How I Changed My Mind on Women in Ministry

The role of women in ministry is a major issue facing the Church today. I’m going to spare you the usual introduction, because I’m guessing you’re already pretty familiar with the “party lines” on both sides of this issue: conservative, “Bible-believing” Christians tend to be against women in ministry (at least teaching ministry, including the pastorate) because that’s what they read in the Bible (they’re referred to as complementarians); more progressive Christians view this as an outdated perspective and/or a misinterpretation of Scripture, and are in favor of women having full access to all areas of ministry, including the pastorate (they’re called mutualists).

With Cedarville University recently restricting all classes taught by a woman to only female students, this issue is once again at the forefront of discussions about church and theology.

For much of my life, I was in the former camp, viewing ministry—or at least teaching ministry, including the pastorate—as inappropriate for women. That is no longer the case.

Viewing Scripture as inspired and inerrant*—and I still do view it that way—I read passages like 1 Corinthians 14:34-36 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15, and the message seemed clear. These passages did not make use of metaphors and similes, but straight-forward prohibitive language, and even made appeals to Scripture and to creation. I could not see any possible other interpretation.

In approaching faith and theology, one of my primary guiding principles has always been about how I relate to Scripture. A simple question—though often not a simple one to answer—dictates my approach to theology: When my perspective and that of Scripture disagree, which one gives way? As a “Bible-believing Christian,” I believe that it is I, and not the Word of God, that must change my position when it contradicts that of Scripture. Thus, though I know many amazing and brilliant women of God—not the least of which is my own mother, a very intelligent person and a tremendously capable and effective missionary in her own right (not just a missionary wife), who happens to be opposed to female pastors—I have always submitted to the belief that women should not be pastors.

I have not changed in my belief that my own views must conform to those of Scripture. But I have discovered that my understanding of Scripture on this issue was incorrect. Or, perhaps more accurately, it was incomplete.

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What changed my mind? I read an article on Seedbed by Craig Keener, Professor of New Testament at Asbury Seminary. It is by far the most comprehensive discussion of the Biblical perspective on women in ministry that I have ever seen, anywhere. In it, Dr. Keener does a number of things right that many others, on both sides of the issue, have failed to do.

First, Dr. Keener’s argument is an argument from Scripture, not from culture. He treats Scripture as inspired and authoritative, and not subject to the changing whims of culture. He does not attempt to argue that the seemingly pro-masculine, patriarchal principles we see in Scripture were “good for the male-dominated culture of that time, but no longer relevant in our modern context,” as many progressive Christians have—with the problem that such an argument undermines the universality of Scripture, reduces the Word of God to bland moralizing, portrays God as more concerned with practicality than principle and stability than virtue, and makes Scripture subject to our views about it, rather than vice versa. Most practically, an argument that undermines an inspired and inerrant view of Scripture will fall on deaf ears among those who hold such a view of Scripture, making it impossible for those whose minds mutualists are trying to change to even hear their argument. Dr. Keener does the opposite. His entire argument is based on and from Scripture, and it is clear from his approach that he is not trying to bend Scripture to fit his views, but that the contents of Scripture are what have shaped his views.

Second, Dr. Keener looks at the message of all of Scripture. Much of the debate has centered around the two passages in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2, with complementarians holding to a face-value interpretation of these passages and mutualists trying to re-interpret them or explain them away. In just a couple short paragraphs, Dr. Keener thoroughly and irrefutably demonstrates the reality that the rest of Scripture is not operating based on the principles we think we understand from these two passages:

When Josiah needed to hear the word of the Lord, he sent Hilkiah the priest and others to a person who was undoubtedly one of the most prominent prophetic figures of his day: Huldah (2 Kings 22:12-20). Deborah was not only a prophetess, but a judge (Judges 4:4). She held the place of greatest authority in Israel in her day. She is also one of the few judges of whom the Bible reports no failures (Judges 4, 5).

Although first-century Jewish women rarely, if ever, studied with teachers of the Law the way male disciples did, Jesus allowed women to join His ranks (Mark 15:40,41; Luke 8:1-3)—something the culture could have regarded as scandalous. As if this were not scandalous enough, He allowed a woman who wished to hear His teaching to “sit at his feet” (Luke 10:39)—taking a posture normally reserved for disciples. Other Jewish teachers did not allow women disciples; indeed, disciples were often teachers in training. To have sent women out on the preaching missions (e.g., Mark 6:7-13) might have proved too scandalous to be practical; nevertheless, the Gospels unanimously report that God chose women as the first witnesses of the Resurrection, even though first-century Jewish men often dismissed the testimony of women.

Joel explicitly emphasized that when God poured out His Spirit, women as well as men would prophesy (Joel 2:28, 29). Pentecost meant that all God’s people qualified for the gifts of His Spirit (Acts 2:17, 18), just as salvation meant that male or female would have the same relationship with God (Galatians 3:28).

