israel could have followed the contemporary Ancient Near Eastern culture which in Canaanite religion had institutional priestesses. But it did not. In New Testament times there was every inducement for women to have been institutionalised by ordination into leadership. But the presbyterate was still male. The poet Juvenal in his Sixth Satire tells of a virtual “women’s liberation movement” among Roman women. And when writing to Colossians in a feminized region dominated by native earth mother goddess religions and priestesses, like those of Artemis (at Ephesus) and Cybele (probably at Colosse), Paul omits the reference to “male and female” in Col 3.11.

Secondly, and perhaps most significant of all, behind a consciousness of differences between men and women is the belief that in some way the relationship between the man and the woman mirrors the relationship within the divine Trinity. 1 Cor 11.3 says: “the head of every man is Christ and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God”; and 1 Cor 15.28 speaks of the Son being “subject” to the Father. I know of the attempts to make these and other similar texts say something other than they seem to be saying. But surely 1 Cor 11 is saying that this hierarchy of relationships is based on the inner life of the divine Trinity. It has nothing to do with culture. Our triune God is the creator of, not the product of, human culture. And note: while there is “subordination” here, there is no subjugation or domination. The Father does not “dominate” the Son. And, of course, the Son is equal to the Father. It was on this that the early Church was adamant in the Arian controversy. So any priority in male leadership has to be one of care and support. Indeed, Jesus said his disciples were not to “exercise authority” like the “kings of the gentiles” but “the one who rules [is to be] like the one who serves” (Lk 22.26) as Jesus was.


The issues are complicated and much more needs to be written about the social consequences of ignoring sexual difference and about how our own culture is regressing from an extreme feminist position. Not all is clear. But it has been said that “no cause is truly lost until it has been adopted by the Church of England.” May this not be true in the case of women bishops.

[NB: some may like to see www.church.org.uk and my sermons on 23 June 2002 for exegesis on 1 Corinthians 11 and on 21 July 2002 for 1 Timothy 2]

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