Faced with these examples—which, by the way, are just an initial smattering of what we see in Scripture—I don’t see how one can continue to argue that a person’s gender should prevent them from spiritual leadership or teaching, as many women in Scripture did specifically those things—and were praised for them. If women should be prohibited from leadership and teaching as a matter of principle, then the context is irrelevant, meaning that that principle should have applied in each of the situations above. If that is the case, then God—who himself established Deborah as prophetess (a position higher than teacher or pastor) and judge (in the period before the kings, the highest office in the land, beneath only God himself, and chosen by God himself)—is guilty of violating his own principles, and so are Josiah, Joel, and Jesus himself (repeatedly).

For that matter, so is Paul. After reviewing just a few of the many examples of women in spiritual leadership in the Old Testament and the Gospels, Dr. Keener then looks at how Paul used, approved of, and affirmed women in ministry. The evidence from Paul’s practice is extensive—so much so that it is too long to quote here. In light of this, and the evidence from the rest of Scripture, Dr. Keener rightly concludes,

Paul’s writings clearly rank him among the more progressive, not the more chauvinistic, writers of his day. … Because Paul, in some cases, advocated women’s ministry, we cannot read his restrictions on women in ministry as universal prohibitions.

Indeed, compared to the rest of Scripture, which extensively, repeatedly, and constantly affirms the appropriateness and praiseworthiness of women in all forms of ministry, to an extent that far outpaced and would have been scandalous to the surrounding culture, the two passages seeming to explicitly prohibit women from teaching (or even speaking) publicly or serving as pastors represent a very small minority of Scriptural passages that could even be suggested to support this view.

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When faced with an apparent contradiction in Scripture, Bible-believing Christians operate under the assumption that the contradiction does not in fact exist in Scripture itself, but in our inadequate or incorrect understanding of Scripture. In my own experience to date, that assumption has always proven true. Faced with the fact that a face-value reading of 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 seems to contradict all of the rest of Scripture, we must approach this topic with the same assumption. The task, then, is to discover where we have misinterpreted Scripture, and discover a proper understanding of all of the passages in Scripture relevant to women in ministry and leadership, in which we will find the unified Scriptural perspective on women in ministry.

This is the third thing that Dr. Keener does exceedingly well, and at which those on both sides of the argument have so often failed in the past. He looks at these two passages in context, to understand what was going on in the context of the original audience, and whether any of it can help us better understand what Paul meant and why he gave the instructions he did. This is something those on both sides of the argument have made various attempts at, but these attempts have been poor ones and do not hold up under scrutiny, as each one is an attempt to impose a theory that fits one’s own worldview on Scripture, rather than seeking a complete picture of the context that allows us to formulate a proper perspective from Scripture:

Knowing ancient Greek culture helps us understand the passage better. Not all explanations scholars have proposed have proved satisfying. Some hold that a later scribe accidentally inserted these lines into Paul’s writings, but the hard evidence for this interpretation seems slender. Some suggest that Paul here quoted a Corinthian position (1 Corinthians 14:34, 35), which he then refuted (verse 36); unfortunately, verse 36 does not read naturally as a refutation. Others think that churches, like synagogues, were segregated by gender, somehow making women’s talk disruptive. This view falters on two counts: First, gender segregation in synagogues may have begun centuries after Paul; and, second, the Corinthian Christians met in homes, whose architecture would have rendered such segregation impossible. Some also suggest that Paul addressed women who were abusing the gifts of the Spirit or a problem with judging prophecies. But while the context addresses these issues, ancient writers commonly used digressions, and the theme of church order is sufficient to unite the context.

Lest you think that Dr. Keener is only criticizing progressive attempts to find a context that explains away these verses, note his earlier treatment of the conservative attempt to deny that Junia was a female apostle, an argument that does not proceed from Scripture but that is instead based solely on the unwillingness of traditionalists to recognize the possibility of a female apostle, the highest office in the Church according to Paul:

Paul also listed two fellow apostles, Andronicus and Junia (Romans 16:7). Although Junia is clearly a feminine name, writers opposed to the possibility that Paul could have referred to a female apostle, suggest that Junia is a contraction for the masculine Junianus. This contraction, however, never occurs, and more recently has been shown to be grammatically impossible for a Latin name like Junia. This suggestion rests not on the text itself, but entirely on the presupposition that a woman could not be an apostle.

As Dr. Keener explains, however, progressive attempts to contextually disqualify these two verses are unnecessary, as a proper understanding of their context explains them sufficiently and brings them into harmony with the rest of Scripture. He starts with the 1 Corinthians 14 passage:

Since Paul only addressed a specific kind of speech, we should note that the only kind of speech he directly addressed in 14:34-36 was wives asking questions.

Already, this removes this passage from the discussion on women in ministry, since it relates to how a woman learns, not to whether she should teach. But Dr. Keener goes on to explain how the Greek model of education works, which applies directly to this passage:

In ancient Greek and Jewish lecture settings, advanced students or educated people frequently interrupted public speakers with reasonable questions. … Ancient culture also considered it rude for uneducated persons to slow down lectures with questions that betrayed their lack of training.

Dr. Keener explains that because the culture (not God) had deprived the vast majority of women of the opportunity to be educated, the women of the congregation were novice students. It was offensive for them to speak up and ask questions—but no more so than for a young man who was new to the faith!

This passage, then, reveals two key things about Paul and his view of the role of women in the early church. First, as Dr. Keener points out, Paul is doing the exact opposite of what conservative, complementarian Christians see in this passage. Complementarians focus on Paul’s insistence that women be silent; the emphasis should instead be on the fact that, unlike the surrounding culture, Paul provides instructions that enable women to learn! As Dr. Keener says, “Far from repressing these women, by ancient standards Paul was liberating them.”

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Second—and this is a point that Dr. Keener doesn’t make, that I would add to his analysis—the fact that Paul needed to address this situation tells us something very important about the role of women in the early church. Keep in mind that the apostles were not simply sitting in some cloistered monastery writing up whatever popped into their heads. “Oh, that sounds good, let’s write that. Oh, and here’s something important, let me not forget it!” No. The apostles generally wrote in response to what was going on in the churches. Paul and his companions had traveled and founded churches, sometimes staying at these churches for a couple years before continuing on. Later, he wrote letters back to the churches to admonish them to be true to the gospel that they had received from the apostles, and to instruct them in how and why they had gone astray.

Therefore, the fact that Paul feels the need to instruct women not to ask questions clearly indicates that that is precisely what they were doing. He would have no need to instruct them not to do something that they already were not doing! This tells us something about the early Christian communities. Women were prevented from learning in society, and certainly from asking questions. As Dr. Keener points out, “Most ancient husbands doubted their wives’ intellectual potential.” For them to be not only learning but asking questions in the church assemblies demonstrates a radically different perspective on the role of women in the Church and their capacity for equal theological activity, in direct contrast to the views and prescriptions of the surrounding culture.

This leaves the 1 Timothy 2 passage. Again, Dr. Keener uses the rest of Scripture to make clear that this passage cannot be seen to articulate a universal prohibition: “In any case, here Paul also forbade women to ‘teach,’ something he apparently allowed elsewhere (Romans 16; Philippians 4:2, 3). Thus he presumably addressed the specific situation in this community.”

The context of this passage is one in which false teachers were specifically “targeting and working through women.” To prevent this, and the scandal it would bring on the Church, Paul gave instructions to this specific church, intended for this specific context. Dr. Keener explains (emphasis mine):

Women were the most susceptible to false teaching only because they had been granted the least education. This behavior was bound to bring reproach on the church from a hostile society that was already convinced Christians subverted the traditional roles of women and slaves. So Paul provided a short-range solution: “Do not teach” (under the present circumstances); and a long-range solution: “Let them learn” (1 Timothy 2:11).

A lack of education across the board for women is no longer a problem in our society. Our society does not frown upon novice learners asking questions in public, as the original culture did (we wouldn’t want that during the sermon, but we don’t mind it in Sunday school or Bible study)—and even if it did, many women are equally capable of asking intelligent questions that don’t disrupt the teaching. Due to equality of education across the board, women are no more likely than to be susceptible to false teaching—or to state the converse, men are no less likely than women to fall prey to it.

Meanwhile, the whole of Scripture affirms and provides countless examples of women teaching and serving in leadership roles, as affirmed and even ordained by God the Father, Jesus, and the Apostle Paul, and as empowered by the Holy Spirit, whom the Prophets foretold would fall on all equally.

I no longer oppose the ordination of women as pastors, or their role in any other form of ministry. This is not because I have abandoned a biblical perspective on the matter, but rather precisely because I have come to understand the correct and comprehensive biblical perspective, and all that Scripture teaches, from Genesis to Revelation, which affirms their role in ministry.

If you care at all about the issue of the role of women in Church ministry; if you plan to comment on it at any point, or have done so in the past; or if you believe it is important to have a correct biblical perspective on the issue, then you must read this article by Dr. Craig Keener. That’s not a suggestion or a recommendation; it’s a necessity.

If you can put aside your preconceptions and let a correct understanding of the text inform your views on the matter, as any Bible-believing Christian should, then I think that like me, you’ll come to support, rather than opposing, women in ministry.


*Inerrancy is not the same thing as a completely literal view of Scripture. While I do generally believe that what the Bible says happened did indeed happen, I also recognize that the human authors of Scripture used metaphor, simile, rhetoric, imagery, and even hyperbole to deliver their message. When I say that I believe in the inerrancy of Scripture, I do not mean that I interpret every single last passage of Scripture literally—to do so with prophetic or Apocalyptic literature, or even the Psalms, to mention just a couple examples, would be silly. What I mean is that I believe that the message of Scripture is reliable and true, inspired and timeless, applicable and relevant—and no less so today than the day they were written. We don’t get to simply disqualify certain passages because they don’t mesh with our “evolved and enlightened sense of morality”. However, before we can hold to the truth in any passage, we must first determine what that passage was intended to communicate. That means interpreting metaphors, similes, imagery, and understanding the message that they are meant to convey. That message, not a literal interpretation of even those things that are clearly not meant to be taken literal, is where we find the truth and inerrancy of Scripture. Our task is to do so faithfully and honestly, conforming ourselves to the message of the text rather than the text to our own sensibilities.

  • http://nathanrhale.com/ Nathan R. Hale

    First, I haven’t read the article you linked too but I am familiar with all of arguments you presented. Let me establish that I agree that all women should be encouraged to use all of their gifts in teaching, preaching, leadership and pastoral care for the Kingdom of God. As a Catholic there are two additional wrinkles for me, however.

    1) The *liturgical* role of the priest as the symbolic head of the community, representing Christ to the people and people to Christ. This role was male in the OT and seems to be male in the NT and early church b/c of the idea of covenant headship. It seems that male covenant headship or responsibility is built into the order of creation (although “lording” over women is part of the curse). Of course in theory this is a matter of liturgical role and not *leadership* per se.

    2) The history doesn’t add up. Women were clearly ordained as deacons early on but not priests or bishops. If Paul had definitively approved of women in the highest office, why did the churches he planted not continue the practice? Were they so culturally bound, when they were already breaking free from the Mosaic law, and women played important roles in other religions?

    I wouldn’t say I’m completely settled on this, but I’ve yet to see either of these issues addressed in a satisfactory way.

    • http://www.jbwtucker.com/ J.B.W. Tucker

      Read the article.

      1) The liturgical role of the priest was limited not only to men, but also to those of a specific tribe. Yet we don’t apply racial, ethnic, or familial restrictions on the pastorate today. Furthermore, in New Testament theology all Christians are seen as prophets, priests, and kings.

      2) You’re operating under the assumption that the pastorate/priesthood is the highest office in the Church—and today, perhaps it is. But Paul clearly ranks both apostles and prophets above deacons, elders, and all others. In the New Testament church, apostles held the highest office and prophets were just under them. And Paul approves, affirms, and commends to the Church the ministry of females in both roles. Dr. Keener also addresses the lack of specific mention of specific female pastors (or priests or bishops)—he doesn’t really specifically mention men in those roles, either. Instead, he speaks more of “partners in the gospel” and fellow “servants.” Furthermore, Debra was both a prophetess and a judge—as the judge, she was not only in the highest office in a local community, but the highest office over all of God’s people, below only God himself. This is definitely spiritual leadership over God’s people, both men and women. The only thing we have today that would be equivalent to that would be the Pope.

      Read the article. It’s really, really good. I think you’ll find it addresses all of your objections and more. In fact, it’s so thorough that he addresses other valid points, really great points, that I didn’t even mention—but if I had mentioned or quoted him on all of them, then I might as well have simply reproduced his whole article here.

      • http://nathanrhale.com/ Nathan R. Hale

        Had a chance to go through the article.

        1) Keener does not address sacramental, covenantal, or historical concerns. What do we do with all of the early church Fathers that disagree with him on this? As you said his is purely biblical argument using some insight into the culture of the Ancient Near East. I agree with you that he pretty succeeds on this front. In fact, his reasons and others are the reason I affirm “women in ministry.” This however does not equate to “women in every liturgical role.” I agree with you that Deborah makes the point. In this theocracy she may have had the highest decision-making power. However she was not part of of the priesthood. For Catholics like myself this is an issue, but it is not exactly the same discussion that Keener is having with his Protestant counterparts (at least not for all of us). It’s primarily a liturgical issue vs. a leadership issue. The question before guys like me not whether women can (of course they can) or should (of course they should) lead, but rather should they preside over the Eucharistic sacrifice as the symbolic representative of the people to God and God to the people.

        2) Actually I am operating under the assumption that the Bishop is the “highest” office of the church. I put highest in quotes b/c really spiritual authority about protecting others from error and the voluntary giving up of power for others’ good. I have read other research that suggests Paul’s use in the passage in question of “apostles” is up for debate as to whether or not he is using the word in the sense of his office or in a more general sense “sent one/messenger” Furthermore, Junia in that passage is not explicitly said to be an apostle, but rather “well known among the apostles” or “well known to the apostles.” This is an obscure verse and really hard to press for conclusive evidence for or against female *sacramental, liturgical roles.* It does certainly build the case along with *many* other passages that women have been leaders in the church since the beginning. Definitely not arguing against that by any means.

        3) One final thought. We agree that we need to take the whole thrust of the biblical message into account on this. Given the covenant framework in the biblical text, what are we to do with the fact that every single covenant head is male? Keener admits to the covenant headship of men in the marriage relationship, and that is intrinsic to his gender. If marriage is a picture of Christ and his church, doesn’t it make sense that the symbolic head of the local community would be male?

        • http://www.jbwtucker.com/ J.B.W. Tucker

          Some interesting points. First, a question: Are you Catholic now? With a large “C”? I thought you were Anglican.

          1a) Which church fathers disagree with him on this? How early is the earliest example we have of church fathers explicitly insisting that priests/pastors must be men? And then, at what point do we see a consensus, or at least frequent discussion of it that clearly and explicitly prohibits women from such positions?

          My answer to your question is conditional. As I think you know, I also value the church fathers, and am saddened by the contemporary church’s ignorance and/or apathy toward them. I do not value them as highly as Catholics, who frequently grant them equal authority with Scripture. I’m not sure where you fall on that spectrum anymore, as you now refer to yourself as “Catholic” (and I’m not sure how you mean that, or how it impacts your beliefs), and you have seemed to be moving more and more toward Catholicism on many issues. But anyhow, to my conditional response: If it can be determined that Scripture has a clear, unified perspective on this, then my response would be that any of the early church fathers that hold a different view are wrong. I don’t have a problem saying that, because I don’t hold the fathers as having the same authority, or their work as having the same inspiration and inerrancy, as Scripture.

          I do think that the early fathers can be useful in helping us to get closer to an understanding of how the original audience understood a particular passage or practiced a particular aspect of their faith. However, again, understanding the views and practices of the New Testament church itself trumps those of later centuries. If we can see clearly that the New Testament church did have female ministers (and, since you’re making the distinction, reach a similar conclusion on whether they administered the eucharist), then that practice, along with a contextual understanding of the instruction of the New Testament authors, trumps all other views.

          It’s not a given that we necessarily can have certainty on all of the above; but our first duty is to understand Scripture, its context, and the views and practices of the New Testament church, and only to seek the input of the early fathers to bring clarity to aspects that we remain uncertain about.

          1b) “The question before guys like me not whether women can (of course they can) or should (of course they should) lead, but rather should they preside over the Eucharistic sacrifice as the symbolic representative of the people to God and God to the people.”

          So, I get how this is an important distinction to Catholics. I have a different view of what communion is, how it works, etc. It seems unlikely that I’d ever convince someone as committed to Catholic, sacramental theology as you are, but I’ll give you a brief summary of my view, nonetheless. (I say brief because this is a long discussion—Catholic theologian Dr. Brand Pitre has a lecture entitled Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist that a friend asked me to watch. The lecture is more than an hour long, and my response (point-by-point) is almost 12 pages long in a text document, single-spaced. It’s not a brief topic.)

          A frequent problem with Catholic sacramental theology that traces back to the early fathers is that it can be divorced from the original Jewish context of the theological concepts at play. For example, you’ve recently discussed the etymological roots of the Greek word for “liturgy,” from which you derive the meaning, “the work of the people,” to advocate a more participatory mode of worship. While I agree with your conclusions (I hate the spectator model of contemporary worship), I don’t agree with your methods. First, using the etymology to determine a “real” or “better” definition of a word is linguistically iffy, at best (publishing that a dozen or so hours early so that I can link it here). More importantly, however, is the fact that the early church’s liturgy is directly related to the Jewish liturgy for worship in the temple—and the word for liturgy in Hebrew is seder, which simply means “order,” or “to put in order,” in Hebrew. When we understand the word liturgy, and the Christian concept of liturgy, in light of the Jewish term and concept from which it proceeds, the argument for specifically participatory worship based on etymology doesn’t hold up. (Again, I still agree with your conclusions about contemporary worship.)

          To get back on topic, Catholic eucharistic theology does the same thing with the eucharist. As far as I’ve been able to understand, the “real presence” view of the eucharist relies heavily on a very literal interpretation of the word “is” in the phrases, “This is my body,” and, “This is my blood.” (By the way, the Catholic patron saint of saints and theology, Thomas Aquinas, clearly denies the physical real presence in the eucharist that Dr. Pitre advocates in his lecture.) From those statements, Catholics interpret that Jesus is in some very real and mysterious way specially present in the actual elements of the eucharist. Thus, the eucharist is seen as a sacrament through which a mysterious communion with Jesus’s literal body takes place.

          Again, this divorces communion from its original context. In summary: Communion was performed in the middle of the Passover Seder. The bread used was the middle piece of three matzot (unleavened bread), which is unleavened (sinless), striped, and pierced. In the Passover liturgy, the middle piece of three is broken in half, and one half is hidden away; after the meal, the children seek it out and it is brought back. This is the piece that Jesus used for the bread. When he said, “This is my body,” he was doing something much more profound than establishing a new and seemingly arbitrary sacrament for the Church. He was prophesying to the disciples about himself—he was saying that he, the middle person of the godhead, who was without sin, would be whipped, pierced, broken, buried, and resurrected (brought back). It was all of that that he had in mind when he said, essentially, “This is me.” When the disciples thought back, after his resurrection, they would understand what he meant.

          The cup that was used is the third cup of four in the Passover Seder. That cup has a name—it is the Cup of Redemption, and it related back to the Exodus, which is a type (if not the type) of our redemption from sin, and the central event which gave the Jews their identity and through which Jewish Christians understood the redeeming work of Christ. For God had said, “I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment.” It was this cup, the Cup of Redemption, which Jesus used when he said, “This is my blood.” He was saying something much more profound than, “From now on, this wine will magically be my physical blood.” He was saying, in essence, “My shed blood is your redemption.” Through communion, he was explaining to them in tremendously powerful imagery exactly what he was doing for them, and what it all meant—so that when it happened, they would know that it was true and that it was their redemption.

          Even more importantly, any understanding of the function of communion must be connected to the function of the Passover liturgy into which it was incorporated. The purpose of the seder was two-fold (and really, these can be seen as two sides of the same purpose): remembrance and instruction. First, the Hebrews are told to remember what God has done for them, because it is in remembering that they will be kept from straying from him. This is a major (and I mean huge) theme of Scripture, especially in the Old Testament—the people are constantly told that they have forgotten their God and wandered away from him. The feasts are established for the purpose of having the Hebrews continually remember what God had done for them. Second, the seder was intended to instruct the children—but this can be seen as intergenerational memory, so that not only one generation, but they as a people throughout all generations would not forget what God had done for them and thereby stray from him (see Deuteronomy 11:2-7,18-21).

          Furthermore, the seder uses hands-on elements that are explicitly symbolic, with which we interact so that we not only pay lip service to but actually participate in and reenact God’s faithfulness and goodness in delivering us from bondage—we are clearly told that these elements represent various things (the haroshet representing the bricks that the Hebrews made in slavery, the salt water representing their tears, etc.) that are important for us to experience as though we, ourselves, were those that had been led out of Egypt.

          If this is the function and the theological purpose of the Passover Seder, into which communion was incorporated, then we should conclude that communion serves a similar function—even if communion did not make the same use of symbolic elements and the words of Jesus did not explicitly tell us what the purpose was. Then, when you factor in the fact that communion has hands-on elements through which we interact with and reenact the redeeming sacrifice of Christ, and that Jesus himself tells us not, “Do this as a special way of communing with me,” but rather, “Do this in remembrance of me,” it should be clear that the purpose and function of communion is to be for the Church the same that Passover was for the Jews.

          With such an understanding of communion, the need for a male priest to officiate the eucharist ceases to be an issue, since that idea is contingent on the Catholic, sacramental, mystical interpretation of communion that seems to hinge on the literal interpretation of some of Jesus’s words without a proper contextual understanding of the entire event.

          To come back to our original topic, however, even if we set various interpretations of the eucharist aside, an understanding of the seder in context calls into question the requirement of a priest (let alone a male priest) to officiate the eucharist in other ways. The seder was presided over, if you will, by the oldest man in the family (this may be the father of the nuclear family, or the grandfather, etc.). It was not officiated by a priest. Thus, Jesus, in presiding over the first communion was not acting in a priestly role, but in a lay role.

          The only part of the Passover Seder that had to be done by a priest was the sacrificing of the Passover lamb—but New Testament theology specifically state that, since Jesus was our Passover lamb, we no longer need a priest to make that sacrifice for us. And that gets at another point about the Catholic approach to the eucharist that is troublesome. Both Paul and the author to the Hebrews, among others, tell us explicitly that we no longer need a priest to officiate on our behalf. The Catholic perspective on this seems to be saying, “Now that Jesus has come, you have direct access to God, and you no longer need the priest to perform any of these rites or ceremonies for you—except the eucharist, that one still has to be done by the priest.” In any case, I just don’t see how we can claim that the eucharist must be officiated by a priest, with references to the Old Testament context of covenantal theology and the Jewish priesthood, while overlooking the fact that in that very context, Jesus was not acting in a priestly role.

          At the very least, I really just don’t see the requirement for the eucharist to be officiated by a priest, let alone a male priest. But even beyond that, I don’t think a proper understanding of how communion fit into and mirrored the Passover Seder lend any support to the idea of the eucharist as a special activity within worship that has special requirements, etc. In which case, the only applicable question is whether a woman can and should be the spiritual leader of a local church, and I think we’ve agreed on that much.

          By the way, if we’re going to insist on retaining the old liturgical trappings of some aspects of the eucharist in its relation to its place in theology developed in the Old Testament, shouldn’t we retain all of the trappings? If we’re going to insist that it must be administered by male priests since the priests in the Old Testament were male, shouldn’t we also insist that the priests be Levites (or to put it a different way: since the New Testament makes zero prescriptions regarding the gender or any other inherent qualifier for those administering communion, we have to go all the way back to the Levitical priesthood to support a male-only priesthood—in which case, we should support a Levite-only priesthood, as well)? And shouldn’t we do a Passover Seder every time we take communion? And shouldn’t the frequency of the occurrence be once a year? If you’re going to inherit the male priesthood, so to speak, you’ve got to inherit it all. And these things are prescribed in the Old Testament, as well.

          Oy. That was not as brief as I intended.

          I still don’t see a basis for a specific, exclusive group of people to have exclusive access to the priesthood, particularly in light of the idea of the priesthood of all believers and the claim that there is no longer Greek nor Jew, man nor woman, etc.

          2a) I’m not an expert on the history of Catholic hierarchy—nor am I all that trusting of it, what with the claim that the Pope is (or was?) a direct descendant of Peter, and various other things that seem to stem from the Middle Ages but the church just can’t seem to let go of. But whatever, let’s put all that aside. Not being an expert, my understanding is that earliest that we see the office of bishop as being distinct from elder or deacon is in the early- to mid-2nd century—in which case I struggle to see how the office of bishop is at all relevant to this conversation. The question is whether, at the time that he wrote 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy, were there women in positions of spiritual leadership over both men and women in the Church? Were there examples in which women would have been in teaching positions over men? And, since you’ve added the distinction, were there women in positions that might have been associated with special privileges of officiating the eucharist? Since the bishop was not an office distinct from other terms Paul uses, including terms that clearly do apply to women, it has no relevance to this particular issue.

          This, then, is the question: At the time that Paul wrote these prohibitions for women, were there women in those roles, or even higher roles, of whom Paul approved? And the answer is yes.

          The distinction between deacons and “priests or bishops” (does Paul use use either of those terms?) is nice, except for the fact that Paul often uses them interchangeably, and as Dr. Keener points out, Paul frequently used the term (“servant”) for “any minister of God’s Word, including himself (1 Corinthians 3:5; 2 Corinthians 3:6; 6:4; Ephesians 3:7; 6:21).”

          I do see your point about Junia. The ESV, which you prefer for reasons that I disagree with, and the NIV, which I prefer, translate this verse two different ways. I’d be interested to see what modern Greek scholars are saying about this. I’ll tell you a couple points that make me skeptical, all while admitting that it’s not enough to constitute conclusive evidence. First is the fact that so much effort has been expended trying to explain away Junia as a shortening of the male Junianus—if it’s easier to simply point out that this person wasn’t an apostle, why try so hard? Second is the fact that many of those who assert that the ESV’s translation is the right one also assert that it must be so if Junia is a woman’s name (for example, here). The problem is that this is circular logic, begging the question. Third is the fact that, as also demonstrated in the same commentary just linked, that view tends to see “apostle” as limited to the twelve unless specifically and explicitly qualified to say otherwise, and yet Paul lists it among the spiritual gifts—first among them, and tells the Corinthian church to “eagerly desire” it. Finally, in his own note, Dr. Keener addresses the translation issues—albeit briefly. His point, to the limited extent that I understand it from one sentence, seems to have validity (especially considering that I see usage as having much greater bearing on the meaning of a word than etymology), but I would have to read up on what he references to take a definitive position.

          Still, with all that said, I’d want to know what Greek experts are saying these days about this passage before using it confidently. Fortunately, I don’t think we need it.

          Paul also lists prophets above any office of church leadership, such as deacon, bishop, priest, teacher, or elder—except for apostle itself, which is not a position in a local church. And we are quite certain that there have been female prophets.

          3a) “What are we to do with the fact that every single covenant head is male?”

          I don’t think that’s difficult to understand. God was working within a patriarchal society. He chose to create his people organically, through the birth of a child to a man and his wife, and the growth of that child’s descendants into a people. God meets us where we are; in the time of Noah and Abraham and Moses, that was a male-dominated culture. This is in keeping with how God acted in human history overall. He eventually revolutionizes the whole darn thing, turns the whole thing on its ear—but not all at once. In the days of Noah, Abraham, and Moses, the people were only just being introduced to God. How would Sarah the “mother of the Jews,” or Miriam challenging Pharaoh and then leading the Hebrews, or a daughter of Jesse (or of Jesse’s wife) as queen, have played out in that culture? God worked within culture to bring about his plan.

          But to insist on the maleness of priests because the heads of the Old Testament covenants were male seems fairly similar to insisting on circumcision because the Old Testament covenants required it. Or how about insisting that all pastors and priests be Jews, because every single covenant head is a Jew? Paul makes it very clear that the point isn’t the external trappings, but the internal condition of your heart. Circumcision of the heart. The children of Abraham, the heirs of his covenant, not being the genetic Jews but the heirs of his faith. Why would that not apply here, too? What makes this special, that in all other things we dispense with legalism and human categories, limiting categories, but when it comes to the priesthood, well, on that one we have to hold to 4000-year old prescriptions?

          3b) I think Keener deals with headship quite well, especially in light of 3a.

          You’re not comfortable making reference the possible apostleship of Junia because of different possible translations, but you are okay with using “head” as “authority over” in this context, even though that’s not definitive, either.

          Similar to what I said in 3a, Keener says this: “As does scripture, we should affirm that the minister’s authority is inherent in the minister’s calling and ministry of the Word, not the minister’s person.” The minister’s (or priest’s) authority (and, since we’re adding it, fitness for officiating the eucharist) is not in the fact that he’s a male, any more than it’s in the fact that he’s (not) a Jew or (not) a Levite or (not) circumcised. The minister’s authority is in his calling, and in his response of faithful obedience he shares the heart and the faith of Abraham, Moses, and David. The “symbolic head of the local community” (by the way, I don’t see how this role relates specifically to sacraments, so I’m assuming Debra would fit into this category) gets his headship through his calling from and obedience to Christ, not from his gender (any more than his race or tribe).

          Summary: The context in which communion was established provides no basis whatsoever for requiring a priestly officiator, and the important elements of the covenant are not the external, exclusive criteria but the internal, inclusive calling. You cannot set up sacraments and establish prohibitive criteria for communion by appealing to its ties to the Old Testament without recognizing all of its roots in Old Testament theology, in which case the sacramental, mystical view of communion must give way to a symbolic, participatory, discipline of remembering. You cannot appeal to headship by retaining the external requirements of the old covenants without retaining all such requirements, in which case only Messianic Jews who can trace their heritage to the tribe of Levi are qualified to be “the symbolic head of the local community.”

        • http://www.jbwtucker.com/ J.B.W. Tucker

          Realization: I’m terrible at this commenting thing. Unless I can figure out how to do this much more succinctly, this thing is never going to work.

          • http://nathanrhale.com/ Nathan R. Hale

            Yeah that was like 5 additional blog posts, brother! :) So, I understand your responses to my objections and I can’t respond fully here w/out a post of nearly equal length. However, here goes an attempt at a short response.

            1) Here’s what I mean by Catholic: http://nathanrhale.com/catholic/. I am an Anglican to be sure. One way to understand Anglicanism is as a particular expression of the Catholic (Universal) faith of the undivided church (prior to the Great Schism).

            2) On the Fathers: They are not by any means equal to the Scriptures. Where they they agree their voice carries significant weight, but if anything they say is plainly contrary to the Scriptures it should be rejected. I may be Catholic but I’m still an Evangelical too (honestly I think the Fathers were as well) :) As always I’m willing to be shown I’m wrong but I’ve not been able to to find any references to women being ordained in sacramental roles (beyond the deaconate) and this being accepted by the Church. Now, we believe councils have erred and do err, but I hesitate to conclude that for nearly 1000 years the undivided church was so culturally bound. Even after the Great Schism and the Protestant Reformation the Church continued to be unified on this.

            3) On Covenants. Each covenant has a *different* set of requirements. Headship is the common denominator in all covenant relationships, even though the terms might be different. I definitely don’t think we are by any means bound to accept all the terms of the Old Covenant in the New Covenant! The New Covenant is indeed new, albeit in continuity with the Old. Example: circumcision is not the sign of the new covenant, but there is still a covenant sign (baptism)! I am suggesting the possibility that male headship is not a term of the covenant but intrinsic to what a covenant *is*.

            4) On Jewish roots of the Eucharist. Eucharist develops from the Passover but is not the Passover. I think you bring a lot of great thoughts to the table on this (see what I did there!?), and you are correct to note the role of the priest in Passover is different than in Eucharist. I could say a lot on this but I’m out of time. For now I’ll just point out that the Priestly function in the NT church has more to do with representing the people and bringing a offering of thanksgiving and praise than making a sacrifice, since the sacrifice as already been made once and for all per the Letter to the Hebrews. Personally I’ll also admit that I have a lot more to learn on this front.

            Hopefully this lends some clarity as to where I’m coming from and the reservations that I have on women functioning liturgically as priests. The more I think about this the more I am convinced it shouldn’t be as big of a deal as it is often made out to be…you’ll notice most Anglican jurisdictions ordain women to the priesthood, so it’s something that’s still under discussion for many of us. In the mean time I hope to be able to get out of the way and let women do the ministry God has called and equipped them to do.

    • http://www.jbwtucker.com/ J.B.W. Tucker

      By the way, your last sentence essentially encapsulates where I was before I read the Seedbed article by Dr. Keener.